Birthday Reflections: This Is Me Moving Forward

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Today is my 31st birthday.

For those of you thatĀ know me well, you’re probably waiting for a month-long series of events with various activities in different locations.

But not this year. This year is different.

I’ve decided to tone things down a bit and focus a little more inward.

Now don’t get me wrong, there was still a bit of celebration. I went to NYC over the weekend and saw Waitress the Musical on Broadway; it was just as wonderful and amazing as I had anticipated (thank you Jessie Mueller for your breathtaking performance). And tonight, I had dinner with a small group of friends and participated in a Museum Heist-themed Escape the Room. We managed to breakout, with about 15 minutes to spare, despite my heightening anxiety.

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*cue segue into the actual purpose of this post*

Although I’m sure many of you see my outward, celebratory leanings toward my birthday via social media posts and in-person interactions with yours truly, I have doubts that y’all know what really goes inside this little brain of mine.

You see, I suffer from anxiety, and there are times when it can beĀ so crippling I can hardly speak, let alone be the delightful host at my birthday party.

Wow, what does that look like, you might ask?

Here is a visual.

About a month ago the NBC television dramaĀ This Is Us aired an episode where character Randall Pearson (played by actor Sterling K. Brown) suffers from a panic attack at his office. Now I don’t watch the show (though based on that very realistic clip I feel like I should) but because it was being shared multiple times on my Facebook timeline I decided to take a look…

…five minutes later my husband Derek sees me bawling on our living room couch.

D: “Honey, what’s wrong?”

R: “I watched the clip. The one with the anxiety attack. It wasĀ so real. I knowĀ EXACTLYĀ what that feels like” *continues to sob*

Kudos to the show creators for getting it spot on. I’ve been there.

A few key examples.

#1: The summer before I moved to Maryland for graduate school, I was suffering from attacks fairly regularly. I was so worried that it would mess with my success of getting my M.A. and Ph.D., and that my mother would think it was too risky to move from home. But I was able to pull it together and I moved to Maryland, whereĀ I obtained both my masters and doctorate within five years.

#2: About twoĀ years ago, my husband (who was then my fiancĆ©), my mom, and my sister came to my home in Richmond, Virginia (where I was living at the time) for Thanksgiving. I was having some issues with depression that Fall semester, and was prescribed a new medication to help with the symptoms, but unfortunately it triggered an attack in the middle of a lovely outdoor picnic. I had to be rushed home, where my husband witnessed what my attacksĀ were like for the very first time, and feeling completely helpless on what to do.

#3: About a week ago, I was running late for a meeting at work because I couldn’t find something in the house. As I was frantically searching for the item, I felt another attack coming.

…but this time, compared to the previous two scenarios, I was able to get it under control within 30 minutes vs. the several hours it usually can take to subside, and I was able to function at the meeting as though nothing had happened.

What was the difference then?

A couple of things:

Yoga:Ā About a year ago, I started getting into a more consistent yoga practice, thanks to the very accessible (and helpful!) videos by Yoga with Adriene. It’s helped bring an awareness to my body that I’ve never had before, and it’s helped me discover how my body deals with things such as flexibility, balance, energy, and flow. I’m at a point now where IĀ need this practice, much like how I need coffee in the morning; it’s now that important.

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Meditation and Mindfulness: My new therapist in Maryland has been pushing me to meditate more to help alleviate my anxiety and stress; she wants me to start integratingĀ mind awareness with my new found body awareness, and so far it’s been working. I am no where near getting into a daily practice, but I now have a few resources to start with, and that day while driving to my meeting I engaged in deep breathing exercises that seemed to help.

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Music/Singing/Dancing/Performing:Ā In my most recent panickedĀ episode, after takingĀ some deep breaths, I played two songs from my Spotify playlist and belted at the top of my lungs until I felt the attack subsiding and I had tears streaming down my face. In a freaky-type of coincidence, a close friend recently shared a very poignant interview with actress Emma Stone about how acting acts as her personal therapy, and I completely agree with herĀ insight:

“I wouldnā€™t say that performing is a cure for anxiety, but when you have excess energy that turns inward and makes you an over-thinker, you can begin to panic.”

Oh Emma, I can TOTALLY relate!

Not only am I super hard on myself pretty much ALL THE DAMN TIME (but I’m working on it this year; see my previous post!), but I also deal with all this social anxiety worrying about what othersĀ think of me (I go into detail a bit in my Instagram post for International Women’s Day) and it can get dang exhausting.

But when I’m performing, whether it’s singing on a stage, or dancing a routine at a ballroom competition, or throwing down some spoken word, or doing improv for my Murder Mystery troupe, I don’t feel afraid.

In fact, I feel quite the opposite.

I feel EMPOWERED. I feel UNSTOPPABLE.

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I feel HAPPY TO BE IN OWN SKIN, anxiety and all.

So why are we so ashamed? Why is it so hard to own up to our anxieties, insecurities, and self-doubts? Why is it so hard to ask for help, to seek community, to find solidarity? Why do we perceive these struggles as stigmatized weaknesses, when we can channel that energy to push ourselves into unknown greatness, through realizing that we only get this one life to make the most of the hand we’ve been dealt?

I don’t have the answers here folks. Hell, I’m still trying to figure it all out myself.

But if there are things thatĀ I’ve learned, now that I’m another year older and a perpetual learner, it’s this:

  • That I want to be more empathetic to myself, and others.
  • That I want to treat people the way they deserve to be treated.
  • That I no longer want to wait around to do the things that truly make me happy.
  • That I want to continue to surround myself with the people I love and make me feel loved.
  • That I no longer want to compromise my values for the sake of being liked.
  • That I want to speak up against injustice, no matter how scary or difficult.
  • That I want to be unapologetically, authentically ME.

THIS IS ME MOVING FORWARD. I HOPE YOU WILL LIKE IT. ā¤ļø

Oh, and if you have a chance, please contribute to my birthday fundraiserĀ for RAINN that closes at midnight tonight, thanks!

My Word of 2017

Happy New Year all!

At UMD I ran into an old friend who reminded me of my previous blog posts where I would encapsulate my hopes for the coming year in one word. I was able to consistently do this practice in 2010 (Achievement), 2011 (Renewal), and 2012 (Destiny).Ā I suppose after that I fulfilled my destiny of spreading myself too thin in my first years as an assistant professor (if you’re confused you can read more about what I mean here) because I haven’t done that practice since.

Regardless, I was humbled and flattered that my colleague was still doing it, and I thought about other practices to ring in the New Year (such as Liz Gilbert’s homemade NYE ceremony, which I actually did myself to ring in 2016). I thought back to when I would write down New Year’s Goals (which, come to think of it, was what ended up taking the place of the word practice from 2013-2015), and I’ve decided that maybe it’s time to get back to some consistency when it comes to ringing in the New Year, because rooting oneself in traditions can help bring stability in an oftentimes very turbulent life.

Before I came to this realization, it occurred to me that maybe the universe was already trying to tell me something. I am ONE PRACTICE AWAY (noooo!) from completing Yoga with Adriene’s #yogarevolution practice, and in one of the videos Adriene asked us to root ourselvesĀ in a word, and after some brief soul searching I settled on this one:

self-empathy

So why self empathy? This was a conceptĀ that writer Wendy Chin-Tanner mentioned in a recentĀ Dear Sugar Radio podcast…that so happened to be recorded live in Portland for the Writer’s Resist movement (I participated in the Memphis event, check out my bad ass pic below), and it truly resonated with me.

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As I alluded to in the above description of my former (super stressed out) life, I wasn’t being empathetic to myself AT ALL. In fact, I was burning myself out being empathetic to others; by being a helpful “team player” I was actually hurting myself and my true potential by running myself ragged in the process.Ā 

In other words, as a friend quoted toĀ me the other day:Ā I was setting myself on fire to keep other people warm.

And lemme tell you: IT. WASN’T. WORKING.

My tendency to overcommit and work beyond expectations has been something I have been personally struggling with for a while. It took a lot of therapy, a wonderful social support network, a patient partner, and yes, even health issues in the form of kidney stones to get me where I am today. But something that has stuck with me through this process comes from my dear and wonderful mentor, Dr. Lynn Pelco.

Knowing that my empathy can perhaps drive me to become more self-empathetic (how interesting is that?), she very pointedly asked me how my stressed out mental/emotional state would look to my students.

“Is this what you want to role model for your students?” she asked.

Well damn. I hadn’t thought about it LIKE THAT before. In an effort to be a more empathetic person, I NEED to first be self-empathetic, otherwise I will never have the true mental/physical/emotional energy to help others at my highest potential.

…so at first glance this practice mayĀ seem selfish, but the reality is that our society needs more self-empathetic folks than ever before, otherwise we will implode from stress and we are never going to get through this year.

And so for my own sake, and for the sake of my friends and family who I love wholeheartedly, and for the sake of my students that I hope to inspire and mentor, and for the sake of the communities I want to advocate and champion for, I am taking 2017 to be more self-empathetic.

What about you? What is YOUR word for 2017?

A Social Media Fast to Work Toward Strategic Social Justice

Friends:

This may come as a shock to many of you, but I’ve recently decided to engage in a social media fast.

For me, it is to give myself the proper time and space to more deeply reflect and reevaluate my role in engaging in more meaningful, strategic social justice.

Because that’s what I’m purporting I’m doing here, yes? Even though in reality I’ve been so busy that I have little time to even update this site?

Yes.

Imma be completely honest. The last tenĀ days have been pretty tough. I didn’t haveĀ a solid day of sleep in most of that span. I’ve been having really thoughtful, difficult conversations with folks as to whether my rhetoric as a feminist, activist, and passionate liberal has been too strong, too divisive, too imposing, too closed-minded.

 

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I also realized that with emotions running so high right now among my colleagues and friends I’ve been opening social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and closing it feeling more overwhelmed and anxious than ever. And it wasn’t until much more recently that I realized that I’ve been subjecting myself to this online echo chamber I’ve solely created looking for answers and inspiration…when perhaps it was such a passive information gathering tactic that it left meĀ feeling even worse with very little outside perspective.

So here’s what I’ve uncovered in the past 10 days.

That there are more stories that are in need of telling.Ā That perhaps there is a bigger, broader view to unpack. That as I tell my students all the damn time, there is a history and a context to everything; nothing truly exists in a vacuum. That my lived experience may not necessarily be the same as yours, and that’s ok.

Ā AndĀ that a break from social media is needed for me to ponder that.

The past week has been good to me in this regard. IĀ have consciously stayed away from SM and engaged with people IRL, for example, at #NCA16. I talked to community organizations and academics about activism and social justice, about self care and healing. I came home from the conference and had brunch with a group of close girlfriends, where we shared our current life updates, our fears,Ā and our dreams, and have been checking in on each other ever since. I have been writing spoken word that digs deep into my feelings in an attempt to make meaning of everything thatĀ is swirling inside of me. I have also been having some tough conversations with my husband that leave me raw and vulnerable, but toward moreĀ understanding that I hope will help strengthen our marriage and partnership.

ALL THAT, for me, has beenĀ cathartic and transformative. Although this is hard for me to say (especially given my personal and professional interests in social media) I have to admit that sharing a provocative article on Facebook (that all my FB friends had probably read already anyway) did not have that same effect.

So I’ve turned off the notifications on my phone. I’m going to be spending more time reading, writing, thinking, engaging. I’m going to reach out to folks directly to ask them how they are doing. I’m going to more actively listen, because I WANT TO LISTEN, and I think I need to. We all do. I’m going to work on building this site to more fully embody my voice and my craft. So get ready, folks.

I’ll catch y’all on the flip side. āœŒšŸ½

 

Lessons Learned from Missing Dad: Year 3 Edition

Today is October 7th.

Three years ago, I was getting ready to teach a social media class at my first “real job” post-graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University when my sister called.

It was 3:30 PM.

I immediately sensed something was wrong.

Unfortunately I was right.

My wonderful, funny, patient, and kind father had passed away after a hard fight
against esophageal cancer.

He was only 66.

And now here we are, three years later, and I’m thinking:Ā damn, time flies by so fast.

LIFE flies by so fast.Ā 

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So now I have a question.

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you just felt…I dunno,Ā off?

Yeah, well I was having one of those weeks, and I finally realized it’s because we were approaching today.

The day I would never get seeĀ my dad laugh, or sing karaoke, or play poker for hours on Facebook ever again.

…and it totally, absolutely, positively…

sucks.Ā like, really damn hard.

So what do I do? Well as per usual whenever I feel sad, I sing. So here you go:

In addition, I suppose due mostly in part by my recent Hamilton/Lin Manuel-Miranda inspiration, I wrote a spoken word piece about my dad’s passing as well:

…it still ain’t over yet…

Lastly, as a final homage to my dad, my hubs and I made corned beef with potatoes, onion, and white rice, a common Bob Briones food staple and my personal version of comfort food:

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I am very proud to say that despite my fumbling a bit to figure out how to get this simple meal all together, it tasted exactly how I remember it, and Derek even thought it was yummy.

So it ended up being an ok day after all.

So there you go. I taught, I graded, I did a bit of research…and then I pulled together a song, a poem, and some food. I think dad would have been pleased.

The #kindnessbombs Movement

I decided recently to start approaching my life by giving back to others…

…and I CAN. NOT. STOP.

It started on my birthday. Now folks may have seen my post on giving people fun things via YouTube (if you don’t what WTF I’m talking about, feel free to check it out here, and if you are still waiting on something I will get to it soon I promise!) but it didn’t end there.

I didn’t post my first act of kindness on social media because I didn’t want to be showboaty about doing nice things, but I did tell some colleagues in person soon afterward and it looks like I was slightly “outed” on Facebook:

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No worries Lindsay, I’m not mad (hehe), but I think this opened something up that I want to explain.

On my birthday, I had a quick lunch at a restaurant by VCU before having to go to the meeting where my colleague Lindsay was present. Because it wasn’t very busy for lunch (things pick up at happy hour and dinnertime), I decided to pay it forward and pay for everyone’s lunch who was present. The server was shocked, and asked if he could let everyone know. I said yes. When the people sitting with me at the bar area asked why (“We should be buying you something, it’s your birthday!”), I told them that when I was having dinner with friends last year a random stranger paid for our dinner – he said it was his birthday, and that every year he pays it forward. And that I liked that idea.

So, it appears Lindsay has done as such, and as you see in my Facebook comment I said “Let’s start a movement!”

Well, after today I think I have an idea of what this movement could be.

In a similar anecdote of random kindness, my friend Bonnie bought someone a cup of coffee who looked like he needed it:

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Again, I was humbled and inspired.

Fast forward to later this afternoon. I went to get my eyebrows waxed and there was a homeless woman right outside the door. She asked for money and I asked her if she needed something to eat, and she said she’d like a cup of coffee. I told her I’d get her something after I’m done at the salon.

While getting my eyebrows did, I had an idea. After I paid for the service, I flagged the woman down and gave her the Starbucks gift card that my sister gave me for my birthday last week (sorry Atey, but I feel like you would approve!). I told her that there should be about $20 on that gift card and that she could get coffee and some food too, if she’d like. She asked me if the card was for a particular Starbucks and I told her she can go to any one she wanted – she then broke out into a huge smile and said thank you.

It was in this moment where I came up with the idea for a movement.

I am calling it #kindnessbombs.

And I am calling them this for two major reasons:

  1. Bombs can drop on us unexpectedly. As evidenced by my friend’s experiences and the two I shared on this post, sometimes opportunities come up unexpectedly where you can drop a little kindness and it can completely transform someone’s day. It is a matter of being aware of those opportunities, and also realizing that it doesn’t take much to drop a little kindness on someone’s life.
  2. We are inundated with messages of hate and fear and to be quite frank I am sick and tired of it. I have decided that I am RE APPROPRIATING the negativity that comes with bombs, and turning it on his head – instead of the fear mongering and hatred associated with dropping bombs, let’s show the world that LOVE > FEAR with our kindness bombs. Always.

So what do you think – is this worth a go? Do you think we can drop some #kindnessbombs this week, this month, this year, this century? Can we work together to create a movement that focuses on kindness instead of opposition or worse –Ā indifference?

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m ready.

So let’s do this.

My 30th Birthday Gifts To You

It is now 12:30 a.m. on March 16th.

30 years ago I was born at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philly.

Today is my birthday.

I’ve decided to do something a little different today. After watching the movie Happy (which was recommended to me by one of my students, thanks John!), I realized that it is in the act of giving that we derive much happiness. So, in the spirit of today, I decided to do some giving of my own on a more interesting scale:

 

For those of you who weren’t able to follow my verbage, the first 30 people who reach out to me (via email, text message, FB message, tweet, commenting here, etc.) will be given a YouTube video gift from me in the format of their choice. Those of you who know me well know that I love to sing, but I am also open to reading your favorite poem, acting out your favorite scene from a play or a movie, writing a spoken word on your favorite topic – your choice! I can’t guarantee that I can get them all done in the most timely fashion (especially while wedding planning, whoops haha) but it will get done I promise!

The final products will all be compiled here. I will make sure to let y’all know via social media when things get uploaded, and we’ll see how this goes!

Yay birthday! šŸ™‚

 

Hiding Behind the Rockstar Glasses: Confessions of an Overwhelmed, Overachieving Academic

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Hello everyone. My name is Rowena. I am a junior faculty member. And I am a non-stop workaholic. And an achievement whore. And a people pleaser.

…what happens when you come across a non-stop working, people pleasing, achievement whore, you may ask? Well, let me tell you…

You end up with an overwhelmed, over committed, anxiety-and-depression-driven young academic who is getting BURNT OUT to the max.

No, I am not writing this to evoke sympathy. I am writing this to shed light on an issue that based on many informal conversations with colleagues and friends, seems to be taking hold of so many bright, motivated, capable academics, which to me may lead to folks not reaching their full potential. And that’s just plain sad.

With that said, I can’t speak for those colleagues and friends. You will need to ask them for their stories. Here, I finally found the time (and the courage, to be perfectly honest) to share mine. So here goes:

I have had the basic gist of this blog post in the back of my mind for months now, and it remained there until winter break, when I finally had enough time and energy to write what has been on my mind and heart for a while. The bottom line is this: the fact that I couldn’t carve an hour of my day to write this post is nobody’s fault but my own. Again, I am not here to make a sob story out of my extremely busy life, which in 9 times out of 10, is a very fun, exciting life.

No, the goal of this post is to share how I’ve felt and what I’ve learned/am learning about stress management and balancing it all within the confines of the academy, and to “come out of the closet” by explicitly stating that it has truly been a struggle.

That last point is actually what inspired the title of this post. When you graduate from a top Research 1 institution having folks tell you that you’re a “very strong job candidate,” followed by several years at your new job with everyone telling you that “you’re a rockstar, you’re going to get tenure, how do you do it all, etc. etc.” – can I just be vulnerable and frank for a second and say that there have been times when the pressure can be super overwhelming, and the expectation to be amazing all the time can be exhausting in and of itself? Throw in the fact that you’re generally a very extroverted, happy, fun person with a touch of perfectionism and the anxiety associated with being “on” at all times is even greater.

This all reminds me of when I watched the Chris Farley documentary over the summer. Here is a comedian who is loved by so many people, who made so many folks laugh with his work…however deep inside he was so self-deprecating, so lonely and sad, and was so damn hard on himself. Now I don’t do comedy (though folks have encouraged me to consider it, why I don’t know?), but in many ways what I do at work can be seen as a performance: I have to win over my students every semester, produce kick-ass research, and be a team player (hmm, like The Second City?) through service obligations. And like Farley, there have definitely been moments where I am downright not kind to myself – I get upset that I didn’t say something correctly at a meeting, my teaching didn’t go as well as planned, the part of the manuscript I wrote for my research team reads like shit, the list unfortunately can go on and on.

But here’s the catch: when you’re trying your best to parade around campus like a rockstar, when you are trying to perform like Farley did, how can you tell folks that you are in fact, really struggling, and admit to yourself that you can’t do it all, and that you need to either step away, push back, or get help?

It’s taken me a lot of self-reflection (and a ton of therapy too, I’ll admit) but here is what I’ve gathered and can share:

  1. Be transparent. I don’t know if it was a power dynamic thing, but I came to the realization that I had been more honest with my students than my colleagues when it came to my stress. When I finally “came clean” to some of my co-workers, many of them said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were struggling, you always seemed so put together at work.” Lesson learned folks: you don’t need to look a hot mess at the workplace, but perhaps being transparent to those you trust at work can help you find the support you need to get through the day. Which brings me to #2…
  2. Find the type of social support you need. For me, I have folks at work who serve as mentors, sounding boards, mental health checkers, accountability buddies, listeners…[insert supportive role here]. And then of course, I have folks outside of work who serve the important purpose of listening to me if I need to vent about work (but who aren’t completely in the context), as well as take my mind off of work if I need to relax. I must say that my fiance does a *fantastic* job of doing this, which is one of the many reasons why I am marrying him. So find those folks, and never let them go. šŸ™‚
  3. Learn how to say no. Yes, I understand, this is very difficult to do as an untenured, junior faculty member, but as a mentor once told me, you have to set boundaries for yourself because no one else will. Trust me, I had to learn things the hard way (namely in the form of kidney stones the summer after my second year as a faculty member) – it’s #NOTWORTHIT. As my therapist once asked me, “What’s the worst that will happen if X doesn’t get done?” This makes you wonder. Will your whole department/university crumble upon itself if you say no/ask to extend the deadline/graciously give the task to someone else? No? Then don’t feel bad about passing an opportunity to make more space for the things you actually want to do. Thus, in a related vein…
  4. Learn when to say yes. One of my wonderful colleagues Scott Sherman put it this way – when it comes to agreeing to take on tasks, ask yourself: (1) Will this be helpful for tenure purposes? If not, then (2) Is this something I’m personally super passionate about? If not, then (3) Am I going to get paid big bucks to do this? Also folks, remember that saying “Let me think about it” is a perfectly acceptable response. I know that if you are a people pleaser with social anxiety like me this may come off to you as not being a team player (or worse, you may think you’re being an asshole), but #letsbehonest to ourselves with some positive self talk. Remember: saying you’re “thinking about it” means you are being realistic and thoughtful about what you have on your plate, which is much more appreciated in the end than a half-assed product.
  5. Lastly, continue to do things outside of work that make you happy, and STAHP feeling so damn guilty about it. I am scolding myself just as much as I am scolding everyone else. Case in point: I love to dance. I used to go to salsa on the regular, take kizomba classes, and attend dance socials. At the beginning of the academic year I was dancing 2-3 times a week. Then what happened? The mid-semester beast engulfed me yet once again and instead I found myself going home every night, exhausted and feeling depressed (probably because I wasn’t dancing as much but I was too damn tired, perpetuating an awful cycle that was too difficult to break) and I found myself feeling overwhelmed and unhappy. To that I say #nothankyou – let’s break this nasty cycle! Find/embrace your most beloved hobby and run/dance/draw/sing/read/yoga away with it! I’m going to try harder in 2016 for sure, so keep me accountable. šŸ˜‰

Those of you who know me know that I am a very giving person by nature (much to my detriment at times, but let’s leave that for another blog post haha) – for me, this post not only serves as my outlet/therapy, but it is my commitment to not go down this path of burn out and isolation, but to crawl out of the hole, come out of the closet, and pay it forward to future junior faculty out there by serving as a role model. A model of a faculty member who is definitely human and in no way perfect, but who strives every single day to do what is best for her body, soul, and mind first and foremost, and to do everything in her power to do her job as best as she can in a way that can help as many people as possible.

For me, I’ve decided that I’m choosing people over publications, I’m choosing relationships over results. Maybe it’s stupid. Maybe it’s unwise. Who knows, maybe it will eventually kill my chances of tenure. But for me, it’s the choice that makes sense. For me, it’s the choice that makes me feel happy and fulfilled. And at the end of the day, when I am looking back at my life, I’m the only person I need to please in the long run so that’s what I’ve ultimately decided I’m going with.