Maybe 2016 wasn’t so bad

Like most, I went to bed last New Year’s excited for 2016. Sure, you can make a fresh start any second of any day, but something about a new year feels like the real deal. You leave behind the pain and drama and failure of the past and have 365 days to find a brighter path. New year, new you, new opportunities, right?
Wrong, according to 2016.


I’m not sure when we all began to realize this wasn’t going to be our year. More memes began to pop up blaming 2016 for all the horrible things happening and collectively we agreed 2016 was to blame. My favorite memes involve children in the future asking about 2016 and parents grabbing alcohol before discussing the clustercuss we all experienced.

For some, it was the never ending string of celebrity deaths. Alan Rickman. David Bowie. Prince. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. All the others I don’t feel like Googling because it will just remind me how bad it actually was.

Maybe it was the fact that our country is clearly divided and not ok with our president-elect, Donald “I don’t actually know how to be president” Trump. Like more than 50 percent of the country, I did not vote for him, but in a year of constant misfortune, I don’t know why I’m surprised he actually won. Perhaps you’re still amazed that we learned Russia hacked our election and people aren’t really talking about it – you know, not like it’s a big deal or anything.

Ok, I’m done being political.

For too many, 2016 hit us personally. I lost two of my grandparents. With my grandfather, we didn’t want to say goodbye but we knew it was time. My grandmother, his wife, was a total shock to our family, and one we’re still feeling more than month later. My beloved Gomer, the alien dog who brought me so much joy, died the day I returned from a business trip.

Realistically I know 2016 isn’t to blame. It was simply a bad year and 2016 is our scapegoat. We can’t explain why so many tragedies occurred, so we attack the common denominator in every situation.

But was it all bad?

Being perhaps an overly reflective person, this is the question I’ve been asking myself as we finally approach the end. Surely there were bright spots we’ve lost in all the darkness. Inspired by my best friend sharing her favorite memories of the year, I decided to write down some of mine and realized maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.


As you can see, I have a lot to celebrate, from late nights to good movies to musicals to everything in between. I made new friends, said goodbye to old friends and continue to grow into who I really am. Two of the biggest reasons I still think 2016 was a success comes down to my relationships and the changes happening in my professional life, as weird as that sounds.

Relationally

“No man is a failure who has friends” and my relationships are a great reminder of this (thanks It’s a Wonderful Life). My life has kind of been all over the place this year, literally and figuratively if you consider my move and all the places I’ve traveled. Throughout everything, my friends and family kept me sane.

Moving to a new state is challenging, even when your family is close. I left a lot of great people in Pittsburgh and spent a few months thinking I would never find people in Buffalo. Little by little, I built a great roster of new friends who continue to add so much to my life. Thank you, Buffalonians, for welcoming me and loving me and being awesome.

My family’s glee that I moved to the Buffalo abruptly turned to horror as I started to make some questionable (in their eyes) decisions. Yes, I quit my full time job and a profession I had a master’s degree in to pursue ????? I put the question marks because I’m still unsure. Now I work at Sephora and I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT – from my coworkers to the company to my discount. But I still know there’s more to come, I just don’t know what it is yet. I understand their concern and belief that maybe I should’ve stayed at my well-paying job until I figured everything out, but where’s the fun in that. Don’t worry guys, 2017 is going to be lit professionally for me.

Finally of course, we have the great support system I left in Pittsburgh, most notably my best fran and favorite human bean Samantha. I think it’s rare to have someone like her in your life, and if you are lucky to have one, don’t ever lose her. She stood by me through every step, from the tiniest step to largest jump, asking the hard questions and calling me out when I needed a reality check.

As long as I continue to surround myself with better people than myself, I think every year is good.

Professionally

I just mentioned it, but I kind of threw everything away this year. I spent two years at my last job in Pittsburgh, and I felt a restlessness I then attributed to needing a new job with different challenges. When I received the job that allowed me to move to Buffalo, I was elated. I knew it would be a lot of work and I was ready.

Looking through my planner, you can see my excitement wane over the months as my entries become less and less detailed to the point I’m basically begging myself to do work. I decided to fast, feeling my problem was a lack of focus. I prayed for God to calm my restlessness and allow me to see this work was necessary and I could find fulfillment in other areas. The result? It just made me more restless.

When I realized what the solution was, I didn’t want to tell my family. You see, to them I am flighty, chasing something I will never find because I need to find it where I am. Maybe they’re right, but all I know is I have to try so in 20 years I’m not in the same place because I convinced myself I had to stay.

My original plan was to ease away from everything. Get a second job to help pay off my debt (Sephora) and continue looking for what I should actually be doing in my life. After deciding this, the gnawing didn’t go away. This is the hard part of faith. No one else knows what God is doing in your life and it’s likely it won’t make sense to you either. All you know is you have to follow, so I did.

Without a job, I knew I had to quit mine. I called Sephora, even though I still didn’t know if I was hired, to let them know my availability changed from evenings to open. I sent my two weeks’ notice via email and silently panicked and begged my friend Sarah to meet me for dinner (and likely a drink or two). While I was on my way, I received a call – Sephora offering me a job. Not quite full time, but better than part time with guaranteed hours and benefits. I tried to remain calm and cool on the phone, but as soon as the call ended I screamed with joy and praise to my God who never lets me fall. I immediately called Sam and then my dinner with Sarah turned to one of celebration. Still afraid to face my family, I sent them a text the next day.

There is a bigger thing at play here as well. I have felt for years God calling me into ministry. I remember being at a youth camp and when asked to go to a separate room if we felt the call, I inexplicably stood up and went. I’ve always told God no, I wasn’t anything special, my life had to be simple and safe. I’ve tried my hardest, but God continues to call me into the unknown.

2017 remains more of what I cannot fully grasp. I know I need to make more money. I know I need to find my next step. I know I need to break ties. But I don’t know what any of that looks like. So I will keep praying and trusting.

If you’re reading this, you’ve done it! You’ve basically survived 2016. I know the new fear is what if 2017 isn’t any better? Like the DC Cinematic Universe, the trailers look so good but the movie disappoints. What if we’re so excited for next year we’re ultimately let down?

Here’s what I will tell you – more people we love and cherish will die, whether we know them personally or adore their work. You will have bad times in 2017 and it will seem like things are just going to get worse. If you keep thinking this way, you’ll inevitably be right. Life is as bad as we let it seem.

Next year, believe in the best instead of expect the worst. Even when the world seems to be falling apart, remember it’s always darkest before the dawn. In life, we choose to find triumph in tragedy and joy in misfortunes. Having a life that hits the notes you want isn’t the key to happiness, but remembering you have the power to find the good.

My prayer and wish is that we all believe in the best for 2017 and keep seeking what is good. Love your neighbors fiercely and never stop fighting for what is right.

Happy New Year!

A letter to my father

Hey Dad,

I heard you took our photos off the wall. I meant to open this letter a little more cordially, going through the necessary pleasantries, but that’s all that I can think about. I wanted to ask you how you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, tell you I’ve been fine, but all I can think of is how you seemingly erased us from your life.

Do you miss us? Do you think about the memories captured in those photos and long for our company? I know I do. I stumble upon photos of us, before you were bad, and I can’t help but cry. I see your smiling eyes and remember how fiercely you loved us for a time.

You used to be proud of us. Do you know I have my master’s degree now? I wish you could see your granddaughters. They’re so amazing, Dad. We’ve had so many moments you’ll never be a part of, and it still breaks my heart.

Sometimes I remember summer evenings at your house and the sounds of crickets and frogs by the pond. The drives we took to Butler and the little treats you would buy us. I remember spending every New Years with you and how we ate Twinkies and wore alien party hats for Y2K.

I remember playing softball in the yard and that time you accidentally hit a line drive into my shin. You used to let us drive down the driveway and let me crawl into the back of the Rolling Death Trap. You always gave the best hugs.

The longer we’re separated, the more I see the truth. I notice little dents in my memories I glossed over as a child. These imperfections put a shade over the happier times before I realized everything wasn’t as it seems. I’m starting to understand how much our relationship damaged me and how it now affects my relationships with men.

It’s getting harder to remember the good times. I became so used to your illness and distance that I distanced myself from the best memories to protect myself. I couldn’t separate who you used to be from the person you’d become.

Mostly I remember when you were bad. All the visits when you wouldn’t get out of bed and I sat in your room on the computer in the dark. All the times you made me feel guilty for not loving you enough. All the games you never made it to.

I’m sorry, Dad. I know I’m not innocent in all of this. I was so young and you were so far away from me. It hurt more to see you than to stay away, and I chose what was easier for me. Would you have been better if I stayed?

I don’t think so.

They say you can’t save anyone, but we tried our best. We wanted to show you how much we needed you; how important you were to us. You never believed us. You always thought we were against you. You lashed out online and used your poisonous words as ammunition to turn others against us as well.

I wanted to fight back. You called out my sister and questioned our faith all to prove your point. I wanted to tell you and everyone who sided with you all the pain you put us through. How you would just vanish. How you constantly told us you were worth more dead than alive.

Do you know what it’s like for a child to hear her father say he’s better off dead? It’s basically like getting stabbed in the heart. Long before we understood the implications, we had to process things like this. This is where I first learned I wasn’t enough.

You sent us emails threatening the end. Do you know what that’s like to know your father might kill himself any day? To see him casually talk about it on social media? Probably not, because Grandpap doesn’t even know how to use a computer.

We grew up never knowing if this downswing would be it. Every call I receive from an unknown number still gives me a moment of panic because I wonder if it’s the call about you.

I still pray for you. I don’t want you to kill yourself. I want you to come back and be the dad you used to be. I want you to remember how much you loved us and see how much we love you. I want to tell you I’m sorry for anything I did to hurt you and that I forgive you for everything you’ve done to me.

I remember the last picture I gave you. It was from a softball game and I was just a baby. You’re sitting at a picnic table and I’m beside you in my stroller. Neither of us are paying attention, so it’s one of those candid shots that somehow seems more beautiful than smiling. When you opened it, a big grin spread across your face and I felt like I had done it – I had brought you joy.

And then you said ‘look how young I was’ and starting talking about your glory days of playing church softball. You missed why I loved the photo because in that moment, you only loved yourself.

That was the moment I knew it was truly different now. The spark in your eye began to fade and I felt you slipping away. I wish I could’ve grabbed you, but I don’t think you would’ve held onto me anyway.

For years I carried the weight of what happened with us, but now I don’t. Thankfully, my God took it from me and now I am free to see you through eyes of love. I know you’re sick and I know your brain is against us. I know some of what happened wasn’t because of your sickness. None of it matters to me because you are still my father.

So how are you? What have you been doing? I’m fine and I’m really trying to be more than just fine.

I love you, then, now and forever.

Don’t glorify this tragedy

“December 3rd, 2015 is not the day Scott Weiland died.”

Mary Fosberg Weiland wrote this in an essay about her late ex-husband, Scott Weiland. She discusses how it’s the day the public will mourn, but not when he was lost to the world. The theme is simple — stop glorifying the tragedy of his death because he was a rockstar and drugs and demons are part of the job.

We have a tendency to do this, don’t we? We gloss over the real issues and assume it’s the lifestyle. We make martyrs out of people who overdose. We say nothing but wonderful things and maybe add the person was haunted.

When a celebrity kills themselves, our reactions our largely the same. Either we know they were ‘haunted’ and it’s not surprising or we can’t possibly understand because they seemed so happy. Either way, it’s shows a gross misinterpretation of a situation.

Rarely do we hear from the family calling out mental illness as it is. Even if an indication is made of a disease, they still reflect on the positives and the light. I suppose this is the way we want to remember people. Both for ourselves and others, we want to paint this image of a good person who had problems, not a good person who became someone completely unrecognizable.

Mary’s essay detailed what the public couldn’t know. How little Scott saw his children. How he was rarely sober enough to be there. How he remarried and forgot them entirely. For those children, their father died long ago.

Sadly, I can identify.

My bipolar father is still with us, but he’s a different man. When I see a photo, I don’t recognize him anymore. The unfortunate reality is my dad died years ago and what is left is the shell of his former self. The mental illness ravaged his brain and changed him. So quickly he stopped being the life of the party and became the person you try to avoid.

\Not to everyone, mind you. To his Facebook friends, he was amazing. All they saw were carefully structured posts that illustrate a man struggling with disease but doing so graciously. He was charming and witty and you wanted to root for him. How could anyone be against this wonderful guy?

If you asked any of his social media friends, they would write a glowing obituary for him. I’m sure they would mention the trials he publicly faced, including his horrible daughters who betrayed and abandoned him, and how he triumphed over those demons. He would be labeled a fighter who never lost hope.

It’s not like I couldn’t write something similar about my father. There are moments where a good memory flashes by and I think of him differently, how we was. I can remember reading us this book about skunks at bedtime but changing all the words. I eat French bread pizza and think about how it was his specialty.

But I couldn’t paint that picture of him.

At one point, yes, he was everything and more than those Internet people could ever describe. He was kind and loving. In this scenario, his death would be the perfect example of what mental illness does, and I would want to the world to know. He wasn’t always courageous; he wasn’t always nice. At times he fought; at times he tried to give up. He stopped trying to make our relationship work when we stopped letting him manipulate us. At the end of my time with him, he didn’t care to try for us.

We don’t write the truth to dishonor the dead or change opinions, but to foster an honest conversation. Instead of glamorizing a situation, we can provide the details about what mental illness looks like and how it actually affects people.

By writing about his behavior, Mary is letting people know there is always more to the story, and often it’s tragic. It goes beyond the idea we create in our brains and naturally make it less terrible than the reality. We need to discuss those who lost their battles, and we need to make those conversations count. We can’t simply say ‘oh he was wonderful but sick.’ We need to courageously discuss the real fight and not the glamour we create as a distraction.

Finding the courage

I spent most of my early life being manipulated by my dad and his family. For years, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to deserve their love. The guilt consumed me. Instead of recognizing the toxic behavior, I allowed it to warp my brain.

Like my grandma would remind me, my daddy was sick. He needed my constant support.

Back then, I didn’t recognize the impact this would have on my life. I didn’t see the larger societal implications. It was simply the way my father was. He started as an alcoholic before he was diagnosed as depressed. Eventually an attempted suicide would lead to his bipolar disorder diagnosis.

My sister and I were in uncharted territory. Everyone acted like my father was a child who needed coddled, so every negative emotion was suppressed. We couldn’t talk to him about the pain he caused us because he was sick. We couldn’t approach him about his drinking because he was sick. We couldn’t be honest with him because he was sick.

He turned his back on us because he’s sick.

Keeping him alive became our responsibility. Maybe if we pretended it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Maybe if we loved him enough. Maybe we could save him.

No one outside the situation understood because of the stigma. People assume others who suffer from mental illness are noticeably disturbed, as if they walk around 24/7 with their heads down and arms crossed or spend one day ridiculously happy and the next downright miserable.

These, my friends, are stereotypes and not at all the reality. People with mental illness are just like you and me, except there is a war in their brain constantly warping their reality. When Robin Williams died, the public was shocked. He was such a funny guy! It seemed like he loved life! He couldn’t have been suicidal!

This is all too common. We never see suicide coming. We’re shocked when someone acts out against classmates or the public. We always say the same thing. ‘He was so happy. I can’t believe he would do this.’

It shows how little we truly understand.

The stigma around mental illness affects those who suffer directly and by proximity. My dad was sick, and if I ever mentioned it I had to deal with people telling me they knew someone who was bipolar too. They would elaborate by discussing the quick mood swings. When I was younger, I would nod along, but now I like to ask. Are they actually diagnosed or do you just assume based on that stereotype they are? Don’t worry, I phrase it better. Because of this, people brush off his illness because they know someone and it’s ok. It’s not a big deal. The other side is we don’t know how to deal with crazy people so we don’t.

Sometimes I think about all the other kids like me who watched a parent suffer for years without understanding. I pray to God they had people like my mom and stepdad and hopefully strong faith to make it through.

This week, BuzzFeed is doing a Mental Health Week to use its status to help do good:

“When we have the courage to talk openly about ourselves, and about our struggles, the people who hear and see us don’t have to feel alone. And digital media has been central to driving the cultural change. We’ve found at BuzzFeed that some of the most powerful responses to our work have come from people who watched and read about mental health, and who felt less alone, less at fault.”

For me, finding courage is about sharing my story so others don’t feel alone. A sick parent is a complicated thing, whether it’s a physical or mental illness. We think it’s our job to take care of them and sometimes it is, depending on the situation, but sometimes it’s about taking care of ourselves.

How long do you put up with a mentally ill parent manipulating and abusing you? How many Facebook posts does it take to step away? How many insults until you’ve had enough?

In my case, it took more than a decade to realize my dad didn’t want to get better. He didn’t want to try. We were expendable to his cause. I spent the better part of 10 years doing everything to make him happy, but it was never enough because I will never be enough. You can’t save anyone, especially someone who doesn’t want your help.

My grandma’s approach is understandable. Her son was sick and we needed to help him, but at what personal cost? His narcissism allowed him to play the constant victim and he was always looking for an excuse to ‘expose’ me and my sister for who we truly were.

I’ve been estranged from my dad and his family for more than a year now, and I’ve forgiven them for everything they’ve done. Holding onto that anger only made the pain harder to face. Sometimes a good memory will flash by, and I’ll feel the abandonment, but I focus on God’s greater plan and mercy and know I will be ok.

This Mental Health Week, I’m sharing my story to let you know you aren’t alone. I understand your fear and guilt and love and hate. I know what it’s like to no longer recognize a parent. I feel your pain of realizing their ‘unconditional’ love has come to an end.

It’s not your fault.

She wasn’t my best friend when I was young, but she is now

Growing up with strict parents is the worst (at the time). You see your friends with parents who let them attend boy/girl sleepovers and movie parents who are both doting and unconcerned and then you wonder why can’t you have that as well. My situation was the exact opposite.
My mother, Julie Thompson, is the being I fear most in this world, present tense.
SMXLL

As a Christian, I live my life with a healthy fear of God, but as a child I didn’t think of eternal repercussions, only what would JT do if she found out. This led me to be both honest and unadventurous because I had no interest in getting in trouble.
My mom didn’t just give empty threats, she followed through. When I was young and my mother and stepfather were newly married, I would say the all-too-common child of divorce go to of “I want to live with Dad” when I didn’t get my way. Being a brat, I continued this behavior until one day my mom lost it. I’ve never seen a creature angrier. I’m not sure if she remained human or transformed into a dragon at one point, because I’m sure I saw her breathe fire. She made me call my father and threw plastic bags into my room to pack my stuff. Somehow, after sobbing hysterically and talking to my dad, I didn’t have to leave. But I never made that comment again.
Because I’m now an adult, I understand how cruel it was for me to say such things (for all parents involved). I know more of my mom’s feelings and I really regret how terrible I was for not recognizing the bigger picture.
Basically, this is my entire life. My mom continues to be the wisest and most faithful human being I know; yet I continually doubt or disobey her guidance because obviously I’m the smartest human. Everything she kept me from as a child and all the rules made me the (mostly) responsible and I’d like to think respectable (?) person I am today.
It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I really disliked her for always saying no and making me clean. I was spanked, but I always deserved it (except that time I fell out of the top bunk, still not over it). I was disciplined, but never without cause.
You see, I’m the bratty youngest child who is kind of smart and therefore believes she is the smartest and must prove it at all times. My mother, being the wise unicorn she is, never told me how great or smart I was. When I did well, she applauded me, but it was never constant praise. It made receiving those kinds of words all the sweeter because I knew I had truly done well.
My mother understood how to deal with me and balance out my bratty self. She knew the best way to encourage my dreams without setting me up for failure. Even now, I cling to the things she says about me because if any mom isn’t biased, it’s probably JT. No matter where I feel my life is being pulled to, I know I can count on her for support.
SMLXL

More than anything else, my mom taught me to take life one step at a time and enjoy it. Despite the uncertainty of the past few years, she’s dealt with it all in stride and never let her emotions show. Her faithfulness inspires me to be a better Christian and remember the blessings God holds for those who don’t give up. I see her reflected in my sister who’s now a mother and I know someday I will be a good mom because I had a great one.
She wasn’t my best friend when I was young, but she is now. I’m so thankful for the time she took to train me into a decent human so that now, as adults, we can hang out. It’s rare that I have more fun than when I am with my mom and my sister. Together we are like the Three Musketeers, and together we can get through anything.
SMLXL

Thank you, Mom, for everything you do for me and all the love and support I feel. I hope you recognize how special you are and how much you mean to us.
BONUS: How the great JT feels about birthdays
SMLXL

It’s your birthday so you get a post

Being the little sister of Kristi Anne Runyan is a unique experience. She’s the fiercest and most loyal friend you could ask for, but she also threw a boot at me once that left a nice boot-shaped bruise on my leg, simply because I refused to clean the house.
That is our relationship in the smallest of nutshells.
SMXLL

As long as I can remember, we’ve been arguing and physically fighting about something (probably my general brattiness) and within five minutes we’re singing an old Barney song or quoting Harry Potter. This is still a common occurrence, despite the fact that we’re both in our 20s.
More importantly, I’ve always been in awe of my big sister.
My family is pretty funny (at least we like to think we are) and sometimes the jokes just fly wildly and it’s amazing to witness. Since I was a kid, I remember Kristi commanding the room with her humor and complete lack of fear to take it a little too far. I would sit in the back seat and just listen to her and our mom or dad talking and joking and thinking these are incredibly funny people and I will never be that clever. Still to this day, I consider myself the weak link among these brilliant humans.
(It’s not like I’m not talented. I’m really good at watercolor designs in Illustrator.)
What balances out her biting humor is her intense compassion and human empathy. God forbid we see an old person dining alone because she will slowly break down to tears, imagining his or her whole life story. Even when she’s making fun of my mustache, I know how much I mean to her. I mean, she partially named her second daughter after me, which must count for something. Plus it’s hard to be mad when even the jokes at your expense are so good. It’s like you’re in the crowd, cheering at your own roast.
SMXLL

Above everything, my sister taught me one of the greatest lessons I’m still learning – just be yourself. Kristi can be very crude and inappropriate and talks about poop too much, but that’s who she is, unapologetically. She still farts at the table and then giggles until someone notices and tells me not to tell mom even though mom now inevitably knows. I spend half of my time trying to stay disgusted and the other half trying to act like it’s not really hilarious.
We still break out in song in public. We dance in the car with our special dance, appropriately called the Car Dance. She does a mean Cher and Cowardly Lion impression. She could probably shoot me with a bow and arrow and then sing ‘Cheer Up Charlie’ from Willy Wonka and I would laugh and completely forget about the injury.
We used to write stories about King Bong and his gong and record them on my Talk Girl. Sometimes we would wear dollar store police toy set sunglasses and jump into imaginary dips in our yard. We spent countless hours watching movies that were too mature for us while our dad was at work because we had full access to every movie channel ever.
We still make the most obscure movie references and most of the time, we get it. Most of the time it’s a line from Harry Potter, but not the obvious ones like “You’re a wizard” or whatever. We play for keeps.
SLXLM

I could talk about my sister and our memories all day, but I will wrap it up like this. We didn’t always get along and went through the typical adolescent phases, but somehow we remained best friends through it all. From our childhood of being complete weirdos to our adulthood of being even bigger weirdos, I still love her most of all.
Kristi taught me to be silly and weird so if you ever wonder why I’m so weird, blame my sister.  On that note, thank you for making me so strange and being the best big sister.
Happy Birthday, Kristi. May your last year in your 20s be great and hopefully filled with another pregnancy because I’m ready for another one.