Finding Freedom In Sharing My Mess

I used to take pride in having it all together. Or should I say appearing to have it all together. In between replies of “I’m fine” and “I’m doing alright” lied the truth– I was a hot mess waiting to boil over. My pleas for help were so buried and stifled that I found it difficult to cry or even pray in the privacy of my room. “Get it together Tara,” I’d say, as if I were a coach prepping his team after a losing half, “You’re tougher than this.”

But I wasn’t, and yet my lingering struggles with perfectionism and vulnerability served as duct tape over my mouth, preventing the truth from coming out.

That I felt overwhelmed. That I felt frustrated. That I felt alone.

And perhaps worst of all that I wouldn’t be understood.

There was no room on Instagram for the shadowed parts of me. No, only perfect selfie lighting to showcase a seemingly Carrie Bradshaw-esque lifestyle of cute vanilla lattes during the school week and bottomless brunches on the weekend. There was no mention of the sleep-deprived and anxiety-filled Tara who was over-drafting her bank account for textbooks.

That’s not to say that my life was totally in ruins. But when I needed to unload the burdens on my shoulders, my response to questions about my wellbeing were like a good ol’ churchy, “Oh I’m just blessed and highly favored.”

Much like the Alicia Keys poem, I felt like a prisoner of words unsaid:

“Just lonely feelings
Locked away in my head
I trap myself further
Every time I stay quiet
I should start to speak
But I stop and stay silent
And now I’ve made
My own hard bed
Inside a prison of words unsaid”

But little did I know that by opening my mouth I would find liberation in the same circumstances that once held me hostage. Shedding light on the hidden parts of my life is not only freeing, it is biblical. Romans 15 says, “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.”

I knew what it meant to build someone up in their time of need, but I couldn’t see myself on the other side. I refused to acknowledge myself as “without strength” although I at times felt that way. In my life I had taken the stance that it was better to always provide help than to always need help. Deeper than this I saw I had underlying issues with pride, and the resulting pressure to live up the “motherly” role I had taken on with friends and even family.

In my Group Process course, which instructs on how to facilitate group therapy sessions, I had the epiphany that I had been subconsciously treating my relationships as clients. I saw myself as able to provide them with insight and an open ear, and yet I wouldn’t be vulnerable and allow them to do the same for me. In order to not only have authentic relationships, but an authentic self, I decided I no longer wanted to be seen as a fraud, struggling to live up to the impossible standards that myself and others had placed on me. And what are the chances that I learned this lesson in community, sharing with others. As my classmate said, “You come to see that I have problems, you have problems, and you have problems. And it’s not as bad when you see you’re not alone.”

It takes a far stronger exertion of energy to keep up a facade than to be open and honest. There is no act to remember. No script to recite. I found freedom in saying “I feel like crap,” because it was the truth. And the truth sets you free, doesn’t it?

I’m still uncomfortable at times with the idea of sharing the shadow parts of myself, but I’ve learned to start small. It begins with:

I feel overwhelmed. I feel frustrated. I feel alone.

But at least I know now that I’m not misunderstood. And perhaps that is where I began to find my liberation. As my professor Dr. MaryBeth Werdel said, “We are relational beings. We are born in relationships; we die in relationships. We are hurt in relationships; we are healed in relationships.”

My physical and spiritual healing would not be found in the closed off quarters of my room. It would not be found in repressing my feelings from even my Creator who knew the burdens of my heart all along. It would be found in that moment after sharing the seemingly embarrassing or shameful details of my life, and hearing from a trusted friend, “Yeah, me too.”

—Tara Pook

If You Want More, Prepare For More

It started with a dream.

I was preparing for Sunday Service at my family’s church as I had done times before. The speakers were ready, the microphones were in place. All that was missing were the chairs, and it was then that I realized we only had a handful of them scattered around the room. Definitely not enough for the next morning. Frustrated, I began pacing around because of how unprofessional everything looked.

How could I forget one of the most important details? Why wasn’t anyone else worried about this?

I eventually released some steam and sat down for a moment. Soon after I heard a voice say, “If you want more, then you have to prepare for more.”

And then I woke up.

I consider myself a dreamer, perhaps more of a daydreamer; so this vivid vision and audible voice awakened me from more than just sleep. It awakened me spiritually as I believe it was one of the first times I realized that I was hearing from God.

During that time I was nearing peak dissatisfaction with my life. Each day I felt like I was born for so much more than jobs I dreaded and a bank account statement that didn’t match my taste in food. Weekend bottomless brunches add up over time, you know.

There was something about the voice that resonated with me deeply. At first I brushed it off as a random dream, much like the others I occasionally have. Like the time I dreamt I introduced my new “boyfriend” 2 Chainz to my God-fearing grandparents. But then it finally clicked. If I want more out of life, then I need to prepare for what I’m asking for.

Proverbs 20:21 says, “An inheritance claimed too soon will not be blessed in the end.” So whatever you gain without preparation and experience will be as substantial as a house made of straw. It will be a memory as quickly as it became news; like professional athletes that are broke within five years of retirement. Sure they were prepared for the game, but not the instant wealth that came along with it. A quick elevation in responsibility and status without a foundation of discipline and maturity is a recipe for disaster.

I know that I want more than a 9 to 5. I know that I want a purpose-filled life. But how was I to prepare for that? 

It started with asking myself what I specifically wanted and what I could do now to ready myself. So I created a mental checklist. The items ranged from finally learning Spanish in order to reach more people as a future counselor, to having a successful blog where I could provide healing and comfort with my words. I then broke down my long-term goals into shorter ones so I could conquer them bit by bit.

I also began to change my prayers from asking God to magically fix my life, to asking Him what I needed to gain from this level in my life in order to excel to the next. I believe that many times we are stuck in unpleasant situations, not because He doesn’t hear our cries, but because we don’t hear His guidance. God isn’t the source of hard times, but He has a remarkable way of turning them into testimony. When I saw my less-than-desirable situation as preparation instead of pointless, I saw how even the toughest trials would work together for my good.

Understand that many times you’re going to feel like the Karate Kid, going through challenges that you initially render useless.

“They” say everything happens for a reason, but like you, I often wondered what any of the hardships I deal with have to do with my destiny. That is until I realized it had everything to do with my destiny. I have found that the areas of my past struggles are indicative of my greatest triumphs.

I know that my heartbreak is preparing for me divine love.

I know that my lack is preparing me for abundance.

I know that my weeping is preparing me for joy in the morning.

This is a time of preparation as you’re getting ready for all that you asked for.

— Tara Pook

What a Community College Math Class Taught Me About Fear

This past summer I, along with thousands of other college students, gave up our summer vacations to take classes. I plan to cross the stage in December decked out in a cap and gown, so sitting in a classroom while others hit the beach was pretty much mandatory.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be taking exciting, thought-provoking classes in sociology or women’s studies. Instead, I was enrolled in Liberal Arts Math at my local community college since the drive is short and the tuition is cheaper. Now for those who don’t know me very well, math was the the bane of my existence. Sure I love to count how much money I have, but that’s as far as my relationship went with mathematics.

In elementary school, however, I found it to be quite a breeze.

Jimmy bought 9 pounds of candy and Susan bought 4 pounds of candy. If they decided to share their candy, how many pounds of candy would they have?

Thirteen! See? So easy.

It threw me off a bit when it came time for multiplication, but overall I did well. Things between math and I really became complicated once I reached middle school and they decided to throw letters into the mix. I mean, how many times have your parents found that they needed algebra? 

The struggle got real when the one and only time I had to go to summer school, was after failing a semester of algebra in high school. Let’s just say I was pissed, for lack of better term.

“If y’all had done your work the first time, you wouldn’t be here,” I remember the summer school teacher saying.

Her words angered me, especially because I felt that a lack of effort wasn’t the reason for falling short. After that summer, math became more than a subject I hated. It became a fear because I associated it with failure.

Fears are such a pesky thing. As a kid, you could liken me to Chuckie from The Rugrats since I was always afraid of something. I would even flip out and run away when the Gushers commercials came on and the children’s heads turned into fruit. I wanted no part in enjoying a fruit snack that turned my head into a pineapple. No sir.

In some cases I’d overcome my fears, like conquering riding a bike without training wheels; and other times I just accepted certain fears and went on with life. One of those certain fears was math.

So on the first day of Liberal Arts Math, I showed up with an overpriced textbook and a grimace no catcaller would dare approach. My mind paced from how much I didn’t want to be there to a meeting I had with my academic advisor just a few weeks ago.

“I see you haven’t fulfilled your math requirement yet. You’re trying to graduate in December, right?” she said.

“Yeah, heh-heh… I’m working on it,” I replied. 

“Why did you put it off for so long?”

“I mean I just don’t like math. And I can’t pass the math placement exam no matter how many times I take it.”

My advisor made a face that either portrayed concern, or puzzlement, or both and finally said, “Well maybe you have a math disability.”

Disability. The thought still echoed in my head in that class. It was bad enough that I loathed math, but for it to possibly be something that I could never pass scared me. In the midst of my worry, in walks my professor who I’ll call Mrs L- a bubbly short haired brunette with glasses and a Hungarian accent. She greeted the class with so much energy. All I could say to myself was “It is way too early for this.”

“So are you excited for math?” Mrs. L cheerfully asked.

It took me a moment to realize she was talking directly to me. After being caught off guard in a daze I awkwardly replied, “Um. Yeah.”

May God forgive me for that blatant lie.

She then asked the class who loved math. No hands were raised. Mrs. L looked shocked for some reason, but then said something that will resonate with me forever.

“So many people hate math. You know why? Because it’s hard. That’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t hate something because you have to work hard at it.”

It was as if a light bulb went off in my head.

Math was the one subject that never came naturally to me. Give me an essay to write and I’ll type away with ease. Give me an equation and I’ll give up and guess. I realized that it wasn’t a disability preventing me from succeeding in math. I was allowing fear to prevent myself from succeeding.

Instead of tackling math full force, I was ready to simply give up before I even tried. So from that moment on I studied, studied, and studied some more. Realizing I'm only human, and that I don’t know everything, helped me to let go of my pride. If I didn’t understand a problem, I wasn’t afraid to ask Mrs. L for clarification. As each 4-hour class went by I wanted to slap myself more and more, because I saw how seemingly easy it was. I took the time to understand formulas and definitions and the big bad math monster didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.

My success in the class really hit me when I was in the elevator with a classmate during our usual 10-minute breaks.

“So how do you think you did on the test?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. I wasn’t able to study as much so I’m a little scared,” I said.

“Eh, whatever. You probably got like a 100% or something.”

I, Tara- the student whose advisor suggested she had a math disability- suddenly became the class nerd. I almost skipped out the elevator like a child.

On the last day of class we finished our exams and were ready to leave for good. Before I left, I felt the need to tell Mrs. L how much I appreciated her teaching and encouragement. After I thanked her and told her how concerned I was in the beginning, she reached into her purse and pulled out a pocket-sized book.

“Here, look at this,” she said with her thick accent, as she flipped through the pages. She then turned the book to me.

I smiled at the page and thanked her once again before walking out. I never realized that a math class at a community college could teach me so much about myself. As we get older, our fears become bigger than the Boogie Man or broccoli. They seem to be more paralyzing. Rather than keep us from sleeping without a night light, they keep us from reaching our potential. If you want to be successful, you need to obtain a successful mindset. Would you try something if you knew you would fail? Of course not. But if you knew that with hard work and dedication you could pass with flying colors, then you just might give it a try.

The Bible says that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” and this proved to be true for me. Instead of accepting defeat, I decided to speak life and triumph over my fears. Give it a try and watch your fears collapse at your feet.

—Tara Pook

Faith of a Five Year Old

My mom was going through boxes of old family stuff in the garage when she came across this fine work of art. I drew this when I was about five years old and on the back I wrote:

I had a dream theat I was in the Olympics and I wun ave sgl game and my mom and dad was happy at me and I wis it hapind.

Back then I was certain that I would become an Olympic Gold medalist. I didn’t know how to spell “happened” but I definitely knew how to spell “Olympics.”

After laughing at my awful handwriting and portrayal of my parents, I began to think. Would Tara, age 5, be disappointed in Tara, age 21?  True, kids change their dreams quicker than we change the channels on a boring Saturday night, but I still couldn’t shake the thought. I was only in kindergarten but yet I had bigger dreams than I do as a senior in college.

Remember when dreaming was that simple? There were no such things as limits or doubts of our capabilities.

If we all had the faith of a five year old, the number of things that we could accomplish would be infinite. We wouldn’t worry about how much work, time, or money our dreams would take. Instead we’d take the first step and leave the rest to fate.

Somehow if I could meet my five year old self with the help of a time machine, I’d say thank you. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes dreams are as simple as dreaming them, and knowing they will happen.

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

–Saint Augustine

—Tara Pook