Hellish Years: Five Years Later

It has been five years. Five. Half a decade since my husband told me in one breath he was having an affair and didn’t know if he wanted to be married anymore. (Turns out he did want to be married, just not to me. But whatever. Why split hairs at this late date?)

Five years is a quarter of the time we were together. In the first five years of our relationship, we moved in together, both finished our undergrad, went on an epic trip to Europe where we got engaged. We got married. Had our first child. We witnessed the violent dissolution of our arts collective —a group of friends and mentors who got together each Sunday to talk about art and review the work of the week—and buried one of the mentors. I made the important discovery that if I treated all creative writing as an exercise, I could get over the fear of failing and actually write. I even got published.

All that to say, five years is a long time. Many things can and have happened. Since J left I have accomplished many tangible things. I moved the girls and I back to the West Coast. I found a new career that even if it isn’t writing, is still pretty meaningful and interesting. Most of all it is stable enough to pay most of the bills. My girls are thriving. I have my very own car that I don’t share with anyone else (ok, the girls borrow it sometimes). I am blessed with amazing friends and family and am seeing a lovely man. Hell, I even have the cutest puppy ever. My house is a place where people feel safe and welcome, where there is a lot of laughter and love. I built that. I did.

I have a lot to be grateful for, a lot to be proud of. And I am, daily, on both counts.

Yet what I am most proud of are the intangibles, the way I confronted some old patterns and beliefs that weren’t serving me and changed them. By far my greatest feat is learning compassion for myself. Learning how to be in the world where I am not constantly beating myself up for not doing better, trying harder, being more or being less.

And though it sounds silly, I am also in the process of healing my relationship with time. I practice reminding myself daily that I am not on the clock, that time is not my enemy and that everything will get done. I am learning how to trust myself. This has helped reduce my stress exponentially.

These are big things. I have come a long way in these last five years.

And yet.

Now the dust has settled and the work has shifted from the less labour-intensive building of a life to the daily practice of maintaining it, what is left for me is a crater where love and trust used to be. The worst is,  I am ashamed of it, because I, as well as most of the people around me, feel like I should be over this by now.

It was only when I read this article entitled How a PTSD Expert Developed a Viable Cure for Heartbreak—where a psychologist specializing in PTSD studied the effects of reconsolidation therapy on people who have experienced romantic betrayal—that I felt I might not be crazy. It was validating to see in writing that the kind of break up I experienced had another layer of pain to it, which, after a little more research, I found out is called betrayal trauma. Here is how this article put it:

You cannot experience betrayal where there is not a deep sense of safety and trust. But when there is a deep sense of safety and trust and you uncover an unknown addiction or infidelity, it can be the most debilitating moment in your life. These forms of betrayal are extremely traumatic, and you can experience devastating mental, physical, and emotional consequences.”

When my husband left so suddenly, among the many beliefs he shattered was the belief that I was loved unconditionally. That particular loss has snowballed into an inability to trust that I was ever loved in the first place and that I ever will be loved or love again. There is a part of me that feels permanently shut down to the world, though my best intentions were to face the unknown with an open heart.

The grief is big. It is It is even bigger because the doors I have closed in my heart are very hard to pry open again. Because, you see, I actually believed I was loved. I trusted that he loved me. I mean full-on, unconditional trust that this man would do right by me even if romantic love faded like red pigment in sunlight.

I may never forgive myself for that.

Let me be very clear. I am not stuck. I am not idealizing him, nor do I wish a return to my marriage which is now tainted with his initial betrayal, as well as the complete lack of consideration and support of the last five years. I don’t want him back. I don’t feel like a victim. And I really don’t mean to spend as much energy thinking about him.

And yet I do. I am constantly thinking of him. Constantly having the same, looping imaginary conversation with him inside my head where I try to get him to see me, to see the pain he’s caused. Constantly being blindsided by the anvil that will suddenly drop on my heart. It’s exhausting.

People rarely talk about how long healing takes, even when you’re actively committed to it. They rarely mention how goddamn boring trauma is, how much drudgery there is in carrying it. It is like being forced to watch the same bad movie with the same ineffective script every day. You can’t turn it off, however much you want to. All you can do is sit with it. Let it play out. 

It has been five years. I am doing great. I really, really am.

And I am still heart broken. A memory will flash through my mind or I will have a dream. Or I will simply be at work, looking over a spreadsheet and the betrayal will come over me like a wave and I will be right back in his studio, looking at the two portraits of his lover (now his wife) while he is telling me about their affair and how he doesn’t think he wants to be married anymore.  At these moments it is like a gong rings out in my heart and for a few seconds all I am is reverberation. I have learned to withdraw into my internal bomb shelter and wait it out.

It probably happens when I am talking to you. You probably won’t notice unless you are really paying attention. When it’s done, I will likely have to ask you to repeat yourself, as I can’t hear anything over the din of my broken heart. But don’t worry, that’s all I will ask of you. After all, I am just as tired of talking about it as you are of hearing it.

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My Abortion: A Story of Privilege and Un-Shame

Embryo_at_14_weeks_profileWhen I was 20 years old I was a total mess of a human being.

The snowballing of bad choices began in my 18th year at around graduation. The end of high school coincided with the end of my first real love relationship. I was to blame for that, and because I was to blame, all my friends—who were his first—were no longer my friends.

I took a gap year and  did nothing but work at a donut shop. No travel, no nothing. Just a dead-end job and a lot of self-hatred. I drank heavily, smoked. Partied.

The drinking was necessary for the partying as it was the only way I could start to get comfortable in a crowd. The smoking gave me something to do when I was feeling awkward.

Many nights during that year ended up with me drunk and having gone home with some stranger.

I hated my life. Hated myself. Felt fat, gross and worthless. During a bout of excess-induced illness, I decided that enough was enough, that I wanted to go back to school. I applied to Concordia and was accepted.

But habits are easily formed and very difficult to break.

When I moved to Montreal at the age of 19 I had a ready-made community. They were my cousin’s friends, from my mom’s small hometown in the Saguenay. They were not going to school. They worked in factories, and cafes during the day, went to the bar at night. Their lives consisted of dead-end jobs, hot kniving in the kitchen and drinking king cans in front of hockey games.

Because I was hanging out with them, I made no attempt to meet anybody at school. In fact, I don’t think I made a single friend at Concordia during the year and half I studied there. Instead, I attended classes and headed straight home to my one bedroom apartment where I would smoke and eat grilled cheeses and wait for my other friends to tell me which bar to meet them that night.

Some days I felt so disgusted with myself I could hardly get out of bed. In the second semester, I started dating a nice fellow from my cousin’s hometown. He was working at a café and looked like an intellectual though he really wasn’t. He had nice, tight curly hair he kept in a pony tail. He was gentle, shy and kind and as much of an alcoholic and smoker as I was. We got a long pretty well.

I would go to university during the week and then, starting on Thursday nights, would party with him all weekend. If I remember correctly, he did a lot of coke. Though now that I think about it, I might have made that up to make myself feel better about what came next. But I think that’s true.

Sigh.

Truth is such a hard thing to pin down, especially after 25 years. Looking back now, I bet he was just going through a similar thing I was —scared of growing up, not sure of himself or his own potential, not sure where he fit in. But in my head, I made him out to be way worse than he was because I was so ashamed of myself. I wasn’t so much to blame for the shitty place I found myself in if I could make him out to be a dick, right?

Yeah, right. Uh huh. Oh, projection and all the other distorted ways we try to escape responsibility for our choices and actions.

Double sigh.

The semester ended and I gave up my apartment to go back home to Victoria and work. This was never really discussed with boy, nor was the break up. We just simply went our separate ways, which was a testament to how lukewarm our romance was.

I can’t remember if I knew I was pregnant before leaving Montreal, or if I took the test in Victoria. I think I might have gave boy a courtesy phone call regarding the pregnancy and subsequent abortion, but I am not positive. I do know he did not have a say nor did it enter my mind to give him one. Either way, that is how my first year of university ended—with middling grades, a pack a day smoking habit, a bit of a drinking problem and a bun in the oven.

I have never really talked about my abortion. Not because I am ashamed of it. Not because it was a difficult decision. Not because it haunts me and I have lingering trauma.

No. I don’t talk about it because it wasn’t a difficult decision. I did not hesitate. And it does not haunt me. I knew in my heart and especially my brain that it was the right thing to do.

But I felt like it should have been difficult and hard. I felt I was missing a piece of me, that piece that made people agonize over their unborn babies. I did not feel anything close to remorse or grief over the loss of a baby that was just a small kernel in my belly, abstract and not quite real. All I felt was relief.

Because I did not feel that grief, I felt ashamed.

I felt ashamed for not feeling ashamed.

Triple sigh.

That isn’t to say I didn’t feel shame— I did. Mostly, my shame was reserved for the circumstances that led to the abortion. I was not treating myself with any sort of honour or respect. The life I was leading made me feel dirty and worthless. Having to get an abortion symbolized a very low point in my life, a kick in the ass, so to speak. I knew that things had to change, that this could not happen again.

I also knew in every fibre of my being that I was going to have children someday, that this just wasn’t the right person to have them with, nor was it the right time. I was barely able to take care of myself, let alone a small human being.

Now this isn’t the case with every woman. Some women know they do not want to have kids. Others are ambivalent. Some decide that even if it was a mistake, it is a mistake they are prepared to live with. Those are all valid life choices. Keyword being choice, of course.

A few months later I met the person who became my husband and a few years later we were married with two beautiful daughters. But, ahem, that is another story….

Most importantly though, I didn’t want to be a mother yet. And how do you responsibly bring life into this world, if from the very moment of conception you are resisting it?

How is that fair to the life?

I am very, very privileged. Because of where and when I live, a solution to my young and stupid mistake was easily accessible. I had an abortion in a controlled, regulated, non-judgemental environment. I did not have to frequent a back alley butcher armed with a dirty clothes hanger or  go through a wall of angry protesters hurling insults at me to access my abortion. There was no damage to my insides.

When I finally chose to have children, I had the easiest two home births imaginable. Two healthy babies that came at a time when I had the capacity to take care of them.

I am thinking of this now, as you can probably imagine, because of the political events occurring in the States. I am deeply disturbed by the focus of the conversation, as if the only consideration is whether a fetus has a heartbeat. This feels so deeply irresponsible to me, to ignore the consequences of bringing life into this world because of one fuck-up (pardon the pun). In my mind, it is not so much a question of whether or not that seed of life has a right to exist, but whether or not we are ready to take on the lifelong stewardship and nurturing of it so it can grow and blossom.

If a state or a country is going to ban abortion, are they also prepared to legislate more support for single mothers? Will there be free daycare and education opportunities and subsidized housing for them? Will there be more stringent laws about child support for the men who are also responsible for the pregnancy?

(It is hard not to see the Strindberg-level absurdity of this debate for what it really is— a very thinly veiled attack on women’s sexual freedom. It isn’t really about babies and their heartbeats at all. It is about a draconian view of women’s sexuality, the fear it engenders and the panicked attempt to control it. But that’s a bigger conversation, for another day.)

*

I just attended my youngest daughter’s graduation ceremony this week. I have been a mother for over 20 years, a single one for the last 4 (or 5 unofficially). As much as I have shaped my children, they have shaped me. They taught me what it means to love someone so deeply it sometimes hurts as much as grief, the enormity of what it means to be truly responsible for someone else, to have two people wholly depend on you.

They taught me how to own my shit, how to be a better person so I could be a better mother to them. Mostly they taught me that whatever decisions I make in the future, that I am not making them only for myself. That they will always be affected by what I do, where I go, how I decide to be in the world.

Having children is a lifetime commitment. Raising them is the most rewarding and most difficult task I have ever faced. It demands a continuous re-evaluation of myself and my motives, a reckoning with my pre-conceived notions of who I think they are and who I think I am.

And yes, it takes sacrifice. To create a stable nest for them to someday fly out of, you have to be stable. You need a steady income, to pay the bills on time and have food on the table. All this costs money. More importantly, you have to be willing and have the capacity to put their needs for a while before your own. You are not on your own anymore—you have decided to make living beings who require your attention even if sometimes you don’t feel like giving it.

If you want to properly shepherd your kids into adulthood, you have to make sure you’re present to deal with anything that comes up.

You are basically on call for the rest of your life.

Having kids is so much more than getting laid and creating a heartbeat. It is a lifelong, all-encompassing endeavour that requires your full attention and willingness. If we are going to talk about the ethics of abortion, then we have to widen the conversation to talk about the ethics of child poverty, abuse, abandonment and everything that comes with bringing children into the world when a woman is not ready, able, or has the support (family, institutional, societal) to care for them. To not talk about everything that comes after the heartbeat is, in my mind, deeply immoral and unethical.

 

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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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