Saying Goodbye, Part 11: Earthquakes and Landscapes

I awoke on Wednesday to my first day home without my father.

I had spent the greater part of February in his home 3-hours away, in an unexpected whirlwind of emotional chaos, intense vulnerability, and the eventual release of him as I watched him being taken away for cremation.

I know enough to not expect that I’d return home to life as I knew it. “Now back to your regularly scheduled program” does not apply here.

I know that my life is now altered. Yes, everyday, our lives change. Each day is unlike the next. But this is different. There are these life-altering events that completely changes the landscape. Subtle shifts become earthquakes and aftershocks.

Upon waking, I take it slow. “What’s next?” in every moment. I try some “old life” on by checking e-mail (that felt okay, let’s try…) listening to a recorded call from a training I’m in (yeah, not quite feeing it. Let’s try…) suddenly it’s too much. My heart aches and I feel my energy in my belly. I remember a song that feels the way I feel now.

I listen to “Winter” by Tori Amos on repeat and break down sobbing just as I need to. Every part of me vibrating in grief. Why does life seem so stupid. All the things that took up space in my life seem to riduclous. I should have spent more time with him. Should have, should have, should have….

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Saying Goodbye, Part 4: Difference in Perspective

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Rorschach blot

Monday came with no improvement and my father was taken to the Emergency Room via ambulance. It was a rush of fear that went through me as I followed the ambulance to the hospital.

By this time my father’s condition was pretty bad. He was mostly unresponsive with eyes closed and mouth open. His cough was due to aspirating pneumonia, but after being suctioned at the E.R., the gurgling was mostly gone. The hours were long and cold as we waited, hoping to get some news on what was happening and what could be done.

This is when things really began to get surreal.

The doctors came to us with dire news. “Send him home for comfort care, so he can pass in peace” was the suggested action, although there was “no pressure” in making our decision to treat or not. This decision was not easy to make as the attending physician said that he couldn’t determine what was wrong based on my father’s symptoms, lab work, and scans. You read right, “We don’t know what’s gong on, so send him home to die” was what we heard.

We decided to treat as our belief was that my father was able to get stable with the right care. They gave him IV fluids and antibiotic. Slowly my father began to regain some responsiveness. He began to move a little, folding his hands across his sternum, and touching his mustache in his familiar way.

I stayed with him throughout the night, until he was admitted into a room the next morning.

For the next two days my father’s condition improved. He talked more, recognized people, made requests, and asked questions. His personality began to show again, and his vitals began to improve. He still wasn’t strong enough to get out of bed, or sit up for long on his own, but once again, we were hopeful that things would continue to improve for him.

The only thing that wasn’t improving was his inability to swallow. He didn’t pass a swallow test, but the speech therapist said she would try another test when his strength improved.

Up to this point, the attending physicians inquired on our decision to keep treating or begin comfort care. In the spirit of informed decisions, we decided to meet with the palliative doctor to better understand what this option meant.

The information she provided was grim. Worst case scenario seemed to be all she could give us. Which makes sense since that is her job. But we weren’t ready for death yet. Not with my father’s condition improving by the hour.

Options to treat were also reviewed with the palliative and attending physicians. The treatment options were more invasive, as they included feeding tubes and dialysis.  Then there was the issue of dementia.

Even with my father’s improvement, and even with invasive treatments, my father’s dementia would still be present and progressing. The degree to which he could improve with treatment was unknown, but what was known was that dementia wasn’t going anywhere and would only get worse.

Although there was no rush, we felt pressured. It was an implied pressure in the urgent tone used by nurses and doctor. “He is not going to improve, he will only get worse, let him go” was what I felt.

I became angry and frustrated at the lack of possibility in the hospital staff. They were treating my father as if he came in with a toe tag and death certificate and had no idea of what he was like weeks before being admitted. They met an 84 year old man with a dementia diagnosis, and saw a dead man. I saw my father who was strong and a fighter, and this discrepancy between myself and the doctors felt powerless and infuriating. The doctors would say I was in denial.

 

Selfish

Last night in class, I volunteered to play the part of one of two clients in our role-play exercise. It didn’t take long for me to have that “oh shit” feeling. I couldn’t believe what I got myself into. I thought I would be able to keep from going deep into my emotions. Even though I could have gone much deeper I was pretty terrified at the level of emotion I was exposing myself and my fellow classmates to.

When all was said and done, I began to notice how my fellow student in the second client role, was able to speak from a place of compassion towards someone else. Everything I said was from a place of how much I was hurting. I felt like such a selfish ass.

There’s a logical part of me that knows that there was once a time where I was able to feel more compassion towards others. However, I feel like I’ve been struggling for so long that I’m now in a place where it’s a matter of my own survival. I feel like I’m in a desperate place of making sure that I’m okay. I understand that this is the natural path that leads to resentment. The compassionate part of me says “This is where you are in the process. It’s okay.” The critical part of me says “See! You ARE a selfish ass!” Right now, I am struggling with these two messages.

In experiencing this I also thought of several clients that I have. They have been telling me their problem saturated stories of how hurt they are. It’s been a challenge for them to feel compassion towards people in their lives, especially those who trigger their pain. I began to wonder if they too experienced enough pain to be pushed past being able to be compassionate towards others. Have they landed in resentment-ville too?

This exercise has not only challenged me to unlearn this particular self-critical part of me, it has also helped me to understand my clients better. When I hear them deep in their hurt, I think I can now inquire if it’s speaking to how hurt they actually are, or something else like narcissism (with narcissism having its own type of pain history).

Sometimes, you just don’t know where they lessons will come from.

Anger…AGAIN

I was quite the emotional disaster at my last counseling session. I was feeling a mash up of emotions and was feeling pretty defeated. The last few weeks have been so stressful for me and every part of my life has been affected. I feel like I have no safe place to just be. By the time I walked into session last Monday I melted into a pile of emotions.

Somehow, in all the mess, there was some small bit of clarity. That clarity began with understanding that I have not been able to forgive myself for being hurt and expressing that hurt through anger (towards myself and others). You see, I have been able to forgive my parents for letting their pain affect me negatively. I was able to this after being angry at them first, and then understanding that they were reacting from their painful childhoods.

So the question remains. If I am able to forgive  my parents for passing their pain onto me, what keeps me from forgiving myself from repeating that pattern? Can I create a space where I sit with my inner child, and tell that little girl that it’s not her fault that she’s angry? That her parents didn’t know any better and that it wasn’t about her value, but about what they didn’t know how to do? Can I just sit with her and hold her and accept her as she is?

Depression, Anger, Action

This raw week has continued into this weekend and with the time change, I find myself restless and frustrated. I lay in bed not wanting to be awake, or go back to sleep.

I’m slowly realizing that all this inner restlessness and resistance is most likely from choosing to be in my body. As I said in a previous post, coping mechanisms serve to protect us in times of real and perceived threat. My coping mechanism of shutting down and leaving my body was no longer working, because when I did so, it started to become harder to come back and I would become depressed.

So I’ve recently chosen to stay  in my body and boy, am I feeling it. Instead of feeling depressed, I am feeling more anger. I remember my therapist has said that feeling anger in place of depression is a good thing. Right now I can’t remember why this is. Maybe, I have been protecting myself from feeling anger. I’ve never had healthy anger modeled to me. I know that anger can spur action. Maybe I’ve been protecting myself from taking action.

Revisiting Anger: Healthy Anger and the Fear of the “B” Word

I was going to title this post “Anger”, but I realized that I already have four post with Anger in the title. Hmmm… think it’s a pattern here?

As with most things, my understanding of anger gets clearer over time. As a girl child, I was raised to be quiet. When my mother would be angry, she would get really quiet. Her anger permeated the air and seemed to create a barrier around her. This left me with no examples of what healthy anger in a woman looks like. I had one sister who was vocal in her anger, however it was a reactive judgmental anger. Because of this, she had negative labels placed on like, “Bossy”, “Rude”, “and the all too familiar “Bitch”.

As a child I felt a lot of anger and was a pro at temper tantrum. As the years passed and I grew out of throwing temper tantrums, I was told that my anger was “too  much”. In my anger I can get quiet, hold grudges, ignore people, and hurl hurtful sarcastic comments. Somewhere in between all of this, I cry too. I rarely scream and yell (around others).

Being in therapy has helped me to understand that my anger shows up so twisted as my father could rage with the best of them, and my upbringing taught me to not show my anger. Not being able to express anger in a healthy way causes multiple psychological and physical issues such as gastrointestinal problems and low self-esteem.

I’ve also learned that anger is not an emotion you want to eliminate. It serves a purpose. For myself, anger lets me know that a boundary has been crossed and/or that I feel afraid to speak up on my behalf. Anger also lets me know that a perceived injustice has been committed. Being able to sit with my anger is hard, but if I can process it, I can usually see it’s source, and decide if I want to take action. Processing my anger allows me to be tactful and assertive instead of emotionally reactive, and it also allows me to be very clear, with others and myself, about my boundaries. Assertiveness in females is unfortunately commonly seen in a negative light. However, as hard as it most times, I’m accepting that what other people think about me cannot override what’s healthy for me. People project what they want, and that is none of my business.

As a woman I find it hard to find other women who express anger in a healthy way. I have seen various examples of unhealthy anger such as yelling, accusing, hitting, screaming, revenge, resentment, blaming, and forcing. Sometimes I get a glimpse at healthy anger, when someone is able to express themselves in a calm and firm manner. The latter example is one I strive for, and am ever so slowly learning to do. When I get angry, my usual response is to get overwhelmed with anger and all rationality goes out the window. I am in rage and I get there quickly.  It has been a long time getting to the small understanding of what anger is and what healthy anger looks like.

I found Assertive Communication to be helpful in learning what healthy anger looks like. It’s a simple, yet full of detailed skills which can come in handy for work and personal life. The following link describes what Assertive Communication is and sis not, as well as various types of Assertive Communication skills. http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/assertiveness-techniques.html

Esalen Meditation Retreat, Part 2 – Anger and Integrity

During an unexpected break from the meditation workshop, I spoke with a fellow attendee. We were talking about our experiences, both past and current. In not these exact words, he asked me how I became the person I am today, considering the family structure I grew up with. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. At the time I mentioned whatever was coming to me, but it felt like an unfinished thought. That question is pretty loaded, so it has stayed with me  since then.

I decided to bring it up in my therapy session and what came of it was a big picture for me.

Throughout my life I have stepped out of whatever structure has been in place. The structure being the set of expectations and guidelines that family, society, and even our own selves, establish to create some sense of safety. As children we follow our desires and we learn very quickly what is considered okay and not okay. “Don’t touch that. Stop playing with your food. Stop talking.” etc. Some of these guidelines are necessary for  our physical safety, while others are social norms and preferences. As time goes by, and we begin to form ideas on what we want for ourselves, some of these rules and guidelines are either adopted and obeyed or stepped over and out of. How our family and society reacts to this can vary,  but in my case it was met with mixed reactions.

In my family, some siblings stepped out and received a very clear message that this was not okay. For whatever reason they decided to be reeled back in. A few of us kept going, despite the messages, and did so with much internal conflict. I was the latter.

I have always felt that I needed to choose between family/culture/society and my happiness. I knew that I could resign and take the well-worn path of living with the expectations and guideline of my family/culture/society, but I knew I’d be unhappy. So I have long chosen to journey into unknown (to me) territory. In doing so I feel alone, and you know what? If I stayed with the family/culture/society path, I would have felt alone as well. What I also experience is this really inept way of reacting when I feel like I can’t say what I need to or if I feel like I’m not being heard. In these instances, I tend to get angry and there is no hiding it. I lack tact and speak in a severe way. It does me no good and usually makes things worse.

Somehow the topic of my anger and “how did I get here given my family history” merged and what I learned was that in order to break out of my family/culture/society structure, I had to access the only source of strength I know. My dad and his rage. Even though my dad could be loving and kind, his rage was something feared by everyone. It was how I believed I should act if I felt I was wronged.

Being an ACA, I suppose it’s important that I am aware of what I feel, and that I can voice my opinions, even if I feel that others may not agree. In time, I hope that I learn how to be more tactful. As a woman I know that I can be perceived as an annoying bitch. If I were a man, maybe I’d be given the same respect that others gave my dad.

Knowing where this anger in me comes from and why I use it as I do has been a big shift for me. I use to think I was incompetent, insensitive, and invisible. Now, I know why I react the way I do, and have some hope that I can learn how to be seen and heard in healthier ways.

Fear and Doubt – Revisited

I have a couple of changes coming up on my horizon, and as expected, there has been a decent quantity of fear and doubt looming.

This morning I dialogued with my fear. As a part of my morning pages I asked my fear to tell me everything it was concerned and worried about. After a generous list of fears spilled out on the pages, I acknowledged it’s presence and concern for me. I said “thank you” and talked with my fear, reminding it that I was here, and that we would take things one step at a time. I reminded my fearful self that although it feels like it, we are not alone, and that we can move forward and practice being flexible with the changes as they come.

I felt a calm as I went on with my day. I felt a deeper grounding in knowing that, although I don’t know how things will turn out, that I will be okay. But there was something else that wasn’t quite buying the whole thing. It was a skeptical concern. So I brought it up in my counseling session today.

What peeled back was a deeper layer, a missing step to acknowledging and listening to my fear. You see, fear serves us. So when I am telling my fear that everything will be okay, my fear takes a slight “We’re not going anywhere. We have a job to do.” stance.

So the missing step in working with fear is that, when we acknowledge it, let it speak, and thank it, we must also let it know that we are not asking it to leave, but instead, are welcoming and embracing it.

What? Isn’t the whole point to not be afraid?

Well, to a degree. We don’t want our fear to overwhelm us, and cause us to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. We want to give the fear our attention, much like a loving parent would give to a fearful child. Instead of being a negating/cutting-off parent by saying “Well that’s silly, there’s nothing to be afraid of!”, we can become a loving presence to our own fearful selves. “It’s okay, you have every right to feel afraid.  You’ve had plenty of reasons to be afraid. I am here with you. Even in your fear you are loved.”

Loving myself in my fear? What? I don’t know about you, but for me those to things don’t go together. I can witness myself being in fear (depression, anger, etc.), but I can’t love myself in those moments. I processed this paradox with my therapist, and I began to make an important connection.

As a child, anytime I was afraid, angry, depressed, or worried, I was chastised. I definitely received the message that I was “wrong” and “bad”. Since the way our parents treated us is how we treat ourselves, it’s only makes sense that when I feel anger, fear, depression, etc., I can’t be in it and love myself while I am in it. Instead, I try to make myself NOT feel those things so I can be good. And when that doesn’t work, boy do I feel BAD!

So, what is your personal history with fear? When did you first feel fear and how did those around you react? Were your fears allowed or denied?

Cultivating your witness self takes work and time. You’ll notice it in those moments where you can be in an emotion and simultaneously there is a part of you that says “Oh, interesting, you’re really feeling _____.” This witness self grows over time and helps you to re-member that you are not your emotions.

A deeper growth in cultivating a witness self is being able to be loving and compassionate to yourself no matter what you are feeling. Can you say that you are loveable when in the midst of road rage? It’s laughable to me now, but I’m willing to try.

So, instead of trying to eradicate your fear, see if you can move from being IN it, to being WITH it.

To help imagine what this looks like, think of someone you love unconditionally (a child, sibling, pet, friend, etc). If that person began telling you how afraid they were of something, what would you do to help them? Would you match their fear response and cause their fear to escalate? Would you tell them they are dumb for being afraid? Or would you be a loving, calm, and accepting presence that listens to them? The latter is what you can be to yourself in moments like these. Like everything, it takes practice, but like all these types of practices, it’s a loving investment in yourself.

So how do you be a loving presence to your emotions? Below are some examples, and I really encourage you to explore and create methods that work for you. Remember, you’re not trying to get rid of the emotion, your aim is to be with the emotion.

  • Mediation (walking, sitting)
  • Write out a dialogue between you and your fearful (angry, sad, etc) self
  • Say your dialogue out loud
  • Let your emotion create via: drawing with crayons or finger-paints
  • Do an activity that expresses the emotion such as kickboxing, running, etc.
  • Dialogue with something that represents the emotion your dealing with such as a plush animal, toy, photo, or doll
  • Talk with someone who is safe who you know will respect and listen to your feelings instead of try to change them

If you have your own methods of being with your emotions, what are they?

Drunk Brain, Sober Brain, and Emotional Sobriety

Yesterday I was in it. IN IT!

“IT” being in my hell-hole of self-flagellation via negative thinking. I was sitting across from my therapist, who for the first time asked me if I wanted to be there. She could feel my absence as I blew off everything she said. I am tempted to say that nothing she said got through, but if I did, I would be lying.

As I sat there, consciously choosing to shut-down, she did say something that made my gears stop grinding (if only for a second). “It’s like you’re drunk”.

That’s exactly how it is for me when I go back to my old ways of thinking. I tend to go back to my old ways of thinking when I am really stressed. My brain goes into survival mode and, like an alcoholic, I go back to that which I am really familiar with and that which gives me comfort. My drug of choice is my old way of thinking, which leads to an emotional relapse.

In my old way of thinking, everything is black and white. I am wrong and everyone else is right. I am a failure and have a long list of evidence to prove my case. I become angry, resentful, fearful, and hopeless. I don’t trust myself and surely, do not trust others or life itself. I feel and believe myself to be worthless. I believe this to be as true as the air I breathe. I am, in fact, intoxicated.

Just like you can’t sober up a drunk with reason, you can’t talk me out of my old way of thinking once I’m in it. Anything unlike what I am believing at that time seems like a lie. Right now, the only thing I can do is “sleep it off” by just giving in and being in it. A small part of me knows that it will pass,  even though I have no clue as to how long it will take.

When the intoxication has worn off, sober me is like “well, that was interesting”.

Sober me:

  • understands that what I believed as the truth is actually a learned lie.
  • can see how I learned this lie from my family language.
  • knows that compassion for myself is the key to breaking out of that pattern.
  • knows that I am not my feelings and that I can choose my beliefs and actions.
  • believes in the ACA promises.

I talked with a friend about this today, and she reminded me of the Tonglen breathing meditation.Pema Chodron states: “In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.”

She describes formal practice as four stages:

1) First,rest your mind briefly in a state of openness or stillness.

2) Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light. Breathe in and radiate completely, through all the pores of your body, until it feels synchronized with your in-and out-breathe.

3) Third, work with any painful personal situation that is real to you. Traditionally, you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about. However, if your stuck, do the practice for your pain and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.

4) Finally, make the taking in and the sending out larger. Whether you’re doing tonglen for someone you love or for someone you see on television, do it for all the others in the same boat. You could even do tonglen for people you consider your enemies–those who have hurt you or others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your find or yourself.

For me, I think just doing stages 1 and 2 are a good practice in Emotional Sobriety. I truly believe that all emotions want to be acknowledged, so being able to identify and fully feel my anger/fear/self-depreciation and then meet it with acceptance, love and compassion makes sense to me. Of course I will most likely meet this practice with great resistance while in a moment of anger. I’ve been told that this is to be expected and that I only need to be open to trying and being patient with the process. I can go as far as I can, which is further than not trying at all.

NOTE: I am not saying that an addictive pattern of negative thinking is the same as addiction to substances. What I am saying is that  the patterns and cycles of addiction are similar.

Emotional Hoarding

I was reminded that in order for me to allow any new things to come into my life I really have to let go of and get rid of some things. Not just clearing out space by getting rid of material things, I also need let go of old stories, resentments, and false self/limiting beliefs.

Up to this point, my energy has been very scattered. I feel like my basic needs are unstable (work, money, housing) and I don’t have a plan for my future. I worry a lot about where I’m going to live, where I’m going to work, will I have enough money by the end of the month?

If it isn’t those basic needs I’m preoccupied with, I’m worried about my family. It hurts to see how we interact and how guilt and rage is used to control each other.

Additionally, I harbor some deep resentments that flare up when I’m stressed. These resentments are against old friends, co-workers, roommates, partners, and, of course, family members. During this time I feel so overwhelmed with sadness and anger and it’s hard to stop and calm down.

This week, I was talking with a  friend of mine who is an ayurvedic practitioner. She was telling me how unreleased emotional energy produces illness in the body. It was then that I realized that when I hold onto resentments and worry, I’m doing the equivalent of emotional hoarding.

I absolutely cannot stand hoarding. It makes me physically uncomfortable, so when I realized this, I felt a greater pull to do more conscious work around acknowledging and releasing resentments and worry.

Not only do I want to do this for my own health, I want to do this to make room for new feelings, perceptions, and opportunities.

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