Guest Blog, by Lauren Logan:
I was an awkward kid. Emotional, extremely shy, overweight, curly hair that was frizzy and out of control, and freckles. I was the kid everyone made fun of and very few wanted to be friends. I don’t even need one hand to count the number of people that I would consider true friends from ages five to 14. It didn’t help that I went to a small private school with about 60 other kids in my grade, so once you’re labeled as the social outcast it kind of sticks with you for a while. The summer between 6th and 7th grade, I lost a bunch of weight and I remember it was a lot easier making friends after that. I associated “not being fat” with being accepted and being good enough.
This association started as a small passing thought, then made a hard u-turn and hit me head on. It attached itself to me at the age of 12 and would stay with me until the age of 36. (By the way, I’m 36.) From that point on, I found myself under constant fear of rejection and wanted nothing more than to just be accepted. Friendships, relationships, work achievements, social circles – I made myself into what I thought others wanted me to be and along the way, forgot to take the time to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be.
Outside of school, my social life wasn’t any better. Even family gatherings were incredibly stressful for me. A few people at a time was okay, but when I say I have a big family, I’m talking about eight aunts and uncles and over 20 first cousins. By the time I was born, my oldest cousins had their own kids. I’m not going to do all the math, but I remember Christmas Eve was always a bunch of kids sitting on the floor waiting to open presents and if you had to get up, it was like walking through a maze and trying not to step on someone. It’s a great memory, but the other half of that memory is that although I loved my family, I did not like the feeling of being so overwhelmed by people. At any function with more than a few people, I would take safety by hiding behind my mom or my grandmother. If that wasn’t an option, I would follow around whoever I was most comfortable with (usually my cousin, who you know as the creator of Unruly Neurons). At my own birthday parties, I would beg my parents to please skip the “Happy Birthday” song because people staring at me and singing was unbearable.
My mom did everything she could think of to help me. Although we never actually talked about it, I imagine she realized that me hiding behind her for the rest of my life wasn’t going to work out very well. So, I was in Girl Scouts, basketball, drill team, even tried volleyball for a year but I wasn’t any good at it. (I actually wasn’t that great at sports in general, but I really loved basketball – thank God for B teams who will let anyone play.) And finally – I found theatre, which quickly became my first love. It didn’t help with social anxiety at all, but it was the one thing that I could truly escape to and the only thing I would stick with throughout junior high, high school, and some of college. Probably because it was fun to be someone else for a while.
Throughout all that, I had lost and gained weight so many times throughout my life, I lost count. What I didn’t lose is the thought that in order to be worthy of love, I needed to keep the weight off. This is not only how I believed others saw me, but it is also 100 percent how I see myself, and it has been that way for a very long time. But the weight issue would just be a foundation for me to continue to pile on horrible thoughts about myself. I won’t list them all here but trust me when I say it’s nothing good. And the sad thing is that it gets easier and easier to add on those other negative thoughts the older I get. I’ve had counseling, I’ve taken medication, I’ve journaled, I’ve poured my heart out to a few people, I’ve latched onto my faith which tells me that all those negative things I think about myself are lies. But when the foundation of what you believe about yourself starts with what you look like, it is really, really hard to believe anything else. It all starts with something like, “If I were prettier… If I were skinner… If I were smarter… I can’t do anything right… I’m a failure… How could anyone love me… I hate my body… I’m disgusting…” Then it transitions from thinking it to saying it, and eventually believing that my entire identity and worthiness is completely dependent on what I see in the mirror. When I lose weight, I am a better person. When I gain it, I am nothing.
Enter permanent nerve damage and chronic pain. Do you know how hard it is to keep an active lifestyle when you’re in pain 98 percent of the time? Yes, I can lose weight by focusing on nutrition, but to actually get the body I’ve always wanted, working out is a major factor. When I met my husband, who is truly the best person I’ve ever known, I was introduced to weight and resistance training and I fell in love with it. It was fun, it made me feel good, I started thinking more positively, I had more energy, I was able to focus better, and I was way more motivated to keep a good diet. The thing about nerve pain is that it really doesn’t care about all that. It doesn’t care that I would have months of working out consistently, only to have to stop for weeks at a time because I could barely stand up straight. It doesn’t take into consideration that if I don’t stay active, I have nothing that makes me feel good about myself and all those negative thoughts I was working to push away are actually just hiding behind a corner, waiting to jump out at me. It certainly doesn’t ask me about how starting over time and time again is so mentally draining, and most days I just want to give up on ever being happy with myself because I’ll always be stuck in this cycle, so what’s the point? Also, I’ve been dealing with this nerve pain for almost twenty years now. I’ve done physical therapy, shots, medication, had surgery, and I’m told it’s something I will have for the rest of my life.
On top of that, when it comes to socializing, not only to I have to deal with what is now pretty serious social anxiety, but even routine things (going to church, going to work, etc.) become difficult because there’s physical pain that never goes away. But people don’t always understand what they can’t see, so when I opt out of social gatherings because I need a mental break or because I have pain in most of my body and it hurts to move – it’s not because I’m flaky. It’s not because I don’t want to see friends and family. It’s not because I’d rather stay at home and read all day or binge watch The Big Bang Theory or Stranger Things (I mean, that is what I’d rather be doing over most thing, but that’s not the point). It’s because I’m drained – mentally, physically, or most of the time it’s both – and I just can’t force myself to do it. Yes, I miss out on holidays and I feel horrible for disappointing people. I’ve missed weddings and birthdays and those are things I’ll never be able to get back. I’ve let people down because I didn’t show up. I’ve tried my best and at times, it wasn’t even close to good enough. I’m trying to do lot better.
I wish I could leave you with a list of things that have worked for me to overcome social anxiety, chronic pain, and negative thinking. To be honest, I wish I had that list for myself. I have found some things that help from day to day, but that’s the key – these are things I struggle with daily. So, I won’t be able to share any quick fixes that have magically solved everything, but I will share what gets me through.
- My people.
It’s important to have people in your corner that love you and accept you. People that are okay with me following them around the room a few times until I’m comfortable enough to find my own space. People who will be my human shields when needed because I. Do. Not. Like. Strangers. Hugging. Me. Or shaking hands. Ew. At the same time, they know how to get me out of the house because it’s good for me, and they do it without a guilt trip. My husband and my best friend are pros at this. It doesn’t have to be a huge circle of people. I’ve found that it’s okay to not need an entire hand to count the people I consider true friends. Quality over quantity. Always.
- Things that truly make me happy.
I love books. I always have and I’m certain I inherited this from my Mema. I love reading them, I love looking at them, and the smell of old books is the best thing in the world. I also love writing them. Even if no one else ever sees them, it’s okay. Reading and writing is as close to my true natural state as I can get, and it’s when I feel the most like myself. It’s not just an escape for me, it’s something that keep me going.
- Doing the hard things.
It’s not easy and it’s not comfortable, but the only way I know I can overcome things is to actually do them. Most of the time, I get something out of it and I feel proud of myself afterwards. I still know when I really need to say “no” to something, but I try not to overthink it or agonize over things for days before they actually happen. Last February, I was asked to be on the committee for a two day women’s conference at my church. I knew not a single other person on the committee going into it and I only casually knew a few people that would be attending the conference. Was I scared? Heck, yes. Did I almost back out? Absolutely. But I went through with it because I started thinking that maybe there was a reason why I needed to be there, and if nothing else, that reason would be showing me that I could do these things and it would turn out okay. (It turned out more than okay.) Another really hard thing to do is to confront the actual issues behind negative thinking. There are lots of things and memories that I’ve pushed aside and avoided dealing with because it’s too painful. I would rather continue thinking negative things about myself than deal with why I think those things in the first place. But I do have to deal with them. There is no substitution for digging up the dead roots in my life and getting them out of there so that something better can grow.
- Consistency and preparation.
This one is hard for me because not knowing what my nerve damage is going to do one day to the next can really throw things off. I also can’t predict when something is going to trigger my anxiety and thought spirals and I end up spending the day in bed avoiding everything. But you make the best of the good days and do what you can with what you have. I try to stay as prepared as possible and take advantage of the time that I’m feeling good. This is especially true for days when my nerve pain isn’t as bad – I make it a priority to work out and meal prep, and focus on what I can do, and what I can control.
- My faith.
This is different and personal for everyone. I was raised Catholic, and when I was in my early 20s, I stopped practicing Catholicism and became a non-denominational Christian. I don’t have a go-to scripture that makes everything better the instant I say it. I do have a couple of favorite worship songs that help when I listen to them, but overall, what I really need is Jesus and the love, grace, and forgiveness that comes with Him. I know not everyone reading this will be of the same faith, and that’s okay. I’m not here to write a faith blog. I included this because it is something that has truly saved my life and has brought me through some really dark times. It is the one thing I know that takes my broken pieces and puts them back together, and I come out better than I was before. My hope is that everyone has something like this on their list.
Finally, know that you are not alone. Everyone has struggles that are unique to them and our stories may not read the same, but the more I open up to people about what I’m dealing with, the more I hear “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” We were not meant to do life alone, and we are not meant to live feeling defeated. Do the best you can today with what you have. Kindness, compassionate, and grace can go a long way when we extend it to others, but don’t forget about extending it to yourself, too.
Lauren Logan lives in Plano, Texas, with her husband Tyrone. She’s also a writer, and my beloved cousin.