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

Digital DeClutter Diaries Part 1: I can think.

On the fourth day I began to think I had gone down some sort of mental rabbit hole that I wasn’t sure I could retreat from. That statement likely comes across as unnecessarily melodramatic, but it remains the best way to describe the swift losing of what I thought was my mind, in order to replace it with what actually is my mind, or rather myself.

Let me explain.

As the month I spent without unnecessary technology use comes to a close, I realize that ultimately my month “away” gave me the opportunity to temporarily grasp a small piece of what it feels like to be me. A pinhole glimpse into my understanding of who I’ve become. Not nearly large or tangible enough to hold onto or fully comprehend. But just wide enough to intrigue my interest and teach me that this experiment was really just the beginning of some more complex journey to widen that pinhole, if just slightly. Draw out the blackened edges little by little. Turn what feels like a metaphorical lesson from a dream into something I can hold in my hands.

What I thought would be 31 days to reduce anxiety, social pressures, and redefine what activities are important to me turned into 31 days of exploring around in my own head. I thought it would be all reading, and working out and time with friends and family without constant pressure from emails, social media, TV, and texting. It was all of those great things, but I had to go through this experiment in order to stop missing the point:

The real opportunity to learn lies beyond the simple omission of all the world’s noises and ideas. What remains in their absence is room for myself, which is the most important discovery of all.

The clean slate I forgot I was even capable of being. The ability to let my mind wander however it wanted to, sometimes for however long it could, with no interruptions. The freedom from input, from distraction and attention-grabbing, from anything that is the opposite of solitude. Which I still define as simply being alone with your own thoughts, not necessarily physically alone.

In the beginning it was easy. I liken it to a food detox. You feel great for that first couple of days. It’s easy and simple. I can give it up, no problem. Life without it will be so much better. Healthier. It’s quiet here. No one to bother me. No TV or internet to distract me. Reading all day with a cup of tea feels like vacation. Until it’s your third day in a row, and all the errands that used to take days to complete take a few hours, total. And I’ve worked out, and meditated, and spent my allotted fifteen minutes texting clients back, and cleaned the house, and did all my laundry, and it’s somehow 10:30am.

I seriously began to wonder what I was going to do with 31 days as I anxiously awaited a work day. A clear direction, tasks. It’s that moment when you realize you are truly addicted to sugar and you cannot possibly go without it because it is literally in everything. How is it in everything?!

Time slowed down and I watched it happen. It began to creak by, painfully slowly.

I had to have that moment of panic to realize that what was happening to me was exactly what I asked for. For life to slow down long enough for me to think. On the fifth day I woke up, meditated and immediately thought to myself: For the first time in as long as I can remember, my brain is waking up. I feel like I’m thinking clearly.

For the last decade or longer I’ve felt like someone sitting in a room while twenty radios play just as many different stations at miscellaneous volumes. I picture myself strapped to a chair with something covering my eyes. While it’s difficult to focus on one song long enough to really hear it, if I manage to do so, it would only be for a second before another song would cut in. Twenty songs or commercials or news reports always competing. If something familiar comes on, maybe I could concentrate on it long enough to sing along, only to have that song end and another immediately begin. What this model promises is always the same, whether we enjoy one of the stations, whether we recognize a song or find value in one of the news reports, the ultimate result remains identical: The last thought I have time, space, or energy for is the one in my own head.

Everything is a response to something else.

I went from that room, to a room with nothing in it at all. Or at least that’s what it felt like at first. Just me inside an empty room with the loud sounds of my own breathing. No blindfold because there’s nothing to see. No chair because there’s no where to go. Once the initial panic starts to wear off I realized that I can put whatever I want inside that room. I was the one who put the radios in, and cranked them up, and refused to remove them. I was the one that blindfolded myself and refused to get out of the chair, and now I was the one that decided to shut it all off. Suddenly. And I can always leave the room. Or put things back into it.

That’s when things shifted from scary to interesting. Because holy shit; I can think.

On day six I wrote: “All I know is that right now I feel like the volume of my thoughts has gotten turned way up, so I’m trying really hard to listen.”

Although this post is rife with metaphor (apologies), there is truly no better way to explain this experience. My attention and concentration has improved, my dreams and meditations are more insightful and introspective, and I’m beginning to remember myself.

On day nineteen I continued: “As I think about how my mind feels woken up and truly focused for the first time in years, I wonder what that means for my brain – what dormant state has it been in? I wonder if anxiety isn’t always a response to something outside myself, but rather my own thoughts suppressed to the point that anxiety and depression manifest from their frustration and inability to break free – to get out.”

Which leads me to my next observation: I can feel.

2019 Book List

Every January first I sit down with my journal and I write down five personal and five business-related goals, then consciously forget about them until the following January when I finally quantify the progress I’ve made. Then I make new goals. Sometimes I’ve not met the previous ones to my standard, so I repeat them, acknowledging it’s a process and not a failure. Some goals I’ve repeated several years in a row.

As I get older I realize that for inspiration to find me, I must always be learning. The perfect Liz cocktail therefore includes: A specific amount of solitude (mental stillness or quietness alone with my own thoughts), time set aside for writing and writing alone, and a steady flow of books. Reading great stories helps me to learn style and flow, story construction, new words, and most importantly, new and different ideas. Reading brings me back to my real and true self, writing aids me in showing it.

At times, reviving my creative self has felt like waking up from a sleepy but satisfying hibernation, hungry to come out of my den for new ideas. Other times it feels like a violent reviving of my soul, shocking myself back from unconsciousness and a kind of temporary creative death.

As a strategy to read and create more, which ultimately makes me connect with my true and happy self on a regular basis, I implemented some strategies in 2019.

1) Read 30 minutes every morning before work when you’re having your coffee.

2) Try to also read on your days off instead of watching TV, or being on your phone.

3) Aim for completing one book per week.

4) Write one blog post per week for one year to see how it goes. It can be any length.

5) Set aside about five hours per week to write. Divvy it up however you want. Write about whatever you choose.

6) Try to freelance at least one article.

7) Start a book club.

Reviewing this list overwhelms me with gratitude for the progress I’ve made getting to (re)know my creative self this year. I mostly stick with goals one, two, and five on a regular basis, with some room for improvement of course. I only missed a couple of blog posts this year, but published one almost every single week. I freelanced several articles, and did in fact start that book club, and we’ve met twice so far. As far as the books go- I read 21. I plan on reading a couple more before the year is through, but I wanted to share my list with you for two reasons. One: So you can get new book ideas! And two: So you know that I didn’t even make it half way to my goal. But I don’t at all consider it a failure- I still read about fifteen more books this year than last, and I have no doubt that I’ll read even more in 2020.

Liz’s 2019 Book List

These are simply listed in the order I read them, with asterisks next to the five I most highly recommend at this time, based on how interesting they were, how much I learned from them this year, and their ability to influence my research and work. I read very little fiction, therefore I feel that the couple novels on the list deserve an imaginary and automatic asterisk for being amazing.

1) Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk

2) American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, Monica Hesse

3) The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule

4) Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, Laura Jane Grace

5) Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, Pam Houston

6) Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, David Goggins

*7) Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

8) Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff

*9) Deep Work, Cal Newport

10) Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

11) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara

*12) How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, Michael Pollan

13) Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg

14) The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

*15) Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh

16) Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it All with the Greatest Chef in the World, Jeff Gordinier

17) The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem, Stacy Schiff

18) The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life, Shawn Achor

*19) Into The Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro, Rachel Slade

20) Shit the Moon Said: A Story of Sex, Drugs, and Ayahuasca, Gerard Powell

21) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Next on the List / Will Read Before 2020:

22) The Gift of Fear, Gavin De Becker

Frozen 2 Isn’t Just For Kids

Simply put, I think Frozen 2 was written for adults trying to find our way.

I’m not writing this post to debate whether or not the Frozen franchise is feminist, or to analyze how well (or not well) Disney represents indigenous cultures and tackles the humongous feat of teaching young minds about colonialism. Those are fantastic topics for a blog, and I’m sure there are hundreds of posts out there deconstructing every Disney film with a fine-tooth comb. So I’m taking a far different approach – spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, much of this may not make sense.

Oprah introduced me to the idea that in our lives we will be guided by what she calls “whispers.” Subtle and sometimes tiny signs from inside of ourselves (or possibly from a larger force, like the universe, “god,” or whatever you believe in) guiding us to our purpose, if we take the time to listen. Often we ignore these signs because the thought of disrupting our predictable lives to pursue anything different is scary, and journeying into unknown territory isn’t something that many of us do willingly. After a period of ignoring the whispers, the universe makes the signs bigger, and louder, and if we continue to refuse action the whisper will turn into a life-altering scream. Forcing us out of our perceived comfort zone, and right into the unknown.

“What do you want, because you’ve been keeping me awake? Are you here to distract me, so I make a big mistake? Or are you someone out there, who’s a little bit like me, who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?”

I think everyone can relate to this scenario in one way or another. You struggle with your job and consider quitting to do something more meaningful. Years go by, and every sign is pointing you to move on, but you’re afraid to leave. Then you get fired.

You’ve been in a relationship that you know is bad for you. You’re not growing and flourishing but never leave because of the consequences that action could bring on. And who wants to be single again? Then you get dumped.

You get the point. You knew all along that those things weren’t right for you, but since you didn’t take the “whispers” advice to take action, you were shoved back onto your path in a different and more disruptive way. And most of the time, it works out for the better. Because the truth is: Everything is the unknown, so you should take the risk. The mythical and symbolic river who is “full of memory” is inside of you all along.

“In her waters, deep and true, lie the answers, and a path for you… Yes she will sing to those who hear, and in her song all magic flows. But can you brave what you most fear? Can you face, what the river knows?

The idea of a comfort zone is a false construction of our minds, because anything can happen at any time and we have little control over the outcome. Sure, staying at that job that makes you chronically unhappy may be “predictable” and “safe,” but is it really? No, because you could lose it anyway. Our brain does have certain evolutionary mechanisms in place to keep us safe, but typically our everyday risks don’t include whether or not conditions are ideal for leaving the village to slay a wooly mammoth. They include things like starting a blog or going to the gym. Going on a date with someone new, or starting that Etsy shop. The only things that never change are the inevitability of time passing, our inability to control it, and the very unpredictable nature of life: Everything can and will change. So we may as well live our lives and treasure the moment.

“Some things never change, turn around and the time has flown. Some things stay the same, though the future remains unknown. May our good luck last, may our past be past. Time’s moving fast it’s true. Some things never change, and I’m holding on tight to you.”

Then we have a piece of this equation that I think is often omitted from the “life’s purpose” discussions: The idea that since we’re adults we know everything. I believe that a huge piece of the happiness puzzle is related to realizing that we know very little, almost nothing. As an adult we have constructed a complex memory of truths: How things are and should be, what is safe and what isn’t, how our lives should be lived, and what is ridiculous and unbelievable. Our sense of wonder and unknowing evaporates over time, and I think for a lot of us disappears altogether. Again, these shortcuts have been constructed in our human brains to make living easier. If we looked at everything with new and wondering eyes each time, we’d be a lot like Dory wandering through the ocean and we wouldn’t get much done. But there is definitely an argument out there for why that might make us happier, even if evolutionarily we may not last long. We essentially train ourselves to see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear. This can be depressing if we focus on what a small and myopic version of our world this lets us in on, or it can be exciting if we realize that there is so much more to discover if we allow ourselves to open our eyes in different ways to see something new.

Ultimately, the realization that we know almost nothing and understand very little can lead to a sense of peace with the unknown (which is everything). And I think it can help us to see more of our life and world through the wondrous eyes of a child (or a magical snowman) if we realize that nothing makes sense once we’re older, we will not feel more secure, and we’re okay with that.

“Growing up means adapting, puzzling at your world and your place.”

We’re never done growing up, so the universe is full of possibilities and magical things we can’t even begin to comprehend. We may as well keep learning and growing. The real unknown, in my opinion, is positive. It’s the journey you go on with yourself as you discover who you can be. Self discovery can be difficult, and simultaneously rewarding. Shedding your old skin to inhabit a new one should constantly be happening on our journey to becoming more of ourselves and discovering our purpose. Stepping into your power, or “showing yourself” will be disruptive, life-altering, and you may even feel like you’ve lost everything to get there. But it is possible to struggle and to be more empowered than ever in the same moment. “Do the next right thing” applies to everyone, and I think is particularly useful advise for adults who find ourselves constantly lost. A live-in-the-moment step by step approach can help us through difficult times, but can also help us to appreciate the great ones, once we’re ready to learn.

“Show yourself. Step into your power. Grow yourself into something new. You are the one you’ve been waiting for, all of your life. Show yourself.”