RSS Feed

Category Archives: Spirituality

A History of Trauma

ada888a4106e4f57eda98c4b303d1b5f

There were 3 mass shootings last week. Three. Last week. Although there is only talk about 2 of them, because I guess not enough people got killed in the first one. I used to think about how hard it would be to live in the Middle East, where children are trained to be suicide bombers whose goal is to kill as many people as possible before sacrificing their own lives. Have we become a culture that does the same thing?

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was interesting to read what WWII was like from the German side. And a reminder of how traumatic war is. It seems the only way to survive was to forget–all that you saw. All that you lost. All of the things you did. All of the things you didn’t do. Forget that you saw dead bodies strewn about, or piled up in large heaps, and just went about your business. Maybe you even contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, to killing them yourself. But what other choice did you have, really, but to focus on your own survival? How could someone who lived through something so horrifying not have PTSD? It’s too much to process. Too horrible to make sense of.

In the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine argues that war is a reenactment of unhealed trauma that repeats itself at the individual, generational, and cultural level. That’s deep. Even in the Bible humanity begins with murder. Brother killing brother. And the aggressor survives, earns his right to pass down his genes to the next generation.

In my own family, I can see the effects of trauma in some of my nieces and nephews and can trace the pain of it back to my grandparents. I’m sure it goes further back than that. I just don’t know their stories. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, this is why I chose not to have kids. At some level, I knew that I would do more harm than good. People who know me would say this isn’t true, but I know that trauma happens all the time and is often invisible to us. Even when we see it, we can become desensitized to it. And even when we know it’s happening to people we love, we sometimes look the other way.

I also read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb–a therapist who talks about her own therapy, as well as the work with her clients. A book that I had wanted to write, by the way. The very reason I started this blog. So she beat me to the punch. But she isn’t as crazy as I am, so maybe there is room for 2 books about therapists who are also clients.

But I digress. One of the clients she talks about is a woman who is about to turn 70 and is going to commit suicide on her birthday unless Gottlieb can convince her that life is worth living. Talk about pressure! Turns out that part of the problem is that she doesn’t want to be happy. Or rather, she doesn’t deserve to be happy. Among her list of crimes is that when she was married to an alcoholic and abusive man who beat their children, she would walk out of the room. And she didn’t leave him for a long time. She knowingly, willingly, participated in their abuse by looking the other way. None of her children have forgiven her. Why should she?

But what power do I have to stop a cycle of violence that began with the first offspring in the history of humanity?

My client asked me this question yesterday. Felt powerless, disoriented, and anxious in a world where children can buy weapons of mass destruction and are given permission to kill other people—particularly those who are deemed to be less than human. Everyone points fingers, argues about who is to blame, but nothing happens. What can I do to have some control?

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck also wrestled with what to make of the sibling rivalry that kicked off humankind. How do we go forward after we’ve killed our brother? The answer eventually comes from Adam’s Chinese servant Lee. He decided to study Hebrew with some ancient Chinese wisemen for several years. So that he could accurately interpret the 16 lines of the Bible in which Cain’s story is told. Just for kicks. And the answer is: not matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption.

In other words, we do have some power to stop the cycle of violence. And, in my opinion, it begins with self-compassion. I told my client that he has the power to be kind to himself. To commit to creating a space in his mind that is loving. That is dedicated to self-care, acceptance, and forgiveness. It takes practice, but with time, healing takes place. And the energy you create within you and around you will be filled with compassion, so that others can feel it when they interact with you. And so forth, and so on, until we create a cycle of love that breaks the cycle of violence.

So I’m trying to take my own advice. The cycle of hatred ends with me, within me.

Self-Forgiveness

self-forgiveness

So I am trying out this new strategy in my self-compassion practice. I am trying to focus more on forgiveness. Forgiving others, of course, but more importantly, forgiving myself. Because I beat up on myself way more than I beat up on other people.

In the self-compassion retreat I attended a few years ago, they told us that trying hard will not stop our suffering. In fact, they called trying hard “the subtle aggression of self-improvement.” True acceptance is actually doing less.

We were all like, huh? What the heck are we doing in a 5 day meditation retreat if not trying hard to get rid of our suffering? Isn’t that the whole point?

It is still a difficult concept to wrap my head around. But I remember reading somewhere that we don’t practice self-compassion to get rid of our suffering. We practice it because we are suffering. Because in the midst of our pain, we need to do something that is loving, kind, and comforting, rather than judging, criticizing, and improving ourselves. Because self-improvement implies that it’s my fault that I’m suffering. That I’m the problem. When in reality, suffering is an unavoidable part of life.

One of the things I feel like I need to improve is my fitness. I’ve gained weight since my brother moved in and don’t play tennis as much, and it really shows. I used to play tennis almost every day–sometimes several times a day. I’m not saying that was healthier, but I was physically able to do it. Now I think 4 times a week would be a lot. And while I’ve never had a super great relationship with my body, it has significantly deteriorated in direct proportion to my weight gain. If I have nothing else to obsess about, my body, my fitness level, and my lack of exercise are the things that are on my mind. If I’m not trying to improve, what should my goal be?

The other thing that has taken a hit lately is my belief that I’m a good therapist. Taking that leave at the end of the term last year and all of the fallout that have resulted from it has really been tough on my self-esteem. I constantly have to remind myself that therapy is not about me. My goal is to be there for them. They don’t have to get better working with me so that I can feel like a good therapist.

I’ve tried to reason with myself, although I know that’s not always compassionate. I have tried not to look in the mirror as much, which is a little more compassionate, I think. I meditate and pray. I repeat my “I’m doing the best that I can” motto. Does all of this count as trying too hard?

I don’t think I know how to not try.

This self-forgiveness thing actually does seem to work. For every time I tell myself I’m fat, and then scold myself for telling myself I’m fat, and then reason with myself, and then tell myself that reasoning isn’t compassionate, and then go eat a Drumstick, I forgive myself.

For every client I worry I have disappointed, every time I make it about me, every time I tell myself that I suck, I forgive myself.

I will make mistakes. I will make it about me. I will be hard on myself. I will obsess. This is who I am, and it’s OK. I can forgive myself for all of it. Today, tomorrow, and every time it happens.

Good and Evil, Part 3

devil and angel2

One of the things I love about my niece Sadie is that she believes that people are basically good. During our annual Christmas Eve dinner, we had an interesting conversation about Santa’s naughty list. Sadie believes that everyone deserves a gift because even if they are being bad at the moment, they have good in them, and that goodness can manifest itself at some point in the future. Although that’s not exactly how she said it.

I agreed with her that we are all capable of good, but reminded her that we are also capable of evil, and on a moment to moment basis, people have to choose between the two all the time. And once you cross that line and choose evil, it becomes easier to do so the next time around.

I was once more optimistic about the inherent goodness of people, but I have become less so, particularly in the last few years. Opinions about current events have become so polarized that it’s hard to distinguish good from evil. It seems so clear from each side’s perspective. How can they not tell the difference? How can their moral compass be so off? Maybe if I post a bunch of stuff on social media showing them how wrong they are they’ll eventually come to their senses.

I have wrestled with this question all my life, because I really want to be good. I don’t want to delude myself into thinking I’m doing good when I’m doing harm. I don’t want to make excuses to justify my behavior. But does being earnest make you see things more clearly? I try hard to see the other side’s perspective, try to understand how their idea of right can seem so wrong to me, but I can’t reconcile the discrepancy at times. Perhaps no one can be certain of their rightness.

Even messages that are supposed to be about kindness, gratitude, and acceptance–things that are meant to be said gently, lovingly–are sometimes shouted out like commands. Be kind, damn you! Be grateful, you selfish #&%@! Be more accepting like me, you terrible person!

Well, that’s how I hear them, at least. And I believe in the importance of kindness, gratitude, and acceptance. But it’s all in how you say something, isn’t it? It matters whether something comes from a place of love or judgment. It’s hard to take good advice that is not dispensed with compassion.

I do believe that it’s possible to bring out the basic goodness in people, but not by telling them what to do. If you want someone to be compassionate, show compassion. If you want them to be grateful, tell them how grateful you are for them. And if you want them to be accepting, let them know that you accept who they are, even if they feel differently. Goodness will not come about by telling people what to do. It has to be demonstrated by our own choices.

And ultimately, I do believe what Sadie said about Santa Claus, but for a slightly different reason. Every child gets a gift, not because they earned it by being good, but because someone loves them, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice. And ultimately, it is love that transforms us.

Wholeheartedly

fullsizeoutput_4178

I’m reading this book by Pema Chodron Called When Things Fall Apart.” She’s pretty funny for a Tibetan Buddhist. She talks about how she threw a rock at her husband when he said he was leaving her. She’s a nun now. Maybe that’s why.

But I digress. In one chapter she says

if we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure–how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence–then we would practice mediation as if our hair were on fire.

I thought that was hilarious! I mean, I meditate every day, but if my hair were on fire, that is not the first thing that would come to mind as to what I should do. But apparently that’s a popular phrase, because in this meditation conference I just went to, Bill Morgan talked about people’s hair being on fire all the time. Maybe that happened a lot in Asian countries.

The focus of this conference was on how to make meditation practice work for Westerners. He thinks that most people in the West can’t get into meditating because sitting quietly just feels like an opportunity to let demons and thoughts of unworthiness run amok. And our attention span is so short that it feels torturous to sit still for even a few minutes. Plus, because we are so goal-oriented that we spend too much time striving, trying to make something happen.

So we spent the weekend learning ways to start meditating in a gentler, kinder way. Morgan suggested that when we begin a meditation practice, we start by creating an experience of comfort. This is a way we can learn to soothe ourselves. Often we would begin by standing up to stretch, shaking out any discomfort. Then when we sat to meditate we would begin with a memory, sound, or image that we find soothing. The face of your grandmother, perhaps. The sound of the ocean. Thinking about your pet. Playing with your niece.

This was revolutionary for me because, as you know, I really struggle with self-soothing. For the longest time I really had no idea how to comfort myself. I’m still not great at it. I realized during this conference that I primarily try to comfort myself by creating chaos–a common strategy for people with histories of trauma. Peace and quiet feel strange, foreign, so we recreate the experience of the chaos we grew up with, because it at least feels familiar.

My version of creating chaos involves taking on too much–signing up for Talkspace, moving, volunteering to captain a team that I don’t even have time to play on because they need another captain. Or by obsessively trying to practice self-care, which ends up stressing me out more than it reduces my stress. I just did my health assessment for my job and all of my health markers were worse than they were last year. So apparently I’m getting an F in self-care. Sort of like when you study really hard for you Calculus but still end up failing all the tests.

After spending time in meditation during the conference, I think I’ve figured out why practicing self-care hasn’t been helping. I’ve treated living with anxiety, depression, GERD, asthma, and allergies as a chore. I had been practicing self-compassion, but my attempts at self-care were driven by fear of crashing and burning. My routines were done resentfully, begrudgingly. As if I had a child who I thought was a pain in the ass but I have to take care of her because that’s my job.

In the meditations he taught us, he told us to pay attention to ourselves with the heart of a caregiver. I do that for my clients but not for myself. I do not listen to myself wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to go through the motions of checking in with myself. I’m going to try to listen with an open heart, as though I were someone who I cared for deeply. Because I want to be someone who I care for deeply.

Feeling Fragile

fullsizeoutput_3f29

You know what I feel like? I feel like that vase in the Brady Bunch. The one that the Brady Bunch Boys broke while they were playing football in the house, which they weren’t supposed to be doing. And then they glued it back together so their parents wouldn’t know. But there were little pieces missing, so when Carol used it for flowers and poured water in it, it started leaking. Because it was barely held together.

That’s what I feel like.

Even though I’m off for the summer, I’ve been really stressed. I didn’t realize how badly until I went to get a massage yesterday. Ordinarily I don’t get one in the summer because I don’t need to, but I noticed that my shoulder was tight and I couldn’t get it to release, even though I stretch every day, sometimes twice a day. But she said my whole body was tight. Was worried that she might be hurting me.

And usually it does hurt when I’m tight. But I was obsessing so much about how much it cost, how I need to start doing yoga. Can I make it to the class tonight? Tomorrow? But I want to do strength training! No, your body needs stretching, Christy! Listen to what your body needs! Hey, stop obsessing! This is costing $100! Focus on relaxing your muscles! Pay attention!

So I didn’t even really register the pain.

I’ve been doing a lot more than I would ordinarily do in the summer. I’ve decided to do Talkspace, which is an online therapy platform. Because, you know, my regular job isn’t really stressful enough. But I might be buying a new place.

On the one hand, it’s interesting to see how they work out all the legal and ethical issues that come up with online therapy. And there are a lot of things that I like about it. I think I could get pretty good at it. But it has been a lot of work just to do the training, and I haven’t even started seeing clients yet. I’m in the middle of my first test, but I have to record this 2 minute introductory video that requires me to memorize my script and dress professionally and put makeup on. When I usually just wear workout clothes and don’t even brush my hair. So I decided to procrastinate and write a blog post first.

And apparently everyone fails this first simulation. So I go back and forth between telling myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s OK if I fail, to channeling my inner warrior and being like, I will win! I will pass it on the first try, gosh darn it! So it’s been this exhausting emotional roller coaster of feelings.

And if that isn’t enough stress, I’ve also decided to sell my house, because of the two people living in the space for one thing. I don’t know for sure if it will sell, and if it sells, I don’t know for sure it will be enough to cover the downpayment for the townhouse I want to buy. So my mind goes back and forth between figuring out how I can rearrange things here if it doesn’t sell to thinking about all of the things I’ll have to do if it does sell. Oh, and I have to keep the place clean. And get my brother to keep his space clean, which is even harder. So another emotional roller coaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation where I felt overwhelmed. Where I had no idea how I was going to handle it all, how things could possibly get better. There were my two divorces. My brother moving in with me. The depression I went through 9 years ago. The 4 other houses I’ve bought. Eventually I just had to put my faith in God. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I didn’t have to envision how it would work for it work. I just had to trust that God would take care of me. And he always has. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Oh, and I take my Ativan. Because that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I’m obsessing. Which is also helpful.

Adam and Eve Retold

I’ve written a lot of posts about Adam and Eve–trying to make sense of what it means to have free will, to be good, the inevitability of sin, the possibility of boredom in Paradise.  For some people, a story of a God who would put a tree in the middle of Paradise, and a snake that would tempt Adam and Eve to eat from it, and then punishes them for doing so seems fair game. For me, not so much.

But that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t meaningful to me. I believe that the Fall from Paradise is a prelude to the story of our lives. It sets the stage for the lessons that God wants us to learn about what it means to be human. So I’m going to take some liberties in retelling the story of Adam and Eve in a way that makes sense to me.

***

Once upon a time, after God had separated heaven from earth, light from darkness, and land from sea, God populated the Earth with vegetation, living creatures, and Adam. He created a place for him to live in the Garden of Eden, and in the middle of the Garden he planted 2 trees–the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He told Adam to work and keep the Garden and that he may eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because he will die if he does. And that would make God sad.

Then God realized that it was not good for Adam to be alone. There was no helper fit for him among the creatures that Adam had named. So while Adam was sleeping, God took one of his ribs and created Eve. They became one flesh, naked before one another, with nothing to be ashamed of.

One day the serpent, the most crafty of all God’s beasts, approached Eve.

“Are you sure you are not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge?” he asked.

“Yes. We will die even from touching it, ” Eve confirmed.

“God would not let you die. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge will open your eyes and make you like God, because you will also know good and evil.”

Eve looked at the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge. It looked delicious. The idea of becoming wise was equally appealing. So she took the fruit and ate, and gave some to her husband, who did the same. Then their eyes were opened, and they became aware of their nakedness. They sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths to cover themselves.

Then they heard God walking in the Garden and they hid. But God called to them and asked them, “Where are you?”

“We’re hiding from you because we’re naked and afraid,” said Adam. Like that reality TV show on the Discovery Channel.

“Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the Tree of Knowledge, even though I told you not to?” God asked.

“Eve made me do it,” said Adam.

“The serpent tricked me,” said Eve.

Like any parent dealing with children who have disobeyed them, God was angry. But because he loved them, he was also sad and afraid for them. He had wanted to protect them from all possible harm, so that they would never know pain and suffering. But in choosing knowledge, Adam and Eve could no longer live in blissful ignorance in the Garden of Eden. Like Neo in the Matrix, they had taken the red pill, and now they would have to see how deep the rabbit hole goes with the knowledge of good and evil.

In preparing them for the journey of humanity, God warns them of what lies ahead.

“Children will not be made from dust and ribs. Eve will have to bear them, and it will be painful. And your children will disobey you and break your heart, just as you have done to me. Adam will have to work for food. No more plants and animals free for the taking. And you and your offspring will struggle with the existential angst of how to cope with death, loss, loneliness, and the meaning of life.

But through this journey of humanity, by witnessing pain and suffering, you will develop Compassion, which will teach you to be more loving, and Wisdom, which will give you strength to endure strife. And in developing Compassion and Wisdom, you will understand more deeply my love for you. So that at the end of your journey, when you return to Paradise, I will have a celebration in your honor. For although you are lost, you will be found.”

 

What Would You Do?

evil and free will

I just finished reading The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, and I highly recommend it. I was ambivalent about reading another book about WWII because we read so many of them in book club, but this one got over 34,000 5 star ratings on Amazon. I’ve never even seen a book that’s been read by over 34,000 people, much less one that had a rating of 5 stars. So I figured it had to be good.

There are so many things to like about it. It’s written by a woman and from the perspective of female characters. Hannah’s intention was to educate people on the important contributions women made in the war, because they cannot be found in history books. It did not have the kind of violent and gory descriptions that give me anxiety attacks, like Unbroken did. Don’t get me wrong–I thought Unbroken was a great book; I just didn’t read half of it. It was a love story–a traditional one, and also one about two sisters. And, perhaps most importantly, it made me think about why God allows bad things to happen, and whether I would risk my life to save other people.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One of the lessons that I get from it is that it is inevitable that we will choose the wrong thing. That is one of the consequences of free will. It’s sort of like the Bill of Rights–having free speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of the press means that there are a lot of things that we may have to tolerate that we vehemently dislike. That we consider evil.

The only way I can make sense of the Holocaust is to think of it as an extreme case of how much free will we have. We can choose evil if we want to. We can choose to engage in it. We can choose to pretend we don’t see it. We can choose to do nothing about it. To follow orders, keep our heads down, focus on our own survival. Perhaps it’s extreme to think of self-preservation as a form of evil, but had there not been people who risked their lives, Hitler would have won.

I wish I could say that if I had been alive during WWII, I would have been willing to risk my life to save other people. That I have that kind of integrity and courage. I don’t know for sure, because one of the things I’ve learned from psychology, and personal experience, is that you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there, in that moment.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so much free will. That there were some safeguards so that we weren’t capable of doing so much damage on such a grand scale. I don’t know if I trust myself–or others–that much. I mean, there are some warning signs. In many of the near-death experiences books, the people always say that when you’re making the wrong choice, you come across many obstacles that make it difficult, but when you make the right choice, everything goes smoothly. I’ve found that to be true, too. Still, that’s obviously not enough of a deterrent to keep people from doing evil on a grand scale.

But then again, in every act of hatred, you can find many acts of love and kindness. They are powerful. They are healing. They help us move on, choose life, find happiness again. People who have faced horrific tragedies talk just as much about the outpouring of love they receive from people who they don’t even know as they do about their losses. So perhaps if I continue to practice compassion, when the time comes, I will be brave and choose love, even when it’s hard to do. That’s what I’m counting on, at least.