Green watercolor painting with little stars surrounding the words trust yourself in green font all in capital letters.
mental health

When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them

Green watercolor painting on top left and bottom with little stars surrounding the words trust yourself in green font all in capital letters.

I used to be really terrible at setting boundaries. Someone at one point (not so lovingly) called me “Lady No Bo.” Not that I’m super great at it now, but I’m actively working on it and have been improving. In a recent therapy group I participated in, the facilitator reminded us that while some people can grow and some change is possible, adults that we know are very unlikely to change in substantial ways unless they are actively and purposefully trying and it would be helpful to most people if they could adjust their expectations of those around them accordingly instead of wishing or hoping the other people would change.

The facilitator also discussed that nonverbal boundaries are a totally valid thing. There are many things you shouldn’t necessarily have to explicitly state as boundaries. Like “don’t touch me without my consent”, “don’t use dehumanizing language about groups I’m a part of in front of me”, “don’t comment on decisions I make about how to spend my own money when you already know (because I have voiced) that it is incredibly triggering to me.” Some of these things I have stated explicitly to people. Some of these things have been implied. The rejection or dismissal of them have been reasons I have decided to give up on friendships or other relationships. As I’ve grown to learn more things about myself and the way my brain works, it makes sense that I participate in a lot of black and white thinking, though I am trying to learn to live more in the gray. That doesn’t mean compromising my values and it doesn’t mean spending time with people who consistently make me feel bad about myself and make me question my self-worth. Unless it was for my own mental or physical safety, I wouldn’t totally write someone off the first time they violated a boundary. But after repeated boundary violations? After they try to tell me how I identify is wrong or unnatural? After they have caused me significant emotional distress? Yeah, I’m 100% able and willing to walk away from friendships and relationships then at this point in my life.

I spent most of my life letting people walk all over me, squeezing myself tinier and tinier to try to take up less space, trying not to inconvenience people, and trying to manage the emotions of everyone around me. I’m trying to learn not to do any of those things anymore, but it is a process. Something shifted in a really big way for me around friendships while I was in residential treatment. For the first time, I felt like I was making multiple friendships with people who truly see me and love me exactly as I am without me having to change. I no longer felt like I had to hustle for worthiness in my friendships and decided that I no longer would. There are friends from before treatment all this was already true of, though there aren’t many of them. Developing friendships with people who see me, get me, understand all I’ve been through, respect my boundaries, and help me to be a better version of myself has been life changing.

Since residential when my views about friendships changed, I have been able to develop deep, mutually respectful, mutually supportive friendships with people who care about me and love me exactly as I am, flaws and all. The friendships I had before treatment that I still have feel better and healthier to me. In the past, I stayed in relationships or friendships out of a sense of obligation, even when those relationships and friendships were making me feel bad about myself or making me feel bad in general. If someone shows you for multiple years that they aren’t putting the same care, time, dedication, and love into your friendship or relationship that you are, believe them. That person is very unlikely to change. And until they did, I would have no interest in rekindling a romantic or friend relationship with any of them. I have also become more comfortable with doing things by myself! Last year, I traveled to see Dan+Shay twice by myself and those concerts were two of the best nights of my life. I danced and sang like no one was watching because no one I knew was! (Let’s be totally honest- meeting Dan both times definitely didn’t hurt either!). Tonight, I’m going to see BAILEN all by myself and I am so excited! I’m also still looking forward to several upcoming concerts with friends and family who I love who I know won’t judge me for singing at the top of my lungs or dancing my heart out or crying tears of overwhelm and joy.

It’s best to believe people when they show you who they are, whether that means they are actively working on becoming better, more supportive, more direct, more honest, more authentic, more vulnerable, more kind, more compassionate, more empathetic, etc etc etc. or it means that they don’t care about your feelings, are dismissive when you try to talk to them about things that are important to you, or are just plain mean. I turn 34 years old this month. I am not the same person I was when I was 12 or 17 or 24 or 26 or 30 or even 32. I have actively tried to become a better person and have worked very hard to no longer be the mean girl I was in middle school, the judgmental jerk I was in high school, the person who let everyone walk all over them in college, the person who allowed “friends” to make me feel awful in graduate school just because I wanted so desperately to belong (one person actually said to me that I talk too much about myself and would make a bad therapist. I later found out that I’m neurodivergent and that my style of relating to people by sharing something similar I’ve gone through is very common in neurodivergent folks. Also, I wouldn’t have related to people the same way as a school counselor or therapist. I was talking with someone who I thought was a friend. BIG YIKES on thinking they were my friend) , or the person who allowed others to correct me when I tried to express aspects of my identity or who tolerated being around people who made me uncomfortable or who tolerated snide remarks and sarcastic comments for the sake of preserving a friendship.

All that said, I’m making a table of the things I ideally want in my friendships and romantic relationships and in both. The thing that is great about this list is that it’s a living document. By that, I mean it can grow and change with me as what I am willing to accept and what I’m not willing to accept shifts and changes. This is also a list of how I aspire to show up in my friendships and relationships. I know I’m not a perfect friend/ partner/ family member.

FriendshipsRomantic RelationshipsBoth
Doesn’t make derogatory comments about my identityKnowledgeable about/ respectful of consentKind
Respects that I am an adult capable of making my own decisionsDoesn’t want kidsTreats others (and me) with dignity
Doesn’t manipulate to try to get needs metLoves to travelRespectful
Gives as much as they takeIntelligentHonest
Understands or is willing to learn to understand trauma responsesWants to (eventually) get marriedPractices vulnerability
Cares about human rightsPractices authenticity
Bonus:Values intimacyApproaches things with non-judgment/ curiosity
Desire to make the world a better placePassionateAccountable
Willing to go to therapy/ has gone to therapyCompatible beliefs about financesAppreciates differences
Similar valuesDesire to make the world a better placeOpen-minded
Similar interestsOpenness to new ideasProgressive
DependableConfident in our relationship (not jealous)Respectful of boundaries
Similar experiencesWilling to go to therapy/ has gone to therapyLGBTQIA+ Friendly
Practices monogamyWilling to repair when there is rupture
Similar/ compatible core valuesFunny
Similar InterestsSay what they mean and mean what they say
Make me feel peaceful, safe, and happyCommunicates kindly but directly
Values fat liberationTrustworthy
Not involved with organized religionLoyal
Dog personDoesn’t share secrets (except with their therapist- I would be ok with that)
Has an understanding of neurodivergent folks or a willingness to learn
Willing to learn how my diagnoses affect me
Respectful of privacy
Respects my special interests even if they don’t share them
Willing to learn from each other
Responds rather than reacts
Believes I am worthy of love, belonging, kindness, and dignity
Feels safe to me
People in their inner circle feel safe to me
Makes a sincere attempt to not use ableist or fatmisic language in my presence
Does not use homophobic, racist, xenophobic, transphobic, antisemitic, or other hateful language in my presence
Loves animals

This is what has been on my mind and on my heart. I know I haven’t written anything of substance in quite a while. I’ve been having a really hard time focusing due to being in a mixed episode (symptoms of both mania and depression) for several weeks and a very lengthy depressive episode prior to that. I would really appreciate if you could please send me thoughts of stability and healing!

Adventure, mental health


3,288 days ago, on January 4, 2014, I met my best friend and the great love of my life. Sweet Jennifer Full Simms rode with me all the way to Winston-Salem to pick up River Love Dillon Cottam. On the way home, we tried to put her in a pop up crate in the back seat, but she was NOT having it. She spent the 3+ hour car ride sleeping in Auntie Jennifer’s lap instead.

Over the course of the past 9 years (and one day!), River has gone from beloved pet to indispensable service dog back to a beloved pet in her retirement. She has brought me more joy, laughter, and love than I could possibly ever express using the limited language I have available to me.

River was just under 11 weeks old when she came home. A few weeks before Christmas 2013, a therapist at Mission’s Intensive Outpatient Program (shoutout to Robin!) told me that I should get a dog to give me a reason to get out of bed and keep to a schedule due to the depression, mania, and mixed symptoms I was experiencing at the time. I was, of course, IMMEDIATELY on board with this plan. The first dog I ever had was an Airedale Terrier named Marble and I had known for a long time that when it was time for me to get my own dog, I wanted another Airedale.

I spoke with breeders in Kentucky and in Winston-Salem, NC. I found out that the Airedales from the Kentucky breeder were Oorang Airedales, bred to be larger than your typical Airedale (100 lbs +). After speaking with my vet, I decided I didn’t want an Oorang Airedale because of their shortened lifespan and predisposition to certain medical conditions. (Important to note- I didn’t realize this when I got River, but she does have an Oorang Airedale in her lineage as is shown on her pedigree. That’s likely why she weighs 80 lbs. when our last Airedale weighed only 62).

Lillard Kennels in Winston-Salem had a litter of puppies that would be ready to be separated from their mother at the end of December. When I spoke with Keith Lillard on the phone from my Granny’s house in Memphis, TN, he told me that he had a female puppy who had a skin infection that left her with a bald spot on her tail. He informed me that she would be half priced because she could never be a show dog. I immediately said, “I’ll take that one” and immediately placed a deposit. This couldn’t have possibly worked out any better for me in the long run! I explained that I would be out of town and unable to pick up my puppy until January 4th and Keith reassured me that it would be totally fine to wait until then.

River (left) with one of her siblings.

I knew that I would love my dog, but I had no idea just how much I would love my dog and how much my dog would love me. I named River after River Tam from Firefly (tv show) and River Song from Doctor Who (tv show), two badass sci-fi women. Several years ago, I promised River that I would never ever leave her by choice. There have been multiple times since then that this promise saved my life. River is, without a doubt, the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Many of you will already know this, but while I was in the Peace Corps, I got super depressed after a series of pretty awful events. I was so depressed that I was suicidal. On October 20, 2013, my friend and fellow PCV told me that if I didn’t call the medical office and tell them what I was going through, she would. I called and spoke to Arlene and she was wonderful. She had me come into Pretoria the same day. What I didn’t and couldn’t know at the time was that on that day, when I finally said, “I can’t do this alone. I need help.”- River was born. I’m not really religious and consider myself agnostic. I also don’t believe that a coincidence this huge could happen. Both/And. The exact day that I admitted I needed help, help arrived on this Earth in the form of a teenie tiny little Airedale Terrier puppy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who would change my life forever.

River (I know you can’t read and I’ll read this aloud to you as soon as I finish typing it), you are hands down the best thing that has ever happened to me. You are gentle and playful and loving and beautiful and funny and loyal. You are the goodest, bestest, sweetest, prettiest, cleverest, gentlest and Mom loves you the mostest. Every moment that I get to spend with you is a gift. You have brought so much love and joy into my life. I am so proud to be your mom. I am so proud to love you. (I got some kisses when I read this to her, then she went back to sleep.)

Here are a variety of photos from throughout River’s life for your viewing pleasure: