Tag Archives: Philosophy

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.

Not My Story

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I have so much I could be writing about lately, but I haven’t been writing about any of it. I haven’t been writing about any of it because it feels as if it’s not my story to tell. It feels disrespectful to be making personal essays out of events that, while they affected me, affect others so much more.

The last two weeks have seen the end of my relative’s journey on this plane; he died the morning of June 14. I was there during his last hours, and saw him only minutes after he died. Other family members and I sat with his body until the funeral home workers came to transport him, and we watched him be wrapped up and taken away.

I was there, and I had thoughts, and I had feelings…but it’s not really my story. It’s his story, and his wife’s, and his children’s. I know that the feelings I have are nothing compared with how they feel.

It’s not my story…yet, inevitably, it is. It may be the ultimate self-absorption, but my lens is the only one I have. I’m incapable of an omniscient perspective; anything I write about is really about my experience of the thing. Even if I write from the perspective of another character, it’s still my projection being fueled by my attitudes.

So I’m aware of my own self-absorption right now. I’m aware of the part of my brain responsible for interpreting everything happening in terms of “What does this mean to me? How does this change the structure of my inner world? How do these truths apply to my journey?”

I’m judging myself for this. I feel ashamed of spending any mental energy on philosophizing while people I love are in need of comfort. I’m ashamed of the fact that, even while I carry out actions that reflect my desire to comfort them, a part of my mind is off crafting metaphors.

This judgment, however justified it might be, is dangerous. Blocking my personal writing is dangerous. Turning my metaphor factory into a moral issue is dangerous. Yesterday, I found myself tearing pictures out of magazines with a very diagnostic type of focus…my symptoms are rising, and I cannot afford to reject the best and least harmful coping mechanisms I have.

I need to allow myself to feel, and write, and make existential gold out of straw. I need to let myself think about what witnessing a death has made me feel about life, and recovery, and meaning.

Lighthouse

There are many reasons I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder. There are many reasons I wish I weren’t an addict. None of them compare to the gut-wrenching regret about how these conditions affect my legacy to my daughter.

No matter how hard I tried to minimize the effects back when I was using painkillers, no matter how hard I tried to keep my mental issues from overcoming the good things in our relationship, it all had an impact. Today, there have been many improvements and I’m able to do a lot for her that wasn’t possible before.

However, some things don’t change. This incredible young woman still got issued a breathtakingly imperfect mother, and that’s not going to change. She sees me struggle with the large problems and the trivial ones. She sees me be inconsistent with self-care and the tasks of daily life; she sees me go through times of being weepy or rocking back and forth with anxiety or staring at the wall with a flat affect.

I try, as always, to strike a balance between honesty and appropriateness. I have enough observing ego to know when I’m in an episode, and we are matter-of-fact about them and the truth that they will pass.

I do not make a habit of beating myself up about these things, and I know I am passing on some important good messages to her. She sees me fail–but she always sees me try again. She sees me struggle with the impulses of my addictions–but she always sees me work humbly on my recovery. She sees me be sad–but she always, in an hour or day or week, witnesses me hauling myself up with the sheer power of imagination and metaphor. She sees me be down on myself–but she always sees me come back to a place of love and acceptance.

I’m teaching her that we fail, and the world doesn’t come to an end. I’m teaching her that there’s a way back from the dark places. I’m modeling humility, and perseverance, and the willingness to keep trying. I know this–but, like any parent, I want to be better. As a mother, as an addict in recovery, as a person who lives with mental health issues, I want to be a message of hope strong enough to accompany her through anything. I want her to see me fucking win.

I want to be an ever-present, shining beacon. I’m not.

I am a lighthouse.

I shine, and sometimes go dark, and shine again.

Do you know why lighthouses shine intermittently? It’s to help them stand out from stars, or airplanes, or lights from the shore. They catch the eye because of their changes.

I have no intention of taking this metaphor to the point of concluding that my daughter has a special snowflake of a mother whose light is actually better or more guiding than the steadier ones. I’m simply using this image to comfort myself, because it’s what I do.

Perhaps I can use the image to help me accept the truth more, and give myself permission to shine brightly when I shine. Does the lighthouse apologize for the dark period each time its light returns? What a waste of time and brilliance that would be!

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.

Social Centipede

Ever heard of the dilemma of the centipede? The story goes that someone asks a centipede how in the world it manages to coordinate moving all of those legs smoothly. The centipede thinks about it, trying to form a description, but as soon as it begins to think about what its legs are doing it becomes hopelessly fouled up.

A couple of months ago, someone challenged me to write a poem about “the joy of belonging.” I wrestled with it several times, never coming up with a hook that pleased me. The challenge, in fact, probably had a very opposite effect to that intended: because I was unable to come up with a poem about it, my feelings of loneliness and not belonging became sharper. I had to admit that belonging wasn’t an experience I knew well enough to write about.

I know others feel this way; I even know I belong more than I think I do. But it bugged me that I couldn’t evoke one scene, one instance of joyful belonging with enough reality to spark a poem.

The closest I got–close enough for preliminary scribbles, which I might try to expand at some point–is remembering how singing with a group feels. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the other singers, producing a sound that’s blending with others to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts, brought me some of my most wonderful emotional and spiritual experiences.

Part of the magic, of course, is the liberation from self-consciousness. For me, singing like that is a rare instance of not analyzing myself. When I’m focused on oxygen, or lack thereof, and hearing the other singers, and reading the music, and watching the conductor, there is finally enough going on to make my brain shut the fuck up.

I belong, then, but the reason I belong is that I’m no longer thinking about whether or not I belong. As soon as I start thinking again, it’s back to the dilemma of the centipede.

If lack of self-absorption is a key to belonging, I know there are other times I belong. I belong when I’m doing service, focused on something that needs to be done to help others. I belong when I’m fully present with someone I love, having a moment free of my fears and other demons. And, if this is true, I know I can belong more often if I work at it.

But how do I describe the joy of belonging, when it vanishes as soon as I even ask if it is there?

In the years since coming close to death and entering recovery, I’ve become more creative and passionate than in any previous era of my life. I’m more capable of loving both myself and others, even as I become more aware of the uncomfortable truths about myself that try to interfere. I’m more alive, more human–and I’ve never felt so lonely.

Every time I think I can’t feel any lonelier, I do. With or without good reason, loneliness walks with me, sleeps with me, sits beside me at this desk. I don’t know if it’s part of maturing, or part of grieving. I don’t know if everyone is feeling this lonely on the inside (surely, they can’t be…can they?)

What would it be to feel the opposite of loneliness, and be aware of feeling it? To exist in my own consciousness enough to name the feeling, yet out of myself enough not to be sucked back into separateness?

I almost wrote that I’ve never experienced such a state, but it isn’t true. I have, during very brief moments, under circumstances I fear I won’t ever encounter again. But whether I ever do or not, I can work toward the somewhat more attainable kind of belonging that comes from creating things with other people.

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

And all I can do is keep on telling you
I want you, I need you
But-there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you
Now don’t be sad
‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad.
                                        —-Meat Loaf

When I heard this song many years ago, I thought the singer was a real asshole. I thought he was saying what he said to keep his girlfriend on a string while permanently lowering her self-esteem. I didn’t know what a kindness truth could be.

Now I respect the guy, because he didn’t lie–not even to himself–to keep the woman around. He didn’t try to convince himself that he might learn to love her if she changed, or that he hadn’t given the relationship a fair chance.

How many people in our lives have really been that honest with us? And what if we believed it when they were; really heard it and acted accordingly?

People use the metaphor of a “dry well” when talking about how we go on seeking love or approval in places where we have repeatedly failed to find it. For many of us, the first examples came from our childhood–and we find ourselves adults who are still trying, consciously or unconsciously, to win. Win love, approval, or even just closure where it is never, ever going to be found.

Then we re-enact this pattern in relationships, and keep digging in one spot instead of moving to more promising locations. Our determination is fed by countless movies and books in which someone “wins” another person’s love or commitment through heroic efforts.

It’s a human condition–I’m not really writing about addicts or those dealing with mental illness right now, except in the sense that such issues might make us a tad more needy and vulnerable.

Part of surrendering to reality is seeing and believing in the existence of those dry wells in our lives. We let go of the hope and obsessive pursuit, and are free to spend our efforts on other things. But damn, it hurts. We feel lonely, sad, or angry, and we go around with the brick-living-in-our-chest feeling that goes with a grief process.

The wounds of my childhood, like those we all bear, are not going to be healed by anyone but me.
My loved ones are not going to change and magically begin to meet all of my needs.
The world is never going to make me feel accepted and loved; it’s up to me to create that love in myself and actively seek it in others.
Nothing out there is going to fix me, release me from my demons, or save me from aging and the human inevitability of death.

If I expect these things from people, relationships or anything in my life, I deprive myself of the chance to appreciate what I can get from them. I miss the moments of joy or the opportunity to be of service. I’ll miss the “two out of three” others might have to offer me.

You’ll never find your gold on a sandy beach
You’ll never drill for oil on a city street
I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks
But there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom
Of a Cracker Jack box…

Damn right there isn’t. I’ve looked long enough.

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.