How We Hung In: Perseverance Stories (Part 1)

How We Hung In: Perseverance Stories (Part 1)

This is an interview series with

wonderful everyday humans
talking about how they kept going.

Why? This topic holds lifelong interest and meaning for me. I was first hospitalized for depression at fourteen, and again at sixteen. Therapy was transformative, and medication worked sometimes (and sometimes not); but when all was said and done, I still needed some practical, nuts-and-bolts tools that would help me put one foot in front of the other.

I became a collector of coping skills.

drawing chalk mandalas is very calming

My go-to practices were journaling and making art. As I got older, I discovered others:

  • Take a brisk walk when the sun is out.
  • If you can’t muster the motivation for that, just sit outside in sunlight.
  • Clean one room.
  • Or if that seems too hard, sweep the floor.
  • Get through one day without sugar. Then two.
  • Accomplish one small task. 
  • Do one manageable act of kindness for someone else. Send a card. Donate a few dollars…

These are not panaceas, but “panacea” is a pipe dream anyway. They are little life hacks that can get you through one moment and into the next. Depression strips away feelings of pleasure and reward; it tricks you into thinking that whatever you try will be fruitless. This is not true, but it feels true. So sometimes you have to defy despair and channel your last bit of energy into one small action.

Meaning-making is another coping skill.

One of my teenage tactics was telling myself I was going to write and publish a book one day. I told myself this book would help someone feel less alone, the way books helped me feel less alone.

Looking back—knowing now how many years that particular goal was going to take—maybe it would’ve been smarter to choose a more attainable dream than “publish a book”? Like… “learn to grow very tasty carrots”? But it occurs to me that maybe, deep down, the long-term difficulty of that goal was part of why I chose it. I had to stick around on earth. I had an assignment to complete. Write a book, so maybe someone else will feel less alone.

(I finally finished the book, by the way. You can read it. 🙂 But I’m still planning on sticking around.)

if you lost your mask on the beach…I found it

Two years of pandemic have renewed my interest in the topic of coping skills. We have all suffered differently, and unequally, but it seems like most of us suffered somehow. Things feel less disorienting and shockingly new than they did two years ago, but also—maybe this is true of you, too?—I’m weary and still grieving, even though we were relatively fortunate. My kids are back in the classroom after 18 draining months of homeschooling/distance learning. We caught Covid this winter but fared pretty well (praise be for vaccines). I don’t know why I’m finding it so hard to just shake off the past two years.

Mindful gratitude is a coping skill, but in my experience, telling myself “You have no right to be sad because other people have it worse” does not work super well as a coping skill. It is more of a magical incantation to instill guilty paralysis. Meanwhile, there’s important work to do in the world right now. Climate action needs to happen yesterday. Black lives still matter, and we still have so far to go. I want to be healthy and clear-minded enough to do my share of the work.

This craving for an infusion of fresh life 

is the impetus for this series, How We Hung In. I decided to start interviewing people on how they persevered through various significant trials in their lives. I don’t want more platitudes or Instagrammable quotes. I want to hear people’s real stories, and the tools that got them through.

My first interviewee was funny and joyful and inspiring, and I transcribed and edited the conversation, and even wrote up a jokey intro with an Oregon Trail reference…

…but I’ve been delaying its launch, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why.  I couldn’t figure out what was stopping me from finishing and posting the thing.

And then it occurred to me: with the intense crisis that the Ukrainian people are facing right now, it just didn’t feel like the right moment. Hundreds of people, including children, have already been killed in the course of this stunningly unjust invasion.

from Voices of Children, a Ukrainian NGO

That interview I mentioned is coming very soon, and I’m excited for you to hear from the remarkable woman I spoke with. But as Ukraine fights for its life, I have something else to share—something from my own life, something very small. 

fun fact: this t-shirt I designed at age 21 did not stop the Iraq war

My first job out of college was working for a peace organization, trying to stop the Iraq war. (Spoiler: We didn’t stop the war.)

In twelve months’ time I went from energetic and idealistic to burned out, cynical, and doubtful that everyday people can make any change at all. When I embarked on that job, I stopped doing almost everything that nourished my own soul. I barely wrote fiction, I didn’t make music, I didn’t go to the ocean, I made no art. Instead, I just worked overtime for a year straight, trying to stop the war.

Years later, I am somewhere between those two poles—energetic idealism and cynical burnout. There’s a Lauryn Hill lyric that runs through my head fairly often, from her song “Everything is Everything”: Sometimes it seems / We’ll touch that dream / But things come slow or not at all… I think of these lines when I’m discouraged about the slowness of progress in the world and the suffering that continues in the in-between.

But what I learned from depression and activism (and writing a novel, and birthing children) is this:

No fell swoops.

Babies: You can’t put them back, but you can put them in your coat

No fell swoops. In the grand panorama, any action I can possibly take will be small. I myself am small. But novels are written with a million small actions. Laws and minds are changed with a million small actions. It never feels fast enough but that is the truth.

I birthed my babies in a few hours of intense labor, but first I nourished them for months in hidden darkness. I felt the flutter of their first stirrings before the outside world even knew I was carrying them. A thousand little things happened in the forty weeks before my water broke.

It seems to me that this is the usual way goodness comes into being.

When faced with overwhelming tragedy or injustice, I just keep coming back to the most powerful tool I have found: pairing two small actions.

One small action for the wellbeing of others.
One small action for my soul.

I can do them in either order. But I try to do them together. Like, within 24 hours of each other, if I can. And then repeat as necessary.

By Sunday night I was so troubled by the news from Ukraine I was having a hard time being present with my own children. I couldn’t stop thinking about the children who had already died in this invasion, and undoubtedly more children to come, and the nightmare their parents are now living in. (I’m not telling you this because wahhh wahhh, American lady in the suburbs is sad, boohoo, but because being spacey and distraught helps exactly no one, and there are other options.)

A pair of small actions:

I let my partner take over the bedtime duties. I took paper and pen and watercolors, and I sat on the floor. I sat there for an hour, drawing. I wasn’t looking to make anything gallery-worthy. I just needed to make something.

for the grieving mothers

All day I had been feeling dizzy and strangely out-of-body and just… off. But I did this small thing, and I felt like I was back in my own body again.

The next day I gave to Razom Ukraine, which has been working for a stronger democracy in Ukraine since 2014 and is now purchasing and distributing lifesaving medical supplies. (If you are seeking a concrete way to send support to the Ukrainian people, the Washington Post has compiled and vetted this list of legitimate organizations seeking donations. The New York Times has compiled its own list as well.)

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. I got myself grounded. I gave what I could.

It’s so small. It’s no panacea. But panaceas are a pipe dream anyway. The moment will come to do it again, and I’ll do it again.

And that’s one way to hang in.

More soon,

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