Life Is A Highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quite literally, these are signs.

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

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

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

So, how does one recognize a sign?

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

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

     

Further Reading:

What Happy People Do Differently

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

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Nine Things I’ve Learned

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

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“Where do I begin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep going.

 

 

 

The Happiness List

I came across this list a few days ago: 26 Ways to Take Your Life Back When You’re Broken.  I haven’t considered myself to be broken in a long time, but I will admit that there have been aspects of my life that have ceased to work well.  My marriage was broken for sure, and I felt tainted by that.  I felt very injured.  Broken? No.  Were it me, I would entitle this list “26 Ways to Rebuild Your Life”.  It’s worth reading just to get a sense of what a full life might look like.  An example.  To someone.

Number 21 caught my eye: “Let yourself be happier than you are comfortable with.”  This I am very familiar with.  The author of the list goes on to elaborate: “Too often, we sabotage our own happiness out of a reluctance to trust it. Rather than allowing ourselves to grow into bigger shoes, we declare our feet ‘not big enough’ and retreat. We have to start allowing ourselves to let go of guilt and self-doubt and start seizing opportunities as they arise. Even if we feel a bit out of our league along the way.”

This is undoubtedly true.  I have actually heard myself saying, “Do you really think you deserve this? Who are you to think that you deserve to be happy?”  Whoa.  How much happiness should I have? A thimble’s worth? A cup? I have made great strides in laying a foundation for real happiness, and, yes, I am having a hard time trusting it.  There are moments when I sit and wait for the other shoe to drop.  “Okay, this can’t be real.  Surely something terrible is going to happen now.”  Well, I bought some shoes–some awesome shoes, but no shoes have been dropping.  Life is just moving along.  Have there been challenges? Sure.  Aren’t there always? That will never change, but if you actually committed to the process of building out your own life with the intention of creating happiness and not sabotaging it in any way, what would happen? Would you actually be, dare I say it, happier?

Without knowing about this list, I can say that in the past year, I have done and continue to do twenty-one things on it.  It is a great list to look at particularly during a divorce or even messy life circumstances.  It gives you a sense of what could define a happy life.  Goals and tasks.  Starting points and points to work towards.  Some are obviously easier than others, but that’s the point.  Happiness doesn’t necessarily have to be hard.  Sustaining it requires effort and commitment because we build it over a period of time, and the more influence we feel that we exercise over our own sense of happiness, the more we can grow and experience it.  You just have to start somewhere.

So, I recommend reading this list.  Pick something.  I actually started my process a few years before I ended my marriage, and it was the process of rebuilding that allowed me to make that very hard decision.  I started with numbers 5, 7, and 13.

What might you start with? Give it a try.  See where it takes you.

Something Better

It has been really…something…for me to document my process of therapy and divorce on my blog.  The entire thing is out there for the world to see.  I did it, in part, for myself.  I process through writing.  I also did it so that other people could see what it looks like.  How do you get from Point A to Point K? It’s brutal.  Is there anything we can do to help ourselves when we’re at rock bottom? How do you leave an abusive marriage? What does it feel like? What does it look like? It’s all here.

Some people do their emotional processing during the separation.  I did mine before.  I suffered terribly for three years prior to my realization that it was over.  This was most likely why my health deteriorated.  Toxic stress and abuse.  I knew that it was falling apart.  I knew that it was him or me.  I chose him for too long.

There are many opinions out there defining marriage.  I looked at a lot of them.  I grew up around the Evangelical conservative definition of it.  I read many Jewish resources that described marriage.  I read books about healthy relationships.  I asked friends.  In the end, you have to decide for yourself.  The Church, the synagogue, your neighbor, your Mommy and Me group, your parents and in-laws, and the people gathered around the water cooler are not living your life.  You are.  You get to determine what is good for you and what is not.

What stunned me almost more than anything is something that a friend said in passing to me over a year ago.  She said that her mother told her over coffee one day that her husband (my friend’s father) hugged her and said, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”  My friend’s mother sighed and said, “I wish I could say the same for him.  He is not the best thing to happen to me.”  She sipped her coffee and looked out the window.  My friend shook her head and said, “We all know it’s true.  He has such a bad temper.  My mom hasn’t had an easy time of it.”  Then she changed her tone and said, “But, we do what we have to do, don’t we?”

We do? What is it that we have to do? Commit to mistreatment? Stay for the kids? What do the kids learn then? It’s okay for Dad to emotionally beat up Mom when he’s angry because anger justifies anything? Sons learn that it’s acceptable to carve up people when you feel angry and justify it later, and daughters learn that angry, abusive men are normal and to be expected–nay, tolerated–in life.

I heard what she said, and it haunted me.  I imagined myself being this older woman so wishing I had done what I should have–chosen for myself and my well-being.  I imagined myself trying to tell one of my daughters to believe in herself and fight for her happiness and feeling like a hypocrite because I had not done the same thing.  I could not do it.  I could not be the woman who chose mediocrity simply because I was afraid.  I was already afraid.  I was afraid every day.  Of him.  Why not be afraid of something else then? Something better? Like starting over?

So, I did it.  It’s been painful but not that painful.  I have had unexpected moments of extreme self-doubt in which I have had to fight to stay strong.  He has, however, done me the favor of behaving so badly as only to confirm time and time again that I made the right decision.  That is how I have reframed his antics.  Ah yes, another validation!

I don’t say this easily, but I say it with vehemence.  We create our lives.  Fight for the life you want.  Choose the people whom you want in your life.  If you are being abused, then take steps to stop it.  If you are not happy, then do something to address that.  It is not an easy road to be sure, but it is the most worthwhile adventure that you could possibly choose.  Aim.  Set your trajectory.  And go.

It is within your reach even if it feels like an impossible dream.  It isn’t.  It really isn’t.