Speak up anyway

My goal for this blog is to post at least once a week, but it’s been quite a bit longer than that since I last posted. I had planned to post two Fridays ago, but that was the day that the recordings of Donald Trump and Billy Bush were released. As you may have heard, there were many women who were pitched into a post-traumatic stress episode from those words. I was one of those women.

This was not the first time my PTSD from sexual assault has been triggered this year; the Brock Turner sentencing did the same.

It was heartening to me to see the reaction to both, the outrage from men and women. That is one of the things that makes me thankful for social media – when I was growing up and a young woman, when I was experiencing those assaults, there were no other voices, only those that silenced me.

Because I experienced assault when I was young, and was silenced, I carry that message in me. That’s what happens. Not just when we’re young, of course. I know women who have been abused and/or assaulted when they are adults and they internalize the same message: Don’t rock the boat. Stay quiet. Our well-being and our truth, the sacrificial lamb on the altar to the status quo.

So now, here, and in other parts of my life, I’m telling the truth. As I’ve written before, I’m breaking those rules, the rules that kept me silent and small and afraid. It’s still a struggle. I still have those messages, those voices, those feelings that it’s wrong to speak, it’s wrong to break the rules, it’s wrong to rock the boat, it’s wrong to tell the truth when the truth challenges the message of the status quo.

What I’m seeing now is that the status quo was a lie, and was built on lies. The message I got was that I would belong if I followed the rules, if I fit in, if I supported the status quo. I would belong if I was thin, if I was pretty, if I stayed quiet, if I kept up appearances, if I didn’t tell. But you know what? I never belonged. Even when I did all that, I never belonged there. I could never belong anywhere I couldn’t tell the truth. I could never belong anywhere that didn’t accept all of me, that didn’t want to hear my story, that didn’t hold space for me and my pain. It’s only when there is space for all of me that I can belong, and that I can heal.

We humans are a social species. As we evolved, we needed to belong; if we didn’t belong, we would almost certainly die.

In some ways, I feel like I’m waking up, for the first time. As I have started to speak, I am finding my voice, I’m hearing my own voice in a way I’ve never heard it before. I’m realizing how cut off I’ve been from myself, how that message to remain silent was so completely internalized that I couldn’t even listen to myself, I couldn’t even speak to myself, I couldn’t even feel my reactions when I was in danger. It’s like that saying, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If I speak, but I can’t listen to and hold my truth, does my voice exist?

Can I speak and tell the truth, can I hear my truth and hold my truth, when no one else does? Can I speak and tell the truth, can I hear my truth and hold my truth, when no one wants to hear my voice and my story, when I am silenced?

I think the answer is, No. No, I can’t. And maybe most of us, maybe all of us can’t. If I grow up being silenced, if I internalize the demand to be silent, and the expectation that my voice and my safety are expendable, how can I hear my own voice that signals danger? How can I feel my discomfort when a male supervisor gets in my space? How can I fight back when I’m grabbed?

There are two commonly known responses to danger: fight or flight. There’s a third response though: freeze. I’m told this response is the animal preparing for death. Now I see that my voice was frozen, I was frozen.

I think one of the reasons I am finally able to break these rules and start to speak and find my voice is that I have been finding people who value the truth, people who encourage me to tell my story and to understand it. People who are finding their own voice and struggling to tell and understand their stories, understand how these stories have influenced their lives. People with whom I can belong.

I still feel the terror, I still feel the instinct to freeze. I still fight the message that if I break the rules, I will never belong.

I’m going to speak up anyway.

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The gift of the what-ifs

As torturous as the what-ifs were, the experience of talking back to them taught me something: my mind is not always my friend. Perhaps you already know this; I did not.

As I started talking back to the what-ifs, and seeing that those thoughts were the way in which I was trying to control death and loss, it occurred to me that perhaps I should do the same with other thoughts. So, in the same way I had paid attention to how I treated myself when I was learning about self-compassion, I started paying attention to my thoughts. I have one word to say: Wow.

My thoughts are crazy.

An example: I can be walking down a street, and, seemingly out of nowhere, I’ll be formulating a response to an argument I had with someone 20 years ago. Why? Why do I do this? This argument occurred 20 years ago, it’s over, there’s nothing I can do to change the outcome, I don’t even talk to that person anymore. Yet here I am, carefully crafting a response, which, by the way, is brilliant, and would have totally won the argument if I had thought of it then.

Another example: I’ll be in the market. I pass the ice cream aisle. I start thinking about ice cream, I should get some ice cream. Another voice, of course, says, no, I shouldn’t, but the Ayes win. I go home and eat the ice cream. Immediately, there is unanimous agreement among all the thought-voices that I should never have bought the ice cream, much less eaten it. This cohesiveness among the thought-voices is rare; usually it’s as if there’s this group of people living in my head, each with their own separate and conflicting agendas; well, perhaps with one unifying goal, to drive me nuts.

An aside: you know why that thing called “flow” is so attractive? You know, when you’re doing something, and you’re completely immersed and you lose all sense of time? The reason it’s so great is the voices in your head shut up.

I’ve realized, too, that my emotions are attached to these capricious thoughts, and the emotions feed off the thoughts and the thoughts feed off the emotions. I can think about something that happened years ago and start to get pissed off about it. Being pissed off about it leads to thinking more about it, which causes me to get even more angry, which leads to still more thinking, which… well, you get the picture.

So I’ve started trying to watch my thoughts and emotions, and to question them. I’m realizing that a lot of times I just drift through the day, pulled along by these thoughts and feelings. But especially when my emotions are very charged, I’m starting to stop and ask myself, what is this about? Why do I feel so strongly? What am I thinking about this? Is my thinking accurate? Is my thinking based upon my experience, or is it based upon hearsay? Even if it’s based upon my experience, am I sure that I have all the pieces, or is my perspective limited? And if it’s based on hearsay, am I sure I can trust the source? If it’s based on hearsay, should I be this upset? And if it’s all based on something that happened in the past, how helpful is it for me to get this upset about it? Could my energy be used in a more productive way than getting upset about something that has already happened?

Since I have started watching my thoughts and emotions in this way,  I’m realizing how often my thoughts and emotions just run away. It makes me think of the wisdom of the serenity prayer – serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. I’m trying to learn how to sort out the difference, and, in so doing, find peace. I get moments of it, and then I lose it. Over and over. It’s not simple or easy. It’s a struggle, especially when I’m really hooked by something. When that happens, I’m turning more and more to self-compassion, and that is helpful to me.

One of my teachers suggested that our mind produces thoughts in the same way our stomach digests food: automatically. This made sense to me. A difference, of course, is that I can direct my thinking to plan or problem solve or create, whereas I don’t think I can direct my digestion. But there are many times when I tune into my thoughts and they are nonsensical; there is no rhyme or reason to them. I’m just chewing on past events or future possibilities.

So I’ve started making fun of my thought-voices when they start to take over in a way that’s not helpful (which, by the way, usually it’s not). I picture a cartoon or comic strip, with animal characters who are each thought-voice. There’s usually a duck. I don’t know why, I just think ducks are funny; I think it’s the way they walk. And that they quack. There’s often a giraffe too. I imagine the duck and the giraffe arguing with each other about one thing or the other. Or sometimes I just make the thought-voices sound like the teachers from the Charlie Brown cartoons — wah wah wah wah? Wah wah wah wah wah.

I know this is ridiculous and silly, but it helps me lighten up and not take myself so seriously, which I find to be quite helpful. It’s kind of like having Monty Python doing skits about my thoughts. It’s weird though, isn’t it? That I can use my mind to make fun of the thoughts it produces?

This has all helped me see how fully I’ve been identified in the past with my mind and my thoughts (and my emotions, for that matter). How I’ve just let it pull me along, without question. I can see now that my mind and my thoughts and emotions are part of me, but I can question them. They aren’t me, they’re just part of me.

This business of being human is very strange.

ashki-and-duck

Bargaining

I was familiar with the stages of grief when Ashki died: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It’s funny though, even though I knew denial (or shock) almost always hit first, for those first few days after he died, I thought, Wow, I’m doing okay. I mean, yes, I cried, but I was also pretty functional. I donated some of his things, wrote and sent thank you messages and notes, ran some errands.  Now I see that it was like the sea going out, before the tsunami hit.

ashki-running-away-at-beach

For me, the worst of the grief-tsunami were the what ifs. What if I hadn’t decided to do the last transfusion, would he still be alive? What if I had ordered the blood product somewhere else, would he have lived? What if we had weaned him off the immunosuppressants that weren’t working, would he have recovered? What if his other auto-immune condition had been discovered earlier, would that have prevented his IMHA? Was it the last immunosuppressant we tried, did that make him worse? What about the med that I insisted we try, that was supposed to stimulate bone marrow, did that lead to his death? When he bloated, a month before he was diagnosed, and I thought his gums looked pale, I should have insisted that he be checked more thoroughly. And when he wouldn’t eat, I should have found a new vet sooner, then his anemia would have been caught sooner. Maybe it was the flea med, or the heartworm med, or both. Maybe it was when he jumped in the drainage ditch, maybe there was pesticide runoff and it poisoned him, I shouldn’t have let him do that. If I hadn’t moved, would he still be alive? Was it the food I fed him? The treats I gave him? Maybe if, what if, if only… around and around and around my thoughts would swirl, all day and all night.

Even though I knew this was a normal part of grief, that I was bargaining with death and trying to find some way to control the loss and avoid it (in spite of the fact that he was gone, I had seen him die), even though I knew all of that, it was torture. I would talk myself through it, Tamara, this is normal, this is you not wanting to accept that he is gone, that he is dead, this is you wishing it was different, that you could go back and change it.

In spite of knowing that the what ifs were bargaining, and part of the grief process, it felt  like punishment. So then I wondered, is this me wanting to punish myself? Because if I punish myself that means it was my fault and if it was my fault then I could have done something to avoid this and if it could have been avoided then maybe somehow this can all be not true.

And then I realized that underneath this was that I just wanted to know, why did he have to die? Maybe if I could have answered those questions, all those what ifs, I could have found out why he had to die. And the truth is, there is no answer to that question. There is no answer to the question, Why did my beautiful, sweet, joyful, 4 year old boy die?

I can answer IMHA, transfusion reaction, nonresponse to treatment, but these are how he died, not why he died. And even now, a year later, there is no answer to that question. And I’m not holding my breath that there ever will be.

Some people find solace and answers in maxims or beliefs, and I respect that; however, I’m not one of those people, and I expect that to be respected, as well. We each must find our own way to peace.

So, a year later, I still turn toward grief. It doesn’t come as often, but when it does, I ask it to continue to teach me what it will. And I know that there are some things that I will never know.

Anniversaries and grief

As you know, if you read my last post, last week was the anniversary of Ashki’s death. I spent time throughout the week looking at pictures of him, watching videos, thinking about him, thinking about that week. It wasn’t just the date, it was the week —  he had his last transfusion Thursday, and died Friday.

I remember after he died, every Thursday and Friday were hard, for so many weeks. Well, everything was hard, a more accurate way of saying it would be that Thursday and Friday were harder than the other days, for so many weeks.

One of the ways I’ve heard grief described is that it’s the loss of normal. That is part of grief, for sure, and contributed so much to the disorientation that I felt after he died. For almost 18 months, my life had revolved around him, taking care of him, making his food, learning about his conditions, juggling veterinary appointments and tests and medications and supplements, taking him for car rides when his anemia was too severe for walks, getting up in the middle of the night to let him out when the steroids made him pee every two hours, flea combing since I didn’t want to use those meds anymore, … After he died, none of that was necessary.

For months after he died, I would be out and suddenly feel panicked, I needed to get home, right now, to take care of Ashki. And then I would remember – no, I didn’t. I didn’t need to get home.

 

On the 25th, I and some friends went to his favorite place, the beach at which he spent so much time playing and swimming before he got sick, where I took this picture of him:

ashki-sunset

For the sunset, we went to the outcropping of rocks to which Ashki always wanted to go, to see the harbor seals.

The people who came were people he loved, and who loved him. I didn’t have anything planned. We talked about him, but we also just hung out and chatted, as it was a first meeting for some, and a reunion for others; but it was Ashki and our love for him that was the common thread. It was an incredibly beautiful day, an Ashki-beautiful day, as my godson called it.

The sunset was an Ashki-beautiful sunset.

ashki-anniversary-sunset

As we stood and watched day turn towards night, change from sunset to dusk, the western sky shifted to all the colors of the rainbow, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. It was magical.

I wish you could have been there with us.

Beginning, middle, ending

This Sunday, the 25th of September, is the one year anniversary of Ashki’s death. In some ways, it was the beginning of this journey I’ve been on, the one I’m writing about here. In other ways, his death and my grief and what they catalyzed are the middle of a story, a place that I’ve been leading up to for a long time, a turning. And of course it was an ending, a letting go: it was not just his death, but in a way mine too — part of me died with him. Although I’m still here, and he’s not.

Beginning, middle, ending. Ending and beginning. Death and surrender. Purgatory? Is this what people mean when they talk about past lives?

I had to choose – what was this going to be?

All of it. I choose all of it.

ashki-in-the-car

When Ashki died, I made a conscious decision to honor him by holding the grief I was feeling, by not turning away from it. I was tempted to turn away from it, I wanted to turn away from it, many times. And sometimes I did turn away from it, but I kept turning back to my grief, I kept turning back and holding it and listening to it.

A saying that I found shortly after Ashki died, is: The work of the mature person is to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, and to be stretched large by them (Francis Weller). That has been what guides me, how I have reminded myself: hold grief by the hand, and walk. Sit with grief, and listen. Don’t turn away.

I realized that when I turn away from my grief, I am abandoning myself and I’m abandoning the love I had for Ashki and the love he had for me. And I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to turn away from the love we had for each other. For the first time in my life in a very long time, I had a compelling reason to stay and sit with the pain and not turn away.

The pain of that grief though, and my commitment to stay with it, is what has led me to search for a different way of coping. This is what has led me to realize how much I check out of life, how I can pretty much use anything to numb, how poorly I treat myself, how crappy I am at dealing with pain and difficulty. It’s made me realize that I was living a half-life, and that I don’t want to live a half-life anymore.

So now I reach and I stumble. I build new, foreign habits that break those toxic, unwritten rules that I’ve unearthed. I sit in stillness and listen and watch. I ask myself what is helpful and what is not, and I test it out for myself. I remind myself to stay open and willing to try something different.

I am learning to question my thoughts and watch and hold my emotions. I am learning to practice  acceptance, and the power of sitting in this moment, this one, right now, it’s all I have.

Holding gratitude in one hand and grief in the other. Being stretched large.

Vicious cycle

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This year, I took a short, online course in self-compassion, taught by Dr. Kristen Neff, through Brené Brown’s CourageWORKS. I had been exposed to the idea of self-compassion before, had learned a little about it, and it seemed like a really good idea, since I’m working at not numbing, or at least numbing less, when I’m having a hard time. One strategy  I’ve used in the past to deal with difficult emotions is, “Take deep breaths.” Sometimes that helps, but a lot of times I feel like I’m just gritting my teeth as I take those deep breaths. Mostly, I distract myself and I numb.

Basically, self-compassion is being kind to ourselves. Sounds simple enough. Unfortunately, when I tried to put it into practice, it was not at all easy. So I decided to pay attention to how I treat myself when I was struggling so I could see what I was doing, get a picture of what I do. After paying attention for a couple of days, I realized, to my horror, that rather than being kind to myself, I am usually mean or impatient or critical or judgmental to myself.

WHAT THE HECK?!?!

Because, guess what? I can’t get away from myself. I’m right there. When I go to sleep I’m there and when I wake up, I’m still there. So if I’m mean to myself rather than kind and compassionate to myself, I’ve got that going on 24/7, day in and day out, even on Christmas and holidays.

This is not good. If I walk around beating up on myself, is it any wonder that I struggle with anxiety and depression? Is it any wonder that I am a world-class numb-er? And I really had no idea I was doing this to myself as much as I was. I mean, I knew I would get annoyed with myself sometimes, but it wasn’t until I really paid attention that I saw how pervasive this was.

Realizing that I am so critical and mean to myself is pretty dispiriting. So now I’m struggling with that too. And, as I said, one of my main go-to strategies for dealing with difficult emotions is numbing, which, while helpful in the short term, is not good for me or my life, because usually after the numbing (or sometimes during the numbing) comes the self-loathing. And that is definitely not helpful. You can see how this goes: difficult emotions –> numbing –> self-loathing and more difficult emotions –> more numbing –> more self-loathing… Vicious cycle, party of one, right this way: welcome to Hell.

But at least now I know. I know the truth about how I treat myself, and so now I can learn how to treat myself better. And that’s the light, that’s where there is hope. Seeing the truth, and not turning away from it. I know what’s going on, and now I can learn how to change, I can try different things and see what helps.. It will probably take me awhile, because these are pretty entrenched habits, but that’s okay.  Baby steps y’all. Baby steps, and not giving up. As Sister Glennon says, we can do hard things.

Focus

I get crabby when people are not doing what I want them to do. I’m sure I’m the only person to whom this happens. Because of the things people do, and don’t do, I sometimes feel diminished or devalued. I don’t like this feeling one little bit.

Some people might suggest that when this happens, I am feeling self-pity. I might have to punch some people.

I keep telling myself the things my teachers tell me: I’m responsible for my emotional life. Focus on those things in my life for which I’m grateful. Don’t blame others for how I feel; when I blame, I’m just finding a way to shift the pain and discomfort I’m feeling from me to someone else.

I try to take deep breaths. I try to distract myself, without numbing. Okay, without too much numbing. Unfortunately, sometimes none of that works. I end up sitting there glaring and frowning.

Here’s the thing. It’s much easier and more comfortable for me to focus on the other person and what they’re doing, than it is to focus on me. It’s much easier for me to focus on changing them, than on changing me. It’s much easier to focus on how they need to be different, than to think about how I might need to change our relationship, or that I might need to speak up, or perhaps I need to shift my thinking and expectations.

What am I focusing on? What am I avoiding? What is my part?

Sometimes my focus is really out of whack, and I can’t even see what’s going on.

soft-focus

 

Sometimes even when  I’m seeing clearly, I’m focusing in so tightly, it’s like I’m using a telephoto lens, or maybe even a macro lens, I’m only concentrating on this one little aspect of the situation.

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I need to remind myself to change lenses, to adjust my focus and my perspective, to broaden my view and see the big picture.

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It’s amazing to me how, when I’m focused on one thing, I usually miss everything else around me. I miss what I need to do, the action that I need to take, whether it’s self-examination or finding my voice or making a change. Or maybe even eventually walking away.

I’m realizing that when I can change my focus and my perspective, I can see the entire landscape and I can take in all the information I need to take in so that as I act, my action is informed by the full picture. It’s when I change my focus and perspective to that larger view that I find I can start to breathe again, I can find my gratitude and feel that shift within me, towards clarity and towards peace.

I wish I could learn how to do this as if it’s second nature, like breathing. Right now it’s a struggle, I still have to remind myself, I still have to catch myself, I have to ask myself if I’m seeing clearly, do I need to adjust my focus, do I need to change my perspective and take in the big picture.

Maybe someday I’ll get my wish and it will be second nature. For now, I’m struggling along. It’s not easy, but I’m finding that the struggle is worthwhile, it’s worth my effort to challenge my perspectives, to play with focus and take it all in.

Moments

ocean-and-sky

Yesterday I had a day with moments of joy, and peace. I’m not sure why.

Is it because I have walked with and held grief for the past year? And at the same time, reached for gratitude, over and over?

Perhaps because I have written every day this year? Or maybe because I no longer believe everything my mind tells me, and I no longer follow every emotion that rises up?

Is it because life has broken me open so very many times, over and over, and I finally resolved to hold my heart open instead of nailing it shut, and at the same time to take care of myself and protect myself?

Is it because I’m talking back to the rules with which I grew up, the lies of perfectionism and certainty? The messages of never good enough, don’t ask questions, don’t speak up, you won’t make a difference, never say no, your life is not yours, the world is dangerous, be afraid, …?

Is it because I’m learning to practice self-compassion more often than not, to be kind to myself? But also to hold myself accountable to my values? Is it because I’m learning to forgive myself, to make peace with my past? And to hold on to the lessons my past has taught me?

Or is it that I am learning to take a deep breath and feel my feet on the ground and sink into this present moment, again and again?

I’m not sure what it is. It’s easy to think that it’s the most recent things I’ve been learning and reading and changing in my life that have made the most difference.

Maybe, more than anything else, it was that I decided to become willing to try all these different things – questioning, talking back, writing, forming different habits and practices – and seeing which ones are helpful to me. Maintaining those habits that are helpful, leaving behind those that are not.

Whatever the reasons, I am deeply grateful for these moments of joy and peace. I wish I could hold onto them, stretch them out, make them last forever. That’s the other thing I’ve learned: I can’t do that. I can’t make them last forever, no matter how much I want that. And clinging to those moments usually ruins them.

But recognizing those moments when they are here, and feeling gratitude for them as they rise up: when I do that, the joy and peace deepen and shimmer, and I think to myself, I’m not sure it gets any better than this. And while I question and disbelieve many of my thoughts that arise now, I know that thought to be true. So far, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Altitude

I was gone last week, here:

tuolumne

My plans were last minute and impulsive. I discovered that if I stalked the Yosemite website, reservations would open up as people cancelled and I could get a room or tent cabin at the last minute. I wanted to go to Tuolumne Meadows. I had not been in many many years – over twenty. I have wonderful memories of hiking there.

I read some websites, pulled my stuff together, loaded up the car and headed out. I took the first couple of days pretty easy, giving myself time to adjust to the altitude. The third day, I went on a longer hike, but felt weak and shaky after awhile. I stopped, rested, ate, drank some water. I felt better, so continued on, but the feeling came back. I stopped again, and decided to head back. I walked and rested, walked and rested. Forced myself to eat a good dinner that evening, even though I didn’t really want it. I went to bed early, even earlier than I had been. I would get a good night’s sleep, that would help.

The next morning I woke up at 4:30 and decided to get up and take sunrise pictures. I headed out and took photos, cooked breakfast after the sun came up. Headed back to change and go hiking, and felt shaky and weak again. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Was I not eating enough protein? Eating too much sugar? I decided to lie down, take a nap, see if that would help. It did, but then the weakness returned quickly.

I was so frustrated. Was it that I was just out of shape? Not drinking enough water? Should I cut my trip short? Or should I persist, hope that I felt better? I waffled, went back and forth, over and over. I finally stopped, took a deep breath, and asked myself what I should do. And the answer came back: go home. I was disappointed and relieved, both at the same time. It was late in the day, though, so I decided to stay one more night.

I had no appetite. I forced myself to eat some trail mix and drink some water. As I lay down for the night, I thought, I’ll go to breakfast at the lodge dining tent, eat a good breakfast. Maybe I’ll feel well enough after that to stay. Maybe that’s the problem – I just need to eat better.

In the morning, I woke up refreshed and feeling better. I went for breakfast, chatted to the others at my table about different trails. Afterwards, I headed back to my tent, planning to shower, dress, have a snack, and head out for a hike, when the weakness and shakiness returned. I stopped, and sighed. Okay, I get the message. Home.

I packed up and headed home, let some friends know I was back early, and why. One suggested that I might have altitude sickness, sent me a link. There it was – and the antidote was to head to lower ground.

It’s so hard for me to listen to myself, to heed that voice from within that tells me what I need. But over and over, I see that when I listen, things go well, and when I don’t listen – not so well. But we’re not taught to listen to that voice. We’re taught to listen to everything and everyone but that voice.

That voice gets buried, gets drowned out, by the incessant noise of our modern life and of our mind, the voices in our head that argue back and forth like law students showing off – defend, prosecute, render judgment, taking any perspective and building a case for it.

I went to Tuolumne to find some silence, to find some peace, but that noise, those voices, went with me. So now I am focusing my attention on finding silence and peace anywhere.

Wish me luck.