Monday, September 23, 2019

Learning to live, part III.

Part I here.
Part II here.

Photo by Tanja Pearson of My MOD Images.

Have you ever moved before? I can't speak for anyone else, but each time I have relocated from one home to another, I've been confronted by the harrowing realization I have a lot of CRAP and it all needs to GO, immediately. A trait I inherited from my mother, actually.

It's not until the moment I have to put everything I own in boxes (of which there are never enough, I might add) that I get this insatiable urge to donate or discard every single one of my earthly possessions. Even things I once considered important or valuable. No object is safe. Each is a potential victim of what I call The Purge. The items which end up taped securely in the confines of cardboard survive The Purge. All others do not.

It's weird. Prior to packing for a move, I simply co-exist with all this junk in my house and it troubles me very little. But moving is one of those big life events that triggers the desire to eliminate stuff with wild abandon. And it turns out, similarly momentous events can trigger other types of purges in me, too.

When I lost my mom and consequently, my sense of safety and normalcy, I soon realized my mind had become a dire hoarding situation. I had collected so much extra stuff over the years. But in my state of grief, I had no idea what to do about it. It was like the movers had shown up with their truck, and it was time to go into this new phase of post-loss life, but not a single box had been packed.

I tried to manage this situation in several ways. One was to acquire more stuff, as if I could perhaps use new things to cover up the stench emanating from my existing collection of junk. I started saying "yes" to everything anyone offered me. More private music students? YES! A job playing piano for a high school music program? YES! Two social media management jobs? YES! More responsibilities at church? HECKIN' YES!

At first, it was fun. I felt an incredible surge of energy (I would later learn this was actually a form of mania). I was doing stuff, and doing it well. Not just surviving, but thriving. A rock star.

Take that, tragic, untimely death of my mother!

Then, it started to catch up with me. It was no longer fun. It was hell.

I was staring at my trash heap of distractions one day, and I realized they were covering up all kinds of torment I couldn't bear to address. Grief. Inadequacy. Doubt. Pain. I had some work to do. But I had just committed to so many shiny new endeavors, and I couldn't just walk away from them! Jenna Elizabeth Haney Foote DOES NOT QUIT. Ever. She sees things through. She is a badass. She can be counted on!

So I kept trying. And that's when the real trouble began -- the manic-depressive cycles.

I had never experienced mania before. I woke up one morning around 3:00 and I wasn't tired. Every day of my life prior, if I woke up before 7 AM, I was dead to the world. But not this day. I was not only not tired, but I was full of energy and devoid of any feelings aside from pure euphoria. It felt like a vacation! I woke up and single-handedly trimmed every bush in my entire yard. Which sounds awesome, I know. But for a grieving mother with chronic pain, anxiety, and depression who might get a single load of laundry done on a good day, this was highly unusual behavior. Especially on a sweltering day in August.

Also on that day, I cut then-3-year-old Clara's hair into a very short bob. VERY short. Mind you, I am not a hair stylist and have exactly zero formal training on the matter. Also, I USED CRAFT SCISSORS TO DO THIS. (It actually turned out super-cute, but that is neither here nor there.)

This abnormal behavior of waking up at unusually early times with boundless energy and unfounded ambition to Cut Stuff continued for a few more days, and then almost as abruptly as it began, it ended. I was left behind in a cloud of thick depression. Cold, painful sadness. Debilitating.

I saw this cycle  -- a few days of sudden onset mania, followed by weeks of depression -- occur several more times over the next 15 months. Each time, the manic behavior got a little riskier. On the third or fourth occurrence, I decided it was time to sell our house and move, AND accept a job offer I had no time for amidst the multitude of other things I was already doing. I was making other completely reckless choices, which both alarmed and thrilled me.

All of this came to a critical point at the end of 2018. Side note: there was this memorable episode of Hoarders I saw a long time ago where the person would buy stuff from Target and not even take the new items out of the shopping bags before throwing them on top of an existing heap of stuff and running out the door to buy more. Well, that was my life. I would run from my problems all day, distracting myself with unhealthy coping mechanisms like social media, Netflix, and the acquisition of more responsibilities, only to come back to see my piles of crud right where I'd left them, and I'd panic. I'd start the destructive behavior over again the next day.

Run, run, run away. I stopped eating. My hair was falling out in clumps. I was really sick.

I fantasized about abandoning everything and everyone. My escape became an obsession, until one day, I snapped. It was a dark day. I was ready to metaphorically burn it all down. I believed this was my only option. I would just have to start over. I couldn't face those insurmountable piles of stuff overtaking my life. The memories. The pain. The questions. The mental illness. I couldn't do it.

Dillon saw what was happening. He stepped in, took the figurative blowtorch out of my hand and said, "Let's get you some help." He saved me.

In that moment I broke, and The Purge began. I quit my whole life, as I often tell people. I had to. I frankly don't think I would've survived much longer had I not.

My calendar was somewhat comical for a while there -- nothing on it except for psychiatric therapy. Blank. A stark contrast to the multitudes of color-coded blocks which covered every inch of it just a week before.

I had to spend time in therapy learning some harsh truths and going through all my stuff, deciding what to eliminate. Slowly, I started fitting some things back in where they belonged. And if something didn't serve me, I dismissed it. Not heartlessly, though. Like Marie Kondo advises, I held each one and thanked it for the time it served me and blessed my life. And then, I sent it away.

I added new things to my life that would help me heal and focus. Yoga. Meditation. Myofascial therapy. Time with friends and family to make meaningful human connections.

I learned to set boundaries and to say no. I'm aware that the eliminations I've made in my life are confusing and even painful to some people. Maybe someday, I will talk more about the specific aspects of my life I have parted ways with to answer some questions about it. But today is not that day. It's still new to me. I am not ready.

I sometimes feel guilty for letting people down. I am working on it. I remind myself constantly that I had to do this, because I don't know how much longer I could've lived if I hadn't.

Shortly after I began The Purge, I got a fresh, new haircut and hired my dear friend Tanja Pearson to take photos of me. I had already begun to feel rejuvenated by that point, and I wanted to capture the new, healthier me. I scheduled the shoot around Dillon's birthday to present the images to him as a gift. Little did I know, these photos would be a gift to myself, too.

As I sat in Tanja's studio in March and smiled for her camera, I had an out-of-body experience. I saw myself as my mom always saw me -- as a whole, good, worthy person. And I saw her in myself. Completely without prompting, Tanja mentioned she saw it, too. Toward the end of her life, my mom was unapologetically herself. She did what was best for her. Even in her sickness and in her death.

I resolved that day to own my existence. To live. To move through the hard stuff, but to support and care for myself in the process. To honor my own wishes. To be mindful. To take care of myself so I could give more to those who I love.

A wise man once said, "Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured." And that's what I'm doing these days. I'm not all the way there yet. But I'm learning. I'm learning to live.


  1. Beautifully written. Your story is inspirational.

  2. It takes so much courage to share what you have been through. I really needed to read this today. Thank you!

    1. Thank YOU, Liz! And big hugs to you. These losses really transform us, and it can be scary. I love you.

    2. This is me, by the way. Jenna. I don't know why it says 'Unknown,' haha.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. I work with many patients who struggle with mental health and I always appreciate added insight into their mindset. I'm grateful you have found a healing path.


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