Staying positive in a world of toxicity

Yoga keeps me sane. Period.

Yoga keeps me sane. Period.

Like most families, mine has gotten the celebration of holidays down to a science. Most of the time the dinner table overflows with food, laughs and surrounding family members, but this year my Christmas came with a side of dysfunction next to the gravy boat.

One family member, who will remain nameless (a girl never reveals her sources), has a difficult time getting through the holidays because of a recent loss. But rather than sharing the burden with all of us in a healthy way, the individual chose to nitpick and yell at virtually everyone at the table, all in front of my poor grandfather, who by the end of it looked like he was one short breath away from a coronary.

And I can’t say I blame him. Nor do I particularly harbor resentment toward the family member – loss affects us all in different ways. But nobody expects such behavior over turkey and stuffing, and on days like these I find myself wishing people who act in such a way did not exist.

In my short lifetime, I’ve encountered many people like this. I’d venture to say we all have. The Debbie Downers. The Negative Nancies. Those people whose mere presence is so toxic it sucks all the air out of the room and replaces it with anxiety and contempt. And at a time where my life has endured such tumultuous change, I find myself still navigating healthy ways to confront the negativity knocking at my door without inviting it in for dinner and a movie.

A majority of the time, my life as a 22-year-old feels like this: a struggle between the reserve to stay positive and the urge to let myself give up, just for one day. During the two week break from work I’ve experienced both: I’ve shooed away the self-critiques that tell me I’ll never amount to anything, encouraging myself to keep pushing for another semester of all 4.0s (I didn’t mean for that to be a humble brag, but hell, I worked hard for these grades and I’m gonna brag about ‘em).

But there have been a couple days where I’ve felt so discouraged it rendered me frozen in bed, absentminded and at a loss. We’ve all had those days – we scroll through social media sites endlessly, reading the same status eight times because we just can’t retain any more information in our tired brains. And what we do retain is typically the positive things our Facebook “friends” are doing with their lives, which really just translates to a comparison pity party. We watch Netflix until our brains go blank, numbing ourselves enough to get through the day without a legitimate thought. Because thoughts about our future mean we have to consider taking risks, and risks can mean failure.

So how do we, as newly-functioning young adults, begin to tackle these feelings? How can I, a person who has never been comfortable settling academically or professionally, let go of all that negative, toxic mojo and focus on all the positives on the flip side?

Thus far, I’ve found the true power comes from recognizing that the coping mechanisms I’d previously used in times of trouble simply weren’t cutting it anymore. I used to go to family and close friends often for advice, but as the only person in both groups pursuing post-graduate studies I’ve found they often can’t relate to what I’m going through. This in turn makes me compare my struggles to theirs, which never bodes well amongst other 22-year-olds who already have full-time careers (*cries*). Or even worse, there are times where they throw up their hands, sigh and say “I don’t know what else to tell you.” Those eight words translate to “I give up,” which then makes me want to give up as well.

So rather than overwhelming my closest loved ones with problems they can’t relate to, I have found myself confiding in some acquaintances and friends I’ve met at school. They can all relate to my struggles – always being broke, family/relationship stress – and nothing has made me feel better than realizing I’m not alone. When in doubt, it helps to surround myself with people who are as passionate about social work as I am to push me further.

Another avenue of positive reinforcement is a friendly trip to the online classifieds for jobs in my field. When dozens of openings fly down my screen, I heave a sigh of relief: “There are jobs!” Although I can’t have any of them yet (God willing), it’s extremely encouraging to know I’ll also be compensated relatively well for all my trouble.

If the aforementioned methods just aren’t cutting it, I take a slightly simpler psychological approach: working my butt off at the gym. Whether it’s an hour of yoga or some intense cardio, it typically does the trick. On mornings where I don’t have work or class until later in the day, I love nothing more than spending an hour kicking my own ass to the beat of Missy Elliott or Britney Spears, then coming home and making my favorite post-workout meal: 2 eggs, a bagel and a banana. Don’t ask me why, but the routine found within the little moments makes life seem less abysmal for the day.

At this point, I want what every 22-year-old wants: a great job with sizable benefits, a pretty apartment and a car that came off the assembly line some time after the new millennium. But until all of the items on my ultimate wish list fall into place, I’m just going to have to find ways to keep myself upbeat and positive. Really, it’s what we all want: something to pass the time until the “next big thing” comes along.

But my needs are deeper than that. I refuse to live my life believing that the next promotion, or a big happy wedding, or another degree will make me happy. The cheesiest fortune cookie scripts and dial-a-minute mediums tell us to be happy in the moment, and it might make me a Pollyanna to believe it but if it gets me through, then I can’t apologize for that.


Should I stay or should I go: navigating the part-time job Sahara

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You're welcome.

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You’re welcome.

There’s this dream I keep having, night after night. I’m working with a research team in a clinic, performing behavioral assessments on patients for a new study. Everyone’s calling me “Doctor” Abdilla, but not the white coat-wearing variety. They’re coming to me with all their questions, and I have all the answers.

In this dream, I’m wearing bookishly high-fashion glasses, and my cable-knit sweater is J. Crew (hey, scientists can adore fashion too!) I’m the Christina Yang of behavioral science, and I couldn’t be happier with my research.

Fast-forward, and our work has made national news, and by some miracle no reporter has messed it up or misquoted me (har-har, journalist friends). We’re nominated for awards, and other behavioral scientists across the globe know all about it.

…Ok, do me a favor and please pretend that’s not as nerdy as it sounds. Do that, and I’ll pretend it’s not a huge change of pace from my daily work: a teaching assistant at a preschool.

That’s right. At night I’m having these dreams, and during the day it is my sole duty to make sure my bustling four-year olds don’t murder or maim each other. At this point in my life, I’m standing at the crossroads between making the best of the situation or moving on to bigger and better things. Or, perhaps there’s a third option: making my current job bigger and better by finding it in myself to make it a positive experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. Really, I do. When they don’t make me want to stab child-size pencils through my eyeballs, which is often, they’re adorable and sweet and fun.

This undertaking of mine – it’s sort of like that one couple everyone knows. They’ve been together forever, even though everyone except them seems to know it just isn’t working anymore. When it’s good it’s great, but when it’s bad, the whole world knows it. Yet they keep trying, hoping for a different outcome.

So instead of doing the same thing over and over, I’m trying to make some changes. And, like it does for many others, to me the challenge often feels like the riddle of the Sphinx. 

For the past few months I’ve searched for methods to make matters more interesting: reading books about cognitive restructuring, researching new methods of conflict resolution and assessing the progress of children with behavioral problems. None of these things are required for the job, but somehow it makes me feel like I’m contributing more than I was previously.

In other words, I’m looking for new ways to be challenged.

On its face the job should be simple, straightforward. But I am not a simple girl. Nor am I overly attached to the education system unless I’m talking about reforming it.

So reform it I shall. Through the eyes of my kids, I will make changes.

Although this blog might provide evidence to the contrary, I don’t think my needs are all that different from every other student my age. I want the stress and craziness of a full day’s work. I want a challenge. More than anything, I want the chance to put my skills to good use and prove myself as a competent, professional human being.

In other words, I want the life I most likely will have to wait until post-graduation to see and experience. At the moment, what I’m struggling with most is the discrepancy between what I want and what I’ve learned in the social work sector thus far.

But this is the career situation I signed up for. This is the delayed gratification I know will come. I knew this when I got into my first grad school. I’ve made my postgrad bed, but do I have to lie in it for so long?

Well for now, I just have to let it lie. But that doesn’t mean I can’t flip the pillows and see my job from a new perspective.

When working with kids, it’s so easy to let the microscopic transgressions overtake you. But instead of getting fed up and giving up, for the time being I’m taking on the challenge in stride and waiting for the next opportunity to learn.


The good, the bad and the sleepy: 10 of my daily thoughts as a grad student

Like many other disgruntled, misguided twenty-somethings, I have a love-hate relationship with my decision to pursue a Master’s degree right after undergrad. While it might sound vaguely impressive/fancy to others, I’m definitely enduring some serious growing pains in my first semester of grad school.

So instead of attempting to compare my experiences to others, I thought I’d give a glimpse into the daily thoughts that cross my mind in my pursuit of this fancy degree.

  1. Why wasn’t one degree enough?! As the only person in my friend group pursuing grad school, I have a unique perspective on adulthood – y’know, being that I’ve delayed experiencing it for the next two years and all. While most of my close friends are getting “big girl” jobs and moving into their first apartments, writing 20-page papers and preparing for field placements has become my full-time job (plus a part-time job on top of that.) While I’m happy for my friends, I also wonder why I couldn’t join the ranks of the real world like the rest of them rather than torturing myself with two more years of economic insecurity and mental insanity.
  2. Why can’t I leave my bed? Everyone remembers the glorious weekend mornings of undergrad. We were the kings and queens of brunching, laundry and relaxation. Fast-forward four years: in those rare moments when homework is done, all of my waking hours are spent doing these such things. Does this make me lazy? Probably. Can I motivate myself to do something a little more productive? Absolutely not. After a long day of class, work and homework, I want nothing more than to spend the evening crying over Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve earned that right, if I do say so myself.
  3. Am I secretly a grandma? When I was still at Michigan State, I never knew what adventures the day would hold. I was ready to go out and have a good time at the drop of a hat. Nowadays, I’d be hard pressed to put pants on, much less leave the house. I’m over spending nights in crowded bars, being forced to listen to the boring lives of trendy strangers I don’t care about. I’d much rather enjoy dinner and cocktails with my girls, or go to a new art gallery, or do anything that doesn’t involve frat boys. Does this make me a grandma? Potentially. But I have no regrets.
  4. Holy moly, this debt is horrifying. Whenever I’m in a particularly dark place, I start racking up the potential student loan debt I’ll have incurred by graduation. Then I think, “…who needs kids and a house, right?” That’s when the panic sets in, when I picture myself swimming in debt until my mid-50s. What can I say? I’m an emotional cutter and a glutton for financial punishment. But seriously — we as a country have mastered the cure for certain cancers, but we haven’t figured out a more effective way to help students pay for college reasonably? So much for the American dream.
  5. How did I go without this much sleep?! As an undergrad I felt invincible. A normal day meant class in the morning, covering crime at my job at night, then homework and potentially bed, unless one of my my friends dragged me out of bed so I could have some semblance of a social life. I remember having days where I actually forgot to eat — for anyone who really knows me, this is tough to imagine. Every day I got up and did the same routine, and somehow I had energy to go out on the weekends. No 8 a.m. class, murder trial or shot of tequila could vanquish me. Nowadays, every extra 15 minutes of sleep feels like my kryptonite. I see a future filled with flannel sheets and down-filled blankets, and I will not apologize for it.

But as with any situation, I’ve got some positive thoughts squeezed in there somewhere. These are the daily reminders that get me through:

    1. I’ve never felt so blessed. Despite the aforementioned complaints, grad school is also a relief in many ways. While I achieved some success as a journalist, I felt incessantly nagged by the feeling I wasn’t truly supposed to be there. Social work feels like the perfect fit I never had with journalism. I’m surrounded by so many positive, passionate people, and they drive me to expand my mind and life every day.
    2. The passion never ends. My professors always tell me that as a social worker I will most likely never be out of a job. Even one semester in, the true need within the social services sector has become evident to me. There’s a new social or political issue to learn more about and help work through around every corner, and it’s incredibly exciting to think of the many lives I can live as a social worker. There’s this constant opportunity to reinvent myself. But deeper than that, there are thousands of people I can reach and help.
    3. There’s so much excitement for the future. My mind is constantly buzzing with potential research ideas, additions to my future thesis and practice wisdom professors and supervisors have instilled in me. I’m that girl who keeps a notebook with her constantly, just in case I think of something so brilliant I’m bound to forget it unless it’s written down. While I’m partially impatient for graduation because I’m sick of 100-plus pages of reading per night, it’s mostly because I can’t wait to get out there and make the difference I’ve been aiming for.
    4. All the unpleasant parts of undergrad are behind me. This includes working for less than minimum wage. And taking the God-forsaken bus to class. And strange men peeing in my apartment doorway in the wee hours of the morning (yes, this actually happened.) I’m not any wiser, now I’m just old enough to not tolerate this crap. Good riddance.
    5. I’ll be making WAY more money two years from now. Aside from my complete and utter love of everything concerning social work, the fact that I could potentially be making upwards of $10K more per year than I would have as a journalist doesn’t hurt. I’ll definitely need it to pay off those student loans. Although being broke is difficult now, the extra two years of suffering will be better off financially in the long run (hopefully).

Anything you think I missed? Feel free to share!