A few months ago, April took a weekend away to stay in a cabin and go hiking and be alone with her thoughts and God. It was tremendously beneficial for her, and after she returned we realized that I hadn’t really had any time like that for a couple of years, and not really more than a few hours of alone time contiguously for longer than that.
I had won a night’s stay in a hotel through a charity auction, so we picked a long weekend and agreed that I’d take a night and two days to just get away. Leaving her and the kids was harder than I expected, and by the end of day 1 I was really missing my family and kind of wanting to go home, but I also found the weekend to be rejuvenating and necessary.
My regular self-care consists of playing computer games 1-2 evenings a week for 2 hours at a time, reading for 30-60 minutes before bed, getting as much sleep as I can with kids who wake up before 5 am every day, and meeting with a counselor every 2 weeks. I realized partway through day 1 of my getaway that my regular self-care is like drinking water: it’s necessary, life-giving, and refreshing, but it’s also the bare minimum. It helps me survive, but not thrive.
I had a lot of realizations in my time away and wanted to document them here. I’ll go through the days chronologically.
Sunday Morning: Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
To reach Wilson’s Creek, you drive from Springfield towards Republic. Passing the high school and continuing on to the town of Battlefield, I was reminded of living in Battlefield and attending Republic Elementary School in 2nd grade.
2nd grade was a pivotal time for me as a kid. We had just moved to Missouri from Maryland. I had attended a few weeks of school in Bradleyville while we lived with my grandmother and then transferred to Republic. As was the theme throughout grade school, I had some bullies, but I was generally popular in 2nd grade and had lots of friends.
15+ years later, there were kids from Republic Elementary who happened upon me in college and remembered me from that single year. That’s remarkable.
Driving to the battlefield, I began to wonder, “what would my life have been like if we hadn’t left (the town of) Battlefield?” How different might my life have been if I’d had healthy friendships, a walkable town (instead of living way out in the country with no friends nearby), and a smaller school with pretty decent educational outcomes?
I realized quickly, though, that it didn’t matter. Most of the traumas of my childhood came from my family. The isolation I experienced living north of Springfield and attending Pleasant View didn’t help, but from talking with old classmates over the last few years, I have come to realize that PV Elementary and Middle School, and Hillcrest High School, weren’t really all that bad. My life was hard, and there were some bullies, and I was bullied more than most… but after four years of counseling, I am realizing that school and the people there weren’t my main problem.
From people I have interviewed regarding childhood friendships, I hypothesize that having a few close friendships can be a predictor for life success and emotional stability. Maybe I would have had that if we’d stayed in Battlefield, and I think I might have. So yeah, life probably would have been better. But going back to my water metaphor from earlier, the best I could have hoped for was to survive–I wouldn’t have been thriving regardless.
This means that wondering “what if” is utterly pointless, not just because the past can’t be changed, but because there’s nothing I could have done even if I had a crystal ball back then.
And confronting this pointlessness on Sunday morning was suddenly freeing for me. One aspect of my personality is to often dwell on the question, “What could I have done better?” Or, “What did I do wrong?”
But I was not the cause of my trauma. And even if we’d stayed in Battlefield, most everything that happened still (likely) would have happened.
My counselor has been focusing lately on the need to move on, even if we can’t forget, and I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly that means and what it looks like. On Sunday morning, it clicked that shutting down any “what if?” thoughts about the past is a key part of moving on.
And then I started hiking. My mind was spinning with all kinds of anxious thoughts, largely about my job, and then around 3.5 miles in my thoughts just went… clear. I didn’t reach any particular conclusions or insights, but shortly after the first hour of hiking through the woods and across the fields, my mind stopped focusing on anything and everything and started being present. I felt this sense of relief and growing happiness, and by around mile 5 I felt happier than I have in a very long time.
To be clear, I love my kids and spending time with them and I experience tremendous joy with them. But I’m experiencing chronic anxiety a lot of the time with this low-level current of thinking about so many different things. I am a leader at work, a provider for my family, and I tend to think in long-term timeframes (3, 5, 10, 15, and 20-year plans and milestones). That means I have a lot that I could potentially worry about.
Something about hiking in nature helps clear my head. I should do that more often.
I bought a 1-year pass for Wilson’s Creek so I can go back more regularly and hike there.
Sunday Afternoon: Rest and Dinner
After hiking more than 20,000 steps in the morning, I had some fried catfish in Republic (first time eating that in I don’t know how long! we never go to that type of restaurant since April can’t really eat at those type of places), then drove around for a while before checking into the hotel. And at that point, I did nothing in particular: I watched anime, tried to take a bath (in a tub that didn’t seal and continually drained water), and read before going over to Corner 21 for some spicy tofu. Then, more TV and sleep.
8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Hallelujah.
Monday Morning: Fellows Lake
I grew up north of Springfield and occasionally rode my bike to Fellows Lake, but I’ve never really hiked in that area. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Wilson’s Creek, but exploring in nature is almost always a good time, and I was happy to have the opportunity.
Often, I experience some melancholy when I go north. I didn’t really this time, which I think speaks to my ongoing mental healing.
I also experienced a realization, similar to the previous day, that I think points to the effectiveness and value of counseling. I asked a question of myself, very quickly made some connections between different things, and had a realization that was freeing and healing.
So a couple of weeks ago, I took the full 144 question Enneagram test. I found the results to be interesting, accurate, and helpful, and I’ve been reflecting on them ever since. For those of you who are familiar with Enneagram, here are my top Enneagram types:
- Type 1, The Reformer: 23
- Type 2, The Helper: 21
- Type 8, The Challenger: 20
I identify as a type 1 with a 2 wing. There are lots of positives to my type(s), but Monday morning I was thinking about one of the negatives. Here are a few sentences from the “hidden side” section about 2s:
Although on the surface Twos appear to feel at ease with others and to be a source of emotional sustenance for the people in their lives, they also suffer from well-hidden feelings of rejection. Twos expect people to not want them around, and they often feel that they need to be extraordinarily kind and supportive to get people to accept and love them. They usually try to conceal the depths of their loneliness or hurt beneath an image of concern for others, focusing on others’ needs to help them feel better.
I was less than a mile into the hike that morning and my anxious thoughts were focused on my worry that people don’t like me. “Don’t like me” is an understatement of the feelings, though, which would better be communicated as, “Why do people hate me and not want me around? Why am I so worthless?”
This is exactly what’s going through my head when I am at my most anxious and depressed:
Is it justified? No. No one hates me or doesn’t want me around. But that’s chronic anxiety for you: it’s a persistent and excessive worry even when there is nothing to provoke it.
One of the things I’m learning from Steve Cuss is to practice curiosity when faced with anxiety. So I asked myself, “Why do you feel like people hate you and don’t want you around?”
I absolutely credit my next thought with the last 4 years of counseling and developing improved skills in introspection and understanding myself.
I immediately replied to myself, “Because your grandmother was terrible to you and no one told her not to be.”
I know that we (my mom and me–my dad was deployed to Korea with the US Army at the time) stopped living with her in Bradleyville because it was terrible. And eventually (years later), my mom declared that we weren’t going to visit her anymore. But her viciousness was never addressed directly in front of me; I don’t recall her being told that she was wrong and that I didn’t deserve to be treated how she treated me. Instead, we would leave her house and go home, or just avoid her. We would talk about how she is bad, but not how she was wrong.
I don’t really blame my parents for that. I think it’s just a thing that happens in kids’ brains and hearts, and it’s really hard to avoid in the moment. We don’t always know the damage being done. And I’m sure my kids will have their own traumas that they need counseling for when they’re older.
But having realized this while walking on a dirt path through the woods, along the lake where I spent part of my childhood, I was suddenly able to take a bunch of my anxieties, drop them into a bucket labeled “trauma from my grandmother,” and set it aside. Once I know the root of a problem, I can start healing from it, and suddenly I was able to let a bunch of stuff go.
I identify a lot with Bojack. By the grace of God, I didn’t turn into as bad a person as him, but I sympathize with him. His self-loathing, and how he addresses himself in those moments of honest self-awareness about his actions, uses the same language that his parents did. I don’t think I’ve realized before how some of my self-directed negative language came from my grandmother.
I haven’t seen her since I was around 12. I have no real feelings about her. And now that I know where some of my anxiety stems from, I can set that aside in the same way that I set that relationship aside decades ago.
Monday Early-Afternoon: Movie and Driving
I wanted to go home, but I also wanted to make the most of this opportunity to rest and be by myself, so I decided to go see a random movie (Uncharted). I love going to the movie theater, though I do it rarely, and it was a nice treat to sit and eat popcorn and enjoy a show.
Having filled up the gas tank on Sunday, I decided to drive around for a while after the movie and ended up at my alma mater.
Monday Late-Afternoon: Hillcrest High School
About 3 years ago, I visited my old high school and immediately started crying after I parked. I have learned over the years that this is the type of signal I should pay attention to and start digging to figure out what is going on with my head and my heart.
Since then, I’ve had lots of conversations with people and enough counseling sessions to realize that I had viewed my school experience through a lens of trauma that colored my memories. I experienced and remember my school days as being pretty negative in a general sense, despite there being plenty of specific, positive memories.
When I pulled up to Hillcrest on Monday, I had no negative feelings. It was a similar level of calm to what I had at Fellows Lake and driving around the North Side the previous day, and I think this speaks to the healing I have experienced over the last few years.
A lot of the school is blocked off due to construction and there was a basketball game in progress, so I walked back to the football field and leaned against the bleachers for a bit.
I was looking at the track and had this whimsical idea that I should run a lap.
The first time I ran a lap was in elementary school at Pleasant View. I eventually had to run a mile and I think I did it in just under 14 minutes. It was horribly difficult and left me lying on the ground panting.
I started running a few months ago, and while the recent cold weather has kept me indoors, I’m not doing too bad. I’m typically around a 11-minute pace right now, and my last run was 2 miles without stopping at 10:44/mile.
I had just gorged myself on Chinese food, popcorn, and M&Ms, but I bet myself that I could run a lap on that quarter-mile track.
So I tightened up my laces and took off. I’ll admit, I was breathing hard at the end, but I freaking did it. And my pace was 6:49.
I wasn’t athletic in high school. My time went to speech & debate, FBLA, NHS, orchestra, video games, dating, and dungeons & dragons. But part of that was because I didn’t think I could be athletic. I told myself that my genes were bad, that I was more brainy than strong, that my body was inherently weak, and that I just couldn’t do it.
I told myself back then that I was a piece of shit and needed to accept what I was bad at, and lean into my few strengths, because my strengths were all I had and I could never be anything else.
Young-me wasn’t stupid. Young-me was broken. And God has been fixing me.
Monday morning, I wondered about my resilience. I am weak in a lot of ways, but I have gone far. I didn’t have the benefits that some of my peers had, so how did I get to where I have gotten?
When I was young, I viewed a weakness as the end of the story. I am weak, and can do nothing about it.
Now, I know that God’s grace is sufficient for me, for His power is made perfect in my weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
And I know that I can lift and get stronger, run and get faster, and read and get smarter. I know that I can heal. I know that I will not always be broken.
And I know that I am loved.
I sat on the bleachers for a while after running that lap, just bemused at my past self compared to my present self. I have no regrets, and nothing but forgiveness and empathy for young-me. I wish I had been healthier back then, and I hope that I can help my kids be healthier than I was.
I don’t know when I’ll get the opportunity to get out on my own again, but I think it needs to happen at least twice a year, and preferably 4 times (once a quarter).
But I also think that just getting a morning to go hiking and have lunch by myself–even just those 4 hours or so–would make a huge difference for me. I think a half-day once a month or every quarter would be sufficient and good, with a longer (1-2 day) refresher a couple of times a year.
The plan is for future overnight solo adventures to be camping. I’m saving up to buy some camping gear, and some friends have promised to give us a tent. I really look forward to hiking out into the middle of a forest and just sitting and thinking. No cars, no cell phone, no computer, just the trees, birds, and space.
But for today, I look forward to playing with my boys and spending time with them. And I hope that I can continue taking the lessons that I’m learning to help make their childhood better than mine was. We effect generational and societal change by helping our kids be better than us, and I’m thankful that I am having the time, space, and help that I need to be better for them.