A collection edited by Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
This past year or so I’ve been trying to find the gifts in whatever life hands me. When I’m stuck in traffic, maybe it’s that I got to hear something really great on NPR before I reached my destination. If I dropped and shattered a favorite heirloom glass serving bowl, maybe it’s that when I swept the floor I found the missing earring I’ve been looking for under the fridge. You get the idea. The game is thus: can I find the gift no matter how deeply it’s hidden, because I really and truly have to believe in a God that cares about me so much, He would only give me a trauma wherein a gift is hidden just for me. Otherwise, I don’t think I could do this Life.
When I meditate in the mornings, I frequently have an old trauma come forward in my consciousness. It will be something from when I was young and vulnerable. Abuse of all kinds. Situations where I’ve been holding on to guilt and shame and anger. Most of them I felt like I’d already dealt with and let go, but I stopped being surprised to see them months ago. And what I’m learning is that I can’t really fully release them until I find the gift, even if I’ve dealt with the trauma. And with some of the stuff? It’s hard. HARD. Finding a gift when someone has sexually assaulted you is a tall order, my friend. But so far, in my own experience, it can be done. It may not be fast. It is definitely not easy. And who knows, I may run into one in the future that takes the rest of my life, but it won’t stop me from trying because the pay off is worth it. And just in case it’s not clear, this gift is NOT in any way from the person who perpetrated the crime. That person did not do me any favors in harming me. No. It’s just that my God is so powerful, He can turn anything for good on my behalf.
Which brings me to this election cycle and this past few months in particular. In case you don’t know who I am, I’ll sketch it for you.
I’m the most white woman possible coming in at 100% European octane, who has been in relationships previously with women and believes in marriage equality and safe living for all, and who fell in love with a half-Mexican man. I was abused and assaulted by those I knew and some I didn’t starting before age four. I went through most of my life challenged with mental health issues like bipolar and DID [ I was a consultant for the Showtime series, United States of Tara ] and I am a passionate mental health advocate. I have physical issues like Lupus. I’m a mother to four children and have two grandchildren. I was raised in an LDS family, left the church for about twenty years, and then came back to it about two years ago. I live in California in a warm seat of liberals with a local economy that does alright and even though I was raised by an ultra-conservative father who sent me to John Birch camp one summer, I lean more left than center in most things. My husband has a full-time job with benefits which makes it possible for me to work from home on a part-time basis mentoring and doing energy work for others who have compound physical and mental challenges. I also write, shoot photos, make jewelry, paint, and do pretty much any craft that exists.
Between my husband and myself, we have a lot of family, including many minority and gay family members and friends who live all across the country. We mostly live paycheck to paycheck but have modest 401Ks. We have three month’s food storage smack dab in my bedroom requiring me to get in bed by crawling over canned goods because we live in a tiny condo and there’s no other place to put it. We will not have a gun in our home. Neither of us has a Bachelor’s degree but two of our kids do and one will soon and the other one doesn’t seem to need one because he’s already making more per year than we do by a very large margin. We don’t care about material things and are usually late adopters. The largest TV we’ve ever owned is so small you can’t read the questions on the screen when you watch The Chase.
I volunteer for my church on a weekly basis and can’t imagine my life now without it, although I’m also deeply conflicted about multiple beliefs that are held by most members. I hate crowds and having conversations that mean nothing. I’d prefer an afternoon on my couch reading, snuggled up to Joe instead of heading to a fancy party. I’ve been known to be awkward in public settings because I have a hard time regulating my language if someone says or does something that rubs up against what I consider imperative like protecting the underdog or exhibiting blatant racism, misogyny, xenophobia, or anything that implies that person thinks they are better than any other person on the planet. I’m getting better at picking it up when it’s not so blatant.
That means that this past year I’ve been repeatedly hit by Donald Trump and his words and promises. I’ve been in fear. I’ve been angry. I’ve been confused. I’ve been worried about my friends and family that aren’t white and straight. I’ve been worried about the future and what it means for someone like me with preexisting health issues and how protected I need to be walking down the street alone because my body is now not my own and is open season for leering men who want to grab me and assault me (which is how minority people have felt for, oh, ever.). And I’ve been wondering how to just forget all the things Trump said he’d do now that he’s going to be the president like so many people suggest because of course HE’S NOT REALLY GOING TO DO any of those things (but I don’t believe that) and I’ve been wondering how it’s possible to expect all the people who are now committing violence in his name to just stop because he says to, IF he says to.
These are not hypothetical worries I have. They are very real. And I’m that 100% creamy mayo white lady living in the lap of liberal territory. I can’t imagine how my Muslim immigrant friends feel or my Mexican and Black family and friends in red states feel or my LGBTQ and Latinx friends feel who married someone of the same gender or simply hope to use a bathroom in a public place without getting beaten up. And what keeps me up at night are the thoughts about how this is trickling down into our youth. The stories of what the kids are doing to the other kids at school. I mean, you remember school, right? It’s a nightmare even when you’re popular and the going is good. Imagine how those kids are feeling. (And then donate to Kelly‘s Being Black at School because they are doing the work.)
Circling back to the beginning of my post –> where is the gift? That’s what I go to sleep asking my God. Where is the gift in this? And He didn’t answer. For months I’ve been asking and frustrated and angry because it felt like He wasn’t playing by the rules.
Wait on the Lord, I’d hear. Wait.
Election night, as Joe and our son, Tony, and I watched the election results come in, it was about the time Florida kept going back and forth that I realized, I mean, it HIT me, Trump could win this. The only hope I’d had for months was that Trump was about to get his hat handed to him with a thorough trouncing and then things would go back to normal. I needed that so bad.
Normal is not coming. It’s not happening. Normal doesn’t exist anymore and I don’t think it ever did but I didn’t know that in my bubble. All my worst fears came true. Trump won and reports of violence started pouring in. It was like someone took the cap off the slow leak of terrible things that had been happening and everything burst out. Conservatives pretty much across the board had one of three things to say: 1. Stop complaining. 2. Things are not that bad. 3. Voting for Trump doesn’t make me racist. Minority liberals had one thing to say: 1. I’m terrified.
Over the past three days I’ve been in a crash course of learning what I didn’t know. Normal for me looked like living in a bubble of information that I already knew. It meant not having important conversations with the conservative members of my family to see how they felt. It meant not looking deeply into why so many people in the middle states were hurting. It meant discounting the importance of listening to my minority friends who had been worried for MONTHS that this was going to turn out bad. It meant looking at everything through a simplistic telescope. It meant being slightly smug that I was smarter or “got it” and those in the red states didn’t. It meant being able to lie to myself that I knew everything would turn out how I wanted it to. Needed it to.
And then, that is not how it went down.
Joe and I wept that night and off and on the next day and the next day and even today. We listen to someone elses story, witness their pain and grief, and feel that connection that only comes from surviving trauma. Make no mistake about it, this has been a PTSD experience for thousands. This is severe trauma that taps into survival fears. The Flight/Fight response. People are fighting for their lives.
But there’s been a gradation of grief that has begun to dissipate from time to time and every now and again something extraordinary happens. I find a gift. I realized today that I had a few I could list and as I started listing, more and more came. It was as if my God was saying, “Hey there. Here’s your gifts. You thought you would just get one or two? Sillyhead.”
That’s often how it goes. He gives me way more than I was expecting.
None of these things changes the situation at large. Nothing I’ve learned makes it easier for anyone else. It only changes what’s happening inside me, but with those changes I can come from a place of peace and that might be helpful to others while they navigate this tricky and deeply upsetting terrain.
I believe real conversations are the only ones worth having, and I intend to make as many of them go as deep as I possibly can. It’s going to take a long time to release all the trauma that’s happened, not just for me but for so many this past year, especially because it’s ongoing. I have hope I can do my part now because of receiving so many gifts with which to process it all. I’ll keep waiting on the Lord, but I’m also going to do everything within my power to help those around me. It’s a sacred responsibility.
The sister of Empathy is called Holding Space. They hold hands a lot and hang out together watching old episodes of M.A.S.H., sharing a bag of BBQ potato chips, and wiping their red-tipped fingers on their jeans.
Empathy, as we’ve discussed, is when you can feel what another person is feeling by making them human to you because you can identify their experience with something that’s happened in your own life.
Holding Space is when you give that other person all the room they need to process their emotions without judgment, shame, or irritation, and you don’t try to fix the problem.
Think about when you’ve gone through something challenging in your life. Was there someone who wanted you to hurry up and just get over it already? Probably a parent, sibling, or spouse depending on your age. Did someone tell you that you were dumb for being hurt in the first place? Did they shove it in your face that it was your own dang fault, whatever it was that happened? Did they refuse to take any responsibility if it was partly (or solely) their fault? Did they gas-light you and make you feel like you were going crazy for caring? Did they compare their own lives and hard things to yours to try and diminish your feelings? These are all things that are NOT holding space.
Here, you can watch it in action. Van Jones is trying to express his feelings of sadness and explain to Corey Lewandowski that people need a little time to heal and feel and Mr. Corey Lewandowski is having none of it.
Here’s the truth: we are all one, big family on this earth and if some of us are hurting, we’re doing it wrong. We need for everyone to be getting their needs met. The more selfish and ignorant people there are who refuse to acknowledge the pain of others, the more hurt, strife, war, hardships, sadness, grief, and pain the world has to hold. And when there is a spike like there is right now in our political climate, it’s too much for us, as a group, to hold and it spills over into violence and hate speech as a way to protect us from things we don’t understand. Small skirmishes everywhere. People hurting other people intentionally. There will probably always be people who have every intention of hurting others and they do it very well, so as many people as I can persuade who are doing it UNintentionally and would like to change, the better.
When you hold space for someone, you are in essence saying, “Here. Let me create safety around you to process and go through all the stages you need to. No really, go ahead. Be mad, sad, angry, yell about it, cry about it, laugh about it, say salty words if you want. Tell me how utterly alone you feel and how gut-wrenchingly unfair it is. I’ll just sit here and love you.” Sometimes that’s enough. Don’t underestimate how huge it is for someone to fully feel heard. Other times, when they are done sharing, ask how you can help support them. Many people won’t want you to try and fix it for them, but they will welcome your support in creating change.
We ALL go through several stages when we work through any big feelings. We’ve got the stages of grief, sure, but your body cycles through lots of feelings, one after the other, when lots of different kinds of things happen. It’s how we’re built and it can lead to overwhelm. Sometimes we have these little tea kettle bursts of anger that help reset our equilibrium. We “take it out” on whomever is closest because something they say or do or just ARE triggers something in us. (Here’s some more constructive ways to let off steam.)
We also have a lot of knee-jerk emotions that pop to the surface before we’ve even had a chance to think logically about anything. Our lizard brains are always turned on for Flight/Fight response and if our adult, mature self isn’t in control, we’re going to say things we feel intensely in that moment when we feel threatened, but they are things that we don’t want to invite to live with us forever. We need the freedom to feel those things, free of judgement, own them, look at them, and then let them go as we move on to the next thing until we can CHOOSE on PURPOSE where we want to land. And that takes time!
Right now, in this moment, as a country, we need people who can hold space for each other like I haven’t felt in years. This is huge, what’s happening. People are in SO MUCH PAIN. Other Highly Sensitive People and empaths like me can feel it like a churning thrum under the surface of everything. My head felt like it was encased in silly putty all day yesterday and my stomach was in knots. I spent a lot of time trying to help others process their emotions by holding space. It was the only way I survived.
You might not be an empath or an HSP and that’s great. You might have the normal range of emotions and if you’re not affected that much by the thought of a Trump presidency, and you don’t get what the big deal is, now is your time to learn how to hold space. Find someone in your circle who is hurting. It shouldn’t be too hard, because they are everywhere. Watch how your internal dialogue is speaking to them. Are you saying things in your head like, “Geez. Drama much?” or “This isn’t that big of a deal.” or “Why do they want to play the victim?” as they are crying or showing signs of being upset, scared, or worried? Are you comparing the situation to something hard you went through and thinking, “This is nothing like when (insert hard thing) happened to me!” Are you just super uncomfortable with people having so many feelings all over the place? Take a beat and breathe. Instead of judging them for how YOU would be handling the situation or feeling, just allow them to have their feelings. Don’t get offended. Don’t take it on. Just listen and be a safe person. They will thank you.
If you are an HSP or empath, you will already be familiar with what I’m talking about, and your challenge is the opposite. DON’T take on their feelings, instead be a flowing stream. DON’T internalize what they’re saying and own it and make it yours and let it take root because it will make you ill. You can’t help them if you are, yourself, deep in the feels. You need to remember what is yours and what is theirs. It’s a kindness to them if you can keep your gentle strength while you let them unpack all their stuff. Take breaks throughout the day for your health. Do your grounding exercise. Clear your chakras. Meditate. Check how your energy is running. And then dive back in for more, because there is an immense amount of pain to be felt and gone through.
And no matter who you are, hold space for yourself first, because you being balanced means you’ve already run through your big emotional overwhelm and come out of the other side OR you’re able to set your own work aside and help someone else do theirs. It’s ok to say, “I need a short break,” if you’re holding space for someone else and you get triggered. You know you’re triggered if you start saying things that aren’t supportive and you feel defensive and/or you feel your emotions rise.
Things to watch out for:
This takes work to learn! But I believe everyone can do it with practice. Please try. We need you. <3
(Are you a Person of Color? You will see the * periodically throughout this piece. Please know as you read I am talking about family dynamics and not systemic racism, which is a completely different kettle of fish.)
I’ve been thinking about you. And about me because I am you. And about how all of us fit together in this Earth Experience, this thing called, (as Prince said), Life.
I don’t love labels so I try to avoid them, but sometimes they are helpful when you’re trying to get down to the nitty-gritty and see what’s what. There are other words we could use like “crazy” and “lazy” and “selfish” or “difficult” and “stubborn” and “insensitive” or “damaged” and “outcast.” “Other” tends to cover it all.
Chances are you live differently than the rest of your family. Like, they’re all really religious and you can’t stand church because you feel like they’re all a bunch of hypocrites. Or they’re all into outdoor sports and being competitive and you’d rather stay in and watch movies. Or they all love getting together for holidays and weekend meals and you dread it with the fire of a thousand suns because you know the conversation will eventually turn to you and how you’re failing at oh, well, just about everything. This topic, the one where you don’t perform how they want, is one of the most conversed subjects and they don’t ever seem to get tired of talking about it. Plus, bonus points for how many times someone asks why you don’t even care how much you’re hurting your parents/grandparents. You’re the cautionary tale. You’ve probably used drugs or alcohol to cope. You might have been abused as a child, which no one wants to discuss and everyone wants to pretend didn’t happen and they wish you would “just get over it already.” If you’d only try harder. (SIGH)
You probably have one sibling or aunt or cousin that you can talk to. This person is the only person in your family that kind of “gets you.” They act as a go-between when conversations about future plans or other necessities need to take place. They walk the tight-rope and do a lot of explaining on behalf of everyone else and translate what you say back to the family and vice versa. And yet, rarely do they stick up for you in the moment you need them to in a group setting. They shrug their shoulders as if to say, heck I would if I could but these people, you know?
Here’s some truth: You are not the cause of the problems in your family. You are the result. Your family is dysfunctional and they have chosen you to be the receptacle for their garbage. The good news is that you are not alone. In fact, almost all families have a You in them. I know that might not make you feel any better, but it might at least help you feel like you belong somewhere. Congratulations!
There have always been outcasts because we as humans have always been in tribes. In order for tribes to feel strong and cohesive and SURVIVE, there had to be an US versus THEM mentality. Not many of us actually need this dynamic anymore, given that we live in homes and have food on the table and our actual physical survival isn’t brokered by creating bonding rituals. And yet, these old patterns persist.
In the 50s, you would have been called the “Identified Patient.” You’re the reason your family doesn’t have to deal with any of their real issues. You’re a convenient scapegoat and as long as everyone can point their fingers at you and talk about you and feel bad about you, the dysfunction continues and it gets to be all your fault. It’s not like they all got together without you and said ok look, now we’re all going to decide together that Ralph is the bad one in this family and no matter what he does or how he tries to improve we’re going to see him as different than us and basically a loser. No. For the most part it’s completely subconscious. And for all your family’s tears and lectures and begging you to change, they’d have no idea what to do if you were actually different than how they see you, which is why you can’t BE different. No matter how you try, you slip right back into that rut of the screw-up. Because why try if they’re never going to see you as different? This is called hamster wheel thinking.
Families are just like any other group or tribe of people in that you usually have a leader, some followers, and often, the punching bag for morale. Degrading the out-group person has a positive impact for the core group. Having that person to compare the rest of the group to brings everyone else closer. This isn’t really a surprise. We as humans like to make comparisons. That’s basically how our entire world is run.
Have you seen The Office? That person is Dwight. Did you watch Family Matters? It was Steve Urkel. Or maybe you’ve watched Parks & Rec. That person is Larry/Gary/Terry/Barry/Jerry, whom everyone delights in shaming and calling names. And L/G/T/B/Jerry just takes it all in stride, sometimes playing along with whatever the running gag is. He doesn’t seem to get offended, but instead understands the psychology of group behavior and rarely takes it personally, despite the fact that he’s actually very talented in many ways, quite smart, has a beautiful family, and is economically stable. You see, this is a primal thing we do. It’s been bred into us for so many years that unless we’re willing to really step back and take a fearless accounting of how we contribute to the dynamic, it’s almost impossible to be different.
It’s biological. When we lived in actual tribes, these behaviors were helpful. The closer-knit your tribe was, the higher chance your survival rate was. It was crucial to know who was US and who was THEM and to always be assured that you were on the winning aka surviving team. This is hard-wired into our brains. It feels like relief to be surrounded by people that are LIKE you. And if someone threatens that safety? You create the Other and every time you reinforce that perception of Other, your brain rewards you with endorphins that feel like safety. So, if you have to sacrifice one tribal member but that means that the rest of you are safe, well, I guess that was worth it.
We still like to make someone the Other, mainly because that means we aren’t that person. Othering is when we distance ourselves from someone or a group of people who we don’t want to see any similarities with and think of them as distinctly different than us. We make them less than us, and in our minds, that means less than human, which helps us justify our actions and beliefs.
It doesn’t always look like a major thing. No one in my family came right out and said, Leah, we just don’t think you’re one of us. But I felt that way. You notice the eye rolling and crying in frustration and sarcastic comments more than anything else. Most of the time, the comments and gestures “of love” that were heavily laden with religion and hard-wired with strings were the hardest for me to stomach.
Let me give you an example of how this tribal dynamic works. One day I was reading a final draft of the first book I wrote, Not Otherwise Specified, to some of my siblings as we drove for several hours to a family gathering in another state. The passage I was reading was about sexual abuse to me done by a stranger when I was very little. One of my sisters interrupted me and asked, “Why didn’t you stop him?” Another sister asked, “Why didn’t you just run away?”
Let’s explore what happened. I’m a member of a family. They are my tribe. They are listening to a younger member of their tribe talk about something horrific that happened to her and it’s deeply upsetting and brings up fear, anger, and probably other gut emotions that are unclear. In the heat of those uncomfortable feelings, they say certain things but really, they mean something else entirely. Sister 1 is really asking, “How can it be that a member of my tribe had something so horrible happen to her and why did that happen and why didn’t I stop it from happening and could it have happened to me and is it my fault?” and sister 2 is really asking, “How can these things happen in my tribe and if it had been me would I have been able to run away because if she didn’t, maybe I couldn’t have, but that’s too scary to think about so it must be her fault.” Neither one of them said, “It was your fault.” And yet, the feeling they projected to me, out of fear, was that it was my fault. To think otherwise would put the tribe in danger.
Let me give you another example. When I was a teen, my father came to a meeting with my therapist who proceeded to tell him about a rape that had happened to me a couple of years earlier. The first thing my father asked was, “What what she wearing?” Here my father was clearly suggesting the rape was, at least partially, my fault. Putting aside the religious upbringing my father had and the generational beliefs about men, their urges, and women and their responsibility for those urges, my father was also saying, “How could this have happened to a member of my tribe and what does this say about me as the leader and am I responsible and if so, that’s terrifying and I’m not as good of a protector as I thought I was so it must be her fault.” Coming from that point of view, he remained a successful leader of the tribe and no one else was in danger. It should be noted that later in that same conversation my dad pointed out to the therapist that none of his other seven children had any of the problems I had, so therefore, it must be my fault I was the way I was. Classic!
I’ll give you one last example. In my first marriage, my ex-husband’s family exhibited classic tribe behavior. You were either “One of Us” or you were not, and to be “Not” meant being at the sharp end of all the “No, we’re just kidding, we didn’t really mean it that way, you’re too sensitive” jokes. I watched family members scramble to get In after being kicked Out over and over. I had the unique perspective of never really fitting In in the first place, so while I was tolerated for several years, I didn’t ever feel that need or urge to jump through hoops to get or stay In. Plus, I had an entire childhood of being the Other under my belt, so I had a lot of practice when I got married at 17 at being the outcast. My ex-husband, however, had been unconsciously playing this game his entire life, so being married to me could have been quite a liability, but instead it was a bonus. He got to play the “married to the crazy lady” card pretty much always, which worked to his benefit. He always looked like the good guy, the long-suffering guy, the aw-shucks I’m just doing my best guy. And his tribe enfolded him in their tribal love where he was safe and supported.
So, now that we’re all clear on what’s really happening, the logical question is would you like anything to change? You can’t change them, so don’t even try. But, you can change you.
It can feel deeply satisfying to continue being angry and frustrated at your tribe’s lack of empathy and demonstrate that outwardly with your choices and behavior. No one can take that sense of justice from you if you want to keep it and I’m certainly not judging that choice.
But, I am all about holding my own power and Acting on Purpose, not Reacting, whenever possible, so if you do want things to change, here’s how I did it and it might work for you, too.
It can be super tricky to separate what’s actually happening in the physical world from what’s happening just under the surface where all the feelings and energy and things-with-no-words are taking place. That’s the crazy-making part. That’s why your tribe can tell you that you’re making it up and all they want is for you to be happy and then you start to second guess yourself and think man, maybe I AM crazy!
Until you figure out how to see with both sets of eyes, it’s going to be confusing and you’re going to be moving through your life mostly just on instinct.
Here’s what your family is Feeling: fear, anger, frustration, disgust, pride.
Here’s what your family is Projecting to you: Guilt, blame, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, anger.
Here’s what is Real: They feel fear, anger, and are stuck in a pattern they aren’t even aware of and will not confront so there’s no way to fix it.
Here’s what you can Do: See them with compassion, empathy, maybe forgiveness, set good boundaries, cut ties when necessary, focus on yourself, and get free of your old patterns.
When I was young, I wouldn’t clean my room or do any of my chores in a timely manner. It was like it was just beyond me. This wasn’t because I couldn’t clean my room. I knew how and I was really good at organizing, actually. My mom would have to remind, remind, remind, and ultimately beg me to do my chores. Meanwhile, my other siblings had finished ages ago and were off playing outside or with friends. And there I’d be, downstairs in my room, sprawled on the floor atop mountains of toys and clothes and unable to move a muscle. Sometimes crying, sometimes spacing out, always in my own little world.
As an adult I’ve had time to process this behavior and I realize that the core feeling of being “bad” was just too strong for me to do anything “good.” Doing my chores the first time my mom asked would have implied to my tribe that I was “good.” I felt NOT good. I felt very, very bad and in some weird sense of authenticity, I chose to stick with how I really felt and acted bad. I didn’t want to lie with my actions and be good. Which meant, in the long run, I was reinforcing the belief I was bad over and over again which made them see me as the Other.
Understanding this as an adult helps me deal with the gut-instinct that will surface occasionally that is completely contrary to how I’d truly like to be. I can see it as my Little Self trying to be authentic and I can instead choose to be authentic in a different and more constructive way.
The message from your family is that you are a screw-up. Being the screw-up can be a comfortable shell because it’s so familiar and no one expects much. If you want to see yourself differently, you’ll need to do it without needing to make them see you a new way, because if you’re waiting on them, it won’t happen. That’s a beautiful self-sabotaging setup to get caught in and it means things will never be different. You wait – they withhold – you wait – etc.
It can also feel good to be different than the tribe that shuns you. This can make you go to extremes in behavior to distinguish yourself. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be a polar opposite to those in your tribe to be yourself. You probably have things in common with them that you’ve been stuffing down. It’s ok to be like them in some ways if you’re comfortable with those ways.
You’ll need to let go of the need to be “special” in this way. Being the Other means you get to sit back and look at the group and say, I’m not like them. They’re all hypocrites/lemmings/monsters and I’m nothing like them. This creates the feeling of being special and it can be hard to let it go because if you eventually fit in with all of them, what would be so great about you?
Seeing yourself differently means seeing things as they really are: you have some good points and some strong points and a lot of things you could work on. Also, no one is better than anyone else, which means your tribe is all equally as good or bad as you in their own ways. Chances are you’ve been so busy and working so hard at being different than your family, you don’t even know who you truly are deep down anymore. As much as your tribe has been caught in this primal game, you have been, too. It can be scary, but take some time to figure out what’s working for you in your life and let the rest go. You get to choose who you are. People can always, always, always change.
Man, this one is hard. There’s no blame here. It’s a continuous journey to stop playing this part but you can do it. You will never have the life you want if your life is always happening TO you. You can only have the life you want if you are the protagonist in your story. Be the lead. Be the main character. Make the choices. Make decisions on how you want to act and represent yourself. When things go terribly wrong, make level-headed choices, don’t simply react with primal emotions (fear, anger, frustration, disgust, pride).
There are absolutely horrific things that happen to people in this world. The playing field is NOT level. Things are not now fair nor have they ever been so. Sometimes you are stuck in a situation that affords you no relief from abuses. You will not have your needs met. People will fail you.
Take the time to process the feelings that come along with these things if they are or did happen to you. Stuffing them will not help you long-term. And once you feel those feelings, get them out because they will make you ill. They will fester. And if they keep happening, keep processing.
Stop telling yourself the stories about yourself that don’t help and are only partially true, like “everything bad happens to me.” Be fearless in making these changes. Make your life what you want it to be by setting boundaries with those that hurt you and holding others accountable for their actions, all while finding that center inside yourself where you can build peace to sustain your life of intention.*
Were you abused as a child? I was, and this can be particularly challenging for you, but it can be done. You were, in fact, a victim and that can stick to your inner self despite your best efforts. It sets off chain reactions of “life being unfair” and life complies by being unfair. When you’re ready, you have to look around you and decide that whatever happens from this point forward is on you. You need to see your future as your own, no matter what happened in your past. You have to change the way you talk to yourself so that you own everything. From this moment on, so-and-so didn’t do something to you.* So-and-so didn’t ruin your day.* They didn’t make you do anything.* YOU chose to do whatever it was you did.* YOU chose to have a day that was ruined.* No one can make you feel or do anything.*
There is so much freedom and happiness in claiming your life. Your life up until this point may have been the worst and most unfair life in all the unfair lives ever to have been lived, and STILL you can have a wonderful and happy life starting now, even if terrible things happen to you again.
Notice when your tribe isn’t sure what to do with this change and do it anyway. If you manage this change, it is going to send some of them for a loop. You may see them reaching to find someone else in your tribe to make the Other. But, you’ll call them out on it, right?
Find your people. I know you might be used to spending lots of time alone and isolating to limit the amount of horrible days in your life, but it’s time for some fresh air. Somewhere near you are others like you. They are quiet or smart or interesting or outgoing or writers or photographers or into horses or producing music or fermenting food or outdoor sports or whatever it is you’re into. They exist. There might only be one or two or who knows, dozens, in your area but you have to make an effort to find them.
If you don’t feel good about yourself when you’re with someone, then they aren’t your people. Your people should be lifting you up and making you feel like yes, I can do this. Keep exploring until you find the tribe of people that matches your intentions and your heart. They encourage you to improve and want to see you succeed. They’re happy when you’re happy for yourself. They don’t make jokes that belittle you. They don’t tell you you’re always overreacting. They don’t try to make you second-guess yourself and they don’t find it entertaining to keep you on your toes by making you feel uncomfortable.
You’ve been taught to doubt your own judgement. You’ve been reminded of your mistakes over and over again. You’ve been told you’re bad or no good and that you’ll never change. None of that is really you. It’s your tribe’s perception of you.
Who you are is perfectly flawed. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. The difference is in what you do next and how you choose to NOT make that same mistake again. Having an awareness of why something happened is a way to arrange things so the same thing won’t happen again.*
What are you good at? What are your strengths? What do you want to spend you life doing? How are the habits you engage in daily affecting where you want to go in life? Do you dare care?
Who and how you are is a gift to your family dynamic. They might not see that, but that’s ok. You bring something new to the table when you sit in your own strength and stop reacting to their unconscious barbs.
How will you learn your strengths? By spending time with yourself and feeling and thinking and tossing the junk. It’s hard work, no lie. But the reward of owning your life is immeasurable. I try and do a daily self-care activity so I can keep up on any unresolved stuff coming up. Walking, painting, writing, yoga, or pretty much anything you love that feeds your soul or strengthens your body, allowing you time to release, feel, and work through those feelings will work.
Don’t stop bringing up things in real time when you see an old behavior happening. Your brother makes a snide/sarcastic comment or someone tries to box you in with a Never or Always statement and you react like your old self, saying something harsh – take a beat, breathe, decide how you want to Act on Purpose and speak the truth. “I just said something I don’t really mean and I’m sorry. I’m learning how to change that about myself and it’s taking some time. Thank you for being patient while I learn a new skill.” And then get up and leave the room if you need to.
Don’t worry about what they think about you. You can’t change them or how they think or feel. You can only change yourself. One of my favorite quotes is by Martha Graham: “What people in the world think of you is really none of your business.” Stay on task – that task is you. You’re the only one you’re responsible for.
The more clear you are, the better chance you have of them understanding you. Don’t bring them into it by adding anything along the lines of, “you made me so mad” or “because you said.” You’re only talking about you and the changes you want to make for yourself.
So, this is a new one for you probably. If you’re anything like me, I hadn’t denied myself anything in years. I had just gone here and there and everywhere, following every unnamed feeling I had that I was or wasn’t aware of because it didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t do anyway. I was always the bad guy. There’s not a lot of motivation in that scenario to make me care to change anything.
But that meant I wasn’t doing anything On Purpose. I was just doing and doing and digging myself into bigger holes everywhere I went and wondering why nothing ever worked out for me. I drank often and a lot. I used drugs, sometimes compulsively, to numb. I started things and then didn’t finish them like college and jobs and projects. I kept erratic sleeping habits and somehow felt it was an accomplishment when I would stay up all night not realizing I was upsetting my body rhythm and it would take weeks for me to set it right again. And guess what I was doing in those weeks? Yes, I was drinking and using and trying to not feel anything at all. I was avoiding my tribe and seeking out superficial relationships that brought me no happiness and sometimes put me in a lot of danger. I was spending too much money if I had any money at all. I was blaming others for everything that went wrong in my life. I was depressed and unhappy and felt abandoned by everyone including myself.
What I finally had to do was have a long talk with myself. I told myself that for a long, long time I had been trying to cover up all the crappy feelings inside my core by using substances and not sleeping and basically treating myself like a real piece of garbage. And I asked myself if I wanted things to change. I told myself that I was going to try and do better and I made my very first set of lists of “Stuff I Like” and “Stuff I Want To Do” and “Stuff I’m Going To Change.” And then I told myself that because I was trying to learn to love myself I was going to try and be present in my own body and stop running away. I was going to parent myself with love and set good boundaries for myself, things I’d never allowed my own parents to do and had never done for myself up until that point. Things like eating better food and going to bed before midnight and getting outside more and saying nice things to myself and learning something new and maybe, more importantly, things like not hanging out with people that made me feel bad about myself including some members of my family and avoiding opportunities to get trashed and maybe getting a haircut.
And I tried to stop seeing my tribe as Other and to find our similarities. The magic of energy is that if one side changes, the other side has no choice but to change with it. If I become more positive, they have a choice to become more positive as well or more negative. But, either way, I’m more positive and that brings me more happiness. No one else in this life is in charge of your happiness and no one else in this life is in charge of your success.*
This is a lot of hard work and you have to really want it. It takes practice and you will fail a lot. But if you keep getting back up, you will succeed because that in itself is success. Of course, if you’ve cut ties with your family permanently for good reasons like physical/sexual/verbal abuse, you’ll need to learn this stuff on your own. CoDA would be a great place to start.
Also, I love you.
Also, also, here’s a post for your family. xo
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be yourself, to own who you are, since I wrote my last post. I’ve heard from several people who have asked some variation of, “Yes, but *how* do I start being who I want to be and not who I’ve been acting like?”
I don’t know that I have the magic answer, but I do have some ideas to share, as I sit here on the couch in my yoga pants and slippers, unshowered as of yet at 11am on a Wednesday.
Maybe it’s time to sit with being uncomfortable. Change, most of the time, means not being in comfort. Be willing to just stay there and prune in the juices of discomfort.
What if every moment when it comes to the center of your thoughts, you think, “Am I acting/behaving like who I really am right now?” Would you be able to change something, maybe a thought or a word, to be more real?
What if we started by looking at others with less judgement, allowing them to evolve into who they are without us already thinking we know everything about them, wouldn’t that make it easier for us to evolve, too?
I think most of us are just trying to fill the suit we’ve got on. It sometimes doesn’t fit very well, but it’s what others expect us to be wearing, and so we comply. We keep pushing up the sleeves and rolling up the hems and taping the buttons closed on the inside to get rid of the weird gap thing that happens across the chest or slightly unbuttoning the last button because it’s just a little too snug across the hips or using an elastic band to extend the too-small waistband or piling on layer after layer to hide underneath. I look around the room and I see a lot of people wearing a lot of pretend suits (Me, included.) and only a sparing few who come across as the person they really feel like inside.
I stopped shaving. First I stopped shaving under my arms. My pits had been turning darker and darker for a few years and the doctor told me that although it was “ugly” (his words), it wasn’t harmful and probably due to a reaction from my deodorant or maybe a bacteria, he wasn’t sure. It looked kind of like large birthmarks under each arm. He told me that every time you shave, you open yourself up to a bacteria imbalance. I read that it could be an hormonal imbalance (most likely in my case). I was developing small, hard nodules in my lymph system and I wanted to see if I could encourage them and the dark spots to go away by not shaving and instead using coconut oil in my pits. So I stopped using any kind of deodorant and I stopped shaving on the same day about 18 months ago. Scientists will tell you that it was a terrible idea to do both at the same time because now I’ll never know which one worked, but the hard nodules are gone, as is the darker skin.
After about a year I wondered why I shaved anywhere on my body. What’s wrong with hair on girls, anyway? I did a little research about the history of women shaving and decided that if I couldn’t come up with a compelling reason to keep shaving my body, I was going to just stop. Did I love doing it? Did I love the way it looked? Did it make me feel more beautiful? Was there some medical reason to keep doing it? Who am I hoping notices and why?
So, I did stop shaving last May and so far hardly anyone has said anything to me about it. But, I’m more aware. I wear long skirts, but I did that anyway, but now I feel it more, you know? I don’t go get a pedicure at the place down the road anymore because last time, the lady doing mine made a joke and I didn’t know what to say back. It’s a little uncomfortable to be in this skin, but it feels more real to me and like I’m being more myself than before, so I stick with it.
I tell you all of this because it’s part of sitting with myself and being who I am. I’m pruning. Do I feel ugly or pretty and why does it matter if there is hair on my legs? Do I want someone else to see my legs and comment? Is it just to fit in? If I don’t fit it, what does that say about me? What if other people think I’m ugly? Why do I care? Do I care if other women (or men) have legs/arms/faces that are shaved or not? Am I judging them on something so superficial? If so, why? (This woman with a beard is pretty amazing.)
I think what I’m hoping is to be ok with me just as I am. Not later, when I’ve shaved or put on makeup or dressed up or lost weight or fit in with the cool kids or earned a degree or done something else spectacular, but NOW. I want to just be ok right this second, sitting in my own skin and not someone else’s idea of the suit I should be wearing or my idea of the suit I’m guessing the other person wants me to wear. I want to feel happy and satisfied to be me while I own all my faults and all the stuff that I’d like to change and all the stuff that’s good about me, too. I’m just me no matter what and I guess I got super tired of pretending anything else.
I’m not saying everyone should stop shaving in order to be themselves. I’m suggesting that you might be doing or saying things that aren’t really who you feel like you are inside, because you think others expect it. Maybe take a look at that and dare to sit in the uncomfortable moment and feel.
I love this time of year, I said, in super serious sincerity.
Chunky sweaters. (HAHAHAHAHAhahahaha just kidding. It hasn’t been lower than 75 and it’s going to be 93 on Friday.)
Hot drinks make more sense (because I drink them even in the sweltering heat of summer).
Less people at the beach, which leaves more room to enjoy the gorgeous sunsets.
The promise of holidays around the corner and the chance to see family.
Things feel, I don’t know, more cozy.
And then it all starts to tilt sideways.
The first thing that happens is my mind starts to whirrrr with the possibilities of ideas. This part is exiting! Yay! New ideas! And then the moon turns blood red and mercury goes into retrograde and too many people get into pumpkin flavored EVERYTHING [Et Tu, Chobani!?] and whoopsie, that’s where the tilting starts.
Just when I’m thinking about all the awesome things I’d like to do, my mind/body won’t cooperate. Like, Shut Down for business. Taking a shower becomes an Olympic event and staring out the window at the dappled sunshine on the patio is as much movement that happens for hours. The leaves are so beautiful! They’re so beautiful I guess I’ll cry about it.
I remember this. It happens in the fall of every year. Some years it’s more severe than others. The cosmic energy shifts and suddenly watching a documentary narrated by David Attenborough where a seal pup doesn’t make it will keep me in tears for hours because the pup’s mom is clearly in pain and grieving as she bellows into the rocks and hugs her lifeless pup with her neck and chest and head.
And then one afternoon I’m skimming through feeds and follow a link to a NYT piece about Rosemary Kennedy and I can’t sleep, the pain and grief are so poignant and sharp in my chest. (Seriously, don’t read that, or anything about Rosemary Kennedy’s life if you aren’t in a strong place.) I can barely whisper, “I read about Rosemary Kennedy’s life today,” to Joe as he’s falling asleep. “Do you need to go talk to someone about that,” asks Joe, who of course has previously understood how unfairly she was treated and is now looking at me with eyes filled with great concern, understanding how deeply I might be feeling this.
I shake my head no, wait for him to start breathing deeply, and then turn over and play a couple of hours of Nat Geo Bonza puzzles on my phone until my mind numbs enough and I can join him. The sound of Joe’s steady breathing pulls me into dreams where old, tired scenes are played out filled with people from my past.
When I woke up this morning I realized two things:
1. This is my 44th year on this planet and not one previous fall ever prepares me for the one-two-punch of a coming September and October.
2. If fall is all about the holidays, I’m making a new one called The Autumnal Melancholia Festival (trademark copyright hashtagCryTogether hashtagSeasonOfFeelings). We shall wear jeans, boots, chunky sweaters, (HAHAHAHA) sit around sipping hot lavender tea (that’s a thing, right?) and cry about deeply moving things that hurt our hearts this time of year. We can be introspective and clear our throats a lot. I might have some clever hankies in a drawer somewhere. We’ll do art. You’re all invited. Bring a scarf and a dark-colored, corduroy jacket. No membership fees. Who’s in?
I made this drawing of me at age 4. I wanted to remember that at one time, I did have sparkle in my eyes and I was happy as a kid. My thoughts this time of year turn inky, deep, and sad, so it helps to look at this version of myself while I wait for November to arrive. And November WILL arrive, my friends. (If you’re reading this, you aren’t annihilated. Congratulations. And life continues as per usual. Starting after The Autumnal Melancholia Festival, I mean.)
I had the experience the other day of being in a room full of people who are similar to me in many ways. It’s a new feeling for me to be in a group I truly identify with. This is happening to me more and more as I seek to spend my time doing only the things that are important to me. I keep letting go of activities (and sometimes people) that keep me from thinking and feeling actively though life. I don’t want to be numb anymore. Life’s too short to waste and I only want to spend wisely. I feel a great sense of peace with this lifestyle and that’s also really nice.
This particular group on this particular day was a room full of people who feel deeply and sometimes *more* than others due to an actual brain characteristic in the insula. The name of the characteristic is Highly Sensitive Person and about 15-20% of the human population has this trait, as do about 100 other mammal species. (This is not to be confused with a sensory processing disorder. Here’s the difference.) You can find out much more here and take a self-test here.)
Professionally, this high level of intuition and empathy makes me great at what I do. As an energy healer and H&W Mentor, I learn from the subtleties of what my client’s energy is telling me without them having to say much of anything to me. Many times, I do this without them even having to be in the same room as me and I actually do the bulk of my sessions over Skype. This gift makes it possible for me to help them more than if I had words and facial clues alone to work with.
Setting my “Professional Self” aside, in a non-professional relationship, I used to talk mainly in hints, not to be vague, but to be gentle and gauge the room without hurting others. I would read my husband‘s face without him saying a word and if he was talking, I would read the subtext with where his eyes looked or how the edges of his mouth turned down. The phrase, “But, that’s not what your face looks like,” has been uttered by me to him on numerous occasions when I found incongruity between his words and his facial tones.
I notice how my child is breathing and if the tone of their voice goes up or down or quieter. I feel/hear/sense vibrations from electrical things that give me a headache or feel like they’ve highjacked my heart and want to make it explode. If I hear dramatic music from a movie coming from the other room (where I’ve probably gone because I can’t handle the violence or award-winning drama of said film) and I can’t see what’s going on, I still get a racing heart and will sometimes cry from anxiety. When I’m in a public place that has a lot of people, I feel their emotions to the degree of being distracted from what I’m trying to do if I’m not carefully aware of my own boundaries and what’s mine and what’s theirs. I get exhausted from being in groups too long and plan to be home with nothing to do at least one day a week and mostly won’t answer the phone unless it’s one of my kids or my husband to give myself a chance to recharge.
If I get over-stimulated, I literally can’t think well anymore and can’t make even simple decisions like if I’m hungry or what I’d like to eat and then more often than not, I cry, waving my hands in front of my face to get my husband to stop asking me questions. I will get headaches and occasionally forget how to get home or even forget how to do non-thinking things like swallow and will choke on my own saliva.
Thankfully, I haven’t had any of those experiences in quite some time because of all the prep work I do to make my life the experience I want it to be. Running a Meetup group last year and speaking in front of others at conferences has helped me find my inner “Out” person. Being in public and having everyone looking at me has slowly become easier if I plan it right. I thought all of this went part and parcel in the life of someone who used to live with mental illnesses. How interesting to find out that no, it’s not. It’s just been an added layer I had to navigate. I never would have believed it if you could have told me five years ago how much my life would be different now than it was then.
The past few months I’ve been studying and training to include healing techniques specifically for HSPs in anticipation of how much this could help many of my clients. Which brings us back to the room on that day recently when I felt truly with my tribe.
There was a woman talking about how she felt like she would literally die if she exposed her inner self and became vulnerable in front of someone else and I knew what she was talking about SO DEEPLY.
So many times my husband and I will have the conversation that if I need something, just ask because he’s not a mind-reader. My inability to sometimes just ask straight out will trigger his own co-dependency radar. And once he’s on alert, it’s really all downhill from there. One of us feels bad and frustrated (him) because the other one of us is crying and unable to vocalize how they’re feeling (me).
I see this in a whole new light now. I *do* literally feel like I’m going to die if I ask for something I really, really need or that is close to my heart. My heart rate increases. I feel blood rushing to my head. My palms get sweaty. My face gets red. I want to run for my life. You could easily replace my husband with a lion tracking me as their prey and the result would be the same. The shift is in identifying that vulnerability and that I have a need to protect my inner core at all costs.
This is all information and information is good. Information helps us learn and grow through things. It helps us make small course corrections and navigate to the place we truly want to be. Just like five years ago I wouldn’t have believed my life now, I bet five years from now things will be even better, which is hard to believe given that I’m so happy.
How many days did I sit in silence and say nothing about my sadness until it turned to desperation? How many nights did I lay awake, worrying and running through emergency evacuation plans that I’d never need before I spoke out loud to someone, anyone, that I thought there might be something wrong? I couldn’t tell you, the number is too high.
When your thoughts are lying to you about who you are and how the people around you feel about you, find one true thing. When you don’t know who you are anymore and it feels like it’s been years since you felt like yourself, look for it – just that one true thing about you. Find it. Hold on to it. Write it down. Tell it to someone else. Mutter it over and over to yourself. Who cares? You already feel crazy.
I remember the inside of my body felt like a numb wasteland, an eternity of nothing, because I knew if I felt anything, or just the tiny hint of something, I’d truly and fully lose it. “It” being any hold on any bit of sanity I still laid claim to. Feeling one tiny bit of a feeling, or heaven forfend one whole feeling, meant ALL the feelings would come rushing in on me like a tidal wave and I would die. It was too much. Safety was in the numb part, even if it meant misery for eternity. Misery I knew. Misery I understood. Misery and I had BFF necklaces and did each others hair on a Saturday night.
Days, weeks, months, years. All in varying shades of numb and feelings of depression, anxiety, fear and sadness. And then I found a tiny bit of magic that would get me through the toughest times – just one true thing about myself. It didn’t matter what it was or what else it related to as long as it was my true thing.
In that moment when a person who cares about you, who is saying to you how much they love you, and maybe they’re saying the right things and maybe everything they say is exactly wrong but they mean well, and you can’t find your way over to connect with them or their words because you’re lost in a sea of numbness, and sadness is hanging over you like a thick darkness waiting to descend if you look directly at it – right then you pull out your one true thing and use it like a shield and a lifeline and a light to get to them. It works because truth is truth, even if it’s something unrelated or silly, and it’s perfect.
In that moment where you’re all alone, truly and utterly, and you can’t imagine a world without so much pain and you know for sure you’ll never feel anything resembling something close to joy ever again (in fact, you can’t remember the last time you felt anything like joy in the first place) and your feelings are crushing in on you and it seems like there’s got to be a way out – then. Right exactly then is when you bring out your one true thing and tell it to yourself over and over again because it’s true and even though the rest of the stuff in your brain FEELS like it’s true, it isn’t. Replace it with your one true thing.
And when the time comes that you feel absolutely nothing, Zip, Nada, Zilch, when you feel swallowed up in the vacuous hole and it’s preferable, this feeling nothing, because the pain has stopped and you know you could stay there forever and ever if your kids or your partner didn’t keep bugging you and how sad for them that they have to put up with you, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they didn’t – grab it. Grab your one true thing and write it down on paper and tape it to the mirror and the tv and the fridge and then tattoo it on your wrist if you need to because it’s true and the lies aren’t.
Here are some of the True Things I’ve collected over the years.
#1 My left foot is slightly larger than my right foot. That’s true. I have the data (and feet) to support that statement. That statement is not subjective to my feelings, my feelings that can lie straight to my face without blinking. Yep. No getting around it, my left foot is slightly bigger than my right one.
#4 I can waggle my nostrils. Rain or shine, you get a kid in front of me and I can waggle my nostrils to beat the band until they crack a smile and it feels like I won the lottery.
#7 I make the best grilled cheese in the world. I used to enjoy a grilled cheese made by someone else, but really, I make the best ones. Come over sometime and I’ll make you one and wistfully watch you eat it because gluten.
#8 I like the color purple-blue that happens in the sky right where the clouds hit the edge of the horizon and go deeper. That color is slashed somewhere deep in my soul and I feel it on an overcast day the most.
#22 I will never like eggplant. It’s ok. I admit it. Let’s just get it over with and out there – eggplant grosses me out. I’d rather eat okra, and well, okra…not my favorite. (But, at least it isn’t eggplant.)
#25 Blowing bubbles through a tiny wand yanked out of a neon-pink plastic bottle with a cartoon of a unicorn badly plastered on it makes me incredibly happy. Blowing bubbles makes me take steadier breaths and calms me down. Watching bubbles float soothes my mind chatter. Seeing them pop is fun.
It’s been a long time since I had to use one of my One True Things to save my sanity, but it doesn’t stop me from using them every now and again anyway. And I keep collecting new ones, because the more I am myself, the more room I have for all the things about me. (If that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, you might not have a depression or anxiety problem.)
If you’re in a place right now where you’re being lied to by depression and crazy-thought-making and numbness, think of one true thing about yourself and remind yourself who you are. If you think you might hurt yourself, please call a hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 800-273-8255. (Here are some other hotline numbers.) You are not alone. People do care. That’s the truth, and that’s coming from someone who collects beer caps and wine corks for a project that may or may not ever happen. (#17 on my list of True Things.)
If you have some true things about yourself you’d be willing to share, I’d love to read them.
When my kids were young, when we first came back from Germany, when my marriage to the other guy was being held together with tape and googly eyes, when I couldn’t breathe, when I couldn’t think, when I wasn’t on meds and needed them badly, when I was dissociating, I took the kids to the beach.
My feet, which had walked way too far and way too long to get there, were suddenly surrounded by rushing water and the Space of Nothing I needed. The water was cold and fast and then pulled at my soul before it receded, taking my fears, confusion, disappointments and grief with it on its way back out to sea.
This was “Our Beach” and the kids knew how far they could walk and still yell into the surf and find me. There were huge boulders and small crabs and hot sand for miles. There was my daughter wearing her suit with the rainbow, ruffled rumba-butt, worried what might be lurking in the water that she couldn’t see. And my oldest refusing to have fun because he was just-that-much-too-cool and pulling a towel over his body, taking a nap nestled in the grains of sand while the sun kissed a slice over his leg when the make-due-blanket slid down.
And there were my other two boys, unashamed to have hard, wild and loud fun, running into the waves, grabbing boogie boards and refusing to let me swipe sunscreen on them because they just can’t stop running right now, Mommy. Can’t stop right now, but soon.
I sat. I watched. I stood at the edge of the world where the packed, wet sand meets eternity, with my feet sinking lower and lower with every pull of water and wondered who I was, where I went, and how I could find me.
In the summer more people came. More and more each year. Parking got harder. Walking was further. The jugs of water, towels, sunbathers and canopies that dotted the sand got closer and closer together. The water began to burst with more and more surfers and swimmers but we didn’t stop going to Our Beach because, well, it was ours. No matter what else it was, it was ours.
The world ended one spring, just as we had started going back to Our Beach that year, and I had a vacation in a mental hospital with strangers that knew me better than anyone else. Within minutes the kids had moved with their dad to what might as well have been another country and I had no passport. The gates closed on Our Beach and we never went back.
I spent the next ten years or forever driving past Our Beach every other weekend and sometimes in the middle of the week on a Thursday to see them play sports or be in a play, using any excuse to get to watch their faces talk about everything, anything, please talk about something, to me.
I looked out the window at that water and wondered what it did with all my secrets. But I never went back to Our Beach because it wasn’t ours anymore. It was just a regular beach now, like a hundred other beaches, one that belonged to everyone else in the world more than me or us.
I’m finding new beaches now with my guy, the guy that stands by me when the tide is high or low. I don’t claim these wild beaches or try to make them my own. I understand better that the magic when the water races to the shore and dances around your feet, pulling out the grief and sadness, belongs to everyone. You can’t own a wild thing, anyway. It’s just pretending to think you can and I don’t need to pretend anymore.
I sit. I breathe. I stand in the surf on the edge of the world and watch my guy swim out into the magic and feel so much joy it hurts in a delicious and comforting way, now that I’m healing, now that I’m happy in my soul where it’s quiet, now that I can breathe, now that I can think, now that I’ve found myself.
Heal Something Good is available for Pre-Order here.
This week’s class is super close to my heart. With all the “getting-well” I’ve been doing these past three years, managing how my brain is responding to the changes I’m making has been sometimes challenging but mostly exciting.
I’m really looking forward to this week’s group and going in more depth about the process I’ve used and what might work for others. Getting your head on straight goes hand-in-hand with healing the other parts of your body, especially your gut.
PS. The photo above reminds me of what it feels like when I’m trying to find the direction I want to go with my life. This way? Or that way?
You guys. I’m oh-so-close to being done with Heal Something Good, the book I’ve been working on for the past three years.
This has been a labor of love. My last book, Not Otherwise Specified, was such a deep journey of mental discovery that I would never call it “Light” or “Nurturing.” I mean, the subject matter includes suicide attempts and graphic material. It’s an important book for what it is and I continue to get letters of appreciation from people who have found it helpful on their own journeys, which is why I leave it up and available.
But. But! Heal Something Good is light and nurturing and full of joy. It’s educational and fun. I’ve enjoyed every moment of writing and putting it together. Who knew learning about supporting our whole body in healing could be so fun?!
I was asked the other day if my new book was *just* for someone healing from chronic illness or *just* someone healing from mental illness and the answer is an emphatic no.
Show me someone who doesn’t have some physical, emotional or mental healing to attend to and I’ll show you someone who is an imaginary person. Life happens and during that “happens” we encounter all kinds of things that damage us. And surprise! It’s all connected inside us. Our emotions are connected to our body systems are connected to our mental well-being is connected to our emotions. (See what I did there?)
Heal Something Good hits on all that and more. If you have experienced life, I dare say you’ll find it helpful.
The image below was taken just the other day when the sun was out and tapping me on the shoulder and whispering in my ear and I was thinking about you, how happy I feel and how I want to tell you all about it.
“But, what do you have? What are you?”
Oh, right. This is the part where I’m supposed to list all the illnesses and diseases and disorders I’ve collected over my lifetime and use their proper medical terms. This is how we measure each other up, to find out where we fall in the Diagnosis Scale. Are we the same? Are we different? If I told you, would you have an immediate recognition of how I feel right now because you’ve got “IT,” too?
Using this shorthand is not meant to be insulting or belittling. It’s meant to cut to the chase and find out where your battle scars are. It’s the fastest and easiest way to get to know someone else sitting in the waiting room to see the doctor or in line at the grocery store reading a magazine about health. It’s the quickest way to find out if you want to keep having a conversation with this person. And if you’ve been struggling for months, years, maybe they know of a good support group or a treatment you haven’t yet tried.
It’s Dating for Sick People.
After years and years, I’ve collected quite a pile. My suitcase is full. Disorder-this and Ailment-that. And when I open up the case and take a look I realize – hey. I don’t really want those.
How validating is it to have a medical professional tell you that what you’ve been feeling, what you’ve been struggling with for so long, what you’ve been trying to tell people about and make them believe is happening to you, that THING that is making you feel like the pits – is real? And it has a name. And here is that name. Blessings, my child, now we know what to call you.
You feel like you’re going crazy, what with all the symptoms that don’t add up and the tests you’ve been taking that come back negative and the unexplained pain and trips to Urgent Care on the weekend. Can’t someone just please tell me what is wrong with me? And if one more doctor pats you on the head and tells you to just go home and get some rest, maybe consider an anti-depressant, you’re going to go crazy. Maybe you are crazy. You’re tired of being “ish.”
And then they do. They do finally tell you what’s wrong with you and they give it a name, a diagnosis, and then that’s that. You have IT. Are IT.
And it’s such a relief, right, that it has a name? And you can tell people like Judgy McJudgerson that have doubted you all this time that Name and that you have IT, and it feels better, just a little bit, that they know a doctor told you what it was. That the tests were positive. And sometimes it even has a treatment plan, along with drugs meant to help stop whatever is happening that’s causing you such distress. And sometimes those drugs *do* help and sometimes they only have *a few* side effects and dangit, that’s awesome and you’re thankful.
When you get woken up with pain or you can’t get out of bed or you miss your kids school event or have to go home because the mall was too crowded and too loud or you get tired just walking down the driveway to get the mail – you remind yourself that it’s ok, because you have IT. People have to understand and you can be easier on yourself, let go of the shame and guilt. You know IT’s name.
So. There I am looking in my suitcase and whoa. There’s a lot in there and they are varied and some are “worse” than others and I don’t want them anymore. I don’t want to use it as a shorthand to allow someone to get to know me faster and easier. I don’t want to own them at all.
I’m going to dis-own them. Maybe one-by-one like petals from a flower. Maybe all at once and watch them swirl down the drain like foamy residue from shampooing.
I don’t want to be called “mentally ill” or “physically ill” ever again. I’m not those things. And neither are you.
And there’s something so freeing in banning “fibromyalgia” and “lupus” and “bipolar” and and and….. I’m not a diagnosis or a disease. I’m no one and nothing that can be categorized and typecast with such simple terms.
What I am is healing and getting better and better every day. What I am is a human with some bodily systems that need support. What I am is in love with my body that continues to try and try and has kept me alive for 43 years. What I am is ecstatic that I keep getting new days and new mornings where the sun comes out and I can tell my Self in the mirror that it’s going to be a great day. And mean it. And every step I take away from the name of a disease that has been hanging on me for years I feel more joy and happiness than I can express. We aren’t meant to be burdened with illness.
What you are is strong and brilliant. You wouldn’t be alive right now if you weren’t. Your body is trying and coping in the best way it can to help you survive. You, too, could try calling yourself by, and talking about yourself in, more-than-illness terms. Don’t let IT own you. Let go of the validating feeling you get from reminding yourself you have IT and instead validate your body in new ways. The guilt and shame you carry for “failing” at doing the things you want to do in your life due to your “Illnesses” isn’t needed. It never was. Being kind and gentle with your body that is STILL ALIVE and working on your behalf? That’s enough. That’s perfect.
Thank you, stomach, for trying your best to digest the food I eat. Thank you, ribs, for holding together for me every day. Thank you, knees, for hanging in there all these years. And thanks, circulatory system and hypothalamus, for heating up and letting me know I need to slow it down a little.