Avoidance

I’m supposed to be paying bills.

But there isn’t enough money.

So, I am doing this thing that I do.  Some like to call it procrastination, but I’ve started to use terms that are more honest wherever possible, so this thing is called “avoidance”.

When the thing cannot be done comfortably, efficiently, without stress, or with relative ease, I avoid doing the thing.  “Avoidance”.

Right now it is about the bills, because there is stress, discomfort, inefficiency, and a bit of struggle involved in trying to figure out how to make money multiply without a magic wand or the art of alchemy to assist in the task.  I don’t know what to pay and what to leave unpaid.  I don’t know who might be gracious and who might attack the credit score I have been working so hard to improve.  I know that all of the things need to be paid, eventually.  And I know that one way or another, through begging or borrowing or more high interest loans that bury me in even deeper debt, things will be paid, but that doesn’t make the job of maneuvering and managing a too small budget less uncomfortable or less stressful, so I still want to avoid it.

A long overdue blog post is better than an attempt at bill payment … even one that details the stress I feel over the bill payment attempt.

I think that part of this avoidance is built into our DNA.  We didn’t survive as a species by running headlong into danger with great stupidity and zero planning.  We avoid situations that seem like losing scenarios as a matter of survival.  Avoidance helps us stay alive, in many ways, so it can be an excellent mechanism for the continuance of the human race—which is likely a good thing.

But there may also be a negative side to this tendency toward avoidance.  That negative side is the part that I think frequently trips me up and leaves me face down on the proverbial pavement of life.  It is the tendency of our culture to avoid any sort of suffering, pain, or pretense of unease—or dis-ease—whatsoever.  It is the glossing over of the lament in favor of pretending that all is well and good and easy, all of the time.  It is the lie that we don’t just avoid the things that are uncomfortable, but that the things that are uncomfortable don’t exist—and if they do exist, that something is wrong and needs to be “fixed” and fixed immediately.

If you’ve read anything else that I have ever written, you already know that I suffer from chronic illness, both mental and physical in nature.  Something will always be “wrong” with me.  And the desire to either “fix” or deny the existence of the problem is, therefore, always with me.  I’ve found, through many therapy sessions and lots of searching of my own spirit, that this desire is based largely on cultural perceptions.  It is shameful not to “work”, “have a job”, “do something with your life”, “have a purpose”, and it is shameful to “beg”, “live off other’s hard-earned money”, “take what I didn’t earn”, “play the victim”, “act sick”, “sit on my ass all day”, “be lazy”, or not “suck it up”, “get over it”, “take some Tylenol and get off my butt”, “push through the pain”, or to be like “my friend”, “my husband’s cousin”, or any number of other people and “run 5k’s”, “go to work every day”, “take care of five kids”, even though they have [insert one of my illnesses here] “just like you”.

Not only do I cope with my illness every day, but I deal with the public perceptions and the cultural shame that goes along with being chronically ill.

A court has determined that I cannot work—that there are no jobs that I can do given my particular limitations, diagnoses, skills, educational background, work history, symptoms, and the way that those things intersect with the job market in my geographical location.  “There are no jobs.”  That is literally in the court transcript for you to read, if you were to read through the lengthy hours of Q and A that were required for us to get to the point where a judge determined that I am disabled.

But that transcript doesn’t matter to probably about 85% of the people who I come into contact with in my day to day interactions.  It doesn’t matter because of this negative sense of avoidance.  I’m supposed to avoid suffering and illness and flaws and bad shit.  I’m not supposed to acknowledge that, but fix it, and fix it fast.  I’m not supposed to admit that I can barely sit at this desk right now because of the pain in my back.  I’m not supposed to admit that I’m at this desk and not a “work” desk because I am disabled.  I’m not supposed to BE disabled.  I’m supposed to take some Tylenol and get off my ass and run a 5k like aunt Janet from West Virginia!

Because we avoid suffering.  We get over that shit, or we lie about it, or we become the kind of people who complain all the time but only a small, acceptable, mundane amount of complaining that is socially acceptable around the water cooler at our jobs.  Because we are allowed to be moderately miserable all the time if we are still productive.  But real, serious, deeply affecting problems are not socially accepted.  Those we avoid.

I sometimes wonder who decides which challenges are acceptable and which are not.

When all the women have ovaries that stop producing more eggs, we call it menopause and call it normal.  When all the men start having limp, less adept penises and lower sperm counts, we call it “erectile dysfunction” and make a billion-dollar industry out of making them hard again, instead of accepting that aging men can’t always perform sexually on command.  It’s normal for a woman’s sexual function to change, but it is a problem to avoid and be “fixed” for a man?  Who decided that?  The pharmaceutical companies?  The medical professionals?  The sex work industry?  Who made this a thing?

And who made being chronically ill unacceptable but being terminally ill perfectly fine?  That question makes me sound like an asshole all the time, I know.  But it only makes me sound like an asshole because of the perceptions already infused into those terms.  Chronically ill.  Terminally ill.  One is a drain on society.  One is a sainted state worthy of all the compassion.  We all know which one is which.  I’m not the sainted one worthy of all the compassion.  I’m the other.  And I am an asshole for pointing out that there is a bias.  I am an asshole for pointing out that dying faster somehow makes you worthier of care.  (At least in the eyes of many in our society, that is—it doesn’t actually make you worthier of care.)

Who decided that I need a “real job” to be treated like a “real person”?  Who decided that I am allowed to be treated poorly because I am in a state of poverty—or that I deserve to live in an impoverished state if I cannot work due to illness?  Who decided that $750 per month is the amount that a disabled person who has less than 40 work credits should be forced to live on, making this entire post even a thing that exists?  And why do I not get any credits for the early years of my work history when I was delivering papers and babysitting, or for the years when I was working two part time jobs and going to school and raising a daughter as a single parent.  That was more damn work than I have seen most anyone do—ever.  And that doesn’t “count” for anything.  Who decided that doesn’t count as work? Who decided I get $750 instead of $3000 because of those years?  Who decided that my life isn’t valuable enough to be offered what I need to not be sitting at this desk, in pain, avoiding my bills like the plague.

If I had the plague, I would get more benefits.  Because it would kill me.  If you are dying they let you have a better quality of life than if you will live.  Oh wait … not socially acceptable.  We already went over that.

So, this avoidance, this thing that was written into our DNA as a positive survival instinct has somehow become a thing that we use to cover up and shame and deny and harm whatever is connected to our socially unaccepted suffering.  And I don’t know that I will ever get a complete, straight answer about how that came to be, or who determined and decided what was or was not acceptable, but I do hope that I will someday begin to shape the conversation around why we do this, and why we need to stop doing this.

We need to stop avoiding suffering and pain and bad shit that happens, because it happens to all of us.  It is part of the human experience.  And it is an important part of that experience. While much of my suffering was regrettable, and I obviously would choose to go down another path if I could, the person I am today was forged in the flames of that suffering.  Those challenges shaped me.  And they made me a better person.

They didn’t make me a better person right away.  In fact, they led me down a dangerous road to some very dark places.  But that happened when I was trying to hide and avoid and stuff away all of the bad things.  If I had been able to and allowed to cope with what I had experienced as a child, or a teen, in positive ways—expressing the pain and the betrayal and the confusion and the suffering openly and in a safe space—I would have avoided that road and those places altogether.  I might have avoided mental illness and chronic pain altogether.  (Nobody knows what causes fibromyalgia, in distinct terms, so I cannot know that for certain, but it is linked with stress and often presents in tandem with post-traumatic stress, so it is possible that without the PTSD there would be no fibromyalgia.)  Our society’s insistence that pain be hidden likely caused me more pain.

But now that I am in a space where I am able to process and cope with and express all that I should have been allowed to express all those years ago, I am becoming strong and wise and good in ways I might not have were it not for the experience that I went through.

Lament shapes the spirit in beautiful ways.

Pain makes us compassionate, kind, understanding, gracious, loving, connected, and strong.  That is not something that we should hide.  And that is certainly not something we should avoid.

We still shouldn’t run, stupidly, toward danger without a plan.  But there isn’t a need for us to hide and avoid something that makes us compassionate, kind, understanding, gracious, loving, connected, and strong.  Frankly, hiding that seems like a stupid run toward danger … it probably is.  And that is probably why so many things about our society today seem so messed up, in the sense where one person refuses to lay down their “right” for the lives of, potentially, thousands of others.

We are in danger, and we are being stupid.  Because we have hidden so well and avoided so effectively the thing that makes us compassionate and kind and understanding and gracious and loving and connected and strong, that we have become the sort of society that breaks apart and leaves individuals to be slaughtered as “they”, somehow apart from us and without our compassion, rather than feel the pain of the truth—that we have become so unfeeling that we cannot mourn our own brokenness, so we deny it again and again.

We have put some imagined dessert to rights of the individual above the conscious collective of the society.  I now becomes more important than we.  And that is a grave error.

We, the people—that is how it begins.  Not, I the individual who wants a gun and an erection despite the compassion and the biological facts that are required for me to understand the world around me.

“I don’t suffer.  I don’t have pain.  I take a Tylenol and go to work.  I have rights.”

But that isn’t true.  We all suffer.  We all have pain.  We all have days when no painkiller will dull the ache we feel—be it physical or emotional.  And, most importantly, WE have rights—all of us together, in concert, and being accountable to one another.  The only way to accurately see that, is to start to uncover the pain and suffering and to acknowledge it, to express it, to cope with it, and to begin shaping yourself and your life into one that has compassion, kindness, understanding, grace, love, connection, and collaborative strength.

Stop the avoidance.  Embrace the lament.  Feel.  Suffer.  And come out the other side a better version of yourself.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to suffer through paying my bills.

 

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Backward

The last few days I haven’t been able to keep control of my letters.  They keep switching up and making the words I mean to write a jumbled mess.  And this is not figurative in any way.  I’m seriously dyslexic of late.

It isn’t a major issue, since we have these lovely computer checks of our spelling and grammar these days, and the only thing I end up writing with my actual hand and a pen is notes from my online nutrition course, so I should be able to decipher what I meant to write.  But, even without severe consequence, I get annoyed with this trading of letters and destroying of words.

It isn’t that I’m a perfectionist…

Just kidding, I’m totally a perfectionist.

And that hasn’t always served me well in life.  There are many times where I put too much effort and too much stress into a project of some sort, because I had to achieve my own standard of perfection.  And my standard has always been high.

I don’t think I came to be such a perfectionist by accident.  It has been shown that there is a correlation between perfectionism and trauma.  And I grew up with a mother who didn’t allow anyone to settle for less than what she deemed perfect.  Though I constantly disappointed her hopes of perfection, I still adopted some of her desire for all the things to line up perfectly and look neat and clean and good.

I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic until adulthood.  For some reason, even though things were constantly being reversed in my early education, nobody ever diagnosed me with a learning disability.  In adulthood I would also be given the diagnosis of ADHD, which often travels in tandem with dyslexia.  Both have been linked to low DHA and EPA, the omega 3’s from fish, in utero.  So, basically, my mom wasn’t perfect, because she clearly missed out on oily fish while my cells were multiplying and differentiating and doing all the scientific shit that cells do.

Because I wasn’t formally diagnosed with these maladies in childhood, I felt stupid a lot.  I couldn’t meet the standards of perfection.  I kept messing up in the same ways and living in the same mistakes.  I couldn’t pay attention, my desk was a mess, I was terrible at penmanship and spelling, and I kept drawing “b” and “d” either identically, or replacing one with the other.  I was flawed.   I couldn’t get it right.

And doing things “right” was of high importance in our household.  Or at least making them look “right”.

Perfectionism didn’t just apply to my handwriting.  I needed to have perfect hair and perfect clothes and look like a perfect daughter.  But I wasn’t a perfect daughter, so lying about my imperfections became commonplace.  I was always the daughter bouncing around when she should be still.  I was always the daughter who spoke when she was expected to stay silent.  I was always the daughter who would leave when told to stay and stay when asked to leave.  I was belligerent and defiant and not at all the kind of daughter that my mom wanted.  And, until my sister came along, I might have believed that daughters didn’t come in a perfect model.  She was compliant and accommodating and capable of making my mother happy.  I wasn’t.  And I used to envy or despise my sister, depending on the moment, for her ability to be the child that my mother had wished I was.  But I eventually let that go, because it had nothing to do with my sister and everything to do with my mother, and my relationship with her.

I couldn’t be perfect, but I tried, until not living up to the challenge for years and years finally made me give up.  And I gave up in gigantic ways.

My house was a disaster area, and my husband was an asshole, and I was a cursing, loud, obnoxious, addicted, defiant mess.  And it was fabulous.

I became the exact opposite of what my mother wanted me to be, and I stayed that way for some time.

Eventually, I came to see that some of my behavior wasn’t serving me well, so I started to travel from my backward ways and get closer to the ideal daughter.  But, after travelling so far from that ideal, you really don’t come back.  Your experience becomes a part of you. Whether you want it to or not, your history is always a part of your story.  So, I formed my own ideal.  And I started to strive for that ideal instead.

I accepted that I would never be the daughter my mom wished for, but I could be the best possible me imagined.  Right?

Wrong.

I’m an idealist at heart, but pragmatic overall. However, I formed an ideal that I couldn’t live up to.  And I think that all of us do this, on some level.  We imagine a self, and spend so much time and energy living into that perceived self that nothing else matters, and then we cannot meet the standards imagined.  We fail ourselves—not just our mothers.

I didn’t learn the lesson quickly, and spent years struggling with myself, but I have finally seen that I was designed to be backward.  Not in the sense that the divine wished dyslexia upon me, but in the sense that we are all designed to be different from what we expect of ourselves.

I fought to become what I envisioned a good woman to be.  And that vision was based upon what I knew from my history, and upon what I imagined my mother wanted, and upon what I deemed culturally appropriate.  But I am no more culturally appropriate than I am able to keep my letters in the correct order while I write.

So, when I did learn the lesson, and I did discover who and what and why I am, I learned that I am not now, and not ever, going to fit into an imagined ideal me.  That isn’t how development works.

When we are babies, we don’t make a list of things we want to accomplish before we begin to explore the world and start to meet milestones.  We never say, “Hmmm…I think walking might be cool.”  We just engage with our environment in such a way that we eventually discover that walking gets us to places we want to go.  And somehow we have forgotten, by and large, that development happens as exploration happens, and that no amount of wishing for a baby to walk gets them walking, but they do so when it serves them well.

It sounds a bit selfish, but it really isn’t.  Being your best self doesn’t mean adhering to an ideal that constantly lives just outside your grasp, but accepting who you are and what you need in the moment. And while you might imagine that as self-serving, in truth, when you care well for yourself you are set free to care well for others, instead of putting all your energy toward meeting the unachievable ideal.

There are lots of people who still think I live life backward.  They comment about how I should get a job or get more exercise or try this or that home remedy.  They tell me they worry about my choices, because I like both men and women, because I have sex while unmarried, because I am pro-choice, because I live in a ghettoized neighborhood, because I date outside my race, because I am not a biblical literalist …

The list goes on forever.

But the best thing that has happened for me in a very long time is that I stopped caring what those people want Ideal Christy to be like.  I no longer care what my Ideal Christy was.  I have learned to simply live within the Christy that I am.  I accept my beliefs.  I offer gratitude.  I increase my awareness.  I educate myself, and I transform what I can based on new information.  I let go of what I cannot change.  I release expectations and, instead, hold on to who I am at the core—deep in my heart, or my gut.

I don’t need to be perfect.  I just need to be who I am, in the most authentic way possible.

There are many ways that perfectionism still sneaks into my daily life, including my frustration over the order of my written characters, but even that tendency toward perfectionism can be accepted and released in my newfound, mindful approach to living.  And there are still many ways that others view me as failing or a failure that hurt my heart, but those too can be felt and then released.

I spent so much of my life trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect wife or girlfriend, the perfect mother, the perfect student, the perfect employee.  And all of that was not waste, but much of it was unhelpful.  I don’t need to fit the mold for any perfect ideal.  There is no longer an ideal self.  There is only me, simply being.

And I think that being is better than perfection, without a doubt.

I do waste energy, from time to time, on the things that others desire for me to be.  But, for the most part, I have learned to break free from expectations and to accept myself as I am.  Once the keeping of lists stopped and the toddler-like exploration of self and environment began, it was difficult to revert to the perfectionist striving.  Because exploring self and life is so much more rewarding.  It offers wonder and surprise and enlightenment and new life.  And that is much better than the struggle that perfectionism offers.

I’m becoming proud of the process of becoming.  I’m accepting that I may be any number of things, and some of those things might align with the ideals of others, but others will not.  But those ideals aren’t my goal anymore.  Mindful living is my goal.  And mindful living always offers me good things, and never disappoints.

I understand that this way of being will be considered backward for some.  But those people are probably still striving for a perfectionist ideal that will never be reached.  And I don’t need to care that they see my way of exploring the world and the self and the environment and the world as not “right” in its approach to living.

If loving me is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

Annoyances like transposed letters still frustrate me at moments, but I’m learning to accept even that as a part of who I am.  And I’m learning to accept that I am good, just as I am.  I am “right”, because I am being true to myself and my experience.  I am being true to my heart and my gut.  I am letting me be enough.  I am allowing myself the space to fall and to rise and to be, without judgments.  And something that offers that much love and grace and compassion toward the self, instead of the usual berating and judging of perfectionism, cannot be wrong.

So, since today is not a class day, filled with strangely spelled notes, I will spend it doing that which makes me be, without perfectionist ideals.  Maybe I will do some yoga, or a meditation.  Maybe I will color mandalas, or work on some art pieces, or finally attempt some sewing, or plant some stuff, or take a bath.  And others can think of those things as selfish, if they want.  But I see them for what they are: practices that accept who I am and where I am, practices that lead me to my best self, and practices that never ask me to strive for perfection.

And you might think that such things couldn’t possibly be added to your day, because you are too busy.  But you would be wrong. Because practicing mindfulness strips away the busy, and leaves you with what is most important—it always leaves you with the best possible you.

End your striving.  Stop trying to be perfect.  Let your heart speak to you, and then speak that to others.  Don’t pretend you are something you are not to please your mother (or anyone else, for that matter). Look inward. Be backward.

I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Costume

I remember loving dressing up.  I remember loving Halloween.

My parents were strictly religious, for most of my childhood, but they still, for one reason or another, fully accepted Halloween and the annual costuming and treading through the cold for candy when I was quite young.  There is a photograph somewhere of me and my siblings dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz.  And those cold nights of costumed begging were so lovely.

I made a huge event of Halloween for my daughter when she was young.  I think I remembered how enthralled I was with the act of turning into something or someone new, and I wanted her to have that joy and fun.  …and maybe I also wanted to eat her candy after I tucked her into bed at night. What parent doesn’t?

My daughter still loves Halloween, and we celebrate it like Christmas, with presents and decorations and parties and moments of tradition.  It is a beautiful part of life in our family, and will likely continue to be such for generations to come.

But today, as I started dressing in ways that will accommodate my black cat costume, and wondered if the weather would turn my face-painting into trails of black running down my face, instead of the cute kitten face I have planned, I began thinking about costumes in a new way.

I’ve always been one who loves to pretend.  Theater and dress-up and imagination and creativity were always a part of who I am.  And I love that part of me.

But I have used that part to my advantage for a reason.  I had to pretend.  I had to lie.  I had to shut out the bad I saw in me and my situation and become a different person in a different place inside my head to survive.

I got so good at pretending, that eventually most of me forgot the other girl—the one suffering and struggling in silence.

I apologize to that girl.  I’m sorry I left you there in that little box and kept up the pretending for so long.  I apologize to my sister, because I worked so hard to forget that girl that I couldn’t care if another was suffering the same way, and I left her to suffer and went on pretending.

I didn’t do it knowingly, of course.

The mind is beautiful and terrible in its abilities to shut out what we can’t survive at the moment.  It is equally beautiful and terrible in the way it brings back those moments later, for us to confront in a time and place when and where we might be able to survive facing them.  But it leaves us pretending in the meantime.  And, frankly, there are days I still pretend.

I still fold up the pain and tuck it in a corner and go out with my head held high, pretending I’m not crushed and abandoned and suffering.  I pretend I’m not a mess of contradictions and confusions.  I pretend I’m not afraid of everything all the time.  I pretend I’m not depressed and crazy and poor and struggling and in pain.  I dress up in my costume every time I leave the safety of my home.

Therapists often use the terms “button up” or “zip up” to describe this phenomenon.  It isn’t so much a lie as another coping skill.  You walk into the office kept and held inside your costume, and the therapist works to get your real self to come out.  But only for 50 minutes.  And then it is the job of the client to zip up, and put the pain back in its place to walk back out of the office put together and not pouring out the pain and the secrets.  And eventually, the work we do for those 50 minutes a week is meant to bring me to a place where I am integrated.  Where the pretend woman and the pained woman are one and coping together with life, having found those incongruent places and found a way through them to a more whole self.  But, until I get to that point, I still pretend.

My costume feels more genuine than my true self some days.  And I know that it is working at fooling many in the world.

People call me strong, or brave, or fearless, or brilliant, or beautiful, and I hear it and can’t figure out how they could see that in me.  And then I remember that the costume is exactly that, and that many of them don’t get opportunities to see the scared little girl crying in the dark.  I don’t let her out very often.  I’m an excellent pretender.

But I am starting not to feel as guilty about keeping that strong self out in front of others, whenever possible.  I’m starting to understand the ways that zipping up saved me from more suffering, and the ways that it helps me function in the world today, and to feel less like that self is a complete fabrication.  I’m starting to see that those parts of the costumed self are me.  They may not be the whole of me, but they are me.

When my daughter put on a princess dress and tiara when she was six years old and went out into the night to trick or treat, you could see the princess inside her come out.  The way she walked and waved her scepter and spoke were all royal.  She was that inside, and putting on the costume just let it out for a night, without judgments or questions or disbelief.  And my costume is similar.  It lets me be things I am somewhere inside, even if I don’t always recognize or acknowledge those things.  I am my costume and I am also the little girl fighting to find her way through suffering and confusion.

And all of us wear a costume.  My zipped up self might be more distant from my whole self than that of some people, but we all zip parts inside of the costume, and we all present what we want others to see.  And that can be helpful and that can keep our hearts safe at times, but it can also keep us distanced from one another and ourselves.

So, I am challenging myself to look at both parts of myself today, as I paint on my kitten face—to look at the costume and look at what lies beneath, and to see where I might connect those two, and what might have felt unsafe to uncover before that I might want to expose now.  I’m looking at who I want to portray and asking why that is the face I show, and why I might not want to show other aspects of myself.  I’m digging down and trying to see beyond the costume.  Claiming both the external and the internal parts of myself, and owning and honoring them, will bring me closer to wholeness and the ability to present all of me.

And I think that I need to be able to present that whole woman to myself, as much as I need to present her to the world.  I’m learning to see all of myself.  And it is a beautiful awakening to see the whole, and to accept the strong parts and the weak parts, the brave and the fearful parts, the brilliant and the baffled parts, and the beautiful and the ugly parts.

I know that it will be an amazing moment when I can love all of that woman and I can stop the constant cycle of setting myself free and buttoning myself up.

It will be fabulous to just be me, unbound and undivided.

Wholly me.

 

Happy Halloween!!!