Selfishness

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How far am I willing to go to save my life?

Last week, I stood in front of a small group of poets and read a selection of my work for 25 minutes. It was the Monday after the inauguration, and many of the listeners had spent the weekend marching. I knew that later, at the open mic, many of the poems would reflect current events. I worried that my work, particularly at this time, would be judged self-absorbed and turned too far inward when external things are so urgent.

Here is what I said to the audience at the beginning of my reading:

“I cannot do justice to these times. Part of me wanted to attempt to assemble a body of work about what is happening to our country and society. But trying to do that would have been dishonest. I was invited to feature here, and that means I was invited to share who I am as a poet.

The truth is, one might say that I am a selfish poet. While many of you are trying to save us all with poetry, I am often only trying to save myself–and, perhaps, someone else who doesn’t think they deserve to be saved. 

The truth is, I mostly write about the things that keep some of us bound and silenced on the sidelines. I write about what I know. I know about being a drug addict. I know about being a mental patient. I know about being a woman, and a mother. I know what it is to want to die. I know what it’s like to decide to fight to live.”

When I am thinking clearly–when I am not drowning in a miasma of depression and shame–I believe that writing, reaching, fighting for those who share these experiences is important. I believe it is a contribution. I believe that helping someone wake, even for a moment, from the nightmares inside their skull helps the world.

Do not think I don’t feel anger and outrage. Do not think, ever, that I don’t care. But I can’t afford to keep worrying about what you think of me. It’s going to kill me.

So I must accept the truth. This–this writing, this poetry, this exploration and celebration of our inner worlds–this is my playing field. This is my way of fighting the oppression and sick culture that wants us bound, silenced and unconscious. This is what I have to give.

If this is what I have to give, I want to give it wholeheartedly. This means learning to let go of hoping for approval. This means not fearing the labels of selfish, self-absorbed, and all of the others I want so desperately to refute.

I want to help. Perhaps if I manage to improve my health I will find small ways of helping in the external world. But what I want most is to support others in their fight against despair. If you are out there, as an activist and a warrior, I want to offer illogical hope when you are burned out. If you are in bed, paralyzed with depression or pain, I want to help you hang on until a slightly better day. By sharing my inner world, I want to help others explore theirs. I want people to have an inner world that sustains and strengthens them through anything.

Not Time For Hunting

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I don’t generally do trigger warnings, but here is one for you: this essay goes into detail about thoughts of suicide. Not intentions, not plans, just thoughts.

“I am going hunting,” an old man might say, during a long winter in a year when food was scarce. His family would not try to stop him, if the situation were dire enough. They would hold back tears and wish him luck, he and they both knowing he would not come back.

Sometimes I think that if I were braver and less selfish I would “go hunting” too. The harsh equations I solve in my head tell me that I can’t contribute enough to make up for the resources I use. In the last couple of months, as I watch those around me react to the election and gear up for battle, the part of me that wants me dead uses this argument at an ever-increasing volume.

Here’s the thing, though: I know it’s not time for me to go. I know it, no matter how awful I may feel about myself. There are very specific things I’m doing that are important to people I love, and they need me to keep doing them. I am providing services, though it is hard to remember that when I get overwhelmed. Perhaps there will come a time when I must consider going hunting. Things are bad, and they are going to get worse before they get better (if they do.) However, for now my decision is clear, even without considering that illogical and transcendent part of me that believes we are all worth something.

Acting on that decision means taking care of myself physically and generally treating myself with respect. It will come as no surprise to my readers that I haven’t had much success with that lately.

What if the old man, although not leaving for his final hunting trip, constantly hung out in the doorway of his hut? Stayed on the fringes of his family, never sitting before the fire? Ate his food but did not allow himself to take any pleasure in it?

I spend a lot of my life hanging out in that metaphorical doorway. Maybe you do too. What would I say to the old man? Surely I would say: Grandfather, come away from the door. Eat, get warm, play with the baby. If you’re staying, stay. Enjoy being here while you are here.

Self-Delighting, Self-Affrighting

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“…Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
–from “A Prayer for My Daughter” by W.B. Yeats

These are the type of words to which I cling: words that remind me that my soul is capable of light and growth regardless of external circumstances. With the latest political catastrophes, though, I feel that such things are one of my dirty little secrets. How dare I believe that joy and peace are possible while things are turning to shit around me? How dare my soul remember anything but impending doom?

I can’t help it, though. During my life I’ve met so many people who were happier and more at peace in their lives than I can imagine being. They came from all walks of life, dealt with poverty or illness or injustice, and carried what seemed to be an independent joy about them. They cried and fought and grieved like anyone else, yet they were also able to rejoice and rest and laugh.

That’s what I want, and it doesn’t mean I want to retreat from the problems of the world and huddle beside some inner fire. It means I want that feeling of wholeness to accompany me where I need to go.

Writing this–confessing that I feel guilty for thinking about an inspiring and comforting passage of poetry–makes me aware of what a dangerous place I’m in. I already struggle to feel worthy of any space on this planet. If I let this guilt control me, I’ll fall farther and farther into the kind of place I described in On The Advice Of My Solicitor:

I just want not to be a burden anymore. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and consume resources and imagine the contempt others feel toward me.

…Take my eyes and give them to one who is blind. Take my hands and create, build, fix what is broken. Take this pretty-good soprano voice, that sings so little, and play lullabies for children fighting nightmares. Send these feet to march in the protests against racism and social injustice. Take this brain, hammer out these kinked chemical impulses, and turn its intelligence toward solving the dilemmas of our species. Take these words and craft them into speeches that will liberate, or into the right phrase at the right time for someone who needs it.

Take this neglected flesh and feed it to starved dogs in dusty fields. Take the food I’ll no longer eat and give it to the hungry. Take the phosphorus and minerals from my bones and replenish the tired soil of my planet.

The disabled are going to suffer under the new regime, whether the disabilities are physical or mental. We don’t need to be inflicting extra suffering on ourselves. How do I stop it? How do I really act upon my belief that if I harm myself, I give the enemies of love a victory?

It’s not a matter of trying to believe in the “self-delighting” part of my soul, or of understanding that the truest poison of many fears comes from the “self-affrighting” part. I know these things; they stand immutable in my psyche. It’s about giving myself permission to use the power of this truth.

The Watch-Fires

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Damn, it’s been hard to know what to write here lately. I shut down completely for the two weeks or so following the election–not proud of it, but every bit of energy and strength I had was going into not doing stupid and irreversible things to myself. Then there was Thanksgiving to get through.

I’ve been writing and discarding multiple essays in my head. There’s so much I could say, about so many subjects. So many populations for which I fear. But the thing that is helping me sit down and write today is a return to my most basic principles: what is the purpose of Not This Song?

Well, the main non-selfish purpose is trying to make others feel less alone in navigating difficult lives, with an emphasis on a few particular conditions. If I go back to this, I can rein in the part of me that thinks I have to write everything. I don’t need to discuss specific issues right now. I need to support those that are doing so, but my work has a different focus. I don’t need to change anyone’s mind about anything outside the confines of their own psyche.

So what I want to say is: Are you okay?

What are you doing to take care of yourself? What is helping you? If you are disabled, what is helping you resist the voice that makes you feel guilty for not being able to do as much as others? If you are an addict, what is helping you resist using? If you have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions, what is helping you not go there?

What I want to say is: if you have things that are helping, do them. Do them as much as you need to. Don’t you dare tell yourself you have to earn them by doing things you aren’t able to do at the moment. If you don’t have anything, seek help in finding something. Easier said than done, I know, but just keep the option in mind. Don’t you dare tell yourself that you don’t deserve it because others are suffering more. You can’t help them if you aren’t here a month or year from now.

I won’t tell you things are going to be all right. I’m just continuing to operate on my basic premise that giving up is not a good option. Given that, it makes sense to do what is necessary to stick around. We will all operate in different ways and at different speeds. Some of us find action is the best soother and we’re already out there. Others, like me, are taking weeks or more to get back to a non-dangerous level of functioning. It’s okay. Yes, I admit that’s much easier to say to you than to myself, but I mean it.

One of my favorite metaphors for the inside of my mind is a small village, in a jungle, at night. This particular jungle is full of terrifying creatures that attack the village frequently. The creatures stand for any malign influence on my psyche, whether external or self-created. Messages of shame, terror, despair, envy, compulsion, apathy, nihilism, and everything else destructive. It doesn’t matter if they are from childhood, from media distortions, or from real-world catastrophe…if they get in, the effect on my psychic strength will be the same. The village is circled with a defensive ring of watch-fires and a guard of warriors. The warriors will fight whatever gets in, but they need the fires to be able to see it. The fires also keep much at bay just with their light and heat.

When things are not going well, I imagine the attack. I can almost hear the cries of the warriors and the snarls of the beasts. As I consciously concentrate on generating opposite thoughts to combat the destructive attack, I imagine positive turns in the battle. Most of all, I imagine the fires blazing more and more brightly.  If I am taking good enough care of myself to do any regular meditation, I visit the fires and add fuel to them. Fuel, of course, is made up of things that make me remember why I want to win the battles. Music, poetry, experiences of love, beauty, every non-linear belief I have…the fires need them to burn.

Right now, the fires are low and the jungle is crowded with danger. And I know that, too far away for me to see, other villages also fear the darkness. I hope you’ll try to feed your watch-fires, as I try to feed mine. Only if we survive the nights of our spirit will we be there to give anything during the days.

At the Core

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I said I was going to work on unpacking some of my core beliefs about weight and body image, and I’ve been doing this. I have not been enjoying the process.

“Core beliefs” is a term I picked up from cognitive-behavioral therapy. It refers to deep, underlying convictions that we’ve picked up from somewhere. Usually we don’t realize the extent of the role they play in our lives and thoughts.

So, enough intellectualizing on my part. What do I believe about my weight and its meaning, and can I look at it honestly and see how messed up some of it is?

Core belief #1: I am not really “me” unless I am below a certain weight. 

This is one of the deepest, and I know I am not alone in it. Many who are overweight see their bodies and selves as a work in progress, aided by a culture that encourages us to see our lives as something that will be completed by a better body–or a house, or a job, or a partner, or any other kind of “carrot.”

The weight at which I am “myself” has become more reasonable than it used to be. It’s thirty or forty pounds less than where I am, as opposed to eighty. The problem is that the line exists at all; that a high weight has consequences not only for my health but my very sense of self.

Core belief #2: There is no point in exercising, or doing other things that are good for my body, unless I am currently losing weight or maintaining a very low weight.

This inner tape has done me an incredible amount of damage. It’s often caused me to miss out on not only the health benefits of exercise, but the elevation of mood and self-esteem moving my body brings. If I have a period of healthful eating and some exercise, breaking the streak of the first behavior requires me to give up the second one as well. Never mind that moving my body would help my mood and make me able to return to better eating sooner–nope, it’s all or nothing.

Core belief #3: Being fat and/or eating more than a certain amount is not spiritual. My spiritual self is thin, abstinent, and free from all compulsions. Contact with the Divine as I know it is something I have to earn by not eating.

This belief started to form in my twenties, when I was first exploring my spirituality in the context of a recovery program for compulsive eating. If I was eating in a way that wasn’t on my (very restrictive at the time) plan, I was resisting God’s will. Being on the diet equalled being surrendered to my God’s will. When suffering a relapse into my self-destructive bingeing, and wanting to pray for help, I felt that I had no right to pray until I cleaned up my act. It was a vicious circle.

This belief gets reinforced today by some aspects of my bipolar disorder. Starting a diet tends to make me hypomanic, and hypomania can bring heightened mystical feelings as well as heightened creativity. Similarly, overeating or eating too many starches and sweets has a sedating and depressing effect, making me feel less in touch with the mystical aspects of myself.

Core belief #4: I cease to be a sexual or romantic being when my weight exceeds a certain amount.

It’s natural for me to wrestle with my sexuality as I age; most of us do in this culture. Even when I was younger, though, this pattern was there. I was always thinner in my fantasies: good sex was only for people with good bodies. Times spent in the lower parts of my weight range were the times I took sexual and romantic risks. Somewhere, within a relative narrow weight range, I change from a sensual and sexually awakened woman to one who sees herself as sexually invisible and dormant. I don’t ask for sex, physical intimacy or romantic attention.

Core belief #5: Someday I will conquer my eating disorder for good and never again suffer a relapse. I will achieve “normality” in this realm and maintain it for the rest of my life. This, more than anything else, will mark me as a success in life. 

I don’t need to go into how unrealistic this is. It’s as ridiculous as the idea that I’ll make myself not be an addict any more. I’ve got this issue, and I’m going to have it for the rest of this lifetime even if my health improves. I have to ask myself how much of my life I want to devote to this one area of struggle.

I’m sure there are more of these core beliefs, as well as the many surface thoughts that come up when I deal with doctors and other people. I have no intention of giving up on my health–but what would happen if I stopped defining myself by my weight?

Doctor, Doctor

I must go to the doctor again. This particular appointment is with the endocrinologist, but I realize that the feelings I’m having are not specific to her. They are part of a pattern existing throughout my adult life: a visit to the doctor is a visit to the land of judgment, silence and apologies.

There was a span of years when I was making this worse because of my active addiction to painkillers. Some doctor visits were preceded by anxious reviewing of my desperate exaggerations or even outright lies, combined with the ever-present shame. One of the blessings of recovery is freedom from these dishonest machinations.

There are also times when my apologies are about not taking my meds properly, as during a severe depressive episode, or failing to carry out some other assignment designed to help me.

However, for most of my adult life, the dragon I face in the doctor’s office has been the same one: being fat. Fat, whether to a greater or a lesser degree, in a medical climate that places almost any ill at the door of one’s weight regardless of other health parameters (and it must be admitted that, although I believe in the Health at Every Size philosophy, it is usually clear that my body would be happier near the lower end of my weight range.)

No doctor, be they primary care or otherwise, has ever failed to inform me that I should lose weight, with the exception of the rare few I only met while at the extreme low end. They tell me this as if I do not know it; as if I have somehow managed to reach middle age without being aware that I am overweight.

Any explanation I might give about why losing weight is not working out at the time, or about regaining it following a loss, sounds like excuses. And I don’t want to make excuses, anyway. I’d really prefer it to be taken as read that I’m aware of the issue and doing my best, even if my best is not what they would like. Still, not an appointment passes–no matter what the presenting problem or how unrelated it might seem–without me having to answer for the size of my body.

This problem is neither new nor unique to me, and I know many awesome people who could give me advice on how to stand up for myself more effectively. I realized lately that much of the problem resides in myself: I don’t present my situation unapologetically because I have not come to terms with it. I haven’t unpacked and dealt with a lifetime of internalized fat prejudice I didn’t realize I was carrying.

The doctor I’m going to see, who wanted me to have lost weight since our last appointment, is one for whom my weight really is a relevant parameter: we are dealing with blood sugars, hormone levels, and other things that are affected by it. I can’t present her with the results she hoped to see. I have to show up as I am and ask her to treat the patient she has, not the patient she wants. I have to be honest with her, and ask her to ally with me in treating my conditions on the assumption that my weight is not going to go down right now.

I would like her to give me advice about focusing on fitness, with the understanding that I may or may not be able to do as much as she wants. I’d like her to pleased with what I do accomplish, even if it’s only managing to take my meds properly and go on a few walks.

Yeah, and I’d also like a pony.

Some of what I want isn’t going to happen. My longing to be understood and respected by those in the medical profession could be a classic example of going back to that dry well. Even as I long for it, I identify with the doctors themselves and the frustration they must experience when patient after patient sickens or dies for lack of following  a few “simple” instructions. I feel unworthy of their time. I feel unworthy of the medical care I’m privileged to have available. (The fact that they are providing a service for which I’m paying gets lost in this self-recrimination.)

There’s one thing, however, over which I do have power. That’s the baggage I mentioned above. It’s time for some major unpacking, and the more I think about the topic the clearer and more extreme some of the buried core beliefs are becoming.

Why I Cannot See You Again

I miss you too, whoever you are. Maybe you’re an old classmate that I haven’t seen in years, or maybe it’s only been a month since we took a walk together. But you see, it is not possible for me to see you again. More precisely, it is not possible to let you see me. It is not possible for me to let you see me because of my weight.

Never mind that, if you’ve known me for a while, you have seen me at this weight before. You’ve probably seen me at higher weights–but you may have recently seen me at lower weights too, and that’s what I can’t stand.

Ever since I was 13 years old, I have been defined by my weight. Much of this definition happens in my own mind, although it is helped by some aspects of our culture. Going to college, working at jobs, having a child–all of it was secondary. The mark of my success or failure as a human being was a number on the scale.

The weight gain of the past year, capped off by yet another weight gain in the last couple of months, has me convinced that if I see you, what I will see is a look of horror and disgust on your face as you compare me to the last version of me that you saw.

Every desperate attempt at dieting during the past year has been “rewarded” with a weight gain rather than a weight loss. On the advice of my new psychiatrist, I am switching to a very basic mindful eating plan designed to prevent the extremely destructive binge eating episodes. This means that I have no idea what will happen to my weight–and therefore, I have no idea when I will be able to see you again.

Intellectually, I know that if you consider me a friend of yours, weight fluctuations are nothing new to you. In your mind, it’s probably a part of how you view me. You have seen me everywhere on the spectrum of weight, and you have seen me be inconsistent in how I deal with food. To you, it is probably just a personal characteristic of mine. And, if we’ve been friends for a while, this characteristic of mine is not a dealbreaker for you. You have your reasons for valuing me, and those reasons don’t have to do with me winning some kind of permanent victory against my eating disorder. I know this, intellectually.

Nevertheless, some sort of line has been crossed in the last couple of months. I just cannot see you again until I have somehow met the requirements. It doesn’t matter how many poems I’ve written recently. It doesn’t matter what else I might have done that is interesting. It doesn’t matter that you might enjoy having me listen to you about your life, or that we could laugh and play together.

Now, you know me well enough not to believe 100% of what you just read. You know that I don’t always let that voice win, and that I am capable of facing it down to make contact with another person. I will keep trying, because you matter to me.