Where I've Been, Where I Am Now

Celebrating newfound freedom and joy while hiking with my cousin in Sedona. February 2016. 

Celebrating newfound freedom and joy while hiking with my cousin in Sedona. February 2016. 

It has been two years since I've posted anything of substance on the blog. As you can tell, I gave The Evangelista a bit of a makeover (special thanks to my friend Jenny for her help), deleted a bunch of old posts, and added some new categories. I'm excited about getting back into blogging after my hiatus, but before I dive in, I thought I'd share a bit of the journey I've been on for these past two years. 

Into the Desert

In July of 2014, I moved from Washington, DC, where I'd lived and taught for three years, to Phoenix, Arizona. Why in the world, you may be wondering, would you move to Phoenix?! Great question. The short answer is: Providence. The long answer is a bit more complicated, but it boils down to this: I was in a bad place emotionally and psychologically and needed to get out of DC for many reasons. My best friend Simone moved to Phoenix to work at an amazing Catholic school in 2013, and she prompted me to consider applying for a job at one of the other schools in the diocese. At that point, I was at such a loss at to what the Lord wanted me to do (the only thing I knew for sure is that it wasn't yet time to move back to Texas), that I was willing to try anything. I ended up accepting a position as a theology teacher at a Catholic high school in the Phoenix area, packed all of my stuff into my Corolla, and took a solo road trip from DC to Phoenix, stopping along the way to stay with dear friends. 

Brunch with my girlfriends during my first weekend in Phoenix. July 2014. 

Brunch with my girlfriends during my first weekend in Phoenix. July 2014. 

If you're a long time reader of The Evangelista, you may remember that I've had bouts of depression and anxiety throughout my life. For awhile in my late twenties, I thought I was "managing" these issues just fine, and in some ways I was. I was a high-functioning anxious person. I ate healthfully, exercised regularly, had a fairly consistent prayer life, took all of the right supplements, and even called my therapist in Austin when I was feeling in particular need of counsel. To the outside world, I appeared to have it all together. My students thought so. Some of my friends thought so. The only people who knew that not all was right in Whoville were my family members, close friends, and the guys I dated during that time. 

The reality was that, as well as I maintained my professional and social life, I was in emotional survival mode most of the time. I had regular panic attacks. I rarely slept through the night, and even when I did I slept poorly. I would become so overwhelmed by anxiety that I wouldn't be able to go to school; I used every one of my sick days each year while I lived in DC. I cancelled on friends. I blew up at my siblings and parents. And all the while, I kept thinking, "It's only because it's my first year of teaching at a new school that I'm feeling like this" or "It's only because I haven't dated in a long time that I'm so freaked out" or "It's only because I'm about to turn 30 and I'm not married yet that I can't go to Mass without crying." Once I got past the first year at the new school, or had been dating for a few months, or got married, then everything would be fine. 

The problem was, it wasn't specific circumstances in my life that were making me anxious. Life itself was making me anxious. I had no idea what I was anxious about, because I was just anxious all the time. I would wake up in the morning feeling like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I had to remind myself to breathe, and even when I did, I could only manage short, shallow breaths.

This is not to say that I was miserable all the time. I would feel good after an intense workout, but that would only last for twenty minutes before the endorphins wore off and the anxiety set in once again. I had moments of joy, moments of peace, moments of freedom, but they were few and far between. I enjoyed my friends, traveled, loved my students and had a blast teaching them; I kept praying and reading and learning and trying to live as fully as possible. But try as I might, I could never shake the anxiety. Even in moments of peace, it was lurking in the background, like a storm cloud ready to burst at any moment. 

So I tried not to let my guard down. I distracted myself with social activity, with TV, with work. I told myself over and over again that I didn't need to go back to therapy--that I was fine. I didn't need to get on medication--that was too extreme. I was fine. I was fine. I was fine. 

Facing Reality

Christmas 2014, complete with matching Home Alone sweatshirts, courtesy of my sister. 

Christmas 2014, complete with matching Home Alone sweatshirts, courtesy of my sister. 

But I was not fine. And it wasn't until December 2014 that I was finally able to admit it to myself. After moving across the country, enduring the most difficult semester of my professional life (I was forced to give the same tests on the same day as the other teachers in my department--AND to assign the same projects and grade with the same rubrics. And the students had iPads. It was basically teacher Hell.), and ending yet another unhealthy relationship, I finally took my own advice. I made an appointment with my doctor, described my symptoms, and got on Zoloft. 

The effect of the medication felt nothing short of miraculous. I went from crying at the drop of a hat, feeling like I was emotionally drowning, having difficultly breathing, hiding in my apartment after school just to recuperate some of the precious emotional energy I expended during the school day, to slowly but surely coming back to life. I noticed a difference almost immediately; my mind felt quieter. I could think more clearly. My body felt more relaxed. I didn't have chest pains anymore. I only cried when tears were warranted. I was able to deal with the frustrations of my job without wanting to quit every day. I was able to pray and go to Mass without having panic attacks. 

My friends and family noticed and celebrated these changes with me. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders, and I was finally able to see clearly. My only regret was that i hadn't gotten on medication years ago. 

After being on meds for a few months, I knew it was time to get back into therapy. I contacted a therapist in the Phoenix area that I knew of already, and started to meet with her once every couple of weeks. She was okay, and I'm sure talking things out with her helped me, but in the end I stopped seeing her because she saw my love for Christ and the Church as a quirk that I had and not an essential element of my being. I didn't feel comfortable being totally myself with her, and that defeats the point of having a therapist, so I resolved to find someone else...eventually. 

In the meantime, I got back together with an ex-boyfriend whom I had broken up with at the end of 2013, in the throes of my anxiety and depression. I moved to the Midwest for the summer of 2015 to be nearer to him so that we could give the relationship a real shot. Unfortunately, we ended up breaking up in July 2015, ultimately for the same reasons we broke up the first time. The emotional fallout of the breakup got me to take stock of my dating experiences for the past decade. I resolved to get back into therapy ASAP. 

Humble Pie

Sunset from Camelback Mountain. Phoenix, AZ. 

Sunset from Camelback Mountain. Phoenix, AZ. 

Obviously, something was wrong. I had never experienced a truly healthy relationship with a man before. And it wasn't any of my ex-boyfriends who were to blame. The one common denominator in all of my past relationships was ME. I was the one picking these guys who weren't right for me. I was the one staying in relationships way past their expiration date, desperately trying to fix what was ultimately unfixable. It was me. I was the problem. It was one of those moments when the Lord grants you the grace of authentic self-knowledge. And it stung. 

After I swallowed that huge piece of humble pie, I called my therapist from Austin. She suggested that read Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do and find a therapist in Phoenix who could help me untangle my attachment and codependency issues. Thanks be to God, the first therapist who came up in my google search happened to be a therapist who specialized in those issues who was also a faithful Christian. And thanks to my parents who helped me pay for the sessions, I was able to see her once a week for almost nine months--my last session was in May, right before I moved back to Texas (more on that later). 

It's difficult to express just how life-changing this round of therapy was. It was emotionally exhausting, to be sure, but I felt like for the first time I was really able to get to the root causes of my anxiety and depression. I was able to face the emotional trauma of my childhood without minimizing it or denying it. I was able to let go of painful memories and stop perpetuating some of the bad relationship habits I'd developed over the years. Unlike the talk/clinical therapy I'd done in the past, my therapist in Phoenix was trained in EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Basically, EMDR helps your brain reprocess traumatic memories so that when something triggers those memories your body no longer reacts to them as if they are happening in the present. I highly recommend looking into EMDR--lots of therapists, Christian therapists included, are trained to do it these days--if you have trauma or abuse in your past, especially if you still feel burdened by those memories. 

The other essential element to my healing in 2015 was a monthly trip to the Our Lady of Solitude monastery in Tonopah, AZ. Prompted by spiritual director, the first time I went out to the desert to be with the Lord, I didn't bring any books. Not even the Bible. Father knew that I wouldn't really get real with the Lord if I could distract myself with intellection. I'm not going to lie: that first half-day of silence and solitude was tough. I was afraid of facing all of the thoughts and fears and doubts about God's love for me that I had been avoiding for the past few years. But in the silence, I had no choice. I had to face my fear of death. My fear of being single for the rest of my life. My fear of my own imperfection. And slowly, but surely, those fears began to fade as the Lord spoke to my heart in the desert. I can't pinpoint a particular moment when it happened, but for the first time in my life, I was consistently excited about praying--I wanted to be with the Lord. I couldn't wait to tell him about my day or to seek solace in front of the tabernacle. It was a truly graced time in my spiritual life and I'm still experiencing the fruits today.

Honorable mention goes to the school at which I worked last year: St. Mary's in downtown Phoenix. After my puragatorial year at the previous school, I was in desperate need of some teacher TLC, and St. Mary's provided it in spades. I'll devote several posts to SM in the future, as it manages to be both authentically Catholic and provide a real education to its students. 

Nothing is Impossible for God

Easter 2016, with my Dad and sisters. I love this photo because I'm smiling my totally authentic smile. 

Easter 2016, with my Dad and sisters. I love this photo because I'm smiling my totally authentic smile. 

By December of 2015, I noticed a marked difference in the way I related to others, myself, and the Lord. I felt more self-possessed, less anxious, and less codependent than ever before. My friends and family universally commented on the fact that they'd never seen me so happy. I couldn't help but agree with them. I was getting consistent sleep for the first time in years, and that I didn't have to tell myself to breathe multiple times a day. I started hosting parties again. I had new bursts of emotional energy with which to love my friends, family, and students. It was glorious. 

And then, I met someone. At the end of this past January, my mom introduced me to my now boyfriend, Kristian. We did the long distance thing for a few months but it didn't take us long to decide that long distance is for the birds, so I moved back to Austin in May to be closer to him. Our relationship is not only the healthiest I've ever experienced, it has also been the greatest gift the Lord has given me (outside of the Sacraments) thus far. You'll hear more about Kristian in the future and all of the how-we-met stuff (it's a really good story), but for now I will simply say this: there is NO way I would have been ready to meet him or be in a relationship in which we are actively discerning marriage if it were not for the therapy I did this past year. No. Way. I'm deeply grateful to the Lord that he orchestrated the timing so perfectly, and that he protected me from marrying my previous boyfriends, all of whom I dated before I had the capacity to give fully of myself in a healthy way. 

Kristian and me, Easter 2016. 

Kristian and me, Easter 2016. 

So, there you have it. I'm excited to be back and to share more of what the Lord has done and is doing in my life. Nothing is impossible for Him. 

Three Books that Actually Changed My Life

 

In July of 2015, after a disappointing breakup with a good man, I drove back to Phoenix from the East Coast. As I reflected on the relationship that just ended as well as all of my previous adult relationships, a disturbing thought floated to the surface of my consciousness: maybe I’m simply not capable of being in a healthy relationship. Maybe it would just be better for me to be single for the rest of my life. At least then, I wouldn’t hurt anyone (or be hurt by anyone).

My reason told me that this was a lie from Satan, but I still couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. The day after I arrived in Phoenix, I called my therapist from Texas and told her what happened. The first thing she recommend that I do was get back into therapy with someone who specializes in attachment theory. I had no idea what that meant, so she recommended that I read Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do by Dr. Tim Clinton and Dr. Gary Sibcy. Long story short: I found a wonderful therapist in Phoenix who knew all about attachments AND finished the book in less than a week. Since then, I’ve recommended it to all of my friends, immediate family, and random people I’ve met at parties (no joke), and everyone I know who has read it says the same thing: this book is paradigm-shifting and life-changing.

Before I go on, a brief disclaimer: I do NOT think that “self-help” or psychology books are all one needs to live a good life. They are simply a tool that the Lord provides for us through those who have studied the dynamics of the human heart and mind. In the end, we cannot help ourselves completely--that’s why we need Grace, which comes in myriad forms. I’ve experienced the grace of God supremely and primarily through the Sacraments, but I’ve also received it through the counsel of my spiritual director, the various therapists I’ve had over the years, and yes, even books. I do not think that reading these books will automatically change your life; I know that for some of you, reading them in addition to strengthening your relationship with Christ and seeing a trusted therapist could potentially make your life a whole lot better. That is all. Back to the books.

What makes Attachments so helpful is that it breaks down the different styles of insecure attachment (i.e. the reasons why so many relationships are unstable and unhealthy) and the root causes of them, e.g. traumatic/abusive/unhealthy experiences from our childhood. The authors give real-world examples of each attachment style and practical guidance on how to become securely attached in your relationships with God, family members, friends, spouses/significant others, and your kids. Attachments, true to its title, helped me understand why I “love, feel, and act” the way I do. It also helped me understand why my ex-boyfriends, siblings, parents, and even friends love, feel, and act the way they do. It’s not a silver bullet, by any means, but after reading the book and putting into practice some of the authors’ recommendations, as well as discussing what I learned with my therapist, I started to notice positive, seemingly miraculous changes in the way that I related to others--especially my family and my now boyfriend.

The second life-changing book was recommended by my therapist in Phoenix: Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody. This book was considerably more painful to read than Attachments, because it delves into the nitty-gritty of the abuse and trauma that causes codependence.

What is codependence? According to Mellody, a self-proclaimed “recovering codependent” and Senior Clinical Advisor for The Meadows,

“Codependents have difficulty
1. Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
2. Setting functional boundaries
3. Owning and expressing their own thoughts and feelings
4. Taking care of their adult needs and wants
5. Experiencing and expressing their thoughts and feelings moderately.
Where the disease comes from: dysfunctional, less-than-nurturing, abusive family systems.
Many people who grow up in dysfunctional families grow up in the delusion that what happened to them is “normal”--their caregivers encouraged them to believing that their problem arose because they didn’t respond appropriately to what happened to them.”

In the book, Mellody goes into detail about each symptom, the various ways codependency can manifest itself in someone’s life, and the types of abuse that cause the symptoms. She also gives practical strategies for overcoming codependence and living an emotionally healthy life. At the time when I first read it (August 2015), I felt as if my emotional life were a tangled, knotted mess. This book, coupled with my discussions with my therapist about its content, helped me to face the reality of my childhood in a new way, and to slowly undo the knots so that I could learn how to be in healthy, adult relationships with others. Highly, highly recommended.

Last, but not least, is a little gem of a book called Growing Yourself Back Up, by John Lee. I read this one in a couple of days--not only because it is so short, but because almost everything in it seemed to apply to my life in some way. Lee’s premise is that many of us are not “grown up” emotionally. Until we become aware of it, most of the time when we are stressed out, with our families, in the presence of an authority figure, or in a romantic relationship, we cease to be functional adults and regress to our childhood selves. This, not surprisingly, causes problems. If we can learn to recognize the signs of regression and catch ourselves when we do it, we can better avoid the drama that inevitably arises when we act like children in our adult lives. Like the authors of Attachments and Facing Codependence, Lee also gives practical advice about avoiding regression. If you’ve ever felt like you become 15 again as soon as you step foot into your parents’ house, this book is for you.

There you have it. Three books that actually changed my life. I hope that they will be as helpful to you as they have been to me. If you decide to read them, please send me an email and let me know what you think! I’d love to hear from you. And if you have any life-changing books to recommend, please mention them in the comments!

Why Therapy: Some Final Notes

View from the ferry en route to San Juan Island, WA. 

View from the ferry en route to San Juan Island, WA. 

Believe it or not, we have finally come to the end (at least for now) of my series on therapy. I've been so overwhelmed at the positive response to these posts and can't thank y'all enough for making it possible to be so honest about my experience. To those of you who think I'm brave for sharing what I did in the last two posts: I'm really not. I'm simply a broken human being in need of healing, just like everyone else on this planet. I would not be able to share my story in such a public forum if I were not so confident that I am not alone in my need for peace, healing, and freedom. Thanks be to God, I have experienced so much healing and freedom through his grace, mediated through therapy (and the Sacraments, his Word, my friends and family, and countless other avenues), and I can't help but want to share it (I am an extrovert, after all). 

I have a few final thoughts on therapy, which I've divided up into

1. Common excuses I've heard from friends and family who need to go to therapy but either flat out refuse to go or drag their heels for quite a while before going, and

2. Miscellaneous frequently asked questions about therapy.

Here goes. 

Excuse #1: Therapy is such an extreme thing to do. I don't have an eating disorder, have never been abused, and am not clinically depressed, so I don't need it. 

First of all, let me just say: therapy is not only for those who have been abused or who have diagnosable mental illnesses. This is one of the most common misconceptions about therapy and it keeps so many people who need it from going. 

If you've experienced any kind of emotional upheaval and want help processing it, go to therapy. This includes, but is not limited to: divorce (yours or your parents'), the death of a loved one, infertility, a miscarriage, an abortion, finding out you have an STD, adopting a child, marital difficulties, losing a job, starting a new job, moving to a new city, a bad breakup, a broken engagement, being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, etc, etc.  

If your relationships and daily life are being negatively influenced by dysfunction in your family of origin: go to therapy

If you find yourself anxious, angry, sad, scatter-brained, etc more often than not and can't figure out why: go to therapy

If you have a difficult time (i.e. are miserable and/or anxious and/or fighting to maintain your sense of self) on family vacations, family reunions, family meals,  or anything related to your family: go to therapy

Going to therapy is not extreme, just like going to the hospital after you break a bone is not extreme, or going to see an internist when you have an unidentified chronic pain in your body is not extreme, or going to a sleep specialist because you think you may have sleep apnea is not extreme. The only reason why so many people think that therapy is "extreme" or "not for them" is because of the stigma associated with it, which I discussed in my very first post in this series. 

If you think you might maybe may need therapy, then just GO! It won't kill you and if the therapist tells you you're fine and just to "give it time" and all will be well, GREAT! If you really do need it, then you are on the path to healing and will be the better for it. Win, win.

Excuse #2: I'd love to go to therapy but I can't afford it. 

Before you give up, check to see if there are any therapists in your area that take your insurance. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a good portion of my last round of sessions were covered by insurance. 

The other option is to seek out a therapist who charges different amounts depending on a client's income level. Usually you can work something out, especially if the therapist is a Christian. 

Lastly, while I'm sure there are some of you who legitimately cannot afford therapy for whatever reason, (and if you're in that boat, I encourage you to pray that God opens up an opportunity for you to go--all things are possible with Him after all!), I would challenge those of you who may be using money as an excuse not to go to think about it this way: what is more important, your daily Starbucks run or your mental health and well-being? Can you go without buying new clothes or eat out less often for a few months in order to get your emotional house in order? Trust me, a clothing/entertainment fast is a SMALL price to pay for peace in your heart and mind. 

Excuse #3: I don't have time for therapy.

If you don't have an hour a week or every other week to devote to your health, then you might want to examine your priorities. The fact is that we make time for the things that are important to us. Your mental health is more important than your mani/pedi or that hour you spent on Facebook last night. No one else is going to take care of your psychological and emotional issues for you, so what are you waiting for?

Excuse #4: I have no idea how to find a good therapist in my area.

If you live in the DC or Austin area, send me an email and I can help you out. If you live elsewhere and a Google search is unhelpful, ask your pastor if he knows anyone (I'm sure he does). If you're Catholic, you could also call the diocesan office to see if they can recommend any Catholic psychologists or counselors. Above all, pray, pray, pray and don't stop looking till you find someone!

Excuse #5: I already have a spiritual director, so therapy would be superfluous for me. 

If I had a nickel for every time I heard this one, I'd have a lot of nickels. My hope is that more spiritual directors will have the wisdom to send their directees to therapy when they so obviously need it, but sometimes I think even the most well-intentioned spiritual directors are wary of therapy, which is a shame. 

Here's the thing: a therapist is someone who is trained to get to the bottom of psychological and emotional problems, and to give you the tools to manage them. A spiritual director is trained to help you in your prayer life, struggles with sin, and overall relationship with Christ. A good therapist and a good spiritual director will overlap in terms of the issues they address in your sessions with them, but they are not interchangeable. 

In any case, you need both a spiritual director and a therapist, in order to avoid spiritualizing psychological issues and/or dismissing spiritual problems as psychological issues beyond your control. Both attitudes are dangerous. 

FAQ's about therapy: 

Q: I've been to therapy a few times, but I don't feel like it really helped. I didn't like the therapist I saw and/or had a bad experience. I still feel like there's a lot that's unresolved in my heart and mind. What should I do?

A: As someone who's had quite a few lackluster experiences in therapy, I can't stress the importance of not letting that keep you from looking till you find someone who really helps you. It is so worth the work. And you WILL find him or her--pray, hope, and don't worry! 

Q: My husband/boyfriend/fiance/brother/guy friend/uncle/male cousin REALLY needs therapy, but refuses to go. What should I do? 

A: If any of my readers has an answer to this one, I'm all ears. This is a perennial question for me, as I have quite a few men in my life who need therapy. Unfortunately, the therapy stigma seems to be about 1,000 times stronger in the male population than in the female population, which makes it that much more difficult to get a guy to go. Also, many men hate being told what to do, especially by women (at least in my experience). To top it ALL off, the kind of humility required for a man to say, "I need help. I can't deal with my issues on my own," or to even acknowledge that he has issues, is extremely rare to find in anyone, male or female (especially in America, the land of the DIY and "self-made man"). So, the only thing I know to do is pray, pray, pray. Pray that his heart and mind will be opened to his need for help, and that he will have the humility to seek it out. 

Q: There's a woman in my life who needs therapy, but I'm not quite sure how to broach the subject with her...any advice? 

A: If you've been to therapy, share your experience with her in a non-threatening, non-manipulative way. Just tell her how great it's been for you and leave it at that. 

If you haven't been to therapy, wait for the opportune moment when she's complaining to you about how depressed she is about X for the thousandth time, and simply say something like, "I'm so sorry you're still struggling with X. Have you ever considered going to therapy?" If she balks, then you could point her to this series and ask her to read it; she'll probably feel freer to choose for herself than if you try to convince her right then and there. You could also say, "I have other friends who swear by it, so I thought I'd just suggest it...regardless, I'm praying for you and love you." 

One of my dearest friends in the world was inspired to go to therapy simply because I shared my experience (I don't even remember how it came up to be honest) and she was so shocked that I had gone to therapy and was amazed at how much it helped me that she decided to go. 

Q: I went to regular therapy for a couple of years and thought I was done...but now I'm thinking that I need to go back. Does that mean that the last round of therapy was a waste? 

A: Not at all! We human beings are complex and mysterious, and so naturally we will not be able to plumb the depths of our hearts, minds, and souls all at once. What you uncover in therapy in your teens or early twenties will be often be VERY different from what you uncover should you go back a few years later, or a decade later, or two decades later, etc. After my last round of therapy, it was clear that I didn't need to go back regularly for the time being, but there have been a few times in the past couple of years when a major life event brought something new to the surface. On those occasions, I didn't hesitate to call Dr. T and schedule a phone session. And if at any point in my future it becomes clear that I need to go back to regular therapy for whatever reason, I will go! 

The bottom line is this: if you're thinking about going to therapy, but aren't sure if you need it, GO.

If you're thinking about going to therapy, but are embarrassed or afraid: GO. 

If you think you need therapy but really, really don't want to go: PRAY for the openness and courage to go. 

And remember: you were created to live, not simply to survive. Embrace the abundant life that Christ promised you when you became his own in Baptism. 

As always, please feel free to email me at theevangelistaa@gmail.com if you have any further questions, concerns, or just want some encouragement! 

Why Therapy? "The gains are very much worth the pain."

For those of you just joining us for my series on the awesomeness of therapy. 

 I asked several friends who have gone or are going to therapy to tell me why they sought out this kind of help, and I got some incredible responses back.

 I think that most (if not all) of you will be able to recognize something of yourself in one of these beautiful women whom I am privileged to know. 

Today’s post will be especially helpful to those of you who have not suffered serious abuse but nonetheless have wounds to deal with due to your family of origin (and I mean...who doesn't have wounds like this?). Celeste is also an excellent example of someone who went through multiple "rounds" of therapy and found that she benefited from each in different ways. 

Please note that I have changed the names of these women to protect their privacy. 

Celeste's Story:

I knew that I would benefit from therapy long before I was ready to actually seek it out. I had some deep wounds from my family of origin and then from my college years which remained a hidden source of great distress for me for a long time.

It was when I was in my mid-twenties and was experiencing the worst anxiety/depression of my life that I finally went to a counselor.

I was very fearful at first, and did not disclose to that counselor the things that were troubling me most.

Also, this counselor and I didn't live our faith in quite the same way, which was limiting, but despite these things, I believe my sessions with her helped me to name certain things, especially about my relationship with my mother, and to begin to understand the meaning of healthy boundaries.

My experiences there (which lasted five or six months) definitely helped me to weather that stormy time with a modicum of sanity. The second therapist I worked with has been a true gift. She fully shares the same values, is present to me in the way I need her to be, and truly challenges me to articulate my needs, which is one of my greatest areas of struggle.

I have fully entrusted to her all my deepest wounds and though I continue to struggle, I have reached a point of healing that I used to doubt was possible.

I owe therapy a great deal. Without it, I don't think I would have had the courage or hope to enter into and sustain a romantic relationship. This is perhaps the most concrete evidence of the help that therapy has given me.

I did not have a serious relationship until age 29, after a steady year of working with my counselor.

To anyone afraid to take the first step, I would say that there is nothing as unnerving as that first meeting, and that if you find a well-recommended therapist who shares your values, you have a great chance of achieving some lasting and life-changing healing.

The gains are very much worth the pain.

Coming next week: Why I decided to go to therapy, and the practical tools I've gained through the work I've done in counseling. 

Why Therapy? "The pain of therapy is like the pain of scrubbing an infected wound."

For those of you just joining us for my series on the awesomeness of therapy. 

Here's a powerful story of suffering and redemption especially for those of you who have suffered serious emotional/psychological trauma and have not yet had the courage to face it. 

 Please note that I have changed the names of these women to protect their privacy. 

Anne's story:

I chose to go to therapy because I finally got to the point where the possibility of the unknown pain that was certain to come from talking about my suffering was more appealing than continuing to live with the extremely familiar pain that I had toted around for a solid 18 years.  I was sexually abused as a child.  And the fact that I just typed that and am allowing it (even anonymously) to be published is a testimony to the amazing grace and healing that God has wrought through the grace of the Sacraments and through therapy.  I tried for a long time to do it on my own.  To just pray hard enough and long enough until Jesus magically zapped me with healing.  Then I could just pretend like the wound never existed even though it had been buried deep and festering for so many years.  

We cannot have resurrection without the cross is what I finally came to understand.  The cross is ugly and painful and heavy, until we look at it with the eyes of Love.  And then we see that Jesus will carry us and our crosses all the way through.  It hurts like the dickens, but through His own passion and death, He made it sanctifying and He made it a way to come closer to Him.  And He always always always promises resurrection. He is Faithful to His promises, to this I can attest.  

Plus, not going to therapy is super painful, too.  It’s just unfamiliar and we humans often cling to the familiar.  At least I did.  But the pain is not ever going to go away by itself, and the pain of ignoring it or pretending it’s not there is a pain that only grows and deepens with every passing day.  The pain of therapy is like scrubbing a really infected wound.  Dang it hurts.  And I kicked and screamed like a 4 year old getting her scraped knees disinfected, because that hurts.  But it’s a hurt that will get better and will lead to healing.  God knows that this pain is temporary and will be for our good.  Just like your momma and dad know that the pain will pass, the booboo will heal, and instead of an infected wound that keeps getting more infected, you will have a scar.  A scar that will never completely go away (until Heaven), but one that will not control your life in any way like the untreated wound does.  

 

 

Your past experience is NOT who you are.  It does not have to control your life and every decision you make.  You absolutely CAN be FREE.  You were made for absolute Joy and an abundant life.  That’s what Jesus wants to give you, but He never forces it on you.  You have to receive it and believe you me, you cannot receive it if you are buried in the darkness of your past wounds.  

An amazing resource for anyone who has ever experienced any kind of abuse is Made in His Image.

Great spiritual reading: Interior Freedom by Jacques Phillipe (this book absolutely changed my life)

And for a really good book about God’s redeeming love and hope I highly highly recommend Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.

There is so much hope.  God is with you and in Him there is no darkness at all.  

Go to therapy now.  Don’t wait a minute longer.  You and your future self, family and friends will be so so so so so glad you did.  

If you're struggling with the affects of abuse and would like to talk to someone who is recovering, please feel free to email me.

I'll leave you with some encouragement from God's Word. Read it. Pray with it. Believe it: 

“Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” Hebrews 2:18

“At dusk weeping comes for the night; but at dawn there is rejoicing” (Psalm 30:6)

"Come, let us return to the LORD, For it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds. He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence. Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth." (Hosea 6: 1-3)

“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope.When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the LORD, and I will change your lot?” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

(Top image via my Instagram; bottom image via Verily)

Thankful for Therapy

                              

In a previous post, I mentioned that I’ve struggled off and on with eating and body image issues, and that therapy was a huge part of my healing. I honestly didn’t think much of it, until I read the following comment:

“Your willingness to share your therapy ventures with readers is touching and empowering. I am SO ashamed to admit that I'm in therapy, and suddenly here is this gorgeous, fashionable, happy young woman announcing to everyone that she has struggled and been through therapy, and it's OK!! THANK YOU!!!!!!”

Sometimes I forget about the cultural stigma that still surrounds admitting one’s need for psychological/emotional help and assume that everyone has the attitude that I have (for which I have my wonderful mother to thank): (good) therapy is awesome. So, I figured it might be helpful to write a series of posts on that very topic. I'm so incredibly thankful for therapy, and whether or not they know it, all of my friends, family members, colleagues, students, future husband and children are/will be thankful I've gone to therapy. :) 

Before I elaborate on the awesomeness of therapy, I should tell you that my rule of thumb in terms of revealing anything personal on this blog is as follows: I don’t share anything that I wouldn’t be comfortable telling a stranger seated next to me on an airplane. The internet is a public space, so I think this is a fairly reasonable standard. I know that some bloggers are okay with revealing more and some with even less than that, but this is the via media which I’ve adopted.

That being said, I have no problem sharing with you that I’ve gone to therapy off and on for a good portion of my young life. I would happily share this with just about anyone, including a room full of teenagers (i.e. my students), a potential date, or yes, even a random stranger on an airplane. Why? Because I firmly believe that going to therapy is nothing to be ashamed of, and what’s more, that it has been an essential vehicle of God's healing grace in my life and I want everyone who needs it to experience this same gift!

Here’s a quick rundown of my own struggles: I’ve dealt with moderate to severe anxiety since I was a child, have experienced two distinct periods of “situational depression” (i.e. not clinical) in my adult life, and suffered from an eating disorder/body image issues for most of high school and college. I went to therapy as a little girl (which wasn’t incredibly helpful because my therapists weren’t the best), a bit as a teenager (also not helpful), in college (meh), and finally found the best therapist ever in grad school (if you live in Austin or the surrounding area and are looking for a therapist, email me and I’ll give you her name!). In a future post, I'll explain what made Dr. T and my therapy with her so much better than previous stints.

That was then, this is now: thanks to Dr. T’s help and God’s grace, I haven’t gone to regular therapy for about three years now, which is a testament in and of itself to the healing I’ve experienced. My years in therapy have brought me to a place where I can discern reality from my (sometimes skewed) perception, have the tools with which to manage my anxiety, and can look at my life in all of its messyness and say: it is very good. That's what I call "money well spent".

You might be thinking, “Wow, Christina…this is all super-personal. How could you possibly feel comfortable sharing this with someone on a plane??” Simple. It’s because I know that I am not an anomaly; SO MANY PEOPLE struggle with these things. Also, I didn’t bring all of this suffering on myself--it is WAY more difficultto share the suffering that I’ve brought upon myself due to sin. Ultimately, the reasons why I went to therapy were the result of many factors that were (and are) beyond my control, including genetics and generational sin, so why should I be ashamed? If anything, I’m eager to share my struggles with others so that no one thinks that she (or he) is alone AND to give hope to those who may be tempted to despair. God can truly work miracles in our hearts and minds if only we are open to all of the avenues through which He can heal.

Here’s the thing: we’re all broken, flawed, wounded people, born into a world marked by sin and affected by that sin even before birth. The theological term for this reality is “Original Sin,” and as GK Chesterton once quipped, it is the easiest of all Christian doctrines to prove. Each of us enters the world through the union of a man and a woman, who have been shaped and affected by their own families—some more intact and functional than others—as well as their own personal sins (not to mention institutional sin, structural sin, generational sin, etc). Regardless of how relatively happy your childhood was, only the most stalwart of Pollyannas can make it to adulthood without enduring some kind of pain, suffering, anxiety, or general screwedupness, usually as a result of the sins and brokenness of one’s own parents whose lives were affected by the sins of their parent (and on and on all the way back to our first human parents). Whew. That was a long sentence. 

I’m aware that I need to exercise caution when couching all of this in terms of Original Sin, and do not want to give the impression that I think all psychological maladies are caused by personal sin/spiritual struggles. That is a dangerous way to think, and it can lead someone who is in desperate need for psychotherapy to think that prayer, spiritual direction, and/or the Sacraments are enough to cure them. There is a mysterious interchange between our own free will and neurosis, and it often takes the help of professionals (therapists and spiritual directors) to discern sin from pathology. I used to spiritualize all of my anxieties, bouts with depression, and even my eating disorder by saying things like the following to myself (and/or my therapist/confessor):

“I’m only anxious all the time because I don’t trust in God enough. I just need to pray to trust in him more and I’ll be fine.” 

“I’m only depressed because I haven’t been praying enough. If I pray more, I’m sure this will go away.” 

“I’m only eating compulsively because I’m gluttonous. I just need to stop committing the sin of gluttony and I’ll be fine.”

With self-talk like that, you can imagine what kind of psycho-spiritual turmoil I was in for most of my teenage years and into my early twenties. Satan is a crafty one, and he knows how to hit us where we're weakest. I desired so much to please God, and spiritualizing all of my psychological problems made it virtually impossible for me to see how God could love me at all, which of course sent me further into psychological and emotional distress. It was, to put it mildly, the worst. But Satan didn't have the last word, nor did my neuroses. Jesus always has the last word, and in my case it was spoken through the work I did in therapy, in prayer, and in living my daily life under the banner of His love. 

Note: I am NOT saying that there was zero connection between some of my anxieties, bouts of depression, etc. and the state of my spiritual life. It seems fairly obvious to me that our bodies, souls, and minds are intricately connected and cannot ever truly be divorced from one another (except by death). Yes, some of my struggles with anxiety and depression and eating were exacerbated by my human weakness and sinfulness, but that does not mean that I was causing 100% of my neuroses or that prayer and the Sacraments operated as magical cures for these problems. I certainly don’t think I would have experienced healing to the depths that I have without God’s grace, but I also know that his grace was given to me through therapy as well as through more conventional spiritual means.

This post is already too long, so I’ll close here, with three gentle reminders:

1. You are not alone.

2. There is hope.

3. You are loved.

 

 

Next week, I’ll follow up with Thankful for Therapy, Part 2: How do you know when/if you need therapy?

In the meantime, please feel free to leave questions in the comments or to email me if you would like more details or have a question you don’t feel comfortable asking publicly. I will do my best to answer in a timely fashion!

blessings,

Christina Grace

How to Make the Most of your 20s: Part 2

Pondering the mysteries of life with my niece Maddy. 

Pondering the mysteries of life with my niece Maddy. 

In my first post on thriving in (not just surviving) your 20s, I shared some of the positive wisdom I’ve gained through lots of trial and error (let’s be honest: mostly error) that helped me live well in my 20s. As I was making my list of “Do’s” for that post, I couldn’t help but think of the many things I wish I hadn’t done during my 20s, and since one of the ways God works through our mistakes is by allowing others to learn from them, I figure there’s nothing more sensible to do than share them with all of you. 

And so I submit to you, based on personal experience, common sense, and the guidance of Christ and the Church, my list of “Don’ts” for your 20s (and beyond): 

DON’T:

*Forget to say “thank you” (to God and to your fellow human beings). Something I’ve become much more aware of lately is how ungrateful I was in my early-to-mid-twenties. Sure, I wasn’t as entitled or thankless as some of my high school students were, but looking back it’s clear that I was MUCH more focused on what (it seemed to me) God hadn’t done for me or given me instead of the myriad of ways he had provided for me above and beyond what I could have asked, dreamed, or imagined. Not only did my relationship with God suffer because of this, but I simply wasn’t as happy. 

*Stop asking God for forgiveness. As Pope Francis was so good to remind us: 

“ Let’s not forget this word: God never, ever gets tired of forgiving us! … the problem is that we get tired, we don’t want to, we get tired of asking forgiveness… May we never tire, let us never tire of it! He’s the loving Father who always forgives, who has a heart of mercy for all of us. And even we can learn to be merciful with others. Let us ask the intercession of Our Lady, who held in her arms the Mercy of God made man.”

*Spend most/all of your money on yourself. In my “Confessions of a (Former) Shopaholic" post, I talked quite a bit about how my spending habits have changed in the past year, and for the better. I’ve noticed a decrease in anxiety and an increase in freedom since I stopped spending so much money on myself, and only wish that I had started using my money this way when I was 22 instead of 29. 

*Limit God: in your mind, in your prayer, through your actions. He is SO much bigger than the God-In-A-Box we create in our heads.

*Waste your money on fast fashion. Closely related to the above: don’t spend all of your clothing budget on H&M, Anthropologie, Forever 21, Old Navy, ASOS, etc. I spent SO much time and money trying to fill my closet with the trendiest clothes—especially in my early 20s—and guess how many of those items I still have! If you guessed “less than five” you are correct! Money down. the. drain. 

*Go to a different church every week. If you’re Catholic, this is a tough one. It’s SO easy to just pick the Mass time that’s most convenient for you each Sunday, even if it means going to a different parish each week and never becoming rooted in a Catholic community (N.B. This is one of the reasons why Catholics complain about a lack of “community” at their parishes.). I have been guilty of this on more than one occasion, but the two times I’ve put down roots in a parish, it’s been wonderful. I love that the priests know me by name and that I see familiar faces all the time and that when I tithe, it feels like I’m giving to family. Find a parish. Register. Put down some roots. Build community. You won’t regret it. 

*Put your life on hold until you get married. When I was in college, I decided that I would wait to go to places like Italy and Israel until I got married. And that I wouldn’t buy nice dishes or kitchen equipment or furniture that I cared about…till I got married. Of course, when I was at the ripe old age of 20, I was convinced that I would meet and marry my husband by the age of 22 (25 at the VERY latest). I was also convinced that I would simply NOT enjoy those travel experiences or care about having good kitchen things if I weren’t married. This goes to show two things: 1) we know NOTHING about the future God has planned for us and 2) we know a lot less about ourselves than we think we do, especially at the tender age of 20. Turns out, I’m SO glad I didn’t wait to travel to Italy and Israel, or buy a good set of knives and pots, or find a couch and coffee table that I actually like. Moral of the story: Live the life you have now, not the one in your daydreams. God will take care of making your dreams come true in His time. 

*Chase after guys who aren’t interested in you.

*Go out with a guy you really REALLY don’t want to go out with just because you want to be “open.” Listen, ladies: you don’t HAVE to go out with every guy who asks you out. Yes, it’s great that he mustered up the courage to ask you out on a date. But no matter how rare that is these days, if your gut tells you “absolutely not,” then don’t force yourself to go out with him. Being “open” doesn’t mean letting everyone in. 

*Share your wounds on social media. You might be thinking, “But wait, Christina…don’t you share YOUR wounds on this blog? Isn’t that kind of hypocritical?” Fair question. The truth is, I don’t share my wounds on The Evangelista. I share my scars: wounds that the Lord healed a good amount of time ago, and that I’m comfortable sharing with total strangers. There’s a BIG difference between a scar and a wound. Wounds are deeply personal sufferings you’re experiencing now. The hurt is fresh. You don’t have any of the wisdom that time and hindsight afford. Asking for general prayers is fine, telling people about the sickness or death of a loved one is fine, but angsty status updates with oblique references to your ex-boyfriend or to a fall-out with a friend or to your depression/anxiety/self-esteem issues: not a good idea. If you’re hurting badly enough to feel the need to tell all of your not-so-close friends (plus a bunch of strangers) what is going on in your heart, you don’t need a better WiFi connection: you need therapy

*Obsess about marriage. If you’re obsessing about marriage (or anything else), go to therapy. I spent more time thinking about marriage when I was 21-22 than I do now (thank God!), and I owe that in part to the processing I did in therapy. 

*Spend the majority of your “fun” time in noisy bars and clubs. 

Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to a local bar for a few drinks with friends. I’m no teetotaler, even if I am a lightweight. That said, not all bars are created equal. I find that I always have fun (the kind of fun that comes without huge regrets in the morning) when I go with friends to salsa or country clubs to dance, or to a local lounge/pub where the noise level is reasonable and I can actually have a conversation. But back in my early 20s, when I used to go to your typical so-loud-you-have-to-stand-two-inches-from-the-person-next-to-you-if-you-want-to-hear-anything type bars, I rarely had a good time (in part because I couldn’t have a real conversation with any of my friends and I can only handle small talk with creepers for so long) and I usually drank too much (because people were buying me drinks, and what else was there to do at a place like that anyway?). People: let’s stop pretending that spending time in deafeningly loud bars and getting wasted every weekend is fun. It’s not. Real, lasting, Christ-centered friendships are not formed and cultivated in noisy clubs or by non-memories made when you and your friends blacked out that one time, and if the only friends you have can’t have fun without several drinks in them, they’re not really fun. 

*Force yourself to do things you really don’t like to do just to meet a guy. You don’t have to go to every party. You don’t have to go on an internet dating site. You don’t have to join your parish’s young adult group. Love to hike? Find a group that goes hiking. Love to dance? Go dancing! Love to sing? Join the parish choir! The right guy will be attracted to you, not the mold you’ve forced yourself into to meet him. 

*Treat every guy you meet as a potential husband. How would you like it if every guy you met at a party or event was mentally going through a “future wife” checklist while he was talking to you? Exactly. 

*Act like other women are your competition. They aren’t. Your future is in God’s hands, so it doesn’t matter what the ratio of men to women in your area is or how many girls in your social circle are interested in a particular guy. Plus, if you’re in competition-mode, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to find some fabulous girlfriends. 

*Waste hours of your day on Facebook. Need I say more? 

*Stalk your ex-boyfriends/crushes on the internet. We have all done it. We have all regretted it. 

*Spend lots of time complaining about men to/with your girlfriends. It just makes you bitter and jaded, which is NOT good for anyone. A couple of my friends and I realized we were developing a habit of ragging on the guys we knew for not being “real men” and decided to pray for them to become the men that they were created to be (and for ourselves, that we would become better women), and wouldn’t you know it? The bitterness faded and we were able to think and speak about them much more charitably. 

*Bury yourself in work or a hobby instead of dealing with your issues. Please, just go to therapy. 

*Stay in unhealthy dating relationships. It’s SO not worth it. 

*Burn your bridges. Always try to reconcile if reconciliation is possible. 

*Make decisions based on fear, discouragement, or anxiety. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, goodness, gentleness, kindness and self-control. Fear, discouragement, and anxiety are NOT on that list. Wait for the peace and clarity that surpasses all understanding before you make any major life-decisions. 

*Watch TV every day. As someone who consistently confesses wasting her time, I can honestly say: I have never wished that I had watched more TV, but I have often wished that I had spent more time in prayer, or spent more time reading, or called my Mom and Dad more often, or spent more time exploring my city, or listened more often to interesting lectures, or even spent more time honing my lesson plans.

*Judge your life based on an artificial timeline you (or someone else) has created. I got into major trouble when I was 25 and still not married and decided that God had clearly forgotten about me because of course I was supposed to be married by 25. I felt like a failure at life and that everyone was looking at me with pity because I was 25 and hadn’t even had a real boyfriend yet. (Note: NO ONE was thinking that about me.) Long story short: I could have avoided SO much unnecessary pain had I accepted where God had me at that point in my life as exactly where I was supposed to be. He knew that I was not ready for marriage, even if I didn’t, and thankfully He didn’t give me what I wanted. The only timeline that matters is His and, love it or hate it, it’s a complete mystery to all of us. 

*Be afraid. ”In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

That’s all she wrote, friends…for now at least. :)  I would love to hear any of your “Don’ts” for thriving in your 20s, or simply for living the Good Life at any age. Please share in the comments!