That is one good thing about this world… there are always sure to be more springs. -L.M. Montgomery
Let me start out by saying that changing, growing, and expanding is hard. Sometimes really hard. It can be painful. (The term “growing pains” is accurate beyond our school-aged growth spurts.) It’s certainly not always fun. But the journey is always worthwhile.
When a new client walks into my office at my private practice the first thing I always try to acknowledge is how brave they are. In a society that values independence and a bootstraps attitude, asking for help takes courage. Additionally, being willing to look at ourselves, our behaviors, and our wounds can be scary and a brave undertaking. It’s the most beautiful adventure that I have been honored enough to witness in other human beings.
The season of spring brings change and growth to the forefront, both in nature and inside of us, if we are willing to look.
The older I get, the more I feel the change of each season inside of me. I also recognize it regularly in my counseling practice. In summer, there’s an internal sensation of energetic being, exploration, and an allowing of the present self. Fall is often a time when we recognize a time of letting go as well as harvesting our resources as we prepare ourselves for an internal winter. During the winter months, we switch for a need to reflect, hibernate, and go deeper inside of ourselves. Winter, as dark and cold as it may be, is usually when I see deeper wounds start to heal. Then out of the darkness comes spring. A time for new life and new energy, but this path is rarely linear. There’s usually a movement and release, and then we hit a rock (or a snowstorm) and need to pause and reroute. This might happen a few times before the growth turns into a blossoming.
How do we work with the changes, growth spurts, and growing pains of spring?
We embrace it all. We tend to ourselves as we would tend to a garden. Knowing that growing isn’t easy, we weed out what no longer serves or nourishes us. We think of the things we need to support our upward rising. Is it more connection with friends, a dose of self-compassion, more time outside, or even more time inside? Acceptance of where we are at in the process is also key. Some people are more like Pasqueflowers that bloom in early spring. Others are like Colorado Columbines who need all spring to deepen their roots before they burst into the light of summer. We don’t judge the flowers for when they bloom, but love them whether we get to see their beauty in April or July. We must do the same for ourselves.
Spring Mental Health Practices
Yourself as Garden
Similar to the above process, imagine your internal journey as a garden. What are you growing? Does it need some more time safe from the elements in a greenhouse, or is it ready for exposure and testing outside? What are the potential blocks to growth? Is there anything that needs weeding out? What nutrients (positive care) do you need to support your growth?
If You Were a Tree (or Flower)
If you were a tree, what type of tree would you be. Why? What characteristics of the tree do you possess? What characteristics would you like to possess?
As the weather (slowly) starts to warm, you may be naturally finding yourself outside more, going for hikes, sipping your morning coffee on your deck, taking your dog for walks more often. Is there a way you could make these acts a little more meaningful? For example, is your morning coffee now a way to greet a new day? Your hike a time to connect with the earth? Or your dog walk a time to let go of the stressors of the day and find freedom in your movement? A little bit of intention can go a long way.
Vulnerable: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded. (Merriam-Webster)
Vulnerability: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. (Oxford Languages)
In personal reflection, I find the word “vulnerable” interesting from the emotional standpoint. It seems so layered by societal norms. When people, including myself, are told they are courageous for being vulnerable in sharing their human stories, it’s a cause for some reflection. For me, I’ve become so used to sharing the webs of myself it no longer feels vulnerable. If anything is universal, isn’t it pain? Well, pain and love.
It’s not that I don’t see reality, which includes the societal norm not to speak and share our truths and wounds, I’ve just done things my way for long enough that I’ve created my own ideal reality for myself.* I no longer follow directions I don’t like or believe in. I create. And I create from love.
*I do realize that as a heterosexual, white woman there is privilege included in those words. For many others, speaking their truth truly is a risk to their safety.
You see, when we allow ourselves to be free, we give others the opportunity to be free too.
(And maybe, I don’t feel the threat of being emotionally wounded as I’ve chosen to surround myself by others who desire to be free too.)
So dance, sing aloud in your car (even when the windows are down and you’re at a red light), be weird, wear bright colors or wear all black, be different. Be yourself. Speak your truth. Be free.
How wonderful the world would be if it were full of people who were free!
We all grieve, remember, celebrate–and communicate (with the Earth and deceased loved ones) in our own ways. All ways are beautiful.
My belief is that my older sister is all around me, so I prefer to leave offerings to the earth, where flowers can decompose and grow into something new. I chat with her on benches. Imagine her rolling her eyes at me as I once again suddenly stop in the middle of a trail run. shocked by beauty and loss. I sing to “Hey Soul Sister” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” in the car.
Ceremonies and rituals can mark any event or transition in life.
We can let go by watching leaves and twigs float down rivers. Bury hurts, wounds, and love in the dirt. Remember by the light of a candle. Clear our spirit with incense. Rinse our regrets in raindrops. It doesn’t have to be elaborate unless you want it to be. Truly, the how is not as important as the intention that you hold.
Gratitude & Grey Skies: Developing a Gratitude Practice in Trying Times
In addition to being a mental health counselor, I’m also an online running coach and create customized training plans for individuals looking to discover their potential through running endeavors. In many ways, there’s a lot of similarity in both coaching and counseling jobs. In both, I am in a relationship with beautiful, imperfect humans who are engaging in soul-searching endeavors.
A few weeks ago, one of the athletes I coach, whom I would describe as an amazing and compassionate woman–she signed up for coaching to prepare for a 50 mile run to raise money for the families she works with in palliative care—wrote to me saying she was having trouble filling out the optional gratitude box we leave at the end of each training week.
My fellow coaches and I leave the gratitude box in our training plans because studies show that practicing gratitude can improve physical performance and psychological health. (I’ll touch on some of these in a bit.)
To paraphrase in my own words, my running client felt like she was bypassing the pain and grief of the families she works with if she just chose to focus on the good. I also got the sense that she was speaking to the pain and grief of life too.
First, how wonderful that she was open enough to share that with me! In our world, that type of vulnerability takes courage.
Second, I’d like to universalize her sentiment. I’m pretty sure we all have days like this, where we question gratitude because there is so much hurt in the world and inside of us. One painful truth of being human is that to be human is to know suffering. What I have found helpful for myself and others is to give ourselves some time to just be with the pain, maybe even for an allotted time, and then start to shift out of that space to a place of gratitude.
But first, let me clarify: Gratitude is not about ignoring the bad and not feeling pain. Finding gratitude and seeing the beauty does not mean overlooking the dark parts and the hardships of life. Truly, gratitude is about feeling it ALL. Gratitude is the acknowledgement of the “and” as well as the “grey”—we don’t have to choose one over the other. In this world, it all exists.
We also need to stop convoluting gratitude with guilt. “There are starving kids in Africa, so be grateful for the dinner you have.” (said by many well-meaning parents) Or “I live in a beautiful mountain town, so I shouldn’t feel anything but happy.” Ummm, no. You are human. But if you are well-off, maybe guilt could be replaced with a responsibility to help those less fortunate.
By choosing to focus on gratitude, we create an energy shift that allows us to become more expansive. It’s like the sky is cloudy and grey, but we choose to hold on to our own light. Asking for help is allowing another person to share some of their light until we can find our own again. For people who are especially empathic and attuned to suffering around them (as well as for anyone living in the Midwest), practicing gratitude can also be an essential survival skill.
Now that we have some understanding of what gratitude is (finding the beauty, love, and joy in all of life and all of its hardships) and what it is not (pretending the world is all puppies* and unicorns**), we can look at some of the research and create our own gratitude practices.
* Studies show that dogs and other pets can decrease feelings of loneliness and anxiety in addition to increase happiness.
**Sometimes I tell my empath clients that they are the unicorns in an emotionally stifled society. In addition to their sensitivity, perhaps gratitude is part of the magic they are able to create.
In one study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, participants were divided into three groups, one group writing each week about things they were grateful for, the second writing about daily irritations and things that displeased them, and the third group was writing about events that had affected them. 10 weeks later, those who wrote about gratitude experienced more optimism and felt better about their lives.
With a quick Google search, one will encounter a myriad of articles and research studies that share the benefits of having a regular gratitude practice, which includes better mental health, improved sleep, and increased satisfaction in relationships. Neuroscience tells us that this is, at least in part, because of the increase of “happy hormones” (serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) are released when we share our appreciations.
The other benefit to this free mood boost is that it doesn’t have to take much time either. Here are a few simple practices you might try:
Keep a gratitude journal: Everyday, write down at least 5 things you are grateful for. Try to make them unique to the day, and take a moment to emotionally connect to each thing you wrote down. I suggest doing this practice either first thing in the morning or each night before you go to bed.
Before a meal: Whether you share your home with your spouse and kids or your dog, take a minute before each meal to share what you are grateful for. This can be a combination of what each person (or animal- yes, I can read my dog’s mind) was grateful for during their day, or around each step that got your food to your plate.
Make it part of your workout: I first incorporated gratitude into my workout when I was volunteer coaching for Girls on the Run, a physical activity-based positive youth development for girls in 3rd-5th grade. As we ran laps, we focused on each letter of the word “gratitude” and thought of one thing we were grateful for. I’ve adapted this slightly on my own and will run/hike grateful-peats up and down Pole Hill every Thanksgiving. For example, if I’m on the letter “A”, I might think of how thankful I am for Australian Shepards and my time with my older sister Amanda (who is now passed—again, we’re not ignoring the hard stuff). On the way down when I’m on “T”, I’ll think of my twin sister, as well as all the trees saved by the firefighters. Sometimes it’s helpful to add in a bit of specificity to create a felt-sense thanks.
Write thank you letters (the old-fashioned way): With a pen and paper, write a thank you letter to someone you appreciate. I’ve done this with friends, coaches, teachers, and my parents. Undoubtedly, you’ll boost their happiness as well as yours.
Despite crossing the threshold into a new year, the frustration and tears of 2020 have not disappeared. For many, that journey has continued into 2021. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that for me, allowing myself to feel all the pain and sadness of the previous year has allowed me to see even more beauty in the world. Everytime, I crest the hill on 36 heading west up to Estes Park and get my first view of the mountains, I think “I can’t believe how blessed I am to live here” and I am in awe of the awesomeness of Mother Nature. I am also equally touched by the 30 second conversation I have with the cashier at Waste Management, who offers me a kind word and an (eye) smile everytime I go to take in my trash. Who knew throwing out my garbage could be such a gratifying experience?
“The most important of all creatures are the winged. For they are the nearest to the Heavens and are not bound to the Earth. As are the four-legged or little crawling people…they see everything that happens on the Earth.” – Black Elk
Sometimes I imagine I’m a bird.
I always start my flight soaring over snow-capped mountains, then diving down toward roaring rivers and emerald green forests. I continue my imaginary flight through not-so barren deserts, and eventually, over oceans until I only have miles of blue above and below me. I continue to flight into the night, when I glide underneath twinkling stars.
I keep flying.
Over the plains and fields until I reach suburbs and cities. I look down. I see children playing at the park…and black teens getting shot in the street. As I stop to rest on windowsills, I see families gathered around tables eating dinner…and I see men hitting their wives. I fly past hospital windows and see babies being born…then over cemeteries, I watch parents burying their child.
I feel love and hate, joy and sadness, anger and peace. How could a world so beautiful be so ugly? And how could so much love exist with so much pain?
I’d rather be too much for someone else than not enough for myself
.Over the years, I’ve discovered the only way for me not to be enough is to not stand up for what I believe in, to not use my voice, and to ignore the quirky, goofy, and brave light inside of me. And yes, often that leads me to being too much for others, which seems to be even more true for men (it always great when I have my opinions, until it is in opposition to his). I’m am 100% fine with that, because I am a “fucking ray of sunshine.”
2020 has been a hard year for everyone. With COVID, the world and our sense of normalcy were shaken. Some of us lost loved ones to the virus. All of us had our lives changed. If we were lucky enough to keep our jobs, we still couldn’t go out as we normally did. Weddings were delayed, holidays missed, goodbyes went unsaid, and hugs became a novelty.
We grieved what was lost. Sometimes things we did not appreciate before. Other areas of life continued on, both the pain and the joy.
While this blog shares my personal relationship with grief this year, I write this with the thought that others grieving may find something in my words. Hope, discovery, a sense of connection…I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this, I thank you for sharing in part of my story
As a human being walking this earth, I’ve had some experience with grief at various degrees. Additionally, as a mental health therapist, I have had a little training in helping others experiencing grief. I learned the well-known 5 Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) by the brilliant Elizabeth Kubler Ross and then watched the videos of Martin Prechtel’s speech, Grief and Praise. If you haven’t yet seen those videos, I highly suggest you do. In short, Prechtel’s belief is that on the other side of grief is gratitude. It is only if we’ve experienced love or joy that we experience the deep sadness of having lost someone or something. Or, better said in the words of David Kessler (Kubler’s protege) “You don’t have to experience grief, but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.” In hindsight, we count our blessings and find gratitude for our sorrow.
On a rational level, Martin’s speech was easy for me to accept and understand. Of course, the challenge is always putting theory into practice. In 2020, there was no escaping hardship and loss, with my only choice being going through. But could I find light in the dark, the rainbow after the storm, and thanks through my tears?
During spring and early summer, I shared many of the same fears and sorrows as most of my friends and acquaintances. Financially, I was worried. I had two part-time, self-employed jobs, both threatened by instability. At Easter time, I was sad that I couldn’t go see my family in Ohio, where both my mom and older sister, Amanda, were battling cancer. In June, I felt the absence of my dad’s yearly trip to Colorado to visit me, my twin sister, and his grand-dog. Then in August, while camping in the mountains, I got the call that the doctors could do no more for my older sister.
Just a few days after getting “the call”, me, my twin sister (Sandi) and my dog (Pacer) were packed up and headed to Ohio. We had 3 precious and sacred weeks with Amanda before she passed on September 3rd.
I remember waking up the morning after Amanda passed. I had gone to sleep in the same bed as Sandi and my dog, like we had with Amanda when we were little, waiting for Santa or the Easter Bunny to come. We opened our eyes at nearly the same time, and in seconds our tears were spilling onto the pillows. Sandi opened the bedroom door so Pacer could sit with my dad at the kitchen table downstairs. Then she laid back down and held my hand, neither of us ready to get up and face the reality of what we had lost.
And while I shared this grief with family, it was sharp, acute, a knife slicing through my heart. An intimate relationship had been severed. My older sister, in physical form, was no longer on the earth to walk through life’s challenges with me.
Weeks and months later, the grief still comes in waves. Within a moment, it feels like my breath has been taken away. Being a therapist, I know my only option is to feel it or let it build and consume me later. Sometimes that’s all it is, a moment of intense pain before it passes. At other times, the tide moves back slower. I need time to let the tears fall in order to let the pain pass.
In fall, I return back home in Colorado to smoke. First from one fire, then suddenly, from several. Neighbors down the canyon are losing their homes. In town, we all had our bags packed. Then it was our turn to go, as the East Troublesome Fire roars over the Continental Divide and burns through Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the mornings, I would hop online, checking to see if the fire consumed homes and businesses of friends in my community. I breathed sighs of relief for my neighbors and said prayers for those in nearby towns who had not been so lucky.
Again, I’m filled with sadness, though this time it is a collective grief. It’s not as sharp, but I feel its heaviness. I share the fear and pain of my neighbors, my fellow mountain-dwellers. While I am feeling more than just my own emotions, there is some comfort knowing that I’m sharing these feelings with hundreds of others.
I broke up with a boyfriend in June. Without getting into the details, I’ll simply say it was rather abrupt and many strings were left loose. By the middle of fall, I was in a more reflective state, ready to have the conversation that should have been had months earlier. We sat down on my favorite rock outside my house, Pacer often poking with her snout to get between us. Each of us spoke our truths, both acknowledging the how and whys our lives didn’t, and couldn’t, fit together as we continued our journeys. Knowing the brevity of life, I decided to tell him a harder truth. That I had loved him. Him, ever cautious, maybe too cautious, with words told me he thought he did and still loved me too. These are the words that ripped all my wounds back open, though I didn’t understand it at first.
I knew he meant what he said, as at the core of his being, he is love. But I knew he didn’t love me how I wanted to be loved: fiercely, wildly, unapologetically. I cried for what seemed like the better half of the next 24 hours. I wanted to text Amanda, and I knew I couldn’t, so I cried more. Slowly, as I let the waves pass, I started to see a little clearer. I realized wounds not only from the year were re-opened, but childhood wounds, wounds from my parent’s divorce and never feeling like I was enough. I heard the questions from voices that I thought had quenched* and healed from: “Am I loveable?” “Am I worthy of love?”
*As a therapist, both from my own experience and those of my clients, I know these voices and stories that we thought were done with still like to pop their head up from time to time, often from new angles, just to make sure we really understood the lesson.
That evening, as I was headed back up the canyon with Pacer, the pain started to recede slightly. Almost with my normal reserve, I was able to sing-a-long with Miley Cyrus:
“She got her hair pulled back ’cause the sweat’s drippin’ off of her face (her face)
Said it ain’t so bad if I wanna make a couple mistakes
You should know right now that I never stay put in one place
Forever and ever, no more (no more)
The midnight sky is the road I’m takin’
Head high up in the clouds
I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no
I don’t need to be loved by you (by you)”
Pacer was resting in the back seat. I had just seen my twin and her boyfriend. I had talked to my dad and texted my mom. A friend had bought me flowers. I had all the love I needed, and I reminded myself of all things I loved about me too, coming up with another: a strong will, that will never let me settle for anything but what is right and true. Going through the pain allowed me to open back up to the love and beauty I already had in my life.
“Yet the heart itself cannot actually break, for its very nature is soft and open. What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves in order to avoid feeling pain. When the heart breaks out of this shell, we feel quite raw and vulnerable. Yet this is also the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves and others.” -John Welwood
I’ve only lived in Estes Park for a little over two years, but even in my list of complaints, I’ve come to love the community and all the people in it. I’ve witnessed so many acts of kindness, sometimes being on the receiving end, and a neighborly love that I’ve never experienced in other places. As for the Rocky Mountain National Park, the more I explored its mountains and lakes, the more RMNP became part of me, leaving imprints on my soul. I nearly cried when I watched the aerial shot of the burned area, my heart weeping for the trees and the animals who called the spaces home.
Eventually, I rode my bike down to Glen Haven, taking a closer look at the charred, black trees from the Cameron Peak Fire (the largest wildfire in the state’s history, although the East Troublesome fire wasn’t far behind when it exploded in size overnight). “I’ve hiked that ridge.” I thought to myself. “I know those trees. I know what they feel like. Now, I feel like them too. Black and charred.” But if I know anything about Mother Nature, with time, space, and the right resources, She will heal. And I will too. Neither of us will be the same. Nor would I want to be. But grow, we shall.
I miss my older sister every day. At night, I’ll often watch a slideshow of her pictures. I cry and smile at the same time. So many wonderful memories! I hear “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Hey, Soul Sister”, two of her favorite songs, on the radio, and I know she is watching over me. My life would be so different if I hadn’t had her in my life. Would I have had the courage to fly?
My heart is open. Vulnerable.
“I will be brave,” I think to myself.
I write Amanda another letter.
I can’t promise you much, except that I will live until I die.
Despite the threat of wildfires and floods, I will continue to live in the mountains,
because this is where my soul soars. I will do my best to be a steward of the land, even if my actions seem insignificant. I will continue to put my heart on the line, in all relationships, because life without love is not alive. So I’ll keep my armor off. To give, to receive. And just like I was your little ray of sunshine, I’ll do my best to be that for all other beings, even when darkness threatens to consume me. I will scream in anger and dance in joy. I will laugh until I cry. I will run through pain until I reach the stars. Amanda, for you, I will live.
It’s almost winter now. My grief isn’t exactly one of those friends I want to excitedly embrace once we get a COVID vaccine, but I do open up to it. Nor do I wish pain on anyone, I just hope others allow themselves to lean into their grief when it comes. For it will come, to any living being walking this earth who is brave enough to love. I am also not an expert on grief. I still haven’t found meaning in my sister’s death. Is that even possible when someone dies so young? What I do know is that I have some power to create meaning for myself, a choice on how I will let it define me. And still, though I can’t explain it in words, I know that somehow, I am a better person for having faced the storm. That I am both softer and stronger. I realize that I cannot understand the vibrancy of life unless I accept all of my emotions.
In the morning, I watch the sun’s pink light creep up the mountains.
“Life is beautiful…even when it’s not.” -Amanda Rose Nypaver (1984-2020)
Everyday, as a woman* in this society, is a fight. A fight not to be put in a box, a box of shoulds telling me how to look and act. At 32, most days I win. Some days I don’t.
* I do want to acknowledge that gender identity and not conforming to the “shoulds” for all people, at various levels, whether acknowledged or not, is a challenge.
At a young age, it was clear to me what gender was valued more. I decided that on the outside, I would lean into my masculine side. But then I was questioned. Why won’t she wear a dress? Or wear her hair down? It was a confusing world, wanting to trap me. Eventually, this led to “She’s so skinny.”
I learned to be a chameleon in different social situation, with different men. I have lost boyfriends from feeling like I don’t fit in enough, and others for refusing to.
It actually wasn’t until I started running (or more specifically, running as my primary activity, for I’ve always run) that I started leaning into my feminine side. I switched my knee-length basketball shorts for much shorter running shorts, baggy t-shirts for ones more form-fitting. I still think either style is perfectly fine, but for me, this was a form of acceptance to another side of me. The powerful feminine.
I won’t say that I have always used running as a form of positive body image, but I will say it has allowed me to become free.
At present, my style can change day to day.
Often I wear tights that say some semblance of “I am an athlete” and “I like to be comfortable”
Other days I’ll wear flowing skirts, showing off my femininity and part of my hippie side.
Somedays I’ll wear my pants from Prana that say “I’m outdoorsy” and “I’m eco-friendly.”
Then, I’ll wear my ripped jeans that say “I am a badass. And I know it.”
But regardless of what I wear, I can be any version of me.
I can wear a skirt and be strong and vocal. I can wear my tights and tanks that show off my muscles, but still be soft.
Somedays I brush my hair, other days I don’t. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I had my hair cut. Usually, I forgo the hair straightener I once used almost daily.
On days where I go in to work, I might use a little bronzer and eye shadow in addition to my daily mascara. Sometimes I’ll go bare.
I may choose to say that I am a woman, but I am not definable. At least not by anyone’s measures except my own. I will not be boxed.
Once in awhile, this all wears me down. But more often than not, this is a fuel to my fire. A burning to be free, to set a path for others to do the same.
And so, I keep fighting the good fight*.
*I fully recognize the biblical meaning of this quote. I believe this is exactly what it means.