Stopping the Holiday Madness

The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood.  I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete.  I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow.  Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome.  I see now why all the locals drive SUVs.  Nothing seems to stop them.  Not snow, ice, flash floods.  Pedestrians.

Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit.  This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend.  You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.

About 11 years ago I had an epiphany.  Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them.  What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking.  Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.

The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving.  Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder.  The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child.  She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury.  Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’.  It never went well for them.  Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk.  Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.

So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us.  She had in-laws.  Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt).  That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me.  For five years.

So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening.  Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday.  We eat in the evening.  We stay at the table.  We enjoy drinks and desserts.  And then the games come out.  Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun.  She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised.  My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped.  As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.

By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night.  It wasn’t fun.  It felt like playing a social game of Tetris.  People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly.  I was glad when it ended.  As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.

Why do we do it? I ask it honestly.  Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?

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Ah yes, tradition.  How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time.  Just like last year.  And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.

I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do.  I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly.  You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore.  Can we please start a new tradition?”  You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me.  I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.

What does it feel like? It feels wonderful.   There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do.  I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress.  I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.

One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.

This is the most important takeaway.  Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason.  Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands.  When you are stressed, your body produces it.  One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response.  Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick.  Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event.  Why is this?

The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus.  Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen.  In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug.  In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus.  Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen.  So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection.  You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production.  The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation.  We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection.  We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self.  And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.

Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system.  Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult.  Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.

With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.

 

 

 

 

 

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Becoming an Agent of Goodness

I am seldom on Facebook, but, as I was up bright and early this morning, I indulged my urge and took a peek.  This is what I found:

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The person who posted this captioned this sentiment with, “because I know I have God’s love, approval and appreciation, I no longer need it from others.”

My knee-jerk reaction was, “What the fu…”  Was I more shocked by the original “prayer” or with my Facebook friend’s additional commentary? And, why did these words strike a nerve in me?

I must turn back the clock to 2014, when I wrote my most highly viewed blog post “Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage”.  In that post, I described the emotional experiences of my former marriage:

“If I could remove all emotional desire from myself, then I would be able to do this (stay married).  I actually asked God to make me like Spock.  That has to be one of the weirder prayers to ascend.  Like some warped psalm:

“Oh God, make me like Spock.  Purge me of emotion.  Oh my soul, shut the hell up so that only my brain will speak and my heart will sleep a thousand years.”

Oddly these two entreaties, if you will, have a similar tone.  I longed to be purged while Byron Katie desires to be absolved as elucidated by the use of the word “spare” which means “to be released, acquitted, exculpated, or pardoned”.  The end result would be the same–a kind of subjective idealism that could take a person all the way to solipsism.  What does that mean? Allow me to explain.

Firstly, it should be stated that nothing that Byron Katie teaches is new or ground-breaking.  She is combining the Narrative Approach in psychology with certain Buddhist principles to craft a teaching that has been used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for years.  Her Four Questions are well-stated.  She has made solid therapeutic guidance highly accessible to many people.  With Oprah’s stamp of approval, people who have perhaps disregarded therapy as ineffective or stigmatizing will now have a chance to experience what solid therapy is all about.  That being said, her Four Questions are straight out of CBT and Narrative Psychology.

So, what of this philosophy of subjective idealism? Simply stating it, subjective idealism states that your reality and how you perceive it is contingent upon how you experience it; Reality is contingent upon The Knower–to be is to be perceived.  The extreme form of subjective idealism is solipsism which states that “I alone exist”.  British Idealist F.H. Bradley explained solipsism as such:

“I cannot transcend experience, and experience must be my experience. From this it follows that nothing beyond my self exists; for what is experience is its [the self’s] states.” (online source)

Bradley’s explanation almost defines 21st century human interaction.  You stay in your experiential bubble.  I’ll stay in mine.  Nothing beyond my experience exists.  Nothing beyond your experience–if that is valid–exists or is germane to mine.  We are but ships passing in the ether in anonymous, quick interactions either on social media, in consumeristic interactions online or at retail outlets be they malls, indy stores, or cafés big and small.  Disconnection.

This brings me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

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Directly above our two most basic needs in terms of our humanity–Physiological and Safety–lies Love and Belonging.  Putting it as simply as possible, one of the reasons why people require therapeutic interventions and outside help for prolonged periods of their lives is because they have to figure out how to acquire and develop Esteem and Self-Actualization without Love and Belonging.  Or worse, if a person experienced hardships and traumas in which their Physiological and Safety needs were threatened or unmet, then certainly their needs for Love and Belonging would go unmet as well. In that case then, how would one go about developing Esteem and Self-Actualization in a coherent way? How do we build bridges over deficiencies in order to continue maturing until we can increase our capacities for those needs to be met? Is it possible for everyone?

What Katie and my friend are suggesting is that we simply obliterate the need and desire.  We resort to emotional subjective idealism–particularly my friend.  If God is meeting my desire for love, approval, and appreciation, then I no longer need it from humans.  Well, that contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, and I only say this because my friend is a Christian.  So much of the New Testament and the Gospel are concerned with relationships and community and how people are to treat one another.  Why then post something that essentially advocates extricating oneself from reciprocal relational experiences and responsibilities, thusly, retreating into a self-created pseudo-solipsistic model?

This I know all about.  To counteract pain and grief.

Human beings are social creatures.  We are mammals after all.  There is a scene in the film “The Horse Whisperer” in which Robert Redford’s character, Tom, stands in a field for hours near a traumatized stallion, Pilgrim.  Pilgrim, appearing fatigued from standing in the same spot for such a long stretch, finally approaches Tom reluctantly. Tom gently leads him back to the stables.  When asked why the skittish horse allowed Tom to touch him, he answered that horses were social creatures and would eventually have a need to join their herd; or, a herd of some kind.

Humans are no different, but we have very clever ways to convince ourselves otherwise.  We build bridges inside ourselves over the empty and dark crevasses of unmet needs that have morphed into unnamed pain and call it Stoicism, Enlightenment, or Individualism.  We will say that we are absolving ourselves of our needs or desires for love, approval, and appreciation, and it sure does sound like something…worthy.  In my mind, however, it is a form of bargaining in order to avoid grieving that which has been lost or never experienced, and I say this because I used to believe these things, too.

The problem herein is that absolving yourself of your desires to be loved, approved of, and appreciated also pardons you from giving these things, and this is, in a more profound sense, what is causing people to pray for this sort of absolution to begin with.  The world we have today is in no way more evil, chaotic, corrupt, or violent than it was 100 years ago–or 1,000 years ago.  History seems to always repeat itself, and humans still struggle to learn from the past.  What the world continues to lack is goodness in the forms of love, approval, appreciation, generosity, courtesy, and neighborly concern.

What might our cultures look like if more people were appreciated, loved, and approved of? How would you feel day-to-day if you felt truly appreciated by your friends, children, co-workers, and partner? If you felt approved of–truly liked–by the people in your life? Well-developed and self-actualized people do not require other people’s permission to make their life choices or hard decisions, but it is much easier to achieve self-actualization if you have a foundation of Love and Belonging beneath you rather than a foundation of grief for never having had it.

The healthy and ultimately most healing “prayer” that I think one could offer up instead of the aforementioned is:

God, help me grieve the times and experiences in my life wherein I did not receive the love, approval, and appreciation that were meant to develop me for Esteem and Self-Actualization. Introduce me to healthy people who know how to love, approve of, and appreciate me and others properly so that I may become a fully-developed, healthy person who can not only fully internalize and experience the spectrum of loving experiences but also go on to love, approve of, and appreciate others in order to become an agent of Goodness in the world. Amen.

 

 

Nine Things I’ve Learned

I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it.  For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.

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“Where do I begin?”

That works for a while–the distancing.  It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful.  It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”.  But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:

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Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us.  That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.

But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work.  I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it.  Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online.  I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people.  I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race.  I could barely reach out to my friends.  I was just trying to stay afloat.  We are talking about surviving here.  Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I lost friends in the process.  There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did.  It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving.  Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge.  You will be “remodeled”.  You aren’t the same, but you are still you.  So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?

  1. If you commit to a process of therapy, you will heal faster.  I was in therapy for two years.  It contributed to the healing process for me post-divorce in ways I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.  I am a die-hard believer in therapy although you need the right therapist.  A bad therapist will create more obstacles, but you will leave his/her office with interesting stories.
  2. There will be moments when you will feel discouraged about your life, and that’s normal.  When you are living in an abusive environment, almost all your energy is spent trying to adapt to it.  You are focusing entirely on your abuser or negative circumstances in order to anticipate what s/he will do next or what will happen.  If you have children, you will also be trying to protect them.  Your health and emotions matter little.  If you sustained physical injury as well, you may try to brush it off as quickly as possible while pretending it never happened.  That was my M.O.  When the perpetrator of abuse is no longer present and the circumstances change, the first thing you feel is a wonderful sense of relief and joy.  I was elated.  My therapist warned me that the years of trauma that I had packed away in my body and psyche would come forward as soon as I felt safe.  I said, “Nah…no way.”  I was so wrong.  I spent over a year processing that pain, and it was extraordinary.  Basically, I was ugly crying in my bedroom every night wishing I would just die.  Eventually, that stopped, but it won’t stop until you finish the process.  So, commit to it with all you’ve got.  Then, move forward feeling much lighter.
  3. You might be afraid to meet new people, or you might feel the opposite–stoked to get out there and meet everyone.  Initially, I felt so raw that I struggled to socialize.  I was also blamed by more than a few people for being abused with very typical victim-blaming statements (ex. “I can’t believe a person as smart as you would let something like that happen.”).  I simply didn’t feel like trying to make new connections.  I also didn’t want new people meeting me in the context of such a transition.  I felt defective somehow, and I think that feeling is normal considering how often people imply it however wrong they are.  This does fade as you heal, but it is okay to stay in the relative safety of your safe space until you’re ready to get out there again as long as it doesn’t become a prolonged exercise in avoidance.  Then, you’ll have new things to discuss in your therapist’s Hot Seat.
  4. There comes a point when you come alive again.  At some point in your healing process, you reignite.  I do not know if any singular factor acts as a catalyst, but I do know that an energy returns that wasn’t there prior.  For me, it was when I went back to school.  That was an external manifestation of a shift in my beliefs.  I reached a point where I believed that I could start over.  I wanted to build a life that mattered, and I wanted my daughters to see what a woman was capable of–what it looked like to get up again.  I found my worth again and believed that what I wanted mattered.  I started to acquire hope.  This is a very good sign.  Go with it and see where it takes you.
  5. You will love and be loved again.  This was something that only resided in the realm of fantasy for me–even when I was married.  I felt so overlooked and worthless during the last years of my marriage.  Everything revolved around what my ex-husband would and would not do.  I deleted so many parts of my emotional and intellectual repertoire to stay that I hardly knew who I was anymore when the marriage ended.  I couldn’t answer basic questions like, “What is your favorite kind of music?” or “If you could go on a vacation, then where would it be?” We could only listen to his preferred music, and we never talked about vacations.  I never had an iota of privacy, and he mocked almost everything that I liked.  So, I lost myself.  Meeting someone new was a glorious surprise, and I’m still surprised by it daily.  I did not think that it was possible for me.  I know that it is common to say, “If it is possible for me, then it’s possible for you.”  It is true though.  It is possible for you.
  6. Let yourself be happier than you believe you deserve.  This is still very hard for me, but I try. I, therefore, anticipate that it may feel difficult for you at times. There have been moments in the past three years when I have felt a limitless sort of happiness.  When I feel it, I want to dampen it because fear is on its heels.  I have never experienced sustained goodness in my life.  Ever.  This is often the case for people from abusive or dysfunctional families and/or circumstances.  When you begin to believe that your environment is safe or you begin to trust those around you, circumstances and people often turn against you.  You can’t relax.  You can’t trust.  You can’t believe.  You can’t rest.  You must always be on edge, read the people in your midst so that you know how to react, and be ready to fight or flee.  Happiness or joy can never become something you truly want.  Surviving is the goal.  This is the reality of a trauma survivor, but it need not be your reality for the rest of your life.  So, I suggest allowing yourself to feel happiness and/or joy when it comes and then allow it to stay within you longer than you are comfortable with it.  The anxious thoughts will no doubt partner with your happiness–“What if _______ happens?”, “What if _________ dies?”, “What if _________ turns out to be just like _________ and hurts me?” There are myriad distorted anxieties that the brain throws at you when you begin to relax into happiness.  That’s okay.  Allow yourself to feel happier than you believe you deserve to be in little bits.  Eventually, you can sustain it for longer periods of time, and that state of being will normalize itself.
  7. Getting triggered isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I experienced a triggering event yesterday, and it came out of nowhere as triggering events often do.  Initially, I didn’t even know why I was upset.  I thought I was overly sensitive and felt foolish.  When I finally came to the reason, I felt oddly grateful and somewhat annoyed.  I realized that I still had emotional work to do around some of the emotional abuse in my former marriage, and, admittedly, I’m tired of the subject.  But, the recovery was relatively fast, and I could see it more objectively than I once did.  I didn’t get sucked in and stay triggered for hours upon hours.  This is progress! Triggering events are still painful, but they are now more representative of data points.  I can use them to gain traction now rather than sink to the bottom of the emotional Laurentian Abyss.  It does get better and easier, and you come to see yourself not as a victim of something but simply as yourself.  That change in self-definition is a huge turning point.
  8. You will eventually become more interested in your future than your past.  This can be a hard thing to grasp, but it’s akin to a paradigm shift.  When you endure a lot of therapy, you are naturally past/present oriented because you spend all your time sleuthing for past problems and traumas that affected you in the present.  This is useful to a point.  Eventually, we must begin to see our lives as present/future oriented, and that can be extremely difficult for people who have endured trauma largely due to the little talked about symptom of PTSD called a foreshortened future.  What is a sense of a foreshortened future? Essentially, it means that you cannot plan for yourself because you cannot imagine your own future.  You simply can’t see it.  Some therapists define it as a person believing that their life will be cut short and define the symptom as an avoidance symptom in PTSD.  I think that they’re wrong.  I rely on neuroscience for this one.  The brain relies on our past experiences and narratives to construct future narratives and make plans for us.  An extreme example of this is an amnesiac patient.  Patients with amnesia cannot make plans for their future.  Why? They have no memories of past experiences so their brains cannot tap into past experiences to project possible narrative outcomes when planning for the future.  So, people with traumatic experiences and PTSD have narrative experiences characterized by traumatic experiences.  If all a person has done in their lives is adapt to trauma, then all of their time and energy is spent focusing on and adapting to someone else (a perpetrator) or to traumatic circumstances (poverty, war, highly dysfunctional or abusive circumstances).  Never have they learned to plan.  They have only learned to adapt on the fly usually around someone else’s behaviors or circumstances.  Planning is a skill.  Learning to “dream” about a future where good things can and do happen to and for you is also a skill particularly if you have never once experienced that.  It must be learned in a safe place where one can be taught how, and where once can learn to practice it.  The future doesn’t exist yet.  We help to create it, but this idea is elusive at best when you perceive the past to have ruined your present.  You must embrace the idea that your future is yours even if you can’t feel it or see it yet.  It is yours as surely as your past is behind you.  This one takes time, but it is possible to learn this skill.
  9. You will recover your resiliency.  This is a big deal.  We are all resilient creatures.  Humans can survive almost anything, but we can also reach breaking points.  The point here is that you can come back from that.  There are days when it will feel like you won’t or can’t.  Don’t believe everything you think or feel.  That is folly.  Getting up again after setbacks, no matter how bad, is what resiliency is all about.  Developing grit and shifting your self-definition from one of a victim to a person who can and will get up again is where the rubber meets the road.  Changing how you view yourself in relation to the people who hurt you matters the most right here.  For me, my personal statement has been: “I will not let people of that quality take the best out of me.  I will get up again.”  Remembering this has given me the fuel I have needed to keep going when I have felt truly overwhelmed.  At some point, you will turn around and look back taking in how far you’ve traveled.  You will see that you did indeed get up again and walk miles.  No one said that the healing process was easy or felt good.  I will tell you that it hurts profoundly, but it does not hurt forever.  There comes a point when you something shifts.  You will begin to feel more peaceful than you feel anxious.  You will discover joy and feel that more often than you feel fear.  Fear and anxiety can become habitual states of being.  They are familiar, and we know how to feel like that.  Joy and peace? Not so much.  Those must be cultivated and invested in.  And…fought for.  The culture we live in does not value joy, peace, civility, and kindness.  If you want that in your life, you have to cultivate it, fight for it, and stand guard over it.

At this point on the road, this is where I’m at.  I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now.  We can get up and move.  As always, I wish you all great peace and…

Keep going.

 

 

 

Playing Scrabble with Life

Happy September, everyone! I am ending a three-week break from school. The girls and I headed West to San Francisco for 12 days of doing whatever we wanted which pretty much meant drinking too much boba, hitting up stores that are not in the Midwest like Muji and Uniqlo, and eating bibimbap whenever possible.  It was glorious.

Alas, all escapes involve the inevitable return, but, if it’s a successful vacation, then I suppose one feels recharged and ready to return to reality  The girls felt ready to come back.  There is a lot to do in our home city.  School is starting, and I have a house to empty out.  We have to downsize in a big way in preparation for moving next summer.  It’s daunting not to mention I have to return to my grad school program, and, as much as I’d love to forget it, the OCR investigation is still on-going for my college’s Title IX violation.  And, the guy who harassed me is returning to the program.  I shouldn’t bump into him; nonetheless, he’ll be there.  I’m ready to depart.  I’m weary of being in that school, but I’ll do what I must for an additional two trimesters.  I think the modern term for this is “adulting”.

With my attitude adjusted, I went to a lovely wedding two nights ago.  A civil ceremony and dinner hosted by the bride and groom and their family.  It was utterly delightful.  I seldom meet such charming and warm people.  Being present for their wedding was a privilege and pleasure.  A metaphorical fly, however, was in the soup.  One of the guests was a student in my program, and I was a bit on edge upon seeing him there.  After the sexual harassment at my college started in February 2017, I kept my personality and appearance guarded.  I stopped wearing make-up.  I wore hats and hoodies, jeans, and Converse.  I tried to be as invisible as possible thinking that my harasser would find me less attractive or even completely unappealing.  It didn’t work.  The lesson in that is that when you’re being harassed, the problem isn’t with you.  The problem lies with the perpetrator regardless of how often you’re blamed.  It’s never about how you look or what you’re wearing.

Admittedly, I feel that I have a bigger personality, and I really tried to keep myself “small” at school.  I don’t know if any of you will relate to this, but have you ever been criticized or judged for being successful or good at something? This is, of course, due to the insecurities of those judging you, but it makes little difference in the moment.  When people blame you for something, I think that’s it’s normal to feel at fault somehow.  When I was an adolescent, my mother would often accuse me of thinking that I was superior to others because I found intellectual pursuits appealing; more than that, I excelled in the academy largely because I worked really hard and had little to no social life.  I hid from the world in school.  It wasn’t at all balanced, and it led to serious burn-out.  I don’t recommend it.

My mother did not go to college, and I suspect that she felt somehow lacking and out of place for this.  I never said so, and I have never believed this.  She, however, projected her beliefs onto me and then harshly attacked me as if I held that view.  It became almost memetic in our exchanges.  If I did well in school or university, then I by default thought I was superior to everyone in the entire world.  To bypass these judgments, I had to pretend that I was not doing well in school.  I could not discuss scholarships or opportunities I was receiving.  I couldn’t tell my family when my university endorsed me for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Fulbright Fellowship, and my mother refused to acknowledge that I had graduated from university with highest honors.  To her, I just thought I was better than everyone which is completely untrue.

My father, on the other hand, would just slap me across the face.  For real.  If I said anything that bothered him in the slightest, he would slap me! Me and my big personality often said things that bothered him.  You can imagine how often I was slapped.

Bear with me, this relates to the wedding…

So, I decided to go to the wedding as myself.  I dressed up, wore lipstick and fancy shoes, and did my hair.  To hell with it all, I thought.  It’s a wedding! Back to that fly in the soup–the student from my school, Brandon.  Brandon is young.  He’s very boyish in his demeanor and affect, and it’s, therefore, surprising that he’s almost ready to graduate.  He has appeared friendly enough in past interactions, but, at times, he is haughty.  A quality I chalked up to his age and a lack of life experiences.  Humility often comes through having negative life experiences and then having the time to develop insight around them.  That requires time which is often reflected in one’s age but certainly not always (Lord, I sound old right now).

On the night in question, I sat with a lovely group of seasoned Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners and listened to them tell “war stories”.  I’m a student! I have nothing to contribute to this conversation in terms of experience, but I asked questions.  They were happy to include me.  Brandon, who chose to sit across from me at the dinner and text, had already asked me one question, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…mom?” I mention this because were I a male student would he have asked, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…dad?” Likely not.  There are three stay-at-home dads in my program, and I’ve never heard anyone speak to these outstanding men in a pedantic or condescending tone.  To the women with children, however, who have stayed at home to care for their children, Brandon’s somewhat condescending question has been the norm.  The context for our future exchange had been established.

As the conversation developed, the practitioners and I began discussing travel and past education, and I could enter into this discussion. I have traveled and lived abroad.  The discussion was wonderful, and the rabbit trails were quite fascinating.  Brandon looked to be disengaged or pouting.  We all discussed foreign languages and past teachers.  Suddenly, the subject of harvesting berries emerged of which the time was nigh.  One of the doctors had a crop that was due for harvest, and the medicinal qualities of the berry were discussed at length.  Brandon perked up eager to join in as he could finally discuss something “scientific”.  When I looked at him and commented, “Oh yes, you can look at the studies online about this,” he turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said meanly cutting me off, “I want to listen to the conversation right now.”  He then turned his shoulder to me, leaned in towards everyone, and ebulliently asked questions, laughing in an overly exaggerated manner.

It was a verbal slap in the face, and it stung.  Oddly, no one present seemed to hear what he had said which made sense because it was solely meant for me.  He did not want me participating in the conversation.  I sipped my water and gathered my wits.  I contained myself.  I was not going to say anything to him because this was not my social affair.  I wasn’t going to ruin a beautiful evening because of an apparently insecure, immature boy’s misbehavior.  I went home that night feeling very bothered.  I could see his face in my mind’s eye and hear his voice, and I determined that his inappropriate behavior bothered me so profoundly because he did what both my parents had done to me for years.  He felt left out socially for whatever reason so he chose to socially wound me in order to rejuvenate his injured ego.  He already displayed sexism and mild misogyny in his prior question.  Attempting to silence me in our evening’s discussion of medicine was apparently the only way he could feel legitimate again.

That’s so wrong and, unfortunately, so common in terms of how humans interact.  It exemplifies poor interpersonal skills, poor ego development, poor impulse control, personal and professional envy, insecurity, mild narcissism, and emotional arrested development.  It explains a lot in terms of why people are struggling to make meaningful interpersonal connections and overcome loneliness which is rampant today.  As my boyfriend said after I told him what happened, he’s fortunate he behaved like that towards me.  I’m kind.  What if he had done that to someone with a harsher nature? It would have ended much differently.  What if someone invited him to settle his complaint outside?

So, what’s the point here? I guess my point is that you never know who you will be seated next to on an airplane or at a dinner party.  Life will deal you some strange hands on any given day, and we have to find a way to play the hand we’ve been dealt.  I like to think of it like Scrabble.  Sometimes you get the best combination of letters and impress the heck out of everyone with your chosen word and earn a triple word score.  Other times you get three x’s, and the rest are q’s and z’s.  What…the…hell.  The only way to do anything with that is to build a word off of what’s already been laid down on the board.

We have to dedicate time in our lives to laying some good letters down–building some really complex words–so that when we get a shitty draw of letters we can still play something worthwhile.  What does that look like? Don’t be like Brandon.  Address your insecurities.  Address your envy.  Dig deep and address your past wounds.  Look at the injuries that your parents and family members inflicted upon you.  Do authentic recovery work from past relationships.  Seek out the resources around you that can help you heal from them.  Address your addictions whatever they may be.  We will spend our lives doing this, of course, because all of this is process-oriented work.  It is not destination-based work.  There is no point of arrival in terms of an ending.  If you are breathing, then you are processing something.  You are always drawing tiles to play.  The point of engaging in a process is that you start to draw better tiles.  What Brandon did was attempt to steal tiles from me in order to shut me out of the “game” so to speak.  That’s what socially injuring someone does–it steals social capital from them so that they can’t participate in a fair and often deserved way.  This includes gossip, slander, humiliation, shame, and even discussing true things about them that are bad.  As we engage with intention in daily life and process, what we lay down on The Board gets better because our tiles improve, and, when we do draw some bad ones, we can still play what we draw because we have some quality words on The Board already.  We’ve been building a solid foundation in both how we live our lives and within our character and personalities.

It’s not that hard to do actually when you start small.  Just pick one area where you know you’ve been drawing bad tiles.  Where you feel you can’t win no matter what you do.  Dedicate some time in that singular area.  Whatever it is.  Start with 5 minutes a day.  Just 5 minutes.  See where it takes you.  That might sound naive of me, but it’s not.  Everything has a beginning, and every beginning starts small.  So, start small and stay small until you feel you can make it bigger.  Just be consistent.  That is the key.  Five minutes.  Every day.  That’s it.

With that, I wish you all a wonderful September.  If you have kids going back to school or if you are going back to school, best of luck!

Shalom and keep going…

 

 

 

Living with Intention

I receive many emails asking how to fix a loved one.  It might be a mother with a personality disorder or a partner or family member with alexithymia.  In both cases, I have been that self-same person on the search for solutions.  I have asked the same questions: What can I do to fix this? Is it me? Can I fix myself so that they will love me? Can I fix them by giving them books to read or directing them to resources? Maybe they had bad modeling as children and just need to be loved better, and I’m the one to do it!

I have loved someone with a disordered personality that kept them out of reach, distant from me, isolating me on a loveless and lonely island.  For years, I dove into the treacherous sea of uncertainty and swam to distant coastlines in an attempt to rescue my own mother from her mental illness.  I came bearing recommendations and suggestions that I swore would help her.  I only roused her inner demons and exacerbated her illness causing her to throw me back into the black waters which promptly washed me back onto the rocky shores of my tiny island.

I loved another person who seemed to thrive on isolation and personal inertia.  From the moment we returned from the weekend in a hotel we called our honeymoon, he holed up in a room and rarely ventured forth into the outside world.  He preferred fantasy over reality.  He disdained my presence and cultivated an impoverished sense of love and relationships while also developing a deluded and grandiose sense of self.  It did not matter how hard I tried to enter into his personal poverty or what riches I offered him.  He rejected everything.  He preferred his own distorted interpretation of the world.  He chose himself even over his children.  Whether he lacked the capacity or the will, it did not matter for he simply did not act.  He remained as he ever was.

What then? The heart wants what it wants and loves whom it loves, but then what? When the truth becomes apparent, and when will it become apparent? When you ask for it.  When you want it. And, what is this truth? It is not your job to change people.  It is not your job to fix people.

It is your job to change and heal yourself.  

It is our job to develop our personalities and our character so that we are continually becoming the kind of people with whom we would like to partner either platonically or romantically.  This is no small task.  It is so much easier and, honestly, far more fun to look at other people and pick them apart.  It’s vastly entertaining to scrutinize and judge our acquaintances and even our partners.  That smug feeling we experience when we climb onto our high horses is like taking a hit of heroine.  It’s addictive.  Why? Here is an interesting take on judgment:

“At some point in our life, usually in childhood, some external event causes us to separate from that true nature. That separation from love creates in us feelings of specialness or inadequacy, leading to loneliness and as a result, fear. So we project it outward in the form of judgment.

We know we are loving, interconnected beings, but in our separation we live in a dream state, shutting off our connection to our loving truth. This separation establishes the ego’s perception of a false self based on judgment. We grow to believe deeply in the false perception of ourselves in order to feel safe in the world of separation.

Deep down, and without realizing it, we judge ourselves for separating from our truth, leading us to feel ashamed and guilty. That unconscious guilt is so painful that we have no choice but project it outward in an effort to end our suffering. By projecting judgment onto others, we deny and repress our feelings of guilt. Subconsciously, this makes us feel even more guilty because we know this judgment is not who we really are. The guilt we feel from judging others is then projected right back onto ourselves, and the vicious cycle beings again. This the judgment cycle.

I cannot overstate this: Judgement is the number one reason we feel blocked, sad and alone. Our popular culture and media place enormous value on social status, looks, racial and religious separation, and material wealth. We are made to feel less than, separate, and not good enough, so we use judgment to insulate ourselves from the pain of feeling inadequate, insecure, or unworthy. It’s easier to make fun of, write off, or judge someone for a perceived weakness of theirs than it is to examine our own sense of lack.

 

Judgment is an addictive pattern.

 

Judgement is an addiction response to deep-rooted trauma. The first trauma is the separation from love. From a spiritual perspective, choosing fear and separation over love dissociates us from our truth. We become fragmented in this state of separation and lose our connection to our inner being. In this disconnected state, we inadvertently turn our back on our inner being and become obsessed with an outward projection of who we think we are. Feelings of guilt and sadness wash over us, because deep down, we know we’ve turned our back on love. But we can’t fully understand our guilt, so we do whatever we can to avoid feeling it. This is how the cycle of judgment becomes and addictive pattern.

When we avoid our guilt and suffering by projecting it onto others, it’s a way of numbing out. Like any good drug, judgment will anesthetize our pain and redirect our focus. It can even get us high. Gossip is a great example. Whenever you get together with friends to talk about another person in a judgmental way, you’re avoiding your own core wounds. You’re using judgment as a drug to numb your own pain and get high on someone else’s. Gossip is especially nasty because it gives us the illusion that we’re bonding with others, when instead we’re just banding together to heap all our pain onto another person.

Gossiping can give us a buzz because it provides temporary relief from self-judgment and attack. We repeat a self-judgmental story on a loop all day long: I’m not good enough. Why did I make that mistake? I’m ugly. I’m not smart enough. And so on. All these self-inflicted behaviors are just another form of addiction. We unconsciously choose to judge rather than feel the pain beneath our wounds.

But notice I said that our self-judgmental story is played on a loop. That’s because it leads nowhere! Getting on the path to healing requires us to feel the discomfort—but we’re way too scared to go there, so instead we gossip or judge ourselves as the victim feels safer than facing our wounds. This I show self-judgment becomes an addiction.

The addictive pattern is further fueled by our denial. We long to feel better but deny that judgement is the problem. In fact, we see judgment as the solution, as a way of protecting ourselves. Our unconscious belief system keeps us stuck in the judgment cycle because we’re terrified of facing our own pain and suffering. We use judgment to protect ourselves from exposing our deepest wounds.

The repetition of judgment is habit-forming. If you repeat a behavior over and over, you strengthen your neural pathways. In time that behavior becomes second nature. The more you repeat the pattern of judgment, the more you believe in it. You create your reality with the thoughts you repeat and the beliefs that you align with. When judgment is your belief system, you’ll always feel unsafe, under attack and defensive. If you’re going to change the habit of judgment you need to change your core belief system. Our aim is to find our way back home—to find our way back to love.” (From Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein)

Stopping any self-destructive cycle and engaging in a truly honest personal inventory with the intention of self-betterment is difficult but virtuous.  Asking the question: What do I really want from a friend and partner and then committing to developing those very qualities in oneself is, in my experience, the path to actually ending destructive relationships and beginning healthy ones.

Why? Well, as you begin to grow into healthy behaviors and ways of relating to yourself and other people, you will organically grow out of unhealthy patterns of behavior.  Self-destructive behaviors will ebb, and the people in your life who were attracted to those qualities in you will migrate away from you because you will naturally also move away from them.  Simply put, your orbits will change.  This kind of growth is a process, and processes take time.  It is not something that happens immediately, but it does happen when you commit to your own process of improvement and growth.  After a time, you will see that destructive people have left your life.  You may also be forced to make difficult decisions like ending relationships that were always bad for you or have become so over a period of time, but this is part of growing up and into living life with intention.

When you live your life with intention, you discover that you cannot make another person meet your needs; you cannot force another person to stop hurting you.  You can only move away from them and choose to live your life among different people who share your values.  And, this is essentially what people are emailing me about: How can I make my loved one share my values? How can I make the person I love stop valuing neglect or gaslighting or exploitation or selfishness or their own personal inertia? How can I make them see that what I value is better? You can’t.  If you don’t share the same values now, then you likely never will.  Take the temporary hit, gather your momentum, and keep going.  You will find other people in the world who do share your values and will love you, and you will love them, too.  You really will.

I don’t say any of this flippantly or without compassion.  I have done everything that I’m suggesting, and I know all too well just how hard it is.  I also know what life looks like “on the other side”.  It is worth it.

Keep going…

 

Circumstantial Alchemy

I like to write useful posts, and I’m going to try to spin this “leaden” topic into gold as it were.  I think I can do it.

I am certainly getting many opportunities to engage in circumstantial alchemy at my college. I have to confess something.  I had a rather disheartening interaction with a fellow student yesterday, and, because I process through writing, I thought I would write about it.

I’ve not written a lot about my health issues (at least I don’t think I have).  My personal view of my health journey has always been that I’m a healthy person fighting off illness rather than I’m a sick person fighting to be well.  That paradigm has kept me optimistic and positive.  Sometimes, however, when you’re dealing with an unrelenting, chronic condition or many unrelenting, chronic conditions, there are trying days, and the illness(es) wins a few rounds.  Truth be told, I’ve been a healthy person fighting off illness since early childhood.  I’ve spent months that probably add up to a few years of my life in hospitals, and I carry multiple diagnoses and see four specialists outside of my primary care physician just to manage all of these diagnoses.  Frankly, I became a bit discouraged because I wondered if I actually had one unknown condition that was the umbrella diagnosis manifesting as all these other health problems.

Last year, I ended up in yet another specialist’s office seeking more help because I suspected I had stumbled upon the X factor–the unknown umbrella diagnosis.  I was, thusly, diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disorder/Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and it could very well be the foundational problem underlying every other health issue I have.  It is also a giant pain in the ass.  My doctor moved quickly to get the right protocols in place so that I would stop experiencing anaphylactoid reactions every few weeks, and she connected the dots between her diagnosis and the other specialists’ diagnoses.  That was a huge relief.  She indicated that it was indeed quite possible that I didn’t actually have all these other conditions; it may all be a mast cell disease at play.  I was both shocked and awe-struck.  I left her office with an Anaphylaxis Action Plan in place.  I now wear my Medic Alert bracelet all the time.  Everyone close to me knows how to administer an Epi-Pen, and my very long list of allergens is up to date.  I get monoclonal antibodies infused at the hospital every four weeks, take Gen 1 and Gen 2 antihistamines daily in addition to mast cell stabilizers.  I follow a low histamine diet.  I do my best every day.  And yet, as most of us know, sometimes your best is not good enough.

Sometimes things still happen like stress or viral infections or food contaminants.  Or, a nurse doesn’t administer an infusion correctly, and a mast cell activation event occurs that leaves you in bed for 10 days sending you to the ER for fluids, Zofran, and steroids.  I didn’t know that could happen!

(Actually, two nurses mistakenly injected Xolair directly into my abdomen intramuscularly! Like they were rabies shots!!!)

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I don’t know, Liam!

It was while I was lying in bed last week feeling like I was run over by a truck and working myself into a nice, foamy lather over missing a week and half of classes that I comforted myself–“Your friends at school will get your notes for you.  It’ll be okay.  Your teachers know you.  No, you’re not a slacker.  You won’t fail out of grad school…”

So, finally, here is my confession.  Here is the lead.  When I was finally able to return to school, I greeted the people I knew and thanked them for putting notes in my mailbox.  I approached a friend I’ve spent time getting to know, and her affect clearly indicated that she wasn’t interested in talking.  I thought that she could be distracted, but then I realized that she was not interested in talking to me.  I moved to end the conversation; my final remark was a movie recommendation and she almost scoffed, “Well, at least you did something positive last week.”  Whoa.

Did you catch that? That’s shame right there.  Whether she knows it or not, she was condemning me for being sick last week.  For not meeting her criteria of engaging in “positive actions”, and embedded within that sharp retort was blame: “It’s your fault that you’re sick.”  She then went on to ignore me–to distance herself from me–a perceived sick person.  And, from an anthropological perspective, this is very mammalian–unless, of course, you’re an elephant.

“Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. [Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices] once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet.” (Scientific American)

I felt as if a stone were in my stomach for the rest of my class.  Like my heart had dropped low down into me.  I was disheartened and disappointed.  I did not understand this social interaction at all until just moments ago as I was trying to write this out, but I see it now.  There was no compassion, and I don’t say this because I feel entitled to it.  I merely observe it.

Living with a chronic illness is…weird.  It’s too easy to say that it’s hard.  For me, it’s not hard exactly.  I find it strange.  There are days in which I feel perfectly fine.  I don’t have any pain, and I’m almost not fatigued at all.  Of course, my diet is very limited.  I’m practically a vegan because I can’t tolerate most animal proteins particularly bovine meat and milk.  I have celiac disease so that means no gluten, and I’m deathly allergic to quite a few fruits and nuts.  And now what with the MCAS diagnosis, I have to pay attention to foods that are “histamine liberators”.  There are days that it feels very complicated, but, for the most part, I don’t really mind.  Every day that I don’t literally almost die from anaphylaxis, I’m truly grateful.  I’m not one to think in terms of fairness or justice because that smacks of a victimization.  Illness is part of the human experience.  Is it fair? Well, I cannot answer that.  Suffering is part of life.

What I have gleaned from my experiences with long-term, chronic health issues is empathy and compassion for people who suffer from, well, just about anything.  To quote John Mulaney, adult life is so goddamned weird.  We do not have the privilege of foresight.  We don’t know what lies ahead of us, but we do have the opportunity to cultivate a better personality with a richer substance and character that allows us to meet the unknown with courage and resiliency.  And, what of this unknown? You may never get sick and stay sick a day in your life, but someone you love might.  What’s more, they may do everything right and still never heal properly.  Then what? Will you blame them? Tell them that they aren’t positive enough? Good enough? Strong enough? Dedicated enough? X enough? Will those well-meaning judgments most likely intended to spur them on to try harder actually help them? No. Why? If a person with a chronic illness could heal from trying harder to heal, then they would already be better.  Trust me.

We are all human in the end and will shuffle off this mortal coil.  Where then is the gold from this lead? I think that it is to be found in the howHow we live.  How we treat others.  How we view others.  Even how we go about experiencing our diseases and disorders if we have a chronic condition.  The one thing we are guaranteed is that we will all come to be intimately acquainted with suffering in either ourselves or other people.  What then? Compassion.  It is the only legitimate response.  It validates, legitimizes, heals, and grows connections.  Compassion mends the broken places and bridges the divides.

What of the people who blame, shame, judge, alienate, invalidate, and ostracize us for things that are no fault of our own? Well, sometimes we learn how to be better humans by observing others make mistakes.

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If I wasn’t fully present to the reality of compassion and its utter necessity in the world before, I am now.  I don’t feel angry at my fellow student.  Oddly, I feel grateful.  Her impoverished response acted as a mirror for me.  For those of us who do deal with chronic conditions whatever they may be, we need to have compassion for ourselves because sometimes it’s in short supply.  For me personally, I want to continue to develop compassion in my character and be mindful to exercise it.  Unfortunately, you can count on other people to judge what they do not understand, and many people do not understand chronic illnesses particularly people who have been healthy for most of their lives.  It is a lonely place when you are your most frequent and best advocate, but sometimes that is the road set before you until you find your tribe.

And, so, I will raise my voice today to join the other voices of compassion.  There is absolutely no shame or reason to accept judgment if you have a chronic illness.  Regardless of the overflowing fount of opinions in your life and the world at large, you deserve compassion, kindness, empathy, and a safe place to land where good friends will love you today.  Just as you are.

Keep going, MJ

 

 “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” 
― Dalai Lama XIVThe Art of Happiness

The Masterpiece Within

As I’ve been taking a brief respite from blogging to gather my thoughts after the sexual harassment problems crescendoed, some interesting things moved to the foreground.  And, you can always count on me to share them if there’s something valuable in the mix.

My boyfriend was in town for two weeks.  As with any relationship, you are usually discovering new things about each other as the relationship grows.  I really enjoy that aspect of relationships.  So, a few days before he returned to home base, the whole family went to a water park.  My youngest daughter was fully prepared to drag him around to the water slides, and he was game for anything.  The weather was perfect for the day’s activities.

It should be noted that my boyfriend is athletically gifted and a natural competitor.  He has successfully competed in many sports and earned a black belt in aikido.  He was a free diver and is a very strong swimmer.  So, when he casually challenged me to a race in the pool, I suspect that there was an expectation that I would lose.  I am not known for my athletic ability.  I don’t discuss athletics or past athletic glory.  I don’t usually like competing.  I am the last person to join a team, and I’m afraid of projectiles.  I feel awkward most of the time.

As we gripped the edge of the pool preparing to race, bets were made on who would win.  I’m pretty sure everyone bet on him.  Except I smoked him.  By almost an entire body length.  Everyone was shocked including him.  I wasn’t.  Why? Well, this leads me to the reason for this post.

I was a competitive swimmer in my youth.  Not just a run-of-the-mill competitive swimmer.  A “prodigy”.  I hate that word, but that’s what he called me.  Who is he? He was my coach, Mike*–a former Olympic swimmer.  Mike approached my stepfather during one of my practices to tell him that he would like to coach me personally; he felt that I had the potential to compete internationally.  Of course, my stepfather became enamored of him and the idea of it all.  Thus began the pressure and the time commitment.  I trained 8 hours a day.  It was brutal.  I swam because I loved it.  I did not love training.

Something else, however, was going on.  Mike was a pedophile.  Every time he would get into the water to adjust my stroke he would slip his hand into my swimsuit.  He must have sexually touched me fifty times or more.  I remember feeling confused, helpless, and violated.  Finally, however, I felt angry so much so that one day I got out of the pool and left the facility.  I quit training altogether that day.  Without an explanation.  My family was extremely angry and held it against me.  The beloved pedophile coach? He didn’t say a word.  My high school coach? He was livid.  No one understood my decision aside from Mike–he knew why I stopped training.  Everyone else continued to bombard me with the same question:  “Why would you throw away your gift?”

I didn’t know how to self-advocate with words when I was that age.  I was surrounded by male athletes and aggressive adult men.  My mother had borderline personality disorder, and my father and stepmother were also very abusive.  Walking away was the only thing I knew to do in terms of self-preservation.  I never competed again, and I never told anyone what happened.  I just absorbed the accusations and the label: “You are a QUITTER.”

It all came rushing in this week after I gave my boyfriend a beat down in the pool.  My daughters saw me swim.  My youngest asked me with awe how I could swim like that.  My other daughter asked me why I didn’t swim anymore.  And, I remembered.  I never even discussed any of this in therapy.  It’s not something I think about.  It feels like a gossamer memory.  Like it almost happened to someone else.  Almost.

Consequently, I have been thinking on it for the first time in over 25 years.  What is there to be learned, if anything, from this old memory making itself freshly relevant? I was reading a rather timely commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Kt MBE in which he discusses the idea of inheritance and identity (“The Lost Masterpiece/ Pinchas 5778”).  Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a man named Mr. Onians who spent his life collecting paintings from estate sales.  At the end of his life, he had amassed a large number of works that had to be auctioned off after his death.  His children saw little value in his collection even though these paintings were so valuable to their father.  What no one knew, however, was that there was a lost masterpiece in the collection of mediocre canvases, and Rabbi Sacks’ retelling of how this was discovered makes the reading of his D’var Torah a bit exciting.  He brings his story around to a passage of Torah (Old Testament) wherein the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan full of fear proclaiming that it was impossible to enter it, thusly, causing the people to declare that they should return to Egypt with a new leader.  Well, everyone declared this except for five women and Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who felt confident that Canaan was totally “doable”.

But, who are these five women? Zelophedad’s daughters.  I have never heard of this guy or his daughters! Why are they special? I will let Rabbi Sacks fully explain the importance of both the lost painting and Zelophedad’s daughters:

“A great art expert, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), was looking through the catalogue (of Mr. Onians’ paintings) one day when his eye was caught by one painting in particular. The photograph in the catalogue, no larger than a postage stamp, showed a rabble of rampaging people setting fire to a large building and making off with loot. Onians had bought it at a country house sale in the 1940s for a mere £12. The catalogue listed the painting as the Sack of Carthage, painted by a relatively little known artist of the seventeenth century, Pietro Testa. It estimated that it would fetch £15,000.

Mahon was struck by one incongruous detail. One of the looters was making off with a seven branched candelabrum. What, Mahon wondered, was a menorah doing in Carthage? Clearly the painting was not depicting that event. Instead it was portrait of the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. But if what he was looking at was not the Sack of Carthage, then the artist was probably not Pietro Testa.

Mahon remembered that the great seventeenth century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the second temple. One was hanging in the art museum in Vienna. The other, painted in 1626 for Cardinal Barberini, had disappeared from public view sometime in the eighteenth century. No one knew what had happened to it. With a shock Mahon realised that he was looking at the missing Poussin.

At the auction, he bid for the picture. When a figure of the eminence of Sir Dennis bid for a painting the other potential buyers knew that he must know something they did not, so they too put in bids. Eventually Sir Dennis bought the painting for £155, 000. A few years later he sold it for its true worth, £4.5 million, to Lord Rothschild who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today in the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.

I know this story only because, at Lord Rothschild’s request, I together with the then director of the national gallery, Neil MacGregor, gave a lecture on the painting while it was shown briefly in London before being taken to its new and permanent home. I tell the story because it is so graphic an example of the fact that we can lose a priceless legacy simply because, not loving it, we do not come to appreciate its true value. From this we can infer a corollary: we inherit what we truly love.

This surely is the moral of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s parsha. Recall the story: Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had died in the wilderness before the allocation of the land. He left five daughters but no sons. The daughters came before Moses, arguing that it would be unjust for his family to be denied their share in the land simply because he had daughters but not sons. Moses brought their case before God, who told him: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Num. 27:7). And so it came to pass.

The sages spoke of Zelophehad’s daughters in the highest praise. They were, they said, very wise and chose the right time to present their request. They knew how to interpret Scripture, and they were perfectly virtuous.[1] Even more consequentially, their love of the land of Israel was in striking contrast to that of the men. The spies had come back with a negative report about the land, and the people had said, “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). But Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to have a share in the land, which they were duly granted.[2]

This led to the famous comment of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague (1550-1619) on the episode of the spies. Focussing on God’s words, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 14:2), Luntschitz argued that God was not commanding Moses but permitting him to send men. God was saying, “From My perspective, seeing the future, it would have been better to send women, because they love and cherish the land and would never come to speak negatively about it. However, since you are convinced that these men are worthy and do indeed value the land, I give you permission to go ahead and send them.”[3]

The result was catastrophic. Ten of the men came back with a negative report. The people were demoralised, and the result was that they lost the chance to enter the land in their lifetime. They lost their chance to enjoy their inheritance in the land promised to their ancestors. The daughters of Zelophehad, by contrast, did inherit the land – because they loved it. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.” (“The Lost Masterpiece/Pinchas 5778″)

I am going to come at this from a different angle than Rabbi Sacks because he compares the paintings to Judaism which works well.  As a Jew, I appreciate his midrash of sorts.  I, however, want to make a different suggestion in terms of identity based upon Mr. Onians’ vast collection of mediocre paintings, and I’ll use my experience with my coach as a jumping off point.

After I quit training with Mike, many people thought poorly of me.  In my family, being labeled a “quitter” was probably the worst thing you could call a person.  I disappointed a lot of people, and many people in my community looked down upon me not to mention my peers.  For years, I was told that I didn’t have what it takes to accomplish anything meaningful because people perceived that I had quit when things got hard.  The social injury was real as was the shame.  They were missing information.

And this phenomenon has followed me.  My family judged me harshly when I ended my relationship with my mother.  No one could fathom that the woman they knew publicly was monstrously abusive to the point of homicidal behind closed doors.  So, I was labeled as “a bad daughter”.  A “quitter” of relationships.

When I finally ended my relationship with my father, who was my first abuser, his wife told everyone they knew that I was a prostitute.  A prostitute! I suspect that’s the worst label she could come up with at the time.  Consequently, there are still people in a small Texas town who believe that I am somewhere in the world earning a living as a sex worker.  It is ludicrous.

What’s my point?

We might find ourselves surrounded by mediocre people and circumstances much like those paintings.  Or, worse, perhaps we are surrounded by the human equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings and Dogs Playing Poker.

Velvet_Elvis_Presley_painting.jpg

We have to find the “masterpiece” in the mix, and it’s damn hard particularly when you’ve been labeled and victimized.  Furthermore, I don’t know one person who doesn’t bear at least one label and hasn’t been victimized at least one time.  So, what do you do then?

Using my experience as an example, I did not throw away my “gift”.  I simply chose not to share it because the price was too high.  Sure, I could have been trained by a former Olympian and potentially gone on to compete on the world’s stage, but Mike would have stolen my budding sexuality and innocence from me as payment for his coaching.  I already had a father who had done that to me.  I didn’t want to relive it in the pool.  What everyone else interpreted as quitting was really self-advocacy.  I preserved myself, and I never internalized what Mike did to me.  I left it behind and also left the experience intact.  I was not a quitter.  I was an overcomer.  Therein lies the “lost masterpiece”, and that masterpiece gets to be inserted into the larger part of my identity.  It was a bad experience, but it did not contribute to a degeneration of my internal identity.  It helped me form a stronger sense of self.

We must, at some point, look at who we are now and who we are becoming with intention, the past be damned.  In order to change our trajectories in life and head in the direction that we want, it is vital to examine the metaphorical canvases surrounding us.  Like the Onians family, did we collect them? Who put these images on our walls? Do we need to take some down? Get rid of all of them? What have we inherited that we actually never wanted? There are masterpieces in there somewhere to be sure, but where are they? How do we identify them? Lastly, what do we love about our lives that we want to bring forward with us, and what do we wish to leave behind? We will inherit what we love.  In order to do that, we must decide what we find lovable first.  And that means taking a very personal inventory.  We may not be who we once were.  It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” 
Oscar Wilde

 

*name changed