Happy September, everyone! I am ending a three-week break from school. The girls and I headed West to San Francisco for 12 days of doing whatever we wanted which pretty much meant drinking too much boba, hitting up stores that are not in the Midwest like Muji and Uniqlo, and eating bibimbap whenever possible. It was glorious.
Alas, all escapes involve the inevitable return, but, if it’s a successful vacation, then I suppose one feels recharged and ready to return to reality The girls felt ready to come back. There is a lot to do in our home city. School is starting, and I have a house to empty out. We have to downsize in a big way in preparation for moving next summer. It’s daunting not to mention I have to return to my grad school program, and, as much as I’d love to forget it, the OCR investigation is still on-going for my college’s Title IX violation. And, the guy who harassed me is returning to the program. I shouldn’t bump into him; nonetheless, he’ll be there. I’m ready to depart. I’m weary of being in that school, but I’ll do what I must for an additional two trimesters. I think the modern term for this is “adulting”.
With my attitude adjusted, I went to a lovely wedding two nights ago. A civil ceremony and dinner hosted by the bride and groom and their family. It was utterly delightful. I seldom meet such charming and warm people. Being present for their wedding was a privilege and pleasure. A metaphorical fly, however, was in the soup. One of the guests was a student in my program, and I was a bit on edge upon seeing him there. After the sexual harassment at my college started in February 2017, I kept my personality and appearance guarded. I stopped wearing make-up. I wore hats and hoodies, jeans, and Converse. I tried to be as invisible as possible thinking that my harasser would find me less attractive or even completely unappealing. It didn’t work. The lesson in that is that when you’re being harassed, the problem isn’t with you. The problem lies with the perpetrator regardless of how often you’re blamed. It’s never about how you look or what you’re wearing.
Admittedly, I feel that I have a bigger personality, and I really tried to keep myself “small” at school. I don’t know if any of you will relate to this, but have you ever been criticized or judged for being successful or good at something? This is, of course, due to the insecurities of those judging you, but it makes little difference in the moment. When people blame you for something, I think that’s it’s normal to feel at fault somehow. When I was an adolescent, my mother would often accuse me of thinking that I was superior to others because I found intellectual pursuits appealing; more than that, I excelled in the academy largely because I worked really hard and had little to no social life. I hid from the world in school. It wasn’t at all balanced, and it led to serious burn-out. I don’t recommend it.
My mother did not go to college, and I suspect that she felt somehow lacking and out of place for this. I never said so, and I have never believed this. She, however, projected her beliefs onto me and then harshly attacked me as if I held that view. It became almost memetic in our exchanges. If I did well in school or university, then I by default thought I was superior to everyone in the entire world. To bypass these judgments, I had to pretend that I was not doing well in school. I could not discuss scholarships or opportunities I was receiving. I couldn’t tell my family when my university endorsed me for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Fulbright Fellowship, and my mother refused to acknowledge that I had graduated from university with highest honors. To her, I just thought I was better than everyone which is completely untrue.
My father, on the other hand, would just slap me across the face. For real. If I said anything that bothered him in the slightest, he would slap me! Me and my big personality often said things that bothered him. You can imagine how often I was slapped.
Bear with me, this relates to the wedding…
So, I decided to go to the wedding as myself. I dressed up, wore lipstick and fancy shoes, and did my hair. To hell with it all, I thought. It’s a wedding! Back to that fly in the soup–the student from my school, Brandon. Brandon is young. He’s very boyish in his demeanor and affect, and it’s, therefore, surprising that he’s almost ready to graduate. He has appeared friendly enough in past interactions, but, at times, he is haughty. A quality I chalked up to his age and a lack of life experiences. Humility often comes through having negative life experiences and then having the time to develop insight around them. That requires time which is often reflected in one’s age but certainly not always (Lord, I sound old right now).
On the night in question, I sat with a lovely group of seasoned Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners and listened to them tell “war stories”. I’m a student! I have nothing to contribute to this conversation in terms of experience, but I asked questions. They were happy to include me. Brandon, who chose to sit across from me at the dinner and text, had already asked me one question, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…mom?” I mention this because were I a male student would he have asked, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…dad?” Likely not. There are three stay-at-home dads in my program, and I’ve never heard anyone speak to these outstanding men in a pedantic or condescending tone. To the women with children, however, who have stayed at home to care for their children, Brandon’s somewhat condescending question has been the norm. The context for our future exchange had been established.
As the conversation developed, the practitioners and I began discussing travel and past education, and I could enter into this discussion. I have traveled and lived abroad. The discussion was wonderful, and the rabbit trails were quite fascinating. Brandon looked to be disengaged or pouting. We all discussed foreign languages and past teachers. Suddenly, the subject of harvesting berries emerged of which the time was nigh. One of the doctors had a crop that was due for harvest, and the medicinal qualities of the berry were discussed at length. Brandon perked up eager to join in as he could finally discuss something “scientific”. When I looked at him and commented, “Oh yes, you can look at the studies online about this,” he turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said meanly cutting me off, “I want to listen to the conversation right now.” He then turned his shoulder to me, leaned in towards everyone, and ebulliently asked questions, laughing in an overly exaggerated manner.
It was a verbal slap in the face, and it stung. Oddly, no one present seemed to hear what he had said which made sense because it was solely meant for me. He did not want me participating in the conversation. I sipped my water and gathered my wits. I contained myself. I was not going to say anything to him because this was not my social affair. I wasn’t going to ruin a beautiful evening because of an apparently insecure, immature boy’s misbehavior. I went home that night feeling very bothered. I could see his face in my mind’s eye and hear his voice, and I determined that his inappropriate behavior bothered me so profoundly because he did what both my parents had done to me for years. He felt left out socially for whatever reason so he chose to socially wound me in order to rejuvenate his injured ego. He already displayed sexism and mild misogyny in his prior question. Attempting to silence me in our evening’s discussion of medicine was apparently the only way he could feel legitimate again.
That’s so wrong and, unfortunately, so common in terms of how humans interact. It exemplifies poor interpersonal skills, poor ego development, poor impulse control, personal and professional envy, insecurity, mild narcissism, and emotional arrested development. It explains a lot in terms of why people are struggling to make meaningful interpersonal connections and overcome loneliness which is rampant today. As my boyfriend said after I told him what happened, he’s fortunate he behaved like that towards me. I’m kind. What if he had done that to someone with a harsher nature? It would have ended much differently. What if someone invited him to settle his complaint outside?
So, what’s the point here? I guess my point is that you never know who you will be seated next to on an airplane or at a dinner party. Life will deal you some strange hands on any given day, and we have to find a way to play the hand we’ve been dealt. I like to think of it like Scrabble. Sometimes you get the best combination of letters and impress the heck out of everyone with your chosen word and earn a triple word score. Other times you get three x’s, and the rest are q’s and z’s. What…the…hell. The only way to do anything with that is to build a word off of what’s already been laid down on the board.
We have to dedicate time in our lives to laying some good letters down–building some really complex words–so that when we get a shitty draw of letters we can still play something worthwhile. What does that look like? Don’t be like Brandon. Address your insecurities. Address your envy. Dig deep and address your past wounds. Look at the injuries that your parents and family members inflicted upon you. Do authentic recovery work from past relationships. Seek out the resources around you that can help you heal from them. Address your addictions whatever they may be. We will spend our lives doing this, of course, because all of this is process-oriented work. It is not destination-based work. There is no point of arrival in terms of an ending. If you are breathing, then you are processing something. You are always drawing tiles to play. The point of engaging in a process is that you start to draw better tiles. What Brandon did was attempt to steal tiles from me in order to shut me out of the “game” so to speak. That’s what socially injuring someone does–it steals social capital from them so that they can’t participate in a fair and often deserved way. This includes gossip, slander, humiliation, shame, and even discussing true things about them that are bad. As we engage with intention in daily life and process, what we lay down on The Board gets better because our tiles improve, and, when we do draw some bad ones, we can still play what we draw because we have some quality words on The Board already. We’ve been building a solid foundation in both how we live our lives and within our character and personalities.
It’s not that hard to do actually when you start small. Just pick one area where you know you’ve been drawing bad tiles. Where you feel you can’t win no matter what you do. Dedicate some time in that singular area. Whatever it is. Start with 5 minutes a day. Just 5 minutes. See where it takes you. That might sound naive of me, but it’s not. Everything has a beginning, and every beginning starts small. So, start small and stay small until you feel you can make it bigger. Just be consistent. That is the key. Five minutes. Every day. That’s it.
With that, I wish you all a wonderful September. If you have kids going back to school or if you are going back to school, best of luck!
Shalom and keep going…
I just started reading Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.
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:
A minimalist kitchen:
A minimalist bathroom:
A minimalist living room:
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…
God have mercy indeed (I’m actually sort of excited to see how this experiment turns out).
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.
I like to write useful posts, and I’m going to try to spin this “leaden” topic into gold as it were. I think I can do it.
I am certainly getting many opportunities to engage in circumstantial alchemy at my college. I have to confess something. I had a rather disheartening interaction with a fellow student yesterday, and, because I process through writing, I thought I would write about it.
I’ve not written a lot about my health issues (at least I don’t think I have). My personal view of my health journey has always been that I’m a healthy person fighting off illness rather than I’m a sick person fighting to be well. That paradigm has kept me optimistic and positive. Sometimes, however, when you’re dealing with an unrelenting, chronic condition or many unrelenting, chronic conditions, there are trying days, and the illness(es) wins a few rounds. Truth be told, I’ve been a healthy person fighting off illness since early childhood. I’ve spent months that probably add up to a few years of my life in hospitals, and I carry multiple diagnoses and see four specialists outside of my primary care physician just to manage all of these diagnoses. Frankly, I became a bit discouraged because I wondered if I actually had one unknown condition that was the umbrella diagnosis manifesting as all these other health problems.
Last year, I ended up in yet another specialist’s office seeking more help because I suspected I had stumbled upon the X factor–the unknown umbrella diagnosis. I was, thusly, diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disorder/Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and it could very well be the foundational problem underlying every other health issue I have. It is also a giant pain in the ass. My doctor moved quickly to get the right protocols in place so that I would stop experiencing anaphylactoid reactions every few weeks, and she connected the dots between her diagnosis and the other specialists’ diagnoses. That was a huge relief. She indicated that it was indeed quite possible that I didn’t actually have all these other conditions; it may all be a mast cell disease at play. I was both shocked and awe-struck. I left her office with an Anaphylaxis Action Plan in place. I now wear my Medic Alert bracelet all the time. Everyone close to me knows how to administer an Epi-Pen, and my very long list of allergens is up to date. I get monoclonal antibodies infused at the hospital every four weeks, take Gen 1 and Gen 2 antihistamines daily in addition to mast cell stabilizers. I follow a low histamine diet. I do my best every day. And yet, as most of us know, sometimes your best is not good enough.
Sometimes things still happen like stress or viral infections or food contaminants. Or, a nurse doesn’t administer an infusion correctly, and a mast cell activation event occurs that leaves you in bed for 10 days sending you to the ER for fluids, Zofran, and steroids. I didn’t know that could happen!
(Actually, two nurses mistakenly injected Xolair directly into my abdomen intramuscularly! Like they were rabies shots!!!)
It was while I was lying in bed last week feeling like I was run over by a truck and working myself into a nice, foamy lather over missing a week and half of classes that I comforted myself–“Your friends at school will get your notes for you. It’ll be okay. Your teachers know you. No, you’re not a slacker. You won’t fail out of grad school…”
So, finally, here is my confession. Here is the lead. When I was finally able to return to school, I greeted the people I knew and thanked them for putting notes in my mailbox. I approached a friend I’ve spent time getting to know, and her affect clearly indicated that she wasn’t interested in talking. I thought that she could be distracted, but then I realized that she was not interested in talking to me. I moved to end the conversation; my final remark was a movie recommendation and she almost scoffed, “Well, at least you did something positive last week.” Whoa.
Did you catch that? That’s shame right there. Whether she knows it or not, she was condemning me for being sick last week. For not meeting her criteria of engaging in “positive actions”, and embedded within that sharp retort was blame: “It’s your fault that you’re sick.” She then went on to ignore me–to distance herself from me–a perceived sick person. And, from an anthropological perspective, this is very mammalian–unless, of course, you’re an elephant.
“Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. [Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices] once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet.” (Scientific American)
I felt as if a stone were in my stomach for the rest of my class. Like my heart had dropped low down into me. I was disheartened and disappointed. I did not understand this social interaction at all until just moments ago as I was trying to write this out, but I see it now. There was no compassion, and I don’t say this because I feel entitled to it. I merely observe it.
Living with a chronic illness is…weird. It’s too easy to say that it’s hard. For me, it’s not hard exactly. I find it strange. There are days in which I feel perfectly fine. I don’t have any pain, and I’m almost not fatigued at all. Of course, my diet is very limited. I’m practically a vegan because I can’t tolerate most animal proteins particularly bovine meat and milk. I have celiac disease so that means no gluten, and I’m deathly allergic to quite a few fruits and nuts. And now what with the MCAS diagnosis, I have to pay attention to foods that are “histamine liberators”. There are days that it feels very complicated, but, for the most part, I don’t really mind. Every day that I don’t literally almost die from anaphylaxis, I’m truly grateful. I’m not one to think in terms of fairness or justice because that smacks of a victimization. Illness is part of the human experience. Is it fair? Well, I cannot answer that. Suffering is part of life.
What I have gleaned from my experiences with long-term, chronic health issues is empathy and compassion for people who suffer from, well, just about anything. To quote John Mulaney, adult life is so goddamned weird. We do not have the privilege of foresight. We don’t know what lies ahead of us, but we do have the opportunity to cultivate a better personality with a richer substance and character that allows us to meet the unknown with courage and resiliency. And, what of this unknown? You may never get sick and stay sick a day in your life, but someone you love might. What’s more, they may do everything right and still never heal properly. Then what? Will you blame them? Tell them that they aren’t positive enough? Good enough? Strong enough? Dedicated enough? X enough? Will those well-meaning judgments most likely intended to spur them on to try harder actually help them? No. Why? If a person with a chronic illness could heal from trying harder to heal, then they would already be better. Trust me.
We are all human in the end and will shuffle off this mortal coil. Where then is the gold from this lead? I think that it is to be found in the how. How we live. How we treat others. How we view others. Even how we go about experiencing our diseases and disorders if we have a chronic condition. The one thing we are guaranteed is that we will all come to be intimately acquainted with suffering in either ourselves or other people. What then? Compassion. It is the only legitimate response. It validates, legitimizes, heals, and grows connections. Compassion mends the broken places and bridges the divides.
What of the people who blame, shame, judge, alienate, invalidate, and ostracize us for things that are no fault of our own? Well, sometimes we learn how to be better humans by observing others make mistakes.
If I wasn’t fully present to the reality of compassion and its utter necessity in the world before, I am now. I don’t feel angry at my fellow student. Oddly, I feel grateful. Her impoverished response acted as a mirror for me. For those of us who do deal with chronic conditions whatever they may be, we need to have compassion for ourselves because sometimes it’s in short supply. For me personally, I want to continue to develop compassion in my character and be mindful to exercise it. Unfortunately, you can count on other people to judge what they do not understand, and many people do not understand chronic illnesses particularly people who have been healthy for most of their lives. It is a lonely place when you are your most frequent and best advocate, but sometimes that is the road set before you until you find your tribe.
And, so, I will raise my voice today to join the other voices of compassion. There is absolutely no shame or reason to accept judgment if you have a chronic illness. Regardless of the overflowing fount of opinions in your life and the world at large, you deserve compassion, kindness, empathy, and a safe place to land where good friends will love you today. Just as you are.
Keep going, MJ
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV,
I have devoted a lot of space on this blog to writing about PTSD, C+PTSD, and healing from trauma. I’ve been honest about my own journey towards wholeness. What I share here is an attempt to elucidate the emotional experience behind C+PTSD in specific the anxiety experience.
What I can say for certain about healing from C+PTSD is that it is like a disease that remits and exacerbates. I can go a year and not devote any time to thinking about the man who abducted and trafficked me, my time in captivity with him, or the events that happened to me therein. I rarely think of my father or stepmother. My mother doesn’t come to mind much either in the context of her abusive behaviors. The domestic violence I experienced in my former marriage is no longer foremost in my mind. It’s not the people or specific events that dog me now.
So, what is left after you deal with the details and process the events? What is left after therapy because there is something left?
I’ve had a hard time defining the quality of what remains until a friend sent me a link to this article yesterday:
Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:
“No one gets a prize for “worst” depression, anxiety, trauma or any other combination of terrible things to deal with, and no one should suffer alone. With that in mind, there is a difference between what someone who has Complex PTSD feels and what someone with generalized anxiety or mild to moderate depression feels.
For someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety they feel does not come from some mysterious unknown source or obsessing about what could happen. For many, the anxiety they feel is not rational. General anxiety can often be calmed with grounding techniques and reminders of what is real and true. Mindfulness techniques can help. Even when they feel disconnected, anxious people can often acknowledge they are loved and supported by others.
For those who have experienced trauma, anxiety comes from an automatic physiological response to what has actually, already happened. The brain and body have already lived through “worst case scenario” situations, know what it feels like and are hell-bent on never going back there again. The fight/flight/ freeze response goes into overdrive. It’s like living with a fire alarm that goes off at random intervals 24 hours a day. It is extremely difficult for the rational brain to be convinced “that won’t happen,” because it already knows that it has happened, and it was horrific.
Those living with generalized anxiety often live in fear of the future. Those with complex trauma fear the future because of the past.”
This is absolutely true, and most therapists don’t seem to have a clue that there is a difference. Perhaps this will help someone reading this…
I live with a smoldering anxiety that never leaves me. It peaks when I’m happy. Oddly, it ebbs when I’m too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and I suspect that trauma survivors try to stay so busy because it prevents them from feeling this particularistic type of anxiety. When I’m struck with the evanescent beauty of a moment, fear creeps in like a thief and begins to steal my joy. I do not know how to escape any of this. It might be strange, but I’ve tried to make friends with it. I’ve wanted to understand it in an effort to defuse it.
As Ms. Peterson has said, I don’t fear because I’m generally anxious. I do not have an anxious personality. I fear because of what I’ve known. Because of my past experiences. When the worst-case scenario has already happened to you, then who’s to say it won’t happen again? Yes, I’ve survived extreme sexual torture, a kidnapping, human trafficking, and years of abuse in my family of origin. I was duped by my ex-husband for twenty years and sexually assaulted by him. My former therapist told me that I could clearly survive anything. My brain fears that I will have to do it again. Over and over again. This is the flavor of anxiety that belongs to trauma survivors. This is the nature of PTSD and C+PTSD anxiety.
I do practice mindfulness, but becoming mindful does not shut down my anxiety. It often only makes me more aware that I’m fearful and feeling helpless. It can promote the very hypervigilance I’m seeking to escape.
“The remedy for both anxiety and trauma is to pull one’s awareness back into the present. For a traumatized person who has experienced abuse, there are a variety of factors that make this difficult. First and foremost, a traumatized person must be living in a situation which is 100 percent safe before they can even begin to process the tsunami of anger, grief and despair that has been locked inside of them, causing their hypervigilance and other anxious symptoms. That usually means no one who abused them or enabled abuse in the past can be allowed to take up space in their life. It also means eliminating any other people who mirror the same abusive or enabling patterns.
Unfortunately for many, creating a 100 percent abuser-free environment is not possible, even for those who set up good boundaries and are wary of the signs. That means that being present in the moment for a complex trauma survivor is not fail-proof, especially in a stressful event. They can be triggered into an emotional flashback by anything in their present environment.
It is possible (and likely) that someone suffering from the effects of complex trauma is also feeling anxious and depressed, but there is a difference to the root cause. Many effective strategies that treat anxiety and depression don’t work for trauma survivors. Meditation and mindfulness techniques that make one more aware of their environment sometimes can produce an opposite effect on a trauma survivor. Trauma survivors often don’t need more awareness. They need to feel safe and secure in spite of what their awareness is telling them.”
Feeling safe and secure, for me, is key. Safety and security in my relationships and environment seem to be the cure. I know why feelings of relief and happiness trigger feelings of fear and, sometimes, emotional flashbacks. My father deliberately cultivated feelings of happiness and relief in me in order to overturn them and further engage in abuse. He was a pathologically cold man. My mother’s emotional and personality disorders caused constant instability in our family environment. As soon as any sort of happiness was achieved, it vanished just as quickly due to her inability to maintain a consistent mood or affect. She also attempted suicide numerous times. As soon as any family member felt relief that she might be doing better, she would attempt suicide again or lash out in talionic rage against someone in the family. Nothing in my family life was ever predictable. We consistently waited for “the other shoe to drop”. I grew up on edge. If there were ever a moment of happiness, I knew that my mother would ruin it. Or my father. That has proven to be true over the years.
Consequently, when I feel this rising panic borne of this nebulous but constant fear that follows me everywhere, it isn’t generalized. It is quite specific, and I find myself saying, “I can’t go back to that. I can’t do that again. I won’t do that again.” And, I feel frozen and terrified as if an old enemy has found me. I feel a strong urge to cut all ties and run away mixed with a terrible almost existential fear that I will live out my life completely alone. And, yet, I know that this will all pass. It is, as I said, like an exacerbation of an autoimmune disease–an autoimmune disease of the mind and soul.
With that said, what is to be done? Well, I have therapized, read, studied, and pursued many roads over the last twenty years in order to answer that very question, and I’ve had a fair amount of success. For the survivor of trauma, however, consistently establishing safety and security in your myriad environments and relationships is the number one thing to do to defuse anxiety and flashbacks related to trauma. This will always be the first and last step. It is also the first question to ask when you feel that familiar fear rise: “Do I feel unsafe or insecure anywhere in my life or in any relationship?”
I hope that this has been helpful to you. Ms. Peterson’s article has been very helpful and validating for me.
As always, keep going…
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. 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.
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.”
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.
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!”
Life has a way of hitting the Reset button, and I must admit that I appreciate that. And, honestly, this Reset is too good not to share.
One might perceive that I am all Doom and Gloom what with writing a blog like this, but that is far from the truth (In fact, I just spent ten minutes dancing to K-Pop in my bedroom as a study break. I highly recommend BTS’s “Illegal”).
Anyway, after the visit to the Respondent’s attorney this morning to sign the settlement agreement, I went to visit my lovely esthetician for some *ahem* personal waxing. I just wanted to feel like a normal human being again, and, besides, I already had the appointment scheduled. I felt it was time to get my focus back. There’s nothing like having hair ripped out of sensitive body parts to do just that.
Brazilian waxing is an odd experience. I won’t lie. I am by nature a very modest person. I hated labor and delivery for this very reason. All those people sauntering in and out of the room while your body is on full display? I never grew accustomed to it. I could say it’s my disposition combined with being raised by stoic Scandinavians in a very gender-biased Southern culture. The advice I was given for almost all contexts of life was, “Remember to keep your knees together, dear.” Consequently, the fact that I can even lie on a table in a Figure 4 position and tolerate hot wax being poured and torn off my lady parts is an authentic victory for me. I feel empowered and ultra-hygienic when I leave my esthetician’s house. It’s one of those luxuries that I don’t take for granted.
So, there I was today, lying on her table, recounting the past month’s events as she loudly empathized with me. She’s like my Jewish auntie: “Oy, no! Did he really? I can’t believe it! What did you doooooo?” ::rip::
As I waited for her to finish, I looked up at the ceiling. It was then that I saw it. A spider. Before I could say anything, he descended directly onto my chest. I managed to yell out, “SPIDER!”
My esthetician shrieked and started hitting me in an attempt to kill the spider. I was stuck on the table. There was wax on me, and, you know, I had no pants on! Where was I going to go? I couldn’t offer any assistance at all.
“Did you get it? Did you get it?” I asked, feeling helpless.
“No…no….not yet…no,” she quickly answered.
More hitting. Then shoving. It crawled on my arm. I felt it. I screamed. Then, it crawled under me. She shoved me to the side of the table.
“Is it in my hair?” I asked beginning to panic. I am somewhat terrified of spiders.
“I got it!” she exclaimed.
For a moment, we were silent and wide-eyed, and then we started laughing almost hysterically. I’m not sure why. I think that she is afraid of spiders, too, and we were experiencing a massive dump of stress hormones. I felt ridiculously vulnerable lying almost buck ass naked on her table while a spider crawled on me, and she had to kill an insect she feared.
I gave her an extra big tip and left her house feeling a little more like myself than when I arrived. So, I’m hitting the books, studying for my first midterm tomorrow, and getting on with things spiders and settlement agreements be damned.
And thank you for sharing the journey with me. I have appreciated that more than I can adequately say.