This is a story about managing anxiety and I hope as you read through it you will glean helpful tips, though it's not written as a "tip" post. If you are seeking targeted and specific help in dealing with anxiety I have a resource at the end of this post, that I highly recommend. You can skip ahead to it right now if you need. Go ahead, I'm not offended.

You might also appreciate A personal experience with anxiety and positive solutions, a post I wrote last year.

Last winter my daughter hurt her wrists snowboarding.

When you're learning to snowboard you fall on your back end, a lot. My daughter injured her wrists from the repetitive action of bracing herself, on her frequent falls.

Wrist guards would have been beneficial right from the start, but we didn't know. This didn't happen to our son when he learned to snowboard, a few years earlier, so we weren't exactly "prepared" for it.

She iced and compressed, applied arnica cream, and with rest, her wrists were less sore so we thought it might "go away" on its own.

As winter gave way to spring and spring gave way to summer her wrists improved, and she would only experience mild pain with certain activities.

Then the beginning of this New Year Brienne re-injured her wrist skating. And that was our "this isn't going away on its own" wake-up call.

We got up early on a Saturday morning, so we could wait for two hours to see a doctor. He ordered x-rays (no fracture) and did a basic assessment that ruled out serious injury. He recommended physiotherapy, which has an approximate two year waiting list in the health care system. Or, we pay out-of-pocket for private physiotherapy and have immediate access.

We can't afford out-of-pocket physiotherapy right now, and waiting two years is not an option either, so we started Brienne with a mobility exercise program under Damien's direction. And my mom sent an essential oil for muscle repair.

And Brienne rested her wrists for the month of January. No skating (she's still too unsteady on her skates and if she falls she will likely strain her wrists). No snowboarding. Very limited co-op gym class activity.

We took an offensive strategy to treat the problem. And as parents we enforced more rest and recovery time. Brienne has a hard time slowing herself down.

As fascinating as this all is, this post isn't really a story about my daughter's injured wrists. It's about anxiety.

It's easier to talk about physical illness than it is to talk about mental illness and mental struggle.

I don't like to say I have a mental illness. I may be in denial but I look at my anxiety as a struggle and a weakness, a propensity to a certain type of thinking and thought patterns. It's my body, my health, I can call it what I like.

Whatever you want to call it, it's a struggle I have.

And I do better with this struggle when I treat my anxiety in the same way I approach my daughter's injured wrists, with a plan of action.

Firstly, there is no shame that Brienne hurt her wrists learning to snowboard and her brother didn't. Not everybody's the same. There is no shame that I have anxiety.

While Brienne is recovering and incrementally increasing mobility and strength in her wrists she has to abstain from certain activities, and she will have to actively engage in others, eg: specific exercises.

As someone who struggles with anxiety I will go crazy (it feels like I'm falling off the edge of clear thinking) if I don't abstain from certain things. And while I carefully watch what I allow in my life, I must also actively work on strengthening my internal responses and defences against anxiety.

A wrist injury presents an opportunity to pay attention to patterns of motion. To notice activities that cause pain and others that heal and strengthen. It's a wake-up call.

My struggle with anxiety is somewhat similar.

Like recovering from an injury. I manage my anxiety with a combination of discernment, rest, and specific exercises.

Discernment is knowing who I am and building appropriate boundaries.

I find building boundaries to be especially tricky now that I am embedded in community and in a more intricate web of relationships than I have been for many years; marriage, teenaged children, homeschool co-op, and church. Knowing where to give and where to hold back, this takes a lot of wisdom, soul-searching, as well as trial and error.

I can't do certain things that other people feel called to do. I can't engage in missions that are not my own. I cannot take on burdens that aren't mine to bear. If I veer too much into any of these territories, anxiety screams like a warming alarm. Which is maybe part of its purpose in my life.

I have a lot of capacity and capabilities, in the same way my daughter has a lot of energy and interest in sports. I have to build boundaries in my life to protect myself from over-engagement in certain areas of my life - social media, how I manage my online communications, what I give to each of the communities to which I belong. I have personal boundaries around how much I can assist my children in meeting their goals, how much I can assist my husband. I am finite.

My children are growing and increasingly have to make decisions for themselves but one of my chief roles as mother has been to be a gatekeeper, discerning what to let into our home and into my children's lives.

I have to be my own gatekeeper. No one else is going to do this for me.

Rest is taking regular breaks in my body and mind.

My rest looks like skiing once a week (yes, this is incredibly restful and rejuvenating for me), at-home retreat days, and scheduling "unscheduled" time in my weeks. Keeping blocks of time open in which I will not schedule anything.

I build rest into my plans so that I can say no to the other things (almost all of them good) that would compete for that time. I need open spaces in my week to putter around my home, to read, take naps, sleep-in now and again, and make stuff.

You can call it scheduled downtime, margin, Sabbath - whatever you call it - I must honor my needs for rest, fun and relaxation. And say "not now" to some of my own competing desires (to be productive, to "finish", to fix all the wrongs in my realm) and the desires and expectations of other people.

My anxiety exercises are the myriad of self-care practices I engage in.

Some are mental; meditation, truth-seeking and truth-speaking. Retraining my "mind" muscles to respond differently to stressful stimuli. Others are physical; outdoor activities and physical movement, a happy light through winter, dietary supplements, herbal adaptogen remedies and teas, essential oils. Some are relational; showing up as is, having courage, speaking truthfully, accepting and giving unconditional love in my core relationships. Others are spiritual; prayer and journaling.

It's all related. Discernment and setting boundaries is a self-knowledge and self-care practice. And setting healthy boundaries enables rest. The point is, discernment, rest and exercise are key parts to how I manage my anxiety.

I don't like easy answers because there is no such thing to complex problems. So I'm not going to leave this post on a three point answer to anxiety.

I want to share another part of this story.

While Brienne was resting during the month of January our family continued to go skiing every week. At fourteen, Brienne is old enough to stay home by herself but she likes to be with us and would be lonely at home, so she came and sat in the lodge while the rest of us hit the slopes. She brought school work, books, and TV programs downloaded to her iPad.

She kept mostly occupied but it wasn't the best of times for her. I felt bad but there wasn't much I could do about it except pop into the lodge more often than usual to say hi. I could be present as often as my own needs would allow. (I have to ski for my own health and wellbeing.)

Brienne was with us but it was lonely for her. Not as lonely as being at home, but lonely and a bit boring.

My own struggle with anxiety is never boring but it is lonely. Which is part of why I'm writing about it here.

My anxiety makes it hard to trust myself, it makes it hard to discern what voices to listen to. And sometimes the measures I take to protect myself and build appropriate boundaries remove me from other people and from certain activities.

And I question myself, "why can't I feel at ease in this situation that others handle easily?", and "why must I think, question, and wrestle deeply with ideas, situations and circumstances that other people accept at face value?"

And because it is anxiety, I feel a little crazy sometimes. And some days it takes all I have to bring truth and light to that craziness. It's a fight, and I get tired of fighting. And it feels lonely, even when I'm in a crowd of people, maybe especially when I'm in a crowd of people.

If you struggle with anxiety you too might feel lonely. People generally don't talk about their anxiety or other mental struggles. And if they do, other people, well meaning but ignorant of the illness, can be dismissive, or worse, provide cliché answers.

I had a tough spell with anxiety through the first weeks of the New Year. It comes and goes for me like that. My last bad spell was in October. I had the chance to get together with a friend a couple weeks ago, a dear woman who also suffers from mental illness and "problematic thinking". We laughed at ourselves and our struggles (you have to laugh sometimes, it is pretty crazy some of the stuff we think). We cried. We prayed. We asked God to release us of this trial but also expressed our gratitude that we can help ease each other's burden because of our own experiences.

I felt a little less lonely. And so did she.

That same week another dear friend reached out to me in her own need and as these things turn out, I needed her as much as she needed me. Again, I felt a little less lonely in my struggle. But most of all I felt loved, regardless. I felt like I had people in my corner.

We don't have all the answers for each other. We share what works for us in our individual struggle. We know each other's craziness but we still believe in the best of one another, we hold each other in light and love. But even with all that (and what a gift all that is), each of us essentially fights a battle on our own.

This truth is very acute in the most intimate relationship in my life, my marriage.

As much as we love each other, share our bodies and our thoughts, share a faith and life vision, share core values and love for our children, we cannot fully inhabit the space of each other's personal struggles. We hold each other through them but each of us has our own battles we must fight, our own injuries and illnesses we must contend with.

I can never fully understand the struggles, temptations, and challenges my husband deals with. And he will never fully understand mine.

And sometimes that feels lonely (one of my core longings is to be known and understood), but in reality that is a loneliness shared by everyone. We each have a perennial battle to fight. We have unique injuries and illnesses that we hope to heal. This is one part of our "common core", our shared humanity.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
(author disputed)

You might not know the exact battle but you can be sure, we are each fighting one.

I take no pleasure in other people's suffering, weaknesses and faults, but there is the comfort of knowing you are not alone. And as much as I am able (remember: boundaries) I have found that honest friendships that provide safe places to talk about my crazy are a balm to this loneliness. These friendships are precious and necessarily few as being this open with people is vulnerable and sacred.

After a month of rest our daughter is snowboarding and skating again. I'm so happy for her but also grateful I don't have to deal with the mommy guilt that tugs at me as I ski while she sits in the lodge.

I took my own kind of rest during January also. I extended compassion and kindness to myself during a time of struggle. There is no other helpful option for me in these periods. And it seems to me the deeper I allow compassion and kindness to root in my heart, for myself and for others, the slightly less difficult the struggle is and less lonely I feel in the valleys.

It's not gone. It's not cured. It's endured.

But it's also shared, in connection and conversation with friends. It's assuaged with exercises of body, mind, and spirit and an increasing discernment and understanding of my limits, a keen self-awareness of my own purposes and my very finite nature, a nurturing of my fragile/strong self with love, truth, and kindness.

Help for your anxiety

I want to tell you about a helpful resource for thinking about and dealing with anxiety. One of my favorite bloggers, Heather Caliri, has published a mini-course about anxiety called Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety.

If you struggle with anxiety, as I do, you know that sometimes the only thing you can really grab ahold of are the tiny ideas.

Heather's writing, in general, addresses emotional, mental and spiritual health and well-being. She writes a lot about anxiety and I find it really helpful.

Heather isn't selling anything, the course is absolutely free, but you do have to subscribe. (You can always unsubscribe if you don't like them.)

Heather says, "Let’s face this hard thing together, okay?"

I couldn't agree more.

I welcome your comments or private emails about your own struggles or experiences with anxiety. Therapies, exercises and self-care practices that work for you. I'd love to hear what you've gained through this struggle.

Here are a few of mine: compassion, deeper friendships, empathy, self-awareness, and tools to share with others.

I love good stories. My favorite books are stories, fiction or non-fiction, though I especially appreciate memoirs and autobiographies.

In my experience of reading stories about both real people and fictional people, I've found the stories and lives of real people are the most fascinating to me. Not that I don't love a well written yarn. I totally do, but you and I are as interesting as any fictional character. And the stories we've lived are worth telling.

Five summers ago was a very significant summer. In May of that year we left Maine to launch our great adventure of Life 3.0. We wanted to build location independent work that would allow us the freedom to have adventures. We wanted to travel and live in beautiful places.

That summer we were living with my parents in Nova Scotia, getting on our feet financially, before moving to the Gaspe peninsula. We had just uprooted our lives in the United States. Damien and I were launching a dream of being self-employed, working together online. In July and August the two of us (our first time away from the kids) traveled out west to Montana, Wyoming and Utah. We celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in an atmosphere of inspiration and hope; big sky and big ideas.

We had our whole future in front of us. You always have your whole future in front of you but sometimes you are more keenly aware of it, and that was a season for us of great anticipation of the future.

It was during this time that I read the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Partly because of where I was at, in the formative stages of a significant life change, and partly because of the zeitgeist of my internet world, I was very inspired by the book. Writing the story of your life, living your life's story, life as story... story, story, story was the message in my wider world and was echoed in other books like Bob Goff's book Love Does, another book I really enjoyed.

I made copious notes at the time. I wrote drafts for posts I never published. I felt I had gained another nugget of wisdom in my insatiable quest to understand myself and to live with intention.

Living a good story became another way to phrase the kind of life I wanted.

That summer I wrote the following in one of my journals:

I have felt the Spirit saying, "I've given you the desires of your heart to build a life at home together. Now open your hands, open your heart to the reason I've placed those desires in your heart. The endpoint is not to bless the Tougas family so we are happy. We are blessed in health, family, talents, gifts, resources, etc to bless others."

This was not a new revelation. This is the ages old story of a life well lived.

Energy and love is to move through us, changing us, making our lives rich with experience, relationships, and resources so we can bless others with the same.

And the ways in which our lives are rich are as varied as people are different.

The story that unfolded from that point in my life was not the story I thought I'd be writing with my life.

I believed if I lived with intention (or if I made all the right choices) I could escape a lot of the struggle, pain, disappointment, and loss that are a necessary part of every good story. Triumph is only triumph because of challenge. Joy is only joy because of pain. Beauty is only beauty because of ugliness. Contentment is only contentment because of disappointment.

I was optimistic, hopeful, perhaps naive. I don't think this is unique to my situation. To embark on any great adventure - marriage, parenting, starting life in a new place - one must possess ridiculous amounts of faith, a simple ignorance, or some combination of both. Most of us have no clue about the heartache we'll encounter in our journey, and it's probably better this way.

That summer I thought we had done the hard work, encountered the worst in the actual uprooting and moving process (which was very hard) and now we "had arrived" even though we hadn't actually "arrived" anywhere.

I hate this part of living a good story. That you must struggle for success and ache before joy; and that the whole thing repeats itself over and over in our lives. Even though I recognize those are the very tensions I find most compelling in the memoirs, biographies and fictional yarns I love to read.

Being back out west this summer I have been reminded of all this. Reminded of how I felt five years ago, the optimism and anticipation. Reminded of the dreams Damien and I shared and how progressing in some of those dreams facilitated amazing experiences in our lives but also painful personal and marital growth. And I am especially reminded of the importance of people in the story of our lives and how it is the connections we share that bring the most satisfaction from living.

Damien and I value travel and adventure. We value going places and having new experiences, and of course we value big nature experiences.

We love to go places but in this life season we don't have a lot of money to do so.

Talking about money always feels a bit awkward but I don't know how you can write about life and travel and adventure without talking about money. I am an intensely practical person and I always want to understand the details of a situation, not just the broad stroke picture.

One of the reasons money talk is awkward is because there is great disparity in the world, disparity in communities and in families. In other words, we all have different means. But we also have different priorities and values. I would actually be ashamed to admit some of the things we don't do and don't buy because we place greater value on experiences together, buying a winter ski pass for example, driving out west for this trip. Those decisions mean we've made sacrifices in other areas, we prioritize.

But some people have so little money to begin with that the budget is not about priorities, it's about survival.

So when I say we don't have a lot of money to travel, it's relative of course. We have a travel budget in the order of hundreds of dollars, not thousands. And for a Canadian family of five wanting to go interesting places it's really not much. In Canada, a full tank of gas for our car costs $50, half a hundred dollars.

The real cost of travel for us though isn't the destination. With good camping equipment and being comfortable with minimalist camping and traveling, it's not the travel costs that are the big expense. The big cost now is that as self-employed people growing a business at the same time we're raising three teenagers, we can't afford the time off. There have been seasons in our life where Damien was able to take a chunk of time off of work and we took trips/holidays/vacations mostly to visit family. But that is not our current life season.

Our restricted travel budget is not really the point of this post but it tells the backdrop against which the real story emerges, the story of people and connections.

Story One:

The summer of 2011 Damien and I were eager to kickstart our online business ventures by going to Outdoor Retailer in Utah. We also wanted to be in the Rockies and see this area of the world. We had a bit more money in those days, we flew out here, but we still wanted to get by with cheap accommodations. Through my years of blogging I had gotten to know people online and I contacted them to see if we could pitch a tent in their yard, stay in a spare room etc.

One of those people was Katie Clemons. Katie had recently launched her online journal business Gadanke. She and her husband Martin were renovating part of an airport hangar into an apartment. I asked her if we could stay a night. She said yes, and we packed a lot into the less-than-24 hour period we camped out at their airport property in the Paradise Valley.

That one night was the start of something unexpected and unknown. It was a real pleasure to meet Katie in person, but the surprise for me was how well our husband's hit it off. An introverted, deep-thinker, engineering geek, Damien truly connects with very few people. But Damien made a connection with Martin, a fellow engineer deep-thinking sort who loves the mountains, and it is that connection, and the business they now share, that brought us back to this location on this trip.

Since meeting Katie & Martin five years ago they have completed their apartment in the hangar and been featured on HGTV. Katie has built a beautiful journal business that includes the kid's journals' Time Capsule and Between Mom and Me. She's given a Tedx talk and been featured in a bunch of press. And they are now proud parents of Niklas, an exuberant and inquisitive tow-headed toddler.

Katie & Martin are big dreamers and big do-ers. And they are generous and hospitable.

They also operate an Airbnb at the airport, one of their many ventures, and we are guests in those accommodations (plus pitching a tent) as homebase for our time in Montana.

All of this is such a gift. The connection and friendship and having a place to stay in one of Montana's most beautiful valleys.

The offer and availability of accommodations when we came to Montana allowed us to do the same with our home in Montreal.

Story Two:

After we left Maine and moved to Quebec I felt socially isolated. I loved the Gaspe Peninsula's beauty but there were very few women like me with which to connect. I was lonely and so I took a chance and reached out to an online friend of mine.

Krista had been reading my blog for years and we had gotten to know each other fairly well through comments and private emails. In the heart of winter, during a difficult spell, I sent her an email "could we chat on the phone?" She said yes and that started a most beautiful and close friendship.

I met Krista in person three summers ago when she and her husband Georges traveled to Quebec City and made the extra long journey to meet me on the peninsula.

Krista is a soul sister of mine. We've only met that once in person, which seems crazy to me because I can't imagine my life now without her friendship. It's an effort to maintain our friendship. We schedule phone calls about once a month and then deep dive into our lives - kids, husbands, vocation, personal growth, faith and spirituality - we share our struggles and joys and say "me too" more than I can count. I love Krista.

And so when I announced to friends on Facebook that I would be traveling this summer and we were looking for housesitters, Krista, an adventurous francophile jumped at the chance. She invited her close friend Anno to join, both of them flying into the city from elsewhere in Canada, to enjoy a Montreal vacation.

I have been following her Facebook feed while I'm here in Montana and it is a pleasure for me to experience her delight in the city and apartment I call home.

Both her and Anno could not have afforded this experience without the option of a free housesitting gig.

Story Three:

One of the dreams Damien and I talked about five years ago in Big Sky Country was doing a thru-hike with our kids, having a grand, life-changing adventure together. The following winter, the same winter I reached out to Krista, we set a date on the calendar for that adventure.

When we announced on my blog that we would be embarking on this journey, blog readers invited us to stay at their home as part of our adventure. People wanted to host us along our way; offering beds, showers, meals and shuttles on our resupply days.

I met Lori, through my blog, a year or two before our hike announcement. We had chatted about homeschooling and she was one of the first people to say, "when you come to Georgia, you have to stay with us. We live very close to the Appalachian Trail."

Lori and Robert Powell were our first hosts. We stayed with their family two nights before our hike began. After returning our rental car, they shuttled us around driving us to the grocery store, outfitters, and post office. They cleared their schedule for us, they helped us with whatever we needed to do. Lori made us a fabulous supper and the next day, loading their family of five and our family of five into two vehicles, they drove us to the start of the trail at Springer Mountain.

When we were hiking the trail we were a family of five without a vehicle, without a home, without a lot of money. It was a vulnerable feeling. We relied on the kindness of strangers all the time. It was incredibly humbling. This dependency, this need, taught me a ton about myself (that I don't have time to explain here). And it taught me about the goodness of people.

I felt like there was no way I could repay the kindness of the families that hosted us on the Appalachian Trail. Some of them were complete strangers to us, friends of Facebook friends. And their hospitality and generosity of spirit is part of what made our hike successful. We couldn't have done it without them.

Early this year as Damien and I strategized this summer trip - how could we possibly afford to do this? what about our cats? what about my needs for a homebase, for routine, structure and some measure of predictability? - the part that was most clear is that we could share our Montreal apartment in our absence. We could make our home a homebase for another family's adventures. Or someone could use it as a personal retreat space.

Sometimes we feel we don't have much to give in this resource-intense season of raising and homeschooling three teenagers on one income. But we have a home.

And when I offered our space on my blog and Lori's was one of the first emails in response, I was so delighted. Finally, a small way to repay her family's hospitality during our hike.

In that last week of June as we got our home ready to host seven different families in our absence, I experienced a deep sense of "this is what I'm meant to do, this is part of my calling, part of my life story"; to prepare a welcoming space for people, to share my home with travelers and strangers.

As we scrubbed the house clean (I have minions to help with my labor), stored personal effects in closets, set out books we're giving away; as I spent hours writing a document of what to do in Montreal, best transit routes, neighborhood recommendations, etc. what I experienced most of all through the process was joy. Even though the weeks were so busy and time was tight as we prepared to leave for 6 weeks, sharing our home with people did not feel like a burden, but a blessing.

This was the living expression, an expression that felt right for me, of what I wrote five years ago, "we are blessed in health, family, talents, gifts, resources, etc to bless others".

Five years ago, when I was reading those books and blog posts about living a good story I could not have anticipated the very painful parts of the past couple years.

We were in Big Sky country, talking big dreams, full of hope for the future.

We were going to live an adventure!!, forgetting (or selectively choosing to ignore, or simply not realizing the extent to which) we would pay a price for that adventure. An ordeal, a death of some sort is always part of the Hero's Journey; always part of a good story.

We thought the hike would be like a Hero's Journey, and it was. We accepted the call, we were given help, we weren't sure we would make it, more help came, we worked harder than we thought was possible, we experienced a transformation, we came home changed.

But the price we had to pay was not what we expected. It was not financial, it was not the investment of everything we had in terms of physical resources or the draining of our bank accounts (which did happen). The price we paid was personal, it was the inner places where the death and rebirth needed to happen. And I had no idea what was coming.

If we are to experience any significant growth in our lives, if we are to become better people (not bitter people) through our experiences, the Hero's Journey is the path we'll take. Sometimes we will make decisions to hasten this growth, sometimes situations will be forced upon us, but we have to accept the challenge again and again if we are to live a good story, which is to live a good life.

Everyone's good story looks different.

For me, building kindred-spirit relationships with people is a good story. Sharing is a good story. Hospitality is a good story.

Everything about this trip is a good story.

I am contented to be writing this story, living this story.

Ironically though, to live and write this story, we had to be in a place of need. I was lonely when I met Krista. We had very little money for this summer's adventure. The families staying in our Montreal home this summer feel likewise.

I am often tempted to believe it would be so great to do things in our own strength, on our own dime. To take vacations in that gorgeous, high priced guest house. To pay for it with our "hard-earned money". To feel impervious to loneliness so we wouldn't have to depend on other people.

But it is our need that drives us to each other, that helps us make the connections that are the life force of any truly great story.

I'll tell you straight up: I don't want to be in financial need and I have a hard time relying on the generosity of other people. But in the same breath I acknowledge that I want to share, I want to love, I want to give. You can't have one without the other. I must receive in order to give.

Returning west to the place Damien and I felt so hopeful all those years ago, full of dreams and aspirations has stirred my soul in ways I hadn't anticipated.

When we got off the trail and I felt so broken and adrift, questioning who I was and what I valued, where I had gone wrong to experience the pain I did while hiking the trail, Damien, trying to helpful, recommended I revisit what I had written before the trail, to remind myself of the hopes, dreams and our aspirations for the experience.

The thought of that actually sickened me. In my deep struggle and my shame at feeling broken I felt like a fraud for having been so hopeful. The last thing I wanted to do was read the optimistic words of my pre-adventure self, it made me feel stupid and naive.

When you're in a state of despondency it's not necessarily the best time to recall your previous ideals, but to simply face forward and hope, beyond hope, that those ideals were not misplaced. Your good intentions, dreams, and aspirations took you on the path you were meant to take and that all will be revealed, in time.

I can go back and read those words now with compassion, affection, and gratitude for who I was then and who I am now.

And I can clearly see this is a good story.

This month I had the privilege of meeting a close online friend in person. I use the term online friend to clarify simply how we met each other.

My online friends have become a lifeline to me and are no less important than "real" life relationships. In truth, my "real" life involves a great deal of online relationships and transactions and I generally don't distinguish the two, except for clarification.

Kika and I met here at FIMBY. Kika has been reading FIMBY for maybe five years now. Through years of commenting, and then e-mailing, I got to know Kika as more than a blog reader. Kika has become a very close friend.

Last winter I e-mailed Kika asking her if we could talk on the phone sometime. Up until that point we were just e-mail friends but I really needed to talk to someone in person. Someone who understood me (in English!) and shared my values; a kindred spirit.

Kika makes time for friendships, something I'm not always so good at cultivating. When I said "I need a friend to talk to" she made herself available to me.

I remember that I cried on that first call. It was a relief to share deeply with a friend and to feel safe doing so. I had shared so much with Kika over the years through my blog and e-mail, and her likewise, that when we first started talking in person there was very little fluff.

Since that first call, which was initiated out of certain desperation on my part, our friendship has deepened and my life has been enriched by knowing Kika.

Kika and her husband have a connection with Quebec, having met at Laval University in Quebec City 20 years ago. They returned this summer for a romantic getaway and they took the time to drive out to the peninsula to visit us (and to play many games of chess with Laurent).

Kika in person is exactly like the Kika I've gotten to know over the years via the internet. I feel so at ease with her and we spent most of our time together buried in conversation about kids, health, marriage, personal growth, our dreams and our setbacks. Kika is committed to her family and committed to personal growth. She inspires me in many areas.

Reaching out to Kika last winter was a proactive measure against the loneliness I was feeling at the time.

Loneliness is a reality for many people. Not simply "once in a while I feel lonely", but an ache we carry in our heart when we don't fit in and feel we don't belong.

For me, our move to a different culture and a more rural way of living stirred up a level of loneliness and isolation I hadn't experienced before.

But even before that, loneliness had been a companion for a few years.

I wrote a post four years ago, Looking for Mommies Like Me, in which I expressed a bit of this loneliness. My path has never been the mainstream and the longer we walk our own journey the less travelers there are by our side. In that post I expressed my desire to find female companionship in the journey.

The responses on that post were very thought provoking for me and heart stirring also. Many of you (people who may not be reading this blog anymore) shared insight and advice that I actually took to heart.

The actions that came out of that advice have helped me move through those acutely lonely parts of the last few years and into deeper connection and friendship.

How I've become less lonely in the past couple years

I tread lightly in this territory of sharing what I've learned about loneliness. I despise simplistic solutions to complex conditions of the heart.

I didn't title this post 4 Steps to Overcome Loneliness. I am certain to struggle with loneliness again. I don't think I've overcome it more than understood its causes, for me, and figured out how to address those at this stage in my life.

So, I'm not suggesting these are answers for everyone but they are things I've identified in my own life that have helped me feel less lonely and isolated - even though I live in a somewhat isolating situation, which I explain more further in this post.

I stopped judging so much

We might as well start with the biggie.

Judging has served me well. (I know I just said I stopped doing it so much, hang in there just a moment while I explain.)

In choosing the life I want to live - as a young mother and now as a late thirties something mom with teen and nearly teen children - I've had to filter out a lot of what I don't want in my life. Judging - I want this thing, not the other thing - has helped me do that.

From the time I was quite young, I was very clear on the kind of home life and relationships I wanted with my family. Those goals guided my decision making through my early adult years - choosing a spouse, choosing to be a homemaker and stay at home mom, choosing certain parenting styles instead of others, etc.

Most of my decisions have not been supported by the culture at large. Early marriage and motherhood - by choice. No career - by choice. Investing completely in family life during my kid's youngest years - by choice. Fairly traditional marriage roles - by choice.

Depending on where you live and what culture you find yourself in, these put you either in or out of mainstream thinking. I have been decidedly out for the majority of my adult years.

This next part embarrasses me to say.

While living on the outside of the mainstream, I fell into a pattern of judging other people's decisions to feel better about my own. Why I needed to feel better about my own, I don't know. I guess I knew what I wanted in life but that didn't automatically give me a lot of confidence in the execution.

Sometimes when we feel different we want to bolster ourselves at the expense of others. I think it goes without saying this is not a soul-healthy practice.

When I was a new mom and a mom of young children I sought affirmation in the belief that I was "doing things the right way". I wanted so badly to get this right and I was making the best decisions I knew to make. (I now realize most of us act from the exact same motivation and come to different conclusions and actions.) I sought approval by seeking friends who were like me and lived similarly. And took it a step further by judging those who were different.

I don't remember when I turned the corner on this, but I did. (You can all breathe a sigh of relief now.)

I think I reached a certain stage in my parenting where I felt good enough "here" that I didn't need to judge "out there". I reached a point where my affirmation as a mother comes from my actual relationship with my children, and not making "all the right" parenting choices. What are the right choices anyway?

I judge other women less harshly now. Really, I have absolutely no need to judge their choices to make myself feel better. I have the relationships I want with my family and that's all I need.

And as I struggle through transitions as my children grow and separate from me (it's called the young adult years), I feel more compassion for other mothers, regardless of their parenting styles or lifestyle decisions. Mothering is incredibly hard work and I have no right to judge. I have no need to judge.

In letting go of this, or growing out of this, or whatever has transpired in the past few years, I've opened myself up to so many more relationships with other women.

It's a good thing this happened when it did because I'd be really lonely for friendship here if this hadn't transpired in my life. There are very few moms "like me" where I live. Most everyone has a career or nearly full time job, none of them homeschool, daycare is not just the norm, it's expected (and it's virtually free so even stay-at-home parents use it).

And you know what? These women, who are not like me, are fascinating, beautiful and wonderful. They inspire me in many ways. They are active and engaged in their community. And I want to be their friend. I share many things in common with them in spite of different family lifestyles.

you've seen this artwork a couple times already on my blog
Kika's daughter painted it for her mom, a little gift to carry with her on her trip

I want to return to one thought before moving on. Judging has served me well when I judged what was right for me and lived according to that conviction. When I built boundaries and barriers in my life to honor those decisions and to create the environment I wanted for my family.

Judging has not served me well when I applied what was right for me, and my conviction for living well, to other people. When I built boundaries and barriers in my life that barricaded me in and kept people out. That was a breeding ground for loneliness.

I started appreciating people for who they are (different from me)

As much as I've let go of judging women and opened myself to many more relationships that way, I still need to connect with a core group of women who really understand, know and love me.

Some people refer to this as their tribe. (I've never liked that word, it sounds too much like internet marketing to me.)

I need to connect with women who share my faith. Women who understand my heart for my family. Women who know what it's like to be committed for life to one man. Women who are homeschooling teens. Women who write. Women who work from home, as partners with their husbands. Women who know what it's like to be active outdoors.

My struggle in the past was thinking one woman had to be all this! This was especially pointed out to me in the comments of Looking for Mommies Like Me.

I know that finding someone with the exact family and personality alchemy as myself is impossible. And knowing me, we probably would rub each other the wrong way, too many edges. But I have thought it would be so nice for someone to understand me on all these levels.

That's kind of selfish, eh? In seeking out someone to understand me I forget that relationship involves understanding the other. When we focus too much on our own needs to be understood we lose sight of the mutuality of friendship. It's not all about me!

People are so interesting (and irksome sometimes), and if I shared everything in common with all my friends I would miss out on all we have to offer each other in our differences. I would miss out on the new understandings we each gain when we step outside ourself for a time to put ourself in someone else's situation.

I reached out

To fight loneliness I had to reach out to the women around me, those online and in person.

I feel like it doesn't matter what your situation is, you can reach out somewhere to build relationships.

I live in the woods, I don't have a phone, I'm a homebody, we homeschool and there are no homeschoolers in our immediate area (read: no co-ops, no groups, no support), I'm an English speaker in a francophone community, I'm not part of a church...

You've got excuses out the wazoo for not reaching out? Me too.

When we lived in Maine, contact with homeschooling moms (my usual crowd) came easy. I could see friends as little or as often as I liked. Some of these friendships have been difficult to maintain in our move because the friendships were formed around, and relied upon, our proximity to each other.

I had developed friendships around playdates and homeschool meet-ups with likeminded mamas. I lost all this "ease of connection" in our move. And last winter I remember having the conscious awareness that I was going to have work at making connections in my new life.

I started by asking Kika if I could phone her. We never knew each other in real life, our relationship didn't rely on proximity. Connecting with her in audio felt like a deeper connection, not a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting (which we had never experienced).

Then I sought Skype connections with other online friends. This winter I made an effort to reconnect with a group of Maine girlfriends, all homeschooling moms with teens. We supported each other throughout the winter and spring with morning e-mails and prayer.

I reached out locally. Facebook, the health food store, and even our dead end country road have all brought friends my way. I make the effort to spend time talking to people when I meet them in my community, and this is not always easy because of my language insecurities.

I have to work hard to get over my insecurities about not speaking French well and reach out in the language I know, which is English. I really respect that Quebec wants to maintain the French language and I feel I contribute to anglicizing the province and I struggle with that.

I have had to work through my insecurities about not fitting in (the whole French culture thing), deal with technology glitches (which I don't like and make me frustrated), make time in my week for Skype conversations (time I often think should be spent doing something productive), and keep in touch with e-mail (when sometimes the last thing I want to do is open my inbox) - all in an effort to move myself past the loneliness.

We all have circumstances that isolate us in someway. Our physical location, our beliefs and values, our lifestyle. And we all need varying amount of interaction with people to fill our well.

As an extrovert, in the woods, in my non-native culture, I have to make a concerted effort to reach out and make connections. My mental and spiritual health depends on having those connections and conversations with people.

I became more comfortable with myself

Part of reaching out to a variety of people in different situations, instead of seeking out a bunch of friends just like me, is being comfortable in who I am and my way of looking at the world.

When you feel ok in who you are, you realize you don't need to see eye-to-eye on everything with everyone you know or all your friends. And this allows you cultivate more relationships and feel less lonely.

Being comfortable with who I am involves both self-confidence and compassion.

I've always been a fairly confident person, but sometimes in the past that confidence was falsely rooted in comparison to other people's decision. In which case, the confidence is actually pride and not a very good basis for friendship. Pride isolates and causes loneliness.

I think healthy confidence comes from recognizing and operating in your strengths and gifts. And I've been on mission in the past couple years to identify those.

It's been up and down for me in this regard. A two step forward and one step back kind of dance. I will identify a gift or strength but then so easily look around to see how those things compare with other people's gifts and strengths.

Enter compassion. Compassion is the necessary partner to any kind of confidence. In fact you won't grow healthy confidence without a serious dose of compassion for your weaknesses and failings.

Personal growth, spiritual journeys, faith, and learning of all types (so that's life right there) involve vulnerability, failures, trial and error. You can't grow, becoming the person you are meant to be, without practicing self-compassion.

Recognizing our strengths and living those feels so empowering and "on top of my game". (I LOVE it when I'm in that place!). But loving myself in my failing, weakness and soft spots is how I learn to be really comfortable in myself, all of myself.

This yin and yang of self-ease - confidence in strengths and compassion for weakness - keeps me humble, which is much more conducive to connection and relationship than having it all together, all the time.

Positive relationship with others grows out of the fertile soil of positive relationship with self. And positive relationship with self is being comfortable with who I am. At ease with my dreams and goals for my life (so what if all your friends are growing gardens and you're hiking!), my strengths and unique gifts, as well as my weaknesses and failures.

It seems the more comfortable I am in myself the more I am able to reach out in times of loneliness. Reaching out sometimes in strength, with something to offer, and sometimes in weakness, needing support. Both are healthy.

A funny thing about growing more comfortable in yourself. When you operate in your strengths, and experience the rush that comes from that - you love to see others do the same. It doesn't threaten you, it encourages you to keep going in your own growth. And practicing self compassion will make you more compassionate to other people.

The very traits you are growing in yourself so you can reach out across differences, and be comfortable instead of lonely, are the traits that will make you a good friend and connect you to people.

And this is true across the spectrum of human need and relationships. The traits you cultivate in relationship with yourself becomes a gift you offer in other relationships.

I don't have a tidy conclusion for this (ah, the freedom of blogging) except to say, I welcome your reflections and insights, in comments, from your own experience with loneliness.

Have you struggled with loneliness?

(This is a sensitive topic so of course we will keep comments kind.)

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