A Day in the Life: Sadness in the Afternoon

IMG_0324I work in an office now. It is a mobile space and I am constantly surrounded by people. Every morning I fetch my computer and keyboard and everything else from my designated locker and roam the floor until I spy an available desk.

I try to sit in the same spot every day, though I don’t know why. It is on the corner and directly facing a window. The back light on the computer means I have to keep the blind downs and the stand-up desk is too tall for me and non-adjustable. I am worried about getting one of those boring work injuries induced by bad ergonomics.

Still. It has a corner. A window on the fifth floor looking out onto the street. Also, if you can snag the same place you were sitting in the day before, you don’t have to spend time fidgeting with screen settings. The set-up process is a lot shorter.

That rarely happens though. My work day starts later than many of my co-workers as I like to get some writing in and a run before I start. I end up wandering around like a lost pack mule, my purse, lunch bag and computer bag slung over my shoulders, my keyboard in one hand and my coffee in the other, until I find a desk. For someone who likes to know what to expect when they arrive somewhere, it is very exhausting. I try to view it as a daily exercise in accepting the unknown.

Let’s just say some days I do better with this perspective than others.

I like the work I am doing now. Find it meaningful. Can see how I can add value to it, help improve it. But it is just a temporary assignment, so who knows. [See above practice of getting comfortable with the unknown]. If it does end in June, and I cannot stay, it will be an opportunity to re-examine, to course adjust. That is how I am looking at it anyways. It helps to moderate the increasing panic.

It’s at noon that the immensity of my aloneness tends to hit. I don’t know why this is the hour of my daily existential crisis. It just is. Has been for most of my working life. I will be working away, listening to someone’s voice chatter to me through my earphones and a sense of …dread? Grief? will come over me.

Sometimes the days seem like a vast ocean I need to swim across to get to the other side and finally rest. The middle of the day finds me surrounded by tasks and duties and responsibilities and I am already so tired.

I used to feel this in Montreal as well, but these last few years has amped it up to a thousand. Before I knew there was somebody there waiting for me, that could help shoulder the burden. Now it is just me.

And the dread has a different tinge to it. An abyss of weariness, of sadness. I know this particular anvil— we have become quite intimate in the last few years. It is the wave of grief, of bewilderment, of panicked nausea that comes from loss.

It comes upon me suddenly, like a flash flood. Though it happens often, I never see it coming. But I know it when it’s here, and all I can do is tread water patiently and try not to drown until the waters go down.

I don’t want to talk, to reach out to anyone. I just want to stop the damn, fucking tears in my eyes so I don’t make a spectacle of myself at work. Try not to hyperventilate. Go quickly to the bathroom like I’m on the way to a meeting and take deep breaths behind the stall door, the only privacy afforded to me during the day, and try not to make those embarrassing crying sounds. Try to masquerade my grief as a cold. It’s just the sniffles, really! Add a few fake coughs in the mix to throw people of the scent. Dab at my eyes with toilet paper so I don’t ruin my mascara. Try to take deep, silent breaths.

Though it weighs heavily and is a little embarrassing when it happens in a public place, this sadness is not unwelcome. In fact, I would even say that we’ve become close. It has become that unpredictable friend that flits into my life like a butterfly, that forces me to stop what I am doing and pay attention, even if it is in the middle of the work day.

Instead of fighting it, trying to ignore it while I keep on working, I have learned to sit with it for a while. Pour it a cup of metaphysical tea and hold its hand. My sadness has taught me the infinite complexity of human emotion and meaning, about how all our grief, happiness, sorrow, joy, boredom, restlessness, peace are constantly morphing us. If you stop for a minute and watch, it is the most beautiful, most meaningful spectacle of all.

From sitting with my sadness, I have learned to sit with the sadness of others, to hold its hand and not try to ascribe reasons for it, or try to fix it. To let it flash out its complicated pattern until I have drawn a better understanding of the world from it, even if that understanding is just a deeper, ineffable, felt sense of my own humanity and that of others.

By sitting with it, I eventually calm down. The tears stop and I unlock the stall door and wash my hands, pretend that it was just an old regular bathroom break. Smile and say hello to the people in the hallway and make it back to my desk. I look at my list of to-dos and try to remember what I was doing before the flood. Make myself say the task in my head so I can focus. Mentally repeat it while I clean my coffee mug and boil the water for some refreshing peppermint tea. Take another deep breath for good measure, put my earphones on and start working again, my heart a little bruised but bigger than it was.

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A Day in the Life: 6 am, weekday.

The iphone alarm intrudes on my sleep. It’s a gentle intrusion, though. To be honest, I’ve been half awake for the last hour expecting it, but stubbornly refusing to get up until it tells me too. I’m determined to not get less than 7 hours of sleep if I can help it, to not let myself fall into a vast abyss of sleep deprivation like I did in my previous life.

That is how it feels these days. Like I died and was reincarnated into this other existence, this new life. I am still not sure if it is a demotion or a promotion.

Mostly it just feels like the same. I am still me, after all. The only difference is that I remember my past life, what was lost.

I stretch and turn on the light. The lamp light casts a warm glow on my claret walls.

I know, I know. Claret. Sounds snooty. But it’s the only way to describe the not quite red, not quite burgundy shade.

When I moved into my new house I didn’t think I would like the claret. It was too dark, I thought. I wanted light and bright to reflect my fresh, new life. But the womb-like feeling of the small, red room makes me feel…protected. Safe. I sleep very well: I attribute it not to my new, admittedly very comfy, mattress, but to my claret walls.

I stretch and turn on my bedside lamp. Daylight savings was on Sunday and now the mornings are dark again. My vision boards of the last three years stare me in the face. I never made one before 2017. I’m not sure I even know what they were. And I’m positive that even if I did, I would have scoffed. A sort of arrogant, “vision boards are for new-age flakes” kind of attitude.

But I’ve always been a goal nerd and a vision board is a vague, crafty way of setting some high-level goals for one’s life.

Joy. Freedom. Abundance.

You know. That sort of thing.

I usually challenge myself with the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals every January 1st. The “I want to get a full-time job that pays enough so that I don’t need three other jobs to pay the mortgage” kind.

Vision boards are a nice change of pace.

The first vision board was all about finding a home for me and my girls. One with a window where I could prop up my desk. Look out at the world while I’m writing. Where everybody has a room. A home I can grow old in and the girls can come back to whenever they need arises.

I like to be reminded of that dream I set myself in early 2017. 2016 was such a terrible year on so many fronts.  So much loss and so much change. In those early years of 2017 I needed something to help me look forward. It took me a long time to finish it. I was taking a drawing class at the time (another way in which I was exploring the possibilities of my new life) and I interspersed the collage items—mostly pictures of houses and living rooms and running in exotic places— with bamboo shoots and leaves.

My daughter remarked the other day that the boards get more colourful each year.

I hope that is true about me. The way I was before bled me of colour fast, like a cheap pair of jeans in the warm cycle.

This last vision board has a rainbow border and a reminder to uncork joy.

And no, not that kind of joy. Well, not only that kind of joy. Get your mind out of the gutter please.

I really want to uncork joy. I’ve been working on the stubborn cork for some time now and though it feels pretty stuck, I feel if I keep working at it, it might one day pop off and a light rivalling the Aurora Borealis will shine out of me.

On the other hand, I might just inadvertently uncork my vast, seething rage, a blinding nuclear blast capable of shattering the world and bringing on the apocalypse.

So. Uncorking, but with caution.

I sit by the edge of the bed for a second and get my bearings. What needs doing?

Everything.

Sigh.

Remind myself that everything will get done and there is no use worrying about it. Stress is just a perverted relationship with time, to paraphrase John O’Donohue. I am determined to make peace with time, see if we can’t get along for once. Slow my breathing. One thing at a time. Take care of myself first.

Get up. Make the bed. It’s easy because I still only use one side. 20 years of sleeping with another body next to me means I still haven’t been able to take up more space. I worry about my new mattress though, how it will become lopsided. The other day I rotated it just to be sure.

The old marriage mattress we had for 20 years. My mother bought it for us when we moved into our first apartment. After years and years of sleeping on our respective sides, of uneven weight distribution, there was a valley in the middle where we would both end up in the morning. By the end of the marriage, that was the only time we would touch—accidentally.

The other side of my bed is not always empty these days, though. I have someone who sleeps over sometimes. On my most recent trip to Ikea, I recently bought him his own bedside table with drawers. A place to put his pyjamas, his books.

It feels like a serious commitment, drawers. I’m trying not to feel panicked about it. After all, the last relationship didn’t end so well and I’m not at all sure I can uncork enough to let someone else in (once again, mind out of the gutter, please).

But I too can be brave when I want. Hence drawers. Another toothbrush in the medicine cabinet, even if it is only used part-time.

I am hoping our disparity in weight and height will even out the imbalance. A nebulous calculation of increased height and weight versus hours. That one night of his sleep is like two of mine, therefore, the wear on the mattress evens out.

Not very scientific, I know. Just in case, I still rotated the mattress.

I went to bed early and got up in time to allow myself a meditation session. This is my favourite time of the day, when everyone is asleep and I have the world to myself.

That has not changed. I am reminded of the line from one of David Whyte’s poem: “To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings.” I feel most myself in the early morning, most grounded in the present.  Most “intimate with my surroundings”.

I am both alone and not alone at this hour. The house breathes in sync with the sleeping bodies in the different rooms, with the fridge and the stove and, on this cold morning, the sound of the gas fireplace exhaling as it automatically turns on.

Everybody is safe. Nobody needs me.

I can be the me that exists only when no one is looking.

The coffee is set to brew at 6:15 so it is ready after my meditation. I fill a glass with hot water and lemon juice, some vitamin C to kick off the day. My sister once told me there was nothing better for the digestion than some hot water and lemon juice first thing in the morning. I am not sure if that is true, have never bothered to look. But I stick to the tradition, if only because I like the taste and am thirsty when I wake up. It makes me hydrate before I fill myself with coffee.

Then I go back into my cozy room and sit on the large, green armchair I inherited when I bought the house. A forest green colour that was in style in the early 90s but is no longer fashionable. I dragged it into my tiny room and it dominates the space. I love it. And it doesn’t go so bad with the claret walls, either.

I began meditating in the year after my husband left. The anvil on my heart was so big at that time I thought I was going to suffocate under its weight, be pulverized by it. I was determined not to let it.

Let’s pause for a moment and give a shout-out to sheer stubbornness.

My friend lent me an audio book of John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. My workplace also held a half day mindfulness workshop and suggested some resources. I downloaded an app entitled OMG I can meditate, now called Breethe. I have been using the guided meditations on it ever since, repeating the 12-week cycle from week five on, sometimes doing meditations on specific topics — difficult relationships, how to grow self-confidence, how to deal with grief. You would think I would get bored of the script, but I don’t.

The meditations are always a good reminder: What acceptance truly means. How to create a space in your heart and your mind between reaction and response. How we concretize our stories and mistake them as facts.

Plumbing the intersection between self-compassion and taking responsibility for our actions.

I spend a lot of time on that last one. But more on that later.

I sit in my big green chair, under the circle of light from my lamp and I listen to the calm voice. Close my eyes, take some deep breaths. Listen to the sounds around me. The light snoring coming from downstairs. The hum of the fridge. A seagull squawking and a truck rumbling by. I focus on my breathing. My mind wanders about a thousand times, but that’s ok.

I bring it back to center and try again.

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On the Illusion of Communication

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”- George Bernard Shaw

I’ve always thought of myself as a good communicator. I thought I was doing awesome. I could string those sentences together like nobody’s business. I was sending out clear messages to the world!

Yeah, right. That illusion held right up until communication broke down and I could not fix it. My message was not getting through. I was not being heard by the one person I so desperately wanted to hear me. The tinnitus caused by my own intense emotions did not allow me to hear them either.

It turns out that the way I’ve been communicating with other people—pretty much with the verbal equivalent of a mallet—was expressly designed to never having my needs met.

I have been following this formula my whole life:

  1. You did something to cause an icky feeling in me (or I did something and don’t want to face it so I blame you).
  2. It is your responsibility to make it go away and
  3. this is exactly how you have to do it.
  4. Insert blunt instrument here to hammer you over the head with here.

I’ve been working on changing that. Attempting to communicate in a way that will actually allow myself to be heard has been by far the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life, harder than childbirth, final exams, moving couches up three flights of stairs, traveling on a long flight with two toddlers.

Why Is Communication So Damn Hard?

Because communication presupposes that I actually know what I want to say and that’s one, big, whopping assumption.

I have come to realize that I have spent most of my life not knowing my own heart. Because to know my own heart would have meant confronting all those icky emotions­—fear, jealousy, shame, grief, longing —to name just a few. These feelings are as uncomfortable as a bad case of poison ivy, and I denied them until I couldn’t anymore.

Up until now, I’ve been barreling through the world like an out-of-control wagon filled with needs and emotions I’ve never unpacked and therefore don’t know I’m carrying. At the speed that I’ve been going, when I hit a bump, something inevitably spills out. I don’t know what it is and don’t stop to look if it hit somebody in the face.

Sigh.

Growing up and facing oneself is so much fun isn’t it?

After a particularly epic failure at communication last year, I decided to pick up Marshall Rosenberg’s book on Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

Here is how Marshall Rosenberg describes the process:

“First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are…[The] fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.” P. 6

 

Have you ever tried this? If not, let me just say that it is easier said than done.

I read the book and realized that when I thought I was communicating, I was actually hitting people over the head with my own story, or as the buzzword is these days, “my truth”.

The Dark Side of Speaking One’s Truth

We tend to feel the need to “speak our truth” when we’ve been hurt. And then we wield “our truth” like a weapon, swinging it around and bludgeoning those who have hurt us.

The problem is, we mistake this bludgeoning for empowerment. Because we’re hurt, we feel we have the right to unleash our uncensored judgement on the person that hurt us and the consequences in the name of “speaking one’s truth.” Then we feel all brave and like we’ve stood up for ourselves. We have spoken our truth. We are not victims. No—We are fierce, indomitable warriors who are not going to take this shit anymore!

I have been on both sides of this monkey-throwing circus (see this post for elaboration about the monkey thing). I have been the one trying to express “my truth” through any means possible. Through very eloquent and scathing letters detailing exactly how I’ve been hurt. Through mutually bludgeon-y phone calls where both parties try to hammer in each other’s story inside the other person’s head.

I have also made mistakes. Inadvertently hurt other people. And they have felt the need to “speak their truth” in a similar bludgeon-y manner.

Are we speaking to be heard or just to be speaking to yell?

Speaking ones’ truth is not going to be worth a damn thing if the person who you really need to hear you is too busy fending off your blows, their ears ringing too loudly to hear anything you say.

So.

My point.

Speaking one’s truth is a great power that comes with great responsibility.

We have got to stop wielding it like children with big sticks.

What is the point of speaking one’s truth? Is it simply to say it out loud? For the record? Or do we actually want people to hear it, to express the impact of someone’s action on us and ask for change?

Marshall Rosenberg’s writes about this in his introduction to his book Non-violent communication:

“I find my cultural conditioning leads me to focus attention on places where I am unlikely to get what I want. I developed NVC as a way to train my attention—to shine the light of consciousness— on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving of the heart.”

I for one am tired of the violence. Of bludgeoning and being bludgeoned. Like Marshall Rosenberg, I want compassion in my life. For myself, for those I love. I want to feel safe and not judged. I want to be able to create that same feeling for those around me.

And it has to start with how well we can look into our own hearts. How committed we are to  digging through the emotional grime we’ve accumulated over the years and uncovering the needs underneath.

If we can do this, if we can take responsibility for our own needs, try meeting them without foisting them on those we love, we might just be able to take that next step towards true connection.

 

 

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On my Toxic Relationship to Time

Down_the_Rabbit_HoleI was listening to the On Being podcast the other day and I heard a phrase that struck me the way a mallet hits a gong. It was one of the last interviews the poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, gave before his untimely death in 2008. It is worth listening to and then listening to again, and not only for the melodic lilt of his Irish accent.

He was talking about time and presence and then said this: “Stress is a perverted relationship to time.”

And something inside me moved. It was a tectonic shift in my inner geology.

What if time wasn’t the problem? What if I was?

I had to sit down. The world spun around me like it must have when Alice fell down the rabbit hole, the way it does when one of my core assumptions is suddenly exposed as false.

Just a side note here, but I’m getting used to this feeling; it has happened a lot in the last few years. [Insert bemused face emoji here.]

If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said I had always been waging a war with time, that time had always been my enemy.

But I don’t think that’s true. I only have to think back to childhood where I could easily spend a day in bed reading. I could let the hours stretch out like a lazy cat in the sunlight and not be worried about what I was NOT getting done, what I was NOT accomplishing. I could just be. Immerse myself in a story. Colour a picture. Put on a play with my sisters. I could still feel the vast horizon of hours, minutes and seconds that I somehow had to figure out what to do with.

I felt time as a benevolent presence, basked in it, and yes, sometimes felt like I was drowning in the glut of it.

I’m not sure when I began seeing time as my enemy. Perhaps adulthood with all its slowly creeping responsibilities, with the filling up of my days with necessary tasks and chores that leave so little space for anything else.

We complain these days about the over-structured lives of our children but they, in fact, mirror our own overly-structured lives. Most of us have rigid schedules to maintain; we get jobs that require our presence at a certain location and certain time for a certain number of hours every day. We have children that, we believe, require a rigorous schedule just to keep everybody fed and happy, where we feel their days must be scheduled the way ours are. We fear those unused hours of our children. We fear they might waste them if we do not control them. But that is a tangent for another post…

The vast river of hours I took for granted when I was younger slowed down to a trickle. There was not enough of it to go around, to get everything done. The once lush watershed slowly dried to a tiny trickle.

I was scared I would not have enough time to do everything I felt I had to do. And with fear and panic, comes the inevitable hate of the thing that makes you feel afraid and panicky.

What do you do with an enemy? You try to conquer it, of course. Colonize it, domesticate it. Make it conform to your rules.

And so began my war against time.

For the last 20 years I have been making myself sick trying to figure out how to live up to my responsibilities as a partner, a parent, a citizen of the world and lastly and very much least, to myself. I had a scarcity approach to my days. There was a limited amount of hours and by god, I was going to rigidly schedule all of them. I would imprison every minute by assigning it to the jail cell of a task. The amounts I took for myself, those 5 am mornings, were not really for myself but in service of my aggressive time colonization.

The idea of relaxing my vigilance sent a panic through me. If I was not doing something useful every moment of my day I was letting time win, I was letting it escape from the narrow confines of what I thought was possible to do. That time had escaped. It had gotten away from me. I would never get that time back.

I realize now how hard it must have been to live with me. The standards I set for myself and thus by proxy those around me were, well, exhausting and ultimately toxic.

It was only with that one sentence from John O’Donohue, that idea that stress is a manifestation of a perverted relationship to time, that I really understood what was wrong with the way I was approaching my life.

No that’s not true. I think maybe it was the straw on the proverbial camel’s back, the one piece of the puzzle I needed to have for the image to come into focus. Because I think I have been working towards this understanding the moment my life fell apart and I realized I could not go on with this sense of panic anymore, this frenzied activity to keep at bay, well, ultimately myself.

And really, my war with time was not really a war against time, but with myself. With letting myself be in the world. I concocted this war, this drought of hours in order to justify never giving myself any time. Time belonged to other people. To the imposing tower of “shoulds” in my life. But not to me. I was so scared that if I took a moment to open that door, all the neglected needs and desires, all the crap I stuffed into the closet of my heart, would come piling down and I would be buried.

I have come to understand that healing my relationship with time is actually healing my relationship with myself. In John O’Donohue’s beautiful words, “time is the mother of presence.”

Life hasn’t gotten any less busy. My days are still mostly occupied by work and then more work and then caretaking activities. But there has been a tectonic shift in me. It is like the pieces have come into place and I am no longer panicked by all the things I’ve not accomplished.

Instead of worrying about that vast, never-ending pile of to-dos, I am practising trust in myself that they will get done. This has allowed space for me to write every day. It has also allowed me to stop and breathe, to be present in the tasks that I am doing (even if they are mundane and boring) instead of worrying about the next thing.

This has literally changed my life.

Of course, as always, it is a practise. I have a 20-year habit of anxiety around not using my time wisely or rationing it correctly. The panic and fear will rear their nasty little heads every time I am a bit late for work or if I dared to take a Sunday without doing all the chores before the week.

I have spent most of my life acting the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Always in a hurry, always nervous about the dreaded queen of hearts and her penchant for beheading anyone that displeases her.

Well, I hereby, proclaim the queen is dead. And I, furry, little white rabbit that I am, have all the time in the world.

 

 

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We Are All Octopuses

Octopus_at_Kelly_Tarlton'sI read a book a few months ago entitled The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. I had never given much thought to octopuses before, but it turns out they are remarkable, completely alien creatures. Here is how the author of the book, Sy Montgomery describes them:

“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change colour and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart. It’s hard to find an animal more unlike a human than an octopus. Their bodies aren’t organized like ours. We go: head, body, limbs. They go: body, head, limbs. Their mouths are in their armpits—or, if you prefer to liken their arms to our lower, instead of upper, extremities, between their legs. They breathe water. Their appendages are covered with dexterous, grasping suckers, a structure for which no mammal has an equivalent. And not only are octopuses on the opposite side of the great vertebral divide that separates the backboned creatures such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish from everything else; they are classed within the invertebrates as mollusks, as are slugs and snails and clams, animals that are not particularly renowned for their intellect. Clams don’t even have brains.”

Not to mention that two thirds of their neurons are in their arms. If one gets severed, it can still function for a long time on its own. When I think of this amazing fact, I imagine a sentient arm, floating peacefully through the water, the epitome of alone-ness. For isn’t that the greatest solitude, being severed from yourself?

Oh, and it has 3 hearts.

How does a land-loving bipedal, one-hearted, creature with a centrally-located brain even begin to understand how it is to move around the world like an octopus? How do we even begin to understand what might go on in the brain of a creature whose very way of being, of experiencing the world is so different than ours?

We can’t. But then again, how do we know what anybody is thinking or feeling given the vast amounts of variables that go into shaping the thoughts and emotions of every individual? This has overwhelmed me for some time. How do we even begin to understand each other when our experiences – even when they are experiences of the same events—are so different?

Bernard Shaw once said that “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Nowhere is this most true in the ways that we love each other or want to be loved.

Certainty is an illusion

I think that one of the biggest fallacies of younger humans is this notion of certainty. We think we have figured out the world, we have taken its measure and for the most part found it wanting. Hence youthful militantism, the need for change. Why students and the young are usually the driving forces behind revolutions. They enjoy the unique privilege of seeing the world as black and white, as right or wrong. The world just needs some fixing, some putting to rights. It is so simple and clear! Why don’t the older generations see it?

Youth overlay the world and all its unknowns with a veneer of certainty. Perhaps we need to do this to try and figure out how to live in it. Perhaps the concretization of our identities, of our world, is the ladder we need to climb before we can kick it out from under us and glimpse the reality of our situation, which is that we are living in a sea of chaos with very little known to us and very little under our control. That we ourselves, are chaos, or, as I like to put it, fluid catastrophes.

The problem with concretization is that we tend to cement ourselves in, to narrow our own potential and thus that of the world. The statement “I don’t like spiders” becomes a part of who we are and thus we need to react in fear whenever one is near or in the extreme, not travel to a place that might have big spiders. I am not artistic. I am not a good caregiver. I am not lovable.

We concretize these stories about ourselves and thus we set our limits in this world. Or in octopus parlance, we amputate parts of ourselves as necessary sacrifices to our certainty.

What we do to ourselves, we do unto others as well. What is the time it takes for someone to form a first impression of someone else? Seven seconds. Most of us meet someone, take their measure, and classify others in that small space of time. Friendly or unfriendly, interesting or not interesting, we have already set some pretty tight constraints on our perception of that person.

Psychological Projection

We also tend to think we have the measure of others. That we understand them and are effectively communicating with them. However, all we are doing is overlaying their uniqueness with our own, understanding them as a slightly distorted reflection of ourselves. Until the veneer wears off and we are faced with the terrible knowledge that what we thought of as certain was only an illusion, a trick we played on ourselves to make ourselves feel safe.

It is truly one of the most disorienting things to find out that your certainty does not jive with someone else’s. Two people can live through the same event and have a totally different experience of it. I have been struck by the many times my sisters and I are reminiscing only to discover that we have totally different memories of the same exact thing.  One of us will remember it fondly as a happy time, the other will remember it negatively because someone said something or did something that rubbed them the wrong way and the other will not have any memory of it at all because it wasn’t noteworthy to them.

In the clinical sense, projection is “a theory in psychology in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually intolerant may constantly accuse other people of being intolerant.” Wikipedia

Projection as a defense mechanism is not very effective. It is not only an offense to the poor projectee who we are treating as an emotional landfill and dumping all the crap about ourselves we are uncomfortable with onto them, but it is also an offense to ourselves. If we are projecting it is because there is some part of us that is ashamed. And as I have said before and will probably say again, shame makes monsters of us all.

When we project, we close ourselves to the “other” of that person, their octopus nature. We cease to be genuinely curious about their motivations, their context. In a real sense we stop communicating with them and though it looks like we are having a conversation, we are really engaging in a monologue with an avatar of ourselves.

The worst part is that we close ourselves off to our own octopus selves. It is like being an octopus who has decided they can only be one colour, one texture, one shape, when really there are infinite possibilities for them, just as there are for us.

Honour the octopus in others

This has been my mantra for 2018. I am practising the notion that I actually have no idea what motivates anyone else and why they do what they do. I won’t lie, it is bloody hard. Because it means honouring the mystery of the “other”, in Martin Buber’s beautiful terminology. It means showing up in a spirit of curiosity and not judgement, of not overlaying our own thoughts and feelings onto the graceful, fluid forms of others.

Honour the Octopus in Ourselves

“We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
― Martin Buber

If we are to honour the octopus in others, we first have to honour it in ourselves. That means accepting the not so beautiful parts of ourselves- the hard beak at the center of our bodies, our venomous bite, the tendency to spew ink when in danger. Because the moment we can see these propensities in ourselves, understand, forgive and by observation and compassionate practice begin to change our reactions, we can begin to extend the same courtesy to others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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General Trauma and Get Over Yourself Books: An Annotated Biographical Bibliography

[I started writing this months ago- crap. Just clicked the link- November]

I was listening to CBC this morning. The Sunday Edition was airing the second part of an episode on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Michael Enright was talking to Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen about her new book and the lasting effects of the Soviet Union. She said this, and I have not been able to get it out of my head all day:

“[In Nazi Germany], the way the terror was constructed, the people who had been killed had been “Other.” There was a clear distinction between victims and executioners and bystanders. In the Soviet Union, there were no bystanders. Everyone was either a victim or an executioner. But the worst part is that everybody was a victim and an executioner. Every family contained within itself both victims and executioners. People were victimized by becoming executioners, and then executioners were executed on trumped-up charges, becoming victims. We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.” Masha Gessen

Wow. “We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.”

She is talking about a whole society living through about 70 years of terror. About a generation who lived their whole lives never sure what moral morass they would need to wade through in order to survive.

So, yeah. The following comes with a huge “WITH ALL DUE RESPECT FOR PROPORTION” caveat.

It was that one phrase: “the crime of having done this to ourselves.” That has been a pebble skipping on the surface of my brain for the last few hours. I don’t know how to say this in the face of the bigness of the Soviet Union, except to say that patterns echo on a small scale as well as a big scale. It is foolish to think that what we manifest in our personal lives does not echo on a grander scale, and, of course, vice versa.

Because, in the end, all our stories are the same. The way we hurt each other stems from the same root: shame and a refusal to take a solid step into what it means to be a real grown up and truly be accountable for our actions and emotions.

I am convinced that in the end, if we become monsters, we do so in the same way: shame. Whether on the scale of a Trump or a Putin or Stalin, or a government employee like, say me, or my fellow civil servant made famous by history, the Nuremberg trials and the brilliant Hannah Arendt, Eichmann.

The crimes we have done to ourselves. These are the hardest to forgive. The way we shut ourselves down. Talk to ourselves. We build up our own self-liturgy throughout our lives, a comforting mantra of cannots and then believe our own lies. We end up in places we do not want to be and then, instead of  taking responsibility for the choices and beliefs that led us there, we blame the ones closest to us. We continue to do this for one simple reason: it is easier. It is easier than breaking down the wall we built and confronting the unknown on the other side.

It is not easy to face oneself. It is not easy to admit to your own agency. Here are some of the books that helped me…how can I put this? Not break myself on the shoals of my own pain.

They are in no particular order here, but I learned a valuable lesson from each one. Actually, now that I think about it, the overarching lesson, the hub of all these literary spokes is only one: self-compassion, but more on that in another post.

51IvVuCvuPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown

I want to start with Brené Brown, because her work on the power of vulnerability and shame has probably been the most influential for me. I know I am not the only one either. She’s like vulnerability’s celebrity advocate at this point. If you haven’t seen her TED talk, well then I will forgive you because you have obviously been living for a few of years in a cramped position under a rock.

She pretty much tells it like it is in the first couple of pages:

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines on the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.

When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that many not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions we can make.”

Trauma can strip you of your armour faster than it would take you to strip off bed-bug infested pants. Having your husband of twenty years suddenly tell you that he does not love you and does not want to be married to you anymore? Yeah. Trauma. Consider my armour stripped and my ass bit. In those first few months I felt like I was going about my life without any skin.

Interestingly, I didn’t care. I didn’t have the energy. I knew I wanted to survive this lighter, even if that meant amputating some old parts of me, I just didn’t know what parts were gangrenous or not. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. I really, really wanted someone to tell me.

Well, Brené Brown did her level best. I was going through my life so afraid of not being enough, of failing the people I love, of someone finding out that I was unlovable, that I had a part missing, that I was constantly going, planning, coordinating, cleaning, organizing, solution-finding, multi-tasking, and…phew. Give me a minute. That was exhausting just to write. And beating myself up when I failed to live up to this mythical standard I felt I was being judged by.

Here is what she says about shame:

“First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” P.68-69

Ugh. Ok. I have to stop myself from quoting the whole book here. But just a few more things. Shame is different from guilt, according to Brown.

“We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change.”

Brown forced me to see that the way I have been going through life up to this point was a disservice to myself. Unlike guilt, shame has no grounding in reality. It is not a helpful, uncomfortable feeling that serves to guide our moral compass. It is a closeting belief, one where we are trapped by the fear that if we let our guard down, someone is going to find out our secret: that our very infrastructure is flawed and that we are not enough.

Reading these thoughts, expressed exactly as my own brain thought of them, was earth-shaking. I was not the only one who felt this way. I was not the only one going through life feeling like I had a piece missing. Who knew?

51HyjM-yjuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Journey from Abandonment to Healing: Surviving through and recovering from the five stages that accompany the loss of love by Susan Anderson

Out of all the books I read, I think this might have been the single most helpful, and thus the most hard to write about. Why? Because from the first moment I opened this book I recognised myself. Not just the post-marriage me, but the me of my whole life. All my fears, my sense of self, my feeling that I am not enough and that I have to earn my space in the world, comes from a deep sense of abandonment I had in childhood.

This was hard for me to accept at first. After all, it wasn’t like my father chose to die in a plane crash. It wasn’t like my mother chose to be consumed by grief for a while. How could I feel abandoned by people who did not abandon me? Who loved me and would do anything for me? The idea that I was abandoned as a child seemed self-indulgent, the worst kind of psych 101 self-help.

That is, unless you understand what Susan Anderson means by the term:

“Abandonment is about loss of love itself, that crucial loss of connected-ness.”

Oh. Although the book touches on that kind of grief, Anderson mostly focuses on the loss and connectedness one experiences after the break-up of a marriage.

So much so that the first couple of pages seemed to be talking directly to me:

“Those of you who have been left to pick up the pieces may wonder about your lost partners, who have already replaced you with new lives and new relationships. You’ve been left to do the soul-searching…Anyone who feels this pain is in legitimate emotional crisis. Many feel as if they have been stabbed in the heart so many times that they don’t know which hole to plug first.”

I cried when I read those words, I so needed to hear them.

One of the worst parts of living this divorce story is that it is so common. Because it is so common, people (especially the ones leaving a relationship) tend to dismiss the terrible, emotional pain it causes. As my ex recently put it, “People leave all the time. You and the kids are resilient, you will get through it.”

These kind of comments make you feel even shittier for feeling shitty, for having such a hard time with the loss of love. People get cancer all the time. People die. They get raped, abused, assaulted. Bad things happen to people all the time, yes. Knowing that other people are going through this same pain is not much of a comfort.

If people leave all the time, that just means there are a whole lot of people that are in a lot of real pain. Anderson acknowledges this real pain, breaks it up into five stages (shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage, and lifting) and then gives some very useful tools to help you move on with your life. Having been left by her partner of twenty years as well, Anderson never once invalidates the pain you are going through, but helps you understand it and ultimately, use it as an opportunity for growth.

This would be the number one book I would recommend to anyone who’s partner has left them.

41SpZIk2RKL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal By Vikki Stark

Ha. This is one of the first books I bought. Just checked the helpful Amazon site: May 18, 2015.  The author also happens to be a marriage counsellor in Montreal and we ended up having a couple of sessions with her, which would have been very helpful if J’s heart was at all open to me and our marriage, which it was not. Anyways.

Here is what made me buy the book:

Hallmarks of Wife Abandonment Syndrome

Do you suspect that you’re a victim of Wife Abandonment Syndrome? Here are the ten defining characteristics that will let you know if you are. You don’t need to check off all ten to fit the definition.

  1. Prior to the separation, the husband had seemed to be an attentive, emotionally engaged spouse, looked upon by his wife as honest and trustworthy.
  2. The husband had never said that he was unhappy in the marriage or thinking of leaving, and the wife believed herself to be in a secure relationship.
  3. The husband typically blurts out the news that the marriage is over “out-of-the-blue” in the middle of a mundane domestic conversation.
  4. Reasons given for his decision are nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent.
  5. By the time the husband reveals his intentions to his wife, the end of the marriage is already a fait accompli and he often moves out quickly.
  6. The husband’s behavior changes radically, so much so that it seems to his wife that he has become a cruel and vindictive stranger.
  7. The husband shows no remorse; rather, he blames his wife and may describe himself as the victim.
  8. In almost all cases, the husband had been having an affair.
  9. The husband makes no attempt to help his wife, either financially or emotionally, as if all positive regard for her has been completely extinguished.
  10. Systematically devaluing the marriage, the husband denies what he had previously described as positive aspects of the couple’s joint history.

https://www.runawayhusbands.com/

9 out of 10!!! He didn’t do #3. Well, ok. He did half of it.  Instead he asked me to come to his studio and told me he was having an affair with the person whose two portraits were staring me in the face and that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married anymore. So let’s say 9.5 out of 10 then.

It is simultaneously comforting and enraging to know that your story is not unique. Flipping through these pages even now, I still feel a sense of rage at how tightly my ex was sticking to this script without knowing it.

Here is how Stark differentiates Wife Abandonment Syndrome (WAS) to other faltering marriages:

“What makes Wife Abandonment Syndrome so devastating for a woman is not merely that her husband decided unilaterally to leave the marriage. Rather, it is the way in which he does it. The fact that his departure was so completely unanticipated, and that his wife believed herself to be in a good marriage, makes it so destructive. Although the woman being left certainly contributed to whatever problems existed in the marriage, the important fact is that she was blindsided and lied to by her spouse, who had a secret agenda. There are some things in the world that are black and white, right or wrong, and it’s just not fair for a man to walk out on his wife without having let her know that her marriage was on the rocks.”

I had to read this book twice. When I read it back in May 2015, I was not quite ready to believe my marriage was over. I combed through the pages trying to see how my ex differed from the other men portrayed in the book, how this was not and would never be our story. And indeed, the big difference was that though the announcement that he didn’t want to be married anymore and that “our marriage was in a ditch” was abrupt, he hedged for months before actually calling it. But even then I had to insist he actually tell me face to face and in no uncertain terms.

I think in his head he had already done so and I was just being obtuse.

The truth was I was not ready to believe my marriage was over though all evidence proved otherwise, hence the second reading a few months later.

51yHYvuBtFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Irritable Male syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression by Jed Diamond

This book I did not purchase but borrowed from the library as I was following a quote I read in the previous book about men “flipping a switch” on their love for their wives. It seemed to fit exactly what J did to me as well as my suspicion that we were in the midst of a volcanic midlife crisis and I wanted to know more.

Sigh. He has always hated this hypothesis of mine. And ok. Fair enough. It is irritating to have people try to explain your behaviour or try to show you that maybe there are causes you are not aware of. I have mentioned this before, but I think it is akin to telling a woman she is moody because she is on her period, or because she is pregnant. It never goes well.

But still.

Here is how Diamond defines irritable male syndrome:

“A state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity.”

He also goes on to explain how it impacts one’s family and especially one’s wife:

“The Irritable Male Syndrome explains why millions of men are becoming angry and depressed and why they so often vent their frustrations on the women they love the most.”

Yeah. There is a handy little quiz to see if you or your spouse fits the bill.

This book was enlightening and did lend credence to my theory of midlife crisis. It explained why my ex gave me such stupid reasons for wanting to leave the marriage, and why he was so deeply angry with me. However, it ultimately was trying to explain someone else’s behaviour and not shed any light on my own.

Yes, all of this might be true. But knowing this and having some evidence to back me up did me no good whatsoever. I had no voice with my ex. He did not hear me. I had no say. His heart was already closed to me and no matter what theories, what books I read that I thought he should read to gain some clarity into his own behaviour, no matter what I said or thought about the situation it would be taken as bossy, controlling and didactic.

Perhaps it was. I don’t know. We spend so much time trying to understand our own behaviour, trying to fit the irrational into some sort of rational pattern that nothing makes sense anymore.

Update

My own story at this stage has an uncanny valley feeling to it. I have no idea what has been real in my life and what I have simply convinced myself was real. From my 20 year past with this man, to my current beliefs of what the hell happened to my life, my marriage, my love, everything is shaky and shimmery, mirage-like.

I do not know anymore what love or trust or compassion means. What were once certain, solid concepts have become uncanny versions of themselves and I find myself walking through life with this perpetual vertigo feeling, as if I am on the deck of a boat on a windy day. Most of my energy these days is spent trying not to fall over as I desperately search for a glimpse of land.

And this is three years in. Pretty much every day around noon (I am not sure why at this time, but it seems to happen everyday) I will get this reminder like a punch in my chest that this person does not love me anymore, that he has no regard for me whatsoever. That I have  lost my husband, my love, the father of my children, my best friend, and I still don’t know why and I will probably never know, because why is probably the wrong question.

Or it is the right question and it is a simple answer that is just too painful to process: He simply didn’t love me enough to try. He got a better offer, one that did not come with having to untangle some 20 year old stories. Or the worst one, he didn’t really want to be a part of a family anymore.

Usually I will be at work and I will have to hide the tears in my eyes and figure out how to breathe so I don’t make a spectacle of myself. Everyday. The energy it takes to just keep functioning, let alone try to build a new life, is staggering.

I am so tired. Tired of this story. I am so tired of seeing it happen to other people. I am so tired of not knowing what is real or not real, of not having a past anymore, or at least one that I can trust is real. I am so tired of wondering how I could have been so certain this man loved me, that I had a good, strong marriage when he so clearly did not.

That is the thing with trauma. It doesn’t go away in a day, or even a year. There are times when I feel like I’m doing well, like I’m getting some perspective and understanding this story with compassion for both myself and him. I can pretend that I am not feeling the chronic nausea that comes with a perpetually rocking world. And sometimes I manage it. Most days though, I am still at sea, trying not to puke over the railings.

These books help. They do. I have learned how to begin breaking down certain stories about myself that were keeping me down. I have learned how to begin practising compassion towards myself and understanding what it means to be one’s own steward. I am moving forward and making plans and building a new life for myself and my children.

But they don’t take the pain away. They can give you tools on how to manage it, but they don’t take it away. The reality is that this pain is now part of my ecosystem. I have to accept that it will be there forever and figure out how to live with it.

 

 

Posted in A Day in the Life, Books, Personal blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

SEX:An Annotated Biographical Bibliography

FullSizeRenderThis might come as a shocker, but this post was very hard for me to write. I spent most of my life not even talking about sex, let alone writing about it publicly. So why? Why put myself out there like this? Why admit to all of these wrong-headed notions I lived with since puberty?

Because of shame. When I decided to write about the breakup of my marriage, it was to dispel the shame I felt at being left by my husband, by suddenly being unloved by the person I thought loved me the most. And, yes, it felt shameful. Like I failed to love him properly, like it was my fault he left. Like I had been judged and had been found wanting.

It was important for me to tell my story without sweeping any of the uglier bits under the carpet, to say out loud all those weird, toxic notions that had grown so big they were killing all my joy. I needed to speak out loud because I was in danger of forgetting how to speak at all.

As an aside, Monica Lewinski has an amazing Ted Talk about taking control of one’s voice. It is worth watching.

But that’s the thing. Once you start recognizing shame in one aspect of your life, you see how it has been leading you around by the nose in others. I felt shame about my body and my own sexuality long before I was married. It has made me waste many years worrying about things that if I had had the sense to talk to someone about,  would have been dispelled years ago.

I am on a crusade against shame. I want to talk about these things openly, because the more we do, the less space we give to these noxious weeds in the gardens of our mind. I want words like joy and confidence to be the words my daughters grow and nurture inside themselves, not shame, and ugly, and I am not enough which were the words that dominated the first 40 years of my life. I want to eradicate the notion that any of us could ever be seen as inadequate for simply being who we are.

So. Here goes.

Inadequacy. Inadequate. Not adequate. From the latin: ad= to and aequus= equal. Adequate= made equal to.

Inadequate=not equal to. Lacking. Insufficient.

Objectively speaking, I know that I am not a hideous looking woman. I am relatively fit. Have no caricature-like protrusions or troll-like deformation. In the eyes of society, I am a perfectly “adequate” looking woman. A little on the short, stubby side, but completely within the adequate range.

Until I turned 40 and my husband lost interest in me, I was okay with being perfectly adequate. I could go through the world not feeling too ashamed of the way I looked, in fact comforted by the invisibility “perfectly adequate” affords. Just another 30 to 40 something woman. Nothing to see here. Move along.

I could do that because the person I loved still loved me. Still thought I was more than adequate. I was noticeable to them and that was all that mattered. I could push to the back of my mind all those feelings about my body that have plagued me since I was a teenager- the unforgivable fact for this day and age that I have a belly instead of board-like flatness, that my thighs are tattooed with marks like dried river beds. All the weird little anomalies and flaws we see in our bodies that I suspect are much larger in our eyes than in the eyes of our loved ones.

When my marriage dissolved, the first stop on the desperate and heart-broken thought train was here:  I am no longer attractive; it’ s because I am bad in bed that he left me. I have not been assertive enough. Not adventurous enough. Not…enough. That my body disgusts him. That I am too naïve, too timid, too…too.

Now, I am ridiculously shy about these things. And I have come to realise that for most of my life I have been scared of my body. Of its needs, its desires. I am scared of my own ridiculous health and power. It makes me hide, makes me shy, makes me unassertive. In turn, it has made sex a passive thing for me, something that is done to me by others.

This was a cop out. I was not being the steward of my own body. I passed the buck onto other people, hoping my needs would be satisfied by default, but never taking ownership of them. An example of how much I internalized this passive attitude towards my own sexuality is that it did not even occur to me to masturbate until well after my husband left.

In the back of my mind I knew this had to change, that there was something fundamentally wrong with my relationship to my body and to sex. But it is easy to get complacent when you have been married for 20 years, when you have kids and jobs and you are busy. The sex thing just sort of didn’t seem important enough to really deal with.

That is until there was no sex. Until there was no touch.

For someone who was never really a touchy feely kind of person, whose personal space bubble I have been known to refer to as one guarded with barbed wire and machine gun turrets, not being touched for so long really fucked me up.

There is no other way to put it. The lack of physical contact after having it for so many years was the most bone-deep loneliness, the most forlorn I have ever felt in my life. Longing is an intensely physical sensation.

There was a study done in the sixties exploring attachment behaviour with puppies. They waited until the puppies formed an attachment to the researcher. Once they were attached, the researcher turned around and kicked the puppies. The puppies responded to this abuse by running to the researcher. (Got this from the wonderful Emily Nagoski’s blog, The Dirty Normal– see below)

Yeah. I know. Puppy kicking experiments. Bastards. But leaving aside the animal abuse for a moment, this reaction is a familiar one.

Apparently there are 4 stages of broken attachment:

  1. Proximity-seeking: This is what made the puppies run back to the experimenter even if he was abusive. You want to be near your object of attachment, because that is the person that has given you comfort in the past.
  2. Safe haven: You want your object of attachment to comfort you, even if it is that object that is hurting you. You have the counter-intuitive reaction of desperately seeking comfort from the person responsible for the hurt you need comfort for, a catch-22 if ever there was one.
  3. Separation distress: When the person you are attached to leaves, you feel a physical pain. Attachment is that strong. And when that person has been your object of attachment for over twenty years, the pain is in proportion to that.
  4. Secure base: They are your secure base. They are what allow you to go out in the world and be a citizen, do your projects. When that is gone, you are lost without compass or direction. It is hard to get anything done. Your brain won’t function. Everyday life becomes as hard as walking through a swamp wearing a snow suit.

When my ex left my first reaction was to think that if only we could keep the physical closeness, if only I could show him I could be better, more… more, things would be all right. The problem was, I had no idea how to do that. Hence, to the library (or, um, Amazon) I went.

51lnJJlDs8L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Mating in captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel

I was reminded of this book a few days ago when a friend of mine shared an article of Perel’s from The Atlantic, “Why Happy People Cheat”.  When I went to Amazon to look up the link, I was helpfully reminded by the Amazonbots that I have already purchased this item and that I did so April 4, 2015. That was only a little over two months after J’s revelations. I bought it along with the book below, “What Women Want”.

The problem with reading this book at this time is that it could have been very helpful if I still had a marriage to help. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, my marriage was already over. When I think of reading this book, I think of me trying desperately to find some information that could keep us together, that would help me be a better, more seductive wife, more passionate and unpredictable and exciting.

Now that I think back on it, I was reading it to find a way to not be me anymore.

My success rate on that is about what you imagine.

In her book, Perel explores the modern marriage, and the issues and problems that arise from having one union that is supposed to be all things: a practical life partnership where you navigate the domestic drudgery together, a best friend who always has your back and with whom you can’t wait to sit down and watch the next Game of Thrones episode with, and a passionate, erotic lover who is always on hand to titillate you when the need for titillating arises.

She makes a fair point- we might just be putting unreasonable demands on this relationship.

I flipped through the book and found this telling passage that I underlined at the time, in my effort to decode what the hell went wrong with my own marriage:

“If uncertainty is a built-in feature of all relationships, so too is mystery. Many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate…I try to highlight for them how little they’ve seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that barricade the other.

In truth, we never know our partner as well as we think we do. Mitchell reminds us that even in the dullest marriages, predictability is a mirage. Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us. We are invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination, based on our own set of needs…We see what we want to see, what we can tolerate seeing, and our partner does the same. [next part is what I underlined at the time] Neutralizing each other’s complexity affords us a kind of manageable otherness. We narrow down our partner, ignoring or rejecting essential parts when they threaten the established order of our coupledom. We also reduce ourselves, jettisoning large chunks of our personality in the name of love.

            Yet when we peg ourselves and our partners as fixed entities, we needn’t be surprised that passion goes out the window. And I’m sorry to say the loss is on both sides. Not only have you squeezed out the passion, but you haven’t really gained safety, either.

            The fragility of this manufactured equilibrium becomes obvious when one partner breaks the rules of the contrivance and insists on bringing more authentic parts of himself into the relationship.” [marginalia: Shit. Is this what happened?]

It is an interesting look at marriage with a lot of thought-provoking passages about who we are as a society, about the tension between individuality and coupledom. She gives anecdotes culled from her experience as a therapist as well as some suggestions to either avoid or get out of certain obstacles.

The best kind of “self-help” books are those that make you confront uncomfortable truths about yourself. Perel’s book definitely brought me to some uncomfortable places, ones I am still exploring to this day. Perhaps just for this reason I would recommend it.

51f7WiECsYLWhat Do Women Want By David Bergner

This is the first book I read on the subject after having stumbled across yet another article in the Atlantic. I am pretty sure my thinking was that perhaps I can approach this problem scientifically. Look at it from a purely biological standpoint, so to speak. Engage in some rigorous research. In the words of The Martian, “science the shit out of it.”

It was going to be less scary that way.

To be honest, I don’t really remember this book and after scanning some pages I noticed that it was before my marginalia rebellion, so no passage was underlined.

I do remember it being an interesting read though. In a nutshell:

  • studies show that women like sex just as much if not more than men,
  • That we are able to be turned on by more things,
  • that our attitudes to sex are more malleable than those of men. And most importantly,
  • the notion that women’s libido is more suited to monogamy is pure hogwash.

Interesting stuff and glad to know it. But definitely did not help in my quest to be BETTER AT SEX NOW in order to hold on to my husband. I guess science can’t solve everything…

51rED9IapzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Come as you are by Emily Nagoski

Sometimes, all of the infinite variables align in the world to deliver the right book at the right time. Emily Nagoski’s book was this for me. It shifted my perspective on this quest from trying hard to find ways to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be, to focusing on my own relationship with sexuality.

For the first time ever. At the age of 40. Yeah. So. Much. Time. Wasted.

The underlying message of the whole book, one Nagoski repeats in many helpful ways, is that whatever you look like, however you get aroused, whatever size of your genitals, chances are you are perfectly normal:

“The information in this book will show you that whatever you’re experiencing in your sexuality…is the result of your sexual response mechanism functioning appropriately…in an inappropriate world. You are normal; it is the world around you that’s broken.

That’s actually the bad news.

The good news is that when you understand how your sexual response mechanism works, you can begin to take control of your environment and your brain in order to maximize your sexual potential, even in a broken world. And when you change your environment and your brain, you can change—and heal—your sexual functioning.”

I really, really needed to hear that at the time. It sounds simple and silly and obvious, but I did not think I was normal. I did not think I was normal because I never talked about sex with anyone. Not with my girlfriends, not with my sisters, not even with my husband. My scientific knowledge of sex was pretty much limited to that grade eight class about the birds and the bees.

Sex was something that one did; one did not talk about. I know. How perfectly Victorian of me.

The result was a skewed idea of my body and the way it worked. I thought things that were perfectly normal were viewed as disgusting. Because of that, I felt a lot of shame.

And shame, I have come to believe, is the root of much of our emotional heaviness and consequent folly and bad behaviour, the brick in our biographical baggage, so to speak.

It is how we become monsters.

The impact of Nagoski’s book on me was not so much to do with sex per say. After all, sex was no longer a part of my life at that moment. In my mind, there was no reason for me to go through her helpful little worksheets, because I was alone. There was no one to explore this new world that had suddenly opened up to me.

I think I might have missed the point there. But you know. Baby steps.

It was about me and only me. About how I had been going through life getting in the way of my own pleasure. Of being so mortified by my own body I could not enjoy it.

Judging by how many times Nagoski repeats the “you are normal!” message in her book, I don’t think I am the only woman to feel this way. Her book explains the science of sex in simple, relatable terms. How gender and culture have come to distort women’s sexuality and how we can reclaim it.

Because Come as You Are is not just a decoding, but a celebration of women’s sexuality; because it lets us know that a lot of sex happens in our brains, and our brains are heavy with responsibility, and burdens and stress; because throughout the book there is a much needed giving of, and pleading for, self-compassion when it comes to our bodies, our sexuality, ourselves; because of all this, I think every woman I know should read this book. And if you read it, honour yourself more than I did and damn well do the exercises. I know I will.

I will leave you with her TED TALK on the subject.

Posted in A Day in the Life, Books, Personal blog | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments