Object Impermanence

The world is the totality of facts, not things.  

Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

 

When we are first born the world is an unfathomable mystery. We emerge from a dark, warm home, barely larger than ourselves, into a reality that is incomprehensible—it is too vast, and we have not yet developed the capacity to sense it. For all the light, color, and shadow of this new world, our newborn eyes can not yet find meaning. Life was knowable and now it is chaos.

Within a matter of weeks we learn to identify objects from the riot of sight. A teddy bear, for example. This soft and furry lump is separate from the things underneath it, next to it, and behind it, and is something singular that we may reach for or hold. We may even clutch it tightly, and this seems to be possession. 

But there is still deep mystery in the object. Where did it come from? What causes it to appear? Where did it go? These are unanswerable to our brand new brain. And at this stage, if that teddy bear is taken and hidden—say, under a table and out of our sight—it’s existence seems to have ceased. It is, simply, gone.

Eventually we learn that objects continue to exist even when we are no longer able to perceive them. The teddy bear may be out of sight, but we understand that it’s there, under the table, extant. In just a matter of months this understanding is established, and the world begins to become comprehensible. It is the foundation upon which a lifetime of understanding is built.

The world unfolded to me, one mystery at a time, in the rooms and halls of my childhood home. While I was no longer held in the warm, quiet cradle of her belly, I learned that if I cried she would cradle me in her arms and comfort me. If I couldn’t see the soft and furry lump that I loved to hold, I learned it was waiting somewhere to be found, often where I slept. That there were words for these things and people around me: mom, teddy bear, mirror, book, brother, bed. I learned that not everything I loved in the house was mine to have. That things which are beautiful to look at can hurt to touch, but that my mother and my home would keep me safe. I learned that books should always be read at bedtime, cooking was a tangible form of love, love was abundant, and mom was always there. That no matter how old I became or how long I was away, walking in that front door would always smell the same. 

I remember laying in bed the night before I left for college, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “This is the last night that this house is my home. I’ll come back for vacations, but from now on it will be a place that I am visiting.” College, graduate school, and a gig-based career that took me around the country and across the seas meant that since that night I’ve lived in 18 different places. With so much change, the only constants in my life were the earliest ones: mom is always there, the teddy bear still exists, sitting on my childhood bed, and walking in the front door of my childhood home always smells the same.

Things began to come apart when my mother became ill—she’d managed to thrive with her alcoholism and keep it hidden for decades, but it caught up to her eventually. She changed from a constant source of comfort and love to a woman made cruel, possessed. When I cried, she would not comfort. Love was withheld. And then she died. The first world I knew, and earliest of my truths, gone. It was unfathomable. 

We have maxims to help make sense of the loss of a life: “although the person is gone, their spirit lives on in our hearts.” Since she died I’ve been working to find where it is inside me that my mother lives. At first she was an absentee tenant, but after two years she’d begun to settle into some quiet corners in a way I found comforting and constant. Things were beginning to make some kind of sense again. Mom was, once again, always there. And so were the teddy bear on the bed and the smell of coming home. 

Until they weren’t. I got a phone call that there had been an accident. My home—it’s walls that once held my whole world—went up in flames in a matter of minutes after a candle tipped over, igniting a sheet on a bed. The the people got out, the dog did not, and the house, and everything in it, was gone. 

My childhood home had burned to the ground.

I cannot explain the strangeness of seeing it the next day, still smoldering. There was some roof, not many walls, sections of floor, remnants of plates, books, chairs, beds, but mostly mounds of shapeless black rubble. All of it burned—most things past recognition, all beyond salvation. The structure itself damaged so irreparably that even the foundation needed to be demolished. Where for 42 years stood a home, now nothing but a charred black hole.

When my mother died people had so many words of comfort to offer. But when the house burned, all people could offer was shock and sorrow. Losing a house to fire is not a universal experience. We do not have maxims for the loss of things, let alone the dizzying loss of everything.

Every thing. The teddy bear is gone, as is the bed it sat on, and the floor beneath it. There is no front door to walk in, and that place which is no longer the house smells like woodsmoke, melted plastic, chemicals, and ash. 

My childhood home does not have a spirit or the intangible essence of a singular person. It was a collection of objects that were, and now are…not. The not-ness of the objects so impossible to comprehend. 

“It’s just stuff,” I’ve told people countless times, “it can be replaced.” Thank goodness nobody told me that home is where the heart it; I would have punched them.

When I was old enough to move from crib to bed, my father built a wooden frame for a twin sized mattress. My bed sat in the corner atop four milk crates. In my adolescence the bed was moved to a different wall, still in its wooden frame built by my father’s hands, but resting now atop white drawers. Old mattress, new sheets. After I’d moved out for good, a new mattress in the same wooden frame atop its drawers. New mattress, old sheets. After my mother died, a brand new double mattress in a brand new wrought-iron frame. New sheets too. Dad cut up the wood from the old frame and made sandwich boards that he painted charcoal black and which I turned into signs for my wedding. After we were married I painted black over the gold letters and made new signs with different gold names for another person’s wedding. I loaded those pieces of my once-bed into the trunk of another’s car and watched them drive away.

I wonder when exactly it was that my childhood bed ceased to exist. When it was moved from one wall to another? When I got new sheets? When the mattress was replaced? When the new bed arrived? When the wooden frame was cut up and painted black? When the new bed was blackened by the fire? 

I wonder if that bed has, in fact, ceased to exist. Are those pieces of the original wooden frame still sitting somewhere, unburned, painted the same flat black as the now burned house? Are they tucked into an attic, the corner of a garage, or perhaps at a dump, being bulldozed under a shapeless mound of rubble?

I wonder where my home went. If the reality of an object exists even outside of our ability to perceive it, what does that mean when an object is destroyed? Has it truly been destroyed? Or is our ability to perceive it that which has been destroyed? Was my home a unique collection of objects, or is the idea of Home the thing that gave it it’s meaning? 

For years now I have found deep meaning from visiting historically significant sites. The Colosseum. Stonhenge. An iron-age fort on a hilltop in Scotland. The Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation. The Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans. A restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, where George Washington had a meal in 1791 and where a recreation of Nat Fuller’s reconciliation feast was held in 2015. All places that have filled me with a sense of mystery and wonder at their meaningfulness. 

The first time I felt profoundly connected to human history was at the Acropolis in Athens when I was 25. My sandal slipped on the stones underfoot. At first annoyed, I realized that they were so smooth and shiny from over 2,000 years of footsteps. I thought of the sandaled feet of Roman senators walking over these same stones. The beginning of Western civilization was here, beneath my feet, and I could draw a direct line through history from those senators atop that hill to my birth, half a world away. I looked around for someone to share the moment with. Nobody on the hilltop was speaking a language that I even recognized, and so I pulled out my cellphone, calculating what time it was in California. I called home.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” I gushed. “At the Acropolis, looking up at the Parthenon.” 

“Oh, how incredible,” she gasped.

A place so full of history and meaning that I had to share it with my mother, standing in the kitchen, half a world away.

And now I survey the burial site of my childhood home. A place with no historical significance except my own. And I don’t have a mom to call when I’m standing there.  And I don’t really understand what the world means now that it’s gone.

 

 

 

 

Hope hurts.

I’ve been hearing some version of “Just hang in there, things will get better and stop being hard soon!” so many times in the last 2 years that I’ve stopped believing it. “What if this is just what life is like now?” I often wonder.

Which leaves me in a bit of predicament. I’ve experienced enough loss and disappointment and Bad Things That Are Not My Fault And Are Out of My Control lately that I am having a hard time being as present for happiness and joy as I’d like. To wit:

The first time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was elated. The kind of excitement and happiness that gives you butterflies, has you dancing alone in the kitchen, and flushes you with enough adrenaline that you have trouble sleeping. I was so excited that even the few weeks of morning all day sickness felt like an adventure that I was 100% willing to endure because of the vast hope flowering within me. And then I miscarried that pregnancy.

The second time I had a positive pregnancy test, I felt numb. “Oh,” I thought “Well, I guess it’s too early to be excited.” So I wasn’t excited. And then I was depressed about the fact that I wasn’t excited. Women all over the world get to be excited about their pregnancies, but I was no longer one of them. That experience had been taken from me. And that felt like shit. And then three days later I miscarried that pregnancy.

The third time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was surprised by a small twinge of excitement. A little seed of hope. “I’ve got a present for you,” I told my husband, and I showed him the test. “Oh,” he said casually, “well, I guess we’ll wait and see if it’s worth getting excited about.” My heart dropped a bit, but I knew he was right. Over the next few weeks, each time I told a close friend that I was pregnant they gushed, “OMG congrats! Are you so excited?!?” and I had to admit that neither my husband nor I were particularly excited, and were in fact feeling rather guarded. At that admission, one of my dearest friends said “I know you’re so worried that this pregnancy won’t work out…but what if it does? I don’t want you to have missed all the fun things things about the beginning of your pregnancy.“ And I realized she was right.

I’ve been hurt by people in my past, and yet I’ve never stopped cultivating new relationships because of the fear that someone new might hurt me. I am devastated every time a beloved pet grows old and dies, and yet that doesn’t mean I’m going to put my current dog up for adoption and never have a pet dog again. I’ve had milk that’s gone bad (shudder), and yet I still have a carton of goat milk in my fridge as I type this! So why was I refusing to let myself be excited about this pregnancy because of the fear it might not work out?

And so I decided to give in to the joy and the hope.

And then the following week, I miscarried that pregnancy.

Well, shit.

Just today, I got some good news related to work. And instead of bringing me excitement and joy, it made me feel overwhelmed, frightened, and anxious, because I just don’t trust good news at the moment. “No news is good news” has never felt like a truer maxim. And yet…I am full of hopes and wishes. I hope I get this job. I hope I get pregnant. I hope I am able to find a home that feels like I could live there forever. I hope, I hope, I hope for all manner of things that are outside of my control. It’s awful. Those hopes feel like naked, vulnerable, tendril-like extensions of my heart sent out into a room full of mouse traps, jackhammers, and stampeding rabid elephants with explosive diarrhea.

How do I do this? How do I remain open to joy and hope, and yet protect myself from the looming specter of pain?

I think the answer is that protecting myself from pain is the wrong goal (and not just because it’s impossible). Increasingly, the way I’ve been getting through the pain has been by focusing on the present moment. My initial reaction to bad news tends to be a mind that races, thinking of all of the ramifications of the bad news, the ways that it will impact the future, and what I will have to endure next, and then after that, and then after that, and then…before I know it I am overcome with anxiety and existential depression about what has happened.

Instead of spiraling into the despair of what this event means in the long term, simply focusing on “I feel so sad right now,” or “this is terribly painful and disappointing,” and just sitting with those emotions is incredibly helpful. I cannot predict how an an event will affect my future. I can sit with and honor how an event made me feel—which is a moment I am able to move on from. It deescalates an event from existential horror that I am caught in, to the feelings I am feeling right now, which ebb and flow.

I think really practicing this will also help me believe that I am allowed to feel hope and joy, and not worry about the many “what-ifs” and things that could go wrong. The next time I receive good news and react with fear, my intention is to ask myself “Am I just afraid that something bad might happen?” And if the answer is yes, then to try to release the fear, and to take joy in the present moment.

I will try to trust that things will work out, or that they won’t, regardless of whether I worry. I will try to trust that I will get through it, however difficult or painful it may feel. I will try to feel unmitigated hope, even if it only lasts for a moment.

I will try.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

…I’ve Been Here Before

grief map

I didn’t make this chart, and I don’t know who did, and I can’t find a higher-res version of it, but it’s very funny/accurate.

Before I experienced any kind of deep grief I’d read and heard things like “grief isn’t linear,” or “grief is cyclical” and thought “Yup, oh yeah, that definitely makes total sense.” But I had no idea what that actually meant or felt like until began to live it.

My previous journeys with emotional hardship tracked along a path that I thought was non-linear because sometimes there were set-backs, and at times I felt like a failure who’d made no progress. Problems which required years of self-examination, therapy, and patience. Moments when I found myself beating myself up because I’d gotten into the same emotional situation once again, goddamit. I read things like “grief isn’t linear” and thought “Yeah obviously, neither is anything hard, amiright?!”

However what I didn’t realize was that the “two steps forward, one step back” process that I’d experienced is still linear progression–even when you’ve taken that one step back, you can still see the path you’re on, still keep moving towards getting over that ex, making better job choices, or learning not to keep tasty snacks in the house.

But I am here to tell you that when people say “grief is not linear” that THEY ARE NOT FUCKING KIDDING AROUND. I entered into my grief thinking that would be a progression–that I’d move through something like the 5 stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and emerge on the other side back to a slightly older and wiser version of my old self. Turns out? HAHA, JOKE WAS IS ON ME!!

My first inkling that things were not going to go as I expected was a couple of months in when I’d moved through some denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and was thinking “Yes, I can get through this, I can overcome!” when all of a sudden WHAM I was back in denial. Or bargaining. Or any other incremental “step” on the way to “Acceptance” or “Loss Adjustment.” And I was confused as hell. “But I already went through this,” I thought, “why am I feeling this again when I’ve already processed it?” If you’ve been through something similar, then I know what you’re thinking: that it’s hilarious and adorable that I thought I’d already “processed” those feelings and was therefore beyond them.

In addition, my usual tool bag of emotional intelligence, self-awareness/self-analysis, and clear communication skills had exactly zero effect on my feelings of grief. I was flummoxed. This was the first time in many years that I was unable to distance myself from the feelings or to contextualize or compartmentalize them in a way that made them easier to manage. I actually said the words “I feel like I should be smarter than this” out loud to my husband. Meaning, I felt ashamed that I was not at all in control of my emotions, and that I was feeling very strong emotions that made no logical sense.

I have never been so intellectually humbled as I have been by my grief. Sure, I find the science of black holes so hard to grok that I mostly just don’t try, but I have faith that there is a system (invariably involving lots and lots of complex maths) that exists to explain them to any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to take the time needed to understand. But grief is different: I don’t think that it makes sense, or can be explained. The closest I can come to an explanation is that my puny brain is unable to actually understand the loss of life on a emotional level, resulting in a phenomenon which follows no logic (or complex maths) at all, and that seems to involve every emotion that has ever been felt in the history of mankind, and that no amount of therapy, or self-help book reading, or even blogging, is ever going to change that.

Do I “understand” that my mom died? Yes, of course I do. I understand that she is gone and never coming back, and that all life ends with death, and that she lives on in my memories of her and in the lives that she touched, and that death is indeed the most natural thing in the world. But does this “knowledge” prevent me from falling to my knees in tears while putting laundry away because I suddenly miss her with a longing so intense that I feel like I might vomit? Or sobbing while driving remembering a particularly awful moment of her suffering as she was dying in the hospital? Or feeling deep rage that her death was so senseless and tragic? Or wishing her death hadn’t happened? No. No, it does not. I both understand and do not understand what has happened. I have both accepted it and not accepted it. Statements which are both perfectly reasonable and yet make no sense at all. (But I tell you, from what I understand about Zen Buddists, those folks seem to have this sort of dual thinking pretty well figured, and seem to me to be pretty cool cats.)

The only things I can assuredly say that I have learned about grief are that 1. It is very complex and is a different process for every person who ever experiences it (and is different for different loses, even within the same person) and 2. That there is no way to understand it, control it, out-smart it, analyze it away, or bypass it, and that the only thing I can do is to accept my complete lack of control in the face of it.

Which is why when a person I know experiences a loss that will result in profound grief, after expressing my condolences and love, the next thing I tell them is “And even when things get real weird, remember that you are not crazy.” Because boy howdy, does that get hard to remember.

So why does grief keep resulting in emotions revisiting us like some fucked up mashup of Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol? It seems to be (in my limited experience) that it continues to bring things back around again and again in order to reach deeper levels of healing each time you revisit them. Perhaps rather than thinking of grief as a linear progression it’s more helpful to think of it as an ascending spiral, that goes through the same territory many times as it travels to resolution. Or as a scribble map like the one at the beginning of this post, which starts at one end and follows a path to the resolution that is so convoluted that it cannot be traced or understood.

Then again, I’m actually not convinced that there is any such thing as resolution when it comes to grief. A notion which seems both perfectly logical, and remarkably absurd. Ask me again in 50 years and see what I say.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

No One Told Me I’d Be A Little Bit Terrible…At Everything

I could write a whole list of the Things No One Told Me About Grief (in fact, it may become an ongoing series of posts.) But the one I want to focus on for this post is how grieving has affected my ability to feel competent. Period. And I’m not just talking about feeling competent in the face of highly complex logical reasoning and/or emotionally stressful situations (although that has doubtless been affected). I’m also talking about, like, feeling competent about putting on pants.

I am a person who has always prided myself at being hyper-competent. I’m an incredibly independent natural leader, and a quick learner with high standards. Give me a job, and I will do it to the best of my abilities simply for the sake of pride in a job well done. However. Since my mom died, and then the subsequent losses and trauma that occurred (mom died, childhood friend died, three miscarriages and a major injury, plus some other stuff) I just kind of suck at…everything. Here is a partial list of things that I used to be amazing at but which I’m pretty sucky at right now:

  • Being on time (hooooooboy this is a big one for me. Being “on time” used to mean arriving, fully prepped, half an hour early. Now being “on time” means anything that’s less than 10 minutes late and with pants on.)
  • Feeding myself and my husband (gotten a lot suckier at making sure the grocery shopping is done and that we’ve got ample food to stay alive in the house)
  • Putting on clothes that aren’t sweatpants (I’ve actually just given in to this one and adjusted my wardrobe to embrace what I’m calling the “Sweatpant Lifestyle.”)
  • Being social (everything from just talking to people at a bar, to running into an acquaintance on the street, to throwing a party, now requires a billion times more physical and emotional energy)
  • Not breaking things (I have lost track of how many glass jars and bowls I have broken in the kitchen…in the last 3 weeks)
  • Being consistent (how many weeks has it been since I published the last blog post? Lolz I don’t even know)
  • Remembering things (scheduling? Phone numbers? Names? What day of the week it is? Who you are? Yeah, sorry, no idea.)
  • Putting clothes on, period. (there was one day a few weeks after my mom died that I was trying to put a shirt on but I couldn’t because I literally forgot how to do it. For clarity: I forogt. How to put on. A shirt.)
  • Keeping the house organized and tidy (I am a person who is House Proud, which Google defines as being “attentive to, or preoccupied with, the care and appearance of one’s home.” Preoccupied with? Sounds judgy. But unless you are a super duper best friend…you are not allowed to see my house when it’s less that immaculately clean.)

Not only did I used to be  amazing at these things, but I identified as a person who was amazing at them. Needless to say, this has all been a profound lesson in humility and loss of ego.

In some ways, I feel like a different person than I was in December of 2015, before the shit started to continuously stream through the fan at an unrelenting pace. And I’m not sure if my current state of reduced capacity is temporary, or if it’s the new normal. (I assume folks feel similarly after having a baby, when the “you” that you used to recognize has faded into obscurity, and you wonder if you’ll ever be that person again). I’m trying to accept my current suckiness with grace, and  stop judging myself for it–I am trying to view it with patience and humor.

But one day when I was feeling a particularly ashamed about the fact that I was wearing the same sweatpants I’d been wearing for the last 5 days, and I was running late to meet somebody because I was sweeping up the glass I’d broken, and I was crying with frustration and berating myself for being so horribly incompetent, I had a moment of clarity; after the tantrum of shame passed I thought “You know, I might be fucking up a lot of things that I used to find effortless, but I’ve also gotten really good at some things I used to struggle with.”

Here is a partial list of things that I used to be pretty sucky at but which I’m amazing at right now:

  • Saying “no” to things that I don’t want to do
  • Asking for help when I need it
  • Being present for friends who are going through some Rough Shit
  • Having difficult conversations
  • Initiating difficult conversations
  • Watching awesome British television
  • Finding humor in even the darkest situations
  • Slowing down to really enjoy a beautiful moment
  • Thinking about death
  • Talking about death
  • Thinking about my own death and the deaths of those nearest and dearest to me in a way that is not terrifying or awful, but is actually okay
  • Communicating clearly and honestly with others about my emotional state
  • Going to bed early (Okay fine, I’ve always been good at this one, but I’m extra super good at it right now.)

So while I’ve had to let go of feeling like a person who Does Everything Well, I’ve also grown in some rather profound ways. Would I go back to the old, more competent me? Well, yes insofar as that me was ignorant to the pain of profound grief. But if I’m really honest; no. I think the experience and emotional intelligence I’ve gained is more meaningful than being able to juggle my schedule, get places on time, and dress myself well. I think that for all my new flaws, inconsistencies, and mistakes, that the new me is actually a better version of myself.

Umm, okay wow. To be completely honest, this is not where I thought this post was going. When I started writing this my only intent was to write a humorous and honest piece about how much I feel like I am failing at basic tasks right now. (“Me! I’m such an idiot, amiright?”) I am surprised to have arrived at a completely different conclusion—that I’ve actually changed for the better, on a post that I set out to simply write about my incompetence. Well…shit. You learn something new every day.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

The Question I’ve Been Avoiding

Lately, there’s one question that I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding. It’s enough to keep me away from parties and social functions, and turning the other way when I see someone I know coming down the street. I dread it. I try to come up with distractions or jokes or just my own questions to avoid being asked. I’ve gotten quite adept at preemptively asking lots of questions and steering the conversation away from the Dreaded Question, which is:

“So how are you, what’s been going on with you lately?”

When someone makes it past my defenses and I am asked the Dreaded Question, my general response is to smile, pause, take a breath, and then ask “How honestly do you want me to answer that?” That reaction alone generally takes folks aback, because it’s not the expected “I’m fine! Things are great. How are you?” Then depending on their response, they get one of 3 answers to the Dreaded Question:

  1. “It’s actually a long story. We should catch up some time.” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and avoid making plans to catch up.)
  2. “Well, I’ve had a really intense year with a lot of emotional upheaval, but there have been a lot of really wonderful things too and I’m doing really well overall. How are you?” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and give more details if they ask direct questions.)
  3. They get the truth.

For those who get answer #3, there is always a brief silence when I am finished, followed by a heartfelt “Oh my god Kat, that is…that is so much. I’m so sorry. But you sound like you’re handling it all like a champ” (see this blog post about hearing that last comment often). And I hear the shock and concern in their voice…and imagine pity and revulsion.

And I do not wish to be pitied or reviled, and so in answering the Dreaded Question honestly, I tend to highlight the Positive Things, share a few of the Things I’ve Learned, and add a couple of Humorous Anecdotes. And I’ll be darned, it works! But sometimes it makes me feel like I’m performing a version of myself, rather than just having an honest conversation about the last year.

The biggest relief is when someone hears what I have to say and interjects as some point with “I know exactly what you’re feeling, I went through something just like that myself” so that I can just look them in the eye, drop the act, say “Oh, so you know,” and then give them a big, wordless hug.

I’m not sure what the answer is to all this. Just get comfortable being dishonest and answering “I’m fine! How are you?” Trust people to be able to handle the truth? Just keep staying home and avoiding people forever? In any case, I’ll probably write about how it plays out.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

 

Fragility and Resiliency

Every time I take a ridiculous Buzzfeed quiz (Who would play your best friend in the movie version of your life?  Which Ryan Gosling character is your soulmate? Are you actually a hipster?*) and it asks, “Which word from the following list best describes you?” my immediate reaction is always “This is stupid. No one can be described in one word.” And then, invariably, I scroll down the list and select “Independent.”

It’s a personality trait that I inherited from my mother, but also one that I actively cultivate, and that I value in others. I take great pride in being very capable, competent, and self-sufficient.

So when I was in my therapists’ office** and she observed “You are extraordinarily sensitive and fragile” my immediate reaction was “TAKE THAT BACK I AM NOT FRAGILE I AM INDEPENDENT HEAR ME ROAR.” I was actually taken aback that she described me as fragile.

Me!? Fragile!??!??? But I drove myself to college by myself and insisted I move in on my own, with no help from my parents! And I am super organized and smart! And I moved to a foreign country by myself to work there for 4 months! And I’ve gotten through super hard breakups with grace and dignity! And I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations! And I’ve done solo road trips and camped all by myself! And I’m a super reliable and strong friend! And I can change a flat tire, and fix things around the house, and and and…oh right, one can do all these things and still be fragile.

The first step was admitting that I was fragile. “Who am I kidding?” I finally sobbed one day “I’m practically a hothouse lily!” *** The next was realizing that fragility is not a weakness or character deficiency.

And yet I still felt confused about admitting my fragility, because I’m a person who weathers chaos, emergencies****, and extreme upheaval quite well. “Wow, you’re handling this like a champ” and “You are so strong” are things I hear often. So how does that square with being fragile?

What I ultimately realized is that personalities, like everything else, are extremely complex. And that seemingly contradictory traits can exist within one person. And that the trait that allows me to weather all the things that life throws my way is my resiliency.

“Resilient” has replaced “Independent” as the adjective that I most identify with, and am most proud of. I am able to be fragile, sensitive, vulnerable, emotional, and yet stable and reliable because of it. It is a trait that, again, I think I’ve always had, but one that I now put thought and energy into cultivating and strengthening.

Part of it is just my brain chemistry that gravitates towards joy and happiness, but one of the most important emotional skills I’ve developed as an adult is asking myself “What can I do right now to make myself feel better in this moment?” during times of distress. Sometimes it’s going to bed at 7pm. Sometimes it’s initiating a difficult conversation that I’ve been putting off. Sometimes it’s binge-watching The Great British Bake Off.***** Or getting a hug from my husband. Or making hot chocolate. Or ordering pizza or snuggling the dogs, or getting my taxes done. The practice of asking that question and then listening to and honoring the answer over and over has created a deep sense of trust within myself that I will always take care of myself.

So at this point, I know that I am sensitive, emotional, and yes, fragile. And yet I am not afraid of loss, pain, and difficulty, because I know that I will take good care of myself, land on my feet, and be better and stronger for it.******

Until next time, with fragility and resiliency,

The Cry Babe

 

 

 

*Lupita Nyong’o, Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, No.

**Every human being should be required to be in therapy for at least 6 months of their life.

***I could be mistaken, but I believe this particular meltdown was brought on by the fact that I had multiple rashes due to my incredibly sensitive skin, but my skin just felt like a metaphor for my entire personhood in that moment.

****Like the time a lady collapsed in front of me in the produce section at the Berkeley Bowl. Time slowed down, and I moved her shopping cart out of the way, knelt by here side, and immediately began checking her vitals. When I looked up there was another woman on the other side doing these exact same things. “Are you a doctor?” she asked. “No, I’m an actor.” To which she responded, confusedly “Well…you could have fooled me. You’re doing all the right things.” I backed off and let the doctor take over, then ended up driving the woman who had collapsed to the emergency room. (But not before paying for my groceries and buying her a magazine, because there is usually a long wait at the emergency room.)

*****There is nothing that binge-watching The Great British Bake Off doesn’t make more bearable.

******After crying for hours, obviously.

Grief and Shame

“…There has been little attention paid to the[sic] inhibitory functions of shame in the literature on death and mourning.”

From the Article “Shame” by Jeffery Kauffman, published in Encyclopedia of Death And Dying edited by Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman

 

In February of 2016 my mother died. It was my first experience with profound loss, and thus my first experience with grief. Sure, I’d felt sadness and loss when relationships ended, or when a period of my life came to a close, but I’d never experienced anything like the grief I felt with my mom’s death.

I could (and will) write about many of my experiences with grief, but I’m going to focus on the link I experienced between grief and shame. I’m not going to talk about shame related to the cause of my mother’s death (although I could), or feelings of shame related to my inability to help or save her (yep, could talk a lot about that too, and if you’re particularly interested in reading pieces about these kinds of shame you can find them here and here). I’m going to talk about something that I wasn’t expecting about grief: that it brought me face-to-face with my own feelings of shortcomings and shame, some of which were buried deep.

After the first wave of grief (the days and weeks that felt strange and surreal, like I was caught in a reality distortion field) began to subside, I felt open, raw, and vulnerable in ways I never had before–which is saying something, because I’m a very emotional and vulnerable person to begin with.

Now I’m going to say something about those days which may seem strange–although they were incredibly painful and difficult, there was also a profound sweetness to them. Sounds weird, but go with me for a sec. A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:

broken-heart-smalls

This lovely piece is by Amber Ibarreche. You can find more of her stuff at her shop.

Now, my only quibble with this is that I think it would be more accurate to say “My heart is broken and that crack has created more space and so it also feels more open which is both painful and good.” But that is way less catchy. My grief made me more open to all the feelings, not just the sad ones. It also exposed some feelings I wasn’t aware I was harboring. This is where we get to the shame.

During that period I realized I was carrying around shame about my career, my sexuality, my finances, my gender, my ability to be a good partner, and (and here’s the real kicker) about my grief itself. How did I realize I was harboring shame about these things? Because I’d be having a conversation with my husband and all of a sudden I would find myself crying uncontrollably. Like, you’re having a hard time breathing and your voice jumps about 8 octaves you feel like you might vomit. So you shut your mouth and try to master your emotions and stop crying, but it’s just not happening.

“Hmmm,” I’d think when that happened, “there seems to be something here that I have strong feelings about.” I’d then try to dig a little deeper to figure out why I was weeping so profusely, and the answer was inevitably that I was feeling  deficient and ashamed about myself in relation to what we were talking about. It happened so often that I started laughing (but while also sobbing) about it. And I jokingly dubbed 2016 the Year of Shame.

But here’s the thing about talking about shame; In my experience, talking about shame is like exposing a vampire to sunlight. It weakens and eventually kills it. Even the act of simply identifying and naming the shame lessens it’s power, because shame can only control you if it is able to isolate and silence you.

The link I felt between grief and shame was so profound that I was surprised to find very little written about it when I searched the internets. The little I did find was more about the shame associated with survivor’s guilt than the effect of grief on uncovering one’s own feelings of shame related to their character and life choices. I did, however, find one article that mentioned the phenomenon I had experienced. It listed 7 “grief reactions” that prompt shame. I resonated with all of them, but especially reason number 6, which I’ve highlighted in bold.

“The following are examples of grief reaction that prompt shame. (1) The impact of loss triggers feelings of being out of control and vulnerable. Being out of control or anxious about loss of control prompts shame. (2) In grief one is particularly vulnerable to helplessness, separation, and abandonment anxieties, all of which are shame anxieties. (3) Persons may experience feelings of mortification and dread in grief over a death loss. These uncanny feelings are expressions of shame. (4) Feelings of self-blame may occur in reaction to death. Disturbance in self-regard, which are usually understood as guilt, tend to be, at a more fundamental level, shame… (5) A sense of utter aloneness may also prompt shame. Even though shame is called the social emotion (because it is an experience of oneself through the eyes of another, even when no other is involved), shame disconnects the self from both others and oneself… (6) A sense of violation of self, experienced as part of a grief reaction, is shame. Parts of the self that are exposed in grief leave the bereaved especially shame vulnerable. (7) The bereaved person is prone to further conceal the sense of exposure of the self that is present in each of these anxieties.”*

All of this–my own experience, the quotes and articles–is just to say that if you’re feeling your own shame in the midst of grief, that you are not alone.

More, invariably, to come on this topic.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

*Kauffman, Jeffery (2001) Shame. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying [Google Book Version]. Retrieved from here.