Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Problem With Compartmentalizing, Part Two

Part One is here. 

This one's for Birdie. 

Oh, Birdie. I don't know you, but I know you. We've never met, but I hear you. 

Birdie left a comment on the previous post that I'll excerpt. She wrote, in reference to seeking professional help to process the trauma she experienced as a child, "...I can’t be helped and soul destroying because it means I am really messed up. I am so afraid of opening Pandora’s box and becoming unable to deal with what lies waiting. But I am tired. Tired of never being happy. Tired of always feeling anxious. Tired of always, always being afraid."

Talk about 'bringing the whole house down.' That's what compartmentalizing does to us. It makes us feel safe for the moment, but it ultimately destroys us from the inside out. Because when we hide those things away - either for later or for what we think is forever - we deprive ourselves of community and support. 

Human beings are social creatures. We are designed to live with each other. Our bodies respond on a molecular level to touch and interaction from each other - our adrenal glands activate, our neurological systems light up, we secrete hormones that make us feel safe and loved and happy when we let ourselves share experiences with other people (and animals - never underestimate the power of a soft, furry creature to snuggle up to). 

But when we wall of parts of our human experience, we relegate ourselves to holding what are often the most traumatic and painful things all by ourselves. It is akin to telling everyone that we would like their help carrying the 20lb. box of papers but that they can go home after that because we'll figure out how to lug that 200lb. desk in the corner alone. Or not at all. There are so many reasons we do that - shame, denial, overwhelm. We hate that desk. Maybe we will just leave it there and never look at the corner where it sits, heavy and ugly. 

It is counterintuitive to expect ourselves to bear the heaviest weights alone. We can't do it, no matter how much we want to or how hard we try. And we aren't designed for it. But when we compartmentalize, that's what we're setting ourselves up for - isolation, solo work. 

So, Birdie, if you're reading this, know that even as you wait for a therapist who is the right one to help you work through that pile of stuff you've hidden in the corner, you aren't alone. While it's important to find skilled counselors to help us dig through the deepest traumas, in the meantime, there are people out there who will help you support the weight of what you've got sitting there. Let them. Don't worry about whether they'll get something on their clothes. Don't think about how it smells or what it looks like. Just know that, together, we can bear so much more weight than we think we can, and that there are people out there who care for you who would like nothing more than to hoist up a corner and take some of the pressure off of you. That's how we're designed. That's what we do for each other. And while it takes some practice (often, years of practice), that feeling of relief that you get when others come along to help bear the load is the beginning of healing. 

Thank you for your courage.
You will get there from here. I know it. You won't do it alone, but that's the sweetest part of this. You'll discover, along the way, which of your friends and family is really great at unpacking, cleaning up, and showing up. Let them. Don't apologize. It's how we're designed. Embrace it and know that you were never supposed to hold all of this by yourself. 


Monday, November 06, 2017

The Problem With Compartmentalizing

By Creator:Giulio Bonasone - http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392735This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

It is just so tempting, and it's also something many of us are conditioned to do from the time we're little: set aside strong emotions or difficult thoughts until later.

I can't deal with that right now.
I can't think about that right now.
Let me just get through this.

Compartmentalization has its purpose, to be sure. When you're physically occupied by something else - say, driving - you really need to focus on the task at hand. But all too often, when we seek to tuck something away "for later," what we are really doing is hoping it will stay tucked away so that we don't ever have to see it again. And unfortunately, the kinds of things we generally hope to never have to see again are usually the kinds of things that will end up demanding our attention in one way or another at some point.

I've had both extreme examples of this (repressing the memories of childhood sexual assault for decades) and moderate examples (putting aside my fears and grief at the serious illness my husband struggled with so that I could get through the day raising two toddlers), and both times it came back to bite me in the ass.  In the first case, I developed a severe anxiety disorder that made it hard for me to work and live the life I wanted to live for many years until I examined and explored the abuse, and in the second, I spent three years working with a therapist to overcome a depression that nearly drove me to suicide.

What I've learned is that while I may not have the luxury of expressing my emotions and really sitting with my grief every time it shows up, if I don't acknowledge it to some degree in real-time, I will suffer the consequences.  Because here's the thing: if I just keep tucking it away in some box labeled "Later," what are the odds that I will ever voluntarily choose to go back and open that box of pain and look at it? Why wouldn't I just keep it in the corner, always finding some other thing to keep me busy. Who in their right mind would want to set aside time and energy to reopen a container of sadness and grief?

So these days, when I'm confronted with a particularly difficult situation, I do my best to fold it into my life. I cry while I'm walking the dogs or doing dishes. I call a friend during lunch and ask for support. I give myself permission to honor the struggle, even if it means I sob a little every day, because hoarding the feelings I don't want to feel in some back room might be the thing that ultimately brings down the whole house. I know. I've been there, and I don't want to do that again. Big piles of junk attract rats and disease. Dealing with the trash one day at a time means that I don't have to dread what might jump out at me from that heap someday.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Working on Being Human

Everywhere I've ever lived there has been at least one neighbor who is way out of the norm. They have all been unique in their own way, and now that I think about it, they've all been male. Hmmm.

Anyway, in this particular neighborhood, the guy who makes me raise my eyebrows doesn't actually live here - he's just here a lot. His 90-something-year-old father owns the house - a 100+ year-old, 4500 square foot house that has clearly been neglected for at least a decade. The owner has lived in assisted living since before I moved here five years ago, but his two sons come by to mow the lawn and do the bare minimum to maintain the house until their dad passes and they can sell it for a million bucks (I'm not exaggerating - this is the Seattle housing market. You can sell your dilapidated, likely tear-down home for $1M + in my neighborhood. Thanks (?) Amazon). But, I digress.

The son who is here several times a week has been dubbed "no-pants neighbor-man" because, depending on the season, he either wears shorts or sweatpants with the side and/or back seams completely split open. And when he bends over to pull weeds or wind the hose back up, he reveals his personal preference for not wearing any underwear. At all. Even in the winter when the breeze must surely remind him that HIS BACKSIDE IS COMPLETELY UNCOVERED AND REVEALING ALL OF HIS ANATOMY DOWN THERE TO EVERYONE WHO IS WITHIN SIGHT LINES OF IT.

Did I mention that this house happens to be less than a block away from an all-girls Catholic high school? The students park along the side streets in the area and walk to school and this guy is a legend. To a girl, every single one of them crosses the street before they have to walk on the sidewalk in front of the house because they all know about this quirk of his.

He seems harmless. He never calls out to anyone or seems to purposely bend over and display himself to anyone - it just happens as he's working in the yard. He has had some prolonged projects in the yard and on the front porch and occasionally sleeps in the house. Every once in a while, I walk the dogs and simply can't avoid him and, except for his attire, he mostly just seems like a lonely old man who feels the need to mansplain to me why my small terrier should be a "house only" dog because when I take him outside I run the risk of having him carried off by a hawk, among other head-shaking things. (I'm not sure where he thinks my dog should relieve himself if I never let him outside, and that's not the kind of thing I'd ever muse out loud about, anyway, because generally I'm most interested in keeping the interaction brief).

Yesterday, I was driving away from the house when he stood in front of my car and flagged me down. When I stopped and rolled down the window, my attention was first captivated by his really awful DIY dye-job, probably because I was working hard to keep my eyes averted from his scandalous shorts that came nowhere near covering what they should have. The hair he has is perhaps 2" long, and it starts just about 2" above his ears. The top of his head would be perfect for a comb-over if he decided to go that route. But so far, he hasn't, and so the top 1/2" of his hair is lily-white while the rest is some shiny black, from a box look. Because I was so absorbed in wondering how often he dyes his hair and how he does it, I missed the first part of what he was saying, but my attention snapped back to his words when he uttered, "...he's a homeless."

A homeless.

No, I thought, he's a person. A human.

I finally realized that the neighbor was warning me that he had just discovered a sleeping bag and some clothing in the backyard of his dad's house and when he went to throw them in the garbage, he ran in to the owner of the items who seemed to be high or really struggling with reality. Of course, he didn't use those terms, and the terms he did use just made me tired and sad.

I endured the next five minutes of the rant/warning/educational seminar on how "the homeless work," cringing inwardly. I admit to having a moment of concern, wondering whether this person who had been summarily kicked out of my neighbor's backyard would seek refuge in mine, but mostly I just felt ill. Every reference to this young man was couched in language that was designed to set him apart, dehumanize him, set up a dynamic that puts us as neighbors on one side and "vagrants," "derelicts," "homeless" on the other. In the end, I nodded my thanks for the warning, rolled up the window, and drove on.

I have often wondered how this neighbor came to be in the position he is in - unable to convince his elderly father to sell his house but responsible for taking care of it, lonely and a little out of touch with social norms. I have worked to have compassion for him and also talked to Eve and Lola about how to graciously and cautiously interact with him if he speaks to them. I have, a time or two, laughed about him with Bubba or another neighbor, and I will admit that I wish I hadn't. I know that making fun of someone is a step on the road to dehumanizing them and I'm sad that it took his dehumanization of a homeless person to remind me of that.

It is perfectly natural to have a fear-based reaction when you discover something like my neighbor did. I can't honestly say that I'd have been able to keep my wits about me if I walked into my backyard to find someone sleeping back there. I would certainly have ordered him out and perhaps called the police. I struggle with the line between knowing that everyone deserves compassion and respect and protecting myself from potential harm. On the one hand, I know that what the young man likely needs most is resources to help him, and on the other hand, if he was under the influence of some sort of drug, I can't predict what he would do if I let him stay so that I could call someone to help him.

I know that I will continue to struggle with these kinds of situations, with how to put my beliefs into action. One thing I have gotten significantly better at, though, is recognizing my own tendencies to see certain people as 'other' and resist them. Whatever he has done or experienced, wherever he sleeps, this young man is not "a homeless." He is a human being.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Instruction for Difficult Moments

It feels surreal.

I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.

The fact that my mom doesn't know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I'm there, it is as though I've been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.

The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I'm old enough for that? That she is?  Even though it feels like I've been a mother forever - it almost feels like I've never NOT been a mother -  it couldn't possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.

I haven't imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that's what it is. I haven't sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can't picture myself here, because I haven't turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they're real?

I don't ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don't really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn't begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works - that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe "imagination" is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations - especially when what I'm presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn't have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.

The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn't beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don't truly want to be there, so perhaps it's a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.

There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I've ever had the good fortune to do and I'm thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.

Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I'm out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn't have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Lopez Island Morning

The house I am staying in is on a spit of land with a westward view of a bay and another spit of land. All day long, I could sit on the deck and watch the birds – gulls, heron, eagles, ducks – fish and splash and swim in the shallow, sandy bay. And just beyond it, on that other long finger of land, cars and trucks come and go, with the occasional knot of bicyclists and the rare jogger. There are no homes (yet) on that slim finger that is just to the west of where I am, but this morning, I woke to the bones of a crane just forming through the fog, so I know it is only a matter of time.

            There are homes in the webbing of the finger, though, the crotch of land that connects that spit to this one, and they are huddled close together with some clusters of wind-sculpted evergreen trees. Sitting on the deck this morning, peering through the thick mist, I am pleased that I can see far enough in front of me to watch the gulls scoop up clams, fly 40 feet up into the sky, and drop them on the rocks beneath to reveal their soft insides. Breakfast. I squint to see the houses just to the west and wonder if, from their vantage point, it is as foggy and grey as it seems to me from here, or whether they, too, have a clear visual field in front of them and I just can’t tell. Optics. 


            I wonder if we all assume that our vantage point is the Right one. From here, I think those homes are cloaked in fog and mist. I imagine looking out the window of one of those homes to see nothing but grey. But maybe that’s not accurate. 

            This morning it is so quiet that I can hear the flapping of the gulls’ wings as they rise out of the water. It is the sound of effort, of forward motion, and it prompts me to tighten the muscles of my belly as though I, too, am rising, pulsing my arms to lift myself. I think about how satisfying it feels to be tensing muscles, using my own strength to move. If I could think this way all the time, I would be better at going to the gym. I would have less cellulite and more stamina. Maybe what I need is to live someplace with this view all the time – watching these animals work to live in a gorgeous place. All of their movements purposeful. I am the kind of person for whom going to the gym feels artificial and contrived and there is little that makes me more aggravated than falsehood.


            Often, this morning, the peace is punctuated by gunshots. The first one came solo and prompted me to think that some angry gardener was dispatching one of the rabbits that outnumber people on this island. Perhaps he finally got tired of sharing his bounty with the fat bunnies feasting on his labor and leaving droppings in every patch of grass available. Gunshots are nearly always associated with ‘he’ in my mind. I know that there are women who shoot guns. Women who garden and get annoyed. And it’s not unimaginable in this place where yesterday I saw packs of dirt-stained children wrestling in open areas, wandering up to strangers to talk and pet their dogs, women with three or four of their own tagging along – none of whom are old enough to go to school quite yet. It’s not beyond imagination to expect one of them to sit down and bare her breast to a child who is tall enough to stand next to her and feed. That is the kind of island this is – hippies, home-schoolers, people who want to live away from the city. These women can do anything. I can tell. But it is hard for me to reconcile the peaceniks with gunshots. I know that is my own limitation. I accept it. I don’t know if I’ll work to unravel it or not. Right now, I am more interested in why the gunshots are increasing – now coming in groups of three or four. Who is shooting? What are they shooting? Why? 


My real desire is for them to stop. I’d like to slip back in to the stillness where the only sound is the beating of the birds’ wings as they lift off of the water or the swoosh it makes when they skid into the bay and touch down.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Mindful Approach to The Glass Half Full

Are you a person who sees the glass as half full or half empty? I like this exercise in perspective, because it's an easy way to remind ourselves that we always have a choice. But I've recently begun to evolve my thoughts on this common allegory.

It started when I saw a meme (I know, memes. Ugh. But sometimes...) that said: It doesn't matter whether the glass is half full or half empty. Remember, the glass is refillable. 

I was struck by how easy it is to get trapped into the idea that there are only two ways to see that glass. So often, we convince ourselves that there are only opposing ideas - black or white, right or wrong. We are all familiar with the sayings that begin with "there are two kinds of people: those who...." I liked the notion that the glass was refillable. I adopted it. I wrote it down. I told my kids about it.

To be certain, there are times when we want to fill that glass up higher, and when it makes sense to do so. When one of my daughters does poorly on an exam or school project, I want to remind her that there is always time to do better, that she can move beyond this difficult moment and learn from it and grow. She can be sad that the glass seems half empty, acknowledge it, and then make an effort to create a different scenario next time.

But yesterday, while my mind was wandering, I bumped up against the limitations of that metaphor. I am someone who struggles with control-freakishness but I have learned to use mindfulness to  lower my anxiety levels and my need to fix things. I realized that thinking about the glass as refillable moves me away from acceptance and creates the often false assumption that whatever situation I find myself in has to be changed in order to be tenable. I don't want to lose the power of being in the moment with the glass as it is because I really believe that, often, this is where the magic of growth and learning come from. When we quickly try to move beyond our disappointment or discomfort with the current situation we find ourselves in (ie. racing to fill up that glass), we aren't giving ourselves the opportunity to practice acceptance and really honor our experience in the present moment. Beyond that, there are unfortunately some things that can't be altered or 'fixed,' and then what do we do with the glass?

My mom has Alzheimer's and, as these things go, she is in need of constant care taking. That glass isn't refillable. There is no way to reverse or fix what is happening. But, that doesn't mean that I have to choose between seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Truthfully, it is both at the same time. It is half full and half empty. Yes, she unable to be independent and take care of her daily needs. AND, she has an incredibly loving husband who cares for her with love and affection and works hard to make sure that she is safe and comfortable. For now, that is the metaphor I want to embrace - the simultaneous existence of lack and abundance and their very reliance on each other in order to exist.


Friday, July 07, 2017

That Pesky Minimum Wage Conversation

Photo from The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/07/democracy-vouchers-seattle-politics-low-income-homeless#img-2
It's been a while since I posted anything even remotely political here - likely due to the daily onslaught of information a la the Drumpf shitshow. Generally, when I post something in response to the political goings-on, it is after much thought and reflection, because often these things are murky and I like to have a clear head when I write about my positions. With the fast and furious, continual chocolates-on-a-conveyer-belt (think I Love Lucy) nature of our current administration, it has been nearly impossible for me to clear my head long enough to say anything coherent. I know I'm not alone.

However, one issue that keeps coming up in my world is the $15/hour minimum wage conversation. It was passed in Washington state, is being pushed in other states, was recently passed in British Columbia, has been analyzed by several university studies, and is hotly debated even as a national standard. I've read the news coverage of the studies, observed debates online, listened to folks talk about it on NPR, and am having a really hard time not being cynical about all of this.

For me, what it comes down to is humanity. (Ok, most everything comes down to that for me.) The simple fact is, even though some places have passed minimum wage legislation, there is nobody that I know of who works a minimum wage job and is currently being paid $15/hour. All of these measures are "phased in" over a period of time. And to be clear, $15/hour is NOT A LIVING WAGE in most places. $15/hour for a 40-hour week means that you are making $600 a week before taxes. That means that you're making less than $30,000 a year before taxes. Depending on how many people are in your household (would have to be five or more), that doesn't even qualify you for Medicaid without extenuating circumstances because the federal poverty level for 2017 for a family of four is $28,200.

So, the places that are passing these minimum wage bills are generally the ones where the standard of living is higher (ie. Seattle), which makes sense, given that if you want to live in Seattle and you're making $15/hour, your entire paycheck will go toward your rent. But since you don't hit the federal poverty level, you don't qualify for SNAP benefits, so I hope you like the taste of carpet, because that's all you'll be able to eat. Unless you work in a restaurant and you can nick some food there.

But, oops, remember, that these laws are being phased in. So if you're working a minimum wage job in Seattle right now, you aren't making $15/hour yet.

So. Yeah. Humanity.
One of the most vehement arguments against the $15/hour minimum wage I've seen in my liberal enclave of Seattle comes from small business owners like restaurateurs and hipster shop owners. They "can't afford" to pay folks that much and stay in business.

Go out of business.
I mean it. That might sound harsh, but if you can't afford to pay the people who work for you, the people in your own damn community, the people who are the face of your American dream, enough money so that they can live with a roof over their heads, know where their next meal is coming from (and it's not the trash can), and get to work without a 90-minute bus ride, you don't have a solid business plan and you should probably go back to the drawing board.

Businesses are not more important than people.
Just because you have a great idea for a small business that you think hipsters in Seattle will flock to doesn't mean you deserve to be in business. It should be part of your business plan to analyze whether you can pay your workers enough to live on, and offer them paid leave and health insurance. If you can't, find a place that's cheaper to set up shop so you can or go back to your day job. I have a dream, too. Lots of them. But if I am going to build those dreams on the backs of people whose lives depend on Medicaid funding and SNAP benefits (in this administration? Oy), then I'm living with blinders on. Big, white privilege blinders.

The studies that say that the $15/hour minimum wage will "hurt the economy," are putting businesses before humans. They are putting some nebulous, unpredictable "economy" before humans. Are we really a country that is so concerned with an idealized, unsustainable, continually growing pile of money that we are willing to let the people who work in entry-level and service jobs live on the streets? If we continue to argue that these kinds of policies will hurt businesses while we cut social services, that is exactly what we are saying. And in Seattle, it is what we're living. There are recent studies showing that the majority of people living on the streets are those who were working in low-wage jobs, with families, who simply couldn't afford to pay their rent - either because of some unforeseen medical catastrophe or by some slow attrition of their ability to pay their bills despite working at least one full time job.

I am not an economist (thank God!), and I appreciate that this is a complicated issue in some ways. But in the way that is most important, it is not complicated at all. If we care about our fellow human beings, we will find a way to make sure that they are taken care of. Period. We will lead with our morality and common humanity and figure out a way to make it work. That is how all dreams are made. Follow the dream and work out the details as you go.
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