Play: Light and Breezy or Real and Helpful?

Everything feels different now.

I wake up in the morning without dread.

I have energy. I go for walks and exercise. I find it fun.

Super weird.

My jaw isn't clenched so my teeth don't hurt. I don't feel like I'm choking anymore - that nearly constant sensation in my throat that felt like swallowing a handful of rocks. It's gone now - at least most of the time. And when it comes back I know what to do.

I'm daring to write something to publish again for the first time in almost a year. I'm still terrified, but I'm doing it right now.

I Just Couldn't Play

Last December, I stopped publishing on PlayGrounding. I put an out-of-office on my inbox and put it away. I couldn't face it.

How could I talk about play?    Me?

Thanks to PlayGrouding, I understood it intellectually. But at some point, it became painfully obvious that I wasn't capable of play. As I edited the podcast episodes, I heard it in my own voice. I felt it even as I was recording my last one - a sort of "how-to" with six steps for grownups to find their way back to play. I was definitely writing it for myself. But it wasn't working.

It was inspiring to hear stories about how play helps people take risks, make art or become more innovative. But I kept finding myself thinking, "I wish I was like that." I was like a cooking blogger writing about an amazing new dish, but not knowing, let alone sharing the recipe.

What I discovered making those first forty-two episodes of PlayGrounding is that play is more multifaceted than I ever imagined. It's tied in deeply with our identity. There's an almost spiritual dimension to it.

I understood that play is important for our health. Pediatricians have recently started prescribing play for children. Mental health practitioners consistently recommend play for adults fighting anxiety, depression and other conditions. But I hadn't experienced it firsthand.

Anxiety: Blocking My Path Back to Play

My anxiety* had gotten severe, almost debilitating. When my therapist or a self-help book would recommend playing or "engaging in enjoyable activities" as they usually describe it, I would laugh at the irony.

One of the first things anxiety took away from me was my ability to want joyful things - or to even know what I might want if I had a chance at that luxury. All I wanted was relief from the physical pain of anxiety - my clenched jaw, burning throat, rock-hard shoulders and neck.

Then there were the racing thoughts. Decision making was nearly impossible. I just hoped to get through each day so I could get to that first glass of wine in the evening. Wine was the only thing that seemed to calm the buzzing hive in my mind (which I learned later was just making things worse).

So after I put PlayGrounding on pause, I went on a mission to get some real help.

Mindful Eating & Drinking - Relearning Joy

I threw myself at the mercy of the psychiatry department associated with my health insurance. I'd already been seen for anxiety a few years before, but I didn't feel comfortable going on medication. I didn't understand it. But this time, I said I'd do anything. I just needed to know I'd exhausted every option. I wanted ME back.

The adventure began with an Intuitive Eating class led by two wonderful therapists and a nutritionist. We learned mindful eating. They taught us to challenge our barrage of shame and negative self-talk through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other similar methods. They consistently told us to play - during and outside of mealtime. We learned to reject the restrictive dieting mindset that was only making things worse.  We allowed ourselves to love food and find real joy in the act of eating - which seemed really weird. But it was mind-blowing.

This practice opened another door. Learning to eat mindfully led to drinking mindfully as well.

I had learned to notice that a food I'm binging on stops tasting good before I'm even halfway through it. So I started paying the same attention to wine that I did to food. I discovered that after a few glasses of wine, it didn't taste that good anymore either. What I thought was a calming effect was really just numbing - dulling everything, not just the anxiety. I discovered how my disordered relationship to food and wine was making me hate myself more and numbing my positive emotions along with my negative ones.

Trading Self-Medication for a Prescription

The day I chose to go on anti-anxiety medication, I put wine away indefinitely. I read a book by Annie Grace called This Naked Mind and joined her online community's Alcohol Experiment, which I can't recommend highly enough. (She just published a new book called The Alcohol Experiment explaining what it's all about.)

There were a few scary weeks between giving up my harmful self-medication and the prescribed medication taking effect. I called it the black hole because I was feeling all of my feelings with no buffer. The anxiety felt like a death sentence that would keep me paralyzed forever. I missed my magical Malbec-effect.

Playfully Stacking the Deck in My Favor

But I'd taken my therapist's play advice seriously. Before I went into that black hole, I set up projects for myself like planting succulents, refinishing a wood-working project, turning my old dollhouse into art and re-watching the Star Wars movies in chronological order. Hanging out with people was another option, but the way I was feeling, I chose to stay close to home. (These kinds of choices are different for everyone.)

Then after a rough couple of weeks, the light started to break through. My brain chemistry started changing and I started sleeping beautiful, restful sleep. I started feeling like the kind of person who could take a chance and start speaking with my whole heart - that maybe PlayGrounding could even come back to life again.

But this time, I wanted to add something else to the conversation. In addition to talking about the power of play, I wanted to talk about finding our way back to play. The problem was, doing that meant talking about uncomfortable, scary things - things like mental health and confronting habits that numb us (Malbec is just one of many).

For us grownups, the blocks to play usually live in our pain and our shame. I wasn't sure I was ready to talk publically about any of that. And besides, it didn't sound like a very fun podcast. So I put things back on hold for a while so I could figure it out.

But PlayGrounding Is About Happiness and Fun, Right?

A few months ago, I came across a story in Brené Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection (aff). In it, she talks about a painful experience she had as a speaker and how it helped her find her voice. If I was a cartoon, the air around me would have been filled with light bulbs as I read her book. Here's why:

Brené Brown is a researcher who studies shame, fear and vulnerability. But most people think of her as someone who teaches about joy, meaning, and connection. As she was getting ready to speak at a ladies' luncheon, the event planner was appalled to read in her bio that she was a shame researcher. The event planner took her aside and warned her, "Do not mention the word shame - people will be eating." (At this point I laughed out loud.)

The event planner went on, "People want to be comfortable and joyful. Keep it comfortable and joyful. Light and breezy, people like light and breezy."

Light and Breezy or Real and Helpful?

Brené Brown's story resonated strongly with me. She did alter the talk she gave that day.  She turned her usually powerful message into a light and breezy affirmation of joyful things. It bombed.

Before I stopped publishing, PlayGrounding wasn't necessarily bombing, but it wasn't going anywhere either. With each interview, I was left with a hundred fascinating jumping off points, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was afraid to dig deep because I was afraid of what I'd find. I was afraid of finding difficult questions lurking. And that's exactly what ended up happening.

Brené Brown recounts that when reflecting on that talk with her husband after the fact, she realized something really important. Her work is about the things that get in the way of joy, connection and vulnerability. She isn't someone who gives people light and breezy "how-to-be-happy" talks, explaining, "I'm not about the 'how-to' because in ten years, I didn't see any kind of 'how-to' working without talking about the things that get in the way."

Suddenly, I knew what PlayGrounding could be. I had created a place to talk about play. We talked about the power of play. We talked about the benefits of play. But I couldn't access it myself and I was afraid to talk about that. I was ashamed. I thought it was something uniquely wrong with me, but the most important thing I learned this year is that I'm not the only one struggling with these things.

PlayGrounding - Choosing Real and Helpful

So I promised myself that THIS would be the week. Yes, it's Thanksgiving. No self-respecting marketing person would ever launch something during Thanksgiving week. But it's the perfect time for me. With a new heart full of gratitude toward myself and the people who've been helping me through this time, I'm re-starting PlayGrounding the day before Thanksgiving.

I'll start blogging in my own voice about fun and joyful things, but also about the hard things I've discovered - things that get in the way of play.

The podcast will start up again in January. I'm going to spend the rest of 2018 blogging about the things I've learned this year. I also need to go in and deal with my email box, so apologies if you haven't heard from me. Shame and anxiety really did a number on me this past year. But I'm not going to let them rule my life anymore. I'm finding out what I really love to be and do. I'm finally letting myself embrace those things, and that's the wellspring I'm drawing from to show love to others and even finally learn to PLAY.  


*I wrote about anxiety in a previous blog post - about getting my IUD removed a few years ago. It helped to lower my anxiety from generalized to episodic for a time. I was so grateful. But the episodes got more and more severe, and my use of wine to self-medicate brought it back with a vengeance.  

About Kara

Hi! My name is Kara. I'm a writer, speaker and podcaster living in Los Angeles. I love to talk about play, but had some obstacles to overcome before I could really access it for myself.  So now I talk and write about that too. 

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This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace

The Alcohol Experiment, a free, guided, online 30-day challenge with readings, videos and a robust community led by Annie Grace

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown