Blessings and Curses

Sometimes the things we cling to don’t serve us. Or, perhaps, it is the act of clinging itself that hurts us. Either way, when we lose those things we cling to (as in when we relinquish them or even when we have no choice) we might reveal a hidden blessing. Of course, every blessing has a downside too. Just as there are two sides to a coin, there is duality in both our blessings and our curses. The true test is to find peace in both.

You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”

Thus I became a madman.

And I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.

But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.

Kahlil Gibran, The Madman

I’m a Fraud

Far and away, the most important thing I learned in law school had very little to do with law. In a career-development seminar, my then-professor said:

“You must come to terms with feeling like a fraud. Every lawyer is a fraud.”

He wasn’t casting aspersions on the practice of law; he was talking about how no single person can ever hope to know everything about the law. It’s too voluminous, too complicated. And it’s always changing. Obviously, this advice doesn’t just apply to lawyers. In life, there’s so much you don’t know, and can’t know. This holds true for any given profession or any undertaking you might pursue.

Let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more fraudulent than being a self-employed writer. You might be thinking, “What am I doing? I don’t deserve this! I don’t even have a job description! Where’s my cubicle, anyway. . .?”

Cocktail parties become more difficult. Casual conversations become interrogations. My friends from law school, distant relatives – they all want to know: “how’s business?” It can be hard to stand tall in that environment, to resist the urge to make excuses or minimize what you do. It’s tempting to just crawl under the table with a bowl of pretzels and admit defeat. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, and if you’re self-employed, there’s a lot of pressure (mostly internal) to explain yourself. What makes you so different? Why do you deserve this? What do you know that I don’t?

There’s a cult of secrecy around this: Don’t let anyone in on the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing. They’ll expose you. They will let everyone in on the fact that you don’t deserve your success. They’ll tell everyone the truth: it was just a fluke. You just got lucky. Fortunately, it’s not true.

As with many things, you’ll find that there are less people out to get you than you think. I’m not saying they don’t exist- but usually we’re our own worst enemy. Instead of everyone thinking about what a phony you are, they are inside their own minds hoping that you aren’t noticing how fake they are.

You don’t need to fake it.
Embrace the fraud in you. Own what you don’t know. Take responsibility for it; it’s okay if you don’t know everything. Start being honest with yourself first. Life itself is uncertainty, and there’s no shame in that.

Note that this doesn’t translate to “have low self-esteem.” You can still have self-confidence, even when you don’t know what you’re doing! (And if you’re an existentialist, how does anyone really know anything, anyway?) Instead of focusing on proving to others you aren’t a fraud, practice self-awareness. Embrace what you don’t know, embrace the uncertainty in life, embrace the fact that we all only get one chance at life and one go-round will not make you an expert. Once you start to honestly examine your feelings of insecurity—once you recognize those things about you that are fraudulent—I guarantee you will find something genuine beneath it.

This is your core. This is you. It is the realest, most authentic thing there is.

Dark Night of the Soul

Sometimes our fears, our grief, our betrayals are a blessing in disguise. They can be transformative. If we are willing, this dark night of the soul can teach us about our true nature. When we find that we don’t know who we are anymore, that we are so lost in the darkness, we can loosen our grip on our small identities, the impermanent and superficial things that we often take as representative of the whole of us. We can finally glimpse ourselves as a part of something greater.

Pushing Through

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock

in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;

I am such a long way in I see no way through,

and no space: everything is close to my face,

and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief

so this massive darkness makes me small.

You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:

then your great transforming will happen to me,

and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Rainier Marie Rilke, Translated by Robert Bly

Don’t be afraid, even though you will be afraid. This dark night is a gift.

The Shame and Secrecy of Trichotillomania

I’ve never liked my hair.

I was about eleven when I started pulling my hair out. I remember doing this at the school library, sitting at a table alone reading a book and compulsively pulling out my hair, strand by strand. Sometimes I would take a strand and pull it through my clenched teeth, like a vegetable grater, until the strand snapped under the tension.  Or I would take the black, sticky follicle and tear it apart with my nails. When I would do this I was in my own little world. It was like a trance: I was oblivious to the piles of hair I would leave on the tables and floors around me. The strands people were always pulling off my clothing. It wasn’t until my grandmother, visiting from out of town, started picking at the thick layer of hair surrounding where I sat on our living room couch that it even registered to me that this was a noticeable thing to others. She looked disturbed as she asked me, “where did all this hair come from?” I said I guessed i was just shedding, and laughed–as if that was some sort of joke that explained it all. For whatever reason, she didn’t push it and after that, I started cleaning up after myself better. That bought me some time, but soon I developed a large bald spot in the back of my head from where I would pull out the most hair. I couldn’t see it looking at my reflection in a mirror, I only noticed it after kids in gym class started pointing it out. I could feel it when I reached my hand to the back of my scalp. It was about the size of my fist, completely devoid of hair. One of my classmates started calling me Friar Tuck–I guess that’s what it looked liked.

Finally, my mom asked me what happened–my teacher had mentioned it to her. I lied the best way I knew how: I blamed it on my little brother, who was probably two at the time. I said he pulled the whole chunk straight out. The lie was unbelievable even to me, the bald expanse on my head was too big, and my hair was thinned in other places as well. My eyelids had swollen because I would pick the lashes out, and my eyebrows were uneven for the same reason. But, the lie did its job. After that, I promised myself I would stop pulling out my hair, and I did stop. In a perverse way, it wasn’t even that hard–the deep degree of shame and embarrassment at my public self-disfiguration were powerful enough. Eventually, mercifully, my hair grew back, although it’s always been more unmanageable, as if it grew thicker and more obstinate in response.

I learned later that year that this behavior has a name: trichotillomania. It’s an impulse control disorder often appearing alongside depression, anxiety, and OCD. As a kid, I was comforted to learn my behavior had a name, that other people experienced the same thing. That context helped alleviate some of the shame and disgust I felt. But some things still lingered, things that continue to bother me to this day: why didn’t anyone help me? Why didn’t they see past my secrecy and unbelievable lies? Back then, I assumed that it was because of me. I thought there was something deeply, inherently wrong with me and I carried that notion around for far too long. It ballooned into the depression of my adolescence, the reckless anxiety of my twenties.

It’s significant to me that I developed trichotillomania right around the time I started puberty. It seems like a no-brainer that the increase in anxiety that comes along with being newly minted and fixed in the male gaze could manifest in compulsive bodily mutilation, especially in regards to hair, which is culturally associated with sexuality and beauty. It inadvertently turns that dynamic on its head: Hair can also be a shield. It can be a deterrent.

How Not to Disassociate

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I view my body, how I engage with it, how I treat it. I’m guilty of forgetting about my body most of the time. I think this is very common for survivors of sexual abuse. We dissociate. Because the experience of actually being in your body is so uncomfortable, you remove yourself from it completely. It’s a useful skill in the midst of trauma, but it can become problematic if it becomes your default way of being.

You can end up ignoring a lot of things if you’re not present in your physical body–things like pain and sickness, which often leads to more pain and more sickness. Even basic states of being, like hunger or exhaustion. You just keep going on, for example, unaware that you haven’t eaten all day, in fact, you only notice when your hands are wildly shaking and you can’t type anymore.

Feelings are sourced in the body. I might feel fear as a widening pit in my stomach, or sadness as a heavy weight on my chest. Of course, if I’m divorced from my body, I don’t feel these things very well or at all. In fact, that’s probably the point: to be numb. But if you do this enough then over the years you grow up into someone who legitimately doesn’t know what they feel, much less how to express it. That’s what happened to me anyway.

Also, I wonder if there’s something basically comforting about staying in the mind, about not having to worry about the body.  Bodies get sick, they get old, they’re fallible, they remind us of how fragile and impermanent our existence is. For women especially, bodies can seem to be more of a liability than anything else. A target for violence, a public commodity (more on that in a later post!). So, there’s this theme of the body as a vulnerability.

Also, related, there’s the body as an oppositional force. I felt this way acutely during my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter. I treated my body like a defective machine. I felt like it had failed me, I felt betrayed. Or when I was recently diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disease where your body doesn’t properly process iron, and eventually it stores in your vital organs. Your body effectively poisons itself. Again, feelings of anger and betrayal. Must I always be at war with my body?  (Do I even have a right to be mad, after ignoring it for so long? Whose fault even is it? Why do these things happen in the first place? I don’t know!)

When I find myself resisting my physical experiences, I try to turn to my body with compassion.  I ask, what is it trying to tell me. There’s so much that our bodies do for us. Things that are beyond our comprehension, beyond what even science can explain. Mysterious things that keep us alive. So many things that have gone unappreciated by me for far too long. Maybe that sort of understanding and appreciation is a way forward towards, if nothing else, a more harmonious coexistence.

Antidote for Rejection

This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart right now. If you write, and you want other people to read what you write, then you know about rejection. The deflating feeling of inadequacy, of lack, of not being good enough. 

It’s funny that a profession overwhelmingly comprised of sensitive introverts requires them to put themselves out there in such a deeply personal way.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve stopped pandering–so much–to my ego. It’s not that I don’t care if I get published or that it doesn’t hurt to get those formulaic thanks but no thanks letters back from lit mags–I do, and it does. It’s just that I’ve decided I’ve got to have faith in myself, and faith in the transformative powers of the writing process. The rest will come, or it won’t.

Believe me, I’d love the outside affirmation. I’d love the recognition, the accolades, but I also know from hard-won experience that those things are insubstantial. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.” Success and rejection are just two sides of the same coin. If you are unmoored and grasping, they’re both problematic. The praise itself doesn’t make your work valuable. And in fact, it just sets up further expectations and opportunities for self-doubt. Do I deserve this? Am I a fraud?

Further, I think as writers we would be better served by reframing our personal stances on success and failure. Consider: It’s not you against the world. We writers are all in this together.  Instead of stalling over rejections, let’s work towards creating a community with other writers, supporting them in spite of their own rejections, and (trying) not to be envious in the face of their successes. A generous spirit is expansive, creative, transformative. It’s something to work towards because that’s where the magic happens.

Finding the Words: Where Fact and Fiction Meet

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I don’t always know what I feel. I may feel it fully, but my throat closes in on itself when I try to name the feeling. This happened to me all the time as a kid. Sometimes–and it can be years after the fact–I’ll be reading something and come across a word describing someone else’s experience, and it’ll hit me like a slap in the face. Oh, that’s the word for it.

I remember reading a book last year in which the author detailed a woman’s response to her husband leaving her for their teenaged babysitter. She felt humiliated. That’s never a word I had used or thought to use to describe myself, but I realized then that’s how I’ve felt so many times. Before, I might have said I was “embarrassed” or “anxious,” but that’s not quite right. Those words lacked, glossing over the full terror of the experience and the deep, abiding shame that lingers long after the original event has faded.

As terribly as the feeling is, I’m glad to have that word to hold on to. To give meaning to what might otherwise seem a futile experience in powerlessness. Still, even now, I feel the sting of rebuke: Can I actually talk about this? Can I bear it? Can others? I think maybe that’s why these words, true meaningful words, evaded me for as long as they did. They are almost, it seems, unspeakable when applied to the self and everyday lived experiences, especially the domestic. No one wants to hear about how bad you felt, especially not at the hands of those who were supposed to protect you. Instead, you get over it. Move on. Become resilient. But there’s a fine line between moving on and denial, which only serves to cement the shame in your psyche.

I read an article recently about a Norweigian novelist. She wrote a fictional novel about a woman who was abused by her father as a child. However, the novel so conspicuously paralleled her own life that it has led many people to believe it is autobiographical. And she’s not the first writer to (allegedly) fuse fiction and fact. I think most writers do this to some extent. And I can certainly understand how trauma can seem a better fit for fiction. Not just for the consumption of the general public, but also for one’s own sake. Maybe some distance is helpful to cut beyond the culture of silence, of “just move on.” Hopefully, the fiction becomes the catalyst for that forward movement. The first step is simple: Find the right word.

We Don’t Know What “Normal” Is

I, like many others, suffer from anxiety. Often, it is just a generalized buzzing, a pervasive feeling of dread, this excess negative energy. Other times it is acute, sharp, and dangerous-feeling. These are panic attacks. To me, these feel way worse than the generalized anxiety, which typically starts in my head and stays there. Panic, on the other hand, hijacks my body. My heartbeat feels impossibly fast, my throat feels like it’s closing, my vision narrows and darkens. My chest feels constricted. Sometimes, I can’t feel my hands. I can feel myself spinning out of control. In those moments, I feel horribly damaged. Broken. Like there is something really wrong with me.

I haven’t really found a great solution for the panic attacks. For me, the best plan of action has been to avoid situations that tend to lead to panic attacks. But, once I’m in the middle of one, the only thing to do is ride it out, pray to a god that I don’t really believe in, repeat some positive affirmations that I don’t really believe in, lie through my teeth and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Eventually, it passes.

Afterward, I still feel shaky and weak. It’s like I’ve seen a part of myself and I can’t go back.  I’ve seen myself for who I really am: frail and fragile and struggling to keep it together, and usually failing. I don’t always see myself this way, but there’s something about the aftermath of a panic attack that makes me feel vulnerable and flawed. This feeling can last for days or weeks. I feel depressed and, ultimately, anxious again.

That’s when I try to remind myself that I don’t know what normal is. Not really. Have I ever been normal? How would I know? So, what am I striving for? Most of the time, I tell myself that I should be different or how I shouldn’t have this problem. I compare myself to some imaginary person who has all their shit together. Deep down I know it’s a fiction: to think you know about someone else’s interior life. We don’t know what normal is. All we have is our own lived experience. Start from there. All those shoulds and should’nts just end up giving you an inferiority complex.

Holy Cross

This is the nonfiction essay I wrote that I am using (with great artistic license) as part of my NaNo novel. N.B.: this is a rough draft, and I don’t usually write non-fiction. Also N.B.: This is a pretty personal story about my traumatic experience pregnancy and childbirth, probably not a topic for everyone, but I hope that it resonates with someone out there.

The Virgin Mary watched as the doors parted and we entered Holy Cross. I was 42 weeks pregnant—eager, full, expectant. They placed me in the High Risk pregnancy unit, the standard procedure for inductions. I was ready, but I wasn’t prepared for the grimness, the culture of fear the permeates the walls of the labor and delivery wards. The nurses and their veiled threats of “let’s hope you don’t have a C-section,” or how they would run around frantic every time I moved, dislodging the wires that flimsily held my baby’s heartbeat. Once, after a dose of Pitocin, the rhythmic beeps disappeared. Four nurses rushed in. They positioned me on all fours as they yelled and moved the sensors, searching for the heartbeat. The baby had shifted. Once stable, they left us alone with the machines and the beeps. It all seemed so fragile.

The next day, my water broke. But the baby was stuck. And my blood pressure continued to rise. As I was given magnesium, I was told that I would have to wait 24 hours after the birth to hold my baby. I did not know what magnesium meant. I didn’t know it would make my vision double. I didn’t know it would make me retch. What choice did I have anyway? At midnight, I was told I would have to have a C-section. My husband suited up in that pale blue gear as I was wheeled into the OR. Four people had to flip me from the hospital bed to the shining operating table. I was nothing but dead weight.

I shivered and shook on the table. The pain in my right shoulder was as sharp as the scalpel in my stomach. Over my left shoulder, my husband begged me to stay awake. His voice was insistent but far away. The cold kept me awake, but I did not want to be. I was trapped in a body that was no longer under my control. All I wanted was an end to suffering. Somewhere in the distance, the doctor was counting her instruments. I didn’t even care about seeing my daughter, the one I had hoped and waited for. A nurse pushed her close to my face so I could see her, but I barely even moved my head. By the time I did, she was gone.

Back in the labor and delivery, I was told my daughter was in the NICU. Her face was deformed. They suspected it was a genetic disease, but they needed to run some tests to be certain. After five hours, my husband was allowed to visit her. I laid back in the hospital bed, as the encroaching dawn cast a livid glow on the machinery surrounding me. I waited from news from the NICU: nothing but neon green lights in the glinting dawn.

Twelve hours later, my husband wheeled me down to the NICU where I met my daughter for the first time. She was bruised and fragile, hooked up to wires and boisterous contraptions. She had a tiny iv inserted into her tiny little wrist. I worried about pushing the needle further into her skin as I picked her up. I sat awkwardly cradling her in my wheel chair, adjusting the wires, and fumbling with my nursing bra in the middle of the NICU, flanked by one-pound babies in incubators and their sullen-looking families. A NICU-nurse hovered over me as I tried to get my daughter to latch. She adjusted my nipple and pressed my daughters face into my breast. She admonished me for stroking my daughter. “A newborn’s skin is too sensitive.” I felt like a failure and I was ashamed.

Afterwards, my husband would wheel me back up to my room, and I would cry. I cried because I was in pain, I cried because I wanted to hold my baby, I cried because I wasn’t sure she or I would ever leave. A nurse said I had postpartum depression. I lied and said I was crying because I was so happy. I wouldn’t let them see me cry again. I didn’t want them to keep me any longer.

On the fifth day, the hospital chaplain paid a visit, she made the rounds to all the parent’s with babies in the NICU. She asked how got through the difficult times. I looked at my husband and said blandly, “we support each other.” I wanted to say, “What choice do I have?”

I left Holy Cross on the seventh day after my arrival, feeling beat up, defeated, exhausted from the ordeal of having to protect my fragile self against the onslaught of fear. I took my daughter with me.

My daughter will turn two in November. Every day I look at her and know I have so much to be thankful for. She is healthy, exuberant, joyful. People look at her and say “all’s well that ends well.” But some things linger. I can’t go into a hospital, not even to visit my sister in the maternity ward. Every cough, fever, or sniffle from my daughter elicits a deep pulse of panic within me—please, god, don’t let her be sick again. I can’t go back. Precious moments are stolen away from me through anxiety. Fear lurks around every corner.

When I tell people about this, they often act as if I am expressing something unspeakable. As if talking about the ordeal makes my child any less precious, or childbirth any less miraculous. Perhaps it is an affront to god to feel disappointed. But I think if there is a god, she would welcome it. After Holy Cross, I am acutely aware of my own weakness and fragility: I thought I was going to die and I did not fight back. I did not fight to see my child. I lied down, defeated, and I cried until fear caused my tears to stop. I curse my body and it’s failed machinery: I will never have children again. These are some harsh truths about me. Sometimes, there is no choice to be made. But, I am learning to lean into the fear, the disappointment, the uncertainty. Just a little. And bit by bit, I embrace it, tentatively, like a newborn.