Monthly Archives: October 2015

Rubber Band Girl

I am channeling my inner Rubber Band Girl.

I will bend and not break.

I will be flexible.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been priming myself for an emotional meltdown. I began to think that my marriage was in serious trouble. See, there’s this issue, this specific, emotionally laden issue, that’s been going on in my marriage for over 2 years now. Something we fight about. Something I cry about and despair over. And, recently, I decided that this issue wasn’t going to get resolved, at least not according to the plan I had in mind.

I brought this up with my therapist. (Cue the histrionics.)

“I’m not sure this is going to work out,” I said. “I feel desperate. I mean, what will it take to get him to start doing something about this?!”

My therapist looked at me and said, “Stop it. No one is dying. No one is going to jail. Stop getting yourself so worked up about this.” Then she added, “Remember, there isn’t just one way that things can progress. There may be multiple ways, but you are stuck on the one way that you want.”

Her words were like smelling salts. They woke me up. I stopped my sniveling and thought, ‘Holy shit. I am making my own melodrama. I am sabotaging myself. Again!!!’

Folks, I am inflexible, and my rigid outlook is contributing to my marital conflict. (Note: I’m not saying my husband hasn’t contributed the problem, but I can’t control his behavior, only my own and my responses to his behavior.)

Here’s how my inflexibility works. I’m attached to a very specific outcome. Things have to go a certain way, which is, coincidentally, my way, and, all humility aside, the right way. So when my husband doesn’t say or do what aligns with my version of how things ought to go, specifically regarding this one all-important-all-consuming issue (truth be told, there are probably many other issues in our marriage that don’t go the way they should…Oh my goddess, am I a control freak?! Let’s shelve that for another post), I sacrifice my own peace and happiness. I make my well being entirely dependent on something outside of myself – how the situation turns out or how he acts.

Facepalm!!!

Honestly, I thought I had this figured out already, when I learned that proactivity is healthier than reactivity, when I learned that I am responsible for my attitude and outlook.

Well, add this to the lessons I’ve learned over the past year, lessons that are becoming encyclopedic in volume.

So I’m turning over a new leaf. (Please, hold me accountable, friends.) I resolve to become Rubber Band Girl. I will bend and not break. I will be flexible and allow for the existence of other paths and plans – not just the one I want (even if I still maintain that it’s the right path/plan).

As Kate Bush sang,

See those trees

Bend in the wind

I feel they’ve got a lot more sense than me

You see I try to resist

Go Rubber Band Girl! Create your own inner peace and happiness and rise above inflexibility.

                               Rubber Band Girl

This Rubber Band Girl isn’t resisting, futilely pushing against reality (seriously, does that ever work?!). Nope, I will flow like a willow tree. This doesn’t mean I’ll be meek or allow myself to get shit on. You all know me. I have way to much spunk and independence for that. What it means is that I’m not going to close off myself. I will remain open – open minded, open hearted, open whatever-ed – open for all options and for every possibility. In doing so, I will be responsible for my own peace and happiness and no longer willingly allow them to be dependent on anyone or anything else.

Go, Rubber Band Girl!

Asbestos, Cigarettes, Formaldehyde and Bacon

Remember that Smith’s Song, Meat is Murder? Well, regardless of how you view killing animals for food (or jackets or shoes or a new purse), the World Health Organization (WHO) is clear. Consuming certain kinds of meat is, at the very least, suicide.

It’s been in the scientific literature for years, but just yesterday the WHO issued a definitive statement that eating processed meats causes cancer. Not just lunch meat (which has been vilified in the popular press for some time), but bacon, ham, and beef jerky, too. These foods are now categorized in Group 1 of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) list of carcinogenic agents. Yep, asbestos, cigarettes, formaldehyde and bacon, that shit can kill you.

This placement in Group 1 means that there is sufficient evidence that eating processed meats causes cancer. And, just to let you know, Group 2 (substances for which there is limited evidence) includes both DDT and lead compounds. So, bacon is worse than those.

Asbestos, cigarettes, formaldehyde and bacon.

Now, I (mostly) stopped eating meat about 8 years ago for health, not ethical, concerns. I was an animal researcher after all, and my professional life still revolves around animal research. But, I had high cholesterol (yes, I know it’s genetic) and a family history of diabetes (yes, I know that’s a sugar problem not a meat problem) and enough psychological problems without needing to add physical health issues to the mix. And, honestly, meat was easier for me to give up than other forms of ingested substances (wine, for example) that are also bad for you.

I (mostly) stopped eating meat, which means that I don’t buy meat to consume in our home. I order meat when dining at a restaurant maybe once a year, and, from rare time to rare time, I eat meat at a party or dinner where it’s served.

I am a firm believer that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional cigarette or side of bacon with eggs or even glass of wine while pregnant (yes, I just wrote that). And, I’m definitely of the camp that it’s your body and your choice. So pick your poison (another bottle of pinot grigio and some sunshine for me, please!), but the information is out there now and it’s hard to ignore. Just 50 grams of processed meat a day – that’s 2 slices of bacon daily or 2 slices of bologna – increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

So go easy on the asbestos, cigarettes, formaldehyde and bacon, because that shit will literally kill you.

Death by Hot Dog (images courtesy of morguefile.com)

Death by Hot Dog (images courtesy of morguefile.com)

https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf

http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/ClassificationsAlphaOrder.pdf

 

 

Don’t Waste Failure

My first real taste of failure came when I was in my late 20s, and two devastating things happened in the span of a few years. The first was the failure of my marriage. The second was my failure to finish a PhD program.

Epic Fail!

Let’s start with the first, big, bad knock I got in life. My failed marriage.

I’d known my husband since I was 17. We got married in June of 1989 when I was 19. I pledged to have and hold this man through sickness and health for better or worse. Forever. And then in November of 1999, I was officially divorced.

For various reasons, not the least of which were my age and emotional immaturity level, my marriage did not begin on the firmest ground and it seemed to get shakier with each year. After several years of separating, getting back together, separating, filing for divorce, getting back together, I finally nailed the coffin shut on my marriage when I made some very poor and irrevocably damaging decisions.

Was I the first to ever fail at marriage? No. Did my failed marriage doom every other marriage Of course not. People (including myself and my ex-husband) continued to get married, and to be in happy, fulfilling, successful marriages. Life did not end (although it sure was shitty for a few years) even though I failed.

A year before my divorce, I started a PhD program in neuroscience. This had been my dream since I was a junior in high school and watched a Nova series on the brain in my anatomy class. Life got in the way, but I finally enrolled in a doctoral program in 1998, at the age of 29.

Unlike my marriage, grad school seemed to start off with a bang. I was awarded several prestigious fellowships. I cloned a couple of genes in the animal species in which I worked, something which had not been done or published before. I was admitted to candidacy. Then I spent 3 years of my life trying to get some basic experiments to work. And, they didn’t. I failed miserably and repeatedly during those 3 years. And one day in the spring of 2003, I walked in to my mentor’s office and said, “I’m done.”

Was I the first person to fail at bench research? Hardly. Did my failure in grad school doom my career or that of my mentor? Absolutely not. My mentor continued to publish, and publish well, without me. And I’ve gone on to have a rewarding and challenging career (which includes publications!) even though I failed.

Still, here I was, 33 years old with two epic failures under my belt. Both my marriage and my career path were things, at one time, I wanted desperately. And they both went bust, which completely and totally sucked at the time. There were many (M A N Y) times while things were rapidly going downhill that I cried and screamed and wondered, “What next? How do I go on?” But, I did gone on, and the world didn’t stop turning because I got divorced or because I didn’t finish my PhD.

Many people, particularly in business, maintain that failure is mandatory. It’s a requirement for future success. While I don’t agree that it’s mandatory, unless you’re really lucky or gifted, failure is inevitable.

And, it turns out, that can be good.

Without having screwed up one marriage, I probably wouldn’t have succeeded at any subsequent romantic relationship. My failed marriage taught me that relationships are hard work and take real effort. Hones to goddess, my starry eyed, in-love, 19 year old self didn’t know that. My failed marriage also taught me that I owe it to myself and to my partner to talk about problems and deal with them before they escalate, before things become irreparable. Yes, it’s unfortunately that I learned these lessons in a hard, ugly way, but thankfully I learned them. Otherwise, I’d probably have another divorce under my belt.

My grad school years taught me something similar. I learned (again) not to wait too long to get help if things aren’t going well. I also learned to trust my gut. The truth is, I knew pretty early on in the program, that I wasn’t all that interested in bench research. I liked learning about science, talking about science, and teaching science, but, doing the actual work was soooo tedious. Still, I stayed in the program for years after I should have changed paths, because it had been my dream. I refused to accept the reality that I did not enjoy working alone on a bench all day, pipetting and centrifuging and running gels. Instead, I forced myself to slog through, ignoring the truth that what I was doing wasn’t at all what I wanted to do.

Failure isn’t something any of us sets out to accomplish, but a failed experience doesn’t have to be wasted. We may regret how we handled certain aspects that ultimately led us to fail, but we shouldn’t regret the experience we went through. If you allow it, a failed experience can provide life wisdom and lead you to a better place.  So don’t waste your failures. Even when they come in an ugly, painful disguises, use them as opportunities to grown and learn.

Don't waste your failures.

Perception And Reality

Perception is your interpretation of the world. It isn’t necessarily how the world really is. Rather, it’s how you see the world. Through your own filter.

An example from biology is perceptual filling. Look at the image below. What is it?

Perceptual filling in - Your brain fills in the "missing" parts in this image to construct something meaningful. Courtesy of eyecanlearn.com

Perceptual filling in – Your brain fills in the “missing” parts in this image to construct something meaningful. Courtesy of eyecanlearn.com

Despite that it’s not a complete image, you most likely “see” a deer. Your brain fills in what’s missing and make sense of the random assortment of black shapes on a white background. Perceptual filling is a necessary function when we are constantly bombarded with stimuli. It’s crucial that our brains scan the environment and make a quick assessment of what’s out there.

The image above is not that of a deer, but we see the deer because we have previous experience with deer and our brains organize the shapes to construct meaning.

In much the same way, we perceive our own reality. We see things based on our previous experiences. Unfortunately, we also see things based on our emotional state, relationships, culture, socioeconomic status, belief systems (and the list goes on and on). These form the lens and filter through which we experience the world.

Whatever that lens is – polished, opaque, rose-colored, narrow or broad – the lens is ours. We choose it, and we can also change it, which reminds of the quote often attributed to Gandhi (though I’m not sure he actually said it).

 Be the change you wish to see in the world.

When we become aware of our lens and how we filter our reality, we don’t actually end up changing what’s out there. Rather, we change how we experience what’s out there. We don’t change reality. We change our perception of reality.

Is the world a cruel and heartless place or is it empowering and supportive? Is life full of possibility or is it stifling? It depends on the lens we’re using in any given moment.

Yet, some of us use the same lens over and over, never changing it, which obviously limits our experience. Case in point. When I am in the midst of relationship woes (marriage is such hard work!), when my husband and I are fighting and not getting along, everything he says takes on an added layer of meaning to me. In those instances, I (almost always) have on my negative lens, and I see and interpret his behavior negatively, regardless of his intent. The typical result (speaking from anecdotal evidence – as in, it happened twice this weekend) is me ending up frustrated and in tears.

Now, I’m not saying you should always have on your happy lens, that you should always see the glass as half-full. I’m just saying, be aware. Be aware your lens and its power, which is, in truth, your own power in creating the reality in which you exist.

Your Perception is Your Reality

Stages of Wound Healing

There are four stages of wound healing. When tissue is damaged, the immediate response is hemostasis, which involves blood vessels constricting and blood clotting. This is essentially the body’s Band-Aid, a quick fix that prevents death by hemorrhaging (yeah, that doesn’t sound good). Following this is inflammation. The damaged area becomes swollen and red while immune cells carry out their job of destroying invaders and removing the damaged, dead, and unhealthy tissue. During proliferation new cells grow in the area of damage. In essence, what has been destroyed is rebuilt. Finally, there is resolution of the wound, during which the damaged tissue restores its functionality and physical appearance. This stage may take years.

Ewwww gross!! Yes, it's ugly, and it hurts, but that's part of healing. Deal with it. Courtesy of taliesin (morguefile.com)

Ewwww gross!! Yes, it’s ugly, and it hurts, but those are essential parts of the healing process. Courtesy of taliesin (morguefile.com)

Although this is an accurate (albeit simplified) summary, it illustrates the similarities between physical wound healing and psychological wound healing.

When we are psychologically hurt, our first reaction is to use something to help us right then and there (or as soon as humanly possible). How many times have you had a bad day and your immediate response was to pour a stiff drink or stuff your face with chocolate? Drinking alcohol or eating to excess or taking a Xanax or screaming at your child/husband/grocery store clerk or shopping, or whatever it is, allows us immediate satisfaction, relief from our pain or stressor. While some of us may actually engage in healthier options (like going for a run or meditating) when we are in mental pain, the Band-Aid is temporary and probably won’t provide a long-term solution to healing underlying injury.

To address the underlying injury, we must enter an inflammatory stage in which we excise the damaged parts. We recognize the bad stuff and say, “I’m done with this. It’s got to go if I’m going to get better.” This bad stuff may be old trauma that we’ve never addressed, unskillful habits that prevent us from getting better, or even existential angst – putting ourselves into a continual state of stress. Regardless, we don’t heal unless we face the bad stuff, face the pain and all its ickiness, and deal with it head on. If we don’t go through this stage, we delay our own healing. We get stuck and allow ourselves to continue to hurt. Just like a physical wound without functioning immune cells to remove necrotic tissue, we must confront our psychological wounds or they fester and grow, which is not good for us or anyone else.

When we go through the painful but necessary response of removing the bad stuff, the next step is when true healing begins. The earlier stages lay the groundwork, but healing happens when we engage in healthy habits, healthy thinking, and restorative practices. Healing happens when we grow ourselves and recreate what we need to be fully functioning. Eventually, we get to a mental place where our damaged parts have been completely transformed. Our pain is gone, and the injury we sustained in the past no longer affects us in the present.

Of course, as with a physical wound, healing our psychological wounds can be hindered by so many other factors – life stressors, disease states, medications we take, and vices we’re prone to (food, alcohol, cigarettes). These things can alter our mood, change our brain chemistry, disrupt our ability to heal, and, in fact, introduce other complications into our lives. So a note of caution. If you want to heal what hurts you, also be aware of what might slow your progress.

Deep, psychological hurt is just that. It’s painful. But, allowing yourself to move through the stages of wound healing will help. There’s no magic elixir or quick fix to getting better. Trust me, if there were, I’d be the first in line to buy it. Healing takes time and work and going through some really yucky stuff before things improve. But, wounds heal, and pain dissipates. You move on to a better place. I hope we are all moving in that direction and healing our deepest wounds.

 

References (because I’m a scientist. I like the facts, thank you.)

(Physical) Wound healing

http://jcs.biologists.org/content/122/18/3209.full

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2903966/pdf/10.1177_0022034509359125.pdf

 

 

A book about an analogy between physical wounds and psychological wounds (Disclaimer: I have not read this book, I only see that my idea is not unique – surprise!)

http://www.amazon.com/The-Wisdom-Healing-Wound-Emotional/dp/0757315615

 

My Wonky Brain

Part 1 – Am I Ready to be Weaned?

This is the first part is a series in which I discuss my wonky depressed brain and weaning myself off my anti-depressants.

My Wonky Brain on Depression - Notice there is a wick, because I can go down in flames.

My Wonky Brain on Depression – Notice there is a wick, because I can go down in flames.

People, I am the first to say that I wallowed in being mentally unhealthy. Back when I was really depressed, I accepted conventional wisdom, which also happened to be the thinking of some of my previous doctors. This “wisdom” is that once you’re diagnosed, that’s it. You have a chronic illness, a life sentence. So now, for the rest of your life, take your meds. Doing so will help keep you stabilized and hopefully prevent you from going off the deep end.

(Oh, were it that simple. It’s not.)

Sure, it was hard on the ego to know that I had this permanently wonky brain, but if I could blame my behavior on my illness, how convenient was that?

“Look, I take my pills. But my brain isn’t right. That’s just how it is. Sorry that I fucked up again. I’ll try to be better.”

And it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve been in therapy and medicated – off and on – for the last 20+ years. I’ve seen psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to try to get better. I’ve undergone hypnosis, eye movement densensitization and reprocessing, and, of course, traditional (cognitive) therapy to try to get better. I’ve taken alprazolam, citalopram, clonazepam, duloxetine, lorazepam, and trazodone, and those are just the names of the drugs I actually remember taking, to try to get better.

I really did try, but, despite my efforts, getting better never lasted very long, supporting the conventional wisdom that depression, for me anyway, is a forever disease. Yes, I had good months and years, and I’d go off my meds. Then I’d have a relapse, really bad months or even years, and I’d go back on my meds. But, I don’t know that the meds actually stabilized me. I mean, I still went off the deep end, even while religiously taking my anti-depressants at their highest dosage AND seeing a therapist AND wanting to be healthy, or at least mostly normal.

Clearly, pharmaceuticals weren’t enough.  So, after the last breakdown, I opted for intensive psychotherapy. I needed more than 60mg of Cymbalta every day to fix my wonky brain, and my doctor knew it, too. Taking a pill wouldn’t help me learn how to live with life when it was difficult. Taking a pill wouldn’t help me learn how to change my outlook and responses to be more productive and less self-injurious. Taking a pill wouldn’t help me learn how to cope when the shit hit the fan.

Let do this!

Imagine my surprise when my insurance company, happy to pay for my drugs no questions asked, balked at my getting behavioral therapy from the same (very qualified) psychiatrist who was prescribing my meds. Turns out, I had to apply for psychotherapy and the insurance company had to approve if I wanted them to pay for it. That approval took a year. A year of filing and re-filing paperwork, which they kept losing. A year of phone calls from my doctor to the insurance company giving them the information they asked for and also berating them for hindering my progress. A year of me spending thousands of euros out of pocket for my own therapy, because, well, what choice did I really have? If I wasn’t already crazy from my diagnosed depression, this rigmarole with the German insurance company guaranteed a total melt down. (Oy Mensch!)

Then, finally, the insurance demons determined that my therapy was warranted (Really?!) and approved my application, although I’d already been doing therapy without their approval. Every week I went to see my psychiatrist, who favors the Bowen Theory of Family Systems Therapy. She actually gave me homework to do, like reading from this book to have me work on emotionally and psychologically maturing myself. Every week, I did additional self-help reading. I journaled. I meditated. I even took less conventional routes, such as a guided meditation technique called Chöd, or Feeding Your Demons (a bit out there even for me), and taking prescription homeopathic medicine (not highly regarded in Western medicine but, for whatever reason, perfectly acceptable in Germany). No therapy was too new-age or too old-school for me. I embraced all therapy.

And, guess what? It worked. I’m getting better!!! It hasn’t been easy. It wasn’t immediate. And it certainly isn’t done.  But, I am slowly figuring out how to live so that I don’t relapse. Or so that if I do hit a rough patch, I have the skills necessary to deal with it. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I had a crying jag or lay in bed all day with no desire to ever get up again. Maybe not in 2015 at all. That’s progress. Maybe even miraculous.

And I began to think, maybe, just maybe, I don’t need medication anymore.

Okay. Okay. I can hear you all screaming from your laptop, “ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY?”

Possibly. But I talked with my psychiatrist about this, and she supported me.

Unfortunately, my husband was less enthusiastic about the idea.

“I’m not so sure about this,” he said. “You were just hospitalized last summer.”

“Yes, I know, and I was on meds at the time,” I responded. “They didn’t seem to keep me from falling down the rabbit hole. Besides, I’m doing better now. Aren’t I?”

He had to agree, but, at the same time, he’s been through 16 years of my cycles of down and downer, and he’s a bit gun shy of my “I’ve got this licked” attitude. He’s had to hold me when I cried for hours. He’s had to call from work at 2 in the afternoon to check on me and see if I’ve gotten out of bed yet. He’s had to call the ambulance to come cart me off, too.

If the person who knows me best, who is probably slightly more objective about this matter than me, who has to deal with the fallout that is me, if that person doesn’t think this is such a great idea, what should I do?

Habits for Living Well

Image courtesy of ecerroni (morguefile.com)

Image courtesy of ecerroni (morguefile.com)

Living well is something we all aspire to do, but by living well, I don’t mean having more stuff or even having better stuff. To me, living well is living with purpose and joy. In working to make this happen in my own life, I’ve found that it’s mostly about changing habits. This isn’t easy but it is necessary. If you want to be well and live well then you need to create an environment that not only supports you in this effort but also helps you flourish.

The following is a list of habits I’ve chosen to cultivate, habits that have been shown (because you know I like me some data) to produce positive effects on mental and physical wellbeing, which is the foundation for living well.

Be grateful. I try to give thanks daily for the good things in my life: an encouraging note from a friend, my daughter’s snuggles and hugs, and time alone to do my own thing. When I can’t find anything to be grateful for – when everything seems sucky, as it does on occasion – then I focus on the things I take for granted: running water that is hot whenever I turn the tap, my morning coffee (Thank you, Nespresso!), beautiful weather. The list is endless if you think about it for five seconds.

Practice kindness. Okay, sometimes it’s hard. I live in a city that doesn’t seem to give a shit about being nice, even though it’s not terribly difficult. So, on a daily basis, I vow to myself that I will smile at a stranger, even if that person doesn’t return the smile, or I will pay someone a compliment, or I will listen with my full and undivided attention when someone is talking to me, which is a struggle, because I’m an interrupter. Kindness breeds kindness, and we all benefit from it.

Go outside. I am the first to tell you, I’m not a nature gal. Camping is my idea of torture, but I do love to look at a pretty garden, go for a run through the Englischer Garten, ride my bike along the Isar River, or hike in the Alps (I can’t help it that they’re 30 minutes away). Being outside is restorative and calming and helps me feel connected to something greater than myself.

Set an intention. Every time I meditate, I turn my values into my intentions. “May I develop awareness and compassion. May I be connected to others. May I practice forgiveness. May I grow myself. May I make healthy choices. May I be resilient.” Setting an intention gives me direction. It plants the seed to shape my thoughts, words, and actions, which is how I can begin to change for the better.

Live your intention. Mentally reciting my intentions is not enough. I have to act on them, to live them. So when I’m setting an intention, I don’t just think about how I want to be. I think about how I can make it happen. For example, as an awareness practice, I try to make a point to stop throughout the day and put down my cell phone and close my lap top. Allowing my mind to settle, I use my senses to take in the world in that moment. Being present is being aware and this one way I can bring my intention to life.

Laugh. I love to laugh. I laugh with my girlfriends (our flab workouts). I laugh reading funny blogs or watching certain TV shows. I even laugh at myself, like all the times I put my underwear on the wrong way with the leg hole around my waist or the time I ran to jump into the bed, like my daughter does, and I missed and banged into the frame instead (oh, the bruises I have). Laughter is stress relieving and soothing. We should all laugh more.

Be with others. It is hard for me to build my social connections with my friends and family living so far away. But, it’s 2015, and I’ve got FaceTime and email and text. The latter I do with friends and family all day long. I also try to engage myself with others through taking classes and joining groups, which helps me meet people. And I write this blog (staying connected to you!!!). These fellowships keep me sane.

Let go. A big life lesson for me this past year was accepting that I’m not always in control. So rather than wasting my energy trying to be, I invest it in developing myself. I am letting go of old grudges and past hurts. I am letting go the things that keep me stuck. I am letting go of expectations that things will happen a certain way or that my wanting someone or something to be different will make it happen. Less control, more acceptance.

Give yourself a time out. I take time for myself every day. Meditation, writing, and running are activities that calm my mind and focus my attention on one thing. These practices give me a space to reflect on my actions and behaviors, allowing me to develop insight and awareness. If I’m going to take the time incorporate habits for living well and try to improve myself, then I owe it to myself to check in frequently and honestly assess how things are going.

Being grateful, practicing kindness, going outside, setting and acting on my intentions, laughing, being with others, letting go, and having “me” time –  these are the habits I’m incorporating into my daily life. These are my habits for living well. On a good day, I manage several and on a great day, all of them. But, I do at least one of these every day, because even a small effort can produce a great result.

I hope you’ll make an effort, too, and that all our lives are lived well.

Small Effort - Great Results

Additional Resources on Living Well:

Gratitude

Altruism

Nature

Intentions

Building Community

Laughter

Letting Go

Reflection

 

 

Honest but not Brave

It’s not about being brave. It’s about being honest.

When I go back to the States and see my friends and acquaintances in person, they ask, “How are you?” And I tell them the truth. I’m unhappy. To which, their response is, “But your life in Germany looks so great.” Yes, because what I’m posting on Facebook are photos of me on vacation or at the zoo or the park with my silly, wonderful daughter. What I’m not posting are the pictures of me sobbing or overdrinking or fighting with my husband or any of the other things that have happened (and sometimes continue to happen) with regularity since I’ve been abroad.

The last 3 years here have been difficult for me, and for the entirety of those 3 years, I’ve said that “here” was Germany. I truly believed that my being unhappy had a geographic basis, and everything would be sooooo much better if I just moved back to the States. In all honesty, though, “here” isn’t Germany. It’s my life.

I’d been through some really dark periods in the States as well. It’s just that I had (and still have) an awesome safety net in the US, one on which I could fall back easily. Perhaps too easily. My mom would drop everything to help me. My friends would drop everything to help me. In Europe, I don’t have that luxury. There is no one in Munich I could call for that kind of support. I simply don’t have a safety net here like I do in the States.

Being so far away from my family, living without deep friendships in my immediate world, I find myself opening up much more than I might have previously when people I know come to town. Now, when I talk to friends who are visiting, and I don’t mean my closest friends, I mean the spouses of my husband’s colleagues who I’ve known forever and like a lot, but who don’t know my history, I’m honest. And, it turns out, they’re honest, too.

I talk about my drinking, and they say, “Oh yeah, me, too. I go to a party and have 1 or 2 more drinks than everyone else, and then I come home and have another.” Really? But I thought I was the ONLY ONE who did shit like that!

Or I say something about my marriage and a friend will say, “Oh yeah, me, too. If it weren’t for my child, I probably would have left this relationship years ago.” Really? But I thought I was the ONLY ONE who had these kinds of thoughts!

I thought I was the ONLY ONE, because I wasn’t talking about these things with anyone. “Here” there is no one for me to talk to, but even in the US, I felt so ashamed by my problems that I told only a handful of people.

I think that’s how many of us are. We share the good stuff with everyone. We share the really crappy stuff with very few or no one.

Then, last week I publicly outed myself on my personal Facebook page, and I had over 400 views on my blog (emotional train wreck voyeurs?). More surprising to me than that was the number of people (nowhere near 400 of course) who commented on or personally wrote to me about my bravery in being so brutally honest about my life.

But I don’t think of what I’m doing as being brave. I think of it as a necessity, and there are 3 reasons why – fear, guilt, and denial. That’s how I got “here” in the first place. Fear that those people who think I have it together, who think I’m happy and everything’s great will find out what I’m really like (a depressed overdrinker). Guilt about my behavior, because depression + overdrinking = lots of irrational, stupid behavior. And denial that there are problems. Thanks, I’ll just stuff it down inside and pretend it didn’t happen. Surely, if I ignore everything, it will just go away.

Fear, guilt, and denial. Together, these three emotions are shame-inducing and that’s what got me “here” in the first place. Allowing these emotions to reign will destroy me if I let them. So, I won’t let them. I can’t be afraid of what other people might think of me, because, frankly, this is who I am, imperfect and human. Just like you and everybody else. And while I am sorry for all the truly embarrassing, stupid and hurtful things I’ve done in my life, I have to learn from those mistakes. I have to use that knowledge to change and get back on track rather than let the guilt consume me. Finally, I can’t ignore the difficulties I experience. Difficulties are part of life, and it’s better to acknowledge them, accept them, and deal with them. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is irresponsible.

I am being honest, here. I’m confronting my fear, my guilt, and my denial, but I’m not doing it out of bravery. I’m doing it out of necessity, because, otherwise, shame would destroy me.

So, thank you. Thank you, readers – friends, family, and even strangers (yes, there are in fact people I don’t even know who subscribe to my blog) – who love and support me on my journey. Thank you for sharing your own experiences with me and helping me feel like I’m not the ONLY ONE.

Let’s all be honest. I’m not the only one muddling through life. We are all in this together.

Shame Resistance

Forgiveness – Peace Begins With Me

I’ve written about forgiveness before, so when I was doing my values check in, I thought, well I’ll just skip an update on this value, because I’ve pretty much nailed it. I mean I’ve forgiven a lot of people who’ve hurt me. I’ve started saying, “I’m sorry” (yes, now that I’m in my 40s – it took a while, I know), and I say it when I screw up. Yep, I’m good.

Then humility came to smack me on the ass, which happens when I get a bit smug.

A few weeks ago I was meditating, using the mantra May peace begin with me. I’m getting my zen on, feeling the happy glow. Go me, meditating on peace. Then I decided to do a metta meditation. In metta, you begin by wishing yourself well and then you extend sincere thoughts of loving kindness outward in widening circles until you are wishing all beings everywhere good will.

It goes something like this. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be at peace. And then I repeat these phrases using the names of my family members, my friends, my work colleagues, etc.

It’s all going fine until I get to a wider circle that stopped me in my tracks. People I dislike. Yes, this is actually part of the metta meditation, a part I usually avoid altogether – it’s just easier that way. But this time, I went there, and I realized, I have negative feelings toward some people from my past. Not that many people and not feelings of burning rage, but admittedly some resentment. And that resentment has been around for a long, long time (18 years, in fact, but who’s counting?).

Cue the Frozen soundtrack, Let it go. Let it go.

As I sat there in my zen den, I realized that while I wanted to wish these people peace, I really, really did, after almost 2 decades, there was still something stopping me from doing so.

I felt physically ill. It was one of those moments of insight that’s not all zen-bliss but raw-yuckiness instead. (Turns out, that’s often how insight is, not a beam of golden sunshine from on high but a stab to the heart.)

So, let me remind myself (from my own posts!), why forgiveness is so important and why it’s one of the values I want to practice.

You cannot inflict emotional damage on others, especially loved ones, without carrying a lot of damage on the inside, without being wounded yourself.

I wrote this when I was thinking about my father and how he treated me and my brother when we were growing up. My dad obviously had his issues, and I believe a lot of the unhappiness he directed at my brother and me was because of the pain he carried around inside himself.

It’s not a huge leap, then, to be able to recognize that the other people in my life who hurt me may have been suffering, too. And, perhaps they treated me the way they did as a reflection of their own pain. Their actions may have been coming from deep wounds.

When you allow past events, perpetrated by others, to continue to take up space in your mind and heart, you prevent your own emotional growth and freedom…Forgiveness is not about condoning what happened. It’s about liberating yourself.

Peace is not possible if I’m holding on to past grievances (suffering I caused or suffering I was the victim of). I have to stop giving my mental energy to rehashing those experiences, because it’s counterproductive to my personal development. I don’t have to forget what happened, but I also don’t have to allow that pain and the guilt associated with it (if it was my own doing) to take up residence in my psyche. I need that energy in my heart and mind for the things I want to grow in myself. I need that space for better things. Moving on.

Peace begins with me. It begins when I stop letting other people and their actions determine my happiness, and it begins when I make amends for the unhappiness I’ve caused. I can’t change the past and the hurt that happened there, but I refuse to let that pain define or destroy me in the present. I’m moving forward with my life through forgiveness.

Forgiveness