The Difference

It’s been more years than I care to remember since I found myself on the wrong end of my father’s back hand or the crisp sting of his leather belt. There are no scars anywhere on my body to mark the times he made me bleed. The physical wounds healed quickly. The other wounds, the true wounds whose marks have remained indelible for all the years since, these are the ones that haunt me still, the ones that still manifest today in the decisions and choices I make. I like to think I’ve recovered but the solution isn’t so simple.

In the past two years, I found myself in an abusive situation at work. But why not? My core belief is that work, like anything else, should be painful. If I wasn’t giving blood, if I wasn’t sacrificing who I was in exchange for my paycheck, then that would be too easy. No, to give everything when it wasn’t nearly enough, to be belittled and scolded in front of my peers, that meant I was accomplishing something. So I took it “like a man” as my father would say to my adolescent self over and over again, as they mentally whipped me and humiliated me over and over. The abuse gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. “They can’t break me” became my soul’s mantra. I scoffed at the idea that I should leave my toxic work environment. Why? Why would I allow them to win? If I left it would just mean I wasn’t up to the challenge, I wasn’t “man enough.” I saw my father laughing in what should have been my corner.

I stayed far too long at this job. I worked 60 to 65 hours per week. I ignored my family every weekend while I sat hunched over a laptop for hours at a time. Yet it WAS NOT ENOUGH. The harder I worked the greater the abuse became. And I received no positive reinforcement or coaching which would help me succeed. All I was ever told is what I was doing wrong. Words like “inadequate” and “failure” were used in conversation with me on a weekly basis. The more they threw at me the firmer my resolve became. They would not break me!!

I finally left this environment when a better offer with an entirely different work culture presented itself. It’s eerie now; I feel “more than enough” for my new employer, and am told on a daily basis what positive contributions I am providing. I AM THE SAME PERSON. How could this be? I am puzzled that an employer could heap such abuse upon its employees. I am puzzled further about what is going on inside me that would allow me to continue so long in a place I didn’t belong.

The answer is I have always been afraid to stand up for myself. Whether it was the fear of my father’s words or physical punishment, I believed that if I stood up for myself it would just worsen the level of punishment. At some point I learned to manage my actions and reactions in an effort to avoid being abused, OR accept that I was somehow deserving of the abuse. In my adult life I haven’t acted much differently in my relationships with romantic partners and employers. However, I recognize what I’ve been doing and know it is time to break the chain.

To change who I am, to really change how I see the world and my reactions to it, has been an effort that has taken years. I’m still a work in progress. I can tell you that it is never to late to advocate for yourself. I’ve long envied those who could and I understand the internal hurdles which I must navigate. I know now that fear of other’s reactions has made the difference between my path in life and those of others. I’m committed to learn from my past as I make a pact with myself to never go down the same road twice. As I cannot relive my past or undo anything that’s been done, that’s really all any of us can ever do when faced with the lessons of our past.

 

Deep In The Woods

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Photo by Anton Atanasov on Pexels.com

I’m much too far from home. In too deep to turn back. Unable to find the exit or the clear path forward. Forced to make choices now that I don’t want to make, because I made choices carelessly so long ago.

Fuck.

There is no safety net. There is no one to take me in. I’m on my own. If there was any kind of God watching, he or she left me to my own devices somewhere along the way. I didn’t notice.

Shit.

I want to give in, give up, give out-but I have nothing left to give. I continue in spite of myself. I don’t even care what path I’m on as long as it is a path and I’m not subjected to the torture of well-hidden rocks and switchbacks. I. Am. All. Alone. It feels good and it hurts all at the same time. There is no pressure now other than what I put upon myself. BUT! I am a motherfucker and I can torture and punish like no one else.

I know better. I have meditated. But the deeper I go inside the more questions I’m driven to ask. Who made me? Can I be unmade? Can the unsettled be quieted? I need a moment of peace. Can I unlearn patterns learned and deeply embedded? Can I re-imagine my approach and change my course?

I walk faster, sun setting, pulse racing, palms sweating. Tightened breath coming in heaving gasps. When the sun has been vanquished I see nothing. I know my hands are in front of my face yet I can’t see them. I can only feel. I feel deeply. That is my curse, that is my gift. No one sees what I feel. No one feels what I see.

There are new sounds all around me. Things that crave the darkness and mock my presence. I’m no longer afraid. Let them take me. I don’t care at all. I’m beyond being afraid of death. This is not what scares me. What scares me is the world moving forward without me. I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be forgotten.

I see a sliver of moonlight through the trees. I make out a bat fluttering above. This is good, I can define shapes once again. I’ve moved from pitch blackness to shadows and stars. There are so many. There is a rock moving around one of those stars, and surely as that rock orbits that foreign sun, there is another like me, at once both lost and at home, deep in the woods.

And I take comfort in this.

Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow

avian-1853120_1920While visiting with a relative last month, we spotted a tiny baby rabbit eating grass in the wide open meadow behind the relative’s home. Naturally, we were enthralled with the peaceful sight of this young creature blissfully eating its time away on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and couldn’t fathom anything that would interrupt its routine. Every few minutes or so, we’d glance out the window and continue to observe this little bunny going about the business of sustaining itself, all the while mentioning how cute it was, and how lucky our relative was to have such great views of wildlife from her window.

After a while, our conversation deepened and we stopped looking out the window. At some point, I got up to use the restroom, and on my way back, went to look out the window again. This time what grabbed my attention was the giant red tailed hawk standing proudly in the meadow. It would take my brain about ten seconds to make the connection and register what had happened. In a stunning example of the circle of life, the hawk was now enjoying a meal in the meadow–the rabbit was no more.

After the reality of it set in, I asked many questions to myself. In the moment the hawk came down from its likely perch in the treetops at the edge of the meadow, did the rabbit have any idea of its eminent doom? When in fact the hawk’s talons sunk deeply into the supple flesh of the rabbit’s back, did it know that the end of it’s life was near? As the end did come, did it struggle out of a sense of loss of the life it enjoyed, or was it only some primitive, programmed mechanism that caused it to fight against the hawk until it could fight no more?

This rabbit was likely much too young to understand the danger the hawk represented. Perhaps rabbits much older and wiser had witnessed their kin getting carried away by some bird of prey, and equated such birds with danger. I realized that most of the other rabbits in the neighborhood, especially the larger ones, were more likely to be found under bushes or at the edge of the border between forest and grass than out in the open.

In our own lives as humans, there is a healthy fear that motivates us to desire to protect ourselves and those we love. From experience or other ways of learning, we’ve come to know the various threats to our existence. Unlike rabbits and other life forms, we tend to dwell on those threats, and often allow our concern for them to overshadow our enjoyment of our daily routine. Certainly for those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, like myself, we may see “hawks” wherever we go, imagining one is coming to devour us at any time. This fear can manifest itself in more severe forms of anxiety, such as panic attacks and severe physical ailments. I’ve been there on numerous occasions.

On the ride back from our relative’s home, I discussed with my wife how as humans we are almost “afflicted” with an ability to concern ourselves with suffering or even the idea that we may suffer. This whole notion of the anticipation of suffering, I believe, can get in the way of truly living a full life. Especially when we’ve survived terrible conditions, we know something bad can happen, and so may take necessary and logical precautions to ensure our own survival, but when we get to the point that we consistently believe something bad will happen, we lose perspective and the ability to make good decisions.

I don’t believe the rabbit had any way of anticipating the suffering it would briefly endure at the claws of the hawk. While it likely fought for its own survival, and the process of dying was physically painful, its not likely that it experienced any emotional pain brought on by thoughts of leaving the world it had known. In the end, it was able to fully let go, as it had no attachments to painful thoughts about what its end meant.

I’ve tried to reflect on what I witnessed that day, and apply the lesson in my own life. I need to learn to respond differently to events that trigger the “fight or flight” response in me, such as when my boss unexpectedly calls me into his office for a meeting, with my expecting to be relieved of my job. Or worrying about being unable to pay a bill on time. If I could learn to be like the rabbit, and let go of my attachment to the anticipation of suffering and the painful thoughts that accompany this anticipation, I’d likely have less physical symptoms such as stomach upset, tossing and turning at night, and rapid heart rate.

For now, I accept I have much work to do. When captivated by fear, I know I need to step back and consider what it is I am fearful of and why I am fearful of it. It’s not easy, and I still occasionally experience anxiety at a fever pitch. I’ve learned to forgive myself for feeling this way, knowing that the trauma I endured as a child has interfered with my emotional response in my adult life. I will continue to work toward full acceptance of the impermanence of life and the idea that whatever I am enjoying at the moment, whether it is my job, my home, or even my life, is subject to coming to an end at any time. Through a practice of acceptance of the ever changing nature of life perhaps I can come to a place where I live without anxiety, and fully live in the present. That is my goal.

Thank you little rabbit, and thank you proud hawk. Like so many things that cross our path each day, you both served to teach me a valuable lesson. May we all understand and learn from the lessons that life teaches us each day.

The Response

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My grandmother repeatedly told me “life’s not fair,” and I never felt the need to argue this point with her. She was right; life isn’t fair. It doesn’t owe us a fucking thing—we get out of it what we put into it. Faced with adversity, we can quit midway through, dejected, hurt and spent, or we can pick ourselves up off the floor and finish the game. We may fall down again. We might even find ourselves all the way back to start, with nothing but our own skin protecting us from the cold, harsh realities we don’t want to face. Sometimes there’s a hand held out toward us in a gesture of help, while at other times, that same hand is rudely slapping us across the face. No matter how many times we stumble, and no matter how many times we fail, all that matters is how we respond.

Thanks to the work of psychologists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and others, we’re now aware that the quality of the early bond between a parent and a child is a highly significant predictor of that child’s later success in life. The relationships a child will seek and engage in, the career paths he’ll follow, and all the other major choices he’ll make, are heavily influenced by the nature of the initial attachment he experiences with his caregivers. If a child doesn’t receive all the love, comfort and protection he requires and craves in those critical months and years, he may find himself adrift, desperately searching for anything to replace what he didn’t know was missing. Those struggling to form healthy, secure relationships, may not fully comprehend what lies at the core of the difficulties and challenges they face. To understand this may require the kind of introspection they may be incapable of doing alone.

I’ve consulted with several different therapists, and while some were more successful than others at giving me the ability to reframe the conversations inside my head, none specifically told me I may have suffered from “insecure, anxious attachment” to my primary caregivers—I’ve figured that out on my own. My formal diagnosis was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as a result of the childhood abuse and neglect I suffered at the hands of various parental figures.

It’s difficult to reflect upon these early relationships, given how far in the subconscious these experiences may be buried, whether due to memories too painful to bear or the simple passage of time. I knew something wasn’t right with my parental figures but wasn’t initially sure who played what part in what became a long journey of self-discovery. I initially blamed my father for nearly everything. I blamed him for the poverty we experienced as children; for my sister’s experiences with rage at such an early age; for not protecting me from my stepmother and her random, unpredictable emotions; and for joining a religion that would forever plant a wedge in our relationship. He was a violent son-of-a-bitch. He beat all of his children mercilessly on multiple occasions, his hideous belt swinging at all of us whenever he could no longer control his temper. He struck my mother often when I was just a toddler, which helped me to see her as a wounded individual, more deserving of pity than love, so much so that I’d find it difficult to separate the two concepts in my own relationships. Given what I’d experienced, it was easy to see her as a victim. Perhaps because of this, my memories of the things she did for me, not the things she didn’t, formed the narrative I’d hold on to well into my early forties.

The world has been a confusing and at times overwhelming place for me to live. The uncertainties of life have often given me great anxiety, to the point where those fears have escalated into full-blown panic attacks, requiring medication or even hospitalization. Everyone deals with the unpredictable nature of existence in various ways. Some are secure enough not to be thrown off course by the termination of a relationship or a job, confident they will find another, perhaps even more suitable combination. I once envied such people, wondering what made them so different from me. I carried around the idea for a long time that something was missing, or broken, inside of me.

Human relationships have been a source of disabling pain and conflict for me. My need for security, my yearning for approval, my desire to belong, and my longing to feel loved and accepted have all influenced how and why I formed certain attachments. My intense craving for companionship and fear of being alone has lead me to form precarious and risky bonds, the nature of which I didn’t give much thought to when I initiated them. I’ve often latched onto individuals I thought I could “fix” or “help” to reach their full potential, determined to be a “superhero” that could mold them into people they weren’t capable of being or simply didn’t want to be. I’d let the pursuit of my personal happiness take a back seat to the unattainable goal of helping others find their own happiness.

I know what it’s like to feel stuck, trapped, and unable to decide what to do, when to do it or how to do it. Easily manipulated and frequently caught up in endless loops of indecisiveness, impulsive behavior and poor decision-making, I’ve assumed passive roles with partners I wasn’t suited for, and have found myself taking on their issues as my own. I’ve stayed far too long in jobs that demanded less of my intellect and ability. I even accepted a highly controlling religion instructing me how to think and how to behave.

I’ve seen people make choices, but I’ve also seen their choices make them. I’ve met individuals who appear to know how to live with intention, masterfully and fearlessly in control of creating their own story. I’ve observed others stumbling around in the dark looking for signs, but when they’re presented with those signs, don’t know how to read them. I’ve also known many who claim to be victims of circumstances, taking themselves off the hook for all outcomes, seeing the events in their lives as things happening to them, and not because of them. I was once one of these people.

For much of my life, I considered myself to be out of control and could not or would not see I had the power to change course. I’ve known indecision on many levels and the anxiety that accompanies it. My decisions in many critical moments have set me on a trajectory toward even more critical decisions I wasn’t well equipped to make, leading me to plunge deeper and deeper into holes I’d spend a long time digging out of. There were alarms going off, but either I chose to ignore them, didn’t fully recognize them for what they were, or was simply afraid to hear them. Had I heeded those alarms, I would’ve been forced to take a leap into the unknown, and that’s often frightened me more than the prospect of staying in a toxic situation.

Preoccupied with doing, I’ve given little thought to the long-term consequences or outcomes derived from my actions. In my constant hurry to go somewhere, I’ve approached life as a giant “task-list” to check off as quickly as possible, filling my hours and days with every activity imaginable. This has provided me with the instant gratification I’ve sought, and just as importantly, the sensation of forward motion. Moving quickly toward some destination, I haven’t always known where I was going—I was just going, I was certain of that. As a consequence, I’ve repeatedly ended up where I was without knowing how or why I got there.

Whatever the forces of gravity imposed upon us by our choices, our inner peace is determined, in part, by our acceptance of the outcomes of those choices. While I’m aware of this now, I haven’t always been able to rise above my circumstances or learn from my experiences. As many times as I’ve taken the best from a situation, I’ve also discovered the worst, and I do understand it’s not always possible to simply “imagine” things turning around. I’ve experienced moments of indifference, or worse, found enjoyment in sliding down the spiral, sinking further and further into an abyss of polluted emotions. I’ve embraced the darkness and its sleepless nights, letting my suffering and the contemplation over my own wounds define me.

I vividly recall turning twenty-one, my entire life spread out ahead of me like an interstate highway in the middle of the deserts of New Mexico, about a quarter of the way along my journey. I’m the star of my own show, yet the audience isn’t yet ready to applaud. They’re waiting for the next act, and everyone except me, is prepared. This isn’t a dream—I must go on, but I have no idea what to say or do. There are no cue cards, and there’s no director. It’s beyond frightening! How do the other actors know what to do, what to say, when to say it and how to say it? At other times, I stand like an artist contemplating his work, perched in front of an enormous canvas, painting with a brush that’s languished in colored water made muddy from a palette of a hundred choices. Now, my youth is behind me in my rear-view mirror, with many years come and gone, stolen from me so quickly the thief is in and out without being seen.

No matter the life we’ve led, every challenge we’ve ever had, and every individual we’ve ever encountered can teach us valuable lessons. We can choose to take something positive from our voyage, and allow our past to be a precious gift, not an excuse. Seen this way, every experience has purpose and meaning.

Woundology

rabbit-1882699_640I was recently introduced to the term “woundology.” It came up in conversation with a friend who was trying to explain the concept of my seeking and forming connections with those who had also endured traumatic childhood experiences. Completely intrigued, once I returned home I immediately researched the term to delve deeper into its meaning. I quickly found Caroline Myss’s amazing book “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can,” which is available for  purchase through Amazon, a work which did much to alter my perspective about my past.

Like many who have survived troubled childhoods, I have seen myself as injured, bruised, even damaged, eventually relishing in the diagnosis of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” that I received about ten years ago. Finally there was a name for the “illness” which had defined my existence for so long. Thinking of myself as  an abuse survivor gave my life meaning and went so far as to govern my choices in mates. I bonded with those who could somehow “get me” because they too had gone through similar trials and tribulations and appeared to me to be “on my level.” I so clearly saw my own suffering in others that when I tried to exit some extremely damaging relationships it was as painful as cutting out a part of myself. After many years, I can still recall seeing my first spouse as a fragile and vulnerable “wounded rabbit” when I finally made the decision to leave her, which in turn filled me with tremendous guilt, when in reality I was really just projecting onto her what I saw in myself. Choosing a partner based on a concept of shared wounds is nothing more than a false connection that is likely to break apart once one of the partners wakes up.

Sometimes we hold fast to our wounded definition of ourselves so tightly, afraid of the change that might come about if we dare try to find new meaning for our lives. Our fear of letting go of our wounds may manifest as a serious illness. The illness phase serves many purposes and may give us the attention we crave. Doctors fawn over us trying to find a root cause for our affliction, baffled when they can find nothing clinically wrong. I once endured nearly a year of tests, hospitalizations and unnecessary medications, culminating in a short stint in a psychiatric ward, all because I was not yet willing and able to look inside myself and allow the person I was deep within to live freely on the outside in the real world. I suppressed my heart’s desires, living in a world of “should” and “must,” believing that I was truly meant to suffer.

If you’ve ever told someone else that they have no business giving you advice because they didn’t suffer the same experiences you did, you may be identifying with woundology. Allowing our current self to be defined by our past experiences with a controlling religion, parent or spouse does not make us superior to anyone. No one has to have lived what we have lived through in order to fully connect with us, and we certainly don’t have to be defined by our early environments. While some events in our lives may have been beyond our control, especially when we were children, as adults, we now have the power to direct our lives as we see fit. We can forgive others, but most importantly we can forgive ourselves, and allow the healing energy within us to do the work it was meant to do.

SCHISM

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This is a story about divisions. There are many which we are already very familiar with. Satan versus God, Democrat versus Republican, Black versus White, Fascist versus Pacifist. I’m not writing about those divisions, but rather about those that can occur in one’s mind. The insidious cracks that wedge themselves into our subconscious, separating one area of our mind from the other, creating a chasm over which no sane thought may cross. If you’ve been torn, confused, felt stuck, or been unable to decide, you may have experienced this on some level. I’ve personally known painful, crushing and demoralizing vacillation, gripped and frozen by the depths of my own indecisiveness. I’ve spent a long time reflecting on the root cause of this affliction and its complex origins.

When I was just eight years old, my parents decided to separate and ultimately divorce. Unlike other children I knew whose parents were splitting up, my situation was made more difficult by the fact that my mother decided to leave her religious beliefs behind, the ones that my father still clung to. Prior to their divorce, they were both still loyal and active Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unlike most religions, one does not simply fade away from this organization. If you publicly proclaim your allegiance to it through a water baptism, and then later walk away, there is no simple shrugging from the other members. No, Jehovah’s Witnesses liken such a person to a “dog” that “returns to its own vomit,”  to quote the Bible at 2 Peter 2:22 (English Standard Version). They “shun” and cut off this sort of individual, meaning no one is to even acknowledge their presence at any time. In effect, my mother, once a friend to many in our congregation, was now dead to everyone she had known. My father even went so far as to forbid me to speak about her in the presence of other Witnesses, and if I did so accidentally, I was met with stern rebuke.

To say I was put into a tough situation would be an understatement. My father made it clear to me that my fervent loyalty to Jehovah (God) was of paramount importance and would even take precedence over my relationship with my mother. He quoted scripture to support my new reality, telling me that Jesus came to “set a man against a father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35, English Standard Version). From that moment on I would be divided, split in two, ripped apart, conflicted and torn. My mother left the Witnesses and never looked back. Over the years she moved from a wild life style to one of Christian devotion and conviction. My father remained a Jehovah’s Witness, even to this day, now approaching 50 years since his own baptism. When I was at my mother’s house, I was expected to celebrate Holidays and Birthdays and other “worldly” events. At my father’s home, I was expected to study the Watchtower magazine, attend mind-numbing meetings and spend Saturday mornings knocking on doors while other kids were watching cartoons. Moving from one house to the other was like sliding through space and time into another dimension in which nothing was familiar on either side of the worm hole.

I began to feel the conflict brewing in my mind, a battle actually for my mind, which led to my developing two personalities, the one my father expected to see, and the one my mother allowed me to be. I learned to move between the two personalities with ease. I fancied myself a chameleon, able to adjust my outward self based on the environment I was in. I didn’t know then just how dangerous this skill would become. In the process of becoming overly adaptable to the opposing worlds that my parents lived in, I didn’t develop my true self. Worse, I did not develop my own internal compass, or my own ability to make healthy choices. I learned to become whatever people wanted or needed me to be at any given moment. It took many years of therapy to unpeel the onion and find out who I really was beneath it all, and to become the person I am today.

As a teenager, I made my own commitment to the Jehovah’s Witness movement, and from that point on I was expected to have no more contact with my mother. I hadn’t really considered this outcome when I chose to get baptized. I thought the bond with my mother was above all others, yet should have known better. After four short years, I came to doubt my beliefs and the reasons I had for believing them. I left the Witnesses, was instantly cut off from friends and family members, but now the tables were turned, as I could no longer speak with my father. Since that time I have been in a situation where I can never have both parents in my life at the same time. If I return to the Witnesses I get my father back but lose my mother; stay where I am, and I remain disconnected from my father.

I’ve learned to accept this arrangement, knowing that the most important connection is the one I have with myself. I’m no longer divided, I’m no longer torn. I’m at peace with this life and know that it is my acceptance of my circumstances which contributes to this peace. I hold no hate in my heart for my father. Hate for others is a punishment one brings on one’s self and I will not allow that to interfere with my devotion to becoming my best self. In the absence of hate, love fills the void, and brings us the true happiness we seek. If you can relate to my experience, I wish you much success with your own healing process.

Please know that any outcome is possible, despite whatever environment you were raised in, and as someone more famous than me once said,”Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.” -Buddha