Escape to Petit Jean

Over the past few months, I have noted that in the process of keeping up with legislation and policy, I haven’t taken a moment to write a personal blog post. While the aforementioned activities are entertaining, I aim to not spend ALL my time with my nose in a bill book. Just most of it.

Finding the right balance so I am not wholly consumed by our bill work and my job has been difficult. When I find a project, I have a habit of diving into it and quickly losing sight of everything around me. Anyone who has tried to text or call me during one of these periods has experienced this all too frequently. This personality trait often helped fuel my eating disorders and anxiety. Since reducing my regular therapy visits a year ago, I have worked hard to ensure that I utilize the tools and skills that acquired during my sessions.

That being said, as anyone who has been through a comparative program may attest, the methods to stay on track aren’t precise directives. I feel like that is something we don’t talk about when we discuss mental illness. Take my bulimia for example. The first step for recovery wasn’t “Stop the behavior.” Sure, stopping the purging would have alleviated some of the physical problems, but it isn’t that easy. My therapist used to draw a triangle, in which emotions, thoughts, and actions were each in a corner, all feeding into one another. Changing my behaviors without addressing the emotions or thoughts that fed into them would not have helped me into remission.

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One of many triangle examples I collected over the years.

In order to address the emotions and thoughts, I had to first identify them, which was a Sisyphean task from the start. Let’s say you are feeling discouraged and disappointed. You try to figure out the thought or action that spurred this feeling. If you are successful in identifying that thought and focus in on it, you may end up feeling more discouraged and disappointed and that could in turn lead to more negative behaviors. But not addressing those thoughts and emotions will not deter the behavior. So you end up going ’round and ’round the triangle, per se, until you find ways to disrupt the cycle- which in itself is a difficult concept to grasp. When you engage in an activity long enough, it seems impossible to stop. For seven years, a day didn’t pass without my eating disorder disrupting my life. Whether it was a need to purge or compulsive calorie counting, it was part of my routine and I didn’t see an end.

The skills I was given instructed me to look for different outlets when negative emotions welled up. After all, there is nothing inherently wrong about experiencing negative emotions. They are part of what makes life dynamic. Even my behaviors weren’t necessarily “wrong”- they were unhealthy. One of the outlets I have turned to in the past is photography. What I have found so therapeutic about photography is it was an accidental discovery. When I tried to force other outlets, such as journaling, knitting, or yoga, I didn’t work through the emotions or thoughts; rather, I just filed them into the back of my mind, where they festered and sprang back tenfold later.

Photography was different. By paying attention to my surroundings, I felt calmer and more peaceful. It made it easier to take a moment and process my emotions and thoughts while peering through a lens. As I progressed on my photo excursions, I also began to note that I could identify my emotions through the photos I took. Photos filed with clean lines and right angles marked my anxiety levels, photos devoid of people flagged a sense of isolation, and certain colors and filters revealed my ennui.

This past weekend, Luke and I went hiking Petit Jean, something I have neglected to do despite living in Arkansas for 20+ years. By taking that day to divorce myself from work, bills, and the pressure to maintain activism and political engagement 100 percent of the time, I realized how many emotions and thoughts I had buried just to have enough time in the day. And maybe it is a sign of my privilege for me to feel okay with taking a day to divorce myself from everything. But in a time when we are finally beginning to talk about the importance of mental health, I find I can’t fault others for needing a moment to take care of themselves as well. Finding the balance between self-care and public activism isn’t a choice we can unilaterally decide for others, just as it can’t be decided for us. Sometimes you have to be lost in the woods to find what you need.

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