How to Grow Up Again

I walked into my therapist’s office in March 2015 with a mind to figure out what was wrong with my marriage and, thereby, me.  I told him that I knew something was happening to me that was probably not good, but, seeing that I was in the center of it all, I could no longer discern what was true and false.   I needed an objective point of view to understand the situation.  I knew I needed help.

It is now mid-September 2017, and in two weeks my therapeutic relationship with my therapist will end.  Two and half years of therapy.  Wow.  It only feels like a few months, but my life is completely different now.

When I started the therapeutic process I decided to record the process here on my blog.  My blog was already well-established in terms of therapeutic topics, and I thought that it might be helpful to provide a look behind the curtain particularly for people who were suspicious of therapy or couldn’t find a therapist.  What do people actually do “in therapy”? Why go? Does it actually work? People like to say, myself included, to “go to therapy” when life becomes a shitstorm, but does it really matter? For the love of baby owls, why won’t people stop suggesting it? It seems as if we all know someone who has been in therapy for at least a decade, and they are almost worse now than before they started.  I’m not exaggerating on that point.  I do know someone who has been seeing a therapist for over ten years, and this person is no better now than when they started.  It’s…unsettling.

So, let’s get down to it then.  Let’s be real about it.  Why go to a therapist? Why pay for it? Why put in the time and effort when we all seem to know people who have done it and gotten nothing out of it?

I’ll start off by saying that you must find the right therapist for you if you expect success.  There must be a good chemistry for the work to be meaningful otherwise you won’t build trust and take risks in your disclosure.  Also, you won’t take their suggestions or comments seriously.  They will lack credibility.  You’ll stay entrenched in a defensive and suspicious posture.  I’ve experienced this numerous times with my daughters’ therapists.  There are myriad children’s and adolescent therapists in the world, and most of them seem to be mediocre.  I have observed them talking down to kids or simply pushing their own worldview onto them.  They start off sessions with their own agenda and expect the client, the kid, to adhere to their expectations.  They can treat kids like pets who must obey commands rather than like people with rights and personalities of their own.  It is a rarity to find a therapist who works with kids who treats a kid like an adult in the making.  When you do, you’ll find that the waiting list to see them is long.  A good therapist is recognized, and people want to work with him/her.

This process of finding the right therapist is the same for adults.  You have to interview a potential therapist.  Do your research.  Look at their CV.  Where were they educated? What is their certification? How long have they been working? I chose my current therapist because he had a PhD in neuroscience, and I thought that this PhD would pair very well with his therapy work particularly as it related to the profound trauma in my past.  I was right.  His knowledge was extensive, and I gained a far greater understanding of my brain and trauma than I ever had before.  Additionally, he had a great therapy bedside manner.  We worked really well together.

Once you’ve got the therapist, then you must have an idea of what you want out of the experience.  This is one of the most important aspects of having a successful therapeutic experience.  I’ve made a career out of going to therapy.  If you have complex PTSD, then you have to get to know the therapeutic process.  It is one of the primary highways out of the complexity of that diagnosis.  In “therapy speak”, a therapist will ask what your treatment plan should be.  This means, “Why are you here? What do you want? What do you want to accomplish when you’re working with a therapist?”

Even for me, a seasoned client, I find those questions daunting.  So, to get to the answer, I imagine how I would like my life or my inner life to look at the end of therapy.  If I’m coming into therapy an emotional mess completely incapable of handling conflict, then I might say, “I can’t tolerate distress.  I would like to increase my distress tolerance particularly around _______________.”  If I’m coming into therapy because I’m being abused by a partner or because I’m trying to put boundaries down with an emotionally abusive parent, then I might say, “I need help in figuring out what is happening with X person.  I feel confused, scared, and helpless, and I don’t want to feel like that anymore.  I want to get my personal power back and learn how to say ‘no’, learn how to put boundaries down, and then how to enforce them without feeling so afraid all the time.  How do I do that? And, if this is abusive in nature, then what do I even do about that? Also, how did it get to this point? I need help figuring out how I didn’t see this happening until it got so bad.” Essentially, what you are doing is giving a therapist a map.  You are starting at A and pointing to M on your personal map.  Your therapist will then help you create a roadmap using their training to get you there.  The condition is that you must show up on the scheduled dates and do everything that your therapist suggests.  You must do the work.

Therapy homework.  This can be the hardest part.  Talking to a therapist can be unpleasant, but it is the homework that matters more.  Whatever work you are told to do  you must do because this is what creates momentum.  This is what actually progresses you along your roadmap.  Every single person I’ve ever met who has succeeded in therapy does the homework.  They suspend their egos and submit to that process.  If they have to do a workbook, then they do it.  If they have to write “dead letters” to people who hurt them in the past, then they do it.  And they do it with 100% effort.  You will get out of therapy what you put into it.  This is why trusting your therapist is vital.  You have to believe that the work you’re being given matters particularly if it feels aversive to you.

Does it work? What are the results? I can speak for myself.  Almost fifteen years ago, I set out to do a deep and meaningful work with a therapist.  I thought that I had addressed past trauma and abuse involving both my parents, but, as it turns out, my past efforts had not been sufficient.  I was still stuck on the All-Good/All-Bad Child rollercoaster with my mother who has a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) diagnosis, and I couldn’t get off.  I didn’t know what was healthy in terms of a mother/daughter relationship.  I worked with him for three years.  That work was one of the most significant therapeutic experiences of my life.  I am a changed person because of those years and no longer victimized by either of my parents.

Today, my life looks nothing like it did two years ago.  I believed that I had hit a dead end.  I believed that I had invested the best years of my life in a marriage that had become abusive, empty, and miserable.  What’s more, I believed what my then husband had told me about myself: I was a liability and no one would ever want me.  So why bother even attempting to build a better life? I was useless and worthless.  Knowing me was like walking through a minefield.  Truly.  I believed this, but I didn’t want to believe this.  I fostered hope that he was wrong.  That is what motivated me to find a therapist.  I had a kernel of hope inside myself that he was, in fact, lying to me.

Hope.  This is probably the most important factor in terms of why you find and stay in therapy.

Lastly, you finally get to grow up again and expand your emotional education–properly–when you go to therapy:

Therapy is our gateway to growing up.  When we find a therapist who we like and trust, we can actually do the work of maturing and growing into the adults who we have always wanted to be.  How?

  • A good therapist walks with you through those memories that are holding you back in order to help you resolve them so that you no longer carry them, and they no longer define you.
  • A good therapist helps you learn to talk about your feelings so that you can communicate effectively within your relationships.
  • A good therapist validates you and your life experiences.  This is key because we need validation to feel safe and sane.
  • A good therapist teaches you how to self-validate so that you are no longer beholden to others for your validation and sense of self.
  • A good therapist models empathy which, hopefully, will teach us how to do the same.
  • A good therapist teaches us how to be empowered in our relationships forsaking victim thinking, codependency, and caretaking.
  • A good therapist provides a reality check and tough love when necessary so that we learn what true accountability in relationships looks like.
  • A good therapist guides us into learning distress tolerance so that we can give up maladaptive coping strategies that harm us and our relationships.
  • A good therapist provides insights into what motivates us so that we learn to become curious about ourselves and why we make certain choices.
  • A good therapist legitimizes separation, individuation, and differentiation from our parents which is so often the root of our suffering.
  • A good therapist teaches us a better way to think and shows us where we are believing negative things and, thusly, how those negative beliefs manifest in negative behaviors.

Therapy is the environment in which we continue developing as humans except that we have the opportunity to develop into better humans.  Therapy is meant to teach us so that we are equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.

Who do you suppose does better in a crisis? The person who trusts themselves or the person who is rootless, anxious, and doesn’t trust anyone? Part of becoming an educated person is receiving an emotional education as well.  One of my favorite college professors once told a group of women that her goal in teaching us was to create educated women.  When asked what that meant, she replied, “To be truly educated means that you are critical thinkers.  It means that if you don’t know the answer to a question, then you know how to go about finding it.”

This is what it means to be emotionally educated.  It means that you are a critical thinker when it comes to yourself.  You are self-aware.  You understand your motives.  You know what you need.  You can self-advocate.  You can trust others.  You trust yourself.  You know how to ask for what you want, and you are not beholden to others for your sense of worth or sense of calm.  If you find yourself in difficult situations for which you are not equipped, then you know how to go about equipping yourself.  You know the skills you have, and you know the ones you need.  Lastly, you take responsibility for yourself–your actions, your feelings, your desires, and your needs.

This is what therapy can do for us.  All of those inadequacies that we see today? Those deficits in our personalities that we try to hide out of shame? Reframe them.  They are just opportunities when you put them in a therapeutic environment.  What if you simply need to learn a new skill? We will all be developing and maturing until the day we die, picking up more wisdom as we go.  Engaging in your own emotional education is not something to be ashamed of.  It should be celebrated.

Remaining emotionally illiterate because someone somewhere once said that only weak people see shrinks? I think that’s the least educated view of all. (Empowered Grace)

Find a Therapist

 

 

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Big Ideas in A Little Poem

When you are a parent, partner, and all-around Make It Happen person, it can feel like there is no room for “flow” or peace.  When the buck stops with you, you never stop running, anticipating, planning, deciding, problem solving, observing, fixing, and repairing.  That’s me.  I’m the Make It Happen person in my life.  In my home.  In my domain.

Does anyone relate to this?

If there’s a problem, then you have to fix it.

If anything needs to be done, then you do it.

If anything needs solving, then you solve it.

This was generally clear to me when I was married.  This is now crystal clear to me now that I am not.  If I even see a potential problem, I can’t just let it be.  I am compelled to fix it before it becomes a real problem.  I define hypervigilance.

I never shut off.  Burnout, anyone?

Consequently, I have little to no hobbies.  I don’t read for pleasure.  I’m studying, but I used to almost solely read nonfiction because I was, once again, attempting to solve some health or circumstantial riddle.  Any free time I might have my children manage to sniff out and find creative ways to fill.  I don’t know how they manage to do that.

So, when I came across Rev. Safire Rose’s poem, I had to read it more than once.  Twice.  Ten times.

She Let Go: A Poem

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go.  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.

– Reverend Safire Rose

Let go.  Let go? Let it be? Let it all be? That just sounds anathema to me, and yet it also sounds appealing.

How do you feel when you read this?

What comes to mind for me is that hypervigilance is adaptive when you’re living in an intense environment.  It works well.  It helps you survive.  Being a troubleshooting go-getter is a good quality.  Knowing how to survive the most complex of circumstances is great.  But, at some point, we either bring that adaptation down from DEFCON 2 to DEFCON 4 or even 5 so that it doesn’t become maladaptive, or we continue to live our lives as if we are consistently under threat–even when we are not.  This destroys relationships, jobs, health, and hurts the people close to us.

So, what about that “letting go”? What would that look like? What about just stopping? Giving up the need to control everything? No consulting friends.  No journaling.  Just…doing it.  Well, that sounds unappealing, but it feels freeing at the same time, doesn’t it?

At the moment, I’m not sure what it would look like, but I can tell you that I will be thinking on it.  And if the idea of letting go feels too hard, then perhaps change the idea to something like this: “Loosen your grasp on things that you are trying to control.”

How does that sound?

Doable?

Maybe?

Shalom…

Claude and Me

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people knowing about my deeper, darker trauma history.  I don’t like people knowing that I ultimately ended my marriage because of domestic violence.  It goes without saying that I don’t like people knowing that I was trafficked when I was 18.  Yes, that was twentysomething years ago, but there are aspects of it that still feel like now.  That is how trauma works.  Unprocessed and maladaptively processed trauma remain in the “still happening” box in your brain.  This is why those memories pack such a punch when you recall them or re-experience them.  Your limbic system activates when you think about them.  You sweat.  You have gastrointestinal symptoms.  You might experience a migraine.  You might feel a sudden need to run.  Maybe you get belligerent.  Or, perhaps you lose your words–you can’t speak.  You can chalk that up to that very basic survival reaction called fight or flight (or freeze).  We can thank acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, for a lot of those symptoms.  It’s all very real.  You are not making it up or wishing yourself ill.

Me? Sometimes, out of nowhere, I have a sudden urge to move house, leave town, and start over with a new identity.  I’ll panic and think, “People know too much about me.  I’m too vulnerable.  I must leave.  Must…run.”  I’ll want to cut off all relationships and flee.  I don’t do that, of course, but it happens from time to time.

I had that experience when I was in California.  I wanted to leave the country.  A gulag in Siberia started to sound pretty appealing to me.  Why?

It all started with this guy…

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Claude the Albino Alligator

I didn’t know that his name was Claude until I started writing this post! That somehow makes this seem funny in a sinister Loony Toons sort of way.  So, I had just walked into the California Academy of Science.  I saw a lot of people gathered around a large open air exhibit.

“Ooooh, what’s that?” I thought.

I sauntered over, and that’s when I saw him.

Claude.  A very large alligator.

An alligator!

I am extremely afraid of alligators.  It all began when I was a very small child.  I was convinced that a gator was living under my bed, and this seemed perfectly reasonable to me because there was a bayou directly behind my house.  Sometimes alligators would emerge from their natural habitat and awkwardly drag themselves down my residential street.  So, every night I had to be careful not to let any of my extremities fall over the edge of my bed lest that under-the-bed-alligator bite them clean off!

Fast forward to my 18th year.  Was I over my fear of alligators? I liked to think that I was, but I wasn’t.  I was fascinated by them, but I maintained a strong fear of them.  It remained visceral for me.  I left Texas after I graduated from high school, and I figured that I left alligators behind for good.

I was wrong.

Human trafficking for the purposes of sex work is talked about today.  Shows like NCIS, Law&Order:SVU, and Criminal Minds use the topic in their plot lines.  The most accurate on-screen portrayals of an abduction and sex/human trafficking scenarios that I’ve seen are represented in the movie Taken.  The auction at the end? Those are very real.  The buyers? Real.  Girls being closed up in rooms, drugged, and raped? Real.  That was very close to my experiences in the early 90’s.  Not much has changed.  What is not discussed or used as fodder for entertainment is the torture aspect of trafficking.  Torture is a very important part of human trafficking because psychologically “breaking” an abductee is important in order to gain compliance and destroy hope.  My perpetrator used alligators.

Alligators.

Do you remember that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy opens up the ancient Egyptian crypt where the ark of the covenant has been hidden for millennia only to discover that the entirety of the interior is creeping and crawling with snakes–his greatest fear?

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That was me.  “Alligators.  Why’d it have to be alligators.”  In retrospect, my perpetrator was a lot like one of those unintelligent Bond villains thinking up creative ways to torture and kill people.  Instead of using something reliable like a gun or knife, he had to try to be showy and egomaniacal and threaten me with being eaten alive by alligators.

Until a year ago, I never talked about the alligators.  I survived the experience and compartmentalized that particular aspect of my time in captivity.  Until last Sunday, I have not come face to face with another alligator since I was 18.

So, how did I do upon meeting Claude?

I froze.  I started sweating.  My stomach clenched.  I almost started crying.  I had no thoughts.  It was entirely a limbic response.  Pure trauma.  So, I decided to just stand there among all the strangers oohing and aahing over this white, prehistoric reptile and let it flow while I told myself the truth.

“I am okay.  I am safe.  That alligator is not going to eat me.  There is no perpetrator here now who is going to throw me down there.  I will never be thrown to alligators.  An alligator does not live under my bed or behind my house or anywhere near where I live.  I am no longer being threatened.  I can look at this alligator and know that I am safe at the same time.”

And then I moved on with the rest of my day.  That was it.  No one knew what I was experiencing.  Just me.

What is the point of sharing this?

Well, the longer that I engage in the healing work (and it’s been a lifetime work at this point), the more that I realize that I have to be my own biggest support.  I have to be my biggest fan.  I am not trying to say that we become self-reliant Teddy Roosevelts who white-knuckle it on the open tundras of life’s hardships.  What I am saying is that we must learn to coach ourselves through the unexpected scenarios that trigger us because sometimes very powerful healing opportunities arise at inopportune times, and we have to take hold of them quickly.  Sometimes our allies are not around, or they are wrapped up in their own healing work.  We must experience and know our strength, and we do have it.

It isn’t romantic.  It will look nothing like it does in the movies.  The theme from Chariots of Fire will not start playing.  No one will high-five you or lift you up on their shoulders.  Most people won’t even know just how hard you’re working.  Just you.  You will probably be judged.  At some point, you’ll feel like a total failure.  You’ll become disillusioned with yourself and life in general.  It will feel like you’re working twice as hard as everyone else just to be average.  Sometimes you might feel like an outcast.  Like you don’t belong anywhere.  You’ll feel ontologically different, and that creates a devouring kind of loneliness that can almost make you feel cold inside.

This is what healing from trauma feels like.  I describe it as such because I have found that when I discover that my experience is common, then I am consoled.  I am not alone.  Maybe I am okay, and in that sense of being potentially okay I find momentum to keep going.

This is why I will always say, “Keep going.  Never give up.”  It gets easier, and it gets better.  There are bad days, but there are good days, too.  And, at some point, the good outnumber the bad, and life starts to feel worthwhile again.  Even when you’re facing down your fears.

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Look how big he is! 

Keep climbing.  Keep going.  Shalom…

 

The Betrayal of Disengagement: Reloaded

I wrote this post for another blog a little over a year ago, but I want to post it here, too, because I continue to get comments on this post–Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage.  Out of hundreds of posts, that post is by far the most read and commented on, and the crux of the comments seems to be founded upon relational neglect and the subsequent emotional and psychological fallout.  I thought that a more personal narrative along with a fresh description of what often underlies the pain of specific relational problems might be helpful in terms of elucidating why we often get in our own way.  If we can’t name it, then we can’t regulate it.  Once we know what’s actually going on within us and within our relationship, then we’ve got a shot at progressing.  And, that produces hope.

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You can’t end a nearly 20-year relationship and not feel it.  There is fallout.  I don’t miss him.  I am actually incredibly thankful for that.  When I ended it, I no longer felt love.  I wanted to move on with my life.

Moving on, however, happens in fits and starts, and, for me, it is due to personal pain.  I am not looking back with nostalgia because I don’t feel nostalgic.  What I do feel is fear.  I am anxious about the future based upon my past experiences.  I sat down today and began a functional analysis of myself.

I therapized myself.

“Tell me, Jules, what triggers this fear in you?”

I have suddenly become very anxious and fearful at night.  It just happens.  Almost panicky.  Sometimes the panic carries over into the morning.  So, what is the function of my panic?

I sat at my table and pondered it.

“Well, I acutely feel alone at night.  It’s just me and Busheen.”

Who is Busheen? This is Busheen.

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Busheen is a knock off of Pusheen.  This is Pusheen.

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Busheen sits on my bed.  Eadaoin gave her to me to keep me company.  Everyone talks to Busheen like she’s sentient.  Even my boyfriend.  When he’s here he’ll say, “Get out of my spot, Busheen,” and Busheen goes flying.  My daughters come into my room and cry on Busheen.  The little girl next door knocks on our door, runs into our house and straight to my bedroom just to grab Busheen and carry her around the house.  Busheen’s got somethin’, but Busheen is no substitute for human interaction.  I feel alone at night, and Busheen doesn’t help me with that.

As soon as I got in touch with that distinct flavor of “aloneness”, I was overcome with the power of that emotion.  It was sheer pain.  I couldn’t even coach myself through it.  I just started sobbing.  I did, however, remember this:

“When we think about betrayal in terms of the marble jar metaphor, most of us think of someone we trust doing something so terrible that it forces us to grab the jar and dump out every single marble. What’s the worst betrayal of trust you can think of? He sleeps with my best friend. She lies about where the money went. He/she chooses someone over me. Someone uses my vulnerability against me (an act of emotional treason that causes most of us to slam the entire jar to the ground rather than just dumping the marbles). All terrible betrayals, definitely, but there is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust.

In fact, this betrayal usually happens long before the other ones. I’m talking about the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. The word betrayal evokes experiences of cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, failing to defend us to someone else who’s gossiping about us, and not choosing us over other people. These behaviors are certainly betrayals, but they’re not the only form of betrayal. If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement.

When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.

We may tell a disengaged partner, “You don’t seem to care anymore,” but without “evidence” of this, the response is “I’m home from work every night by six P.M. I tuck in the kids. I’m taking the boys to Little League. What do you want from me?” Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!

With children, actions speak louder than words. When we stop requesting invitations into their lives by asking about their day, asking them to tell us about their favorite songs, wondering how their friends are doing, then children feel pain and fear (and not relief, despite how our teenagers may act). Because they can’t articulate how they feel about our disengagement when we stop making an effort with them, they show us by acting out, thinking, This will get their attention.

Like trust, most experiences of betrayal happen slowly, one marble at a time. In fact, the overt or “big” betrayals that I mentioned before are more likely to happen after a period of disengagement and slowly eroding trust. What I’ve learned about trust professionally and what I’ve lived personally boils down to this:

Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture—it’s a growing marble collection.” (Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.”)

This is exactly what happened to me in my marriage.  In retrospect, he never was truy engaged, but over the years it grew worse until he may as well have been completely absent.  I kept asking him what I could do.  “Nothing.”  What had I done wrong? “Nothing.”  Why did he not like me? “You’re fine.”  Why did he find me so unattractive?  “I don’t.”  Why did he stop paying attention to me? ::insert blank stare::  I felt positively unlovable and invisible.  I tried everything.  I tried to be perfect in all things.  I diminished until there was nothing left.  Until I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.  And I felt so alone.  All the time.  I wanted to understand what I had done to cause him to want to have nothing to do with me, but I was afraid.  I was afraid that he would tell me, “Well, it’s you.  It’s not that you’ve done anything.  It’s just that you are definitively unlovable.  You can’t do anything to fix what is true.  You are impossible to love because there is nothing in you that merits it.  This is why I ignore you.  This is why I don’t like you.  You’re just…you.  You don’t deserve love.”

That was my fear.  I was trying desperately to disprove what I feared but what his actions seemed to emphasize.  As Brené explains, “Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!” This is how I felt in my marriage: “Tell me you love me.  Tell me you hate me.  Just tell me something so that I know you remember I live here.”

A profound ontological insignificance began to take root and bloom in me spreading throughout my psyche like an invasive botanical species.  It is very hard to uproot.  It is very hard to fight.  It is completely natural to feel alone from time to time.  Loneliness is part of the human experience.  What I have noticed, however, is that when I feel lonely, I feel ontologically invisible.  As if I could disappear existentially and leave no footprint.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t matter.  This is a learned response.  A triggered response.  And, I can unlearn this.

Brené is right: “Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable.”

If you have experienced anything like this in your life, then I would encourage you by telling you that you’re not alone in your experience.  Knowing this, connecting the dots, is how we heal.  Gaining insight into why our emotional experiences are so powerful is how we develop momentum and progress after major life events like break-ups and divorces.  It’s also how we retrain our brains to think differently.  Just because someone else stopped showing up for us doesn’t mean we are not worthy of showing up for.  Trust and vulnerability are hard.  Understanding how to recover and heal after we are betrayed is necessary so that we can go on to be vulnerable and trust again.

And, because I think this is helpful and promotes vision:

What does full and loving engagement involve? At the risk of minimizing an engaged relationship to a list, here’s a list:

  • understanding and embracing the other’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and pain;
  • helping and supporting the other to grow beyond those and feel safe and loved;
  • a willingness to share your own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and pain;
  • active and reflective listening;
  • emotionally mature communication and conflict resolution;
  • physical and emotional presence;
  • proactive efforts to reconnect through fun, play, shared interests;
  • proactive efforts to stay connected when physically separated;
  • consciously placing the relationship in high priority over work, hobbies, and other life distractions;
  • a willingness and desire to grow as a person, to seek personal evolution, and to invite the other person to grow and share with you in this
  • a willingness to forgive and ask for forgiveness. (The Insidious Poison of Disengagement in Your Relationships)

Resources:

The Great California Shenanigan

I returned from my two-week romp through Northern California Monday night with my three hyper-sensitive daughters in tow.  My phrasing might make it sound like I have ten daughters seven of whom have little to no requirement of my presence.  Well, that’s not true.  I have four daughters the oldest of whom will be a senior in college this year.  She had the presence of mind to stay home.  Actually, she had to work.

I feel as if I have returned home a shell of a person.  Do I say this with humor? Yes.  Do I admit this honestly? Mmm…yes.  I prepared them for this trip.  I explained all the ground rules.  I drew diagrams.  I asked them to draw on their reservoir of manners and social skills which runs deep and wide.  I quizzed them on responses to possible scenarios.  I had it locked down not to mention they had been on a trip before.  We are not feral people. None of this was new.

When we entered the airport, I began to experience a subtle but very real feeling of dread.  Our last trip to California was trying.  To be honest, everyone behaved like assholes except for my youngest daughter who is on the autism spectrum.  She managed herself like a champ! “Surely, that won’t happen again,” I naively thought to myself as the TSA was patting me down.

But, a conspiracy was brewing, and my 16 year-old was no doubt thinking something like this…

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The Mincing Mockingbird

And shenaniganate she did! It started when we arrived and didn’t end for 15 days! I parented more in two weeks than I do in six months.  I overcompensated, deflected in gardens, ran interference in restaurants, pulled aside and coached in museums, flat out disciplined in quiet corners of conservatories, had in-depth discussions privately, validated, encouraged, pulled out DBT self-soothing techniques, and then took ten-minute baths to cry just to excrete all the stress hormones coursing through my body.  By the 13th day, I was so amped up and anxious myself that I freely admit to feeling like this about my own child…

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The Mincing Mockingbird

When we walked into our house at nearly midnight, I didn’t fall asleep until after 4 AM.  I’m still emotionally spent from the trip and feel like I might burst into tears at any moment.  For me, it was a bit nightmarish.  I am not wont to take her anywhere ever again.

In the middle of all of her missteps, shenanigans, and displays of teenage angst all of which I had zero control over, I felt a very familiar feeling creep in.  I started walking on eggshells.  My daughter’s behavior was offensive to our host.  There was no getting around it.  She was politely asked to stop engaging in certain behaviors, and, “forgetting” herself, she would continue to do those very things.  Being very sensitive to changes in mood and atmosphere, I discerned our host’s frustration as soon as he felt it, and I almost couldn’t bear it.  It made me feel ill.  So, I did what years of living within abusive environments have trained me to do; I began to attempt to minimize our environmental impact.  I cleaned up every single thing that I could.  I made beds.  I cleaned up dishes.  I cleaned up the kitchen and countertops.  I wanted there to be little to no evidence that we were there.  I removed the girls from the environment for long periods of time in hopes that our absence would lessen the emotional load.

Does this sound familiar to any of you? If you make yourself invisible then perhaps you won’t cause any sort of negative impact on the environment or those within it.  If you can anticipate the outcomes, then you can run interference in order to prevent negative outcomes.  I grew up doing this in order to mitigate suffering.

I knew I was doing this, but I didn’t know what else to do.  No matter what I said to my daughter or how I tried to influence her, she refused to stop engaging in the very behaviors that were causing the problems.  I eventually concluded that we would have to deal with this once we left California.  I was stuck.  We were all stuck, and I felt trapped.  My two other daughters were feeling it, too, and they were frustrated with their sister.  I didn’t know what to expect from moment to moment, and I was starting to feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety.  I couldn’t anticipate anyone’s responses.  That type of uncertainty causes terrible suffering in me.

As I sit here this morning looking at my shenaniganating daughter, this is how I feel…

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The Mincing Mockingbird

I feel profound frustration with her, and I feel almost 100% depletion.  I don’t know how to restore myself.  My host has reassured me that he had a positive experience, but I don’t remember the past two weeks positively.  I remember spending the past two weeks overcompensating for my daughter as well as trying to reach her in a cognitive sense.  Can she practice perspective taking? Will she try to remember to respect the environment? Please…pleaseplease

Raising humans to be good humans is hard.  That is no joke.

So, what do I bring to the table aside from snarky bird pictures that capture my existential and experiential state brilliantly?

  1. As I watched my daughter play the role of Teenage Asshat Extraordinaire with the aplomb of Meryl Streep, I remembered just how hard it was being 16.  Sixteen sucked.  Being the parent of a sixteen-year old sucks, too, and I realized once again that compassion is hard.  Compassion is not for the faint of heart.  It is not a romantic thing even though there is this inspirational notion out there that would convince us of that.  Nope.  Offering mercy to those whom we are currently experiencing as the least deserving of it is when compassion becomes the hardest because that is the moment when you must restrain your judgment.  Using judgment is a great way to cope with emotional distress, but suspending that, entering into perspective taking, setting aside our immediate needs and our beliefs that those needs trump everything else while offering mercy can be the the hardest choice to make.  And yet this is the moment when authentic compassion becomes possible.  This is probably the moment when compassion becomes the most necessary because compassion might be the one thing that changes a gridlocked situation.  Not force but mercy.
  2. I observed that I am all too sensitive to environments wherein there is any sort of emotional negativity or intensity particularly if I have no control.  If I have no way of escaping that environment, then my distress tolerance decreases rapidly.  I will immediately use old coping strategies to cope or survive in such an environment, and this makes me vulnerable to stress-related health issues as well as issues with self-advocacy.  I do not know if this will ever change.  It may be a tendency that I have, and I have to be aware of it.  If I am around people who do not contain well, then I am doubly  affected.  I observed that.  This may be a common trait in people with longterm PTSD.  A return to hypervigilance.  I don’t say this with a lack of hope, but I do think that self-awareness of one’s tendencies is important.

School is starting next week.  I am exhausted.  I feel the need to sleep for a thousand years, but I am determined to regain my composure and find my way back to myself…

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The Mincing Mockingbird

What I find interesting about this situation is the idea of perception.  My host’s perception is so different from mine.  My perception could very well be distorted, but, then again, I am the parent.  I was the one standing in between my daughter and everyone else.  I was trying to absorb as much of her negativity as possible in order to ease the stress.  There has to be a way to ground yourself in order to let that negativity go.

In the meantime, life progresses, and, once again, I will let a troubled bird have the last word…

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The Mincing Mockingbird

 

I have to laugh a little.  We might have had a very pleasant trip had shit not gotten real, and, in many ways, we did have an exceedingly good time.  There was just one little bird who kept interrupting the flow of fun with her antics.  Sometimes shit happens, and then…we go home.  And, life goes on.  Shit gets real in my house a lot, but maybe that’s okay.

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The Mincing Mockingbird

To see more of these delightfully troubled birds, visit The Mincing Mockingbird.

 

 

An Honest Question

I’m leaving for the West coast today.  I’m taking three of my daughters with me.  I would say that I’m excited, but I have to get through the TSA checkpoint before I even indulge in latent feelings of glee.

Last year, when we matched wits with the TSA agents, it seemed to go well enough.  My youngest daughter was somewhat terrified of the experience.  I decided that my strategy would be to play it cool the entire time.  No rush.  Just give gentle instructions.

“No worries, honey.  Take your shoes off.  That’s right.  Place them in that bin.  Put your backpack in there…”  While most people would not be able to decipher any of her behaviors now, my youngest is on the autism spectrum.  Flying for the first time activated her, and she struggled with perseveration, rigidity, anxiety, and clinginess in ways she had not for a long time.  She had practically wrapped herself around my leg like a juvenile koala bear.

Meanwhile my oldest daughter, the college student, was leading the other girls through the TSA like Winston Churchill! Her commanding presence and sharp instructional voice were heeded by every single person in line–even the other people around us.  People just seem to follow her.  She is a natural leader, and I don’t say that like a proud parent.  It is just a fact.  The first time I put her in a room full of toddlers she started herding them like sheep, and they didn’t seem to mind!

By the time I got myself and my youngest daughter through the checkpoint, a TSA agent approached us and said, “Hey, your mother is waiting for you over there.”

My mother?

My daughter and I looked at each other quizzically and then at the TSA agent.

“Our mother?” We looked around in confusion.

“Yeah, your mom.  She’s over there.  She’s waiting for you with your sisters.”  She pointed to my oldest daughter standing with her hands on her hips.

I felt confused.  Clearly, that person is not my mom.  I’m the mom.

“Uh…she isn’t my mom.  I’m the mom.  This is my daughter right here, and that is my oldest daughter,” I said stifling a laugh.

The TSA agent looked at us both.  Now, she looked confused.  She then asked, “Are you sure?”

Am I sure?!

“I’m pretty sure,” I clarified.

She gave me the once-over, shrugged, and walked away.  My youngest daughter could not wait to tell her oldest sister about this “mix-up” in our identities, and my oldest daughter was called “Mother” for the duration of our trip.  It is a story that she will never live down–that time that the TSA Agent thought she was my mom.

I share this story because 1) it’s funny and 2) it’s reflective of the stress of getting out there and doing.  There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t do what you want to do.  Why you shouldn’t start building a life that you want to live.  I know this.

Alfred D’Souza said this:

For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time to still be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.

The obstacles will never go away.  Real life will always be real life.  Unfinished business will always remained unfinished.  There will always be debts.

If that is truly the case, then…why not get started? I’m not being inspirational.  I’m asking an honest question.

If not now, then when? As I oft say, it is a question worth considering.

With that final question, I bid you a lovely two weeks.  I’m now off to face off with the TSA.

Shalom to you…xoxo

Having a Good Time in Hell

I had final exams this week.  With the same teacher.  How I ended up taking three classes with this man I can’t quite figure out.  Serendipity, I guess.  He was a doctor with a reputation, too.  Other students would hear his name and cringe–“Oh, you have Dr. Ferguson? Good luck…”  Aw, come on! How bad could he be? I had professors in undergrad who were notoriously terrible, and I came to really appreciate them.  I probably developed the most as a student from these infamously difficult professors.  I should have kept my philosophizing about growth and development to a minimum.  I should have prayed…or something because what I witnessed yesterday during the administration of our Surface Anatomy final exam I can’t say I’ve ever seen before.   It was like something from a movie or maybe the sitcom “Scrubs”.

I am taking parallel coursework in both Eastern and Western medical traditions.  This term I took exclusively Western medical courses excepting one Eastern medical class.  I took an exam on Wednesday and finished two exams yesterday–Anatomy and Physiology I and Surface Anatomy which is really more comparable to Gross Anatomy.   Anatomy and Physiology I was a typical class in that it was not very difficult in terms of expectations;  I had a sense of what was expected of me in terms of learning.  Surface Anatomy, on the other hand, was epic in that our teacher continually broke the rules of good pedagogy.  He rarely tested us on the material that we studied.  He tested us on obscurities.  Every exam was a trick, and he tricked us weekly.  This doctor-turned-professor adored the weekly exam.  I’ve never taken so many exams in a trimester–36 exams plus 3 midterms and 3 final exams! That’s a lot of “bend over and grab your ankles”.

So, yesterday during the final sadistic and wanton display of subterfuge exam a few people…broke.  Upon receipt of the exam, one young woman in my Surface Anatomy class started openly weeping.  Another woman just walked out! Someone else threw a pencil.  The only guy in our class began grinding his back molars so loudly that I thought I heard a belt sander.

It didn’t feel real.  I kept thinking to myself, “Is Cathy really crying? Did Lee really throw her pencil? This is really happening.  Kat really just walked out.  Yeah…this is like one of my nightmares.  We might all fail.”

When we all finished, we met in the common area outside the classroom.  We all looked like we were going into a state of medical shock.  I kept wondering what Dr. Ferguson’s wife was like.  Did Dr. Ferguson have any insight into himself? He was a very nice guy, but his pedagogical talents were…lacking.  I imagined him in a very hyperbolic way as I waited for him to call us back into the room.

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Dr. Ferguson contemplates the meaning of his life.

I observed us all as we attempted to self-soothe and self-regulate.  Twelve weeks ago, most of us didn’t know each other.  Now, we were bonding over the ordeal of taking one of the worst exams in the history of our academic careers–Surface Anatomy with Dr. Ferguson.  His reputation was well-deserved.  He had truly earned it.

Dr. Ferguson liked to grade exams directly after we turned them in.  We were about to get our grades for both the exams and the term.  David announced that he was going to have words with Dr. Ferguson.  He wasn’t as nice as the rest of us.  He threw his hacky sack against the wall and disappeared down the hallway.  I just stood against the wall and made snarky comments–my default social habit.

How did it turn out? Well, I don’t know how everyone did, but I don’t think anyone failed the course.  Dr. Ferguson joked about the class wanting to run him over in the parking lot.  No one laughed.  We all just stared at him pointedly when he said that.  It was very awkward for a few seconds.  I think he understood.

I don’t want to endure another Ferguson-style exam, but, alas, I will.  I have numerous other courses with him.  We all will.  He will, I think, go down in the history books as the worst exam writer in all my years of academia, and that’s saying something.  I’ve studied at three universities under a plethora of instructors–foreign and domestic.  He wins that award hands down.  The bright side? All of us in this cohort have become friends because of this ordeal.  Ordeal does that to a group of people.  You have experiences together, and then you have stories to share and tell.  No, it’s not in any way fun, but you bond.  This is why people stay in touch after college and graduate school.  Post-secondary education is often an ordeal for many people.  It’s hard.  We need help from other people to do well.

There’s that asking for help part.  You gotta do it! (Now I’m grinding my teeth.)

The Prince of Darkness might be one of my instructors, but I think we could learn to have a good time in hell if we’re there together…maybe.  It’s an idea worth considering.

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Bad Days and Vanity Plates

I was having a bad day last week.  I didn’t feel well.  I couldn’t seem to catch up on anything related to domestic life.  My laundry pile looks like Mt. Everest.  I seriously need to send up teams and establish base camps.  People might never return! Oh, and the cat has decided that my laundry pile is her turf now i.e. her litter box.  It’s soft, right? It’s a comfortable place to sit back and contemplate one’s place in the grand scheme of life while one pees.  I cried a little when I discovered this.

I have a 16 year-old daughter who is making the most of her adolescence right now.  Were she not mine I would find a lot of humor in what she’s doing.  Yesterday, for example, I asked her to help clean up the kitchen.  Suddenly, it was as if she were possessed by an alien completely unfamiliar with our ways.  This Body Snatcher du Jour had never seen a kitchen, a fork, a pair of scissors, or even a dishwasher! Of course, this alien had never seen my daughter’s body either.  Suddenly, she’s stumbling around the kitchen as if she couldn’t walk or hold a spoon.  The dishwasher? What’s that? Wait, is that a hand? Do I hold things with a hand? How do hands even work? They flex and extend? Dare I say…grasp objects?

It was infuriating! My oldest daughter used up all her patience trying not to fly off into a homicidal rage whilst trying to coach her in how to rinse out a bowl.  Yes, that’s right.  Rinsing out a bowl.  A task she’s done countless times.  The strategy is brilliant.  Feign incompetence so that no one asks you to help ever again, but I’m not falling for it.

It is, however, exhausting and more than a little annoying.  It’s frustrating as hell! Raising children to be good people is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Going back to school as a single parent with a persistent health problem?

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Yeah, I kind of want to lose it.  Daily.

It’s August, and I’ve almost done nothing all summer except study.  I don’t say that with some kind of disillusionment.  I knew what I saw signing up for.  It’s hard work to begin again.  I knew that it would be.

But, on a bad day, sometimes all you can see is that which doesn’t look or feel good.  You question your choices.

So, there I was, walking in a parking lot, counting the losses.  Feeling acutely unwell and tired.  Overwhelmed and somewhat alone.  Feeling very behind in everything that one could fall behind in–bills, tasks, homework, parenting.  That very familiar drowning feeling was about to show up.  And then I looked to my right and saw it.  A vanity plate.

“NVRGVUP”

Huh.  “Never give up.”  I felt a little patronized at first.  “Really, God? I was about to really enjoy a moment of self-pity.” Fine.  Okay! I get it.  This is my mantra.  Keep going.  Never give up.  Switch my mindset.  This could just as easily be a kind of mile marker.  I am on the right path.  Be encouraged rather than discouraged.  Is it that easy? Really?

Well, look at what is difficult today. Laundry.  My daughter’s antics.  Persistent health issues.  The toils of grad school.  Three years ago, I was in a terrible marriage dealing with domestic abuse, and I saw no way out.  I could not imagine my life as it is today.  It was not a possibility for me then.  I have today what I wanted then.

Hmmmm…

This post is not an ode to my own persistence.  Hardly.  What I would like to say is that there are reminders around us, sometimes in the strangest places, that we are doing okay.  That we are on the right track.  That we are cared for.  That we should keep putting one foot in front of the other.  License plates.  Friends.  Movies.  Books.  Other people’s narratives.  In reality, there is nothing romantic about grit and tenacity.  The daily grind is called the daily grind because it grinds you down and out.  It is wearing and exhausting, but it also gets you where you intend to go.  And, during the intensity of that process, we often need to know that we chose well.  That’s where the encouragement comes in.

And, it’s everywhere when you look for it.

So, on that day in the parking lot, when I was feeling discouraged, wondering if I had set the right trajectory for my life (and, consequently, for my kids), when I saw that vanity plate, I felt validated–but only when I was willing to give up feeling discouraged.  Don’t give up.  Keep going.  Gather momentum.  Live life.  Now that I actually have a life worth living.

That’s what I would like to say.  Don’t give up.  Never give up until you have the life that you truly want to live.  It is possible.  It might be very hard to acquire, but it’s possible.

Endings and Beginnings

Playwright and actor Sam Shepard died on Thursday from ALS.  I grew up reading his plays, acting in one or two of them, and watching him give blood and bone to otherwise cut-out characters.  Sam Shepard was quoted in The Paris Review sharing his experiences with trying to create endings in his writing process:

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“The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.”  

Wow.

That gets me.  Right in my gut.  And, it makes me smile.  Yeah.  Endings don’t necessarily mean that everything is over.  We aren’t stalling out.  We aren’t dying.  Our dreams aren’t going down in flames.  Things are…revolving towards another beginning, as he said.

That is genius, and, to me, this is exactly how you have to approach life particularly when you are facing difficult choices and pain.  Sometimes certain things do need to end.  Some things do need to be left behind in order for our lives to evolve and revolve towards a new beginning–a new trajectory.

It’s a thought.  A good thought.  An invitation to a different way of processing circumstances and narratives.

Go in peace, Mr. Shepard.

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ברוך דיין האמת / Baruch dayan ha-emet

 

The Trust Fall

I’ve written here before that I have migraines–chronic migraines.  Whenever a therapist gets wind of that, they always make some version of this face:

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“Oh boy! Somatic symptoms…”

Last week, I was doing the deep dive into some very old “stuff” with my therapist.  I leaned over and started rubbing my head which caused him to blurt out, “Are you getting a migraine?”

I wanted to say this…

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“For the love of God, no, no, and more no! Big barrel of nope!”

Instead I just politely said, “No, I’m just scratching an itch.  I’m fine.”  I really was fine.  I don’t know if you ever feel like this, but the experience of having a clinician or even a friend causally link physical symptoms like chronic migraines or autoimmune diseases to past trauma grates on me.  It has happened so many times over the years that I have developed a maladaptive coping strategy of hiding any and all symptomology in order to avoid oncoming interrogation and analysis.  Does stress trigger a migraine? Sometimes.  Alas, correlation is not causation.  Many other things do as well like aged cheese, sleep deprivation, and MSG.

Hiding one’s physical symptoms is not a good idea.  I freely admit this.  Pretending to be fine when you’re not isn’t a great approach in the long run.  I tell myself that I do it in order not to stress everyone around me.  I believe that my symptoms cause people more stress and worry.  My kids, however, are older now.  They know when something is off, and they know when I’m faking it.  It has been suggested to me that I stop hiding my symptoms and begin being truthful.

Well, that sucks.  You mean I have to start being truthful about how I feel physically?

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WHUT?! NO!!

So, what am I not being honest about here? I have a complicated health history that makes even the most steely physician cry.  This is why many people like to blame it on past trauma.  My past trauma is extreme.  All the more reason to play that card, but it would be premature and lazy to do that.

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with a blood disorder.  A really annoying blood disorder.  This blood disorder, however, explains a lot of my other autoimmune conditions quite nicely.  In fact, it could be the reason I have the other issues.  In other words, all my autoimmune diagnoses might be manifestations of this singular blood disorder diagnosis, and, from a diagnostic perspective, that’s pretty cool.  It could also explain my long list of allergies.  Imagine that.  One diagnosis explaining almost everything that is wrong with me–including the migraines.  It’s almost miraculous in terms of a diagnosis.  The treatment? Management.  Not cool.  High dose medications that control certain cells in my body.  That’s okay, I guess.

What’s the downside? Some of these medications just happen to lower the seizure threshold.  That’s totally fine if you don’t have a seizure disorder, but I do.  I’ve been seizure-free for 16 years.  What happened this week? I had a seizure thanks to all those medications.  What did I try to do? Hide it.  Was that a bad idea? Apparently.

My daughters were very upset with me.  Someone close to me explained to me why I needed to start including people in on these types of events.  Honestly, I’d rather go into my room, get it over with, and come out.  That is what I’ve always done in the past.  A question was asked of me, “Were you conditioned to do that?”

Well, my mother was not helpful, and my ex-husband always bailed when I was ill.  I learned to handle all kinds of health issues alone–even seizures.  This has become normal to me.  Is it normal? For me? Yes.  Is it normal? I did not want to answer.

Okay.  Would I want someone to have a seizure by themselves? Of course not.  There are myriad reasons why they should not.  I have a friend with a seizure disorder.  I have stayed with her during her preictal, ictal, and postictal times.  It would be wrong–almost immoral–to abandon her.

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“I have backed myself into the logical corner…”

There cannot be two sets of rules–one set applying to me and the second applying to others.  We treat others as we treat ourselves.  I have to give up this maladaptive coping strategy, and I feel suddenly very exposed and vulnerable.  I do not want to broadcast or share my physical symptoms.  Have a seizure? In front of people? 

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Can’t we say I did and then..not?

I guess not.

My boyfriend suggested that I treat it as a trust fall.  Trust fall?! Oh god…

He’s right.  I find certain things relatively easy, but this isn’t.  Telling people that I’m actually really sick and need legitimate help puts me in a very vulnerable position, and I hate feeling vulnerable in that way.  But, this is how we heal.  It’s how we allow people to get close to us.  I want to run off and be sick alone.  Like wild animals do.  They do it to preserve themselves.  That’s probably why I do it, but I don’t think I need to do that anymore.

I will say this.  Life provides us with many opportunities to heal–even when we are sick.

Just stay present.  You’ll see.

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If a cat can do it, then so can I.

The Path of Humility

This post is a kind of musing if you will.

I have written in previous posts that I’ve returned to graduate school.  I’m pursuing a medical Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The Western and Eastern tracks are symmetrical in their instruction.  Currently, I’m immersed in Western medicine classes, and I’m well beyond saturated in terms of information overload.  I no longer care what hematopoiesis is and why it matters.  I dream about anatomy almost every night.  I woke up last night dreaming about the greater trochanter and linea aspera of the femur.  I have had nightmares that the quadriceps group formed a gang with the adductors in order to hunt me.  The vastus lateralis had a voice that was reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s.  The metatarsals of the foot had teeth and tried to bite me.  They were taking orders from the sartorius muscle who had transformed into Russell Crowe.   I will not attempt to interpret this…

In the midst of all this, I have been observing the culture of my school environment.  My college is almost a duplicate of a medical school in China and is considered the sister school to this medical school.  All of the TCM instructors are physicians from China, and the Western medicine instructors are American physicians.  It is a very interesting duality–bouncing back and forth between the traditions.  I anticipated some of the differences–language barriers, socio-cultural differences, and different teaching styles.  Something else was very different as well and completely unexpected.  The Chinese instructors are extremely humble and socially gracious while the American physicians are, well, not.

I’ve met numerous teachers from China since January, and their humility is almost immediately evident.  They do not engage in self-promotion, bragging, telling war stories wherein they feature as the star physician who saved the day, general peacocking, active or passive namedropping, competition, or one-upmanship.  I found their subtle social footprint disconcerting.  I am so accustomed to blatant displays of self-promotion in people with any sort of academic and/or professional achievement that I didn’t know how to handle a complete lack of it.

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There’s a reason people think this (and I’m a grad student!)

Then, I found a list of biographies featuring the professional achievements and training of the school’s instructors.  I was gobsmacked.  Our Chinese instructors were overqualified to teach us.  Our Asian physician teachers are scholars and masters of their respective specialties, but you would never know.  They do not behave as if they are unique or special.  They do not make us, the students, feel stupid or incompetent.  They don’t dress or speak in an intimidating manner or exploit our anxiety in order to make themselves feel better or bigger.  I have yet to be called an idiot. I was called an idiot frequently by my teachers in France, and my American university experiences were peppered with  professorial egotistical hit and runs that left me marinating in self-doubt and self-recrimination.

My Western instructors are brilliant, but I can’t really describe them as…humble  The game is afoot when I spend time in my Western medicine classes.  I know this game all too well, and I know how to jump through those hoops.  Fostering competition is how we are taught in the West.  It begins in preschool and continues throughout our mandatory schooling.  It motivates people to try harder.  Shame is a ruthless instructor.  Be the best, but the idea of “best” is put in the context of judging other people and their best.  Who knows more? Who runs the fastest? Who answers the questions with the most speed and precision? Who has the most expertise? Who writes the best? Memorizes the best? Retains the most and recalls the fastest? Who does what the best? Suddenly, your focus is on everyone else rather than learning, and your ego wakes up and readies for a fight.  Your peers become enemies, and your teachers are the gatekeepers.  Someone has to come out on top.  Who’s it going to be? Who is going to prove to be the best? The superlative? Who’s the winner? Your identity is at stake here! Not only is your cohort objectified but you are as well.

 

The difference between the two attitudes, if you will, has been stunning.  I have found myself very attracted to the East Asian attitude which I would ascribe to the virtue of humility.  The idea that the more you have studied the more you view yourself as knowing less rather than possessing expertise feels freeing to me.  I described this to a close friend whose family is from Asia, and he emphasized the virtue of humility in scholars.  In Asia, one of the primary virtues of a scholar is humility.  One never attempts to flaunt expertise or engage in self-promotion even after years of study.  This idea is highlighted in Taoism: “The more you learn, the more you realize there’s still so much more to learn. This tends to make you humble. Arrogance and egotism come from ignorance – knowing a little bit and assuming you know a lot.” (What is Tao)

I decided to do an experiment in order to check the status of my ego.  Just where was I in this developmental process? Could I participate in a conversation wherein people were discussing a subject that I knew something about and say nothing? Could I merely listen for the purpose of listening? You know what? It’s hard, and being in an academic environment affords me countless opportunities to practice this.  I know a little bit about a lot of things, but what exactly am I an expert on? Truly an expert? I had to think about it.  I also had to assess the reasons why I was contributing.  Was it for the maintenance of my own ego? Suddenly, I was weighing my words and thoughts.  Did anyone need to hear that story? Did I really need to say that? Deliberately putting myself in the position of an apprentice while acknowledging that what I was about to say probably wasn’t nearly as important as I thought has been…interesting.

The side effects?

Well, you see where your ego is wounded very quickly and where you are looking to compensate for that through social behaviors like preening, peacocking, namedropping both passive and active, bragging, and recounting narratives that are merely attempts to show off one’s awesomeness or make one feel legitimate.  What is passive and active namedropping you might ask?

Active namedropping looks like this:

“I just picked up Paramour at the airport and their youth minister! Now we’re all friends on Facebook, and I might get together with the drummer…”

This actually happened to me once.  You know it’s ego-driven if you respond with, “Who’s Paramour?” and you’re suddenly on the receiving end of an apocalyptic eye-roll and some kind of insult indicating that you don’t get out much.

Passive namedropping looks like this:

“I was IMing this musician the other day that I’ve gotten to know online.  They are fairly well-known…but…uh…you wouldn’t know who they are.  Anyway…”

My family does this a lot.  You know it’s ego-driven because of the superfluous information describing the musician’s popularity and the additional ad hominem-esque attack.  The only information that would have been truly necessary was “I was talking to an acquaintance and…”

It is extremely easy and tempting to engage in self-promotion.  Our culture almost demands it.  Western culture does not readily value humility.  It isn’t a virtue.  It’s seen as almost being milquetoast or meek.  Our general culture seems to offer up the Teddy Roosevelt personality bursting forth with over-the-top self-reliance and inspirational, epic stories that can be tapped on Youtube via a TED talk.  We want to be moved, spoken into constantly, and perpetually validated as a wider culture.  It isn’t necessarily wrong.  Everyone needs an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl’ from time to time.

Is cultivating an other-oriented mindset milquetoast? Is pursuing the virtue of humility worth it when humility is defined as “a disposition toward accurate self-assessment, other-orientedness, and the regulation of self-centered emotions”? (Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health) Believing in your own competence and ability to complete a task with excellence is humility.  Rubbing that belief in everyone else’s face is arrogance.  Believing that you are capable today but can always become more capable is humility.  Believing that you are intelligent but are often surrounded by more intelligent people and can, thusly, always learn from others is humility.  Being able to rely on yourself for validation is a very high form of humility because so often we look to others to tell us that we’re awesome, smart, capable, etc.  Believing that you no longer need external validation but instead need external constructive criticism and pointers to become better is a huge step towards attaining the virtue of humility.  Frankly, it’s a bit scary, and yet I witness it almost daily.  I find it to be so attractive and valuable.  It is the direction I need to take in terms of personal development.

I study for hours every day, and I truly feel like I now know less than I did when I started.  It is extremely uncomfortable, but, at the same time, I have discovered that there is a lot of emotional and intellectual energy invested in maintaining an ego that must “front” all the time.  If I no longer need to maintain or support my ego in this way, then I can divert more energy into other more worthwhile efforts like healing, learning, practicing, relating, loving, and serving others in ways that will actually make a meaningful difference.

I have not found this practice to be easy.  I have found it to be challenging.  I have found it to be vastly uncomfortable, but I have also found that I like myself more when I am not attempting to assert my impoverished experience of myself onto other people in hopes that they will complete it for me.  When I let it go and focus on simply being present to the moment in which I am occupying, it suddenly becomes easier.

Wherever I am, I am just trying to be there.

Practicing humility.  See what you think.

Further Reading:

Humility as a Psychotherapeutic Virtue: Spiritual, Philosophical, and Psychological Foundations

Changing Your Mind

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

“I hope that it changes.”

What is most likely the most dangerous?

“I hope that s/he changes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll go first.

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

How does hope play into this?

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

He never did.

But, I did.

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

Hope first.  Do next.

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

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