Playing Scrabble with Life

Happy September, everyone! I am ending a three-week break from school. The girls and I headed West to San Francisco for 12 days of doing whatever we wanted which pretty much meant drinking too much boba, hitting up stores that are not in the Midwest like Muji and Uniqlo, and eating bibimbap whenever possible.  It was glorious.

Alas, all escapes involve the inevitable return, but, if it’s a successful vacation, then I suppose one feels recharged and ready to return to reality  The girls felt ready to come back.  There is a lot to do in our home city.  School is starting, and I have a house to empty out.  We have to downsize in a big way in preparation for moving next summer.  It’s daunting not to mention I have to return to my grad school program, and, as much as I’d love to forget it, the OCR investigation is still on-going for my college’s Title IX violation.  And, the guy who harassed me is returning to the program.  I shouldn’t bump into him; nonetheless, he’ll be there.  I’m ready to depart.  I’m weary of being in that school, but I’ll do what I must for an additional two trimesters.  I think the modern term for this is “adulting”.

With my attitude adjusted, I went to a lovely wedding two nights ago.  A civil ceremony and dinner hosted by the bride and groom and their family.  It was utterly delightful.  I seldom meet such charming and warm people.  Being present for their wedding was a privilege and pleasure.  A metaphorical fly, however, was in the soup.  One of the guests was a student in my program, and I was a bit on edge upon seeing him there.  After the sexual harassment at my college started in February 2017, I kept my personality and appearance guarded.  I stopped wearing make-up.  I wore hats and hoodies, jeans, and Converse.  I tried to be as invisible as possible thinking that my harasser would find me less attractive or even completely unappealing.  It didn’t work.  The lesson in that is that when you’re being harassed, the problem isn’t with you.  The problem lies with the perpetrator regardless of how often you’re blamed.  It’s never about how you look or what you’re wearing.

Admittedly, I feel that I have a bigger personality, and I really tried to keep myself “small” at school.  I don’t know if any of you will relate to this, but have you ever been criticized or judged for being successful or good at something? This is, of course, due to the insecurities of those judging you, but it makes little difference in the moment.  When people blame you for something, I think that’s it’s normal to feel at fault somehow.  When I was an adolescent, my mother would often accuse me of thinking that I was superior to others because I found intellectual pursuits appealing; more than that, I excelled in the academy largely because I worked really hard and had little to no social life.  I hid from the world in school.  It wasn’t at all balanced, and it led to serious burn-out.  I don’t recommend it.

My mother did not go to college, and I suspect that she felt somehow lacking and out of place for this.  I never said so, and I have never believed this.  She, however, projected her beliefs onto me and then harshly attacked me as if I held that view.  It became almost memetic in our exchanges.  If I did well in school or university, then I by default thought I was superior to everyone in the entire world.  To bypass these judgments, I had to pretend that I was not doing well in school.  I could not discuss scholarships or opportunities I was receiving.  I couldn’t tell my family when my university endorsed me for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Fulbright Fellowship, and my mother refused to acknowledge that I had graduated from university with highest honors.  To her, I just thought I was better than everyone which is completely untrue.

My father, on the other hand, would just slap me across the face.  For real.  If I said anything that bothered him in the slightest, he would slap me! Me and my big personality often said things that bothered him.  You can imagine how often I was slapped.

Bear with me, this relates to the wedding…

So, I decided to go to the wedding as myself.  I dressed up, wore lipstick and fancy shoes, and did my hair.  To hell with it all, I thought.  It’s a wedding! Back to that fly in the soup–the student from my school, Brandon.  Brandon is young.  He’s very boyish in his demeanor and affect, and it’s, therefore, surprising that he’s almost ready to graduate.  He has appeared friendly enough in past interactions, but, at times, he is haughty.  A quality I chalked up to his age and a lack of life experiences.  Humility often comes through having negative life experiences and then having the time to develop insight around them.  That requires time which is often reflected in one’s age but certainly not always (Lord, I sound old right now).

On the night in question, I sat with a lovely group of seasoned Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners and listened to them tell “war stories”.  I’m a student! I have nothing to contribute to this conversation in terms of experience, but I asked questions.  They were happy to include me.  Brandon, who chose to sit across from me at the dinner and text, had already asked me one question, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…mom?” I mention this because were I a male student would he have asked, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…dad?” Likely not.  There are three stay-at-home dads in my program, and I’ve never heard anyone speak to these outstanding men in a pedantic or condescending tone.  To the women with children, however, who have stayed at home to care for their children, Brandon’s somewhat condescending question has been the norm.  The context for our future exchange had been established.

As the conversation developed, the practitioners and I began discussing travel and past education, and I could enter into this discussion. I have traveled and lived abroad.  The discussion was wonderful, and the rabbit trails were quite fascinating.  Brandon looked to be disengaged or pouting.  We all discussed foreign languages and past teachers.  Suddenly, the subject of harvesting berries emerged of which the time was nigh.  One of the doctors had a crop that was due for harvest, and the medicinal qualities of the berry were discussed at length.  Brandon perked up eager to join in as he could finally discuss something “scientific”.  When I looked at him and commented, “Oh yes, you can look at the studies online about this,” he turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said meanly cutting me off, “I want to listen to the conversation right now.”  He then turned his shoulder to me, leaned in towards everyone, and ebulliently asked questions, laughing in an overly exaggerated manner.

It was a verbal slap in the face, and it stung.  Oddly, no one present seemed to hear what he had said which made sense because it was solely meant for me.  He did not want me participating in the conversation.  I sipped my water and gathered my wits.  I contained myself.  I was not going to say anything to him because this was not my social affair.  I wasn’t going to ruin a beautiful evening because of an apparently insecure, immature boy’s misbehavior.  I went home that night feeling very bothered.  I could see his face in my mind’s eye and hear his voice, and I determined that his inappropriate behavior bothered me so profoundly because he did what both my parents had done to me for years.  He felt left out socially for whatever reason so he chose to socially wound me in order to rejuvenate his injured ego.  He already displayed sexism and mild misogyny in his prior question.  Attempting to silence me in our evening’s discussion of medicine was apparently the only way he could feel legitimate again.

That’s so wrong and, unfortunately, so common in terms of how humans interact.  It exemplifies poor interpersonal skills, poor ego development, poor impulse control, personal and professional envy, insecurity, mild narcissism, and emotional arrested development.  It explains a lot in terms of why people are struggling to make meaningful interpersonal connections and overcome loneliness which is rampant today.  As my boyfriend said after I told him what happened, he’s fortunate he behaved like that towards me.  I’m kind.  What if he had done that to someone with a harsher nature? It would have ended much differently.  What if someone invited him to settle his complaint outside?

So, what’s the point here? I guess my point is that you never know who you will be seated next to on an airplane or at a dinner party.  Life will deal you some strange hands on any given day, and we have to find a way to play the hand we’ve been dealt.  I like to think of it like Scrabble.  Sometimes you get the best combination of letters and impress the heck out of everyone with your chosen word and earn a triple word score.  Other times you get three x’s, and the rest are q’s and z’s.  What…the…hell.  The only way to do anything with that is to build a word off of what’s already been laid down on the board.

We have to dedicate time in our lives to laying some good letters down–building some really complex words–so that when we get a shitty draw of letters we can still play something worthwhile.  What does that look like? Don’t be like Brandon.  Address your insecurities.  Address your envy.  Dig deep and address your past wounds.  Look at the injuries that your parents and family members inflicted upon you.  Do authentic recovery work from past relationships.  Seek out the resources around you that can help you heal from them.  Address your addictions whatever they may be.  We will spend our lives doing this, of course, because all of this is process-oriented work.  It is not destination-based work.  There is no point of arrival in terms of an ending.  If you are breathing, then you are processing something.  You are always drawing tiles to play.  The point of engaging in a process is that you start to draw better tiles.  What Brandon did was attempt to steal tiles from me in order to shut me out of the “game” so to speak.  That’s what socially injuring someone does–it steals social capital from them so that they can’t participate in a fair and often deserved way.  This includes gossip, slander, humiliation, shame, and even discussing true things about them that are bad.  As we engage with intention in daily life and process, what we lay down on The Board gets better because our tiles improve, and, when we do draw some bad ones, we can still play what we draw because we have some quality words on The Board already.  We’ve been building a solid foundation in both how we live our lives and within our character and personalities.

It’s not that hard to do actually when you start small.  Just pick one area where you know you’ve been drawing bad tiles.  Where you feel you can’t win no matter what you do.  Dedicate some time in that singular area.  Whatever it is.  Start with 5 minutes a day.  Just 5 minutes.  See where it takes you.  That might sound naive of me, but it’s not.  Everything has a beginning, and every beginning starts small.  So, start small and stay small until you feel you can make it bigger.  Just be consistent.  That is the key.  Five minutes.  Every day.  That’s it.

With that, I wish you all a wonderful September.  If you have kids going back to school or if you are going back to school, best of luck!

Shalom and keep going…

 

 

 

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Living with Intention

I receive many emails asking how to fix a loved one.  It might be a mother with a personality disorder or a partner or family member with alexithymia.  In both cases, I have been that self-same person on the search for solutions.  I have asked the same questions: What can I do to fix this? Is it me? Can I fix myself so that they will love me? Can I fix them by giving them books to read or directing them to resources? Maybe they had bad modeling as children and just need to be loved better, and I’m the one to do it!

I have loved someone with a disordered personality that kept them out of reach, distant from me, isolating me on a loveless and lonely island.  For years, I dove into the treacherous sea of uncertainty and swam to distant coastlines in an attempt to rescue my own mother from her mental illness.  I came bearing recommendations and suggestions that I swore would help her.  I only roused her inner demons and exacerbated her illness causing her to throw me back into the black waters which promptly washed me back onto the rocky shores of my tiny island.

I loved another person who seemed to thrive on isolation and personal inertia.  From the moment we returned from the weekend in a hotel we called our honeymoon, he holed up in a room and rarely ventured forth into the outside world.  He preferred fantasy over reality.  He disdained my presence and cultivated an impoverished sense of love and relationships while also developing a deluded and grandiose sense of self.  It did not matter how hard I tried to enter into his personal poverty or what riches I offered him.  He rejected everything.  He preferred his own distorted interpretation of the world.  He chose himself even over his children.  Whether he lacked the capacity or the will, it did not matter for he simply did not act.  He remained as he ever was.

What then? The heart wants what it wants and loves whom it loves, but then what? When the truth becomes apparent, and when will it become apparent? When you ask for it.  When you want it. And, what is this truth? It is not your job to change people.  It is not your job to fix people.

It is your job to change and heal yourself.  

It is our job to develop our personalities and our character so that we are continually becoming the kind of people with whom we would like to partner either platonically or romantically.  This is no small task.  It is so much easier and, honestly, far more fun to look at other people and pick them apart.  It’s vastly entertaining to scrutinize and judge our acquaintances and even our partners.  That smug feeling we experience when we climb onto our high horses is like taking a hit of heroine.  It’s addictive.  Why? Here is an interesting take on judgment:

“At some point in our life, usually in childhood, some external event causes us to separate from that true nature. That separation from love creates in us feelings of specialness or inadequacy, leading to loneliness and as a result, fear. So we project it outward in the form of judgment.

We know we are loving, interconnected beings, but in our separation we live in a dream state, shutting off our connection to our loving truth. This separation establishes the ego’s perception of a false self based on judgment. We grow to believe deeply in the false perception of ourselves in order to feel safe in the world of separation.

Deep down, and without realizing it, we judge ourselves for separating from our truth, leading us to feel ashamed and guilty. That unconscious guilt is so painful that we have no choice but project it outward in an effort to end our suffering. By projecting judgment onto others, we deny and repress our feelings of guilt. Subconsciously, this makes us feel even more guilty because we know this judgment is not who we really are. The guilt we feel from judging others is then projected right back onto ourselves, and the vicious cycle beings again. This the judgment cycle.

I cannot overstate this: Judgement is the number one reason we feel blocked, sad and alone. Our popular culture and media place enormous value on social status, looks, racial and religious separation, and material wealth. We are made to feel less than, separate, and not good enough, so we use judgment to insulate ourselves from the pain of feeling inadequate, insecure, or unworthy. It’s easier to make fun of, write off, or judge someone for a perceived weakness of theirs than it is to examine our own sense of lack.

 

Judgment is an addictive pattern.

 

Judgement is an addiction response to deep-rooted trauma. The first trauma is the separation from love. From a spiritual perspective, choosing fear and separation over love dissociates us from our truth. We become fragmented in this state of separation and lose our connection to our inner being. In this disconnected state, we inadvertently turn our back on our inner being and become obsessed with an outward projection of who we think we are. Feelings of guilt and sadness wash over us, because deep down, we know we’ve turned our back on love. But we can’t fully understand our guilt, so we do whatever we can to avoid feeling it. This is how the cycle of judgment becomes and addictive pattern.

When we avoid our guilt and suffering by projecting it onto others, it’s a way of numbing out. Like any good drug, judgment will anesthetize our pain and redirect our focus. It can even get us high. Gossip is a great example. Whenever you get together with friends to talk about another person in a judgmental way, you’re avoiding your own core wounds. You’re using judgment as a drug to numb your own pain and get high on someone else’s. Gossip is especially nasty because it gives us the illusion that we’re bonding with others, when instead we’re just banding together to heap all our pain onto another person.

Gossiping can give us a buzz because it provides temporary relief from self-judgment and attack. We repeat a self-judgmental story on a loop all day long: I’m not good enough. Why did I make that mistake? I’m ugly. I’m not smart enough. And so on. All these self-inflicted behaviors are just another form of addiction. We unconsciously choose to judge rather than feel the pain beneath our wounds.

But notice I said that our self-judgmental story is played on a loop. That’s because it leads nowhere! Getting on the path to healing requires us to feel the discomfort—but we’re way too scared to go there, so instead we gossip or judge ourselves as the victim feels safer than facing our wounds. This I show self-judgment becomes an addiction.

The addictive pattern is further fueled by our denial. We long to feel better but deny that judgement is the problem. In fact, we see judgment as the solution, as a way of protecting ourselves. Our unconscious belief system keeps us stuck in the judgment cycle because we’re terrified of facing our own pain and suffering. We use judgment to protect ourselves from exposing our deepest wounds.

The repetition of judgment is habit-forming. If you repeat a behavior over and over, you strengthen your neural pathways. In time that behavior becomes second nature. The more you repeat the pattern of judgment, the more you believe in it. You create your reality with the thoughts you repeat and the beliefs that you align with. When judgment is your belief system, you’ll always feel unsafe, under attack and defensive. If you’re going to change the habit of judgment you need to change your core belief system. Our aim is to find our way back home—to find our way back to love.” (From Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein)

Stopping any self-destructive cycle and engaging in a truly honest personal inventory with the intention of self-betterment is difficult but virtuous.  Asking the question: What do I really want from a friend and partner and then committing to developing those very qualities in oneself is, in my experience, the path to actually ending destructive relationships and beginning healthy ones.

Why? Well, as you begin to grow into healthy behaviors and ways of relating to yourself and other people, you will organically grow out of unhealthy patterns of behavior.  Self-destructive behaviors will ebb, and the people in your life who were attracted to those qualities in you will migrate away from you because you will naturally also move away from them.  Simply put, your orbits will change.  This kind of growth is a process, and processes take time.  It is not something that happens immediately, but it does happen when you commit to your own process of improvement and growth.  After a time, you will see that destructive people have left your life.  You may also be forced to make difficult decisions like ending relationships that were always bad for you or have become so over a period of time, but this is part of growing up and into living life with intention.

When you live your life with intention, you discover that you cannot make another person meet your needs; you cannot force another person to stop hurting you.  You can only move away from them and choose to live your life among different people who share your values.  And, this is essentially what people are emailing me about: How can I make my loved one share my values? How can I make the person I love stop valuing neglect or gaslighting or exploitation or selfishness or their own personal inertia? How can I make them see that what I value is better? You can’t.  If you don’t share the same values now, then you likely never will.  Take the temporary hit, gather your momentum, and keep going.  You will find other people in the world who do share your values and will love you, and you will love them, too.  You really will.

I don’t say any of this flippantly or without compassion.  I have done everything that I’m suggesting, and I know all too well just how hard it is.  I also know what life looks like “on the other side”.  It is worth it.

Keep going…

 

The Masterpiece Within

As I’ve been taking a brief respite from blogging to gather my thoughts after the sexual harassment problems crescendoed, some interesting things moved to the foreground.  And, you can always count on me to share them if there’s something valuable in the mix.

My boyfriend was in town for two weeks.  As with any relationship, you are usually discovering new things about each other as the relationship grows.  I really enjoy that aspect of relationships.  So, a few days before he returned to home base, the whole family went to a water park.  My youngest daughter was fully prepared to drag him around to the water slides, and he was game for anything.  The weather was perfect for the day’s activities.

It should be noted that my boyfriend is athletically gifted and a natural competitor.  He has successfully competed in many sports and earned a black belt in aikido.  He was a free diver and is a very strong swimmer.  So, when he casually challenged me to a race in the pool, I suspect that there was an expectation that I would lose.  I am not known for my athletic ability.  I don’t discuss athletics or past athletic glory.  I don’t usually like competing.  I am the last person to join a team, and I’m afraid of projectiles.  I feel awkward most of the time.

As we gripped the edge of the pool preparing to race, bets were made on who would win.  I’m pretty sure everyone bet on him.  Except I smoked him.  By almost an entire body length.  Everyone was shocked including him.  I wasn’t.  Why? Well, this leads me to the reason for this post.

I was a competitive swimmer in my youth.  Not just a run-of-the-mill competitive swimmer.  A “prodigy”.  I hate that word, but that’s what he called me.  Who is he? He was my coach, Mike*–a former Olympic swimmer.  Mike approached my stepfather during one of my practices to tell him that he would like to coach me personally; he felt that I had the potential to compete internationally.  Of course, my stepfather became enamored of him and the idea of it all.  Thus began the pressure and the time commitment.  I trained 8 hours a day.  It was brutal.  I swam because I loved it.  I did not love training.

Something else, however, was going on.  Mike was a pedophile.  Every time he would get into the water to adjust my stroke he would slip his hand into my swimsuit.  He must have sexually touched me fifty times or more.  I remember feeling confused, helpless, and violated.  Finally, however, I felt angry so much so that one day I got out of the pool and left the facility.  I quit training altogether that day.  Without an explanation.  My family was extremely angry and held it against me.  The beloved pedophile coach? He didn’t say a word.  My high school coach? He was livid.  No one understood my decision aside from Mike–he knew why I stopped training.  Everyone else continued to bombard me with the same question:  “Why would you throw away your gift?”

I didn’t know how to self-advocate with words when I was that age.  I was surrounded by male athletes and aggressive adult men.  My mother had borderline personality disorder, and my father and stepmother were also very abusive.  Walking away was the only thing I knew to do in terms of self-preservation.  I never competed again, and I never told anyone what happened.  I just absorbed the accusations and the label: “You are a QUITTER.”

It all came rushing in this week after I gave my boyfriend a beat down in the pool.  My daughters saw me swim.  My youngest asked me with awe how I could swim like that.  My other daughter asked me why I didn’t swim anymore.  And, I remembered.  I never even discussed any of this in therapy.  It’s not something I think about.  It feels like a gossamer memory.  Like it almost happened to someone else.  Almost.

Consequently, I have been thinking on it for the first time in over 25 years.  What is there to be learned, if anything, from this old memory making itself freshly relevant? I was reading a rather timely commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Kt MBE in which he discusses the idea of inheritance and identity (“The Lost Masterpiece/ Pinchas 5778”).  Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a man named Mr. Onians who spent his life collecting paintings from estate sales.  At the end of his life, he had amassed a large number of works that had to be auctioned off after his death.  His children saw little value in his collection even though these paintings were so valuable to their father.  What no one knew, however, was that there was a lost masterpiece in the collection of mediocre canvases, and Rabbi Sacks’ retelling of how this was discovered makes the reading of his D’var Torah a bit exciting.  He brings his story around to a passage of Torah (Old Testament) wherein the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan full of fear proclaiming that it was impossible to enter it, thusly, causing the people to declare that they should return to Egypt with a new leader.  Well, everyone declared this except for five women and Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who felt confident that Canaan was totally “doable”.

But, who are these five women? Zelophedad’s daughters.  I have never heard of this guy or his daughters! Why are they special? I will let Rabbi Sacks fully explain the importance of both the lost painting and Zelophedad’s daughters:

“A great art expert, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), was looking through the catalogue (of Mr. Onians’ paintings) one day when his eye was caught by one painting in particular. The photograph in the catalogue, no larger than a postage stamp, showed a rabble of rampaging people setting fire to a large building and making off with loot. Onians had bought it at a country house sale in the 1940s for a mere £12. The catalogue listed the painting as the Sack of Carthage, painted by a relatively little known artist of the seventeenth century, Pietro Testa. It estimated that it would fetch £15,000.

Mahon was struck by one incongruous detail. One of the looters was making off with a seven branched candelabrum. What, Mahon wondered, was a menorah doing in Carthage? Clearly the painting was not depicting that event. Instead it was portrait of the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. But if what he was looking at was not the Sack of Carthage, then the artist was probably not Pietro Testa.

Mahon remembered that the great seventeenth century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the second temple. One was hanging in the art museum in Vienna. The other, painted in 1626 for Cardinal Barberini, had disappeared from public view sometime in the eighteenth century. No one knew what had happened to it. With a shock Mahon realised that he was looking at the missing Poussin.

At the auction, he bid for the picture. When a figure of the eminence of Sir Dennis bid for a painting the other potential buyers knew that he must know something they did not, so they too put in bids. Eventually Sir Dennis bought the painting for £155, 000. A few years later he sold it for its true worth, £4.5 million, to Lord Rothschild who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today in the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.

I know this story only because, at Lord Rothschild’s request, I together with the then director of the national gallery, Neil MacGregor, gave a lecture on the painting while it was shown briefly in London before being taken to its new and permanent home. I tell the story because it is so graphic an example of the fact that we can lose a priceless legacy simply because, not loving it, we do not come to appreciate its true value. From this we can infer a corollary: we inherit what we truly love.

This surely is the moral of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s parsha. Recall the story: Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had died in the wilderness before the allocation of the land. He left five daughters but no sons. The daughters came before Moses, arguing that it would be unjust for his family to be denied their share in the land simply because he had daughters but not sons. Moses brought their case before God, who told him: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Num. 27:7). And so it came to pass.

The sages spoke of Zelophehad’s daughters in the highest praise. They were, they said, very wise and chose the right time to present their request. They knew how to interpret Scripture, and they were perfectly virtuous.[1] Even more consequentially, their love of the land of Israel was in striking contrast to that of the men. The spies had come back with a negative report about the land, and the people had said, “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). But Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to have a share in the land, which they were duly granted.[2]

This led to the famous comment of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague (1550-1619) on the episode of the spies. Focussing on God’s words, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 14:2), Luntschitz argued that God was not commanding Moses but permitting him to send men. God was saying, “From My perspective, seeing the future, it would have been better to send women, because they love and cherish the land and would never come to speak negatively about it. However, since you are convinced that these men are worthy and do indeed value the land, I give you permission to go ahead and send them.”[3]

The result was catastrophic. Ten of the men came back with a negative report. The people were demoralised, and the result was that they lost the chance to enter the land in their lifetime. They lost their chance to enjoy their inheritance in the land promised to their ancestors. The daughters of Zelophehad, by contrast, did inherit the land – because they loved it. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.” (“The Lost Masterpiece/Pinchas 5778″)

I am going to come at this from a different angle than Rabbi Sacks because he compares the paintings to Judaism which works well.  As a Jew, I appreciate his midrash of sorts.  I, however, want to make a different suggestion in terms of identity based upon Mr. Onians’ vast collection of mediocre paintings, and I’ll use my experience with my coach as a jumping off point.

After I quit training with Mike, many people thought poorly of me.  In my family, being labeled a “quitter” was probably the worst thing you could call a person.  I disappointed a lot of people, and many people in my community looked down upon me not to mention my peers.  For years, I was told that I didn’t have what it takes to accomplish anything meaningful because people perceived that I had quit when things got hard.  The social injury was real as was the shame.  They were missing information.

And this phenomenon has followed me.  My family judged me harshly when I ended my relationship with my mother.  No one could fathom that the woman they knew publicly was monstrously abusive to the point of homicidal behind closed doors.  So, I was labeled as “a bad daughter”.  A “quitter” of relationships.

When I finally ended my relationship with my father, who was my first abuser, his wife told everyone they knew that I was a prostitute.  A prostitute! I suspect that’s the worst label she could come up with at the time.  Consequently, there are still people in a small Texas town who believe that I am somewhere in the world earning a living as a sex worker.  It is ludicrous.

What’s my point?

We might find ourselves surrounded by mediocre people and circumstances much like those paintings.  Or, worse, perhaps we are surrounded by the human equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings and Dogs Playing Poker.

Velvet_Elvis_Presley_painting.jpg

We have to find the “masterpiece” in the mix, and it’s damn hard particularly when you’ve been labeled and victimized.  Furthermore, I don’t know one person who doesn’t bear at least one label and hasn’t been victimized at least one time.  So, what do you do then?

Using my experience as an example, I did not throw away my “gift”.  I simply chose not to share it because the price was too high.  Sure, I could have been trained by a former Olympian and potentially gone on to compete on the world’s stage, but Mike would have stolen my budding sexuality and innocence from me as payment for his coaching.  I already had a father who had done that to me.  I didn’t want to relive it in the pool.  What everyone else interpreted as quitting was really self-advocacy.  I preserved myself, and I never internalized what Mike did to me.  I left it behind and also left the experience intact.  I was not a quitter.  I was an overcomer.  Therein lies the “lost masterpiece”, and that masterpiece gets to be inserted into the larger part of my identity.  It was a bad experience, but it did not contribute to a degeneration of my internal identity.  It helped me form a stronger sense of self.

We must, at some point, look at who we are now and who we are becoming with intention, the past be damned.  In order to change our trajectories in life and head in the direction that we want, it is vital to examine the metaphorical canvases surrounding us.  Like the Onians family, did we collect them? Who put these images on our walls? Do we need to take some down? Get rid of all of them? What have we inherited that we actually never wanted? There are masterpieces in there somewhere to be sure, but where are they? How do we identify them? Lastly, what do we love about our lives that we want to bring forward with us, and what do we wish to leave behind? We will inherit what we love.  In order to do that, we must decide what we find lovable first.  And that means taking a very personal inventory.  We may not be who we once were.  It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” 
Oscar Wilde

 

*name changed

 

 

 

 

Lunch with My Mother

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

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

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

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

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My mom…on a good day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if that’s because I’m older…

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Being Julius Caesar

Did everyone make it through the Ides of March intact? When I was in high school, I was the only student in the history of my school to study Latin 3 or 4.  Nowadays, schools would delete the offering, but I guess the school administration just forgot about the classes.  I signed up for it and was promptly put in the corner of the Latin 2 class.  There was no curriculum to speak of forcing Ms. Jennings, my Latin teacher, to make it up.  She decided that translation was the way to go.  So, for two years I translated Ovid, Catullus, Cicero, and, my nemesis, Virgil–author of The Aeneid.  I was that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and talked to no one.

In the middle of all this classical, academic conviviality (I do not include Virgil here), we Latin students were forced to re-enact ancient Roman practices from time to time.  During December, for example, we had to run around the halls yelling, “Io Saturnalia!”  You can imagine that this might have caused a ruckus.  Ms. Jennings liked the juxtaposition of ancient life and modern, and she really liked to insert ancient traditions into our modern ones.  I won’t even discuss what she did with Easter.  But, the Ides of March was like giving her center stage.  The Ides of March was a date on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponded to March 15th.  In the ancient Roman imagination, the Ides of March was roughly equivocal to the American April 15th in terms of emotional weight.  You know, tax day.  Except to the Romans, March 15th was the day that you must settle your debts.  It bears a similar weight, doesn’t it? On April 15th, all Americans must settle their debts with Uncle Sam.  The Ides of March then became the perfect day to assassinate Julius Caesar in the Senate.  Sixty senators were seeing to it that Caesar settled his debts with Rome.

Every March 15th, the entirety of the Latin classes had to run around the school pretending to be the sixty senators conspiring to find and assassinate Julius Caesar.  No one wanted to be Julius Caesar.  Where was the fun in being murdered by a pack of overzealous high schoolers while muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” during feigned death throes?  I, of course, had to be Caesar.  I didn’t exactly participate.  I tried to evade capture.  I was scolded by Ms. Jennings for eluding the assassination: “The Ides of March was not an assassination attempt! Now, go out into the halls and die gloriously!” It felt personal.  Being a placeholder for Julius Caesar.  I didn’t want to be assassinated particularly by a bunch of underclassmen who were still figuring out how to conjugate sum (I was a total Latin snob in high school I admit with shame).  Alas, I had to die, and I resented it.  I resented it because the two people playing Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, lorded it over me for weeks in typical teenage fashion.  Their account of how they found me, how I died, and their ultimate victory over high school Rome became bigger, badder, and more ridiculous with each taunt and retelling.

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This is exactly how I felt.

I’m annoyed even now as I retell this story.  What’s even funnier is that when I am presently forced to participate in group activities, I immediately remember being Julius Caesar.  I remember how much I hated it.  I remember how it felt to be stalked in the halls.  I remember how embarrassed I felt to have to wear those ridiculous togas made of bedsheets (yes, we had to do that) to every class.  I went to an urban Texan high school! No one lets you live that down! I didn’t sign up for that nonsense, but we were graded on our participation; and I was Julius Caesar destined to die on the Ides of March–in the hallways during passing time. O the mockery!

Why do we do this? Remember the past when we experience life now or even try to plan an upcoming event? What does a past event like the Ides of March Latin Class Extravaganza have to do with my future participation in a group presentation on ovarian cancer? This has something to do with it:

“Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.

Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.” (Re-story Your Life)

I love this explanation.  When we plan, imagine, and attempt to engage in anything, our brain relies on past events and experiences to support us in terms of expectations and potential futures in order to, in a way, help us erase uncertainties.  Humans don’t do well with uncertainty.  So, our brains, whether we know it or not, do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by connecting past stories together to weave a narrative flow that will help us predict an outcome.

But, what if we don’t have good stories? Or, in a specific case, what if I’ve only had bad experiences with group projects, and I’m now being assigned a group project? What do you suppose my new narrative will be? What feelings will become intertwined within the potential futures my brain brings forth? Realistically, I know that I will not literally be assassinated, but the entire high school endeavor was one of awkward disempowerment and feeling singled-out.  That defines “high school” for many people.  I know people who still struggle with the emotional impact of their high school experiences due to the narrative mark it left upon them.  If their past narratives are never re-examined, then how do you suppose they approach new life experiences when their past narrative identity is still partially rooted in such negative events? If I never re-examined my Julius Caesar experience, would you want to partner with me in a group? For real, would you? I wouldn’t.

This idea is applicable to so many life experiences.  One single event can change our narrative–the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world, in our personal relationships, and even our relationship with ourselves.

So, how do we incorporate this idea and make it work for us?

“Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.

Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.

McAdams:

The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplaceethnicityreligiongender, social class, and culture writ large.

So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”

Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.” (Re-story Your Life)

There it is again.  That dreaded uncertainty.  What is going to happen to us next? Recall the research.  We can only imagine what will happen to us next by relying on our past memories–that’s the part of your brain being used when you imagine your future.  So, for crying out loud, what then?

I’m going to rely on Willy Wonka for guidance:

“You can’t get out backwards.  You have to go forward to go back.”

“For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.

Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.

Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.” (Re-story Your Life)

If you want to go back and look at what is hindering you, then you have to begin to move forward.  You can’t go back to go forward.  You have to go forward to go back.  You will only know what you are afraid of, what is paralyzing you, what your greatest struggle is, and from whence they originate when you begin to try to leave your residence.  Looking forward gives us a reason to look back–to gauge our starting point.  Looking back continually is futility because we gauge nothing except where we once were.  It provides us with no present perspective or even trajectory.  It only provides distortion.  You don’t even gain new information.  No one makes a plan with old information.

It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But, what is left? I could remain Julius Caesar in my mind whenever I’m called upon to do a group project dragging my past into my present effectively demoting myself perpetually.  That is very un-Caesar-like.  Or, I could create a better narrative for myself in which I engage the uncertainty while also feeling certain that no one I work with will ever try to hunt me down in a high school hallway again while wearing a bedsheet toga in order to mock stab me.  This I actually can feel certain about.

The idea is absurd, and I deliberately chose an absurd example to better elucidate the idea.  What we so often fear will overtake us will not, or, if it could, it will not affect us in the same way because we are not the same person now developmentally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  We are very different people in the present than we were in the past, but we recall the past with the perspective of our past selves rather than with our more developed present perspectives.  So, while what we fear could, for the sake of argument, happen again, we would respond very differently because we are far more resilient and capable because we have lived life and matured–we have gained skills.  It is in this exercise that we discover our deficiencies.  If we find that in going forward we truly are hindered by a lack of skills or an inability to recall the past from the present due to pain or trauma, then we have new information.  From here, we can create a new plan of action and implement it.  And, this new plan of action is actually moving forward.

This is a very big idea to be sure.  I sit with it a lot.  It is, however, such a powerful idea.  We have immense say over our potential futures, and our influence comes from choosing to move forward even when it’s hard and scary.

Go forward to go back.  This is a very effective way to keep going.

Resources:

Re-Story Your Life: The ongoingness of being

Choosing the Healing Path

To bring you up to speed, one of the reasons I started this blog ages ago was to process having a relationship with my mother.  My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), but she also has other co-morbid disorders.  When I was growing up, my mother had sadistic tendencies.  In fact, my mother used to meet all the criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder, excepting the last one, which was removed from the DSM before publication of the DSM-IV:

 Maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour, usually evident for at lease several years.

 Enduring, pervasive, maladaptive patterns of behaviour which are usually recognised before or during adolescence.

 It is long-standing and its onset can be traced to adolescence or early adulthood, but is not due to drugs (of abuse or medication) or to a medical condition eg head injury.

 The behaviour pattern is inflexible across all personal and social situations and significantly impairs their social or occupational functioning.

 Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her).

 Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others,

 Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient,

 Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals),

 Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)

 Gets other people to do what her or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror),

 Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions.

 is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture

This additional disordered component of her personality, I suspect, made her that much more impossible to live with.  What I have always asked, however, is: Are the above pervasive patterns of behavior motived by sadism or fear? Some of the behaviors listed above, aside from the last one, are not uncommon in BPD but are also not motivated by sadism but rather a crippling fear and a need to control.  With my mother, it was both.  It depended upon which persona was calling the shots in the moment.  Was her Witch persona dominating her mood, or was her Queen persona at the forefront? If you could determine that, then you would know the motivation and what you were in for.

She refused treatment for most of my life, and, when she was forced into treatment after a suicide attempt, she masterfully played the part of a depressed woman deceiving her treating psychiatrist, thusly, never receiving the correct diagnosis or treatment.  I have described knowing her as living under a Reign of Terror.  It is strange in retrospect to feel love for someone who is so dangerous and malicious.  In her worst rages, she could become homicidal.  To everyone else, however, she was charming, lovely, and the life of the party.  No one in my family believes me when I try to convey just how bad it really was behind closed doors.  They just hound me and ask, “How is your mom? Why don’t you just reconcile? Forgive her.”  If only it were that easy…

So, it is no surprise then that my mother writes me a letter annually.  I don’t speak to her anymore, and I won’t let her see my children.  That was over ten years ago.  It’s funny how something starts.  She got angry at me because I made a suggestion about her business.  She decided not to speak to me.  That was her M.O.  Typically, when my mother would run off to her room to sulk and freeze me out, I would seek her out and kowtow.  The kowtowing was very important.  She had to see a certain kind of degradation to accept me again.  If I didn’t do this, I would be subjected to days of a slow-burning rage that would eventually explode.  Then, I would have to kowtow and take responsibility for her feelings anyway.  This time, however, I didn’t call her.  I went against a lifetime of programming and refused to act out that toxic script.  I thought perhaps that she would eventually call me.  I am her daughter after all.

She never did.  For years.  In all of that I finally saw the reality of our relational dynamics.  I was the engine of our relationship, and I also saw how co-dependent it was.  I was a classic enabler mostly because I was terrified of my mother.  I would do anything to avoid rousing her rage.  Anything.  I lacked any distress tolerance for it.  I still struggle with tolerating displays of anger.  My first response is to run away as fast as I can.

My mother waited for something like 4 years to call me, and when I asked her why she waited so long, she said, “I got angry.  I’m not now.  So, how are you? I want to visit.”  Four years.  I was so angry at her nonchalant attitude and entitlement.  I told her to go to a therapist and figure out why what she was currently doing was wrong.  I then ended the conversation.  Since that phone call, the letters have been arriving.  Usually in December.  Some of them are twisted and strange.  Some of them blame me for her misery.  Some of them plead with me.  The 2017 Letter was different.

This letter was either written by another person, or she’s been in therapy.  She acknowledged that she has engaged in abusive behavior.  She acknowledged that she put me in harm’s way.  She acknowledged that I would live with the effects of her abuse for the rest of my life.  She apologized.  My mother doesn’t say things like this.  I was shocked.  She asked if we could talk.  I thought about it for six weeks.

I decided to send her my email and cell number.  She has not reached out except to wish me a pleasant New Year.  After years of letters begging to see me, beseeching me, she is silent when an open door is presented to her.  I suspect that she is waiting for me to call her–as always.  Finding that reality is the same makes me sigh.

I will not call her, and my choosing not to call her isn’t because I’m stubborn.  It is because it is not my responsibility to make amends.  It is hers.  Part of the very difficult process of making amends is making those very difficult phone calls.  No one wants to do it, but that is part of the process.  Were I still enabling her, I would spare her the suffering and make the call.  But, I see now that this very particular kind of anxiety and suffering associated with making amends are exactly what matures people.  It is a consequence of their choices, and people have to be very familiar with the consequential experience.

I don’t feel responsible for my mother’s emotional state anymore.  I have felt released from that relationship for years, and I don’t expect anything from her.  I don’t expect her to come through for me, be better than she is, or even do an ethical or moral thing.  I expect her to still engage in needs-driven behaviors meaning that if doing something meets her needs, then she will choose that over doing something to meet the needs of another person.  And that need could be the off-loading of her rage or relying on everyone else around her for emotional regulation.  It could be almost anything really.

I don’t feel angry towards her anymore.  I feel at ease.  I do, however, feel disappointed.  So much was possible and went unrealized.

My description of my mother is not meant to be representative of BPD.  She is herself.  My experience with her is unique unto itself.  So many people grew up with abusive parents and have either walked away or are still trying to figure out how to navigate those relationships while also attempting to find their own peace and healing.  What I can say is that it is possible to heal and experience peace after an abusive childhood.  It won’t just happen though, and time doesn’t heal you.

You heal you.  Your active engagement in a startlingly truthful process is what heals.  Seeking it out ruthlessly and fearlessly no matter what it costs you.  Staying willing.  Pushing through.  Partnering with people who will tell you the truth about you and how you live and do relationships.  Finding a community of people who model healthy interpersonal habits and love.  This is what heals you.  And, getting rid of the relationships that are slowly (or quickly) killing you.  You can’t choose life and death at the same time and expect to thrive in your life.  Death will win out every time because we continually operate at a deficit and never move forward.  That’s the definition of survival.  That isn’t how one wants to live if the goals are healing and expanding.

That is something I have learned along the way.  As always, keep going, and don’t forget to choose life as you do.

A Healing Hypothesis

I’m supposed to be doing homework, but it’s cold and snowy.  I am entirely unmotivated to study the alimentary canal.

A thought occurred to me when I was stuck in traffic a few days ago.  I’ll start with a question.

How many times have you fallen down or gotten hurt? If you really had to answer that question with accuracy, what would you say? I don’t know if I could answer it.  I’ve injured myself a lot.  I’ve eaten it too many times to recall with any accuracy.  Falling off my bike? I fell into a pile of gravel once, and that was a bloody disaster not to mention humiliating.  I almost fell onto exposed rebar once and barely escaped impaling myself.  I sound like I starred in MTV’s “Jackass”.  I’ve almost drowned more times than anyone should just because I overestimated my own swimming abilities in relation to ocean conditions.  I was bitten by a shark once.  It didn’t keep me from going back into the water.  I’ve been mildly electrocuted twice.  These are all ridiculous injuries.  My injuries probably sound tame compared to some people.  You know, the adrenaline junkies? Their tales of thrill seeking are epic.  Compound fractures and missing teeth.  As soon as they can stand upright, they’re clinging to another rock face like Spiderman.

Why do we get back up again after we get hurt and get after it with relative confidence? Why don’t we fall apart? I really thought about this.  Why do little kids fall, skin their knees, cry, and then get up and start running again?

Because they know that they will heal and be okay.  They don’t have faith that it will happen.  They know.  We have evidence that we will heal because our bodies are designed to do that.  We watch our wounds heal.  We feel the itch of the tissue regenerating.

Many of us think that it’s odd when parents coddle their children just for getting scratched up.

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Why? Because scratches heal! Broken bones heal.  We recover from surgeries.  We are tougher than we look and even feel.  So, most of us are not too afraid to take reasonable risks with our bodies in terms of getting in a pool, riding a bike, running fast, rollerblading, rock climbing, etc.

Why are we then afraid to take risks emotionally? This feels like a very legitimate question.  I’ve been pondering the question and wondering what a sound answer might be.  The answer I came up with is that we might believe that we won’t heal.  Or, we don’t know how to heal when we sustain an emotional injury.  Wouldn’t it be easier to take emotional risks if emotional healing occurred in the same way that physical healing did?

I pose the question this way because uncertainty acts as a primary source of anxiety for almost all of us.  We might be willing to try new things if we knew more about the outcome.  In terms of physical risks, we are far more likely to take risks because we know that our bodies heal.  But, our hearts and minds? Well, that’s different.

How familiar is this? “I don’t know if I want to get involved.  I could get hurt, and I just don’t know if I can go through that again…”

If I break my leg, I can go to the ER.  If I break my heart, where do I go? How exactly do you heal a broken heart? How do you heal from major trauma? How do you heal from chronic anxiety? There are too many opinions to give a discrete answer.

And there is another element at play here.  Culture.  If I break my wrist or lacerate my arm, is there anyone who will tell me that it’s not possible to have my injuries treated? Will someone point at me and say, “Good luck with that.  You’re going to suffer for the rest of your life with that broken wrist.”  No.  That’s ludicrous.  Going further, if I slipped on wet pavement after a thunderstorm and fractured my elbow, would anyone tell me, “All concrete sidewalks are bad.  Never trust a sidewalk.  You will always get hurt! From now on, only walk on grass lest you break your elbow again.”

No.  You will not hear that.

Will you hear Broken Elbow songs on the radio? Will you be bombarded with chorus after chorus about the depravity of concrete sidewalks and even roadways and the danger they pose to your vulnerable elbow? How the sidewalk beckoned you, promised it would support you as you walked and its blatant betrayal? How dare it collect water and mislead you permitting you to slip and break your elbow! Those rakish sidewalks! Manipulative elbow-breakers!

Uh…no.  You will not hear that.  But, how many songs do we hear and even love that are all about the broken-hearted? How many movies do we watch repeatedly that are devoted to the heart break experience? You haven’t truly lived until you’ve had your heart torn out, right? There is a collective belief that being heart broken is terrible and almost romantic.  And, for some, impossible to recover from.

I want to challenge this.  I want to start by putting an idea out there that we are capable of healing emotionally and mentally just as we are capable of healing physically.  It makes no sense that our bodies are designed to heal as efficiently and elegantly as they do, but our psycho-emotional selves would not.  I hypothesize this because the ability of our bodies to heal and maintain that ability is so heavily dependent upon the state of our psycho-emotional state.  In other words, if we are unhappy, anxious, scared, and in a state of emotional pain, our immune function is impaired.  When we are happy, at peace, and well, we don’t get sick; we heal better; we fight off cancer; and we thrive.

If this is potentially true, why are so many of us suffering psycho-emotionally?  An idea came to mind as I was turning these questions over in my mind.  I thought of my grandfather.  My grandfather grew up on a farm on an island that was rather remote.  During one winter, he and his brother were sledding, and, during the downhill race, my grandfather hit a tree and broke his tibia.  He sustained a compound fracture.  With no medical help nearby, my grandfather’s family did the best they could to attend to the fracture.  It never healed properly.  For the rest of his life, he suffered with circulation issues and pain in his leg and even ulcers as he aged.  All this because his injury wasn’t properly set and healed improperly.  Note here that his injury healed.  The body did what it does.  It healed.  It just healed improperly because the healing needed an outside intervention to direct the healing.

I suspect that our minds and spirits heal, but, like my grandfather’s leg, without outside intervention to direct a healing process, we heal improperly resulting in improper “blood flow” leaving room for infection and incessant pain.  Had this type of problem presented today, surgery would be done to re-break the tibia, reset it, and induce a proper healing.  Rehabilitation would be done during the healing process in order to direct the body’s healing process.  The body knows what to do.  Sometimes its energies need direction.

Applying this paradigm to our psycho-social selves, what would happen if we believed that we can and do heal? What would happen if we viewed our current psycho-emotional state as a healed state in which perhaps our injuries were not set properly? Our body has the ability to heal.  It healed.  At the time of the original injury it did not receive the appropriate care it needed to heal so that it would return to its pre-injury state?

Was my grandfather’s leg still broken? No.  Did he do the best he could at that time with the resources he had available to him? Yes.  Did anyone blame him for the scars in his leg? No.  If he had undergone a reparative surgery to correct the poorly healed injury, would that have been a shameful thing to do? No.  Would that have been beneficial? Yes.

Therapeutic interventions, nutritional changes, psychiatric supports, various types of exercise, pursuing healthy relationships, making important changes in your life to bring about healthy changes, using different healing modalities, etc. are all reparative changes to “reset” breaks that didn’t heal properly.  Changing our language around our own healing process goes a long way into changing how we view ourselves, and that goes a long way into eradicating shame and fear of uncertainty.

Once you begin to believe that you can and do heal, you may find yourself making changes that you’ve only dreamed of.  It is an idea I’m considering.  It’s got somethin’…

So, as always, keep going.

Further Reading:

The Emotional Immune System