Every morning the mountains would stand strong and silent against the dark sky. Then, the sun would slowly illuminate the treetops and the birds would begin to sing against a golden canvas. Those mountains would stand with their smooth scoops dipping into the valley below and greet me each morning. I would play with my cousins until the summer sun melted behind the ridge and the sky was left a cotton candy pink. Later, with my pajamas on and blankets resting on my cheek, the moon would light the tallest trees and the mountains and I would fall asleep together.
It was under that cotton candy sky and between those mountains–like bookends holding my life upright–that I began to hide. My temperament, childhood trauma, and desire to make others happy caused me to press on and act as if I was not affected by difficult times.
The Safest Place
“Please, help me. I don’t know what I need, but I need help.”, I begged with tears in my eyes.
I wiped my sweatshirt sleeve across my running nose and anxiously crossed my ankles.
“I can do that.” she said as she leaned in closer.
I was 28-years-old and was seeing a therapist for the first time. I looked around her home office and tried to count the books on her shelf to distract myself.
“I can see that you’re anxious right now. I want you to think of somewhere that brings you peace.”
I shifted in my seat and nodded my head in agreement.
“Where is that place for you?”
“The mountains.”, I said just above a whisper.
“What about the mountains makes you feel at peace?”
“Everything. I called them home for the first 19 years of my life. They’re so much bigger than I am and make me feel so small in the best way. I’m never alone when I’m in the mountains.”
“That’s beautiful. I want you to think of the mountains any time that you’re feeling overwhelmed during our sessions.”
Between Then and Now
I have used that technique in many sessions with my therapist since.
Maybe you’re on the edge of seeking treatment to work through past trauma, a new mental health diagnosis, or a combination of the two. It’s not going to be easy. As a matter of fact, it may be one of the most difficult things that you’ll ever do.
In all of my imperfection, I want to step forward and tell you that it will be worth it.
I’m holding space for you in the mountains. The sun is setting now; the sky turning golden pink. Soon, the moon will settle in for the night and the crickets will chirp by the creek. Then, lovely soul, the sun will rise and warm your face again.
Guest post by my one and only! My husband Matt is passionate about mental health awareness and encouraging men to live lives of vulnerability, healing, and fullness. Matt is a law enforcement officer and uses his years of experience in the profession to create a culture of empathy in his workplace and with those he comes into contact with–often those that struggle with mental health. Matt knows his own struggles with mental health intimately. That is a story for another day. For now, enjoy as Matt shares his views on true masculinity and how men can better themselves by living authentically.
A little more than a week ago, a viral video popped up of the Sevier County, Tennessee Commissioner railing against the Democratic party here in the USA. Among other things he mentioned, he lamented the fact that “a Queer is running for President” and that “a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day”. This statement was met with cheers and “Amen” from others in the meeting.
#MeToo and Masculinity
As we end the first twenty years of the 21st century we’ve seen a massive cultural shift in gender relations. With the #MeToo movement there was a recognition of bad behavior perpetrated by men, mostly in the workplace. Men were finally being held accountable for the systemic superiority that has permeated the culture. There’s also been a recognition of racial and ethnic disparity in our country, and a highlight of inequity that has persisted even after the Civil Rights movement of last century. In an effort to right the ship of American culture there’s been vocal outcries against men, mostly white, and we’ve collectively seen these people “cancelled” from the public eye. Men that say something unprofessional to a woman colleague are now being fired. White politicians that are found to have used blackface decades ago are now having their political careers challenged. There’s been an uprising that says: “This behavior will not be accepted anymore and it needs to stop.”
This should all be a good thing, right? Equality in the workplace, holding men accountable for what they’ve said or done to harass someone, and not allowing this bad behavior to persist should be helping men move into the 21st century, right? For many men that I’ve had encounters with regarding this subject, the attitude is one of feeling victimized by the culture instead of affirmed. Several men I’ve met in my line of work would quietly agree with the Sevier County Commissioner. Why are men feeling victimized about our culture’s insistence that all are treated equally? In my opinion, it is because the very idea of masculinity is being challenged. The way by which a man identifies as a man in still judged against a historic concept of masculinity and this hasn’t idea hasn’t evolved.
Man By Definition
In this historic idea of masculinity the worst thing a boy can be called is a girl. The second is gay, because of the femininity attached to such a label. As boys are socialized with other boys a hierarchy is established: the “best” boy is the strongest, the fastest, and the biggest. The larger boys represent everything that a boy in our culture thinks a man should be. Many boys fall victim to these leaders of the pack when their thinking or ideas don’t align with the leaders. Boys are bullied or picked on for spending more time with girls than boys. They’re picked on for any traits that could be interpreted as non-masculine: being too short, or too skinny, or having a high-pitched voice, or preferring to do activities that aren’t based on physical dominance. As boys mature into teenagers this intensifies and can lead to violence. But this time in a teen boy’s life also introduces other measuring sticks for masculinity: the conquering of women and the recognition of money relating to power. Teen girls are then approached as possible conquests instead of equals, and they’ve already been phased out of equality because they’re not boys. This entire attitude persists with varying forms of maturity and becomes more nuanced as teen boys become adults. Many of these belief systems based on the historic idea of masculinity become implicit and may improve as a man has more interaction with women in professional settings, but I think there may be lingering effects.
One of these lingering effects that I’ve noticed among young men is the use of “no homo” when mentioning something even vaguely complimentary or vulnerable to another man. I recently overheard an adult man talk about how the leaves at this time of year are gorgeous and the response from the other guy next to him was, “that’s so gay”. Even as a joke, this idea that men can’t enjoy beauty or show affection without being accused of being sexually attracted to another man and thus emasculated is very telling of the culture. The idea that a gay man is somehow not masculine is also logically perplexing. There’s no allowance for a man to be vulnerable, to display sadness, or to enjoy anything that may not be traditionally “male”. When men buy into this idea of masculinity they can then feel victimized when the very definition of what it means to be a man is changing in our culture. When a man hears that his perception of masculinity is being challenged, that man can feel like his identity is being challenged. There’s so much baggage attached to this issue and it hits to the very core of many men and who they believe themselves to be. And since self-reflection and introspection is already considered vulnerable and thus not “manly”, many men are deterred from taking inventory of what defines their identity and sense of self.
In my profession of law enforcement, this definition of the masculine identity is something that I find to be pervasive. The job can be very physical, confrontational and authoritative—all traits glorified by traditional masculinity. I found out that my employer, which is a very large and progressive community-oriented Department, is staffed by 88% of men. Only 12% of the workforce is women. Recently a Captain on my Department (four ranks higher than me) and I both stopped to help a man that was in a car accident during morning rush hour traffic. This accident was just outside of our jurisdiction and was the responsibility of that county’s Sheriff’s Department, but it was clear the deputy needed some help. My Captain and I were both in business attire so there was no way to identify our ranks. After we helped, the deputy told me, “Thanks for your help, and thank the woman too.” I jokingly told him that it had been a while since I’ve seen a Captain help direct traffic, and that the woman was my Captain. He responded in such a surprised manner and it was clear that he was shocked to see a woman in that position. There was no harm in his reaction, but I think it’s just indicative of the reality of my profession. With so few women, I think that it’s easy to work in an echo chamber of men’s voices reinforcing the stereotype of masculinity.
Don’t “Man Up”
So where does that leave us? I think that it starts with men. It starts with people like me having the courage to be vulnerable and to break those stereotypes. If there are men in positions of power and authority that can have this courage, they can begin to change what it means to be a man among the men over which they have influence. But even if you’re not a man that appears to have a lot of power, just the circle of influence you have can be affected by your courage to be your true self. Learning to allow yourself time to be introspective is a great start to discovering what makes you- you. If a man can practice introspection and can then allow themselves the courage to be vulnerable with another trusted man, the connection formed can be life-changing. Around one in five men have experienced sexual abuse. Two-thirds of gun deaths in the USA (over 30,000) are death by suicide, and 86% of those killed are men. Men have baggage and pain. Men have emotional wounds inflicted on them by people they’ve trusted. Men struggle with anxiety and depression. Men feel isolated, unloved, and unworthy of love. Men need connection and vulnerability. It’s time that we as men stop denying ourselves a meaningful and enjoyable and healthy life because we should just “man up”.
Being a man is being you in all your strengths and weaknesses and fears and joy. We have the power to go into 2020 living authentically. The most masculine thing a man can do is to be genuine.
It was time for me to face my fears. Money wasn’t just a tangible exchange of currency for goods. For me, it was a deeply rooted fear of going without, being out of control, and letting go.
To me, the world has always been a picture of souls interconnected by an invisible string. I’ve seen how just the “right” person enters my life at just the “right” time. It never ceases to amaze me and I find that it’s rarely easy to ignore.
The Way it Went Down
Matt and I have been struggling with our finances since we got married.
Money tips and wisdom weren’t shared with either of us growing up. In fact, money was a major trigger for stress in both of our homes. We were both raised by single parents for a long duration of childhoods. There was very little money and very little resources because of it. Ironically, both of our single parents married their spouses when Matt and I were around the same age. New income from new “breadwinners” in the home meant new opportunities that weren’t afforded to our parents when they were single.
All of a sudden both of our families were able to afford name brand cereal (heck, cereal at all!).
We got new school clothes instead of second hand clothing.
Matt looks back on his household and I look back on mine and it’s shockingly similar. Our parents essentially went from having nothing to having excess. This created a culture of entitlement, living beyond the families’ means, and debt. Then, as the credit card statements arrived in the mail, the arguments surrounding money began.
We both remember our parents and step parents fighting over money. Shouting matches over the stress of it all. Still, behaviors went unchanged and we both grew up in homes where money wasn’t dared brought up in discussion.
Avoidance became the key to keeping arguments under wraps.
Til’ Debt Do Us Part
Our lack of money smarts wasn’t all on our parent’s shoulders, of course. Matt and I never really talked about the financial specifics of our relationship, goals, or even pasts. Our conversations went as deep as:
“Yeah, my parents fought a lot about money.”
“Yeah, mine, too.”
Or, we would set lofty goals without any plan in place.
“The goal is to not go into debt.”
“Yeah, that would be horrible if we ended up in a financial situation like our families.”
The wedding came and went. We immediately spent the cash from the wedding envelopes immediately. On what, I don’t remember.
We opened credit cards for emergency situations because we didn’t have a savings.
Then, my health quickly and suddenly declined. Medical bills were thrown on credit cards and small personal loans with high interest rates became our cushion for survival. For years, and I mean years, we went into debt and total denial that our situation was as bad as it was.
Blank Slates and Fresh Chances
Years passed and debt increased.
Unforeseen circumstances kept mounting and throwing us into what felt like a whiplash state of saving then spending. We would make progress and then fall right back into spending and avoidance. We’d become stressed and then splurge on a vacation to get “away from it all”. (That doesn’t work, by the way).
Our daughter was born and we imagined a new chapter beginning. We dreamed new dreams. We made new lofty plans without any accountability or measurable goals in place.
Her 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th birthdays passed and we were sinking further into debt. In this span of 5 years I began and quit multiple jobs because of my health. I could not hold down a full time job which left our finances even more unpredictable. Finally, we enrolled in the debt management program with CESI and consolidated our debt. (they’re a non profit and I highly recommend them!)
With new tools in our tool belt and a breath of fresh air, I started back to full time employment.
Unfortunately, after nearly two years of employment, I had to resign due to health issues once again. I immediately talked to my therapist during this grieving process. It was so taxing on me and disappointing that I had to give up a position I loved so much. She suggested that I consider freelance work as a virtual assistant and writing. My love for administrative support (major geek over here!), writing, and desire to stay on track with CESI gave me the push I needed to jump into the unknown.
Enter Amazing Breakthrough
My freelance profile posted and I got a message shortly after from the lovely Whitney Hansen of Whitney Hansen Co. It turned out she needed a virtual assistant ASAP and well, I needed a job! The thought of working for a finance guru intimidated me like crazy!
Day One: I pushed my fear aside and got to work on my newly assigned tasks.
I read all about her work, listened to her podcast, and began reading her blog. She had me hooked. Whitney talked about things I had never heard about: side hustles, how to start a savings, and manageable goals for paying off debt. I soaked in everything like a sponge. She wasn’t talking at me, she was sharing her heart and also her mind. In one of her podcasts she interviews Cait Flanders, author of The Year of Less . My intrigue was sparked. I bought the book used on Amazon and got to reading.
My Rude, but Gentle Awakening
The first few pages of Cait’s book made me cry.
Whitney’s podcast made me cry.
Sessions with my therapist made me cry.
Something ran deep within me and I couldn’t figure it out. What was it?
I began to grieve.
I dug deep into the soil of my soul and there, just at the rock bed, was fear. On the surface everyone else saw my health concerns, my best intentions, and my polished facade. Deeper, there in the dark, was the fear I had buried as a child. Fear of losing what I held dear, fear of lacking control, fear of letting others in. Spending had become my salve. I shopped for comfort. I shopped to forget. I shopped to control.
“Tiny” well-meaning purchases over time had buried me.
It was time for a rebirth.
I could not be held responsible for what I did not know growing up, but I was responsible for choosing not to grow up.
The following weeks, I decided to stay at that root and to look it dead in the eyes. I observed the deepest and darkest places of my behavior. Places that I felt ashamed of–the impulsive spending, relentless excuses, and denial. I did not stay there, though.
We cannot dwell in a place of regret. Nothing blooms there.
I asked Whitney for help by joining her in her 1:1 coaching. She graciously accepted us and all of our nasty debt into her arms and began gently coaching us on how to take ownership over our finances.
I began working intentionally with my therapist about my desire for comfort, suppression, and hiding from fear.
This has been difficult. The first month of setting a budget did not go as planned. We basically fell on our faces. Whitney helped dust us off and encouraged us to keep going. I replaced spending with eating for a short time. My therapist listened with true empathy as I cried through the realization that I had exchanged one bad habit for another. (Cait highlights this common tendency in her book).
Matt and I are setting goals and working hard to be a team. It’s fun to be on the same page and dream together!
I’m learning to not be fearful of finances, but instead feel empowered by my choices.
Let’s End With This
You’re not defined by the mistakes you’ve made.
Evaluate the “mood behind the motion”. Are you eating, spending, sleeping, avoiding, or drinking when you’re stressed, scared, overwhelmed, sad, or angry?
You’re not alone.
Advocate for yourself. Ask for help. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
I promise, there’s something beautiful waiting to bloom.