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What Goes Up…

Remember how I was still riding the high from my trip to Europe in my last post? Well it’s gone now. Now it’s back to boredom, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness. Interspersed with tennis and dinner with friends, thank goodness. But still. It was nice to be free from random anxiety attacks. From my drill sergeant making up chores for me to do to make my existence seem worthwhile. From figuring out what to do on days when I was not going to have any human interaction.

I guess that’s one of the disadvantages of experiencing something so wonderful: its extraordinariness is only possible when juxtaposed next to the ordinariness of your every day life.

This weekend I had no evening plans so I decided to watch “Still Alice.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I knew it was going to be depressing. Maybe my inner critic made me watch it as a way to shame me out of my sadness: At least you don’t have Early Onset Alzheimer’s, so stop moping around! And I have to say, it was effective in putting my pain in perspective.

The whole time I watched, I was bracing myself for the agony of watching Alice’s cognitive decline. And it was painful, but it was also beautiful, in a way. I was moved by how courageous and mindful Alice was about the process of losing her memory. How determined she was to stay connected to the person she was and to the people she loved.

There is a scene where Alice gives a speech at an Alzheimer’s conference about her personal experience with the disease. She tells the audience that even though she may forget this experience tomorrow, she treasures it in this moment, because speaking in front of them allows her to feel like her old ambitious self: an expert in linguistics who was fascinated with communication.

My other favorite scene is when Alice explains to her daughter why she wears a butterfly necklace. As a child she was distraught when she found out that butterflies had such a short life. Her mother reassured her that although their lives are short, butterflies have a beautiful life.

Alice’s mother and sister died in a car accident. Alice also has a short but beautiful life. She was intelligent and successful, with a great job and a loving family. In one moment, we can be on top of the world, celebrating how great our lives are. In the next moment, everything can change.

It made me think about how all of the wonderful things in our lives are gifts, and no gift lasts forever. And we don’t know when the expiration date is. The most we can do is to fully enjoy them and appreciate them while we have them.

At some level, I think I hoped that practicing mindfulness would somehow protect me from pain, like some kind of psychological talisman. But it doesn’t. Saying good-bye to vacations, to memories, and to aspects of my identity that I hold dear still terrifies me, despite my attempts to blog, meditate, and be in the moment.

But I practice mindfulness anyway, because being fully present allows me to extract all of the joy out of every experience that I possibly can. I guess that’s the most that any of us can hope for.

Photo courtesy of Allison Gentry Szuba

It’s Just a Memory

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When you’re a therapist, you need to have a good memory, because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve ever said. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I actually exceed clients’ expectations in this department. They often ask me if I take detailed notes, which I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even look at the note from the last session before I see them.

While I’m thankful for being blessed with a good memory, there are serious drawbacks, because it’s almost like having PTSD. For big things, like when I hydroplaned on the freeway and crashed into the median going backwards. Or any memory during the 4 year period when my dad was depressed. But also for little things, like every fight I’ve ever had with someone. Or anything traumatic that has happened to other people, because of the whole hyperempath thing.

That means when these memories come up, all of the feelings come back. I get anxious every time I pass the site of my accident on the way to work. I cry when I remember that my dad barely had the will to live. I’m angry whenever I remember the lies my ex-boyfriend told me. And I feel physical pain whenever I remember seeing someone getting injured.

And since I’m also obsessive, once the memory comes up, it’s hard to get it out of my head. I keep replaying the scene, even though it just upsets me more. And it’s really, really hard to stop obsessing, even with the help of medication.

Sometimes I’m so sick of listening to myself I literally yell “Stop obsessing!” Even though in a previous post I wrote about how self-talk with words like stop, don’t, no, etc. don’t work. Plus it’s not a very compassionate thing to say to yourself.

The other thing I say to calm myself down is “It’s OK; everything’s going to be OK.” All freaking day long. But it only works if I mean it and I’m not just trying to shut myself up. It’s all in the tone of voice. But then saying it becomes a compulsion, so I get annoyed that I have to repeat it hundreds of times a day.

One of the more effective things I say to myself is “you don’t have to think about that right now while you’re trying to sleep/in session with this client/driving to work. You can think about it later if you want to.” For some reason, if I don’t forbid myself from saying it, I can let the thought go more easily.

And my latest strategy, which is the most helpful to date, is to say, “It’s just a memory of something painful. You don’t have to think about it ever again, if you don’t want to.” Again, giving myself permission not to think about it, rather than telling myself I can’t, seems to be more effective.

I guess the lesson is, whatever you choose to say to yourself, say it with compassion; it will work a lot better.

Guilt

I talked to my therapist last week. She gave me permission to stop feeling guilty about my sleep cycle. Told me that I have no reason to get up early, so I don’t need to worry about it. That when I have to wake up, I will do so.

It helped some. Today I woke up early for a tennis clinic. But then I took a nap afterwards, which was well-deserved but still somewhat guilt-laden. But I’m writing a blog post now, to prove to my inner critic that I am not completely worthless.

Those quotes about letting go kind of annoy me. If guilt were something I could just let go of, I would have done so long ago. It’s like telling someone who is anorexic to just eat. Put food in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. What’s so hard about that? I envy those people who find it so easy to be free of their demons.

Therapists often ask clients what it is that they fear will happen if they let go. I guess I fear that without guilt, I really will become a terrible person. Someone who doesn’t care if she hurts other people. Someone who is not living her life with integrity. Maybe I’ll go too far in the other direction. I’ve done it before.

In Shame and Guilt, Tangeny and Dearing argue that guilt is a healthy emotion. It let’s you know that you have done something wrong and motivates you to make amends, correct it. When you feel shame, however, you don’t just feel like you’ve done something wrong; you feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are broken beyond repair. Shame leads people to lash out and project their faults onto others, or to lie and hide.

I guess I am somewhere in-between, because I worry that there is something wrong with me, but I am motivated–determined, even–to become a better person.

My latest strategy for coping with guilt about the past is to tell myself that I don’t have to continue entertaining this memory. I can take it out of the rotation. Throw that record out. Or in more modern terms, remove it from the playlist. I have enough things to feel guilty about in the present without revisiting every mistake I’ve ever made in the past.

For whatever reason, it works. In part because I think it’s funny, imagining myself tossing all these record albums behind me. It doesn’t get rid of all of the guilt, but it creates some space in my head for more guilt-free thoughts. That’s something.

100th Post!

One of my favorite books of all time is What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. It was our most popular book in our Remedial Book Club; we actually had a meaningful discussion about it for the entire meeting. Ordinarily we talk about the book for 30 minutes–mostly about who would play the characters if the book were turned into a movie–and then we eat, drink, and gossip about people in the tennis community for 2 hours.

The book is about a woman who falls off her bike in spinning class and loses her memory of the past 10 years. In her current life, she is about to turn 40, has 3 children, and is going through a bitter divorce. After the accident, she thinks she is 29, madly in love with her husband, and is about to have her first child. The book also follows the stories of Alice’s mom, sister, and grandmother, all of whom are in the process of letting go of grief. In addition to being hiLARious, the book also makes you reflect on who you have become and what you thought your life would be like.

I am now in the process of filing for divorce, at my husband’s request. I am glad that I waited until he was ready, because now he understands why our marriage can’t work. I have a better appreciation for the significance of rituals. Even though it’s just a formality, since we’ve been apart for almost 4 years, the legal aspect of it has reawakened my grief about losing him. Of all the people I’ve been with, he is by far the one who was the most stable, reliable, and trustworthy. It saddens me that this wasn’t enough to make things work.

I will be 45 in a few months, and I would have never predicted that this is what my life would look like. Although it is still sad and scary to be alone at times, I am thankful for this opportunity to get to know myself better. I am still experiencing compassion fatigue from my last relationship, and I really want my next one to be different.

I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, by Karla McLaren. It’s the first book I am aware of that teaches hyperempaths like me how to keep from burning out. I’m hoping that this will help me be more intentional about my next relationship. I’m hoping that it’s possible to break the pattern of relationships that you’ve grown up with and that you’ve followed all your life and to start anew.

Since I have reached my goal of 100 posts, I thought I would also take stock of my blogging life, which is much more positive. This blog is the first time that I’ve shared my writing with others, and I am so proud of what I have written so far. Even prouder than I was when I finished my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to write on and off for about 10 years now but only took it seriously a few years ago. Until then, I never realized how demon-filled the writing process was. Every time I sat down to write, Perfectionism, the Inner Critic, and the Drill Sergeant were all there to meet me, reminding me of how much I suck. So to commit to blogging 3 times a week–and to share the most vulnerable parts of myself in every post–is a huge accomplishment.

However, now that I’ve learned more about publishing, I am forced to accept that the odds of writing a best seller are not great, and even if it does happen, it won’t be any time soon. I’m not going to give up, of course, because I never give up, but I’m trying to focus more on the process of writing rather than the end result.

I’m trying to approach blogging the way I approach tennis. I’ve made $60 in prize money, which was several years ago when I won the 35 and over singles division of a tournament. (I was also the #1 rated 35 and over singles player in Virginia that year!) But I spend hundreds of dollars a month on tennis, so as a money-making enterprise, it’s a failing business.

But that’s OK. I’m not doing it to make money. I play tennis because it’s fun, because it challenges me, and because I have made wonderful friends. Although my romantic relationships have been a disappointment, my friendships have far exceeded my expectations.

Blogging is also fun and challenging, and I enjoy getting to know my readers and other bloggers. And it’s way cheaper than playing tennis. So I’m going to set another goal, which is to write another 100 posts by my blog’s first birthday, which is September 24.

Hope to see you then!

Memory

I love the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I love the idea that even if you take the memories away, the love between two people remains. And I like the message that we must experience pain in order to experience joy. But lately I’ve been wishing I could erase the painful memories from the past 10 years.

Let me first say that I am thankful for my memory, lest I be struck down with dementia for being ungrateful. It helps in my job because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve told you from the first session on. And when you see 30+ clients a week, that’s a lot of stuff to remember.

The most painful memories help me to have more compassion for other people’s suffering. When I was depressed, I could not conceive of any possible value that could come from my pain. But now that my brother is depressed, I am better able to help him because I know what he’s going through. You’re not afraid to sit with other people’s pain once you know firsthand how lonely it is.

My memory also helps me capture the intensity of my feelings when I write about my experiences, which hopefully makes my blog better. I am guessing that most writers have good memories and intense feelings. But sometimes it can be a tough combination. That’s probably why writers are so neurotic.

Lately there have been some memories that I wish I could forget. Or at least remember without feeling like it’s happening all over again. It’s almost like having PTSD, reliving these hurtful experiences every time they pop up.

Yesterday I remembered how my first husband told me while we were separating that I have a heart of gold. He said it was the happiest day of his life on our wedding day and the saddest day of his life when we signed the divorce papers. How can you feel that way about someone and still choose to leave them? What good does it do to have a heart of gold if it doesn’t help you make a relationship work? In a way I am thankful that he was loving through the entire process, but sometimes I wish I didn’t remember how I felt at all.

The letting go process in my second marriage has been just as painful. It hurts just as much now as it did 4 years ago. It still makes me cry. Every step we take away from each other renews my sadness. When will this grief subside? That whole one year estimation is a bunch of crap. I wish I could just forget the past 4 years–all the pain and all the stupid things I did to try to ease the pain that just made things worse.

The only memories I would miss from the past 4 years are the first trip when my mixed doubles team went to districts, getting Federer’s autograph at the Cincy tournament, and UVA’s basketball season this year. Which makes me seem like some superficial sports fanatic, but it’s true. In my defense, part of what made these experiences memorable is that I shared them with my friends and family. I’m sure there were other positive memories worth holding on to during that period of time, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Right now, all I remember is the pain.

The only good thing about this second divorce is that it helps me understand how you can love someone and still let them go, even when it breaks your heart. I’m not angry at my first husband any more for leaving. I understand why he did it. It doesn’t alleviate the pain of either loss to realize this, but I have a better appreciation for how complex love and marriage are. That’s something.

Today I’m not able to do the things I try to focus on in my blog–practice self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. But maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently.