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Advent

Advent Art Collection Opening Soon!

November 10, 2018

A few months ago I began to ruminate on what it would look like to create a fine art Advent calendar that helped me stay centered spiritually throughout December. Like most people around the holidays, I become so caught up in all the hustle and bustle that I rarely take time to think about what the birth of Christ means for me and for the world we live in. I become so focused on myself and my family and friends that I quickly forget about those who may not have as much to smile about at Christmas. I also become caught up in the now of the holidays that I never think about the faithful that came before me, who have helped shape the hope I believe in today.

As I began brainstorming, I started to wonder what a daily centering of the Christmas season would look like. It’s not that I never hear the Christmas story, experience a service, or see a nativity scene. It’s just that these are big events, and it is hard to bring that experience along with me in the day to day life. I also have tried reading Christmas devotions each day, which can be good, but I honestly forget half the time. Either to read them or what exactly they said!

So I decided to create something to give me a simple way to be reminded of the joy, hope, and mystery of the season. To give me prompts for action to help others, center myself, and to create memories with friends. To share images that reflect these ideas and help me remember who God is. I created something to tell the Christmas story slowly, throughout the season, so that I can contemplate on the beautiful details of the birth of Christ. To find insight and inspiration from a variety of historical figures of faith who’s words are wise and time-tested. This is exactly what I have done, and it is the heart of the Advent Art Collection. This is what I will soon be sharing with you.

Advent, Calendar, Christmas, Christian, Gift

Example of the front and back of the fine art print for the Advent calendar. These are printed on an archival art linen paper.

Throughout the Advent calendar, there will be a variety of ways that you can connect with God. Most of these are short and simple, with a call to expand on what is written already on the card. There are days throughout December that share parts of the Christmas story. There are days with a simple prayer and additional scripture to read. There are days with a prayer and a simple prompt for an activity. There are days with part of a hymn quoted and a prompt to listen and soak in that hymn. There are days with beautiful quotes from a diverse group of faithful leaders from the past.

The calendar is created to either be used personally or as a family. Individually, you can meditate on the scripture, prayer, hymn or quote for the day. The prompts can be experienced alone or with a group of friends. If you are going through the calendar as a family, you can pray together, and read the Christmas story together. You can use the inspirational quotes as a starting point in learning about figures from the past. No matter how you use the calendar, it will be a starting place to guide you in what works best for yourself or your family.

I am excited to begin using the calendar myself. I know that this Christmas season I will still be busy, have fun, go to church, and most likely again bicker with someone. However, I will begin each day with just a few minutes of reflection, and looking at an image to remind me of the hope and love that this season brings. The shop will open next week. I can’t wait for you to see the final product and hope that you will join me! Follow along on Instagram until the shop is open for additional Advent Inspiration.

With Love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health

5 Facts About Mental Illness You Should Know, from Someone Who’s Been There

October 11, 2018

Woman suffering from mental illness

I still remember the first odd sound of anxiety that whispered in my ear and sat in my gut. It was 1989, and I was a shy skinny girl living in a small town in Georgia. I was supposed to go to my friend’s house that night, and I had packed a puff-paint t-shirt and was already wearing my pink jellies. I was the epitome of 80’s style with my short curly hair and large, peach glasses! When she and her mom arrived to pick me up, the fear that I would learn to know so well took hold of my mind, and I knew I couldn’t leave. I don’t remember if I cried and begged not to go or if my parents just thought I wasn’t feeling well. Either way, I sat on my bed that night feeling guilty about letting Kathy down, sad to miss a sleepover but relieved that my stomach wasn’t tight anymore. I was safe in my home with my parents I had nothing to worry about. I would be ok; next time would be better.

The truth is, I wasn’t better the next time. Or the time after that. And soon I could hardly be in a different room from parents without melting into a full-blown panic attack. My parents had to pick me up from school I don’t know how many times, and I began to see a psychologist, which brought on another round of panic since my parents couldn’t go in the room with me. Eventually, I was sent to a mental hospital in Atlanta where I stayed for two months, only being sent home because insurance ran out. There were no “Go Fund Me’s” in those days, and no online support groups for my parents to help them wade through this mess. It took years of struggle, therapy sessions, and a lot of fear to get to where I could live a more normal life after that.

Things have changed so drastically for me since I was that scared, unhealthy little girl. I got a degree, started a business, got married and became a mom. And I’m not embarrassed to talk about my childhood mental illness the way I was for over 20 years. In college, I finally dared to open up to others about it, and what I found was a tremendous amount of support, and surprisingly others who had been through similar things. My voice still shook as I shared, but slowly I got used to telling people I was once in a mental hospital.

This past year I have taken my boldest step in openly sharing by starting this blog. Even though my anxiety is not nearly as extreme as it was as a child, I still struggle with it and am now on medication that helps keep it at bay. I see a therapist when life gets too overwhelming for me to handle, I participate in small groups, and do my best to live as healthy as possible. There are good days and bad, as well as good and bad seasons, but on the whole, I feel empowered to work on my mental health continually. I also feel more empowered than ever to share my story in hopes to spread knowledge about mental illness and help break the stigma that surrounds it. The following are five facts that I believe are imperative for people to know about mental illness so that they have the knowledge and power to help themselves or others who are struggling.

1. You Probably Know Someone With a Mental Illness

You probably know several people, possibly even family members. If you can’t think of anyone, remember that you may not know that they have a mental illness because they are too embarrassed to share their struggles. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime? Out of those 1 in 5, only 44% of those who are suffering actually receive treatment. There are many reasons for this, and some of the most common are from stigma, discrimination, and lack of resources. Many people do not receive care because they are embarrassed or ashamed. They also may not know where to turn for help or have access to the care that is needed. This is why it is so crucial for the stigma around mental illness to end. We need to work for better care and access for those who need it.

2. People Who Have A Mental Disorder Can’t Just Snap Out Of It

I remember people telling me many times that I should just get over my anxieties. Sometimes it was out of frustration from those who loved me and wanted to help but didn’t know how. Sometimes it was from people I hardly knew saying things like “What’s so bad about (insert irrational fear)? I just think about (insert something happy)?” as if I hadn’t tried doing that a million times before. I’ve had people say that with more prayer, and more trusting in God, that things would get better. Can you imagine the shame that was felt when those things didn’t work? Would you tell a nine-year-old child, sick in a hospital, that if they simply trusted God more, they would get better? I’ve even had people tell me that they didn’t believe certain mental disorders were real, that they were just made up to try to get more kids on medication. The fact is, most people who have a mental illness have tried everything they can think of on their own to get better. And they really, really, really wish they could just snap out of it. Mental illness is complex and caused by many factors including biology, genetics, and trauma and can not be treated with three clicks of your heals and a wish to go home.

Additional Information on Causes of Mental Illness.

3. Having a Mental Illness Does Not Mean You Are Weak

A huge misconception about mental illness is that it means you are weak. I have often found that those I know with a mental illness are some of the strongest people I know! Because of the stigma around mental illness, it can take a lot of courage and vulnerability to ask for help. It can take a lot of strength to even get out of bed sometimes. What can be easy for most people can require much more hope, faith, and power for those facing a mental disorder. We often hear about how strong and courageous people are when they are battling a physical illness. Those with physical ailments go to doctors, ask for help, and share with others what is going on with them without worry of being shamed for their sickness. However, in our culture, this same reaction is not typical for those battling mental illness. So many cultural factors can play into why mental illness is often seen as a sign of weakness, or worse, not real. However, the bottom line is that this view has to change, and it can start with you. Be aware of how you discuss mental illness in your home, with your friends, and in your community. Be open about struggles you have and affirm and believe those who are struggling. Seek help when you need it. Not receiving proper treatment because of stigma, fear, and lies can have dire consequences, including death.

Read more about ways to help end the stigma with how you speak about mental illness.

4. 50% of All Lifetime Cases of Mental Illness Begin Before the Age of Fourteen

Not only that, there is on average an 8-10 year delay between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis! I am forever grateful that I was able to get treatment early and that my parents did their best in advocating for me. Our children need us to work on creating an environment where they can receive proper treatment long before this kind of delay occurs. Did you know that suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24? Did you know that 50% of students age 14 and older drop out of high school? Did you know that we can help make a healthier generation of kids through education, awareness, and resources for kids who have a mental illness? Let’s continue to spread awareness so that our kids have the best chance for a healthy life as possible.

You can find more information on helping your child with a mental health condition here.

5. Recovery is Possible, Never Give Up Hope

Amidst the troubling statistics surrounding mental health, I am happy to say there is good news. Recovery is possible, and we should never give up hope. What does recovery look like? It means that you can live a full life, make healthy choices, engage meaningfully with the world, and build relationships within a community. It can be a steep and winding road that includes many different aspects of care such as therapy, medication, and support groups. I think back to when my mind would not let me leave my parent’s side without dread and panic washing over me, and I see how far I’ve come. No offense mom, but I’m glad I was able to fly the nest! I wouldn’t mind a few fewer states between us though. I still think about what the man I grew up with told me, that I was the last person he had expected to do anything with their life, but his words have given me a different perspective over the years. We should never expect so little from those we know and love. Even when someone is at their worst and in the depths of despair, we should always have faith for a brighter future. Those fighting a mental disorder need people in their lives who believe in them and can carry some hope even if they can’t at the time.

If you or someone you love has a mental illness, or you suspect is suffering from one, NAMI is an incredible resource. They are a nonprofit and a leading voice on mental health. You will find referrals, support groups, and additional information on walking along with or through a mental illness.

Web: www.NAMI.org

NAMI Help Line: 800-950-6264

In a Crisis? Text NAMI to 741741

Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Faith, Mental Health

Why We Must Learn to Love Ourselves

October 2, 2018

I created this self-portrait several months ago and have been hesitant to share it for many reasons. I had been contemplating the idea of Imago Dei, or The Image of God for weeks. Imago Dei is a theological term that states that we are all made in the image of God. The implications of knowing this and genuinely believing it can be staggering and life-changing. To look into the eyes of someone who is different than you in every way possible, from beliefs and morals to appearance and class, and know that they reflect the image of God can turn how you see someone upside down.

As I reflected on this notion, I began to realize that for so long there was one person who I struggled with seeing God in the most. That person was me. From years of being raised and participating in a spiritual environment that considered sharing the love of God akin to convincing someone they were shameful, how I viewed myself was from an incredibly distorted lens. Rather than acknowledging, accepting, or moving forward from mistakes, or imperfections in my life, deep down I believed I was a mistake. My makeup was a mistake, my personality, my character, who I was made to be was a mistake. I was full of shame to my core.

I have spent the past 15 years slowly working my way out of this pit, through counseling, small groups, relearning what I believed about God, and a lot of self-reflection. I used to think that loving yourself was equal to self-centeredness, and often Christians bemoan the ideas of self-care or self-love and call it sinful. However, I now see these things as essential to begin to love anyone else. How can you see the worth and dignity of someone so different than you if you can’t even see it in yourself? How can you love a God and his creation if you see it as entirely flawed?

Throughout the years during my relearning, I had so many questions and doubts. I became fed up and hurt by others in a subset of Christian culture that became oppressive to me, but still held on to my faith. What ultimately kept me hanging on was seeing an open and unconditional love in the person of Jesus that I have not seen anywhere else. I also found a beautiful way to live, when taught from this base of unconditional love, through what is at the core of His teachings. What is at the core of his teachings? To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. It rolls off the tongue so easily, but to put into practice is so hard. Loving your neighbor, loving those who are different, loving your family, loving those that have done great harm. It can be incredibly hard. But we hardly talk about that last part, for many the most difficult part, the part where you love yourself. And to love others fully, and properly, you have to be able to do that. If you can’t see that you are worthy, that you are deserving, that you are made in the image of God and loved by Him, how can you find value and worth in others, especially others you don’t understand.

So I made this image. It is me, standing strong, and facing out into the world. This is me knowing that I am full of imperfections, that I’ve made mistakes, but I am loved, lovable, and worthy. This is the same person whose culture told her that she is disobeying God by having anxiety and worry. That she is not pretty. Not smart. Incapable. That she was the last person they had expected would do anything with her life. That she is too quiet and shy. That she is too opinionated and loud. That she is not good enough and never will be. This is the same woman that had to fight to be heard in her career as a photographer. That was shown she could never teach men about God because of her gender. That when she started to use her voice, her shakey timid voice, she received screams, letters, accusations, and worse, rejection from those she loved. Most of all, this is a woman who is learning to love herself.

For some people, loving themselves comes easy. So easy in fact that they only love themselves and no one else. However, for many of us, it takes work and patience and courage to learn to love ourselves. I see this particularly in women, this struggle to know and respect our value. Over and over again, women are told, through words, actions, and media that their bodies and voices are not respected in this world. Their bodies are too much, their words too much, their anger, their sadness, their hurt, TOO MUCH.

I looked at this photo today to remind me of who I am, and that who I am has value in the world. So often our world, our culture or even our family and friends share things or tell us things, that make us question our humanity. I often feel a sense of despair when I see how others are treated on social media, or by our government, or by the people I walk by on the street. I despair to see the hate that comes out with so many missing the fact that this person who they were taught to hate has the Imago Dei in her.

This despair, however, has built in me a desire to remind the women reading this that each of you has immense value and worth. If you are afraid of being who you were created to be or feel shame for who you are, know that you are loved fully and completely. That if you are afraid of being too much, remember that you are enough. That whether you are quiet, or loud, whether you are married or single, or passionate or even-keeled, you are made to be you. You don’t have to hide who you are. Your voice is essential, your body is important, you being here and a part of this crazy life is imperative.

I still struggle to see myself through a lens of love and probably always will. But I will continue to remind myself and others of the truth of our value no matter what the world says. Women, let us remember today our worth, no matter what others may say. No matter what our government says, or our abusers say, or unfortunately for many, what our churches say. If your worth and value and dignity are questioned, please know that you are listening to a lie.

I challenge you today to take an image of yourself, just for you. Don’t be afraid to stand firm and bold and be proud while you take it. Forget the naysayers and how awkward it can feel taking a self-portrait. Don’t think about the quality, this is just for you and you are in control. Look at your photo and try to see past what you consider your flaws. Look past the parts of you that you hate, that you want to change. Look beyond memories and shame that haunt you and see that there’s love and beauty there. Look at your image and say “I am made in the Image of God.” Those curves, that hair, that skin, that nose that you may hate. It is the image of God that resides in there. You are loved fully and completely. You are valuable. You are worthy. You are not a mistake.

*Let me know if you took an image of yourself today and how it made you feel, being in control. Leave a comment here or send me a message, I would love to hear from you.

Love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Travel

A Summer of Adventure and How Travel Can Change Your Soul

August 25, 2018


This summer has been incredible for our family. We have traveled all over, from the gulf coast of Alabama to the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, and we recently returned from our most remarkable trip to date, almost two weeks in Europe! Being able to experience a summer together fully is one of the many reasons I decided to leave wedding photography. For most of our marriage, summer has been a season of hard work where we missed many family vacations and experiences because of weddings. Although I know a packed summer like this one won’t be possible every year, it is nice to have the freedom to travel and be together without being tied down to work every weekend.

Family photo from our vacation in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Monroe and I canoeing towards our campsite on the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota.

The three of us together as we cruised on the fjords of Norway near Bergen. One of the most amazing experiences of our trip!

Travel has always been an integral part of my life, and I don’t say that lightly. I also know it is a great privilege that I have been afforded in so many ways and I am incredibly grateful. I still remember writing down my dreams in the sixth grade, and one of them was to visit Paris. I honestly thought I would be old and gray if that ever even happened, and then when I was 14, I found myself on a plane with my family to Paris. They discovered a fantastic deal from a local radio station planning a group trip, and that Thanksgiving we ate quail instead of turkey and I experienced my first taste of life outside the US.

Since that first grand travel experience, I have flown as far away as China and canoed to the border of Canada. I have made friends in other countries who have opened my eyes to beautiful ways of life that are entirely different than my own. It helped shape my view of the world to include and value people, customs, countries, and lifestyles that differ from mine and radiate such loveliness no matter where I find them. Before I first ventured outside the US South, the only world I thought much about was the one spinning around me. After seeing for the first time that there was so much life that happened outside of what I knew, my heart began to grow to make room for the people and places I had yet to encounter.

Learning a Chinese dance while visiting circa 1999.

A traditional Spanish tea while spending a summer in Spain circa 2000. I don’t remember what trouble I was apparently getting into!

Along with introducing me to new people, ideas, and cultures, travel has always been a source of healing for me. My exact diagnosis as a child when I was sick with a mental disorder was separation anxiety. Although there was a lot more going on with me, this was the most prominent part of what I was experiencing. At the core of everything I struggled with was a fear of loss of control and safety. Eventually, my parents were the only things in my life that felt safe, so at my worst, I could hardly be in a separate room from them without suffering a panic attack. I rarely even wanted to leave the house. As I began to heal and face what I was afraid of, I secretly made a new rule for myself. If I was fearful of something, then I had to do it. No backing down, no shriveling back into my panic. I never wanted to be so out of control again. I followed this rule in many parts of my life, but the time that it really tested me was when I was 16 years old. I had a chance to be a part of an exchange program in Holland, a month on another continent staying with people I had never met. The moment I felt the fears role in, the fear of flying, the concern regarding my safety, the trepidation of the unknown, I knew that “no” was not an answer for me. I had to go. After what was an incredible experience, many more yes’s came out of my mouth, yes’s to flights I didn’t want to take, and boat rides that made my stomach drop, yes’s that were quivering with fear, but yes’s that healed me each time they were said.

My first visit to Amsterdam. I guess I’ve always loved birds… or they’ve always loved me.

My exchange partner and friend Machteld looking very Dutch, circa 1997.

While I was in Holland, I was thrown into a ring riding contest and parade, wearing a traditional Dutch outfit and trying to get a stick through a small ring. I did not do well but laughed a lot!

Travel also helped me in directly establishing a time for bringing peace and life into my soul. It is an incredible way to step back and recharge. It can inspire you to dream and relax, to focus on the ones you love, and feel what its like to live in the moment. You don’t need glamorous destinations for this, just a tent and some camping gear and you can have an inexpensive getaway. This summer our family traveled to the Boundary Waters and canoed for three days. Three days of no cell service in the most peaceful place I’ve ever been. It was a fantastic experience and only a 5-hour drive from home.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to share with you images and stories from our trip to Norway and Sweden along with some practical travel and photography tips to help on your next adventure. I am also going to share some of the family and cultural history that we learned as we traveled Norway where my husband’s great-grandparents were born, and what we learned about ourselves as a family of three. As you follow this series, I want you to begin to dream about where you want to go next and what you are open to learning about this incredible world. If an overseas trip isn’t possible for you now, I am going to share some ways I’ve been able to learn about other traditions and cultures right in my backyard as well as small trips that are possible here in the US. Even though some days I dream of jumping on a plane to a distant land to live, I can’t help but think about what I love the most about America, the place I call home. It is a land of people from all over the world, people who can be so different from each other, in how they love, worship, and play. That is the beautiful fabric of our country, and we are each part of this diverse culture that makes up what is truly special about our land.

 

Love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health

The Silence of Depression and Anxiety

June 6, 2018

*This blog post has been updated to reflect the tragic death of Anthony Bourdain by suicide which occurred four days after the death of Kate Spade, who initially inspired me to write this piece.

Tragically, within the past four days, we have lost two great creatives to suicide. Kate Spade, an icon in the fashion world, and Anthony Bourdain, a storyteller, chef, and inspiration around the world. I wrote the following during a bout of anxiety about what can happen to me and others when we are in the middle of our illness.

There are times I fall silent. The silence ripples throughout my life. My friends hear from me less, I miss social outings, and my world becomes small and inward. The silence also happens on social media, in my business, and in my heart. Silence doesn’t say much, and because of this it is a wearisome place to be and is hard for those I’m in a relationship with. The only person I consistently and honestly share this time with is with my husband Peter, and I am so thankful for his open heart and support. Today I will share a little bit about this silence that can be interpreted in so many ways. It can be seen as being flakey, uninterested, contentment, and snobbery. However, it is typically from mental illness taking hold, and the outward silence is caused by how loud things are inside.

My anxiety can pop up at any time, caused by an emotional reaction to something stressful, or it can randomly wake me up in the middle of the night while my heart starts pounding out of nowhere. I feel it physically in my chest and my stomach, often with waves of nausea that stress me out even more. I feel it in my head as my worry runs away from me and I start to live in the what may happen as opposed to the what is happening with all the love and light around me. If I have to miss something, Peter will often tell people I am feeling sick. Which I am, but a virus or an infection does not cause it. My mind does.

I do not enjoy talking or writing about the specifics of my illness even after thirty years of learning not to be ashamed. Feelings of shame come rushing in when I’m in the middle of not doing well. My illness can get old and be tiring for those around me. I miss out on a lot because of it and friendships can more easily fade because of this. There are no rules, and there is no guessing when my anxiety might pop up. Depression, which I suffer from as well, has a similar pattern, with waves that go up and down never being sure when it is going to crash.

Last night, after a beautiful and productive day, after an inspiring and encouraging week, the tightness in my chest settled in again. As I type, I want to be silent, and I don’t want to share. However, I know that I need to. I know there are others out there that have days, weeks, months and years who are overcome with sadness and worry along with the guilt of being silent. I know there are others who have friends and loved ones who they are frustrated with and hurt by, and then feel guilty because they know their companions can’t help it. To our loved ones, keep showing up. Keep letting us know you are there for us. Keep calling and texting even if you know it may be another “no” to your invite. Keep letting us know we are loved. Ask us if we are ok. There are some of you who have been ignored and shut out by a friend, and you don’t know why. Maybe this silent, invisible illness is why. For everyone who loves someone with a mental illness, keep pursuing us. Since the passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I have seen many people share encouraging those who are suffering to reach out. This is incredible difficult and often impossible for someone who is sick to do. Check in on us, let us know you still love us and can’t wait till you can hang out with us again. Show up our houses to see if we are ok. Please do not disappear. To everyone out there affected by mental illness, you are not only, you are loved, and there is hope for brighter days.

Do you want to help a loved one who is contemplating suicide and don’t know where to go? Do you need help? Are you in a crisis?  Visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and call 1-800-273-8255.

Love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Anxiety, Motherhood

Why I Never Wanted to Be a Mom and How I Became One

April 9, 2018

 

Monroe’s 6th birthday party.

A couple weeks ago was my son’s 6th birthday. It was a day filled with activities and a party that he invited almost every kid he knew to. Monroe LOVES people, and he loves parties, so a birthday celebration with just a “few close friends” makes no sense to him. He is so full of excitement about life that I am often overwhelmed with the fact that he is my son. It amazes me that my body carried and nurtured this creature for nine months, and here he is, six years later, still the most beautiful gift I have ever received. What amazes, even more, is that nine months before his birth, before I knew I was pregnant, I would have told myself that gift was something I didn’t want. I simply did not want a child.

It’s an odd thing to read those words out loud, words that when put together sound so bad. Saying that you don’t want kids stirs up so much for people, and many are judged harshly for speaking frankly about it. When people asked when we would have kids, I would reply with “I’m not sure right now” or “We’re not ready, maybe someday.” It is the well-known story of childless couples. Friends and family asking about kids, the couple awkwardly trying to answer in a way that keeps additional questions at bay. I always left the answer up in the air and hinted at the possibility of kids, because the truth was something too hard to share.

What was the truth? The truth was that I was terrified of having a child. I was terrified of being pregnant and birthing a baby. I didn’t want to vomit from morning sickness. I didn’t want to be in pain. I was terrified of being responsible for a newborn. I was terrified I would be a bad mom. I knew what having a child truly meant. I didn’t see squishy feet and tender moments when I thought of taking care of a baby. You tell me they are sweet and cuddly and oh so cute? Rock them and fall in love and live happily ever after? Oh no, I knew the truth. There would be crying and screaming and no sleep. My life would change. The amount of worry and fear that I already carried would have no end. What if I didn’t love my child? What if they hated me? What if I passed on everything I didn’t like about myself to them? Did I want to have a child only to give them this burden of fear that I have carried throughout my life? Would I pass on my anxiety disorder or another form of mental illness? Who was I to think that I could give something good to a child? I couldn’t share any of that with someone just trying to make conversation about children. If I did, I knew that the protests would start, “Oh, you’ll be a great mom! You are missing out on the most wonderful love you can imagine!” But they wouldn’t know. They didn’t know that I couldn’t do it and that I would fail. They didn’t know the REAL me.

Then it happened, I was going to have a baby. After Peter and I began to tell people, we had a family member ask us, “Were you guys so excited when you found out? Did you jump up and down yelling? That’s what we did when we found out about our son!” Peter and I just looked at each other and smiled, remembering that fateful day. We were not excited. We were scared.

I still don’t know what caused me to take the one pregnancy test that had been sitting in my bathroom closet for months. I was on birth control. Peter had been out of town for several weeks besides one short weekend so we could see U2 in concert. Thank you Bono. I hadn’t missed a period. I wasn’t sore. I didn’t feel sick. It was a whisper that stirred within me. The thought ran through my mind, “I think I’m pregnant.” I pulled out the test, peed on the stick, and bam. Two blue lines. I stared in shock. Is this real? The second line was faint, so I wanted to take another just in case.

Peter was at work, and at the time we only had one car. The only place close enough that I could walk to was a tiny grocery store down the street. As I started walking down the busy street, our dogs’ incessant barks rang in my ears. I could hear them taunting me the entire walk. The few short blocks felt like miles. The suspense was overwhelming.

When I arrived, I wandered the aisles looking for the pregnancy tests. Pads. Tampons. Condoms. No pregnancy tests. Maybe they were at the front. I couldn’t find them. I waited in line, nothing to buy in my hand, and finally asked the cashier where they were, my face blushing realizing this stranger was the first person to know what was going on.

“We don’t carry them, sorry.”

My mouth said “Okay.” But my mind said, “What kind of grocery store doesn’t carry pregnancy tests???!!!”

I walked back, sweat running down my face, trying to figure out what to do. I was sure every car that passed by me knew I was pregnant. It was the strangest walk of my life. There is no way I could wait five hours for Peter to come home. But I didn’t want to tell him over the phone. I decided to lie. As I neared our house, the dogs still screeching, I phoned Peter to say I was feeling sick. “You have to come home; I feel awful, and I need you here.”

He rushed home; I told him the second he arrived what was going on. He was stunned. We rode to Walgreens together in silence, grabbed the tests, and soon confirmed it was true. I was pregnant. Life as we knew it was over. With the grit and determination of Rambo going in for war, we would do whatever was necessary to get through the next eighteen years. It had to be done.

Slowly, excitement took over. We told our family and our friends, and we dreamed about what it would be like to have this child. It was a steady process and how this happened is another story for another day. By the time my water broke, I was like a kid waiting for Christmas not sure when Christmas day would be.

Our 2011 Pregnancy Announcement

Image by my sister, Jessica Mull.

Now, six years after my son was born, I can’t believe how many ways I was wrong. To be clear, it wasn’t the not wanting kids part that was wrong. I have friends that don’t want children, for different reasons than mine and have lovely and fulfilling lives. Where I was wrong was the belief that parenting is only a chore to get done with after a long 18 years. That child raising is hard work, and drudgery, and fear. That I could never be a good mom. That I wasn’t “motherly” or strong enough to raise a child. That once again, I would fail.

Photo by Peter Carlson

I look at my joyful son and my heart bursts with love. Seeing him grow and learn and love others is among the most remarkable experiences I have ever had. Knowing that when he is sad, he wants me to hold him and that I bring him comfort, security, and love is life-giving. I never knew how much FUN being a mom could be and how my heart could love so much. I had no idea I could be so strong, and do something that I never thought was possible.

Monroe’s Birth Story from Krystal Mann on Vimeo. The strongest I have ever felt.

Many of my fears have come true. Mothering can be hard and brutal and scary. I still struggle with anxiety every day, and I know that I am not and will never be perfect. Parenting is incredibly difficult. Even so, I would never give up being Monroe’s mom for anything.

Whenever Monroe’s birthday comes around, I think about how things used to be. I think about how things would be if Monroe never came into our lives. If I still believed that I couldn’t be a loving mom. Pondering his birth, I feel such gratitude. God gave me a chance to be a mom despite my fears, and I am so incredibly thankful. It has taught me that I am stronger than I ever imagined. It has instilled in me empathy and compassion for others who want to be mothers and can’t, and for those who are mothers but had to make the brave choice to trust their child’s care to someone else. It has helped me learn to see children, all children, through the eyes of parents the world over, no matter how different their circumstances and families are than mine. It has opened my eyes to the sorrows of families who experience oppression, marginalization, and who live in fear in our country. It has changed my heart’s desire not just to want what’s best for my child, but to want what is best for all children, listening and learning from their parents. It has humbled me to my core and has filled me with a love I could never have imagined. Being a mother has taught me that often what we don’t want can be the most incredible inspiration, teacher, and joy that we have ever had.

Simply put, Motherhood is the greatest surprise of my life.

Image by my sister, Ansley Orr.

 

 

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Motherhood

The Day My 5-Year-Old Told Me He Had Watched Topless Women on YouTube

March 6, 2018

This is my son, Monroe. He is warm, dramatic, funny, and always full of questions! From wondering why God made tornadoes if they can hurt people (good one, buddy!), to how images arrive on TV, and too many questions about science and dinosaurs that I have no clue about, I always find myself scrambling to figure out what to say. Of course, if I say that I don’t know he just tells me to “Google it up, mom!”. I love his inquisitive mind, and his questions about humanity, his feelings, and God become beautiful moments where we talk and explore different ideas together. However, today’s post is not about one of those questions.

The other day, Monroe asked me a question, and I had never been so stuck on how I should answer it.

“Mom, why do some girls wrestle with their shirts off?”

Uhhhhh……

My mind was racing, and then I realized that he could just be thinking of little girls his age playing at home without their shirts on. Ok, that’s probably it I thought.

“Well, when girls are little they sometimes like to run around and play at home with their shirts off like you Monroe.”

“No, no mom, not that. I mean grown-up girls. Why do they wrestle with their shirts off?”

So, I was wrong. He was talking about grown women wrestling with their shirts off. What in the world! Where had he seen this?! I had never sat my son down to watch a movie with topless women wrestling! How the heck do I handle this?!

I try to be careful of my reactions when I first hear him repeat or share things that concern me. Like the time he was running around screaming “D-mn it! D-mn it! D-mn it!” at a family Christmas party. Oops! I want him always to be comfortable asking me questions and telling me what is going on in his life. That means being considerate of him and taking the time to talk through situations instead of shaming him. In regards to the wrestling, I also wanted to be sure I didn’t shame the women he had seen. So I started as naturally as I could when answering his question about topless wrestlers without going into women’s liberation or sex in the entertainment industry. Or explaining that naked breasts are more than just for mommy’s milk. You know, trying to keep on topic for a 5-year-old.

“Well, um, sometimes women choose to do that because they think its fun, but it’s not something a lot of women do. ”

“And mom, their underwear went all the way up their bottom! It was so funny!”

My goodness.

He is cracking up and dancing, imitating the wrestlers and trying to hike up his underwear.

“Oh, ok. That’s interesting. Actually, its something that’s only for adults to see. Plus, it’s not something we watch in our family. And it’s not something I do. Where did you see this Monroe?”

“On YouTube!”

“You mean, just a little bit ago when you were downstairs with Daddy?”

“Yep!”

Argh!!!! Earlier the three of us had been watching different Super Bowl commercials together, and I had gone upstairs to get some work done. After more probing, I found out that Monroe was continuing to watch YouTube videos, sitting right next to my husband, Peter, as he worked on his iPad. How did this happen? Didn’t Peter know that letting your 5-year-old browse YouTube on his own was asking for trouble! What was he thinking?!

Monroe and I finished talking about the videos, and by the end, he understood that the videos were inappropriate for him to watch. He also knew he wasn’t in trouble and I was glad he told me about them. Monroe quickly transitioned back to playing and was happily running around the house again, just not hiking up his underwear anymore. Peter had already left for the day, so I knew we would need to discuss this when he got back. I still couldn’t believe he had let Monroe explore YouTube all by himself! Didn’t Peter know what a bad idea it was?! Who was I kidding, of course he didn’t! I am the one who reads all the articles about kid safety, who knows to talk about “tricky people” instead of just strangers, who made him buy wall straps for all our furniture, and knows that even YouTube Kids could be dangerous without supervision! I mean, without me, there is no telling what would happen to my child! We would have to talk when he got home.

That night, after Monroe was in bed, I brought his poor parenting to his attention. With a kind and gentle voice, of course.

“Hey, were you letting Monroe watch Youtube by himself after I left today?”

“Yes, but I was right next to him, so I knew what he was watching.”

HUH?!!!

“So you knew that he was watching topless women wrestle?!!!” I was not happy.

“What?! He didn’t watch that!”

“Well, he said he did! He described their thongs and everything! I had no idea what to say so hopefully I did ok talking to him about it! I can’t believe you let him watch it!”

A look of realization spread across Peter’s face. He started laughing.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“He was watching a commercial with sumo wrestlers. That’s what he saw. I was not letting him watch topless women wrestle.”

The lightbulb went off in my head. Sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers!!! It all made sense now! Peter continued,

“He must have thought they were women because of their large chests! And long hair. And the thongs are those things the sumo wrestlers wear. You had a talk with him about real women topless wrestlers?”

“Uh. Yes. Oh boy. I guess Monroe knows that’s a thing now.”

We both laughed so hard! Poor kid! He wouldn’t even have known that topless women wrestling was a thing if it weren’t for me!!!! We realized he didn’t even think to talk about how large the wrestlers were (which might have been a clue for me!) because we’ve talked to him about how we don’t discuss peoples body sizes. How was he to know that the wrestlers with the large chests weren’t women? The next day I showed him a photo of sumo wrestlers and asked if that was who he was watching yesterday. He said “Yes. Mom, I don’t want to see that! Why are you showing them to me!” He was so uncomfortable after the conversation we had! I scarred him for life from sumo wrestling. I explained to him that they weren’t women but men, and told him about sumo wrestling. I let him know it was ok for him to watch. He was still hesitant, so we just moved on, and he started acting like a dinosaur again.

The moral of the story? Who knows! I’m sure there’s a deep one somewhere in there. For me though, it’s not to assume that my minister husband, someone who has proven to be trustworthy for the more than 12 years we’ve been together, is not showing my 5-year-old videos of naked women. Thank goodness.

 

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Anxiety

Using Photography to Combat Stress, Anxiety and Isolation

February 27, 2018

It has been a hard couple of months for our family. We’ve survived the flu, my husband Peter has been out of town and working a lot, plus we’ve had several professional and personal issues to confront. During this time we also marked the one year anniversary of our move to Minneapolis from Nashville, Tennessee. My great Northern migration! I was so stressed and flustered over the date of our moving anniversary all I could think about was if we were still where we should be. My heart reassured me we were, but I was feeling lonely, tired and discouraged, so the doubts kept creeping through my mind. In this last year it seems like so much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. I still don’t have a stable career path, I’m still working through the difficulties of making new friendships, and I’m still figuring out where I fit in this new city.

When stressors like these come up, one of my first lines of defense is to isolate myself. I make excuses to keep from seeing people and being in situations that may, possibly, cause me more stress. My insecurities rise to the surface, and after a while, I’m convinced that others are just as content with me being inside as I am. I am safe when I am alone. No one can hurt me there. That’s the lie I continue to tell myself. Though I may feel safe at the moment, I forget that I’m the one that hurts myself the most. Very counterproductive, right?

Snow covered stream and woods

Even though I can identify this negative pattern, getting out of it is incredibly difficult. If you recognize this in yourself, which is very common with anxiety and depression, you know that you can’t just snap out of it. There have been times in my life where nothing but therapy or medication has helped me overcome it, and it is OKAY if you need this help. However, since I’m already on medication, and my stressors haven’t been as heartwrenching as others I’ve gone through, I’ve been able to work on coming out of this funk. There are several tools that I use that help me. Today I want to share with you my favorite, one that I have used my entire life. The act of creating.

Over the last year, one of the most significant changes in my life has been how I use photography. For twelve years I took photographs for other people, and since I moved, I now mostly just take photographs for myself. It has been such a joy and has helped me love photography again. I photograph what I see and find beautiful, I experiment, try new techniques, and I don’t do it to please anyone else except myself. The amazing thing about shooting this way is I have found that people still like what I do! By making images that I love, others can continue to relate to my artwork, and we can discover a commonality that we may not have had before. It is beautiful!

This past weekend I knew that it was time for me to start exploring with my camera again. Even though it is one of the best things for me to do when I am in a funk, I tend to put off creating. It had been months since I created for myself so on Friday morning I packed up my gear and decided to start driving until I found a place I wanted to photograph.

While I drove down Minnehaha Parkway, I remembered that Lynnhurst Park had a beautiful trail I enjoyed walking in the summer. It leads to Lake Harriet and is full of large trees and a small stream that feeds into Minnehaha Falls. I pulled into the empty parking lot and stomped through the snow to the trail. It was stunning with the trees covered in snow. I noticed that the stream was flowing even though most of the water here in Minnesota is still frozen. Then I saw a few mallards playing in the water and began to photograph them. As I strolled down the trail, the sound of the ducks became louder and louder. I looked up and in front of me was a fantastic sight! The whole stream was full of mallards! They were flying and bathing, sleeping and fighting. It was so incredibly picturesque and peaceful.

Lynnhurst Park, Minnehaha Parkway

I continued to walk down the trail and noticed that people had made beautiful ice lanterns that ran along the path. Some holding flowers, some with different colors, and some built into stunning sculptures. I walked until I reached the Lake, and again, a remarkable site of fresh snow and quiet on the frozen water. It was a time of prayer of thankfulness for me, a time of creativity, and refreshment for my soul. On my walk back I spoke with a gentleman for a while who had helped make the lanterns along with his wife and others. He shared that they would be lit that night and said I should come back to experience it.

Peter, Monroe and I returned with our pup Wesley and seeing the lanterns lit was stunning. It was an entire neighborhood event, and many people were there along the trails with their families. There was a fire and hot chocolate and cookies. Afterwards, we went home and spent the evening together, and my heart was full.

I keep thinking about what I would have missed if I hadn’t decided to go out if I had continued in my isolation and not taken the step outdoors to create. For me, having a purpose for journeying outside my comfort zone is a big motivator. Sometimes it is the only thing that will get me outside and active when I just want to be alone. It is often the time my mind is quiet enough to feel God’s presence, and sense my resilience after being in a dark place. It is healing for me.

If you don’t have something like this in your life, I encourage you to find what it is. Whether it is photography or some other creative endeavor, find something that you love that can motivate you to journey outside of where you may be floundering. Don’t worry about if others will like what you do. You don’t even have to share it with others! Make something you love, bake, write, paint, whatever reminds you of your worth and value. If you don’t have something yet, try going for a photo walk as I did! You don’t need a fancy camera; just your phone will do. Walk around your neighborhood, drive to a park, and look carefully at what is around you. Beauty can be found everywhere. Especially in you!

What creative endeavors do you have that bring you peace? Do you find it hard to create when you are deep in depression or anxiety? Does creating something help you process what you are going through? If you are a photographer, do you take time to create just for yourself?

Much Love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Mental Health

The False Narrative on Mental Illness and Gun Violence

February 17, 2018

 

school shooting

 

I began this blog just a few days ago on February 14, 2018, to start sharing my story of a lifetime struggle with mental illness. That same day, just a few hours after I posted, reports began to pour in of another horrific mass murder that took place in a Florida school where 17 people were shot to death with an assault rifle. Like most people who heard of the tragedy, I began to grieve the lives lost and questioned what kind of world we live in. These were beautiful lives, taken and destroyed by a cowardly act of another. They were coaches, and teachers, and children. My God, CHILDREN, murdered in school!!!! I think about the parents who sent their teenagers off that morning never knowing the tragedy that would take them away. The parents who still remember what it was like to hold them as babies, and smell their sweet skin, and talk about dinosaurs, and fairies. They experienced their joy, heartache, and dreams of the future as they grew. Now their future is taken away. My heart breaks for them, and like so many others I want to do something so that this never happens again! Then that night, along with all the other parents in the US who would say goodbye to their kids as they left for school the following day, I fearfully wondered if my son could be next.

As the debates online began to arise about what could, if anything, be done, a familiar term kept popping up right beside calls for stricter gun laws, better parenting, and people saying there was nothing to be done. From news articles to government officials who don’t want to discuss gun control to people who do want change to gun laws, the term “mental illness” or “mentally disturbed” kept coming up. Calls for mental health reform and an overhaul of our mental health system are pouring all over the internet, from across party lines. The truth is, we need changes to our mental health system. We need more access to health care and more support for those who suffer. Many with mental health conditions are still struggling to get adequate coverage, and the stigma that surrounds mental health keeps so many from reaching out and getting help. There are also gun restrictions that should be put in place to restrict certain individuals with severe mental illness from buying guns. However, while these restrictions can be a small part of a solution, it fails because it only affects the very small percentage (less than 5%!) of gun violence. Likewise, it can have devasting effects on those whose psychological health is suffering. Calling for mental health reform only when a mass shooting happens increases the stigma surrounding mental illness and does not address the much more significant risk factors of someone becoming violent.

On that horrible Wednesday when people began to blame mental illness as the reason for the deaths, in the back of my mind personal fears and shame started to pop up. I was one them. I was in that category of people with mental illness that we should be afraid of shooting up schools. I had just put it out into the world that I struggled with mental health, and now many of our leaders were blaming what happened on a sickness that I had. For me, it was a fleeting thought, only because I have worked through the shame and fear I used to have with admitting my struggles. I know that sometimes it can be a cause of violence, but also know that it is very rare. But I can promise you that there are many more people out there, nonviolent people, who are now even more determined to hide who they are out of fear of what others will think of them. There are people out there who are now more unlikely to get help because they believe, there is nothing wrong with me! I’m not like that guy who just murdered 17 people!!!! There are also people who are not going to get help because they don’t want their guns taken away from them if they are diagnosed with mental illness.

Here are some facts about mental illness and violence that need to be widely known here in the United States. They need to be understood so that we can work on solutions that are effective in preventing our children from being murdered. These facts need to be known to fight the stigma surrounded mental illness so that more people will get help when they need and so that we can have a healthy society all around. They need to be known so that when we send our kids to school in the morning, we don’t have to fear for their safety.

Did you know that overall those with mental illness only account for 1% homicides by guns? 

Did you know that those with serious mental illness are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than the overall U.S. population?

Did you know that People with mental illness are far more likely to harm THEMSELVES through gun violence (suicide) than harm others?

Did you know that the most prominent predictors of a mass shooting are domestic violence, substance abuse, and being male, not mental illness?

So what can we learn from all this? That most people with serious mental illness are never violent. There “are small subgroups of persons with serious mental illness are at increased risk of violence during certain high-risk periods, such as during a first-episode of psychosis and the period surrounding inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.” However, these instances are rare. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year. That is roughly 43.8 million people! These people, myself included, need better health care, more understanding, and to live in a society where they are unashamed to ask for help and speak up when they need it.

We also need to switch the narrative when discussing preventing gun violence to solutions that are effective and will be able to save our children. We need to focus on facts and look at other nations that have done better in this fight. We need to listen to the parents of the children who have died, and the victims that have survived. I do not have a simple answer, but I do know that we have to do something. So let’s make sure what we are doing will keep our children from being murdered in school! There are three organizations that I follow that are doing the hard and necessary work to prevent gun violence in school, and I encourage to support them. Sandy Hook Promise is a national non-profit started by families who lost loved ones in the horrendous school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Everytown is formed by Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities, and at the heart of it is Moms Demand Action. Americans For Responsible Solutions was created by Gabby Giffords after she was critically injured while meeting with constituents in her hometown of Tucson. Read their stories, support their campaigns, and donate so that we will not have to live in fear.

To the victims of the shooting in Florida, I am so sorry I didn’t do more before now. To the grieving teachers, coaches, children and all of their loved ones. I grieve with you. I am so incredibly sorry that your beloveds were taken away. We will not forget them.

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14
Scott Beigel, 35
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Aaron Feis, 37
Jaime Guttenberg, 14
Chris Hixon, 49
Luke Hoyer, 15
Cara Loughran, 14
Gina Montalto, 14
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Alaina Petty, 14
Meadow Pollack, 18
Helena Ramsay, 17
Alex Schachter, 14
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Peter Wang, 15

With love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

Anxiety

Anxiety, Insecurities, and Finding Hope Through Community

February 14, 2018

“Even the battered and bruised have a light inside them that can help others find their way home.” -Whitney Leigh Carlson

 

Have you had a day like this before? Your anxiety spikes and all of your insecurities come to the surface. Your mind ruminates on the past, the decisions you’ve made, and the ones that still need to be made. You berate yourself for your mistakes, and a voice creeps in that tells you that you are unworthy, and even sometimes unlovable. Maybe you can’t get out of bed because your anxiety or depression feels so intense and real that you can’t face the world. Perhaps everything is going well in your life right now, and you are confused with why you can’t seem to shake this. And maybe you know exactly why you feel like this, and you wish things could change.

This was me the other day. It was beautiful out even though the temperatures are still in the teens here in Minnesota. The sun was shining, and I was able to spend the day with my family. I knew I should be thankful and happy, but still, my chest was tight, and I wanted to lock myself in my room and cry. It was exhausting to get through the day with a smile on my face, but I did it, and thankfully slept soundly that night with a brighter morning.

I have had days, weeks, months, and even years like this through my entire life. As a child, I suffered from a severe anxiety disorder that landed me in a mental hospital when I was 9. At the time no one talked about mental illness, and along with my anxiety, I developed an intense sense of shame. After years of hard work, the anxiety is not the defining aspect of my life anymore, but it is still there and most likely always will be. I had gone through periods in my life when it was just a distant memory, and times when it overcame me again. Sometimes it has come out of the blue, and at others, it has been related to life events, such as marriage, having a child, and the change of a career.

Since being on this journey for so long, I have come to realize that so many women can relate to what I have gone through and continue to. For some, it is through the anxieties and fears that come with being a mother, a spouse, a friend, or even the expectations placed on us as women. It has come from a culture that often wants us to be perfect and happy in all we do, and media that consistently feeds us images to compare our lives to. For some, it is a mental illness, like mine, and we are ashamed to admit to it. We’ve been told we are broken, or odd, or that we should just get over it somehow. And for some, it has stemmed out of being hurt and abused by others, in a place we should feel safe such as home or the church.

In this blog I will be sharing more of my journey with you from the time when I was a child living in a mental hospital, to now as a mom, wife, artist and Christ follower with often more questions than answers. I will be sharing openly and honestly about my struggles with anxiety and depression, the stresses of being a mom, and my many failures that have often come before some of the happiest times in my life. I’ll share what I continue to learn about accepting myself as a strong woman after believing my calling in life was to be meek and mild, and my continuing journey of faith that “religion” often got in the way of.

Along with this, I will be sharing some of the many ways that I have found healing and hope over the years. As you can tell from above, I do not have everything together, and I know I never will (it has taken me years to accept this!). I have learned so many beautiful lessons that continue to teach me how to love who I am and see the joy that is around me now. One of the most incredible gifts that I have learned to use to heal is the gift of art and creating. I often use photography for expression, and I will be sharing not only some of the work that I produce but how you too can find a voice through the creative process.

If you have read something here that sounds familiar to you, I invite you to join me here. I want to hear your experiences and create a community where we can stumble forward together. I know some of you may not be in a place to share yet and my hope for you is that even just listening can help you feel not as alone.

I have been going through a beautiful book and class called Journey to Freedom by Scott Reall. Today’s section reminded me of why I have had the pull on my heart to share my journey with anxiety and depression, and why I am drawn to those who share their painful stories as well. “It’s so freeing to hear that other people struggle, too. We realize that we aren’t alone- and that’s universality. We begin to open up and feel hope. We feel a sense of companionship and community with others. We’re in this together.”

With much love and welcome,

Whitney Leigh Carlson

www.whitneyleighcarlson.com

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