I should probably start this chapter with a disclaimer that downward spirals in mental hygiene are just that… downward spirals. Which means that the longer you progress spiraling downward, the worse they get. That being said I will remind you that this is the third downward spiral that I am sharing with you and therefore unsurprisingly the worst. So let’s get real for a minute about how bad things can get when you let them spiral downward downward downward.
The day after we moved into our new house a construction crew come through and ripped out the road. They didn’t just make the surface a little rough. Nope. They cracked the concrete into pieces, hauled them out and dug a trench to get to the pipes beneath. It was like living in a castle with a mote… and no drawbridge. At ﬁrst the town estimated with optimism that the project would be of a short duration. But it became apparent that optimism was not going to play much of a role in the process. July turned to August. August to September. September to October. October to November. And I began to wonder if it would snow before our road was completed.
See I tend to be one of those people who believe that my feelings and emotional experience is determined by the events around me. Of course in doing this I am allowing someone or something else to directly determine my inner experience (as well as steer my outward responses because I am not that good at hiding how I feel). Now when I write these sentences down, I ﬁnd them highly offensive because I like to think that I am completely in control of my own life. But an honest assessment tells me that I was living the pawn’s life instead of the queen’s and it played out something like this…
As a new family in town the months of July, August, September, October and November were extremely isolating. I would have loved to sweep into town and host parties for the kids to make friends and maybe even one for myself. But no one could reach our house. Babysitters were out too since you couldn’t get near us. Well, all babysitters except for one rockstar girl that would ride her bike to our house on a regular basis. I swear she saved my sanity providing for my husband and I to leave the house on date nights. Swirling around me were negatives.
It was a tough time. No lie. First off I am a city girl who had just been moved to the tiniest of small towns. At least that is how it felt to me when we arrived. There was no Starbucks. No Target. Retail therapy was not a happening thing in this place. Not that I could get out of my driveway to get there anyway. I was able to park a few streets away and wagon supplies to my house. It was like “little house on the prairie 2015 edition”. I cried a lot more than I probably should have. Should being less of a judgement and more of a barometer of how functional my thought life was. Negative environmental conditions and negative thoughts were whipping up a storm of negative feelings. Which I didn’t even attempt to challenge.
The construction project crawled along, completely unaware that it was affecting me in any way at all. In July the road was ripped out and excavation began to dig out the underground pipe work. Rain delayed this a lot. Which meant that not only did nothing progress very far, but when I did need groceries I had to walk a 3, 5 and 6 year old a quarter of a mile in the rain to our car and then wagon and walk everyone back a quarter of a mile… in the rain. The kids were miserable and them being miserable did nothing to boost my already questionable mood.
In August it rained a lot too although they completed the underground utility work that they had scheduled for the month before. But at this point we were on month two of “hiking” everywhere and with all this rain the mosquitos were the size of hummingbirds. The kids and I were both miserable and itchy. My husband ordered me a wardrobe of permethrin treated clothing to try to help me survive this experience since I was covered in 3 inch welts from head to toe. I tried to tell myself that if I was a missionary I would be thrilled to walk a quarter mile through the mud and mosquitoes to reach our car ﬁlled with gas ready to take me somewhere. But the reality was I was not a missionary and it only helped a little because I don’t pretend all that well when I’m unhappy.
As September rolled in, it became clear that I would be walking my daughter to and from school. It was not that far but no one could reach our house by the muddy moat. Preschool also started and we had to hike to the car to that every afternoon which meant my kids usually arrived at their destination dirty and wet and crabby. But despite the water and mud and mosquitos the kids mood improved dramatically because they got to socialize with other kids. Their period of forced isolation had ended and they were pretty excited about that. I was glad they were starting to adjust to our new town, but it only made me feel worse for myself. The road had been promised done by September and I felt like every day that went by was unjust and unfair and made me increasingly unhappy. Oh yeah, but the construction workers did complete their replacement of the sewer pipes. Which was hard to work up too much excitement about since our water was turned off a lot, often for 8 hours at a time to facilitate this.
And then there was October where they prepared – all month – to pour concrete. I realize it must be a lot of work to prepare to pour concrete on a road that you turned into a muddy moat for the previous three months but quite honestly all my sympathy was being used for myself at this point. And my kids didn’t get to go trick-or-treating because you couldn’t really do that on our road and the kids were so sick of hiking to the car that was out too. October was basically canceled. And we moved on to November.
November. This was the month where they actually did pour concrete, make curbs, move telephone poles and all sorts of other above ground activities. By the end of the month we were free to drive in an out of our own driveway for the ﬁrst time since we moved in. And while you would think that I would be beyond overjoyed I was so accustomed to feeling bad it was hard to switch. So in reality, this period of forced isolation was a disaster because of how I thought and how I let those thoughts determined my feelings. Although if you would have asked me at the time I would have said who could possibly be happy moving to a new town and being stuck in your house for ﬁve months. Which is exactly my point about why I was unhappy. I though happiness was impossible considering my circumstances and therefore I felt that it was. But the truth is so much different than what I felt it was.
If we step back and look at the book of Romans in the Old Testament of the Bible, we can see quite another kind of truth being explained. Paul told his readers that you can be happy in times of trouble because during hard times you can learn valuable life skills. Oh yeah, there is that. Drama queen can be traded for character building if you employ your brain instead of all the feelings.
“…but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4 ESV)
Seriously? The outward experience going on here is prison, which one might think a good reason to feel unhappy, worried or a whole host of negative emotions. But Paul believes in letting his perception inﬂuence his feelings, and knowing that suffering produces so many good character traits causes him to feel joy about the suffering itself. I know I know, this is extreme edition mental hygiene right here!
Here is the thing.
The great BIG thing.
You can alter your inner experience of life by the way you think about the events around you.
In hindsight I would have spent those ﬁve months much more intentionally chasing proper perception and enjoying life. Life is short and the older I get the more I am confronted with the very fact that there is nothing in this life that can make me miserable. What happens to me is much less important that what happens in me and I know without a doubt that there is always hope.
Sometimes you will make errors in life and sulking for 5 months was not one of my ﬁnest moments (let’s call it a moment) BUT taking time to reﬂect on the experience points out the value of endurance and character, like Paul talked about in Romans. And because this trial was executed so poorly I was inspired to take a real close look at my mental hygiene, which I had been brushing off. And in taking time to reﬂect on my failure to challenge these automatic feelings with thoughts I realized that I could take control of my inner experience of life. And that I wanted to. And all these chosen thoughts would spiral me upward instead of downward along the paths of mental hygiene. After all, I am always in charge unless I give that control away because I can alter my inner experience of life by the way I think about the events around me. And while I face planted in failure here… I decided it was time to change! And so I did.