UPDATED: Community Question: How Do We Stop Feeling Like Failures?

Every once in a while, I get a letter from a friend of this blog that touches a tender place in my heart. Usually a place that’s been well worn or is still a little sore or takes me back to the desolation that was there before the consolation. This is one.

Dear Beth,

My name is Brooke. I’m in my 20’s, married, in the process of adopting two preschool-aged children, living in a small village in Africa, trying to finish graduate school, and running a nonprofit for vulnerable kids.

I’m fucking exhausted, honestly.

But I’m also happier than I’ve ever been. Happier and sadder and stressed-er.

There is so much to do that even keeping up the to-do LIST is feeling beyond my ability.

How did you do it? I’ve dealt with depression my whole life. But I’m happy this time – my problem is the anxiety. It literally feels like it’s consuming me from the inside out. I spend all my time feeling like I’m letting everyone down – my kids, the orphanage kids, my colleagues, my husband, my parents. It’s all internal – everyone else has been great and supportive – but I honestly feel like I’m breaking into pieces every single day.

I live in a tiny village – water and electricity aren’t always available, and decent therapists definitely are not. I have to go to the city every few months just to get the medication I have been on for years – except the place we used to get it isn’t safe anymore. Just in case I wasn’t anxious enough already.

I love your post about the 4 things you can do – 1.5 to 2 of them at a time. I feel the same way, except my list is longer and the people who will be let down if I fail feels endless.

RogerHutchison1We are scrambling to get everything together for a pilot project benefiting kids in the orphanage and kids aging out. It’s a big project for a tiny grassroots with a single paid employee to pull off. I honestly adore every single one of those children, and it breaks my heart that I can’t be mama for all of them. So I try to fight that guilt and sadness by working to make their lives as good as they can be in this context. But I’m only one person, and so doing it is killing me, and not doing it will kill me too.

Ok, so I know this is longwinded and a little crazy sounding – my life is legitimately a little crazy. And here’s the awful part – I’m more anxious and stressed than I’ve ever been.

This entire huge project depends entirely on me, and I feel like I’m failing completely. And it’s not even failing – we’re doing well, we’re growing and it’s good but it’s also so, insanely, devastatingly terrifying.

I just want to hide from all the pressure. How do you fight that? How am I supposed to fight that? And how do I stop feeling like such a failure with my beautiful, amazing, incredible kids who I adore and have loved from the first moment, 3 years ago, that I laid eyes on them? Why does getting something that I’ve been wanting for so long make me so miserable?

Feeling lost and needing a break.


Of course, Brooke’s name isn’t really Brooke. I’ve just named her Brooke to protect her anonymity, although, starting now, I’ll call her Not Brooke in keeping with our tradition started by Not Evan and Not Rebecca who brought us our first important Community Questions, 1) How do you find – and keep – the joy in parenting? and 2) What do you do when you feel inferior to other parents?

And, well, I suppose I can’t speak for you, but Not Brooke’s questions are so achingly familiar to me.

How is it that I’m this in love with my kids
and this happy with my life
and this purposeful
and still so terribly paralyzed
and unhappy
and anxious
and scared?

How is this dichotomy even possible?

And how do I fix it?


How do I fix this mess that is me?

And how do I not fail my people in the meantime?

Like always, I don’t even know how to fix this for myself, much less for Not Brooke, you know? I’m just as lost and found as ever, which is to say horribly turned around and also exactly where I need to be for now.

Which brings me to us. Our community. Because I’m becoming more convinced all the time, friends, that each of us is only meant to have our small pieces of the puzzle. Our little bit of the answer. THIS is why stories are important. THIS is why we must share ourselves. THIS is why we must find our people. Our community. Our Village. Because we need all of the puzzle pieces – including the frayed, ripped, bent bits – to put the picture together. To make sense of this life. Hiding our messy pieces, after all, only creates a hole in the masterpiece that is all of us.

And so I wrote Not Brooke back, and this is what I said.

Oh, geez — I’m so sorry it’s taken me days and days to get back to you, Not Brooke. If you knew how far behind I am with correspondence, though, you’d probably congratulate me that  I only took this long. :/

First of all, WOW you’re doing a LOT! A lot of things! You are doing ALL OF THE THINGS, Not Brooke. How are you even doing all those things? You’re amazing. I wonder if you know that. I wonder if you’re too tired to care.

Second, I don’t see how you could possibly be less than stressed. Of course you’re stressed and terrified of failing completely. And no doubt you should have asked somebody other than me for sage advice because the only way I’ve ever done anything worthwhile is by being stressed and terrified of failure. Not that stress and terror leads necessarily to success; I mean, I’ve been stressed and terrified and still failed loads and loads of times. It’s just that, for me, all the Things Worth Doing seem to come with bonus gifts of stress and fear. But don’t fret! For sane people, maybe the Things Worth Doing come with relief and ease and a sense of triumphant satisfaction. Maybe that’s true! Maybe you can be one of them! Of course, you’ve already said you’re stuck on the depression and anxiety spectrum with me so you probably don’t qualify for total sanity, which makes this the Worst Pep Talk of All Time.

So… you’re welcome for that.

Third, let’s ask other people. Mostly because, let’s be honest, I’m tanking here. I only have 3 tiny things that have helped me with the Overwhelming Sense of Failure:

1. medically treating the depression and anxiety,
2.  forgiving myself for being broken, 
3. learning not to listen to the Voice of Failure because she is the very crappiest of friends, and I’m tired of letting her wreak havoc on my soul.

But I’m certain – positive – there are more ways than these. More pieces of this puzzle. So I’m going to ask our community on the blog what they do. For both our sakes, I can’t wait to see what they have to say.

THANK YOU for your story, Not Brooke. For your honesty and transparency.

Sending you and yours lots of love,


So friends, I’m turning Not Brooke and myself over to you. Tell us your story. Show us your piece to the puzzle.

“I just want to hide from all the pressure.
How do you fight that?
How am I supposed to fight that?
And how do I stop feeling like such a failure?” 

What do you say?


UPDATE for December 31, 2014 – January 2, 2015: So many of you have asked over the past year how you might help Not Brooke’s work with her orphanage kiddos in Africa. Here’s a quick an tangible way to make a difference! For the next 3 days, Not Brooke’s organization, The Small Things, is running a sponsorship drive. You can make a one-time donation of any amount or, if you’d like to make an ongoing impact, you can sponsor a child. Here’s the link to all the sponsorship drive information. And here’s the link to make a one-time donation.


RogerHutchison1Image by Roger Hutchison used with permission.
You can find out more about Roger and his art at The Painting Table and on Facebook.

40DaysofGraceLogoYou can see all of the 40 Days of Grace posts
here on the Five Kids blog and here on Facebook.


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55 responses to “UPDATED: Community Question: How Do We Stop Feeling Like Failures?”

  1. I’ve now cried when first reading Beth’s response, while reading your comments, and now while rereading them a year later. You have no idea how much it touched me – I honestly don’t know if I would have had the strength to get through the year that followed. Because it got a lot worse before it got better, when Lulu and Hope died suddenly – two gorgeous ten month old girls (two of the five newborns I mentioned last year). Also two months before my graduate school exams, which were enormously complicated by visa issues, then marital strife…

    This was by a huge margin the best year and the worst year of my life. An enormous, enormous margin. It’s the first full year my two kids and husband and I spent as a family. It’s the last year I got to spend with Lulu and Hope. It’s the year that TST went from a one woman operation to our current office team of 11, quadrupled our income, grew to employ more than 40 local staff, agreed to take over full responsibility for the orphanage, and got funding for and started construction on the children’s village. And it nearly killed me in the process. But now I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel – I’m down to doing about 2 jobs instead of 5, and just began interviews tonight for another new position that will take some load off. My best friend in the world is arriving in 3 weeks to stay for a year. My kids are happy and healthy. This will be the year that we get to the states as a family, if it’s the last thing I do, because my kids need their grandparents and vice versa. I couldn’t have gotten here without being there. Trying to be patient with the anxiety and stress that’s still there, because it won’t lift overnight. But I’m getting there.

    Thank you, I guess, is what I wanted to say. Thank you if you can help the kids, thank you for your kind words in a tough and scary time, just thank you. And Beth, as always, thank you for creating this place.

  2. Not Brooke,
    Do you have compassion for others? Do you tell people around you, the kids, that it will be okay? Do you comfort a child, who is scared or overwhelmed? Of course you do! Yes, yes and yes! OK then. My “teacher” taught me this, and boy was it eye opening for me when I was an anxiety ridden overwhelmed mom of a son with a life threatening heart condition and learning differences and daily doctor appointments, blah, blah, blah. Try this: to calm your anxiety and help you move through the very very tough moments or hours: imagine yourself as a child. See yourself at age 5, like maybe a kindergardener. Think of a picture of yourself at that age to clearly see your little girl self. See that little girl, who is you, maybe sitting in a big chair, gripping the chair arms, and just see her very worried and scared face. Now, the adult you, go to her, the child you, and pick her up and hug her and tell her it is okay. You tell that you-child that she is doing an awesome job! You, the adult you, tell her she is going to be just fine, that she is okay. Smile at her, hold her tight and tell her that everything she is doing is perfect. If she can’t do it all, that’s ok . She isn’t meant to do it all. She’s doing her best each day. Now, step back and look at the child-you, as if that girl were YOUR daughter and you tell her again what an awesome job she is doing. Do this imagery (and deep breathing every time you are anxiety sticken and overwhelmed. It changes you. It’s like putting on glasses and you can see.

    And the protein and fish oil? That’s money. Really works. Ask your family to bring Omega 3 fish oil caplets to you and take one three times daily. It’s easier than eating fish, and it really helps anxiety.

    God bless you for your amazing work. You are awesome!

  3. Hello, a little late to the game here but I can identify with lots of what´s been said and I have recently been reading a book called “Inner Bonding” by Margaret Paul which I have found is putting many of the pieces of “self-care” into a practical model which you can actually use – of talking to your inner child with your “adult” – which really helps.

    It may sound weird but I promise is one of the sanest things I´ve read in a long time!! Might be worth a look? I would send you one but post between our two countries might not work. Don´t know if you can get Amazon or someone sympathetic to send one?

  4. Hi Not Brooke,
    Firstly I’d like to say that I feel like this regularly too. Maybe most people do? So solidarity to you!
    Secondly, let go. Learn to know that you can’t be the answer to everyone’s needs. There’s only One who can do that. I know that’s hard to do. Let God come & meet your need for peace & refreshing, & then ask Him what He wants YOU to do. What jobs are you meant to be doing, & what do you need to let fall for Him to pick up?

  5. Hi Not Brooke-
    I have a dear friend who is a missionary in Tanzania with her husband and 4 boys. She is authentic and a real. And I keep thinking what a blessing she could be to you (or ya’ll could be to each other) if you happened to be close. I’m not sure what exact city she lives in- and I know transportation over there isnt the same as western countries but I could try and connect you two if you were interested…?

    • That would be amazing, thank you! It always helps to have other people ot talk to, and the social scene here… well… leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you have a family and aren’t going out to clubs.

  6. “The tyranny of the good.” My wife, as insightful as ever, pointed out that trying to do good sometimes overwhelms us as we keep thinking of one more thing we SHOULD be doing, followed by another then another. I know I’ve felt like that as a teacher, and my wife says her time in youth ministry was often like that.

    • That’s always the killer. No matter what you do, there’s always something else waiting to be done, something always unfinished. Tyranny of the good is really tough to fight! How did your wife fight it?

  7. So, ummm…. Not Brooke kinda let the cat outta the bag in one of her comments and posted the website of her organization, so I then posted that to my Facebook because I know well how needed the work she is doing is needed (my husband and I climbed Kilimanjaro many moons ago and have been sponsoring the children of our guide’s education ever since as non-private schools in Tanzania are destitute and education is one of the most precious things there). So, just in case anybody missed it, she said it is:

    “We’re at www dot thesmallthings dot org.” It looks like an amazing organization. Pass it on!

    and she mentioned (also going to re-post this link):
    “Thank you. I know that panicky untethered feeling all too well! I posted our organization’s address up above – we are always looking for financial or in-kind donations, it’s hard work! We’re also setting up an auction at https://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/AuctionHome.action?auctionId=202384304 and are beginning to look for items for that, if anyone has anything to donate! It’s a good way to contribute especially if cash is a little tight.”

  8. Hi. I don’t have an anxiety disorder, so I hesitate to weigh in, but I am a teacher who helps students through anxious times (lie math tests. Oy! The stress!) and here are some basic , brain researched based strategies that could help in the moment.

    Anxiety or panic are often triggered by our “old brain” back by our brain stem, the one that triggers fight or flight if a lion is going to spring on us. To calm it down, give it plenty of oxygen. Deep, slow belly breathing, where you use your diaphragm to push your belly out as you breathe in, breathing over a count of ten, will get oxygen in your system.

    This is also part of the reason why exercise is often recommended for anxiety. In class, I throw a just dance kids video from the you tube up on the smart board ad we all take a dance break when needed. Dancing like a loon to one favorite song can really help in the moment. Make kids do it with you and you might just find yourself über distracted from al the things.

    Finally, positive self talk is huge. People with and without depression and anxiety suffer from negative thoughts that become habits which your may brain revert to in times of stress. With kids, I tell them that all those negative thoughts are lies and ask them to simply name them as such when they pop up. “I am going to fail.” oh, look, there’s that lie again. “I’ll never get it right.” and the lie as returned. That’s a lie! By just doing that much, you begin to retrain your brain. Take the next step by reframing your situation in positive terms. “this is wicked hard, but I’ve already done x, y, z and that took strength and perseverance.” “as hard as this seems now everything is going to be ok.” “Go me! I can do this!” cheesy? Sure. But also, helpful.

    When I can’t do my own positive self talk because I am an overwhelmed hot mess, I make my husband, kids, or students do it. If report cards are due soon, the command “tell Ms. Foster that everything is going to be fine” is on the board in my room. It’s alarming how comforting these words can be, even out of the mouth of a first or fourth grader because a) they’re inherently clueless about your stress and b) you told them to say it! Where’s the sincerity? But honestly, they know best because they know you and know that their faith in you is not misplaced. You sound like you have kids around you. Kids love to take on this role of encouraging adults, so enlist their services.

    Our faith in you is not misplaced. Hang in there. Everything is going to be ok. You can do it!

    • Thank you for the concrete suggestions, I have been trying to meditate but am not finding it easy. Going up to the orphanage and playing with babies is usually my way of calming anxiety, but there’s always a lot of work to do too! My kids are really good at talking positively to me, it is very cute. My five year old son is trying to figure out when one uses “cute” and when one uses “beautiful,” so I get told several times a day that I’m “so cute, Mommy.” They’re definitely a huge help to have around!

  9. I read somewhere that any strong emotion can cause anxiety, and that means the happy ones count too. So when my daughter was born and I was grateful and happy, but also so overwhelmed and out of my depth because it was all so new and strong and rollercoasterlike, I just wanted to check out for a few months. During that time I thought of the happy emotions can cause anxiety too a lot. Just to say the question why am I not happy when I am happy is very recognizable.
    Oh and the other thing: when things are hard, don’t fight against yourself to try to care less. There is nothing wrong with your perspective.

    • “When things are hard, don’t fight against yourself to try to care less. There is nothing wrong with your perspective.” I am trying to work on this! It just hurts a lot – I think you are right, strong emotion means big news or big changes, so it would make sense if it triggered anxiety regardless of whether it’s a good or bad event! And I definitely don’t think changes are meant to come as big or as quickly as they have been happening in my life for the last year. A year ago I was an unmarried grad student in Europe, now I’m married with two kids in Africa. I love it, but changes don’t come much bigger than that!

    • This resonates with me A. I find much truth in these words. Too much emotion, even happiness/joy and anxiety. It is nice to see this in print because I was constantly told I was depressed, and what? no. many things, not depressed.

  10. I don’t have any advice, but maybe I can help by writing a check or sending a package? I know there’s the anonymity thing, so if not, that’s fine too; I’ll just send a prayer.

    • Thank you, that’s incredibly generous! We are currently struggling for toys, which makes the little guys’ development pretty tough. That would be the most useful thing we could get. If you’d like to help, leave your email address and I will happily send you our website – I’d just rather not have a permanent internet link to my emotional struggles eternalized on the internet! There’s so much pressure to hide, to pretend that everything is going great. Hmm, maybe I need to think about that.

      • I clicked on comments, so that I could ask if there was a place to donate, as well. Could I be connected to the website to donate?
        Not Brooke, I have never struggled with serious depression, so I can’t say I know how you feel, but I DO want you to know that even though it’s a struggle every single minute, you’re not screwing up. Life is hard for everyone, but you are on the front lines. You’re MacArthur. You’re Churchill. You’re a badass. There will come a day, when you look back and realize how true that is. In the meantime, know that everything you’re doing is worth it and that, as small as your contribution may seem to you in the midst of the storm, your sacrifices of love have eternal impact. Thank you for sharing your struggle. We’re all in this together and you are in my prayers. As others share strategies on how to overcome or deal with anxiety, I just want you to know that I am amazed by your bravery and it matters SO much.

        • Thank you so much – trust me, if you could meet these kids, and the amazing women who work with them, you’d see that I get SO MUCH more out of knowing them than vice versa 🙂 They are truly, truly awe inspiring. As someone noted above, I let the cat out of the bag on one of the comments – I’m nervous about connecting the organization forever online with my admission of feeling inadequate, but the things we need for the kids are more important, so I’m trying to ignore that and accept the offers of help. Thank you.

  11. I so understand. Not because I’m familiar with accomplishing even HALF of what Not Brooke does, but…..
    I was a single mom of 5 (didn’t plan it that way, but ex husband apparently never committed to fidelity, and couldn’t be bothered to support his children, so…..) with 2 jobs and a full college load. Almost every day someone said to me, “I don’t know how you do it!” ACK!!!! That single little comment always caused me to panic a lot on the inside because I knew the truth. It looked like I was doing a lot, but I felt like such a failure because I felt like I wasn’t doing any of it well. Even with a 4.0 GPA, and kids that survived their childhood, customers that seemed to really like and appreciate me, and not getting evicted (although I couldn’t always keep the phone turned on.) So I can commiserate, but I don’t know the answer. I will pray that you accept that you are wonderful and in no way a failure. God bless!

    • Ouch, that sounds just as tough as what I’m going through – I like what Beth says, that any number of kids is a lot of kids, but five is a LOT LOT of kids. I can’t imagine doing this alone – my husband is amazing and a wonderful father. I’m just exhausted, I think.

  12. Man, can we be hard on ourselves. We–including me–raise the bar so high and then wonder why we can’t clear it. Not Brooke, you seem like you’re the equivalent of an Olympic Triathlete who’s feeling guilty for not performing like a demi-god..

    When it comes to letting yourself off the hook, always follow Beth’s advice and example.

    Also, I let my students occasionally request a standing ovation, when they need one. Then the whole class cheers and applauds them while they take a bow. Try it: I suspect the people in your life would be delighted to give you one.

      • I love that idea 🙂 Yesterday my 4 year old daughter went, “oooooh, thank you mommy!” with this real delight in her voice, for something small I’d done, made her mac and cheese I think. She made me feel like I’d gotten a standing ovation on that little tiny Mommy moment.

  13. So, I’ve JUST found your blog, and am reading along, because this kind of post could so have been written by or for me 🙂 The anxiety with a capital A that is so second nature. And your three things are the three things that I’ve learned too, and that keep me stable.

    The only thing I have to add is this: When you feel the crazy anxiety and know it’s really unfounded, try this: Sit down and relax for a moment. Allow it all to relax and unclench and let go, falling on the floor around your feet. Just for a moment. And see? The whole earth doesn’t explode. Nothing falls apart. It’s still whole and it all goes on just fine without you. Amazing. Now, try to keep going on with your day, leaving all that stress behind you on the floor. Five, ten, fifteen minutes later, the world is still spinning; it hasn’t fallen apart. This helps me 😉

    • I like this idea, thank you! My dad always tells me to practice saying no, and that when asked how long I think a project will take me, give myself twice as long as I think I’ll need. Power cuts don’t help with this – we just got off one that was over 20 hours long. Some days I REALLY can’t wait to get back to the US for a vacation (although I know my next trip will be half vacation, half fundraising drive – the work honestly never seems to stop with this job).

  14. Not Brooke, I’m amazed by your story. You seem to be doing such good things! Good work, daily, important work, filled with love and passion and really changing the lives of kids.

    You sound amazing and I’d love to be your friend.

    But I know first hand that doing good things doesn’t erase anxiety or depression, doesn’t eradicate fear, doesn’t make life any easier.

    I have an anxiety disorder. It’s really quite severe, although currently stable. So, a few tricks of the trade. Maybe you’ve done them all, or they’re impossible to access, or won’t work for you, but I think if we can compile a list for you? One or two or twenty things will click, and make you less anxious and more zen. It is, indeed, possible. To live with anxiety and feel zen. =)

    First, depression medications target depression. Anxiety involves the same neurotransmitters and biophysical issues as depression but it doesn’t respond the same to treatments. I’d suggest you find another medication for depression which is better for anxiety sufferers. If you can. If you can’t, stick with what you’ve got.

    Eat lots of fish. Those fish oils calm the anxious chatter in my head like nothing else. Eat protein with every meal; a high protein diet is better for depression/anxiety. Exercise. Walk, swim, hula hoop, whatever. Expose yourself to light (haha, you’re in Africa, I’m sure you’re laughing at me. But indoors, maybe you could set up some more lamps or light more candles or something). =)

    Sleep. For this you may need Ativan.

    Eat. Every two to three hours. Healthy, if you can manage. Not, if you can’t. But eat.

    Feed your soul. If we give out more than we recharge, pretty soon we wind up hemorrhaging energy and it takes a long time to get back to balanced. Do something every day that recharges you (I lie in my bed with the covers over my head while my husband tends the children by prearrangement for x amount of time, but I tend towards Hermitism. Some people recharge by talking to others, or knitting, or reading a book).

    Also, read this blog: http://postpartumprogress.org/ It has a million stories and resources for women with mood disorders, even some adoptive mom stories. It’s priceless.

    Most of all? Let go. Let go, let go, let go. I don’t know if you are religious, but I’m going to guess that you are based on your work. God does the work. You follow. You stumble? He fills in the gaps. He is Big Enough to cover over all our stumbling, and indeed He uses us anyways. If you were not there, He would still do the work He’s doing. You’re allowed on for the ride.

    Me, too.

    With love, Melissa.

      • Thank you both!

        I agree about the medication suggestions – but the last time I was on an exclusively anxiety-targeting medication, I ended up having a VERY difficult time coming off, it took about 8 months. So even if I could find a doctor I trusted in this country (which I can’t), I’m really hesitant to try again. It just makes me feel really stuck! Does you have any ideas?

        Fish oils are a great idea, I don’t eat fish at all, but maybe next time we have someone coming over from the US or UK I can get them to bring some. My best friend and parents are coming for ten days and 3 weeks, respectively, in January, thank god!

        Sleep is a big problem for me, you are absolutely right. For instance, it’s currently 6am and I’ve been up for an hour, working. It’s tough because our internet only works at a reasonable speed at night, when no one else is using it – so my work is much easier at insane hours. However, I have been successfully napping, which is really great!

        I also tend towards hermitism in an INCREDIBLY social culture. At any given time there could be our landlord’s father (who is also our neighbor) cutting the lawn with a machete right outside my window, and the housegirl comes 3 days a week and cleans the house top to bottom (yes, we have a housegirl, and yes it’s weird, but it’s a good job for her and it’s MORE than worth the cost for us at about $65 a month not to have to handwash our whole family’s laundry!). I also trained as a jeweler, and I’m asking for my parents to help me set up a small studio here as my holiday gift this year – that always helps me recharge. Again, seeing the littles (especially our 5 newborn baby girls) helps a lot, but now I always have a ton of work to do while I’m there, so it’s not the escape it used to be! And while there are no public parks or playgrounds, we CAN go down the road with our kids about 3 miles and see zebras, ostrich, and antelope, so that’s pretty cool.

        I couldn’t find any adoptive stories on that website – can you help me out? Maybe I’m just blind 🙂

        For me, I’m not particularly religious, but I do miss being able to go to temple. My family is Jewish and it’s been a few years, since I’ve been living abroad – and even worse here, where there literally isn’t a temple in the country. I’ve been doing the rituals on Friday night with my family, which is especially sweet because my five year old son is REALLY excited about it, and asks every day if we can do “Baruch ata adonai”, which is the first few words of the prayer. It’s very cute! The rituals do help me to feel calm and grounded, so I try to make space for it no matter how busy I am or how long it means the kids stay up past their bedtime!

        • Hi Not Brooke!

          I just wanted to say I think what Melissa said here “Feed your soul. If we give out more than we recharge, pretty soon we wind up hemorrhaging energy and it takes a long time to get back to balanced. Do something every day that recharges you.” is PERFECT and ESSENTIAL and incredibly hard to do in your environment. I’m just back from a year and a half of working in an orphanage in Uganda and can SO relate to what you’ve said – including the trouble with anxiety meds, which I’ve been on and off for the last 5 years and am now on solidly for the next 2 years minimum. For that, what I did was have phone appointments with my Dr in the UK and then my mum posted my medication out to me – not ideal as it meant more than one stint of several weeks without any (which didn’t go well at all), but if you can prepare enough in advance that might at least help with knowing you’ve got a good prescription for you / the drugs themselves are good.

          But back to the recharging thing. I didn’t do it, because how do you, when any minute you’re away watching tv or whatever is a minute when the kids could have an extra person there to look out for them, to love them? Like you, I used to go to the orphanage to play with the kids when I wanted to unwind. Only it’s not just ‘playing with kids’ – there’s always someone ill, or hurt, or some problem with the electricity, or something’s gone missing, or any number of things. It feels awful to choose to stay away, and I’m not even sure if I’ll manage it when I go back, but I think it’s essential. You have to have a life outside of them and friends away from that world, or you’ll completely break down.

          What Melissa said about it taking ‘a long time to get back to balanced’ is SO true. I’ve been back in the UK 3 months and only now feel like my head’s above water – and I’ve literally just been at home with my family, doing mundane things, not even really pushing to find a job (which I desperately need – a year and a half in Africa doesn’t leave you with any money!) I was home at Christmas for a month and barely left the house, I was so stressed and guilt-ridden for being home and all-consumed with thoughts of the children I’d left behind. Me losing that much time hasn’t been helpful to anyone, least of all to the kids. I’m only now starting on a fundraising push (and I HATE public speaking and asking for money, so it’s a particularly unappealing task). Small amounts of time taken every day to really rest will save a LOT of time, and energy, and heartache in the long run – believe me!

          Anyway, I hope some of that helps – thankyou so much for the work you’re doing, and I’m really glad you’re reaching out for support. That’s definitely necessary! I hope you feel you can be open with friends and family at home too – long, expensive (for my mum!) calls home were a lifeline to me when everything got too much.

          And congratulations on your marriage and adoption!! Those are huge things right there. And I think now that you’re the mother of 2 children now it’s even more important to take time for yourself – you deserve it and your kids deserve it too.

          Sending love!

  15. I can relate to Not Brooke from so many phases of life… when I was in my twenties and thirties, working as a child and family therapist with severely abused and neglected children, I ran a residential treatment center, was a foster parent to one such child and was supervising and training therapeutic foster parents. I was exhausted, chronically anxious and depressed and the work was both rewarding and a constant maelstrom of challenges and pitfalls, setbacks and triumphs. As I look back now, I know I did a great deal of good and did it well and that the system I was in was messy and so it was hard to tell that anything good was happening. Also, I was constantly battering myself with messages of not being good enough no matter how tirelessly I worked. I recognize now, too, that I equated being a good person with needing to constantly be in some state of stress and overwork. And I loved the kids I worked with to pieces and wished I could take them all home. But I was only one person. I couldn’t do it all. I took one home for a time, felt like, in spite of my supposed expertise that I kept making one mistake after another and I was so depleted I had little left to give… in the end, I used this experience for when I trained foster parents. I was an effective trainer because I could empathize with them and I could tell them all the ways I screwed up and the ways I figured out to try again and again. They trusted me far more readily and in that way, not only did I actually, in fact, do a lot for my foster daughter by being very human and by showing her I cared by showing up every day and doing my best, I did a lot for the kids in those other foster homes by giving those foster parents good, empathic tools to use with their kids. We can’t do these things alone, but we can offer others ways and tools to do it with us.

    Now? Well, now I am the mother of two beautiful little girls. One is Asperger but she was born into the right family because I recognized her unique ways of approaching her world at an early age and began helping her navigate the things that were strange to her and did not come naturally. Her father, my beloved husband, recognized himself in her and so is an expert in helping me understand her even better. She is doing very well and her younger sister is one of her best teachers. They get on famously and are so loving with one another and play fantastically together (oh, they give each other fits regularly but are also good about working things out and, in the end, the negotiations are loving or it is just clear that everyone is too damn tired to play for a while and one needs to rest and regroup).

    My girls have an amazing, loving daddy and I have a wonderful husband to be with in this world. Just over a year ago he was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer out of nowhere… a man who is young (only 48!), fit, never smoked and only ever had the occasional glass of wine. Yet a tumor grew within him somehow… it remains a mystery how or why. Our year has been one of eight months of chemo every other week followed closely by very major surgery in May. At the moment he is cancer free but we feel like we have been at war and new fronts keep opening up just when we think we may be able to drag ourselves off the battlefield. Recovery from the chemo and surgery is proving to be the hardest part of the process right now. My experience from above was brought to bear in ways I never imagined: treatment coordination, child development and how to talk to children matter of factly about serious matters without freaking them out, etc.

    The image I have some days is this: we are at sea and there is a mother ship we have built, it is big and sturdy, watertight and seaworthy. Our girls are in that ship, snug and safe and they hardly notice the storms as they come and go. We built that ship by hand and our loving community helped, our family and friends, all those we are fortunate to have around us who care. But it often feels like, somehow, my husband and I have ended up out in the dinghy, that little rowboat that is tethered to the ship, yes, but we are being tossed on the waves and are feeling the brunt of the storms. Lately it feels like my husband keeps getting tossed overboard and so I tie myself to the rowboat, dive in, and help him get back in. We are bedraggled. So, we are tapping every resource we can and we are working hard to give ourselves a break. We are first-born overachievers both and, as such, have to work extra hard to be kind and self caring of ourselves and we must remind ourselves we are not superheroes or superhuman and we need help. Therapy, psychiatry, oncology, ministry, community, all of it, we need it and we are doing our best to reach out and ask. So must we all. We have come this far not because we are superheroes but because we have community and they helped to hold us up and keep us afloat. So, we go on, one day at a time, working hard to stay in the moment and not fret about a future we cannot know. We have learned that letting our minds race ahead into unknown possible futures wastes precious energy we do not have to spare, energy we want to give to our girls and one another.

    And so can you, Not Brooke… be kind to yourself. I learned a valuable lesson when I was a graduate student. I was an intern in a therapeutic day school and my supervisor there said, “I know grad school is a ton of work and so you will often be tired and depleted but just remember, the very fact that you just keep showing up each day is what means so much to these kids. Just come, do your best, and your regular presence will reassure them.” There is great comfort for children in the simple act of showing up, no matter how bedraggled. Find empathy, be tired but close and do your best to be self caring. I used to say in trainings that 80% of the work with children is with the adults not the kids. We must do our best to ask for help and create our own safe containers so we can then create them for our kids. There is no “right” or perfect way to do it. Lead with empathy, with yourself and with your kids. So much can follow from that. And remember, empathy does NOT mean permissive. It means creating containers and limits in a calm and empathic manner. We all need that, one way or another. But we can’t do it alone. And we will make mistakes. And when we do, lead with empathy for your very human self, ask for help, look for tools others have created instead of re-inventing the wheel, use the ones that work for you and head into another day. So we go.

    • “We are first-born overachievers both and, as such, have to work extra hard to be kind and self caring of ourselves and we must remind ourselves we are not superheroes or superhuman and we need help.” This. Thisthisthis.

      I am so sorry to hear what you have been going through, I cannot even imagine how tough that must be. You and your husband are very lucky to have each other in what must be a really tough time. I like the idea of the “ark” for our kids – I try to remind myself that no matter how badly I think I’m doing, my kids are happy and healthy and incredibly loved, not just by my husband and I, but by the mamas at the orphanage, who are truly amazing women. We tell them they are very lucky because they have 3 families – our family, the orphanage family, and their extended families (great grandparents and distant cousins for our son, a grandmother and half sister for our daughter). It’s getting easier every day as their English gets better – my Swahili is pretty good but the language barrier just makes everything harder.

      • Not Brooke,
        Since you know some Swahili, another anecdote. Once upon a time, my husband and I climbed Kilimanjaro (it was our relationship test and we passed!). It became our cancer metaphor and now is our recovery metaphor. When one climbs, the guides say, all day long, “pole pole” (slowly, slowly). For so many of us, this is an apt reminder as we try to do so much at once. We must slow down and take one step at a time. Also, Not Brooke, I will say to you as you probably say to your children, la la salama! (which my husband and I jokingly mistranslate as “la la salami”). In any case, the language of love, care and attention goes all the way to the heart. The words will come. But I can imagine that caring for little ones in the midst of language barriers (since taking care of them is already like herding cats) can be hard!
        Take care,
        G. Arrow

      • Another anecdote you will appreciate: instead of tipping our guide at the end of our Kilimanjaro climb, we told him we were going to sponsor his children to go to a good school. As you know, people carry large loads on their head in Tanzania (amazing acts of balance). So, instead of saying “that is such a load off my back!” as we would say here, he exclaimed, “that is such a load off my head!” Just had an email from him yesterday, letting us know this year’s tuition, eight years later. His children are doing well in school and are learning English, the key to so many things. For him and so many where you are, education is so precious. Also, I love that his name is Prosper.
        ~G. Arrow

  16. I am in this place myself right now, and I am going to write this to give myself a little advice as well. There is a wonderful woman with a wonderful community called the Fly Lady – have you heard of her? Most people consider her a resource for getting your house clean and keeping it that way, but she is so much more than that. She is about Finally Loving Yourself, and learning to break down any monumental task into small, doable tasks, 15 minutes at a time. You can do *anything* for 15 minutes! Feel the success of mastering a new habit as part of your daily routine, even if it is as simple as taking three deep breaths every time you feel stressed or anxious. You can apply these lessons to any area of your life – organizing your home life or work life, planning Thanksgiving dinner, or completing a major project like building a school or adopting a child. Anyway, that is what came to mind for me, and I thought I’d share it. http://www.flylady.net

  17. I’ve been in the dark trenches of depression too (more than once) I know what it’s like. (Fortunately I’m on the upswing right now.)
    You have to stop focusing on the failures. It’s TOO easy to look around and see all that you’re NOT getting done. A persons list can go on and on about all the things you did not get done. It’s never ending. It’s not possible as a mom, working mom, working mom wife, working mom wife friend, working mom wife friend sister daughter.. to get it all done.
    You have to start thinking about what you did accomplish. Write it down. No matter how small. It’s that putting one foot in front of the other. Taking baby steps. Progress.
    It’s hard. Some days harder than others. And when you’re in the dark, at the bottom of the pit it’s the hardest. So it takes more effort to write it down. To change your thoughts from the failures, to the success. Tell yourself “I don’t care how stupid or insignificant this sounds, because today it’s a big thing”. (Like the days when taking a shower is on the list for successes). It’s writing a “Done” list right next to your “To Do” list. I often write things on the to do list, just so I can cross it off and write it on the done list. Seeing the “dones” gives you satisfaction.

    • I agree. I have found it necessary to list off what DID happen today. Maybe a grandchild made me laugh. Write that down and check it off. It is too easy to only think of what MUST be done STILL. We lose our balance then. But if I stop, breathe, (yes, that’s one of my techniques–cuz I find I hold my breath when I get stressed), think of what just DID get done. ( I BREATHED!!), then the burden lifts.
      I also don’t know if you believe in God. I do, but I still find a daily battle to let Him BE God and just find my place. Do what you can, when you can, where you can. If it looks like something crashed and burned–doesn’t mean you “should have” done something better. We cannot save the world, yet ;). But we can make something better for this one person at this one time. (and that person just might be us for now.)
      Much prayer for you Not Brooke, I fully agree with the other people here–dealing with anxiety/depression myself. And have family issues who justify my anxiety/depression. :D. But I have found a way of peace and joy. And it helps those same family members when they are with me. Stop and play with your kiddos. Sing a song. Tell a silly story–anything to break the “adult” thoughts building up in your mind. I believe young children have been sent by God to help me in my need. I can just “be” with them. Sing a song, dance, be goofy. Then take up the burdens of the day once again. A little bit renewed and refreshed. God bless and help you Not Brooke. You are not alone.

      • Thank you both for your thoughtful ideas! I tend to go a little crazy with to-do lists, and then get stressed when it doesn’t all happen the way I expect it to.

        Ok, now I have to tell you what my organization is, I have no choice. You wrote, “Do what you can, when you can, where you can. If it looks like something crashed and burned–doesn’t mean you “should have” done something better. We cannot save the world, yet 😉 . But we can make something better for this one person at this one time. (and that person just might be us for now.)” Our organization’s name comes from the Mother Theresa quote, “We ourselves know that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” We’re at www dot thesmallthings dot org.

  18. I think the anxiety comes, for me, with everything I need to do. It’s completely overwhelming and I feel like a failure before I’ve even begun because I know there’s no way to do it all. So if I’m thinking straight, I narrow my focus. I do my best to completely forget about everything that needs to be done, and just do one thing.

    Like, in this minute, I’m going to pick up those clothes that the kids left on the floor. That’s all. Next minute, I’ll do something else. Maybe it’ll be sitting on the couch staring into space, but it’s something and I’m going to do it and that’ll be a victory in my book.

    Sometimes I make a list of what needs to be done but (and this is very important) it’s NEVER more than 3 things. Any more and I just stare at it realizing those things won’t get done.

    So here’s my list from earlier today:
    Call doctor about prescription
    Finish grammar test with son (we home school)

    That’s it. And then after I did those things I put the kids to bed. Then I decided I would pick up the clothes on the floor in the living room, because apparently my kids prefer to undress/dress in public and then leave everything right there and I forget to make them do it before bed. So now that’s done and then I decided the next thing, which was to drink a big glass of wine. I totally rocked that, by the way.

    • I have a long and intense to-do list – maybe I should make a sub-list, “Things to do TODAY,” and limit it to three items.

  19. When I was having flashbacks and felt like “He’s here in the room with me”, a friend suggested something that really helped to bring me back to the present. She said to grab something comforting and hold it. Feel it’s softness or hardness. Smell it. Look at it. Focus on it.

    I also think regular self-care is so important too. When I was feeling guilty taking time for myself and feeling so selfish about it, my counselor told me to think about what they tell you before your plane takes off. “If the oxygen mask comes down, puts yours on first. Then assist those who need help.” I have to remind myself of that over and over. I can’t help anyone else until I have the oxygen or nourishment or care that I need.

  20. Ack. Hi Not Brooke, this is Liz. I am so glad you wrote Beth, and I know this community will offer you — and all of us — some great wisdom.

    Full confession: reading your letter made my chest ache. I had a panic attack today and it sucked so much. I had forgotten how bad they can be – the whole not breathing thing. I had to have an MRI because blah blah blah. Part of me tried to feel grateful that I have health care and insurance but that part walked out the room the minute they slid me into the tube. (And right about now I’m thinking that my story is the least positive answer you might receive, but anyway.) All that pressure, the not breathing, the panic, the closeness, the weight of it, all bearing down on me. No air. Too much. Too hard.

    When I got home from the doctor I told my sweetie that if I could just have held the controls that put me in and pulled me out, I wouldn’t have panicked. But I couldn’t trust this stranger to, let’s be honest here, NOT KILL ME. Because that’s exactly what I was worrying about: dying. I knew my fear wasn’t rational but there it was anyway, way bigger than me.

    I am not the kind of person who is especially convinced by rational thinking, so all the fact-checking in the world doesn’t help me if I FEEL like I am failing aka about to DIE. The only thing that helps me is to hang on. I imagine myself holding God’s hand and I squeeze the mortal crap out of those divine fingers until I imagine God saying “damn girl, you’ll be ok.”

    Or if that doesn’t work I imagine myself tethered, like there’s a little string that is in my tummy that is hooked into that awesome ocean of light that is God-Love, and I imagine that if I really can’t take it, I can grab that string and bungee jump myself (in reverse) into that ocean of air and light. I trust that. Because that’s what it comes to, for me: I have to trust something. I have to just make up my mind, despite the overwhelming WE ARE GOING TO DIE SOON feeling that is pinging its siren in my ear, that I am going to live, because: Love. Whatever made the universe has got me. So whatever comes next, I’m already safe — in advance — of everything ahead of me.

    Sending you so many blessings…if we can send more, maybe a donation or something to your cause, let us know…

    Liz in the Beloved Community of Beth

    • I totally agree on the music thing. And totally have felt the things you are feeling. One I like is Carry On by Fun. Actually a lot of the songs on that album. But keep listening till you find something that helps you. And then listen even more when those feelings hit you. Much love! “When you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry on”…and know it gets better.

      Also its ok to rest a little more on those days and don’t feel guilty about it.

  21. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the Lone Ranger on a project and have felt so exactly the same way. Here’s what’s worked for me…. The first is to NOT be afraid to fail. Our failures become our greatest teachers… To fail is to be doing something. Make peace with your imperfect self and appreciate the lessons as they come.

    The next thing I did was to SIMPLIFY MY LIFE. You can’t save everyone from their fate such as it is. We can do our best to make those we come in contact with happier for knowing us but running ourselves into the ground for the sake of others does NOT make you a good person. Being kind and present are the simplest forms of love and caring… Not running 18 different projects alone.

    And lastly asking for help and sharing the load. We are not super women and don’t need to pretend we are. Delegate. Get other people on board. Asking for help is self love. Caring enough about your well being to reach out. Care for yourself first… Be selfish. You can’t share water from an empty well… Good luck!

    • I am trying to take a little more time for myself, but I still so often end up feeling guilty for the things I’m not doing. I’m working on delegating and simplifying – I’m interviewing interns all this week, so hopefully we’ll have someone in soon who can help me out. It’s just hard because help is expensive and I feel weird about spending money on staff to help me with administrative tasks rather than on the kids. Guilt is a really tough one!

  22. It is this whole 40 days of grace thing in a nutshell… we choose to give grace to others AND to ourselves. No one can do all that alone without feeling exactly as scared and anxious as Not Brooke does. No one. Anyone who says they can is either lying or delusional. So after we choose grace, we then ASK for HELP!!! If not from the people alongside you then from the people back home who support you. Even from a blog of anonymous readers. We may not be able to show up on your doorstep, but we can send supplies or get your message out or pray or just keep telling you that you are not alone and you don’t have to be.

      • thank you not Brooke for responding to each and every comment… 🙂 I am glad you are finding that you are not alone. I hope this has helped. ((((hugs)))))


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