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.

 

 

 

Could You Give Most of It Away?

I just started reading Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

 

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Maria Kondo struck a nerve in America with her runaway hit The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  I, however, need to do more than just tidy up.  I need to purge.  Do you know what I mean?

I’ve lived in my house for 19 years.  That’s a long time to live in a singular space, and, while I make it a point to donate gently used items quarterly (or we would have nowhere to hang our hats), it’s nowhere near enough.  I have four daughters.  Children seem to amass large quantities of things.  People give them things.  They collect things.  They want to keep them forever.  I understand that.  I feel sentimental about certain things.  Children, however, seem to feel sentimental about almost everything–even that used napkin from last Tuesday when their friend came over and used it to wipe dirt off the floor.  It’s actually a testament to their wonder, I think, and capacity to be 100% present.

And if you have a basement?! God have mercy on you.

Another round of donating is not what I’m about to embark on.  In ten months, I am moving house.  Three years ago, I announced on this blog that my marriage was ending after years of back-and-forthing and writing about domestic violence and emotional abuse and, “Is it really that bad?” A year-and-half ago, I went back to graduate school, and next summer three of my daughters and I are headed West–to the Bay Area.  To live in a very small space no doubt.  It’s the beginning of another new adventure.

So, I have to examine every single thing I own and decide: Do I need this or not? And, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that.  That’s why I picked up Sasaki’s book.  I figured, hey, there must be some good advice in here.  At a minimum, maybe I’ll feel inspired or  mentored.  Sasaki, thusly, defines minimalism as:

“Minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the absolute minimum you need. Living as a minimalist with the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits like the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.” (pp. 20-25).

Here is an example of a minimalist bedroom:

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I actually like the clean lines and flow, but it feels sterile–like a room in a high-end treatment facility.

A minimalist kitchen:

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This looks more attainable than some of the other online examples.

A minimalist bathroom:

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I see this and think, “Where is the trash bin?! Does an immortal live here?”

A minimalist living room:

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This has that lovely aesthetic appeal that one sees in catalogs, but it also looks remarkably un-comfortable.  

I have noticed that all of these images are super posh, and, in my opinion, this should be more accessible.  What does a middle-of-the-road minimalistic apartment or house look like? You know, where ordinary people reside.  Of note, this is not a movement aimed at people living in poverty.  First-world countries are heavily affected by consumerism and capitalistic expenditures, and the USA tops that list with China and Japan featuring second and third.  Americans are awash in stuff:

The USA features the highest levels of per household disposable income and expenditure. High income levels boost the capacity for discretionary spending of US households, although the country’s income gap remains large and continues to rise. (Euromonitor International)

I wonder what sort of impact those of us with too much stuff would have on our communities if we donated the items we truly don’t need and seldom if ever used and stopped using our income to acquire more goods, thusly, changing how we “consume”? Furthermore, what sort of impact would this have on our time–an invaluable resource? I imagine that owning less means having more time, too, because we have to dedicate time to caring for our stuff.  How might we spend our resources if we moved in a minimalistic direction with intention? Over the next 10 months, I intend to find this out.  I can tell you right now what my two biggest problems are going to be–whittling down the book collection, my kitchen implements because I am a cook, and tea accoutrements.  I have an unusually large number of really beautiful teacups most of which were gifted to me, and I can’t take them all with me.

Perhaps I ought to do a giveaway! One teacup a week…

Anyone like teacups? English teacups? And then there are the Yixing teapots

Oy vey…

God have mercy indeed (I’m actually sort of excited to see how this experiment turns out).

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“I’m doing it for a good reason, I’m doing it for a good reason, I’m doing it for a really good reason…”

 

Further Reading:

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…

 

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Lunch with My Mother

Well, I did it.  I saw my mother and stepfather.  I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me.  I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me.  I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.

My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms.  It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear.  Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage.  We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl.  I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again.  Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.

But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting.  They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.

In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”.  That’s accurate.  Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:

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My mom…on a good day

Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us.  I was functioning at capacity at that point.  It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax.  In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.

When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second.  My stepfather hasn’t changed.  He’s hardly aged.  It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot.  In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years.  She looked frail and small.  The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up.  My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them.  My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.

Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful.  She never gives compliments.  That startled me.  I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.

Play: She came over to me and hugged me.  She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older.  And all grown up now.  And…older.”

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Older? Really? That’s what she has to say?

I sat with it for a minute.  Older.  Of all the things to say that’s what she went with.  What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was.  So, I moved on in the moment.

The lunch lasted a long time.  Everyone behaved.  I saw my mother as just a woman.  She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me.  She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining.  She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:

“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”

She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can.  I just nod my head now.  It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it.  She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I.  Not four years of it.  It doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s time to let it go.

There was no drama.  There was very little jockeying for power.  She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior.  We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:

“Young man, I want you to layer the butter.  Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it.  I want it layered! Layer the butter!”

Classic mom right there.  You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter.  That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched.  She has zero assertiveness problems.  NONE.

All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered.  My daughters had positive experiences as well.  She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.

I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters.  It was emotionally exhausting.  I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all.  I could hardly process a thought.  I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday.  I woke up feeling completely trashed.

I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit.  I feel okay about that at this point.  I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind.  A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally.  I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past.  Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that.  My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time.  I would have identified with him too much.  Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did.  It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.

But now? It all felt irrelevant.  I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either.  People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me.  I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed.  It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need.  I’ve needed over a decade.

So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope.  It’s possible.  I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude.  I am in no way BFFs with my mother.  It was one lunch, and it went well.  That may be all that we ever achieve.  Quarterly lunches if that.  I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her.  It feels like an accomplishment.

I wonder if that’s because I’m older…

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