That Train Has Sailed

hamletWhen you read a Shakespearean tragedy, you know the end when you start the story: Everyone dies. If you’re surprised by this, you have a bad English teacher.

This haunts me, as you might have noticed. I want to know WHY?! it all has to go the way it does. I keep trying to write my way out of these questions, and from what I can tell, this is what most authors are trying to do: write their way out of something that haunts them, hoping maybe it will help someone else…or themselves. Meanwhile our writing comes from the chaos. We artistic types tend to be whirling dervishes of inconsistency and difficult relationships and fear and frustration. But we write to try to make sense out of some of that, and for a little while, it all feels organize-able.

I’ve had plenty of “aha’s” during my never-ending mental journey, and some of them prove to be more meaningful than others. Often, it feels like a two steps forward, two-and-a-half steps back affair. But the aha for this hour is this: The tragedy we’re afraid of, Shakespearean in proportions, has already happened. Or, to put it in Austin Powers parlance: “That train has sailed.”

For anyone with mental illness…for sure anyone with OCD…fear is the constant enemy. The WHATIF monster is as present as skin. And the whatif monster only knows a bunch of variations of the same tune – What if disaster strikes? Your child dies, you die, your parents die, you make a mistake that ruins everything in your life, you accidentally harm someone who’s completely innocent, etc.

Every single piece of psychological, philosophical, and even spiritual literature I’ve ever read has a lot to say about this issue – the disaster issue. After all, evil/pain/suffering comprise the fundamental questions and quandaries of life. Essentially, all philosophies and religions conclude that the only way you can find peace is to accept the reality of all the mysteries in life.

Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild, is my newest favorite philosopher. She’s not actually a philosopher but she’s very philosophical, mostly because she’s experienced a ton of pain. (What’s with that? Why can’t I be philosophical and pain-free? Damnit.) Strayed is not religious at all, so she, obviously, never resorts to the God-will-make-it-right answer when faced with a tragedy, which I appreciate greatly. And she writes far more vulnerably than I do. I’m still afraid everyone will reject me if I tell the whole truth, but Strayed certainly doesn’t seem to have that barrier in front of her, which I also love. I’m getting there.

Exhibit A of her radical honesty is shown in one of her essays when she talks openly about the sexual abuse she endured when her grandfather would babysit, regularly. And by referring to it as “sexual abuse,” I’m giving you the vague version; she doesn’t spare the details. Her conclusion about tragedies like her own is that sometimes all you can do is just look right at them and just stare – look them in the face, so to speak. Disaster is disaster, and all we can really do is stare at it dumbly and try to accept it, try to move on, and try to help those who are also impacted. The holes in the human conditions are very oddly shaped and far too huge to be filled up easily, if at all.

So here’s the thing we have to accept and make peace with if we’re going to be of much good around here: The crash we’re living in fear of has already happened. The disaster has already struck. The bad news has already been delivered. It’s called life as a human.

I really don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I actually think it’s an optimistic perspective. Here’s how the conversation in my head goes: “Okay, Tim, you’re already living in a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense of the word: Everyone dies at the end. So what now? How do you live in the light (darkness) of that? Maybe all you can do is get out of the smashed car and start looking around for other survivors who are fatally wounded but still ticking. You help them; you hold onto them for support; you hurt with them and maybe tell a few last ridiculous jokes just to laugh one more time; and you come to terms with what HAS ALREADY HAPPENED.”

Why did it happen? Whose fault was it? – Do those questions even matter now? Not much…it happened. There you have it.

Over the past few days this idea has been holding me up quite a bit: “The crash has already happened. Now what?” Every so often, my meditation practices come to mind and remind me to breathe into what is, no matter how much it might hurt at the moment. This even works with physical pain: If you breathe into it, it actually becomes more tolerable. Not pleasant, but not as consuming.

So I’ve been breathing into the fact that I’m about to go into a partial-hospitalization program for some extensive treatment. “Partial” means I don’t have to sleep there or remove my shoelaces when I go in so that I won’t hang myself with them…is that even possible when one weighs 200 pounds? But I’ll go all day long and experience various kinds of sessions that address different issues and strategies.

And I’m breathing into what’s happening right upstairs, about 30 feet away: My children are having the most absurd, childish sort of argument with each other, and as I just took the in-breath required to yell, “Stop being so fucking rude to each other, god dammit!”, I decided to just listen instead. Then I laughed because it’s hilarious to hear them mimic each other while trying to prove that the other one is at fault. Not hilarious in the this-is-pure-bliss kind of way, but hilarious in the this-is-so-just-the-way-life-is kind of way. And now, this second, the argument is flaring up again, and I’m just taking another deep breath and letting myself be the parent who is just too tired to deal with it. And I just laughed harder. And breathed again. I’ll deal with it next time, I suppose. As an old teacher friend told me, they’ll surely give me another chance to address this behavior.

And I’m breathing into how much I wish I was more sane and stable and letting myself be one very messy creature. From certain angles, my life feels like the one other people can look at and feel better about their own situations. From other angles, I’m still pretending I have a Leave it to Beaver life. But every time I crash yet again, I am more honest with my friends and family about how bad it really is. And there’s a lot of hope and peace in that brutal honesty. There’s the sense of being loved, too, even though my life isn’t too tidy of late.

And I’m breathing into the shame of having lost a job because of all this BUT ALSO the reassurance of having just been offered another teaching job that might well be just the right thing at the right time. It will provide a lot less money but a lot more flexibility, a trade-off I have to make right now. So, I’m breathing into the messiness of my career trajectory. I’m breathing into the comical beauty of the mess – the this-wasn’t-in-the-script moments that seem to have almost entirely replaced the “original script.”

And I’m breathing into the fact that there might just be some people who will actually always love me. ALWAYS. And that makes the mess and even the Shakespearean tragedy worth living in and through.

So, breathe…embrace the mess…get out of the car and help the survivors. And breathe again.

 

 
 

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Bruce Jenner: My 2 Cents

Bruce-Jenner-Plastic-Surgery-Botox-FaceliftI assume I’m not alone in having watched Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner on Friday. In case you are Amish, I’ll fill you in really quickly: Bruce Jenner won the Olympic Decathlon in 1976 which, as usual, earned him the greatest-athlete-in-the-world label; eventually he re-emerged on the show Keeping up with the Kardashians as Kris Kardashian’s husband (Kris is the matriarch of the crew, and she was originally married to the man who got OJ Simpson off his murder rap (not that he did it anyway)); and now Jenner’s in the news for a third reason: he’s becoming a woman.

Some seem to think he’s doing this as a publicity stunt. Call me naïve, but I tend to assume that most people wouldn’t go quite that far just for people to pay attention to them. Not to mention that he started taking hormones way back in the 80’s after his Olympic fame had waned and before he was a reality TV star. I really don’t think he’s doing this for any other reason than that he feels like it’s what he has to do.

As I watched the 2-hour interview, I just felt sad for the guy (ironic choice of words, I guess…sad for the girl?). But I wasn’t sad in a judgmental, he’s-making-a-terrible-choice sort of way, but rather in an I-understand-his-loneliness sort of way. He said he’s felt this way all of his life, but he has never wanted to disappoint people or hurt the people he loves the most – his 6 biological children and 4 step-children primarily (no matter what you think of Bruce Jenner, Google his 6 biological kids and tell me that man doesn’t have some magic sperm…those are some good looking human beings, and the biggest tragedy in all of this might be his lost ability to keep procreating and making the rest of us feel ugly!). He said he was tired of lying to people and he had reached the point, at age 65, when he had no choice but to tell people the truth, no matter how they received it.

Honestly, I just found myself resonating with almost everything he said (except for his conservative political views…ha!). This isn’t the part where I announce my own gender transition…sorry, that would’ve made for an interesting post. Instead, it’s the part where I just reminisce about how I felt the same way he must feel when I started talking about all of this mental health stuff. After trying to be the Bruce Jenner of evangelical, white, upper-middle-class, private-school-educated, married-with-2.2-perfect-kids-and-3-ferrets, minivan-driving, perfect dad for thirty plus years, I felt I had no choice but to be honest about the inner realities I face. The truth became more important to me than other people’s perceptions. That sounds like a triumphant, even defiant, decision, but it was more of a decision of despair than a victory. I was exhausted from the lies I was telling and living and just didn’t have the energy anymore.

Being honest about who I am comes with its own set of difficulties. A lot of people are still very accepting and encouraging, but now there are the blank stares when I tell people how deep my depression can be; there’s the growing sense of loneliness when I repeatedly fail to find others who live in the maximum security prison I feel like I live in; and there’s the fear of never getting better no matter how hard I try. I could tell that Jenner was both relieved at having revealed his true self but also scared about the future…just like I feel.

One moment in the Jenner interview resonated with me most deeply. Diane Sawyer was asking him about his family members’ reactions. It’s a testament to his dedication as a father that all ten of his children seem to adore him and support him (with varying, natural degrees of difficulty in their own acceptance of watching dad turn into a woman). Even his “very conservative,” 80-something-year-old mother says she’s never been more proud of him for his bravery. But the moment when Diane Sawyer asked him what his now-deceased dad would think, you could tell that Jenner was really taken off-guard, that maybe he hadn’t even thought of this angle on things. Then Diane Sawyer asked him what he’d want his dad to say, and with a few tears in his eyes, Bruce Jenner said what just about any human being would say: “I’d just want him to tell me that he still loved me…that’s all.”

How much more human could that answer be? A 65-year-old man who has done everything from winning an Olympic gold medal to taking enough female hormones so as to have (albeit small) breasts…just wants his father to love and accept him. I don’t understand Bruce Jenner’s desire to become a woman; but I certainly understand wanting my parents to love and accept me, and I certainly understand wanting to be honest with people about my deepest, darkest battles.

I guess I just don’t look at Bruce Jenner’s struggle as being all that different from the rest of humanity’s…

I don’t understand the asshole who recently told me what a failure I am, but I know he’s just a hurting, broken human being like me. I know he’s just lashing out, as I often do, at someone who really isn’t the problem but who seems like an easy target. Personally, I prefer other drivers, and I wish he’d made the same choice to just honk at someone who cut him off or display his middle finger toward someone who is endangering his life by writing the Great American Novel in the form of a text message on the highway. But instead, he picked me. I wish he hadn’t; I will never forget what he said. BUT I do understand what it’s like to be a confused human being who often feels like a child in an adult’s body.

And I don’t understand people who keep their secrets to themselves. Why wouldn’t everyone in the world want to wear their heart on their sleeve like I do? But I suppose it makes sense that shame can be a crippling tyrant. I get that for sure; I just show my shame differently – looking for others who share in my struggles rather than hiding in case there aren’t those others out there.

And I don’t understand power hungry politicians who are lying douche bags (that’s my nice term for ALL of them), but I do understand that it’s great to be in charge and that it’s great to feel like my voice counts more than anyone else’s voice. I understand that desire for validation and affirmation about my self-worth.

I could go on and on because there are a hell of a lot of people who I don’t understand. My point is that I understand what it is to be human…to be broken but not quite sure where to put the band-aid…to be hurting but unsure where the wound came from…to be confused about the seemingly insane lack of logic that determines the fate of humanity…to be sad about things that haven’t even happened yet, like the fact that my dog will die someday…to find absurdly silly things hilarious, like Kevin Hart’s stand-up comedy routine where he mocks his drug-addicted, well-endowed, underwear-less father by dangling the microphone between his legs to about his calf muscles and walking around on stage like a drunk, microphone/penis flopping around for all to see… to say unkind things to people I really care about because I’m just too tired or depressed to be nice, even though I actually want to be…to send my kids mixed messages like when I tell them to watch their fucking potty mouths…to be insanely jealous of people who have stuff I want like New York Times Best-sellers and six-pack abs, or even just abs…to feel like life tricks us by making promises it doesn’t keep, creating all the grumpy old people that drive too slowly and wear the wrong color of socks with their shorts…to be terrified of death and then the next day to wish it would come sooner…you know: the stuff we all feel about four times an hour on the peaceful days.

So I guess the short version is this: People are human, so cut them some slack. See if you can meet people where you’re similar rather than feeling threatened by your differences. Bruce Jenner openly claims to be a Republican, a Christian, and a Transgendered man. I doubt you know very many of those, but at the end of the day, we’re all just about as odd a combination of things whether we will admit it or not. Call me naïve, but I think the world would be a better place if we’d just start our introductions to each other like this: “Hi, I’m very weird and confused and scared; I say things I don’t really mean and I do things that contradict what I believe to be right and true. Oh, and my name’s Tim. Nice to meet you, weird, confused, and scared new friend. So, what do you do for a living? And what’s your most crippling fear? Mine’s a tie between rejection and loneliness. Or maybe those are the same thing.”

 

 
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A Life Changing Question (with Podcast)

life changing question

 

 

Please check out my new podcast feature at the bottom of this page! Now the post…

 

 

After Riley died (see previous post) I felt completely numb. I had comforted the friend who had the devastating fate of finding Riley unresponsive in his apartment bedroom. I had hugged his broken-hearted mom many times. I had even spoken at his memorial service. Not once did my eyes well up or my voice break through all of this. I felt callous and guilty. I tried to tell myself that I saw this tragedy coming, so I had been ready. I tried to tell myself that, at the end, Riley had been so miserable that he was better off, despite what the rest of us still selfishly wanted. But nothing made me really feel the pain of losing a close friend, a kindred spirit.

Finally, after three weeks of numbness, I cracked. I’m not like an actor who can choose when these emotions will come or how strong they will be. The Mexican restaurant in Dunwoody was far from an ideal location for this needed release, but that’s where it happened. Sitting in a booth with a long-time, very close friend – one of about three people on earth I have ever completely fallen apart in front of – I shed a tear…my voice broke…and I fought back sobs for forty-five minutes.

My friend Mike had never seen me like this despite all of the times we had gotten naked in front of each other…all the times we had stripped bare together. No, no, I fear that the dirty minds out there might be misreading my completely appropriate, non-sexual metaphors. You should be ashamed.

Let me try again: Mike had never seen me cry despite fifteen years of pretty much telling each other about every up and down and deep, dark secret. He had seen my anger and plenty of sarcasm – my two preferred ways for letting pain seep out. But this was different. Mike sat there in respectful silence and said the perfect words of comfort: “Tim, we’ll figure this out together. Obviously, you’re hurting, and I’m here for you. I’m with you in this.”

We sat awhile longer as I tried to compose myself, and then Mike went and changed my entire outlook on myself…

“Tim, can you think of anyone you know who might feel what you’re feeling right now?” he asked.

I responded with the anger I had been feeling at losing someone who got IT: “Yeah, my friend who just died.”

Then he asked me a life changing question: “Tim, what would you tell him if he was feeling what you’re feeling right now?”

Clouds parting…beams of light…eyebrows raised at how much easier it suddenly felt to give myself some grace. In the span of time it took to pose that one simple question, I felt I had been given a new lease to love myself and care for myself despite how depressed and hopeless I felt around that time.

Would I ever tell Riley he needed to suck it up and keep moving forward if I knew he felt like I did right then? No, I’d tell him to take a few days off and see how he felt. Why couldn’t I make the same decision for myself without feeling guilty…like I was failing somehow?

Would I tell Riley that he’d be failing his family if he needed to call time out for a bit, spending some time alone or playing the music that was his only escape? No, I’d tell him that the best version of himself is what he owed his family, and by insisting on forging ahead on the current collision course with disaster, he was certainly not doing his family any favors. I’d tell him it was okay to be weak and to hurt and to be exhausted. I’d tell him it was okay to love himself and to get better.

Mike’s question was raised six months ago now, and I still think about it all the time. Through my mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve also been given some similar images to hold in my mind as I practice self-compassion:

One option is to call to mind a moment when your child seemed particularly vulnerable and those I’d-do-anything-for-this-child instincts took over. By imagining yourself as that very child, you can begin to feel a softness toward yourself just as if you were watching your child try not to cry after falling off his bike. You’d look at the quivering lip and say, “It’s OKAY, little one! It’s okay to cry. I know it hurts; let’s go get an icepack.” You’d hug your child and comfort him/her. (Well, I hope you would!)

Or imagine your own self at a moment in childhood when you felt particularly vulnerable, wishing someone would tell you it was going to be okay, wishing for mom or dad to pick you up and wrap you in comfort and safety. Then return to that moment and be the Adult who parents that hurting, scared child who is still inside of you…inside all of us.

If you’re like me, being tough on yourself comes rather naturally. Why can’t you be more like so-and-so, Tim, and just let things roll off your back? Why can’t you be less of a roller coaster to live with? Why do you insist on thinking about unanswerable questions incessantly? Stop, dammit! What the hell is your problem? Everyone else seems to be handling life’s realities waaaay better than you. Get it together, Tim!

But I’d never say those things to my children or to my friend, Riley, especially if I could look inside their heads and hearts and see the angst raging in them that I feel inside myself so often. I’d just want to sit with them, to let them know they’re not alone…ever. I’d want to say, “I’ll keep sitting as long as it takes because I love you. We’re in this together, all the way to the end.”

So why don’t I say the same things to Tim that I would say to Riley?

What I’ve learned in the past six months is that, when I do practice self-compassion – and I don’t think you are likely to improve much unless you take the time to actually practice – my entire outlook on my struggles changes. By being kinder to myself, I end up being more loving and patient with others. I become more honest about how I’m feeling, less ashamed to admit it. Oddly, I even feel more hopeful that the rough seas are survivable. The water may even become calm someday.

But if it doesn’t, Tim, you’re still valuable, and I still love you, always.

 

 

If you listen to the podcast, I’d love your feedback! Leave a comment below with thoughts and suggestions if you have them.

 

 

Also, if you’d like more Mike Edwards wisdom, take a look at his blog, especially if you like to hear someone express very non-traditional theological views. Enjoy: http://mikeedwards123.wordpress.com/

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Beautiful, Beautiful You

you-are-beautifulDoes the beauty of life ever overwhelm you?

Do you ever have one of those days when everyone from the grumpy barista at Starbucks…to the slow driver on his phone in the fast lane of the highway…to the fat man crossing the street too slowly…to the tree you’ve never noticed outside your office window…to the kindness of the person who lets you go ahead of them in line at the grocery store since you only have 3 items…to your home, your spouse, your kids.
Given the inner workings of a brain like mine, these days only come so often, and sadly, the days when the opposite description of the people above would be more apt. But I’m learning to embrace them when they come.

This morning I sat in a coffee shop working on a new book about my spiritual journey thus far in life. When four men sat down in my quiet, somewhat private section of the coffee shop, I was annoyed. They started in about “church and the message on Sunday.” I thought, “Great, here I am trying to write about my recent need to escape church, and some men’s Bible study group sits down about 18 inches away. And then they talked for two hours about everything from Jesus to reincarnation – just philosophizing, not dogmatizing. It was as if they were there to tell me to press on with my new book.

This was a beautiful moment.

And this morning my sister-in-law sent a picture of her boyfriend’s motorcycle helmet, which now reads “Shake the Dust” prominently on the side. Someone besides me is now my compatriot in wanting to “shake the dust,” to embrace all the beautiful-but-broken people and facets of life that Mojgani illustrates almost magically in his poem.

This was beautiful to me.

And there’s my beautiful and saintly wife standing across the room from me, engrossed in some new technology for work, mumbling things to herself as usual, finishing her lunch…existing with me, often for me…this ordinary saint of a woman who has shown me unconditional love.

She is beautiful to me.

My dog lies contentedly on the floor, existing in the moment as only an animal can. Unconcerned by anything other than this moment spent with me, my wife, and my son.

Her simplicity and complete acceptance of her dog-ness is beautiful.

My son sits on the couch next to me playing some sort of game on my iPhone. He’s peaceful, engrossed, unaware of the world around him in that way adults wish they could still taste from time to time.

He is precious and beautiful.

My daughter – my precious daughter who was seemingly born last week – is off at First Grade. Who taught her to read and write and to love dance music and never to be scared of anything or anyone? Who taught her to befriend the boy with special needs in her class, to walk with him even when he lags behind the others in the group?

She is beautiful inside and out.

And even I, as I learn to forgive myself and accept myself as I am, without judgment, with plenty of grace, mercy, and patience…can I say it? I am beautiful, too. Complex, maddening to myself and others, moody and unpredictable. Broken, but trying, forging ahead, hoping, accepting myself now, as I am.

I am beautiful.

And you…Not only when you get dressed up or act a bit more patient than usual or do something selfless for someone. Where you are, how you are…no changes necessary. Fall into it; forgive yourself; embrace all the components of your complex but captivating self. You are the only YOU. You’re trying, hoping, growing, but no matter how far you have to go or how “un-far” you feel like you’ve come, you are unique and profound.

You are beautiful.

 

PS. Share this message with someone who needs to know s/he is beautiful. Thanks!

 

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Self Compassion Meditation

self compassionLast week, I had one of the more intensely damning experiences of my life. Perhaps someday I’ll share the details, but for now, suffice it to say that I’ve never had someone so explicitly condemn me at the very core of who I am and who I want to be.

I sunk.

Deep.

Deeper than ever, I think.

The kind of deep that feels like, even if you start swimming to the surface, you’ll never make it before you run out of air or energy.

I obsessed: will those indictments ever disappear from my brain?

I despaired: Maybe I am useless, worthless, a burden to everyone who knows me.

I worried: Will Ann leave me? Will my kids understand me? Will they love me? Am I even lovable? Do I deserve to be left as this person had told me? Maybe I do.

After the Night from Hell and the following Day of Despair, I went to my Compassion Meditation class. I’ve been attending a class at Emory about self compassion meditation. The actual name for the class is Cognitively Based Compassion Therapy (CBCT). Basically, we’re spending an hour and a half (in class) a week plus anywhere from 10-30 minutes per day practicing meditation, particularly as it pertains to compassion, which begins with self-compassion, and there I was rescued, at least for the moment, by what I’ll call a “re-aha!” Having been practicing mindfulness meditation, one of the core principles I’ve tried to live by is self compassion. As one meditation teacher says, “You’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough.” But I had forgotten that.

I had forgotten that it’s okay to be me; that no one else on earth has to understand me for me to be Worth Something; that it is perfectly okay to hurt when someone tells you horrible things about yourself; it’s even okay to hurt more than others might hurt, to hurt in my own unique, special way.

It’s okay to be me, trite and corny as that may sound. But it’s amazing how that one small reminder – it’s okay to feel what you feel, Tim – changed me, softened me, opened me to allow my experience to be my experience. No one needed to validate it because it was, it is, mine.

I remembered this beautiful poem by renowned mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, called “For Warmth”:

 

“I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.

I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm:
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing

my soul from leaving me
in anger!”

 

I will nourish my anger, my hurt, my loneliness rather than judging myself for them, rather than wishing I were more like so-and-so who doesn’t seem bothered by criticism or judgments. As Walt Whitman says, “I exist as I am; that is enough.” Nourishing is not wallowing. Nourishing is allowing myself to feel what I feel so I can move on, not so I can wallow ever-deeper in the mire of being misunderstood.

I am enough. I am okay, even if no one else understands.

And so are you, my friend.

 

**People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!
Amazon’s Books on Self Compassion

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