How did I get here?
Well, for starters, I pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Art, in part because of my mom, who made a successful career out of working in the field, and in part because I am completely fascinated with the human psyche. I thought maybe I would become an Art Therapist (and not be in debt for what seems like will be an eternity, but that’s another story). After college, I began working in a mental health day program, working with clients with severe mental illness and facilitating various life skills groups. I thought, this is it. This is what I’m meant to do. It didn’t matter that the job was really stressful and overwhelming some days. I loved researching topics to discuss with clients, working on activities like breathing exercises, and creating fun art projects for us to work on together. My favorite was an art project that I called “Blooming Into Recovery” where I drew a flower stem and had the clients choose various colored petal cut-outs and write a coping skill on each petal as a reminder. Some wrote things like “deep breathing,” “drink a glass of water,” “read for 10 minutes,” “take a walk,” and so on. It was fun and inspiring and I was proud to display these on the wall near my desk. I’d also find easy and healthy recipes to share with clients and simple exercises for those with health goals. The groups were by far my favorite part of the job but also the most stressful because I loathed any form of public speaking or even talking about myself. [Insert multiple memories of shaky-voiced, minimal eye contact, “OMFG hurry up self let’s just get through this so I can disappear into the audience again,” “maybe I’ll just take 2 or 3 shots before and get a little liquid courage, no biggie,” class presentations throughout high school and college.] The clients always made me feel comfortable though.
Unfortunately, something was missing and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
I couldn’t understand how we were supposed to teach these clients, many of whom suffered from chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes in addition to their psychiatric diagnoses, to make positive health choices. This was because they were being fed “juice” aka sugar water, pastries, and bacon for breakfast and cheeseburgers, fries, and the occasional canned vegetable for lunch. These were also available to staff, free (after all of the clients had eaten, of course) and right in front of our eyes EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The clients were also completely mesmerized by the soda machine that had ZERO healthy options. Even the iced tea had almost 30 grams of sugar. I luckily had mostly sworn off soda but the serious lack of healthy food options was a problem for me and even more so for the clients who relied on these meals daily. I found myself keeping track of the breakfast and lunch schedule, looking forward to french toast sticks, grilled cheese, vegetable lasagna, and so on (by this time I was no longer eating meat but again, another story, another time). I thought to myself, why spend time preparing meals at home or spend the money to go out for lunch when I could eat for free at work with no effort? For me, it was just about convenience… okay, maybe a little bit about money because, let’s face it, you’re not exactly making a fortune in this field, especially in an entry level position, but I digress. The answer was simple… or so I thought. But was it? I felt like a hypocrite. A fraud. I thought, how am I supposed to help these people when I’m not even sure if I can help myself? How could I encourage my clients to work on their health goals when I struggled so much with working on my own? This was a loaded question and a burden that I held onto for a long time.
This led me to sign up for my first mindfulness meditation workshop.
I was searching for these very vague answers; how to be happy, how to take control of my own health, how to manage stress, etc. We met once a week for 6 weeks. During each workshop, we would start with a topic led by our instructor and engage in an open discussion. And yes, I (Ms. I’ll Just Take A Shot or Three Before This Presentation) participated and shared some very personal experiences with these strangers. I had so much bottled up emotions and shared this unbelievably overwhelmed feeling with many others in the group. Some of us had stressful jobs, difficulty in some of our personal relationships, lack of self awareness and confidence, and so on (Yeah okay… so all of those things were definitely ME at the time). We would then spend the remainder of our time in meditation practice followed by a discussion. The practice was really difficult at first. I found my mind wandering and then getting annoyed that I couldn’t stop it from wandering. Sometimes I would be on the verge of falling asleep. Just imagine trying to sit still with your eyes closed listening to the soothing (awesome British) voice of your instructor guiding you through the meditation at 7:30 on a Tuesday after a long stressful day at work and trying NOT to just fall into a comfortable slumber. Yeah, it wasn’t easy. We also had daily readings and practices in between that we would discuss the following week. I admittedly didn’t do all of the outside reading or daily practices but I still started to feel a real shift in my mind.
I looked forward to each week and wished the workshop lasted forever. With each new practice I got a little bit better and I felt little stressors just melting away. One week, another member of the group mentioned how she did a quick guided meditation before going into work because work was sometimes a trigger for her stress and anxiety. I thought… wow this woman is a GENIUS and also why didn’t I think of this?! The next morning, I tried a short 5 minute guided meditation before work and it changed my entire day. I also tried walking meditation, meditating while laying down, and even attempted mindfulness while driving (I have struggled with some road rage, so this was really difficult). All in all, this was a great beginner’s experience into living more mindfully (or mindfulliz, hehe) and the first stop on my journey.
A big lesson that I learned from this experience was that if something doesn’t make you happy or fulfill you in some way, then it is not meant for you and it is in your best interest to move on to something else. For me, this resonated heavily with the job I was working. Even if I were to practice mindfulness throughout the work day and apply some of the skills that I learned, I knew the job wasn’t right for me. I’m not sure if I really know how I got to that conclusion but the best I can say is that it was a gut feeling. I just knew that I was meant to do something else.
Disclaimer: I’m still on this journey, trying to figure out what my purpose is. It’s truly a life-long journey – one that I can not only accept but embrace. I believe that we each have a purpose here and I will continue working and learning about myself to get closer to discovering this purpose. It’s tough but EXCITING work!
So… what I basically was trying to say throughout this long novel is that we all start somewhere. It may begin with one or a series of impactful life events or it may be something you just happened upon or had an interest in. My goal since this workshop has been to live mindfully through all aspects of my life: in my relationships, with food, exercise, self expression through art, work, everything. It has been and still is a struggle everyday. The struggle is real… but it’s good!