Tag Archives: Chronic Pain

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.

About a Brick

I brought a brick home the other day. The women’s recovery event I attended had two bricks as part of the centerpiece at each table, and two women at each table were randomly chosen to keep the bricks. Some didn’t want them, and gave them to another person. Not me. I was thrilled to get it.

So, I have a brick now. It’s painted yellow and has the word Faith on one side, and Unity on the other, in black cursive lettering. The Faith side was facing me at the table, and it had struck me as a lovely coincidence with faith being one of my deficits lately.

Should I feel a bit pathetic that getting a brick made me the happiest I’ve been in weeks? Or should I be pleased that at 48 I’m still the kind of person who can take childlike joy in something as simple as a brick?

I like the feel of it in my hand; the solid weight. I like the rough, uneven texture and the grounding tactile sensations it creates when I run my hand over the surface. I like the synchronicity of getting a tangible symbol when I can use it.

We all need elements of simplicity in our lives, especially in our world of constant and multiple inputs of sensory information. For those of us with mental health issues that warp our perceptions and emotions, it’s even more important. We need to get through those moments of disorientation or those episodes of having to buy time until we recede from the edge.

I use many grounding techniques, with varying degrees of success. Tactile sensations are good; the feel of water or the softness of a dog’s fur. Reducing the world to me and–for instance–my brick. Focusing on the surface as if it’s the surface of a planet I am exploring. Most of all, registering the boundary between the brick and my skin. These are my fingertips, that is the brick. Right here, where the sensation of touch is present, is where I end and the outside world begins. I am contained; I am not dissolving.

This is one reason I enjoy my brick, but let’s not forget the element of childlike pleasure in having it. How important such reactions are to me! I don’t think I could survive very well without them, if I survived at all. The ability to be pleased by small things is so essential, and I need more of it as December starts and the media begin to bombard me with reminders that I’m supposed to think I’m a failure because of not being able to buy stuff.

My brick represents taking pleasure in a thing for no logical reason; taking pleasure in a thing no one else might understand. A thing not connected to money, or ego, or even my hopes for the future. A thing that simply is.

Here’s another memory my brick brings to mind. I used to read the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, books that began with an imaginative five-year-old Ramona and followed her as she grew older. One of Ramona’s favorite games, played with a friend, was called Brick Factory. It could only be played when the house next to hers, which was undergoing a remodel, had a load of bricks delivered.

Brick Factory had very simple rules. It consisted of Ramona and her friend sitting in her driveway, each holding a brick. They pounded said brick into the concrete surface, over and over, as the brick slowly became smaller and was at last reduced to brick dust. It took a long time, and if they finished their first brick they’d just start another one.

I totally identified. I could imagine their pleasure in watching the red brick dust accumulate and feeling the brick diminish; their enjoyment of the process. Repetitive activities are soothing to me when I am anxious, and even when spending time with friends I’d rather be sharing some simple activity than just talking.

This concludes the story of my brick. I’m extremely worried about many things, fighting some pretty scary depressive thoughts, and physically ill from months of inconsistent self-care…but I have a brick.

Stay With Me

Today is National Suicide Prevention Day, and many people like me find it hard to go without marking it in some way. Although having one special day for discouraging suicide may seem silly, it’s useful in raising awareness about how many people are losing their lives.

Today, there are articles being published about mental health resources, and how to seek help if you are feeling that you might harm yourself.

There are articles about how to spot warning signs in people you care about.

There are articles about being the one left behind, and all of the grief and anger and self-doubt it brings.

And there are many, many articles about reasons not to take your own life.

If you have ever been suicidal, you’ve probably seen what’s in those last articles. There’s a lot of good stuff in some of them; stuff that bears repeating. I’m not going to repeat it here, though.

Instead, I’m going to tell you that I understand about those times when trying to take in advice or inspiration feels like listening to a wind blow through bone-dry grasses.

Today, I won’t tell you suicide is a sin. That’s between you and whatever religious or spiritual values you have–although I pray that, should you fall, any deity you meet welcomes you with nothing but love and compassion.

Today, I won’t tell you that tomorrow is another day. I know sometimes that’s part of the problem–when things are very dark, tomorrow and every imagined day after it stretch out like a long prison sentence. I encourage you to reach for a shred of hope or open-mindedness that may help you entertain the idea that tomorrow could be a better day, but I know just how difficult that is.

Today, I won’t lecture you about how you need to stay alive for your loved ones, or how much killing yourself would hurt them. You already know that. You’ve probably refrained from some attempts because of it already. Instead, I’ll tell you that I believe you are doing the best you can to stay here, and if you fail I will not judge or condemn you. Go and read Cowards if you don’t believe me.

So I will not lecture you today, or tell you what to do or believe, or try to make you feel guilty for your thoughts.

But I also won’t lie.
The truth is, I do want you to refrain from killing yourself today.

My selfish desire is for you to keep breathing for another twenty-four hours. And another after that. My selfish wish is for you to hang on long enough for something to change. Get through the minute, the hour, the day. Make it through–and the next time things get really bad, hang on then too. I admit it, that’s what I want.

You see, I want you here on this planet with me. If you go, there will be one less person in the think tank researching the nature of hope and perseverance.

If you go, I will be a little bit more alone.

Some of you who depart are doing it under the influence of brain chemistry that has become extreme enough to interfere with coherent thought and choice. I know that can happen.

But if you still have some capacity for those things, I confess my selfishness to you. I want you at my side in this fight, to share battle tactics and tricks. I want you with me during the long sleepless nights, so we can read each other stories when we’re sad.

I know what a hard thing I’m asking of you, and it’s your choice. But the little girl in me wants her brothers and sisters around. Go read Why it’s “Not This Song”. Go write some bad poetry, or do something repetitive with your hands, or tell someone to go fuck themselves–anything, I don’t know. Just don’t go today.

Don’t go. Stay with me.

The Turtle Cried

Magic works undercover. Important moments aren’t always recognized as they are happening. They don’t look important, or feel important, or have any obvious effect right away.

It was eight o’clock on a Monday morning in May of 2011. For me, it was the morning of day 4 in rehab and day 6 with no painkillers.

At this particular facility, we were supposed to strip our beds every Monday morning and change the sheets. I was able to get the sheets off, but while leaning over and struggling with getting the new fitted sheet on I triggered my lower back pretty badly. My default pain level spiked, and I rolled onto my back gasping. Then I started to cry, scaring my roommate a bit until I caught my breath. I laid still for ten minutes or so, then I managed to get up and she helped me get the sheet on.

I cried because my back hurt a lot; because the screwdriver that always seemed to be jammed into my lower left spine had been brutally twisted.

I cried because I knew this meant I faced another long day of fidgeting in chairs during classes and group.

I cried because I felt humiliated at being sprawled sideways on a bed not my own, ungainly as a turtle on its back, weeping.

I cried because I missed my family; because I would have given anything to hear their voices asking if I was all right or to have our dog jump up on the bed and sniff at me quizzically.

I cried because I didn’t want to be 45 and in rehab.

So what made this moment magical? Why do I remember it well? It certainly wasn’t the first, or last, time I cried in treatment. It was only one of many times I had to experience intense feelings.

I realize now that it feels magical to me because it marked one of the first signs that this recovery thing might really be different for me this time.

The moment was a moment in which I was not making any excuses. Not rationalizing anything. Not trying to find a way out, or blame someone else, or making a plan for it to get better. I was expressing distress in the moment, but I wasn’t trying to escape the moment. Nor was I trying to escape the day ahead, or the realities that had led me here. I wasn’t telling myself that it wasn’t that bad.

For the addict I am, and especially for the addict I was then, that is truly a phenomenon worth remembering.

My whole life was about escaping my thoughts, my pain, my feelings, and my responsibilities. I could and did rationalize constantly to make what I was doing seem like logic, or not that bad, or at least the lesser of evils. The real or perceived ordeal of my days led to a nightly ritual of retreat; a ritual enacted during the day whenever possible as time went on.

I’m not immune to this mindset now, by any means. I struggle with it every day, with varying degrees of success. I fall into it more when my stress level is high, so it’s up a lot lately.

Today I remember that unmade bed, that muscle spasm, and those tears because I need that simplicity. I need it badly, and I broke through into some of it yesterday. I broke through, perhaps more so than I have in many months, and even as I write this I feel near tears with a sensation of relief and gratitude.

What brought me here? Several things, possibly; perhaps I’ll write more about them later. It was no effort of mine. I’ve been trying to fight the good fight; I’ve made lots of efforts, but I did not climb some mountain or solve some puzzle. I didn’t “figure out” how to return to that magic circle.

The turtle cried, and the circle appeared around me.

Cease-Fire

“I come to thee for charitable license,
That we may wander o’er this bloody field
To book our dead and then to bury them…”
–Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 7

It is not the first battle, or the first defeat. It will not be the last. The psyche is an arena that seldom knows complete peace.

Are you like me? Do you stand on the muddy field after the cease-fire, looking aghast at the damage? Have you stood this way hundreds of times, heartbroken at yet another failure to keep destruction contained?

Maybe it was a full-scale war, months or years long, ending in severe consequences for your life in the outside world. Maybe it was a smaller skirmish, one that no one else even saw, only days long–but a day can last a very long time on these unreal fields.

Perhaps your attack against yourself was swift and unsophisticated, or perhaps you gutted yourself with sharp swords and exquisite accuracy.

It does not matter, at this moment. You try to tell yourself it could have been worse, or lasted longer, but right now you don’t care. The point is it happened, it happened again, it fucking happened again.

You scream with frustration and grief. You fall to your knees and pound your fists into the muddy ground. It isn’t fair, you shriek; why does war erupt again and again, why can’t you just stop it?

The sky does not care what you shout at it. The odd bird chirps, loud against the comparative silence that hangs in the air between your cries now that the clash of weapons has stopped.

Eventually you get tired. God, you’re so tired, and the rage isn’t helping anyway, and you fall silent. And when you are quiet, you begin to hear the voices of the wounded.

It’s time to lay it all aside. They are still alive, and they need you. Crawl through the mud to clasp a bloody hand. Lift an unconscious body to a stretcher. Give water. Do the next thing that needs to be done; respond to the next cry.

“I’m sorry,” rasps one fighter as you wash away blood. “Forgive me,” whispers another as you close a wound. They all weep, talking about how they should have tried harder, trained harder, fought harder. They push feebly at your hands, saying their wounds are not so bad. Surely others need you more (I deserve it, I deserve it rings in the background of their speech and your heart replies no, it was my fault, I am the one…)

Some just turn their face away and say “Leave me alone.”

You don’t blame them. What do they have to look forward to, after all? Being carried to the healers, days or weeks or months of recuperation, maybe a few pleasures or times of companionship followed inevitably by another trip to this bloody war zone? Of course the next battle calls to them more strongly than any joy they might find before then. It will take time for courage and hope to rise.

You want to tell them the war is over; that this was the last battle they will have to endure. You want to tell these loyal aspects of your Self that their courage and perseverance are now to be rewarded. You want to tell them it’s time to beat their swords into ploughshares and sing only the songs of peace.

You want to let them rest all winter. You want to lead them, in the spring, to the greening field and let them build a temple to harmony and wholeness.

But you can’t.

Or perhaps you can; just don’t lie to them and claim they’ll never have to defend it. You can’t deny that the enemy is still there, still part of you, and will attack again.

You can make that temple beautiful. You may manage a longer interval before the next conflict. You may reduce the casualties. You may learn to be a better medic. But the war is not over, and never will be.

The Books of Grace

At last, words are flowing again, and I have thought of a story I want to tell.

This is not that story.

In a day or two, I will tell it. I will write you a story about a cow and a cup of coffee and an important letter. But today, while that story was incubating, something else happened.

It was nothing dramatic; just some dawdling in the bookstore. But it was an experience of unexpected grace. Why? Because, after half an hour of wandering, I became aware that something was missing.

Somehow, I had neglected to bring my usual bookstore baggage through the doors with me. All of the things I wrote about in Bookstore Sans Filter: envy, insecurity, pessimism. Frustration at the plethora of condescending and contradictory advice in the nonfiction sections. Feelings of futility when looking at the shelves of books and thinking I have nothing to contribute. Defensiveness in response to the perceived barrage of things I should be cooking, causes I should be supporting, ways I should be parenting, et caetera ad nauseam.

It wasn’t there! I call it unlikely grace, because I did nothing to make it happen. I just noticed it, the way I might notice that I forgot my purse. Or the way I notice (if I’m paying attention to positives) that it’s a low pain level day.

It was the most enjoyable bookstore trip I’ve had for a long time. I browsed in the cooking section–a place I avoid like the plague–looking at cookbooks my daughter might like. I looked at books in the photography section, art, nature and even psychology without feeling the usual pressure. Perhaps it wasn’t completely gone, but it lay lightly upon me; a silk scarf in place of a heavy cloak.

Even when I made my traditional pilgrimage to the poetry section last, it felt like saying hello to my friends instead of being wistful and covetous. Wanting to own all of those books, or wanting to be up there with them, did not hurt.

Gratitude is vital to my sanity, yet I so often find myself trying to force it. When it’s not flowing freely, I get annoyed at the social media rhapsodies about how blessed people are feeling. I feel as if I’m failing if I’m not swimming in a sea of peace and bliss, or at least papering my misery with sayings about how my misery isn’t necessary.

What I felt today is gratitude, though. Or, at least, it’s something without which gratitude is impossible. I felt awareness of a gift; this gift of temporary freedom from my own chains.

Alice Walker said it well in The Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” It says we are meant to notice, but it says nothing about what we are to do with that awareness. It says nothing about making lists of blessings and putting purple on it. That’s great to do, if it helps us, but the first thing that helps is awareness.

What would I be like if my mental filter always let positive input through as smoothly as negative? If, along with real pain and dark emotions, there were a constant inflow of data about lightness and color and word–less pain, easier breath, moments of freedom, slants of light.

As I read this, I don’t think my words have truly captured what I felt among those books. That’s all right, though, because some things can’t be described in words. It’s like events in a dream, where you just know the turtle is actually your third-grade teacher but have no idea how you know this. The feeling of grace and freedom, like all of what keeps me here for one more day, is at its heart a mystery.