This essay is excerpted from Jen Hatmaker's new book, Of Mess and Moxie:Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Gorgeous Life ($23, amazon.com).
Conversation with my husband, Brandon:
B: What’s wrong?
ME: Nothing. Just everything. Everything is bad
ME: Just that our kids are probably all going to hate us and struggle with multiple incarcerations, I apparently will gain a pound a month until I die, this house is a craphole of chaos, and my weird quirks are getting worse. I hid in the bathroom at another conference.
B: Is that all?
ME: And also, only two of my kids love to read, so obviously, Failure, your name is Motherhood, and all I do is discipline and put out fires, so I’ve basically come to hate the sound of my own voice. I can’t stand myself, and these kids aren’t faring much better on my Like-O-Meter.
And I’m sorry to tell you, but your scores aren’t great either. I cannot even talk about e-mails. My Bible feels like a useless lead weight. I don’t feel like I’m taking skin care seriously enough. I also ate a tub of pimento cheese. All hope is lost.
But at least you’re working on that melodramatic tendency.
ME: Just lost another four points, pal. Feels like a dangerous time to mess with me.
I essentially slid into a two-month case of the doldrums, trapped by inertia and overwhelmed by the escape requirements. On my best days, our life is heavy duty, but during my low days, I Google search “fake my own death and disappear,” which Brandon might dub melodramatic, but he is just a man with a stable mind and can’t be trusted.
Here is the bummer about the doldrums: the very efforts needed to lift yourself out are the same things you’ve lost energy to do. The simplest remedies feel like weights drudged up from the bottom of the ocean. Your mind knows to do them, but your will refuses to cooperate. Which makes your mind furious and mired in shame, which makes your will dig its heels and wallow, which makes you realize you are turning on yourself. You are your own worst enemy. No one can oppress me like myself.
How did I eventually get out of this funk? Nothing miraculous happened, except one day I said, This is enough. Virtually nothing changed that day. Or the next. These things aren’t overnight success stories, because if it took three months and 459 lazy, unhealthy choices to get stuck, it takes some time to climb out. Also, the work required is unsexy, ordinary, boring old labor that lacks the appeal of instant gratification and the pizzazz of an unsolicited miracle. I wish I had better news about breaking free, but apparently we just have to grab a shovel and start digging.
Dear one, if you are stuck in the doldrums, let me offer up some of the labors that pulled me through, one teeny moment at a time.
First, I made a list of everything I was behind on. Unfinished tasks are a cloud of doom over my head. The emotional energy they steal from me is unbearable. So I wrote them down to get a handle on them rather than leave them floating around unnamed, unmanaged, unidentified. It was ironic, because each line item could be accomplished in minutes at best, a day at worst: mail these things, return this, make those appointments, answer these e-mails (deliver me, Lord), scan over that contract, send in money for that school thing (this times a zillion, free public school my eye), pick up that stuff, return that phone call, finish writing that article. Overdue responsibilities contribute heavily to my shame spiral, and writing them down and slowly crossing them off was an instant boon, literally. Unbelievable the weight that rolls off when the Behind Pile starts to shrink.
Second, the house. For the love of Oprah, the house. I am one of those annoying people who requires tidiness and declutterfication. Oh, to peacefully live in chaos among the piles instead of, hypothetically, barking at the humans who live with me and begrudging everyone for being such slobs. But nope. That is not my lot in life. A cluttered, disorganized house has a direct correlation to my cluttered, disorganized mind.
So, we launched another chore chart. But this one was simple and repetitive: Everyone had one chore a day, and it was the same every week. This was not for pay, because the reward was getting to live in my house for free. The kids had done these tasks before but with no regularity and primarily after I turned into a lunatic. Now we had formalized it somewhat, and the house-maintaining was more consistent. Not allowing our abode to slip into entropy was mentally healing. The chart may be imperfect, but even loose structure restores order to my inner turmoil. Simply creating a plan provides some dignity, which is a powerful combatant to the doldrums.
Third, parenting. Obviously my five kids are perfect and make straight As and speak loving words to each other constantly, but clearly their classmates had poorly influenced them, because they turned into maniacs. This surely had nothing to do with their mother’s two-month doldrum disorder, because children are never the thermometer simply displaying the temperature of their parents. I’m sure their digression was just a coincidence.
So anyway, this thing happened where the kids were horrible and fighting and I went to my room to cry about these terrible children I got stuck with, and I suddenly thought of six—six—lovely moments my kids had engineered that very day and I heard, You are only noticing the bad moments and ignoring the good ones.
So we started the Brag Board. (It’s just a chalkboard, but can we give a quick shout-out to the Chalkboard Paint People for completely rebranding and becoming the darling of Pinterest? I mean, there were chalkboards on Little House on the Prairie. They aren’t new is all I’m saying.) Anytime we catch someone being kind, helpful, gracious, or awesome, we write it down, big or small. It has to be about someone else, because my offspring would write: It was so incredible how I unloaded the dishwasher.
Funny thing: I’m not positive they’ve had more shining moments lately than before, but I’m sure noticing them now. Evidently we will see exactly what we’re looking for. Does this mean I’ve had to follow a kid or two around, searching for one tiny good thing to say? Yep. But catching children in their goodness totally beats reprimanding them only in their struggles, and the Brag Board pulled the whole family up a few degrees.
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Finally, I made a list of all the practices that make me feel healthy. Not surprisingly, I noticed most were absent in my doldrums: cooking, reading good books, limiting screen time, eating well, date nights, taking walks, scheduling time with a counselor, being outside, praying, changing out of my pajamas (this is a thing for work-at-homes), spending time with my friends. All ordinary, nothing new or dramatic. These are mainly bits and pieces that fit in the gaps of life. I simply committed some time back to my staples, maybe just one a day.
None of these were executed immediately. Over a few weeks, I slowly implemented healthier practices, one at a time. It was not revolutionary to sit down with Alan Bradley’s latest novel (“Whenever I’m a little blue I think about cyanide, which so perfectly reflects my mood.”—Flavia), nor was the world righted after the first entry on the Brag Board. The chore chart didn’t solve the crisis, and neither did catching up on e-mails.
But all together, over weeks, just doing the work, bit by bit, digging deep for diligence and grace and best practices, the doldrums receded. These measures make us healthy and whole, because we stop succumbing to disorder and shame. It’s not fancy or quick work, unfortunately, but it is effective.
If you feel stuck today, can I suggest approaching the doldrums in a reasonable way, one tiny element at a time? Alone, none are monumental, but together they lay small paver stones out of the mire, forging a path back to health, back to vibrancy.
Author’s note: This essay does not apply to serious trauma or depression. The doldrums are a funk, not a severe crisis. Sometimes we require therapy, intervention, and possibly medication, and the practices I describe are inadequate.
Taken from Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life by Jen Hatmaker. Copyright © 2017 by Jen Hatmaker. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.OfMessandMoxie.com.