You waited until the house was empty, dug out a cigarette from the pack you had hidden between mattress and frame, lit up, and drew in the cool, mentholated smoke. There was a buzz in the center of your chest, half pleasure, half pain, a nervous purr in your abdomen. You exhaled, letting go of the smoke like a secret you could no longer keep.
It was not the quiet thrill of nicotine you wanted, but the rush of the forbidden, of sneaking out and getting into the exiled boyfriend’s car, of kissing a stranger after closing time as he pressed you into the back wall, of sitting alone on circle of frostbitten grass with a flask of purloined whiskey raised to your lips. You tell a lie and lying gets easier. You go for sex over intellect and then intellect over sex until the two never meet. You learn that good and bad are mutually exclusive: you cannot be both at once and so you must choose who you are in each changing moment.
At this moment you are good, but there have been times of great confusion, when the smoke was thick inside and out and you were lightheaded with lack of oxygen. All around you now is the smell of burning wood, soothing and earthy, and the promise of a hidden cigarette, the anticipation of the slug of whiskey that tastes of charred oak. The white car waits to drive you off the edge, the man corners you in the bar. You feel his warmth before you turn around.
It is only your imagination, you reassure yourself. Those who are forgotten must also forget. So you leave the cigarette in its pack. You set fire to dead wood. You live off the excitement of a controlled burn and sit back and let the flames consume your anxiety.
Image Some rights reserved by james_michael_hill.
Me, smoking, rebellion, and fire. It is where my writing is at right now. But I do not actually want to smoke cigarettes. I am not pursuing the pointless.
A young, Black woman addicted to crack cocaine puts her newborn in a cardboard box on top of a pile of trash. The next morning, she finds the baby gone, presumably taken away with that week’s garbage. She assumes he is dead, but he has actually been rushed off to the hospital. A middle-aged, White hospital social worker and her husband adopt the baby. The young woman gets clean, finds out her boy is alive, and sues for parental rights. Race (understandably) plays a large part in the narrative.
The paper topic?
We are to write an essay on the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural identity development of the main female characters, with a focus on the feelings, people, and experiences they elicited. We also need to answer the question What happened in the story that allowed you to recall a similar incident from your personal life?
Watching a movie that involves a young, down and out woman abandoning her baby and then believing that the baby is dead, near the anniversary of my first son’s birth/death . . . well. And her baby turns out to be alive! What if my son had lived? What would it be like to have a son out there in the world? What if I had been allowed to right the wrongs of my pregnancy? Can I even imagine such a thing? Should I?
In the movie, the two mothers share their love for Isaiah. In my life, I share the loss of a child with Isaiah’s natural mother. We are connected by guilt, shame, and loss.
But how much of this “similar incident” do I want to include in my paper?
Counseling graduate programs are meant to stir up emotion, to get students to recognize the places that still ache so that they can deal with that ache as much as possible before they start to work with clients. But often there is not enough recognition that these aches are deep, old, and complicated. They require a delicate touch, an acknowledgment of what people have lived through. There is no room in the classroom for such pain. There is no time. Instead, students are often left feeling vulnerable, agitated, and alone.
In the last two years, I have written papers about the worst of my childhood. I have sat through long, too-detailed discussions on when a counselor needs to report that a minor client is having sex or being sexually exploited. I have participated in role plays in which one person plays the female rape victim and the other plays the male counselor on call. I have been reminded of that horrible, lonely pregnancy and the aftermath of the death of boy who was not meant to be.
I know the timing of my first pregnancy and its sad outcome are not totally unusual. Teenage girls get pregnant. They don’t always get prenatal care. Difficult childhoods abound. However, I hope my experience of being sixteen and giving birth at home to a stillborn baby is rare. I hope that my fellow graduate students have never experienced such a thing. I hope I am the only one who is triggered by the story of a mother who was not ready to parent and so almost lost her child forever.
But my story is relevant. It is part of what informs me as a counselor-in-training. It is a part of who I am. Perhaps I will include it in the paper, supplying the facts without the pain, the events without the backstory, the details without the guilt. It can be another step in ridding myself of the deep shame that stubbornly permeates my sense of self.
Maybe. We’ll see.
Image Some rights reserved by Www.CourtneyCarmody.com/. Hopefully, I will start using more colorful images again soon.
It frightened me how quickly I could conjure you up, how I felt the slow tingle of addiction course through my veins. I wanted the thing I should not have. I had to be crafty to get it, to be a liar, a sneak. It was the feeling of getting away with something, the cool burn of whisky sipped from a flask in a car doing 90 down a one-lane dirt road and his hand was too high on my thigh, and all around us was dust like smoke, and it was only that moment that mattered, the moment before I got what I so badly wanted.
I could never possess you. I did not really want to. You were a symbol, a sign of my arrested development. At 18, I had the romantic maturity of a middle schooler with the body and quasi-freedom of a college freshman. It is only lately that my emotions have caught up with the rest of me. And I am so sad right now, so sad and slow, that for a moment I conjured you back, a boy with whom I barely spoke.
For I am slipping into the trough again, feeling low, incompetent, and bleak. I have accepted that I will never feel that frisson of danger again and am ok with that. Been there, done that, should have gone for therapy and antidepressants first. But as I slip, I wish there was another way to feel the thrill of pursuing the pointless, to get a little pick-me-up from the other side of the abyss.
A Helmut Lange 1967 fashion photograph from an article at the Daily Mail.
In one of Helms’s more light-hearted moments, she exhorts White folks to embrace the good things about being White. I honored this thought-provoking book by eating that soothing bowl of “potatoes,” one of the whitest meals around in terms of both color and culture. (While some people might question whether instant mashed potatoes are “good,” they are a comfort.) This does not mean that all White people love sitting down to a nice fresh bowl of reconstituted potato flakes or that Black, Asian, Latino, or Native American folks never even think of eating such a side dish. However, in terms of mass culture, I think I can make the leap that instant mashed potatoes are generally a White person thing. But I could be wrong.
Race is a sticky, sticky subject. It is often one I avoid. Last year, in my multicultural foundations in counseling class, we had to write a paper about our cultural heritage. Like many of the other White people in my class, I originally came up short. Were we talking about the culture of strip malls and Velveeta cheese? Did those meals of chicken and dumplings with my grandmother count? Was I German-Irish-Who-Knows-What-Else-American? What about my values, whatever they were? Did they count as “White”? I thought of the culture I grew up in as being one made up almost exclusively of me and my mother. We bucked the system and formed our own society, that of the Alienated Adoptee and her progeny. But we still existed in a larger, generally White world. I had to face it. White culture existed and I was a part of it.
Writing that paper was the first time in my life that I accepted the fact that I was a WASP both by birth and world view, despite the lapsed Irish Catholic side of the family and my mother’s anti-WASP screeds. But see how deftly I just switched the topic from race to religion? It is easier. It keeps me from looking at how dominant White culture is in this country, so ubiquitous that it is invisible to some of us. Most White people just assume it is the backdrop to life, the way for everyone to Be.
My stomach is fluttering. This is difficult to talk about. I do not want to offend any person of any shade. Putting myself out there on this topic is difficult and I barely even have a toe exposed. But I am trying to talk more directly about race and its effects, about the privilege that comes with being White. I think (I hope) Helms would put me mostly in the Immersion/Emersion phase of White identity development, which “requires one to assume personal responsibility for racism and to understand one’s role in perpetuating it . . . Perhaps more importantly, however, it requires the person to face the feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety that were pushed out of awareness during the internalization-of-racism phase of White identity development” (pp. 71-72).
The guilt is heavy and the anxiety is high. Looking at how I have benefited from and contributed to racism is a painful task. But it also feels hopeful. It feels right. And I have a long way to go.
(Note: The capitalization of White, Black, etc. is both Helms’s choice and follows the style guidelines of the American Psychological Association; White people in this context are European-Americans who “have been assimilated and acculturated into the White Anglo-Saxon culture as it exists in the United States” pp. v-vi.)
Let us have a moment of silence for him, a newborn, a never-born, and for me, sixteen and lost on a cold November morning, shaking, bloodied, and naked on a pink plaid quilt on an old twin bed in a cottage heated by kerosene.
Because that’s where we were, 28 years ago today, before the sun rose on an East Coast Sunday. It is far away enough now to feel like fiction. The girl has become a character and the boy a symbol, but the fact is we were real and our lives were cheap.
I stole and I was stolen from and was left with bruises and scars and the kind of guilt that had me burying bodies in my dreams for years afterward. There is no longer anyone left to blame; our abandonment just was. It was not personal.
I used to think what happened to me didn’t count. I thought that I did not deserve to grieve, that his death was a punishment. The boy was an extension of me and I was not good, so part of me died and who was I to cry, to mourn what was never wanted?
I no longer think that way.
Image Some rights reserved by gari.baldi.
As part of my search for clarity about grad school, I went to an intuitive today. I left feeling grounded and more sure of myself. I have a better idea of what I want to do, though I am not writing about it until I talk to my family, who are out of town for the weekend. One of the surprising things that came up, totally unprompted, were my preteen and early teen years and how they connect to my current doubts about my abilities. We did not delve into particular events, just pushed deep enough for me to recognize that the formative tween years get short shrift in my narrative, get pushed aside by the overlap of life, death, and loss that came before and after. That in between time has its stings and insecurities, its layered silences, its insults that I learned to accept as matters of fact.
The intuitive told me I need to separate who I am from how people treated me. I was not – I am not – what happened to me. It is a simple, profound thought that bears repeating. I am not what happened to me. You are not what happened to you. We are separate from our experiences. Yes, we can use those experiences to inform our lives and, yes, the experiences shape us, but what happened to us, particularly in childhood, does not define the essence of who we are or were. What happened was not about us. It was not our fault. It was about the people around us, the ones obsessed with destruction, or the ones who pretended nothing was going on, or the ones who knew, but felt powerless to help.
I feel sorry for those people from my past, trapped in the stickiness of their unhappiness, unable to do anything but try to trap others. Still, those years inform me, are a part of who I am, and who I am is good, damn it. But I am not yet at the point where I can totally forgive. I have a lot of righteous anger to feel first.
In the dark night of the soul, anger, sadness, and mourning come before the dawn. Perhaps all will be clear when day breaks, but the light on the horizon is still a few hours out. In the meantime, I invite in the child I once was. I make her a cup of tea and a comfortable bed and tell her she is fine just as she is. In the morning, we will let go of what came before as best we can.
Image from Citizens Voice.
Maybe it was the job you wished you had, so you tossed away hours daydreaming about it while the world swirled around you. Maybe some distant city attracted the sparkle of your mind – if only you lived there, everything would be better. Or it was a woman. Or a man. Somebody else. Anyone else. But let’s leave you out of this. I can only focus on what I know about myself. I spent years on and off with part of my mind dedicated to crushes, to adolescent, projected puppy love. Even now, crushless, I cordon off a vital part of my imagination, a vital part of my vulnerability, by letting the shadow of memory hang over the present.
It is like remembering the decadent meal I never had at a restaurant I could ill afford. It is a jealous, grasping recollection of dust and stale bread disguised as intimate laughter on skin-warm nights. I seek the crumbs. I collect information. I track down leads. I sweep the floor and gather my gritty winnings in a jeweled box. There is a compulsion to my gathering and hoarding. And in the process I miss what gleams around me.
Today I came across a picture of an old crush with his current squeeze, or it came across my Facebook feed. I wasn’t looking for it and it didn’t bother me in any way but this: why did I waste so many years thinking about this person? During my long season of crushing, I was always coupled. Nothing would ever have come of it. And I probably wanted it that way, wanted to remain safe, with the tingling, dangerous thrill of what would never happen.
In a recent reply to a friend’s comment, I mentioned my issues with vulnerability. I have been trying to untangle vulnerability from weakness, but there are knots in the twine and my fingers are stiff with cold, and sometimes it feels like I twist it up all over again. Still, I have made progress. I can now see how often I distract myself.
I see the game. I seek and find, I grasp and gather. I pay attention to what is not important to keep me from focusing on what is. I know it. Now how to get past it?
Image of Cupid’s bow and arrow (in San Francisco!) by Miles Actually.
My palms were calloused. My lips bitten. My toes cranky after being jammed into shoes with points so sharp they may as well have been shivs. This was my prison break and there were fractured bones and shattered light bulbs and barroom bathrooms where a friend watched the door and no one dare sit on the toilet. What did I care? I was made for this and this was pure rebellion, a reaction against stereotype, me the wide-eyed drug mule with a heart of lead, with nails of sharpened steel slipped into ladylike white gloves.
I courted those who wielded love like violence, who bloodied with blunt emotional force. I gave my world to fire. I gave myself to pain, directed blows to secret places, dabbed on makeup when the punches strayed. And what was I supposed to say – that I deserved it, one way or another? That I controlled the trajectory of a stranger’s fist? It was a balancing act between love and hate.
I craved safety and I craved danger and sometimes I set fire to old letters and books I loved as a child. I wanted to be covered over with ash. I wanted my scars to be hidden by bruises, the bruises hidden by cloth. I had a misshapen heart and nobody needed to know it but me.
The covered over, battered sense of self that comes from physical and (or) emotional violence in childhood cowers underneath a hard exterior. It leaks out through the cracks. To live fully, you have to learn to deal with it, to ignore the self-doubt that tells you what you really deserve, who you really are. In the midst of difficulty and insecurity, you must remind yourself of the best in you and work hard to make sure the best isn’t muffled out by the soundtrack of what came before, the marks against your body, heart, and mind.
I create new soundtracks. I embrace the scars and the strength that come from survival. I do not deny the source of my self-doubt, but give it a voice and use that voice to direct compassion towards myself and others, to remind us that we are not alone. The voice gives me depth. It is relevant. And it does not define me.
Image from a relatively recent ad taken from a Business Insider article. I hesitated to use it because I found it disturbing, but it also illustrates a point about how women -- and girls -- are often looked at and treated, which has always been a subtext to my story. I thought about using this or this, both old ads that have been used as supposedly humorous illustrations about how things used to be. But we’ve come a long way, baby. Or maybe not.
Do you remember the time of lies, the months of fever, when the world was distorted through heat and smoke? The wood was too green, the season too warm. I wasted fuel that year, with nothing to show for it in the end but broken hearts and a field of stumps scattered with damp piles of ash. The acrid smoke brought tears. The innocent stumbled, hapless and blind, along smoldering paths and knelt, gasping, on beds of brittle pine needles. I watched behind a radiant, fluid wall of fire.
This was life. I have never been so aware of my own heartbeat or so sure of my sin. Yes. I was a sinner. I let innocence turn to ember, let the wind carry away my guilt. Until the wood ran out. The fire died, and my two halves turned to face each other. My guilt reappeared in a sudden gust, thicker than smoke and just as damaging.
Thus began the era of cold, the years of darkness, which slowly became the time of repentance and rebuilding. The sun, muffled by smoke, began to emerge. That was life. What we live now is life. We occupy the reality of love with its negotiations, monotony, and moments of transcendence. The past is already written, the trees bear scorch marks, but the story goes on.
Could I have stopped myself that year as I blithely felled lodgepole pines and set matches to piles of kindling? I do not know. That era is a part of the narrative. I cannot subtract it or deny the twisted beauty that emerged, the space made for new growth. I cannot deny the power or the dramatic loveliness of flame.
Here. Let me make you a fire, gather armfuls of fallen wood and stack them against each other in a circle of stone. I will touch lighter to branch and we will watch the wood catch. It will be safe and beautiful, a manageable drama. As the flames eat away at dead wood, I will ponder my obsession with this metaphor, my attraction to the inferno, my need to play with what can so easily rage out of control.
Oh, what hope comes with great destruction!
Image Some rights reserved by marfis75.
I have about an hour to write (provided I do nothing else between now and when I leave to pick up the boy) and my head is swirling with the un-writable. My thoughts are half-baked or still brewing, not the kinds of things I want to type out in blog format. But it’s been too many days since I last posted. I have lived another lifetime since then. And I write from a place of strength. Still scared, yes. Terrified at times. Still facing the fear(s), too. Mostly. Sometimes I need to give myself a break.
Sure, I woke up in a panic a few nights this past week, bad dreams and regrets shaking me from sleep. My dreams are about being left alone on cold, lonely docks where the moon makes threatening shadows against the boards. My husband never returns from the store. My parents will kick me out if I break the only glass we have left. I muddle the job because I am clueless. The dreams remind me of what it is like to have no support, to be totally on my own. At night, my past pretends to be my present, just as I enter a profession full of support, one that acknowledges that everything is a learning process, that it takes the help of others to get through. The truth is, I cannot do it alone. I cannot do it perfectly. No one can, though the childhood me did her best.
I could write more about how I needed to protect myself growing up, how the support that should have been there was not and so I learned not to rely on others. I could go on about how I have preferred to hide my weaknesses, to make my mistakes in private, so that no one could attack me for my shameful ignorance. There is so much sadness in those stories and mourning for what I thought I lost and what I did lose, potential friendships avoided so that I would not reveal my ugly imperfection, risks not taken because I had no internal sense of safety. I could write it—I have written it. And here is another point where the story slowly, slowly turns. It may turn back at times. It will not all be forward motion. But it is changing.
I woke up in a panic from my dreams and then I went back to sleep. I slowed my pounding heart, I deep-breathed my anxiety into minor worry and I WENT BACK TO SLEEP. This is a newish thing, my apparent ability to soothe myself out of the night terrors. Thinking through the worst of things does not protect you from them. Maybe my absolute need for sleep, my need to be somewhat clearheaded during the day, demands my return to slumberland. Maybe I have learned a thing or two about easing anxiety. I am not going to question it. I am going to revel in every moment my eyes are closed, no matter the dreams.
My hour is up. See you next week. Maybe even Monday.
Image Some rights reserved by priyaswtc.
How will you know when you are safe?
What is safe?
My fears and insecurities blind me. My reluctance to take risks binds me. But I am removing the layers, the mask, the bandages. I am facing the fears, making the steps.
I create my own safety. So I am safe. Tired and holding fear at bay, but safe. There has been too little sleep and life is all changes and challenges, assignments and appointments. This week, I talked to school faculty. I stood in front of classrooms full of kindergartners, second graders, fourth graders, and fifth graders, with more visits to come tomorrow. I have potential clients. I am learning how to be open again. I am learning how to be truly present. I am learning about empathy, something I thought I had in huge quantities and I do, I do, but I need to work on my ability to show it, to not let my fear take over.
Do know what it is like to wade through fear, to shuffle through huge drifts of the stuff? Have you experienced the struggle between going forth or hanging back? For me, everything feels like fear right now. Almost every action I take means facing it, staring it down, or at least glancing at it out of the corner of my eye as I stroll past full of feigned confidence. I want to slink away and enjoy the cushy, relaxing world of escape and evasion. But there is no such thing as escape.
Sometimes all we can do is remind ourselves that we are up to the challenge as we go forth to meet it. We rest when the opportunity presents itself. We allow ourselves a little glory as we face our fear, even when it hangs over us like a bad mood, smoky and shadowy, not quite ready to leave its host behind.
Image Some rights reserved by sara | b.
The only version of eternity the living can pull off is temporary and generally measured in years. And so the leaving begins early for those who have already lost too much, who must protect against the pain before the pain comes. Their exits consist of little shrugs and slow pullings away, the rearrangement of tensed bodies in other directions, the creeps to the opposite side of the bed. It comes in idle daydreams and uncontrollable nightdreams, in clipped conversation and the adding up of things not said. These retreats smooth the way for the true final scene, when one or both of the lead actors must go, voluntarily or not.
What will it be? Accident? Cancer? Fear? The fickle heart, both figurative and literal? Does it lurk in the blood even now? Will there be years of health until the body just peters out, the absolute end of the whole affair peaceful, easy, and expected? We just don’t know. We don’t want to know. And in the early days, death and disease seem almost unthinkable to the young and healthy. The heart will stay true, the mind will stay sharp, love will give and bend like a flower in the wind and be as strong and as light as titanium.
It is not so easy. Love requires work. True commitment requires bravery and the ability to stare down one’s past or come to terms with it in some way. It is only as I have become more integrated that I have been able to hold the these thoughts and emotions simultaneously, the deep love, the knowledge that I don’t want my marriage to end, the heavy reality that, someday, it will. I don’t want to leave before the story concludes naturally, to sidle out during intermission or withdraw during the scenes of stark famine. But I have been guilty of the occasional absence, the slip outside for a cigarette. There are times when I have been stuck inside my own fear, blinded by it.
These days, I try and speak my mind. I do my best to stay present, to stay close. I sit in deep gratitude for what we have, in awe of what can be created, lived, and dissolved in the short space of a lifetime.
Image Some rights reserved by h.koppdelaney.
Sandtray therapy, also known as sandplay, is a very specialized form of therapy that involves – yes – a tray or trays of sand (one for dry, one for wet) and a selection of figurines with which an adult or child client can express themselves by arranging in the tray. It has Jungian roots and apparently can result in profound, life-changing therapeutic experiences. I am not qualified to do this kind of thing, but I do think a bit of sand and some toys to put in it will be useful for my clients. A couple of the school counseling blogs I now frequent list a sandtray as a must-have and so I must have it.
So there we were, in a mainly used toy shop, rifling through bins of figurines, filling up a basket, almost totally clueless about what I needed for my portable sandtray. We just kept adding to my stash. Now I have workmen and girls with hockey sticks and a superhero or two. I have horses and snakes and dinosaurs. I have a tiny cop drawing his gun and I have a wicked stepmother. At this particular toy shop, every purchase is written up by hand on your receipt, though most of the figurines were from the 50-cent bin and could be grouped together. So the line grew behind me. I felt ridiculous for having so much random stuff and for investing cash in said stuff and it didn’t help that the mother of one of the boy’s classmates was right behind me in line, a witness to my apparent excess. But I let myself feel the discomfort. (I often pass these uncomfortable tasks on to my husband, who is a good sport about it. I am proud to say I did not avoid my feelings of awkwardness this time.)
After this figurine buying frenzy, I had trouble sleeping last night, my mind pulled this way and that by anxiety that was becoming less and less latent. Was I shopping my way into a sense of security about my traineeship? Did I not realize that I can only do so much with my limited experience? Wasn’t it hubristic to even think about sandtray therapy? Was I too obsessively prepared? How much money was I going to sink into this operation, anyway? Toss and turn, turn and toss, until the smoke detector in the hallway downstairs screamed in agony as its batteries let out their last gasp. The man removed the batteries, which silenced the screams. But the damage was done.
It was two a.m., my brain cracked wide open. My anxious thoughts spilled out. It felt like there was no way of containing them -- until I allowed myself to have those thoughts. I allowed myself to be anxious and to accept that what I was focusing my anxiety on was ultimately tolerable. I allowed myself the feeling and then let myself off the hook for both the anxiety and for the actions and thoughts that were ostensibly provoking it. It took about 45 minutes for me to fall back to sleep, but I did so in our bed, without leaping up and changing rooms, without placating myself with the never-ending internet, deceptive in its glittering promises that peace and knowledge are just a link away.
A new week has begun. I have a house and yard to prepare, a boy’s birthday party to host, a flight to the East Coast on my late Saturday night horizons. The weeds need to be whacked, the straw we’ve spread over the barren parts of our backyard more fully distributed, the rugs and furniture cleaned, the bathrooms scrubbed down. I’m going to try and allow myself a few days where I don’t think about the traineeship or about trip logistics, but where I think about the moment, the immediate tasks before me. When anxiety shows herself again in all her heart-thumping glory, I will invite her in, give her a place at the table, acknowledge her existence. I will tell her stories of her roots, tales of her origins, before absolving us both of the impossible task of living in perfection and saving the world.
Image License Some rights reserved by Kashirin Nickolai.
Seven and eight are good years, when the brain is just starting to warm up and the hormones (hopefully) aren’t kicking in. The life that surrounded me in July 1977 wasn’t necessarily all happy, but I could escape it in books or my grandmother’s house. All I knew was the present moment, with a bit of past behind me. This is what I think creates nostalgia for childhood – a spotty, optimistic memory as well a desire to return to a state of not-knowing, where everything was new and, for many of us, experience hadn’t yet made its deep, dark imprint.
Having a child is a guaranteed ride back to your own childhood, for good and bad. I’ve only lately realized more fully how much of my parenting has been reactive, which isn’t unusual for those grappling with childhood hangovers. I have had to pry my techniques out of a sense of self-protection, because it’s not me we are raising. We are raising a kid whose childhood is very different from mine. He comes with different strengths and with a more solid foundation. He does not need to be protected from the experiences that marked me.
I know that each of his ages will bring back memories. Soon it will be the year I spent with my grandparents, followed by the Shangri-La of the brief time when my mother was a full-time student, followed by my grandmother’s death, followed by years of darkness.
I am as prepared as I can be for these reminders. But there will be other complications. Over the next school year, I will encounter what will feel like my childhood self again and again as I interact with my clients. This is one of the reasons counselors-in-training have individual and group supervision. In addition to supporting budding therapists, supervision gives you an opportunity to work through what is known as “counter-transference,” which I think of as seeing your own experiences in the experiences of clients, of confusing your life, past or present, with theirs, or reacting to them in inappropriately personal ways. This is in part the role of individual therapy as well, to help you work with whatever gets triggered by clients’ stories and situations.
The client version of this is called transference, but people do it all the time outside of the therapy context. I see it in my interactions with the boy and the man. I see it in how I interpret others’ responses to me, in what makes me anxious, sad, or angry. Transference enters the scene constantly and it is always worth it to check in with yourself to see if what you are reacting to in someone else is actually within you. This is not an easy task.
So when I found myself crying one evening at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, a little wined up and maudlin, because of the joy the boy took in his freedom on the campground, I knew it was because of the premature ending of my own childhood. This is part of the nostalgia, too, the memory of what it was like to have a safe home base, my grandmother, in contrast to being a child who once knew safety but no longer had a place to feel comfortable and protected. That was my life, not his, and chances are that he will look back on his childhood with joy that is not tinged with pain, but is instead filled with the knowledge that we took care of him, protected him when necessary, and supported his forays out into the world.
That is the goal, anyway. We will do our best.
Image (two doll images in a row!) Some rights reserved by if this is tuesday.
Back when I was a teenybopper and peppered my conversation and writing with the expletive BARF!! (always in CAPS, always with at least one !, often underlined more than once) I marked both the date and the time of my journal entries. Who knows, my thinking went, maybe I’ll look at this diary years later on the same date at the same exact time! I was tossing out a line to my future self, not understanding that my future self would cringe at her earlier self-representation, as though I could have toned it down at the time, could have taken that youthful enthusiasm down a notch or sanded off the shine to make it something jaded and subdued. At 12 and 13, I was holding it together all on my own. Even with my necessary sense of self-control and self-protection, my writing bounced and rolled with the naïveté and intensity of early adolescence. I was, after all, 13. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that my journal entries were normal. And noting the exact moment I put pen to paper? Time was important. The moment needed to be marked even as it slipped away.
Who are we and who do we become? That girl was me, as were the earlier versions. I remain the same now, but I am totally different. I’ve experienced too much not to feel the loaded space between me and pure joy, a space thick with memory and association. Living permanently in the emotional imbalance of adolescence isn’t healthy, but that sense of magic about life, the dewy newness of it all, that earnestness, is worth finding again. I still exist in contradiction, my mind and emotions in constant push-pull, but the emotions are often flat. They are line drawings of what was once solid and rich. Sometimes living among these two-dimensional ghosts is enough. More often it is not.
Accumulated experiences, little disappointments, swaddle me like thick animal skins. They protect me from cold. They confuse me in the heat. They mute life’s sharper points. They make it hard to feel my own temperature, to gauge who I am and how I really feel. So I must remind myself. I must fill in the emotions, conjure up memories of newness, shrug off the skins one by one.
I bring back the excitement of anticipation and commitment to joy that I once had, where it is always May and the boy I have a crush on is just about to notice me. I recall the thrill of looking up a potential love interest’s last name in the phone book, tracing a finger across the entry, reaching for the phone, losing my nerve and dropping the receiver back in place. I remember when I couldn’t wait for dusk to fall, for the sky to darken and fill with stars, because the night promised something amazing, a story, an encounter, a chance to walk barefoot on cool grass in the dark. I return in my mind to spring in Washington, DC, the cherry trees in bloom, heavy and fragrant. At 22, I had already been through great loss, had already started forming my shell, but still, anything felt possible. The world was open and new at my feet.
Surely we can create joy again and again, believe in the fantasy that almost anything is possible at any moment. It must be so. I will make it so. I will leap over cynicism and forget heartbreak. I will feel anticipation and openness again, will experience happiness pure as my pounding heart.
Image Some rights reserved by J. Star.
Last week, former roommates of mine (a married couple) lost their oldest son. He was 18, fresh out of his freshman year of college, and the circumstances surrounding his death are still somewhat murky. His death haunts me. We are lucky, so lucky to have what we have. I was reminded again to appreciate the moment, to take nothing for granted, though, of course, it is hard to always live this way, with a light grip, the most delicate of touches, never assuming that the hand I reach out for will always be there.
I am prone to considering every negative possibility, to attempt to block tragedy by imagining it. This is exhausting. Impossible. Somehow I have to live in the in between world where nothing is guaranteed, acting all the while as if it will go on as planned. Occupying ambiguity is not a task for the weak-hearted. It is too easy to hide behind the threat of loss, to use it as a form of self-protection, not getting attached because I never know when accident, disease, or another person’s perfidy may take the ones I love away. How do I love fully, with acceptance of the temporary nature of life? I struggle with this question all the time.
But yesterday was as perfect as it gets. We discovered something new. We walked in the shade. We walked in the sun. We lived in the moment and wanted for nothing.
Image of the East Bay, off in the distance, taken by me at China Camp State Park.
It turns out that I am a grownup now. The equine nostril-flaring of yesteryear has changed to deep, calming breaths. There is no pleasure in stamping my petulant foot. I no longer have revenge fantasies and don’t compose whole monologs or written diatribes in my head to those who done me wrong. My life has morphed from angry punk screed to wistful Billie Holiday song. Been there, done that, know that a lot of it is long behind me, that the path ahead will be what it will be.
Perhaps the adolescent me is finally integrating with the adult me. Kudos, I say. Yippee! It’s about time. Still, there are traces of her floating here and there, wisps of thin cotton 80s Esprit shirts that are in need of ironing, a chain of safety pins for earrings, cigarette ashes and butts dampened in the backwash of a 7-oz Budweiser, the bottle tucked into a hole in the box springs and then forgotten. It’s a sardonic, cynical blend that doubts love and fears attachment and feels colossally invisible, the thing you can’t see that takes up valuable time and space.
One of the big themes in the counseling world today is trauma and its affect on mental health. There’s big-T Trauma (experiences of the life-threatening and/or violent variety) and little-t trauma (the things that cause people great difficulty -- basically, what feels traumatic to a person). It’s one of those subjects that I’ve always wondered about for myself. Was I Traumatized as a child or traumatized as a child? Was I (T)traumatized at all? Should I accept the theory behind cognitive behavioral therapy, which posits that how we feel is often related to how we interpret events, that we can change those interpretations to feel more positive and therefore feel better (poof go our problems)? Am I wallowing in it all? Do I just need to think a new way and all will be magically cleared?
I don’t spend a great deal of time with my therapist going over my past. It comes up on occasion, of course. We don’t avoid it and sometimes it’s very necessary to talk about. What we are trying to work through are the effects of that past. They are pernicious, these complicated overlapping lengths of wire that wrap through and around my heart and psyche. It seems clear to me now that my continued driving phobia is related very much to the traumas of my adolescence as well as to how that adolescence affects my interpretation of my needs today. But knowing something and being able to change it are very different things.
Still, look at how much I have already changed. Compare now to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. My writing is different. My life is something new, beautiful, and complex. And I’m the one who’s done the changing. No outside forces were responsible, though I am grateful for the support of other people.
I’m allowed to struggle, to be imperfect, to hold my fragility in strong hands. I give myself permission to be human, to see my faults as foibles, to treat my fear as a symptom and not a necessary protection system. But I’ll also rejoice that some of my old coping mechanisms are falling away. I grant the girl her gin-infused orange juice and her loud music, make her toss the pack of cigarettes. I revel in her sheer emotionality, the joy and pain, the things I separate myself from. I tell her we’re ok. We’re ok now. Bit by bit, more of her will come to me, safe in my adult arms.
Learning to live in acceptance is not a simple task.
I’ve simplified cognitive behavioral therapy to a caricature above.
Amazing image from the 80s (“Punk rockers in Downpatrick”) courtesy of the Burns Library, Boston College Some rights reserved.They don’t look quite so punk to me, but they do look like they’re having a good time.
I write this and am unsettled by the interconnectedness of life, the way we can’t escape pain, how our past reaches out to bite us. In addictions class this morning, we talked family dynamics (I had to get out the tissues: I hate when these classes make me cry, these challenging triggers that make me question whether I’m really over my past). Then we had a group of people talk to us about their experiences with both addiction and recovery. It was useful. It was stirring. It was intimidating. It made me question my ability to do this work. What is the line between empathy and overreaction? If I haven’t experienced addiction, can I counsel people struggling with it? If I over-think it the process, am I dead in the water, useless, frozen by insecurity? How much of counseling is based on education, on learning the techniques, and how much is intrinsic?
So the class (whew), and then the rush home, the not-good-enough lunch, and back out to pick up the boy in an hour, and in between news of Boston and bombs. As I type, my husband is in a plane hurtling over Missouri on his way to DC, I’ve got work to do, a presentation to think about, some picking up around the house. I am paralyzed by post-class processing. And there’s more, an extended feeling of doom.
In the dream that woke me up Sunday morning, the boy and I were in a vast apartment lobby, searching for a friend of his. I’ve dreamed about this building before, although now it felt like the first floor of the downtown Wilmington Public Library, but more down on its heels, a public space gone to SRO. As I riffled through a box of crumbling leases, I heard a man arguing with someone and turned around to see him holding a rifle. Who knew what was next? People around the room dropped to the floor. I crouched behind the front desk, hidden, maybe safe for the moment. But the boy – he was lying facedown on the floor five feet away from me, totally exposed, his hands cradling the back of his neck. Should I go over to him and risk drawing attention to both of us? How could I protect him? Was I taking all the safety for myself? How could I shield him from the emotions I was feeling, the terror, the knowledge that the world was not a safe place? I woke feeling dread, powerless in the face of the actions of the aggressive and forgotten. What could I do to not only protect him, but make a world in which the man with the gun on a slaughter hunt is unthinkable, not a regular occurrence? A world where no one plants bombs in public places?
The truth is, I can only do so much to protect the boy. Life eventually kills. Accidents happen. Diseases creep. Wars break out. People crack. They also triumph over pain, feel connection after years of isolation, pull themselves out of addiction, and heal from great trauma. I can only do so much, try to raise him compassionately, give him what I can, hopefully encourage a sense of goodness in who he is, and hope that the world doesn’t eat away at him or that, if it does, he has the luck and strength to rebuild.
I can only do so much to make this world a place where people do not become so disconnected from humanity that they massacre others. But I hope to the god I don’t really believe in that I can help as a counselor, can be a small beacon of change, maybe interrupt the process, the shutting down, the neglect and rage that can lead to the death of empathy. I want to be a supportive witness, to be good at what I do as a parent and as a future counselor. I want this reservoir of emotion to be useful, worth something, without projecting my experiences and pain on others.
I have a lot to learn.
Image of a flower on the sidewalk by me.
Every so often, it’s nice to be reminded that I can still make friends. It is not always easy to meet people in adulthood. I don’t do casual chitchat or hit the town in loud, large groups. I haven’t traveled with a pack since middle school and the friendships I make tend to be intimate, the type where we plunge from the shallows of small talk into darker, deeper water almost immediately. It’s not for everyone. Since moving to California, I’ve made two local close friends, one of them from my graduate program, and I feel so lucky to have them.
On Friday, I took a quote, an initial paragraph, and my thoughts and went with them. Unfortunately, I went to a very bleak place. And then I posted. And then I thought better of it and took down the post. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, premature posting, careful redacting, lighter rewriting, post obliterating. I’m sure Friday’s post still exists on the rss feed – nothing there every seems to die. I’m not sure if the bleakness was because of extended sleep deprivation or whether, in keeping with the California landscape, I was stuck in the muck of a washed out mental arroyo after a winter downpour, but damn, self. Not every man I’ve known is cruel and the ones that were don’t deserve my rumination. So there.
But I do still like that first paragraph. It reads like a last paragraph, the memory of the end of something, the real end. I dedicate it to those who have overcome childhood pain, who still struggle, but do their best to be kind and open-hearted.
The last time I saw him, the sky was cotton-puffed, a series of striated altocumulus clouds stretched across it. It was the same sky as the other last time, and the last time before that. Look at the clouds, I wanted to tell him, but we were well beyond weather chitchat. His eyes were on the road ahead. I was going to make a joke, compare us to The Who, always on the perpetual Last Tour tour, but then I remembered: Entwistle was dead. There is a last time for everything and I often don’t often know it’s the last time until months, maybe years after the fact. Even then, I question the finality. I avoid the little deaths.
He was cruel and made excuses for his cruelty, could not face his actions directly and so reflected the shame on to me. I clung to warmth. I clung to needs barely fulfilled, but eventually only his caricature remained. The heat, the clouds of billowy smoke, the convex mirrors on the perimeter of self, all concealed a core of pain that he could not abide. His cowardice is all I remember.
My fascination with the sky continues and the clouds of Berkeley do not disappoint. Cumulus, cirrus, nimbus gather against the dark hills, float against a blue sky. I take my phone and shoot, hoping to capture the moment in the same way it captures me. I do not expect anyone else to notice because I am the designated noticer. I am the one that feels and sees. I am weary with the task, but have no choice in the matter because this is who I am, silent, invisible, discreet, the emotions within both tumult and strength.
“Life is a lot more fragile than we think. So you should treat others in a way that leaves no regrets. Fairly, and if possible, sincerely.” — Haruki Murakami - Dance Dance Dance
“All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” — Tennessee Williams - The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
All cloud images by me.
Image of a path at Glen Canyon Park by sfsteve.
Image of a young John Entwistle from last.fm
So. Therapy. What were we doing, I wanted to know. What’s the plan now? I feel so much better than I did a year ago. I’m more grounded, centered, myself. I’m also in the know -- therapists actually form treatment plans! It isn’t just about talking, feeling, remolding, and eventually feeling better. My therapist and I decided there are places left to explore, rocks I turned over years ago that continue to block my path, trails I wound through my heart now dense with briars and the hidden warmth of small mammals, a landscape filled with life I have not acknowledged. We will enter the complex, obscure land at my center. I’ve worn a path around its perimeter, hard packed the soil with my compulsive circuits, but I seldom go in. It’s dark in there and the trees are thick and wild. The beast that occupies this land frightens me and I am afraid there may be more than one. From my occasional forays, always accompanied, my person, my professional, listening and supporting me, I have only seen evidence of the beast’s existence, not the beast itself. I come across crushed branches, smashed undergrowth, the musty grass where it beds, the branches of a bush picked bare. My scars ache. I cannot get comfortable. I want to kill the beast or exile it, but what if the beast is a part of me?
Back in the early days of personal computers, a friend owned an adventure-based game (or so the story goes, since I did not know him at the time). The first thing a player encountered was a troll. Using the simplistic commands of the time, the player decided on his options of attack. Hit troll with sword. Kill troll. You had to kill the troll to move forward, else be killed. My friend’s mother, a pacifist, wondered why there weren’t more options. Did you have to kill troll? Why not “befriend troll”? This question led to much adolescent eye-rolling. But why not? Why not befriend the beast? Maybe it is not so beastly. Maybe it controls my sleep, my self, my ability to be truly free, because I do not acknowledge it. Maybe it is a lonely, howling thing, the part of me I neglected out of necessity long ago and to kill it is to do away with a part of myself.
So we’re going in. We’re going to the heart of it. And I wanted to hug my therapist when she told me that when I had that baby so many years ago, I didn’t live in a cottage or a “little house.” I lived in a shack. I gave birth in a shack. Maybe it was a nice shack, what with the wall-to-wall indoor/outdoor carpeting and the paneling, with the windows and the attic and the oak tree out back. But ultimately, it was an unheated shack without running water or a telephone line, my place of exile. And I wanted to hug her again when she said we needed to go in to soothe the beast, delve into my issues with closeness, my experiences around love and need, caring and communication, before I could even think of doing anything about it outside of myself. First, work on me. Then bring in others. I know I’m being vague. But it was such a relief to acknowledge the influence of psychic pain, mine to feel by rights, mine to slowly clear out. The work that needs to be done first is internal. Hard, yes. But without that work, I don’t think I’ll be able to take in the rest, to make further changes.
I can’t tell you how freeing that thought is, how it both takes away the pressure and gives me the responsibility to be courageous in the face of the knowledge of darkness, to make the changes that bring me back to the world.
Image: “The Hunderfossen Troll” by hammershaug.
When I painted the porch window yesterday, I had to remove the lock. It wasn’t off for long, just enough for me to worry about invaders, about pushers and breakers and shovers, about thieves and takers. The window is currently nude, devoid of curtain, the smears of paint on the glass waiting for me to scrape them away and vacuum up the remains. Maybe the breach, the window’s vulnerability, broke into my dreams. Maybe the neighbor man wanted 20 dollars for a middle of the night cigarette run. Maybe the few grains of Abilify that we’ve added to the bupropion are addling my brain.* It is true: I am not quite myself, am a little jittery, more aware of the drumbeat of my heart and the intensity of my thoughts. And, as evidenced in this post, my thoughts leap from topic to topic, with just the thread of a theme connecting them.
Last week I had a dream about handling a dead body. Don’t worry – it turned out all right in the end. It was D and we were in the Little House and I was worried about the disposal of his remains. I hadn’t killed him, but I was left with the dirty work and the guilt. Could I possibly fit all six+ feet of him into a garbage bag? How would I drag him to the trash can? Would the garbagemen notice? I decided it must be a dream, and if it were, I could command him to get up and walk out. At first he told me he must be dead, because he didn’t feel anything. But eventually, sleepily, he roused himself. Problem solved, I woke up. This theme of death, murder, bodies hidden away or causing disposal problems, is one that has dogged my sleep for years. Why D this time? Because he was on my mind? Because he was the one who gave the first blow, the initial jab? Or was he?
In a moment of speculation with my therapist this morning, she noted that I didn’t seem to think the profound neglect I underwent as a teenager was enough to explain some of my longterm conflicts and struggles. I appeared to discount the lack of protection, my parents’ inability to watch over me and to help me hold the pain that we inflicted on myself, my innocence, and my small stillborn innocent. I appeared to underestimate the deep and pervasive effects of D’s adult use of the child me, his stealthy theft of what I had left of childhood. It was a teary session. Who wants to truly comprehend one’s neglect, neglect that had permanent consequences, or the fact that you can love and hate someone who does you wrong, simultaneously, confusingly? Why not look to an unknowable past for the theoretical answer or turn the confusion on yourself? Let those people off the hook? Stop any attempt at feeling like I deserved something more, that something was stolen from me? It’s a feeling I have to dole out in small amounts at safe times. I was robbed of many things. I will never get them back.
*Apparently, Abilify can cause lucid and bizarre dreams. Great. Maybe I should be taking even less.
Top image is of the window, bottom image is of a corner with newly painted walls (which doesn’t show the subtleties of the colors).
I spent most of yesterday writing about myself. For a class. This is the kind of thing I probably have to expect from a counseling program – lots of self-examination, maybe some application of theory to a narrative that just seemed like a story, my story, sure, but mainly a list of causes and effects and the weakness of me for being affected by the causes.
Let me tell you, writing about this stuff for far-flung friends and virtual strangers? It’s a piece of cake. Writing it for a professor? It feels very, very weird. Part of this is because I am not used to exposing myself in an academic setting and I’m also not sure how far to go, how much is appropriate. I’m also afraid of revealing my weakness, whether it be past (what happened to me) or present (the nagging effects of what happened to me). And I feel like I “pass,” like I don’t seem like someone who got knocked up at fifteen or grew up in a fair amount of intermittent tumult. I pass and I both want to pass and want to show that I’ve been places, sister. I know from instability. Not that I’m clinging to it. It’s not that. It’s just that I know.
In this case, I have to apply three of Erikson’s psychosocial stages to my life and write about how I got through each one, whether I came out shining with the primary adaptive ego quality (yay!) or limped on to the next stage carrying the core pathology like a heavy stone upon my back (booooooo!). This isn’t an either/or process, however. It’s possible to come out with a little of both, and it’s possible to struggle with and conquer parts of the stages later in life.
I didn’t pick the boring stuff for my paper, of course, though anyone who writes about her or his life is going to have obstacles at each stage, some struggle combined with triumph. There is no such thing as a boring life story. I’ve tried to keep it to just the facts, with as little melodrama or breast-beating as possible. But still – damn. Some shit has gone down in my life. And here I am, intact for the most part. Though I can see parts of each stage where I barely limped through or didn’t quite make it, I also see how I did.
One of the surprises for me was how much I’ve relied on my ability to think, on the flexibility and strength of my brain, to get through. It’s been good to me, my brain. I’d go so far as to say it’s a good brain and it’s the one part of me that has been affirmed in every stage of my life, from the beginning. Sometimes it tangles my emotions up in knots, or tries to box them up nice and neatly, not noticing the overflow, the way they seep through a corner and slowly obscure the floor. But it also protected me when I needed protecting, it got me attention and praise, and it still keeps me going, though it’s trying to balance thought with emotion now, letting things out into the open.
This has provided me another way to look at my experiences, through my strengths, what kept me intact. I recommend it as a way to turn a difficult life story around, in addition to looking at the environment you grew up in, the people and outside forces that helped to shape you, and how you dealt with it. What kept you safe? Connected? Intact? For me it was my grandmother, the best parts of my mother, my close friends, my sense of humor, my sensitivity, and my ability to think. I'm grateful for them all.
Those who were not protected crave protecting. Those who carry shame carry their humiliation, their betrayal, with them. The shame is vast, it’s ice layered upon rock, and first you make a hole from which to breathe and, if you’re lucky, the warm of your breath crumbles the rock and melts the ice and over time, over decades maybe, the time it took you to get there, you continue breathing, your movements imperceptible but, still: movement! One elbow juts through, then another, and vast sheets of ice fall from your arms, and meanwhile your face appears and you start to see your situation more clearly. You know what you need to do, take deep breaths, attempt to bend one knee, then the other, give your torso a twist. Finally, (again, if you are lucky) you emerge, battered, dusty, with the red marks of cold on your skin and the stiffness of a someone not used to a full range of movement. You take a step, not quickly, not with grace or much enthusiasm, but it is forward step and it is beautiful.
The vastness of shame, the way people can carry this invisible, weighty, obscuring feeling, has been on my mind lately. I’ve been struggling with it in myself, trying to figure out, to feel out, its origins without getting lost in the narrative of my childhood. We’re here together, my shame and I. I’ll deal with her in the most effective way possible, going with the big feelings, recognizing the themes and my right to feel, and most of all, to treat myself with empathy.
I’ve caught shaming behavior in myself lately, have been noticing the little ways I have that can humiliate the people I love, put them in their place. It comes out when I feel unseen, unappreciated, put upon, and so my words reach out and sting the cheeks of the boy or his father, the scapegoats for my predicament. I’m sure I’ve been doing this all my life, but now I can see it. Sometimes the remarks seem innocuous, sometimes they are designed to hurt. I’ve let them fly out of my mouth for years thinking they were relatively harmless, just the grumblings of somebody who was cranky or pushed too far. Meaningless, really. But lately, I've turned my comments over in my mind. I've talked them through with the people I’ve hurt and repaired the rift as best I can.
I can't say those sorts of things anymore and believe my words are meaningless. Shaming is a trick of those who feel powerless. I am not powerless. I don't want to make others feel powerless. Still, with a kid the opportunities to humiliate and shame are many, though it may not feel like what I am doing is shaming or humiliating. I need to pay attention to what I say, to what my motives are, to how I can help the boy feel like he has power, like he is good, and all of us are humans who make mistakes and then do our best to make things right if we are able.
So the old days, when I wanted the protection I couldn't seem to give myself? They're over baby. The real me is emerging again. She tries her best to be strong and kind and available. She keeps her heart open even as she struggles with shame and fear. And sometimes she falters, just like everyone else.
Image by Creativity+ Timothy K. Hamilton
So. Ladies. Lay-deez. I’m not talking to all of you, just the ones who need to hear the message, the ones teetering on the edge of self-acceptance: it is impossible to create a self out of fog and tears. Look for the bedrock within. Find people who will support you in the search and give you a hand as you climb back up. Don’t drown yourself in drama and sticky reunion, no matter how right it feels, like losing your religion and finding it again, like god died and then returned to you, only to you, your personal savior. It’s beautiful stuff, I understand it. But I’m also no theist, and while the god I don’t believe in may love me and forgive me my multitude of sins, he’s not propping me up on a pedestal or keeping me from ruination. He gave me the tools to become whole from the get-go. It’s the humanity within, the truth of our power. Feel it. Accept it. Stand on it. Surround yourself with those who affirm it. It will all be fine. It already is.
But why listen to me? I’m but a crone in training, traveling in my own foggy haze. I’ve tried to cover the hollow feelings over with alcohol and anxiety, with sex and saviors. I see myself in you and tailor my advice accordingly. I spread the word of exculpation by emotional excavation, even as I struggle with it, and while I find the struggle somewhat pleasurable, like worrying a sore gum or gently palpitating a bruise, it is still a struggle.
Still. I see the hollow feelings for what they are now and I fill them with what feels right and authentic for me. That includes trying my best to stay present with those who love me, not pulling myself down with guilt or anger, and trying to understand the fear behind the impulse. It is so, so complicated and I know I'm speaking in riddles. But if you get it, you get it. Keep on reading. Reach out if you wish. Let love in without getting lost in the sheer joy and relief of acceptance. And give yourself credit for coming so far already.
Image of the Charm City Roller Girls by Bukutgirl.
Early morning Monday plus late night Monday plus interrupted sleep Tuesday plus marathon school day Wednesday plus Wednesday diet of nuts, berries, and vegan jerky chased with champagne at the day’s conclusion? At ten p.m. last night, I collapsed. I didn’t even make it upstairs, choosing instead to crawl to the guest room and crawl into bed, though at least I didn’t sleep in my clothes.
Yesterday was my birthday. It was also the day of my life span development class group presentation. Weeks of buildup, angst, and fact-gathering led up to something that was over in an hour. Done. On to the next presentation – cultural issues in counseling Middle Eastern Americans, here I come! But in the meantime, if you need any stats on standardized testing in elementary schools, if you want to discuss No Child Left Behind, or if you want to know, in the immortal words of President Bush, “is our children learning,” drop me a line. Maybe I can depress you as much as I apparently did the class. Or maybe we can come up with a bright side to the whole thing, come up with a plan to eradicate poverty and all its attendant issues, because poverty robs from children. Poverty is immoral and a system that encourages it–and blames poor people for being poor–is immoral as well. I could say more, but don't want to turn this into a rant.
Yesterday was my birthday. Or my un-birthday. I barely saw my family, had to rush out the door as the boy was waking up and rushed back in as he was going to sleep. We’ll celebrate tonight, Birthday Part II and there will be Part III tomorrow. The celebration never stops!
For many years, I’ve had issues (for lack of a better word) around my birthday. It’s hard to put these complex feelings into words, but I think they have to do with self-worth, with the shame of being born me. I have a sense of original sin without a religious background to blame it on. It’s a lousy feeling that has been more at the forefront lately, which is actually a good thing, because I recognize it for what it is, a vestige, an explanation from long ago, a feeling that deserves to see the light of day so it can be returned to that light.
My aunt sent me a photo scrapbook for my birthday–a lovely surprise–filled with pictures of me, many from my very early days, many with my dad. It was a touching gift, but initially difficult for me to page through. There she was . . . No, there I was–it is so easy for me to go into third person when writing about this stuff–there I was, so small and innocent. Looking at that little girl, at me, brought on feelings of shame. Shame for what? For her weakness? For her dependency? Because she was ineffectual and couldn't protect her mother or herself?
Does this make any sense? It doesn’t have to.
This was not a feeling I wanted to tamp down. I needed to experience it, or to re-experience it, to feel a bit outraged, too, at whatever would make a little girl–me–feel that way. The feeling was the opposite of victimhood. It was acknowledgement. It was about strength and not running away from emotion. I’ve been feeling around in the dark, reaching into the painful places, knowing the pain is there for a reason, it needs a voice, and I can tell its story and integrate it back into the whole of me.
Sometimes I have to remind myself: what happened to me was wrong. I didn’t ask for it. No one protected me, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t worth protecting. It doesn’t mean I can’t protect myself now or have to silence my voice in exchange for the illusion of protection. My emotions and ability to see are part of my strength. I will not deny them.
Image of me at (I believe) the Philadelphia Zoo in the petting zoo area, probably around 1975.
Sometimes old habits emerge, and they are strange enough now that I recognize them as habits, well-trodden trails, wide and comfortable ruts, my old go-tos to keep me from entering the world. For me, it’s anxious thoughts that focus on what went wrong, what I’m doing wrong, worries about how I am perceived that keep me from really perceiving others and being present with them. When I recognize that my mind is leaning toward the dark, familiar path, I turn it back toward the light. Part of this is because of I am truly healing and in the process reentering life as an active participant. Part of my new perspective comes from seeing what my fellow classmates have battled and struggled with and recognizing that I am pretty damn privileged and have been from the beginning.
We never went without food or shelter. My grandmother was there for me, my grandfather, too, in his own way. I always knew it was expected of me to get a college education. We had books. My mother told me I was smart. The deficiencies were there, but there was so much good, too. And here I am, in school again, coping, participating even when . . . I was going to write something negative. There they are, the well-trodden paths of negativism, with their well-worn metaphorical clichés. I can't afford to go there anymore. It's a false picture of reality, an image of a shadow on the surface of a deep, rich pool. My go-to place is gone, replaced by an old growth forest, every layer humming with glorious, complicated life.
Sometimes I wonder how much to take credit for in this. Do I stand on a dais and spread my thank yous around? Well, they're important of course. I didn't emerge fully formed and complete. I didn’t do this all by my lonesome. I thank my mother for believing in me and nurturing my mind, my father for being there in the best way he could, my grandmother for giving me the most solid foundation of stability and love I could have, enough so that when it died with her, I still had something inside, the internalization of it, to stand on; my grandfather for letting me live with him, even when it wasn't good for him financially; one aunt for providing a place to go in childhood, another for her clear and solid love; my first husband for being so kind and generous; my second for loving me, supporting me, forgiving me, and believing in me; the boy for being the boy, prodding me to get beyond my childhood pain without even knowing he was doing it; my friends for their presence and support. I thank my therapists, the ones who have gently nudged me along the way and helped me find the seeds of change in all my rambling. Let's not forget me, too, the one who went through the difficult transition, who squelched through the muck of my own pain and finally started stepping out of it (not without the help of many of the aforementioned, of course).
I knew someone once who considered himself a catalyst for other peoples' personal change, the first domino to fall, forgotten by the end of the line, but important nonetheless. I am not sure I believe that one person can be a catalyst for another’s internal shift. You can’t encourage change in someone who does not already feel capable of it. But you can support them in their human frailty, help create an environment in which change can happen. It’s a group effort. The idea that other people are essential, play a positive, supportive role in my life, is one I would have rejected even a month ago. Sure, other people are nice, they might even like me, I'd think, but this is something I have to do by myself -- I created this distrustful, bruised, ugly self and it's up to me to change it back, make it all nice, neat, and tidy (ignoring the fact that I developed this self in part because of other people). A lot of these thoughts were based on fear, fear of exposing my ugliness, revealing my inner Gollum, and being rejected because of it. Ah, but there I go again, one foot about to sink into the soft, warm, familiar mud. No more.
As I start to integrate my childhood self into my adult self, as I (slowly) drop the constant vigilance, as I build the structure in which I heal and rejoin the world, my perspective becomes clearer. We all have a bit of darkness inside. We are all lovable, despite the darkness. We can define ourselves by the light while acknowledging the shadows within. And I feel so grateful. I feel a warm, radiating heat that my heart sends out to yours. Thank you for being here.
Images of trees along a trail at Joaquin Miller Park, a path mottled with light and shadow, taken by me a few weeks ago.
More on the "nattering nabobs of negativism," for those who are unfamiliar with the quote or who want to learn more.
Is it any wonder that the dream I had before waking was of a bunch of stuff on the curb, my stuff, being picked through and hauled away by the curb shoppers of Berkeley? I rifled through the bags that lady put on her pickup truck. I pulled out the old photographs. I snatched away my diaries before strangers learned about my adolescent obsessions and cluelessness. I tried to stop it all before I woke up.
Last year I leveled the remnants of both my former professional life (the shoes! the shoes! why did I keep the shoes?) and of the early days of the boy. That was another sort of death, or an acknowledgement of the change that already was. But I was never as attached to being a librarian as much as I was (and still am) attached to being a cook, a creative, knowledgeable home chef. It’s not that I won’t return to that. I certainly hope I do, though I really don’t know. It’s that the days of time stretched out before me to cook, the weekends I spent making stock, the complicated layered dishes, the homemade pasta, no longer exist.
I’ve always thought of cooking as a way to show love and to take care of others. It’s interesting to me that after having had such unpleasant childhood experiences with meals – in my last therapy session, I couldn’t stand the fact that my mother’s abandonment of me at mealtime in my teen years still upset me – I should be drawn to cooking and that cooking should have such meaning. It’s about caretaking, of self and other, and not much has changed for me since last week when I posted about my disinterest in the whole thing.
At the moment, the ever-changing moment, I feel cynical about it all, about the effort I put into meals and the naïveté of my twenties when I cared about the things in the world, the idea that it would last, that the self I was then would remain, stalwart over a stovetop and the cats would always be young with supple muscles and limbs. It was all hope and future and escape from childhood into warm-hearted anticipation. I know good things still lie ahead, but I miss what was before, the life where I cared.
Still, ever heavy on the symbolism, I’ve been drawn to chef memoirs lately. Last night I started Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I’m caught up in it already, reading about a love affair with food that started early and never stopped. I want to experience the slippery taste of olive oil on fresh pasta, the tongue tingle of chopped garlic, the simplicity of a piece of bread smeared with tomato and topped with manchego cheese. I want to want it again, I want an appetite for the world, for warmth, for taking care and being taken care of. It will come back, I keep on telling myself it will, but in the meantime I want for the hunger to strike, for the moment when texture returns.
Image: shoes from my cooking school days. Still have them, not yet ready to give them up.
So that’s what I’ve been avoiding, I thought. And why? What’s the big deal? This wasn’t something I needed to rip into shreds and toss into the fire after downing snifters of brandy, hurling the glass in after it. This wasn’t the angry phone call or the ill-advised email. This was me showing myself what I’d known all along.
The woman I saw to tell me what I already knew said it was in my hands, under my control. But I looked at my hands and they seemed so weak. Needy. They needed holding, the gentle tug across the street, the pat, the hand over hand, and I wanted to be needy. There is nothing romantic about pulling your own heavy weight up the rope to safety. But there is no one else who can do it. My choices were to stand on the ground and stare at the rope, letting my anxiety grow, or to just get on with it, knowing I’d get chafed along the way but at least I was going somewhere.
So the puzzle. In my mind, it was a like a TV graphic, simultaneously one- and three-dimensional, kind of cheesy, the thing they show you on a 1980s true crime show before taking you to the reenactment. The sphere turned and as it did, the three pieces clicked out of place.
I felt relief. And then curiosity: why had I been avoiding this?
This was last night's dream:
I lived in the Little House again and smuggled him in for the night. He was reluctant, though he gave me everything he was capable of at the time, almost what I wanted, but always with the prize withheld, hidden in a vault in some secret place within him. We were close and not close, warm and not warm. I knew he needed to go. This wasn’t right. My mother could come at any minute and expose us. He wasn't supposed to be there anyway.
The sun was just beginning to spread its weak light across the yard when he left. He was already somewhere else, didn't allow himself to look back. As he walked away with purpose, my mother almost crossed his path. Neither looked at the other. They each left footprints in the grass, traces in the morning dew, signs of existence the sun would remove soon enough. I gently closed my door, hoping that my mother was lost in thought, that she would yet again ignore the obvious. I wanted to continue getting away with the things I had been getting away with, no matter how disgusted with myself they made me. Or maybe I wanted to be caught. At least the worrying and the guilt kept alive the lie that she might be paying attention.
My mother knocked. I opened.
Who was that? she asked.
Alexander. He, he slept on the floor. I made up the name. I didn’t want her to know what I’d been up to.
Well, why didn’t you introduce him to me?
She wasn’t joking. She knew my bluff without calling it. She wanted to meet him because she thought he was important to me.
Well, he was important to me. He was. And the old rules no longer applied. I was beyond the days of illicit sleepovers and sneaking around. Why wouldn’t she want to know? Why should I hide it?
I hid it because there was no room for the truth. I was wanted/not wanted and both my mother and the guy who left were equally ambiguous about me. They played both sides as I sat in no man’s land searching for clarity. I hated myself for wanting them both in different ways, each way equally important. Sure, we were nothing but dream symbols, figments of my subconscious playing familiar roles at a musty abandoned crime scene. Together we made up the puzzle, each a vital part of the trinity: the parent, the man, the child. The parent wasn’t going to help the child do the right thing. The child had to take care of herself.
I was no longer a child. I could take responsibility for my actions, had control over my life. I looked at the rope, glanced up to see it reaching to the next stage. There was only one way to find out what awaited. I rubbed my hands together, reached, and, with a firm grip, started to climb.
Top image, taken by Piero Fissore, is of Sphere Within Sphere, a sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro at Trinity College in Dublin. There is a similar sculpture by the same artist on the University of California Berkeley campus.
Sometimes, when I needed to remind me of myself, I let my feelings out of the container. I uncontained. A gorgeous ribbon of deep-scarlet emotion would come rolling out, all satin gloss and shiny-slick. I stroked it with one finger and then held it against my palm, ran it lightly against the inside of my bare arm until the goose bumps came. The ribbon was endless. I wrapped it around my body. I became a mummy of emotion, of blood lust and want and I was ashamed and unscrolled my emotion from my body, leaving behind a mass of satin until I was calm enough to wrap the ribbon back around the spool and return it carefully to the container.
We had a love/hate relationship, my deeply-felt emotions, desires, and me. They were my strength. They were my downfall. When I was a kid, adults discounted them, rolled their eyes at my weakness, at my melodramatic tendency to overemote. But what a pleasure it was to take out the scarlet ribbon and savor it before returning it to the box, enjoy its shine against my skin before I wrapped it back up and returned it to its rightful place. The only risk was in too much.
Ah. But that is why we are gathered here. Do emotion and desire need to be coiled and contained? Are these the things that entangle when set free? I feared their intensity, assumed that emotion trapped, that desire exploded and destroyed, and that giving these things shape courted danger. But in denying them, I cut myself off from something vital.
I don’t want to separate them from myself, to continue to separate myself from myself. The separation blinds me to others; it hollows out my heart. But I don’t want them to imprison me, either. The trick is to allow emotion, allow myself and what I want, to exist without letting it take over.
This feeling of emotion and desire’s right to be, of the right of the untidy but beautiful to exist within me, stretches out of my chest and floats delicately around me, gossamer, transparent, right. I grasp it with a quick hand, gently pull it closer and wrap it over my shoulders.
My vision is clear, my hands untied, my self undivided.
Image by Kai C. Schwartzer.
Here is a link to "Silver" by Echo and the Bunnymen on YouTube, a song from which I've gotten a post title or two and which I thought of when I wrote the last sentence of this post: the sky is blue / my hands untied / a world that's true / through our clean eyes / just look at you / with burning lips / you're living proof at my fingertips
I’ve often repeated this as a mantra, a reminder, a short soothing salve to keep myself going, while underneath the surface the doubts ripple. As an emotional prop I’ll be fine isn’t particularly strong, though it's gotten me through hard times. It looks to the future without figuring out the proper path. It assumes that the speaker isn’t exactly fine, but hopefully they will be someday. It’s the kind of thing you say when you are stumbling through a rough patch, tripping over uneven ground during a transition, and you don’t want to think that your destination is dark, not worth it, more painful than what came before. I’ll be fine.
I’ve spent a weekend alone while my family was away visiting family. At first I was apprehensive at the thought of a weekend by myself, especially a rainy one, where I would have too much time inside and not enough to keep me going. Because of the boy’s cyclical fevers, I wasn’t even sure if he would be traveling until the day of their trip (as it turns out, he got a fever yesterday, just about on schedule; confusingly [for diagnostic purposes], it's not a bad one, which is good for a travel weekend at least). I made a few plans, had breakfast with a friend yesterday and a phone conversation with another friend today. I had plenty of firewood, a good book, and a well-stocked refrigerator. I welcomed the time to think.
Thinking has been my primary task this weekend, that and keeping the fire stoked. In fact, I’ve learned a lot about starting a fire and maintaining it, how once it gets to a certain point you can leave it alone to burn itself out (it can take hours) or you can keep on feeding it fuel, let the flames of one log engulf another. Yes, it’s a clichéd symbol. I’m keeping the home fires burning. Or I’m figuring out what it takes to maintain a life, a relationship, oneself. Once the fuel is gone, the reason for being, you’re doomed, and you'd better choose the right fuel, too, not something too young and green that will create more smoke than flame. Fires take care and attention and the desire to be warmed, the acceptance that sometimes you will be flushed with heat. Over the course of the weekend, I've become fire savvy. The flames no longer scare me. I know when I'm safe and I know when to move my hand away. As I type the last of the firewood is crackling to its demise. I started this fire before nine a.m. It’s two o’clock now. My weekend companion will soon be a pile of ash and charcoal.
The future isn't totally murky. I will go to grad school for an MFT, though whether it will be at my first choice or somewhere else, I don’t know. I will build an outside life, devote myself to something I believe in apart from my family. As this missing link, a life outside the home, develops, the rest of my path will become clear. I can be devoted to both things at once. I will be fine.
I write it, I say it silently to myself, I tell the fire, the cats, the dog: I will be fine. But this isn’t a stop-gap phrase, a way of seeing myself through a difficult time. I am fine. I see my progress in my writing, even when my writing is sad or heavy. I see it in how I look at the world, in how I see my “value.” I’m learning that my value isn’t necessarily tied to what I provide to others, the tasks, the the devotion, the pleasing. My value, everyone's value, is intrinsic. I don't need to prove my value (by being a “good” person, whatever that means in context) or fit someone else’s idea of what I should be. The only person I need to please is myself. I'm the real deal all on my own. You are, too.
I am at peace. I’m fine. There are changes ahead, good ones, and though the transitions may be hard, I will be doing the right thing. The murk of my mind will clear. In the meantime, I’m not helpless. I can do small things – or big things, like driving – the mortar of my future existence, the small steps in the continuum.
Image of yesterday's fire, which burned from mid-afternoon to early evening.
I've added a new category, The struggle redefined. Why? Because the struggle has changed, though there will be times when I'm back in the thick of no hope (always, always a temporary condition).
As far as the boy's periodic fevers are concerned, we're almost positive he has something called PFAPA. It could be much worse. He will most likely grow out of it and it is treatable, though there is no one treatment that works for everyone.