The Word of the Day is Lament

I haven’t written much about my experiences or feelings navigating the last four or five months. I still have a lot to work through before I feel clear enough to discuss my thoughts regarding the traumatic closure of my business, my scramble to keep afloat, the uprisings all over the country and the way our mainstream political discourse has changed. I’m still struggling daily. Every crack and flaw in our feeble system has finally been exposed. Watching and living that reality through sober eyes has been an experience. It will continue to be for some time. Accepting that new reality is where I currently reside on my grief journey.

In the face of challenge or trauma I place myself in a constant state of motion. I’ve learned this through years of writing and a year of weekly therapy. Moving fast helps me to feel productive, like I’m in total control, which I understand is rooted in a deep history of societal ideology promoting capitalism and individualistic bootstrap culture in this country. The guilt I feel is constant; it’s enough to make me sick to my stomach at the thought of possibility of failure. It is with me daily. Were my parent’s sacrifices for nothing? If I’m not producing something, I feel worthless. I would be lying if I said that being Mexican / American – the daughter and granddaughter of people who worked hard and sacrificed everything to give me a better life – hasn’t influenced my relationship with work and my value. With production and permission to exist. It has. The extent to which I feel these things is something I’m working through now. And it’s tough.

I’ve gone through months of feeling unpredictable and intense emotions. And months of trying my best to stay busy and channel them into something tangible and useful. But for the last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling something different. Something that I couldn’t name until earlier this week when I listened to Rob Bell’s podcast episode “We Hung Our Harps” on The Robcast.

I listened to it three times.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and

wept

when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars

we hung our harps,

for there our captors asked us for

songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of

joy;

they said, “Sing us one of the songs

of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

while in a foreign land?”

-Psalm 137

Although I was raised in a strictly Christian household, I am not religious. I fall somewhere on the scale between atheist and agnostic beliefs. What I appreciate about Rob Bell is how effective he is at using the bible to teach lessons that make sense no matter what your religious beliefs may be. However problematic, these words spoke to me, on a symbolic level. They helped me to begin processing that emptiness I started to feel a few weeks after being back to work. I feel disconnected from everything that was taken from me so easily. From my job, from my business, from my relationship with work and to the part I play as a cog in a larger broken capitalist system in this country – that does not care if I succeed or fail.

Bell made two specific points in regards to the Psalm above that gave meaning to my feelings of emptiness and disappointment. The first is that we are on the cusp of a great, collective “lament.” We, as a country, had the opportunity to make something great. To use our privilege in this world for good, and we largely did not. We blew it. And now we’re here. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.” We’re mourning many of our privileges, but also mourning our fantasies. The ones we had about who we were as a country and “how far we’d come.” I feel like the first stage of this lament began for many of us, after Donald Trump was elected. Bell acknowledges that even those of us that are critical of our country and it’s flawed systems still, on some level, believed at least something about what our place in this world was. What the United States could stand for, what goodness we could pull together to do if we used all that power in the right ways. We were capable of so much good. But the reality of what’s happening doesn’t reflect those beliefs. I had this personal moment of reckoning when I was thinking about the Muslims currently in internment camps in China. My immediate though was: “How can we help anyone else when we can’t even help ourselves?” I had never felt that way before. Before, I could either be proud of our country or disappointed in our country. Helplessness was an emotion, as an American with white privilege, I haden’t spent much time feeling. “There, on the poplars, we hung our harps.”

A great lament. A mourning for what we had, and what we thought we had.

An acceptance of our painful failures.

The second point that Bell made was in regards to exile. Exile can be a literal, physical banishment from one’s country or home. Or it can be an emotional expulsion. The anxiety I feel knowing that as a US citizen, the mobility and “freedom” that we’re used to owning has been largely curtailed, is intense. What a privilege we had. But the emotional exile is something interesting. A feeling of banishment, of loneliness, of losing the little faith I had in this country to keep us safe. The safety net I thought I had just doesn’t exist and that, more than anything, feels like abandonment.

I’m not bringing up these points to focus only on the negative, or to wallow in self pity. I bring these up to hopefully help others recognize that that sadness and grief for what we had, and thought we had, is real. And it will likely get worse and more intense before the upturn. But that’s the beauty about a lament – a loss, a grief process – once you allow yourself to feel it, you can move through it. With a clear head and a stronger heart you have the freedom to create something better, something new and previously assumed to be impossible. My hope, for all of us who make it to this next chapter in United States history, is that we have the courage to mourn what’s lost, let it go, and build something compassionate and new.

Digital Declutter Diaries Part 2: I Can Feel

Being underwater dulls everything down. Light and sound. You try to laugh but it’s hard. You try to see but that’s hard too. You try to listen but nothing sticks. The details are all lost anyway.

All you know is that for some reason it feels as close to good and familiar as you can get with your head dunked slightly below the surface. Everything’s fuzzy. Slower. After a while it becomes normal to feel that way. Watching your life through a blurry lens of indifference and numbness.

You try to believe you’re happy. But deep down you understand that knowing you should feel happiness, and actually experiencing it are two different things. You think you’re sad, but at the end of the day you could take or leave whatever made you feel that way. Disappointment isn’t real, anger is just a response to another thing that isn’t real. Love feels real, but comes with a handful of emotions that are fuzzy now too.

So back underwater you go. Lukewarm.

Sometimes you can’t help it and you get upset – you don’t even know why. But you enjoy being angry, because at least it’s something. The few things you do care about, you distance by a few degrees just in case.

That was me. That is me still, sometimes.

Compartmentalized.

I had accepted this as my normal. It’s like being outside where everything feels bad for so long that you put a protection around yourself that makes everything feel about half (or less) of what it should. It’s okay at first. But then time went by and I started to worry that I’d completely forget how to really be happy, or sad. Or anything. I just wanted to feel a genuine emotion that I wasn’t capable of putting inside a box and neatly stacking on a shelf of 10,000 never-again-opened boxes. It had become SO easy to do that.

What’s it like to feel real joy? Or gratitude? Or disappointment? Without immediately putting it in check with the opposite emotion.

Neutralize it.

During this process of decluttering my mind I realized that my emotional shutting down happened in two stages.

The first began as a defense mechanism-type response to an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship I was in for about four years in my early twenties. Until I conducted this experiment, I hadn’t even realized, let alone accepted that what I had gone through was actual abuse.

Yet for years I lived in a constant state of isolation, uneasiness, fear, and defensiveness. I lost myself navigating the complexities of loving someone with mental illness, depression, and sometimes uncontrollable, unpredictable anger. I developed resulting post traumatic stress, and have often found myself exhibiting those same destructive behaviors – learned out of necessity to protect myself, then. Now I’m finally realizing that I can stop living a defensive life. Everything isn’t an argument; constantly worrying about my plans going off track is unproductive. I don’t need to always be on the highest alert.

Back then I retreated inside. Put up protective barriers. And apologized. A lot. I numbed myself to my reality because after years of mental manipulation it becomes extremely difficult to separate what’s real from what someone tells you are just your own “unreliable” emotions. It’s even harder to accept what you know is true when the good times are good, and when everyone around you seems to think everything is mostly fine.

And then there is the shame and the fear. I chose to be there, so obviously something must be wrong with me because I stayed. I’m not a “victim.” I’m smart and capable. So it must be my own fault for not leaving. It’s my own fault for not bringing it up until now. It’s my own fault.

I spent years worrying about his mental health and everything I was doing “wrong,” while my mental state and self worth deteriorated. But I couldn’t see what was happening.

That lightbulb didn’t even begin to flicker until about a month ago when I read Gavin DeBecker’s book The Gift of Fear. I thought long and hard about all the behaviors that he argues are precursors to violence, and how our intuition knows before our minds do that something is wrong. Back then I had gotten very good at ignoring my intuition and rationalizing behaviors that I now see as completely dangerous and unacceptable. I never once worried about my own safety, focusing primarily on getting him help for his mental illness. Only now that seven years has passed do I realize that I should’ve been extremely concerned about my own mental and physical well being.

The second stage of my emotional shutting down happened after he died, about three months after our final breakup. For more information about this please reference my first ever post, Context.

A huge part of my identity and self worth was caught up in a person who made me feel disempowered and small. Overnight, I lost everything I thought stabilized me, and I couldn’t help but feel partially responsible. I feel guilt now, as I write these words. But staying silent hasn’t helped me to heal. And protecting his memory and family should’ve never taken precedent over my own mental health.

The tragic reality of what happened to him, coupled with the awkwardness people feel discussing death and trauma had effectively rendered my experience within that relationship invisible. Somehow petty and unimportant. So I threw myself into a full fledged effort to convince myself it was petty and unimportant. And I simply cannot live that way anymore. In sharing my experience, it becomes visible, and there is freedom there. For me, and others like me.

I think that ever since I was a little kid I’ve known that I feel very deeply. That I can absorb energy from those around me, and that I can sometimes tap into the pain and sadness and love and happiness of animals and other people that I may not even know. Until I got into that relationship, I felt confident to exude that passion is everything I did. In my learning, in my work, in my friends and family. I felt deeply and unapologetically about everything. And I wasn’t even the slightest bit ashamed or afraid to show it to the world- thanks parents.

In a nutshell, I loved being me and I was not afraid to show it, and tell everyone about it.

And then all that passion and self confidence evaporated and I accepted it.

My therapist has asked me on multiple occasions if I minded being alone. My answer has always been a hard no – ask my husband; he knows. I love spending time alone. What I believe she should’ve been asking me (now that it’s 2020) is if I like being truly alone. Without all the things that make it so easy to never actually be by yourself. No phone, no internet, no TV. Because my answer would’ve likely been something like: I don’t know. Because I’ve never tried that. Solitude wasn’t something I had prioritized.

I thought I’d been healing myself the best ways I knew how. And I suppose to a degree, I have been. But I’ve always felt like I was hitting a wall, beyond the healthy eating, and exercise, meaningful work, therapy, and positive, supportive, loving people in my life, something still eluded me. Something still felt like a hole in my heart. A missing piece.

After a month of solitude, and A LOT of thinking, I realized that the missing piece was partially realization and acceptance. Moving through my past. The other part was remembering the confidence in my own spirit and abilities that used to come so easily, and the permission to feel everything and anything again.

I condensed about five years of therapy into one month, just by allowing myself to really think. I’ve already started to see glimpses of my “old self,” but in a new way, still trepidatiously approaching emotion. I can finally begin to heal the parts of me that have developed as coping mechanisms, shields, and responses to trauma. I can forgive him and let him go – he was hurt too.

I’m not sure if my mind had guarded me from my full reality on purpose, or if I was in denial. I’m not sure if I was being protected from recognizing my past as what it truly was until I was strong enough and stable enough to handle it. Or if I was consciously shoving it aside because it was too difficult to look at.

All that matters now is that I am beginning to see love in little things again and am so overwhelmed with gratitude on a daily basis for every wonderful and painful part of this life.

_____

Artwork by: TanyaZCdesign https://www.etsy.com/shop/TanyaZCdesign

Let’s Be Better At Loss

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, trauma, and loss lately. Friends and close clients have been experiencing the death of loved ones or being presented with challenging life situations at a rate that seems higher than normal – unusual even. And so it has me contemplating something that one of my best friends said recently in response to the death of one of her close family members – maybe as we get older this just becomes normal.

So maybe we should start teaching ourselves to be better at it.

Learning how to be supportive, understanding, and effective friends and family members to those going through difficult times seems more important than ever. And with all the literal guidebooks out there to help us cope with loss, experience grief and depression, and help others in need, you’d think we would have improved by now. But I’m noticing that we haven’t. And from my own experience, I can say that most of us fail miserably at trying to be supportive – but not for lack of caring. Mostly it’s from lack of understanding and an overall feeling of helplessness. Most of us find the talk of death or trauma uncomfortable at a minimum, and so it goes undiscussed and becomes invisible. And with it, so do the people experiencing it. The world keeps turning even though your world closes in. And because your loved ones (and everyone else around you) are too afraid to discuss it, you’re forced to pretend that that loss, that grief, that trauma never happened. But everything is still different.

I am very aware that I am not any type of expert on loss, grief, or trauma. I’m not an expert on communicating or empathizing either – but I do talk to a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s the writer in me who is constantly compiling stories, or the critical analyzer struggling to understand as much as possible, but I compulsively ask the other question. Not just the what, or where but the why. There’s so much more to be found there, I think.

Yesterday I was in the treatment room with a client who I barely know. This happens rarely but she is the type of client that floats in a couple of times a year for an eyebrow wax, and during that twenty minutes we can only cover so much ground. She had just gotten back from a three-week-long vacation, and I asked her how it went. She said that it was great, but she was really forced to get out of her comfort zone and face some of her biggest fears. So naturally, I asked her to tell me what those fears are. She laughed and asked me if I really cared to know, and I said I’d love to know because then we could have a real conversation. And at the end of those twenty minutes we had both concluded what we’re sure we must have heard Brene Brown say somewhere:

“It’s better to just do it afraid.”

Maybe I’m being nosy. Maybe it’s none of my business. But it turns out we have a lot of the same fears, and it helps to talk about it. And it adds a level of humanity to an interaction that could otherwise skim a surface level simplicity that leaves us both the same.

Let’s apply this to loss.

I had an interaction recently with an acquaintance who had recently suffered a devastating death of a loved one. I had known the person who had passed also, but we weren’t close, and I had discovered the information via social media. When I encountered this person in public we exchanged pleasantries, but after thinking over this whole topic and how horrifying it must be to be trapped inside a mind that is suffering while having to casually respond to “How are you’s” with something like “fine, thanks.” I stopped myself and told this person how sorry I was, and how I know they’re not okay, and that’s okay. They mentioned that they weren’t sure if I knew, and thought it would be weird to bring it up. So I just said, how could this kind of situation get any worse or any weirder? And they laughed and said “I guess you’re right.”

It’s better to just do it afraid.

I thought I’d share the three most important things I’ve learned from experiencing traumatic loss myself, but also from talking with hundreds of people who all have some version of death or trauma that they can share and relate to.

#1) Don’t say nothing.

You will not make your friend, family member or co-worker “feel worse” or remind them of their loss if you offer your condolences, support, or make a gesture to let them know they’re in your thoughts. Most likely, there is no way that they could feel worse, and they are thinking about their loss or difficult situation at all times whether or not someone acknowledges it. It is literally impossible for you to “remind” them that their loved one has passed, for example. They are always painfully aware of that reality.

What can be hurtful is the isolation that we can experience when we’re going through a difficult situation and those around us do nothing, say nothing, and try to treat you like nothing happened. Or worse, ignore you all together because they feel awkward. The fear of saying the wrong thing often translates into saying nothing at all, and that can make the person who is hurting feel frustrated and alone. Just offering up a simple “I’m sorry and I’m here for you” can go a long way for someone who is suffering.

#2) Directly ask the person whether they want to talk about it or not, and then respect their answer.

One of my go-to lines in the treatment room is: “I’m here if you want to talk about it, but if you don’t then that’s completely fine too. We can talk about other things, or not at all.” Sometimes I lead with that statement; sometimes that’s a follow-up to another technique I learned from a client going through a terrible time. I ask how they’re doing today. In general, they are most-likely not doing well, but in this moment, today, they may be doing better or worse. I remember hating it when people who were aware of my loss would ask me a blanket “how are you” because I’d feel confined to answer in a socially acceptable way like “fine” when what I really wanted to say was: “Fucking terrible. How could I feel any differently?”

Some people may want to talk about it. Others may not. Some may tell you ahead of time through a non-confrontational text that they just want you to treat them like nothing has happened when they see you. Others may come through the door at work and immediately break down and tell you everything. But not everyone is that direct, or has the capacity to do those things. The point is to be brave enough to ask them what they actually want instead of saying nothing, or assuming you understand how they feel and want to be treated.

#3) Stop asking what you can do and just do something.

This, in my opinion, is the most difficult one to put into practice. What can you do for someone suffering emotionally other than be there for them? You want to make their life easier during this terrible time, but you’re not sure how, so you ask them. This seems harmless but actually then puts the heavy burden of delegating or deciding on the person who is already mentally and emotionally maxed out. So they usually respond by saying they don’t need anything. Which isn’t usually true.

Depending on the type of relationship you have with this person, the type of “help” will vary. But decide on something and just do it. Say, “I’m coming over with dinner. If you want me to stay and talk, great. If not, that’s great too. I just want you to have some food.” Say, “I know you’re going to be out of town a lot with family in the next couple of weeks. I’d be happy to watch your pets while you’re gone.” Come over and take their dogs on a walk. Babysit the kids for a few hours. Drop off some books or flowers. Sit with them. Answer their phone call.

I know that for me personally, I needed to continue going through my routine in order to keep my life somewhat together. What helped me tremendously, and what to this day I will never forget was the fact that for probably at least six months my sister never left me alone. And my best friends always answered their phones. My sister didn’t do anything in particular, but she was always there. Getting off work and having someone to sit with, and eat with, and watch movies with was very helpful, and being able to call my friends and talk in the middle of the night got me through some dark moments.

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I hope that these few tools can help some of you. I understand that not everyone is the same, and some of you may disagree with my ideas. Maybe my friend was right- as we get older these things start to happen more frequently, so naturally we should get better at dealing with trauma and loss as time goes on. But instead of waiting for practice, I think we should all try to be better now.

Photo: Kimberly Ann Photography