Monday, May 31, 2010

Beating Down the Walls

Some days are harder than others. It is true that even in this new life of positive thinking and conscious living that I have feelings of sadness, defeat, and often fear. What I have come to know is that feelings of any kind are just our signals. They tell us when something is Right for us. They tell us when something needs to change. And most importantly, I know that they must be felt--not ignored or avoided--so that they may flow through me instead of weighing me down and rendering me useless, overwhelmed, or exhausted.

I cry much more now than I ever used to, and it's a wonderful kind of release: in an instant tears can express any anger, anxiety, or sadness that I feel (as well as positive emotions like gratitude and love). In high school, there was a period of time in which I physically could not cry--the anger and repressed sadness too heavy to let out in tears. At 16 years old, my frustration at the darkness of the world around me took hold. I was bitter, angry, and tough. No tears would come, but hurling words and punching mailboxes and walls became a typical behavior for a time. My knuckles would bruise--and similar to the odd satisfaction I was also receiving from scarring my own skin by scratching it with a paring knife--relief would come and I would know I was alive.

It's hard for some people to get a sense of how physical pain can relieve emotional pain. I don't even know I fully understand it. For me, in the few instances in which I cut my skin--carving angular designs into my leg and once even, on my left breast--there was a deep sadness inside that I was not able to express in words or tears. I wanted so badly to feel something other than the dark, roaring turmoil in the depths of my gut, but I was often speechless and afraid to let others know that it even existed within me. And as the burning sensation in my skin progressed with each small stroke of the blade, I felt that somehow I breathed easier.

But the relief was always short-lived. I wasn't actually acknowledging and releasing the negative emotions built up inside me. Luckily, even as a teenager I learned some better coping skills because I had a great network of supportive friends and parents who still showed me love when I pushed hard against them. I remember one night in particular, in a fit of rage after a high school football game I got out of my car in the church parking lot that was across from the field--not even bothering to shut the door--and began wailing on a tin shed. I have no recollection of what made me so angry at the time, but as I heaved one blow after another and my knuckles began to bleed, my best friend came out of the car to stop me. She held my arm, she talked me down, and that small intervention brought me out of the spiraling madness inside my own head.

Sometimes, all we need is someone else there to open our eyes to what we are doing to ourselves. Someone that is there watching us, accepting us, and loving us despite our anger and pain--or even because of it. Someone who can pull us out of our own way. This is why friendships and love--in its truest sense--are imperative. Others help us see who we are: the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly, and they can help us take down our own walls from the inside--brick by brick--instead of trying the beat down the walls outside of us.

And for that, I am truly grateful.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"I see you."

I watched Avatar for the first time this evening in my living room. I could get into many different kinds of conversations here on politics, on energy, on humanitarian, or environmental efforts. But I won't. Not now.

Instead, I come away tonight thinking about the three words exchanged between the lovers in the film: "I see you."

They say this to one another as a replacement to the phrase, "I love you." "Love" is often misconstrued or abused in this world we have now. Love today has sometimes meant manipulation. Just fill in the blank: "If you really loved me, you would _________ for me." Or it's used as an apology, "but, I love you" as if that could immediately erase fault.

But, "I see you."

To me it means to fully see and appreciate another for who he or she is inside and out. To view him or her as Other, and yet know and connect to him or her as one--all in the same breath. To truly see another person is a gift to both the seer and the observed, for the observed can feel the openness, the acceptance, and yes--the love--being exchanged in a glance.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Stepping Fearlessly

"Do you want to walk in fear, or do you want to walk in love? " asks my dear friend, Dr. Tanya English. I'm not sure if she is the one who coined the phrase or not, regardless, I often hear the words in her voice inside my head. It's a question I pose to myself in the midst of worry or confusion. It helps me to see the intention behind my thinking patterns--to know if I am making choices based on fear or based on Trust, openness, and desire. The latter, of course, being the kinds of choices I wish to now make.

Fear is restrictive. It causes tension in the muscles and in the mind. Fear-based thinking doesn't allow for change or new ideas. And for many of us who are habituated into fear-based thinking, it's often what comes up first.

I was recently invited to take a trip this summer to West Virginia for a music festival, and although I was immediately excited about the prospect, some anxieties quickly crept up. In my 12+ years of mothering, I have yet to take even a weekend vacation without my kids--let alone a camping trip up in the mountains for an entire week. I used to be afraid to leave my children for any length of time because I worried that something would happen to them. And I wanted to make sure I was always near enough--just in case.

One thing my divorce and the subsequent taking turns at child-rearing has taught me over the last year is how to let go of worry and simply Trust that my children will be all right outside of my watchful eye. And they are all right. They are better than all right. They survive without me hovering. They survive, and even thrive, in the hands of others. And their absence often makes me appreciate their presence that much more. So, when I think of leaving them at their dad's for a week while I take a summer road trip, I breathe easy. My perception shifts: they--and I--walk in Love.

When I first read about this music festival that takes place in the mountains in West Virginia, my other knee-jerk, fear-based thoughts were "how am I going to get up there?" and "what if I freak out and can't go any further." My last ride into the mountains years ago had me stuffing my head under a sweatshirt, hiding tears from my then 4-year-old daughter. I began to wonder if I was going to be reliving that scenario. And camping? The closest I had ever come to sleeping in a tent was hanging out in my friend's backyard in 7th grade until my parents came to get me at midnight. So "how will I shit in a port-o-potty?" and "who is going to tell the mosquitoes to leave me alone for 4 days?" suddenly seemed like really logical questions to have.

But I stopped myself and posed a different question. That one about walking in fear or walking in love. I thought about all the amazing adventures I could have on this trip, like seeing parts of the country I've never been to and the prospects of jamming with some incredible musicians. I thought about how luxurious the scenery would be at nightfall and the tranquility that would wash over me as I doze off to sleep under a starlit sky. I thought about all the notebook paper I would fill, being able to catch the wind of inspiration at any given time.

I also thought about the company I would be keeping along the way, and realized that a part of me was fearing my own fears. Having been ridiculed and unaccepted by others in the past for having anxieties, I realized I was worried about my fears being intolerable to my travelling companion. But that, too, is fearful thinking. Instead, I needed to simply allow myself to feel the fear and then still choose to walk in love. Only from there can I accept my Self wholly and step into another grand adventure. It is one step at a time, this shift from fear to love, and when I step into life with an open heart, what I find is that I am met with the same openness and acceptance as I emit.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


About 3 years ago, I decided I wasn't going to settle for anything less than what I knew was right in my heart. I was teaching middle school reading--a job I both loved and hated, I had a failing marriage, a father recovering from cancer, and my anxiety levels were skyrocketing.

I had spent so much of my life being afraid--afraid of making people angry, afraid for my and my children's safety, afraid of not having money. I was afraid of traveling--by car, by plane, by boat. I was afraid that I'd get sick, or hurt, or die. I was virtually afraid of anything out of my own control.

In the process of trying to gain some semblance of control over my life, I developed obsessive compulsive disorder (this began just a few months after my third child was born). It was slow and harmless at first. As a family, we had taken turns picking up every virus that travelled though Iowa in the fall of 2006. I was tired of laundering sheets filled with vomit and stuffing my newborn with antibiotics, so I became more aware of where illnesses lurked.

Around the same time, there were spikes in the number of food poisoning cases around the country. Salmonella and e. Coli were showing up in peanut butter, spinach, and dairy products. I was beginning to feel sick every time I ate, and I wondered if I had contracted one of these awful intestinal bugs.

As a result, I began being more vigilant about washing my hands and using hand-sanitizer in my classroom at school. I started shying away from potlucks--questioning who had touched the food, where it came from, or how long it had been sitting out. By the time summer of 2007, rolled around, I had dropped 15 good pounds of baby weight just because I stopped eating all the cookies and candies that sat in the staff lunch room. But it wasn't because I didn't enjoy the homemade treats, it was because I was afraid of the germs that might have infiltrated them.

Meat--being the most common source of e. Coli and salmonella--was the next to go from my diet. After months of inspecting every piece of meat to make sure it was completely cooked before I put it in my mouth, I simply crossed it off my list of acceptable foods to eat. No more beef, chicken, pork, eggs, or fish. I didn't have to worry about was was in it if I wasn't going to be eating it. Thus began the rules (the obsession) and the subsequent rituals (compulsions) to ease the anxiety of breaking, or even thinking about breaking the rules.

In addition to a list of foods I would not eat, there were other rules to ensure that my relative state of good health remained constant in addition to making sure that nothing passed into my body that I hadn't deemed acceptable. I required myself to sanitize my hands after handling money, after touching doorknobs, after using the phone, and after shaking hands. I used toilet paper to lock the bathroom stall door, and my pinkie fingers to handle cupboards and drawers. If someone coughed or sneezed while walking down the street, I held my breath as I moved through the space in which he or she had just walked. However, most heart-breaking of all, was the fact that I stopped kissing my children. I held them, but I couldn't kiss them. The anxiety was too much.

Yet, while I focused on holding so many things at bay, my perception of fear began to shift. Though preoccupied with controlling food intake, managing germ exposure, and creating mantras for easing anxiety, I began a journey of finding an individual strength I'd never had before. I faced larger fears by starting a new career as an editor, filing for divorce, and going after a dream I'd long forgotten--music. I let go of expectations for who I was supposed to be and start believing in who I wanted to be.

And as each new song was written and mistakes of the past forgiven, I was able to let go of one of the rules I was punishing myself with. I understood that the only thing I had control over was my Self. I couldn't stop my ex-husband from being angry, no more than I could stop a train at high speed. I couldn't change the mistakes I'd made in the past any more than I could prove what would happen in the future. I finally settled into the realization that the only moment there is, is Now, and that I had a choice to make: I could choose fear or I could choose Trust.

So I chose--and continue to choose--Trust, despite its vulnerable state. And while I can not yet claim complete recovery, I can say that I have returned to eating lettuce from restaurants, sharing pizza with friends, and only washing my hands on appropriate occasions (in the bathroom, before eating, or after taking out the trash). I eat without anxiety: savoring flavors and enjoying a sense of being full. I live each day now with a sense of wonder, instead of confounding dread. And best of all, and as often as I can, I embrace my children and kiss them goodnight.