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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Life Is A Highway

Have you ever been in the middle of a particularly major life transition and wondered if you were doing the right thing? Or, perhaps you were quite certain that you were headed in the right direction; you, however, weren’t sure that some of the lesser but still impactful decisions you had to make were correctly decided.

That’s descriptive of me right now.  I’m in the middle of a huge life transition–I’m planning a move to the West Coast next summer.  Were it just me it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ve got my daughters’ quality of life to consider.  We are all in the mix.  I’ve got to sell my house, put the finishing touches on moving to a different post-graduate program, find housing in the Bay Area (yeah, that’ll keep you up at night), minimize all my possessions, and…and…and…

It’s a colossal effort, and yet I know it will come together.  But…

There are those moments of quiet when I take in the magnitude of it all, and I ask, “Am I doing the right thing for everyone?” It’s not often, but it’s not an unimportant question.  When there are children depending upon us to care for them and build a foundation under them, we need to ask such a question.  As a Jew, I pose that question to God as I and my ancestors have come to understand him both personally and corporately.  And, I sincerely expect an answer although answers don’t always come on my preferred timeline.

The late Brennan Manning once told a story of a Jewish Bubbe out with her grandson at the shore.  She was delighting in watching him play with his new shovel and bucket until a large wave unexpectedly washed ashore and swept his toys out to sea soaking her young grandchild in salty water.  Running to her grandson as he sat crying on the sand, Bubbe called out, “Bring back my grandson’s shovel and bucket! It makes him so happy to play with them, and, if it makes him happy, then I am happy!” A few moments passed, and suddenly a wave spit out her grandson’s bucket and shovel right at their feet.  Smiling and clapping, her grandson resumed playing as if nothing had ever happened.  Bubbe, however, frowned and said, “He had a hat!”

Some would say that Bubbe is ungrateful.  Look at the miraculous quality of what just happened! The sea returned the shovel and bucket! So what that his hat wasn’t returned to him.  I say that Bubbe is expectant, and this boldness and sense of anticipation in believing God, as she understands him, is what informs how she interacts with him.

So, what does this have to do with my moving out West? Well, I think that regardless of one’s understanding of who God might be–even in terms of agnosticism, interacting with God (or if you want to call the Divine “the Universe”) can be a highly rewarding and reassuring process.  It can remove a sense of ontological loneliness that plagues so many of us and guide us through incredibly difficult circumstances.  In my case, on the day I decided that we were going to move West, I asked for a reassurance that it was the right decision–something I rarely do, but it was such a big, life-altering decision.  I wanted the strongest sense that it was right.  So, I drove my car along a stretch of highway pondering what a “good reassurance” might be.  Something that I could look back on when circumstances got rough and remind myself, “Oh, you’re on the right track.  Remember? You saw that sign.”

Suddenly, I had it! I love bald eagles, and we have a few of them in my neck of the woods.  I decided that I wanted to see a bald eagle in a tree right by the road as I was driving–something I never see.  It didn’t have to be that day.  Just…soon.  I’ll confess that I felt silly.  Asking for a sign.  P’shaw! as my grandfather would say. As soon as I asked God to give me a sign, I almost took it back.  I don’t do things like that.  But then, in the middle of my embarrassed rumination, I saw it.  I slowed down my car to take it in.  A beautiful bald eagle perched majestically on a branch overhanging the highway’s shoulder at 7 AM.  I was shocked.  “Did that just happen?” I thought.  It did indeed.

My mind has returned to that moment during times of high stress and anxiety, and it has caused to me to wonder what signs really are.  What is a sign?

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Quite literally, these are signs.

When we drive, we see signs all the time, or at least we should see them if we are paying attention.  We’ve probably all encountered people who don’t pay attention to the road signs.  Those are the people driving the opposite direction on a one-way street or doing a U-ey when they should not.  How about those folks who run stop signs for lack of paying attention, thusly, causing an accident? Signs serve a very good purpose.  They let you know where you are, what you should do, how fast you should drive, where to go, and where not to go.  The most important thing to note about signs is that one has to see them in order for them to be effective.

Well, if Tom Cochrane’s song is correct and life is a highway, then it stands to reason that we need signs, too.  We need to know when we are on the right road.  We need to know where the next rest area is.  We need to know where we should not turn and where we should.  What does a Do Not Enter sign look like in terms of our own lives? What does a Be Alert For Bears sign or an Avalanche Warning sign look like metaphorically speaking? More important, what does a Dead End sign look like? How do you know when you can’t go any further?

For me, this is why I asked for a sign.  I needed to know that the road I had just turned onto was the right one since the journey was going to be so long and, frankly, fraught with hurdles.

So, how does one recognize a sign?

  • Many signs directing us are dismissed as coincidences, but the longer I’m alive the more I’ve come to believe that there are few coincidences in life.
  • Stay present to your circumstances and surroundings.  Pay attention to the interactions you have with people.  Just as in driving, when we fail to see crucial signage we often miss exits we intended to take, get stuck in traffic, or get lost.  This is analogous to our lives and our journeys.
  • Learn to trust your intuition and insights.  For example, a few weeks ago I was at a crossroads.  I needed to decide if I was going to continue taking classes next trimester in my medical program.  I have the support of everyone around me to discontinue at my current school and continue at the program in the Bay Area, but I still feel anxious about it.  I woke up last week wondering if I should just enroll in classes next trimester even though I don’t really want to do it.  Then, the mail came.  The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found my college guilty of discrimination based on sex–a violation of Title IX.  I read through all the provided documentation and the OCR’s mandated corrective actions which will cost the school thousands of dollars into six figures.  I knew then that I could not enroll again.  My original decision not to continue my medical education with this college was the right one.  The documentation and guilty verdict were a sign or sign post, if you will, that I was on the right road.
  • Don’t feel afraid to ask for a sign.  Why? Well, traveling outside of the spaces in which you feel safe requires taking risks, and humans don’t like uncertainty.  We like to know where we are going and what to expect.  While it’s not possible to know the outcomes of everything, it is possible to get into the driver’s seat of your own life and gain a sense of personal empowerment.  There is paradox in here.  The people who do their best to avoid risks are generally the ones who are bound by anxiety.  There is a strong link between risk aversion and anxiety and depression.  Leading a narrow life never lessens the anxiety.  It just forces one to become an emotional and physical shut-in preventing one from experiencing the happiness and fulfillment so desperately desired.
  • Cultivate trust in yourself: “How do we leap and trust that it will all be okay? By cultivating a practice of self-trust, which connects us to the well of our deepest knowing where the answers to the unanswerable questions live. And these aren’t answers so much signposts or hints at the paths we want to walk, the decisions we want to make, the risks we’re willing to take. Because death exists life cannot be anything other than risk. Because loss exists relationships are the ultimate risk to our hearts and how can we do anything other than forgive our ego – that part of us that desperately attempts to safeguard against pain – for trying to protect us in the only way it knows how? 

    But risk we must if we’re to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops – as my son is itching to do – but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life’s decisions, big and small.” (Risk Aversion and Anxiety)

     

Further Reading:

What Happy People Do Differently

One of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable, and occasionally bad.

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.

 

 

 

Changing Your Mind

Does hope ever turn into something unhelpful? Something bad? In my experience, I  would say that it certainly can.  You can’t live without hope, but a misplaced hope can steal your life.  The Tanakh says that hope deferred makes the heart sick.  Continually hoping that something comes to fruition while never experiencing that very thing creates myriad forms of havoc.  The hope itself can take many forms, but this is one of the more dangerous statements of hope:

“I hope that it changes.”

What is most likely the most dangerous?

“I hope that s/he changes.”

That’s harsh, isn’t it? That’s a very black-and-white point of view, and I rarely take a black-and-white stance about anything.  I live in the gray.  As I have moved further away from the day my ex-husband and I ended our marriage, I have enjoyed the privilege of hindsight more and more which renders me somewhat omniscient about certain things in my past circumstances albeit not entirely.  I see how much I rationalized.  How much harmful behavior did I tolerate? How much ill treatment did I chalk up to unresolved childhood issues? How much did I enable him? Too much.  I feel ashamed of it, and I hear from so many men and women who engage in the same behaviors.  They hope that their acceptance, tolerance, and limitless patience will eventually amount to something. They hope that something will change.  They hope that someone dear to them will change.  They live on that familiar gray spectrum hoping that they will never have to take a black-and-white stance because that means that there might not be hope.  An ultimatum might become necessary, and that feels intolerable.

Where does that lead you? Into the depths.  Gray is comforting, but it is bottomless and without boundaries.

What if you can’t get out, you ask? What if you’re drowning? What if you are in the Laurentian Abyss and your hope is the only thing keeping your head above the water?

What if your hope isn’t really hope?  What if what you believe to be hope are really rationalizations?

Well, I have been watching one of my daughters interact with other people lately.  She is anxious.  Excessively so.  It is extremely uncomfortable to observe her.  Her social skills are deficient.  She tries so hard and seems to miss almost every time.  Instead of attempting to intervene and fix something for her, I decided to step back and quietly assess her.  Why was I so uncomfortable watching her be an awkward adolescent? What about her social interactions are so viscerally repellent to me?

It suddenly dawned on me that she, like most teenagers, is operating from a belief that she has to earn acceptance and approval from everyone around her, and that reminded me of myself when I was married.  She tries and tries in hopes that she will be a part of something, but she can’t quite get there.  She is behaving from a place of insecurity.  The belief driving her when she socializes is that she is not acceptable as she is.  She must somehow earn it by being “cool”, and, as much as I’d like to say that this dynamic disappears once we reach adulthood, it doesn’t; it merely evolves.  Consequently, she tries to act in line with the group’s idea of coolness–however it’s manifesting at the time, and this comes off as painfully awkward and disingenuous.  It’s like watching someone try on clothes as fast as they can, and the group’s ever-changing attitudes are the harsh fluorescent lights highlighting all her own self-perceived flaws that she is desperately trying to mask.

Most of us can probably recall what that feeling is like–the all-encompassing feeling of self-consciousness combined with the developmental stage of the Invisible Audience.  We feel constantly critiqued and observed by others and ourselves at the same time.  It is excruciating, and we feel as if we are at a constant disadvantage.  Why? We never feel acceptable.  Feeling approved of is the dream.  We try because we hope.  Because we desire.  Because belonging is a human need.

What if we could hack our minds and emotions somehow and arrive at a very concrete understanding, removing all dissonance, in which we thoroughly understand that we are  already acceptable and approved of as we are at this moment?

Treat this as a thought experiment.  Engage in it as if it were simply that–an experiment.

How would you live your life if you believed to the point of certainty that you are acceptable and approved of? Now.  

“What would change in terms of my behavior, how I interacted with others, what I accepted from others, and what I allowed and disallowed in my life if I felt accepted?”

I’ll go first.

  • I would stop trying to please everyone.  Why try to please everyone if I already have the very thing my people pleasing behavior is supposed to give me? I need to re-examine my motivations (I have done this and continue to do this).
  • I could be more assertive because being a stronger self-advocate would not detract from my own personal acceptability.  If I am approved of as I am today, then standing up for my own worth–which is inherent–is a requirement then.  Not an option (This is hard for me, but I am really working on it).
  • I would raise my standards in terms of behaviors I tolerate from people.  I would stop saying, “Well, it’s okay that s/he __________.  I’m sure s/he didn’t mean to _________.  They have had a hard life and don’t know better.”  As someone close to me has said, “If someone is careless with your heart, then you need to decide if they are worth having in your life.”  If you are acceptable and approved of right now, then why continue to have relationships with people who treat you as if you are not? Am I trying to earn acceptance? Am I trying to gain approval from myself, others, or even society at large? This is a question worth asking often.
  • I would feel much freer to be myself with others as well as be generous.  Knowing that you are acceptable liberates you.  You are free to be generous with compliments, released from self-consciousness, and opened to new experiences.  This has been one of the best experiences of my life thus far.  When my mind finally stopped engaging in comparisons and constant self-assessments, I experienced a far greater capacity to relax and lean into the genuine experience of knowing other people–even if it was merely a five-minute social exchange.  I was also inoculated against offense.  I stopped taking things personally which increased my general quality of life and ability to be genuinely compassionate.

How does hope play into this?

Looking back on the last decade of my life, I can see that what I hoped for I already possessed.  I wanted to feel accepted, but I didn’t.  I wanted to feel approved of, but I did not.  I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere, but I really did not.  I felt small, invisible, worthless, and ontologically insignificant.  Last night, my oldest daughter said to me, “You look happy.  You finally don’t look like you’re waiting to die.”  I was shocked.  When did I ever look like I was waiting to die? That is one helluva statement to make.  I asked her to explain.  She said that I looked like I was just grinding it out.  Trying to make it through until I could just be done with living.  I couldn’t deny it.  I was stuck in an abusive marriage while trying to raise my kids.  I kept saying, “I hope he changes.”

He never did.

But, I did.

This is what I mean by false and dangerous hope.  When you defer your own happiness and well-being by putting it in the hands of someone else, you doom yourself.  There is a time to be gray about issues, but there is also a time to be black-and-white.  You cannot make anyone change, but you are the only one who can guarantee that your circumstances change by changing yourself.  You can be your own catalyst for change by creating the life you want, and I propose that one of the first things to change is your mind.  Since we are talking about making small changes that matter, I propose engaging in thought experiments.  The beauty of a thought experiment is that you can actually get a glimpse of what your reality might look like when you apply thoughtful change to your present circumstances.

Hope first.  Do next.

“I hope I change,” becomes “I will change,” becomes “I changed.”

Suddenly, your life is very different, and that’s the point.

 

 

The Eight-Week Mindfulness Plan

I’ve written about mindfulness before.  Everyone is talking about mindfulness.  It is the cultural buzzword at the moment.  All those coloring books abounding in bookstores and even garage sales? They’re taken from the ancient tradition of the meditation Mandala practiced by Buddhist monks:

It sounds like a pretty concept.  Mindfulness.  It’s even a pretty sounding word.  Say it.  Miiiiiiindfulness.  Why is it emerging into Western culture with such force? Well, this is why:

According to Mark Williams and Danny Penman, “Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average.  These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Williams and Penman state with evidence:

  • “Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.
  • Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships.
    Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension.
  • Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence.
  • Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Here is what mindfulness meditation is not:

  • Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practice meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are avid meditators too.
  • You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV), but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practice bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing on planes, trains, or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
  • Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
  • Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about “success” or “failure.” Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus will have benefited psychologically
  • It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving toward important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things that need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realizing your deepest values.” ( Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Now that we’ve established that, what is it then that we are all about? Well, honestly, I’d like to be happy.  This is what I am building.  A happy life.  Sure, we can wax philosophical until the end of the age about the true nature of happiness.  Is it external to us? Is it an internal state? Is it a mere evanescent phenomenon and, therefore, a wasteful pursuit that we should abandon altogether in place of contentment? For the sake of the current discussion, I am leaving that discussion aside because it distracts us from what I really want to discuss.  Mindfulness.  And how we sabotage our own attempts to progress in life.  How exactly do we sabotage ourselves? What are we doing wrong when we are trying so hard?

Williams and Penn explain:

“Our moods naturally wax and wane. It’s the way we’re meant to be. But certain patterns of thinking can turn a short-term dip in vitality or emotional well-being into longer periods of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a “bad mood” that colors a whole day or far, far longer. Recent scientific discoveries have shown how these normal emotional fluxes can lead to long-term unhappiness, acute anxiety and even depression. But, more importantly, these discoveries have also revealed the path to becoming a happier and more “centered” person, by showing that:

  • when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
  • the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.

As soon as we understand how the mind works, it becomes obvious why we all suffer from bouts of unhappiness, stress and irritability from time to time. When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Does this sound familiar to you? I see myself in this.  So, what will a mindfulness meditation program actually do then?

“Mindfulness…encourages you to break some of the unconscious habits of thinking and behaving that stop you from living life to the full. Many judgmental and self-critical thoughts arise out of habitual ways of thinking and acting. By breaking with some of your daily routines, you’ll progressively dissolve some of these negative thinking patterns and become more mindful and aware. You may be astonished by how much more happiness and joy are attainable with even tiny changes to the way you live your life.

Habit breaking is straightforward. It’s as simple as not sitting in the same chair at meetings, switching off the television for a while or taking a different route to work. You may also be asked to plant some seeds and watch them grow, or perhaps look after a friend’s pet for a few days or go and watch a film at your local cinema. Such simple things—acting together with a short meditation each day—really can make your life more joyous and fulfilled.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

It is with the spirit of moving forward and truly building something better that I recommend Williams and Penman’s 8-week mindfulness plan.  Get this book.  Get the audiobook.  Do the exercises.  Their book is full of scientific evidence that will knock your socks off.  You will get to know yourself and your brain better.  You will understand why you do what you do and experience self-acceptance along the way rather than self-judgment.  It will come as a huge relief rather than another reason to feel inadequate.  It is in no way hard, and it will introduce you to a better way of thinking, doing, and being.  I will be writing posts as I follow the plan for the next eight weeks, but wouldn’t it be fun to do it together? Send me your stories! I’ll post them!

Deficiency and Excess Patterns

I want to come at the idea of healing and recovery from a different direction.  Please bear with me as I lay a foundation.

I am in a traditional Chinese medical school program.  Suffice it to say, this is not anything like the Western Cartesian-based model, but I am the first to admit that there is a place for both traditions at the table.  Integration is happening albeit very slowly.  A foundational aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is Yin-Yang theory.  To Westerners unfamiliar with Yin-Yang and Qi, this may sound strange and completely out of place particularly in the medical arena.  For the Eastern mind, Yin and Yang are just as relevant to the state of the mind and body as blood pressure and cholesterol levels are to the cardiologist.

Yin is Blood.  Yang is Qi.  Yin is internal, cold, dark, nourishing, and solid.  It descends.  Yang ascends.  It is warm, invisible, energetic, and functional.  It propels and moves outward.  Yin generates Yang, and Yang generates Yin.  The two are mutually dependent upon the other.  This generation catalyzes growth and movement.  In extreme environments, Yin and Yang will transform into each other.  All of the activities of Yin and Yang manifest in the body and mind.  Their imbalance.  Their movement.  Internal organs are known by their Yin or Yang-like behaviors.  The liver’s actions, for example, rise upwards and outwards, thus, we often refer to “liver Yang” when discussing the liver system.  We do not say “liver Yin”.

Why is this germane to, well, anything? Ah, well, I will make my point.  In TCM diagnosis according to Yin-Yang theory, one looks at patterns and speaks in terms such as “deficiency” and “excess”–Yin deficiency, Yang excess, Yin excess, Yang deficiency.

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courtesy of TCMStudent

Regard the graphic image.  Note the balanced Yin-Yang.  Now, note the graphic representation of Yang Deficiency.  Notice that Yin is the same.  It is still functioning as it should.  It is Yang that has decreased.  Compare Yang Deficiency to Yin Excess.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that Yang has not decreased at all but Yin has increased as is depicted.  In both cases, there will be too much Yin influence, but will there be a difference in symptoms? Yes.  Deficiency and excess patterns are very different, and their symptomology is different.

How does this apply to you? Well, this idea came to mind when I was having a conversation about the state of the world and humanity.  Is the world overrun with evil? Are we humans more terrible now than we were, say, 100 years ago? I don’t think so.  The world has always been a terrible place.  Read any history book.  Talk to anyone who isn’t within the privileged class or gender.  There have always been genocide and ethnic cleansing.  There have always been myriad forms of subjugation.  There has always been war.  There has always been pestilence.  There have always been terrible leaders and corruption.  There is nothing new under the sun.  In other words, there has never been a deficiency in suffering.

What we are deficient in, however, is goodness.  The world is not different in terms of awfulness.  Our nostalgia would tell us otherwise, but that’s privilege speaking.  Who looks back on that so-called “better time” except for those who benefited from the previously and presently existing power differential and those who fear losing it? Life is very hard.

In TCM, what does one do to fix a deficiency? How does one treat an excess pattern? We clear the excess and nourish the deficiency.  That is the high-level treatment.  How does this apply to our lives–to you and me?

From what I personally experience and observe in others, we all have deficiency and excess patterns in our lives.  We can be deficient in certain resources be they financial, social, employment opportunities, mental and physical energies and health, etc.  We can also have excess patterns, too, like excessive anger or sadness, excessive thinking that manifests as obsessive and racing thoughts, worry, excessive doubt and fear that lead to feelings of stuckness and paralysis in life, excessive illness, excessive bad influences from our relationships leading to a deficiency in adequate socio-emotional support which would actually nourish our deficiencies.  Excess leads to deficiencies, and deficiencies often lead to excess.  This is a cycle.  We experience this quite often.  Viewing it through this lens is simply another way to understand our experiences.  Once you can understand and name your experiences, then you can begin to regulate them.

So, what do you do then?

Well, if the TCM treatment is to nourish the deficiency and clear the excess, then start there.  On the macro-level, talking about the great evils of the world will not clear the excess of suffering.  Determining to be an agent of goodness and kindness in the world, however, will address the deficiency–even if only a little bit.  We have to start somewhere.  On a micro-level, in your life, nourishing your own life’s deficiencies is a daily task that requires small, committed steps.  Pick one thing and begin to nourish it.  That sounds hokey, I know, but being kind and good starts with yourself.  You can’t extend kindness and goodness outward and upward if you can’t direct it inward.

Howard Thurman, educator, philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader, said:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

My suggestion then regarding nourishing any deficiency you might be experiencing in your life is to do something today that makes you come alive.  Coming alive sparks hope.  Hope inspires goodness.  Goodness increases kindness.  Kindness cultivates patience.  Patience softens hard places.  Once hard places are soft, then trust can grow.  When trust can grow, intimacy is possible.  When intimacy is possible, love is possible.  When love is possible, anything is.

So, really think about it.  What is one thing that you could do today that would make you feel more alive? It need not be earth-shattering.  It might be as simple as making yourself a cup of tea or coffee and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.  It might be going for a walk while listening to K-Pop.  It might be going to the gym or watching the same episode of your favorite TV show just because it makes you laugh really hard.  It might be dusting a shelf or editing the metadata on your iTunes library.  It could be cooking or gardening or swimming or petting your cat.  Maybe it’s gaming or making love or reading novels or car dancing or doing naked yoga.  Whatever it is, do it.

And then, do it again tomorrow.  And the day after that.  Do whatever it takes to come alive every day.  See what happens.  Write about it.  Talk about it.  Just…do it.

And please let me know what happens.  I’d love to know.

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If Not Now…

Happy New Year, everyone! Although we are only just stepping into 2017, I hope that it has been good to you so far.  2017 has started out full speed ahead.  After 19 years, I have returned to college for a graduate degree.  Am I somewhat off my nut? A little.

Here’s the thing.  There will never be a good time to rock the boat that is your life.  I am, for example, a single parent.  Even when I was married I was experientially a single parent.  You can peruse the entirety of this blog, read what is obvious, read between the lines, and deduce that I was doing everything, for the most part, alone.  I can tell you exactly why I did that, and it was not entirely my ex-husband’s fault.  I had developed beliefs around my circumstances that kept me locked into a certain way of thinking–a limited way of thinking.

  • I was raised by a single mother.  I grew up watching my mother “do it all”.  That is the norm for me.  My mother never asked for help.  If she couldn’t do it, then she figured it out.  She once fell out of the attic and broke her leg while trying to fix something even though she knew absolutely nothing about fixing whatever was broken.  I am a bit like that.  That’s tenacity and stubbornness (or willful stupidity).  It has served me well in life, but excessive self-reliance causes imbalance.  Plus, it alienates the people in your life who would love to help.  Also? Burn out.
  • Life does not become simpler as we age.  It gets more and more complicated.  When I was in my early 20s, my personal welfare and future reality were, for the most part, my biggest concern.  I was not personally responsible for the well-being of other humans.  Of course, I loved other people and wanted to be available to them, but, by and large, I was looking out for Number One.  I am a mother now, and every decision I make will affect my children.  I am no longer solely looking out for my own interests and investing in my own future alone.  I am considering the effects of my decisions on my daughters and investing in their futures as well as mine.  This can give me anxiety and cause me to feel paralyzed at times.  When is it ever a good time to make major life decisions? I like homeostasis.  Nature and the human body like homeostasis.  Introducing big change is risky.  Stability vs. Risk.  That’s a tough call for me now.
  • I have struggled with my health for years.  This is common when you have profound trauma in your past–autoimmune disorders and neurological issues like migraines being the chiefest of complaints.  I am the poster child for the aforementioned.  I have chronic migraines (CM) and cluster headaches, and I have done everything possible over the last thirteen years to relieve them. Pain management is part of my life.  I was very fearful to attempt to go back to school while living with a sometimes debilitating condition, and I felt very limited in my future choices when viewing my life through the lens of my daily pain and future health risks.
  • I have children with special needs.  This was my biggest limitation.  I was “on call” 24/7 for a few years.  To a degree, I still am.  I dropped off the planet socially.  I had to be prepared to cancel appointments or social engagements in order to be with one of my daughters.  During the worst time of the manifestations of their diagnoses, I did nothing for myself.  I rarely slept.  This was the most limiting factor of all.  At present, my daughters do not spend the night with their father.  They see him socially and come home.  Being the sole primary caregiver does limit one’s choices.  One starts to feel imprisoned in circumstances.
  • I felt eroded spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically, thusly, contributing to profound existential fatigue.  That defined 2016 for me.  It felt like I would never be “me” again.  Ending a 20-year marriage, enduring two surgeries resulting from domestic violence, therapeutically dealing with the traumatic fallout every single week, managing autoimmune symptoms and pain, and learning to live alone and raise four daughters in a truly single-parent household took an inordinate toll.  I could not imagine ever feeling like I was flourishing again.

So, what was the solution? How does one think about the future when the present feels so limited? I chose to reimagine my future and “do it” anyway meaning I chose to make the choice I really wanted as if I didn’t have the present limitations, assuming that my life would adapt and expand for the life I was attempting to build.  A bold move perhaps, but what are my options really?

I can either stay in the current smaller space and think small, accepting my perceived limitations, or I can change my view, imagine that my life would expand to fit the life I want, and take a step forward.  Then, I applied to graduate school.  I am now entering my third week.  I won’t lie.  It’s been bumpy.  There have been complications.  It’s winter.  I get cluster headaches in winter.  Nothing new there.  One of my daughters is experiencing an exacerbation in her condition.  Nothing terribly new there either.  Disappointing? Yes.

What does all this mean? What is my conclusion?

Life is happening around us all the time.  That will never change.  The very familiar life that I know is happening.  It will never be a good time for me to do what I really want.  I might as well start doing it now then.  I’ve had enough practice managing my life and complicated circumstances.  I would think that I can manage all the complications that might arise then while building something better.  That’s not a bad conclusion to reach.  The only question then: Do I trust myself? Do I believe I can do it?

Yeah, I do.  Look what I’ve done so far.

That is what I would offer up for 2017.  There will never be a good time to decide to do what you really want.  It’s akin to couples trying to decide when to have a baby.  There is never a good time to have a baby.  Babies change everything.  If you want to have a child, then you just have to go for it.  Embrace the messy, wonderful, exhausting process in the midst of the already messy, wonderful, traumatic, exhausting process of living.

There will never be a good time in your life for you to reinvent yourself, take a risk, do that one thing you’ve always wanted to do, make that one change you know that you really need to make, or make a plan of action.  Life is not set up to ease us down the road of success.  Life is set up to hinder us.  That’s why we have heroes and heroines.  They overcome extreme obstacles and provide us with an example.  They inspire us.  But, your life is probably full of obstacles, too, and that makes you something of a heroic figure then just waiting to be called up.

What if you’re being called up now?

It really is now or never.  The future is but an idea at best, but today is yours.  It is all that you have.  You will never own tomorrow.  It is now, and now is the time.

“If not now, when?” Hillel the Elder