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(Personal) My 2017

Self Improvement 150Happy New Year! Congratulations to all of us for making it through 2017 with our sanity mostly intact. It was a really rough year, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, something else would come along and knock me off my feet. There was a marathon of awfulness from the current presidential administration, starting with lies about the size of its inauguration and ending with lies about winning the War on Christmas. In between there were unprecedented wars of words with former allies and aides, the media, protesters and members of Congress; over 90 days on a golf course; shockingly provocative statements made on Twitter; leaks and firings from the White House; a rise in racist and totalitarian rhetoric in the public square; and a sustained assault on equal rights for women, minorities, Americans with disabilities; access to health insurance for more Americans; environmental and corporate deregulation; tax cuts for the wealthy; disastrous foreign policy; and a massive grass-roots resistance fighting against all of it for the entire year.

My therapist said that she had never seen so many people come in for psychological services precisely because of our political situation, but this is where we are as a nation. So many of us feel threatened by our own fellow citizens that it’s affecting our mental health. We fear for our friends and family, our autonomy, and our lives. We live in a world that feels hostile, cruel and crazy. To say this year has been a shock is an understatement.

Personally, this has been compounded by derailments in my plans for secondary education, my family situation, my day job, my writing, and my mental health routine. I dropped out of college (again) due to the sudden loss of my sister, and I’ve been struggling with the consequences of that for my family ever since. My finances have been wiped out pretty much entirely, which means that I’ll need to make some changes in my lifestyle and stay the course with an unsatisfying job (at least for the time being) in order to recover. Familial obligations, emergencies, and continued depression has made it almost impossible to build a consistent writing practice. The stress and anxiety has overwhelmed my coping strategy, meaning several depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, and a general struggle with anger and despair over the year.

2017 sucked. A lot. My sister Teneka died of a drug overdose in late April, leaving behind four children and an elderly mother who can’t take care of herself. Knowing Teneka struggled with many of the same mental health issues I did — Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, for example — highlighted just how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the chance to address those issues at a reasonably low cost. I also have a support network that understands and empathizes with that struggle, where she didn’t. Instead she tried to raise a son with special needs and an impossibly hostile mother all on her own, while two of her children were taken from her and placed in foster care. Trapped by her mental illnesses, struggling to do what was extremely difficult at the best of times, caring for a mother who emotionally abused her — it’s no wonder to me that she turned to drugs as an escape. Where else could she go?

I learned about all of this from February to April, and the week in Baltimore as she died was the hardest week I’ve ever spent. But I got to see my two oldest nephews for the first time, gained a brother-in-law who is passionate, dedicated, and wild, and reconnected with my family after over a decade of estrangement. I’ve gained a measure of closure with my mother, even though I continue to struggle with finding a way to care for her that doesn’t involve an emergency cropping up at least once a month. Her finances are beyond repair, but I only came to that decision after depleting my own.

My mother has been difficult ever since coming back from Baltimore. Our time together was surprisingly positive. She met Ryan as my husband, and it turns out she really liked him — she still asks about him. And I thought that I had been able to speak to her in a way she understood and short-circuited a lot of the tantrums she tends to throw when things don’t go her way. She can be astonishingly mean when she’s unhappy or surprised. However, as the months dragged on and she caused scramble after scramble when refusing to do something we had agreed on a few days before, it became clear that she hasn’t really changed and she’s still the same self-absorbed, stubborn person she was when I left home.

Dealing with my mother and the loss of my sister took up most of my energy throughout the year, and I spent a great deal of 2017 in a pretty bad headspace. Frustration, anger, grief and guilt have been swirling within me with no good outlet or expression for it. I’ve become resentful of the stress and lost time and money Mom has demanded without thanks or any note of appreciation. Only recently, when other members of my extended family became involved, have I felt a measure of relief and understanding about how difficult this situation has been.

That anxiety has bled over into every other area of my life. I haven’t been writing consistently at all; I’ve been short with a lot of “problem” colleagues at work; I’ve become less talkative online and flighty or confrontational. My anxiety and depression have blown right past my coping mechanisms this year, and it’s affecting my ability to work and be mindful with my relationships. I haven’t really liked the person I’ve become over this past year — even understanding how it happened.

The other major thing that happened this year was spending two weeks in Belgium for work training. It was the very first time I had been to Europe, and it was a fascinating, enriching experience. Two weeks was just enough to get a sense of how people live in the Flemish part of Belgium and I have to say I rather liked it. Things are so much more laidback there, but in a way that actually promotes productivity. Instead of trying to do a million things at one time, there seems to be more of an effort to allow people to focus on one thing and manage that as well as possible. Expertise, built through considerable time and effort, matters.

It’s something that I’ve been struck by and have been trying to incorporate into my life ever since. I’ve attempted to put more energy into focus and deliberate practice, knowing that while it might mean I work more slowly I can also learn and grow a bit more quickly. This has been (not-so-)surprisingly difficult with my ADHD, but I get that. It’s a process, and I’ll need to develop mine a bit differently in order to make it work.

However, learning more about the new ‘flagship’ product at my company seriously tanked my morale. Our company was purchased by a holding company and merged with a European one in a somewhat similar space, but we got the ‘short end’ of the deal. Europe had the control, and it became clear that they weren’t interested in working with their American colleagues on how to support the product; they had no understanding of American business culture and were openly dismissive of their stereotypes of it; and the product itself was a shambles, but the only thing we were allowed to sell in the United States. It convinced me that the place I work for doesn’t really have a future, and I should probably prepare to leave sooner rather than later.

My attitude has cooled somewhat, and I’m content to stick around for a little bit while I build up my technical skills to make a proper run at a new job in 2018. But knowing that I was ‘stuck’ in a work environment that triggered my anxiety pretty fiercely (because I felt like I was set up to fail at my job with little to no recourse) because my finances are in pretty bad shape was not a great feeling and became a major contribution to my overall levels of stress.

As difficult as this past year has been, I have to say that I’ve also grown so much closer to so many people over the year, even as I’ve shrunken my social circle a bit. My love for Ryan has deepened further still, and the life we’ve built together has been an anchor allowing me to maintain some sense of perspective. All of the people who have been kind and patient and compassionate towards me have helped so much more than they know. So many days this year have been spent feeling hopeless, nihilistic, doomed. Those small kindnesses, those moments of connection, have been essential for carrying me through those times. I can’t thank all of you enough.

I went into 2017 expecting it to be hard. I knew that the incoming President would be no friend of mine and I would need to prepare for a grinding political resistance against the worst abuses of power and trust. I knew that we would need to band together as a community in order to protect one another and help each other survive. But I had no idea how much of an emotional toll it would take, turning to a friend to find out a fundamental disagreement meant I would need to advocate for my rights and perspective. I had no idea dealing with my family would be so exhausting and fruitless. I had no idea that I would have to give up my dream of becoming a psychologist for the time being and find other, more immediate ways to help people.

Through it all, though, I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I have learned the value of discomfort and how to push through it. I have rededicated myself to compassion and equanimity. And I know who’s in the trenches with me. My sense of self (and self-worth) have deepened, and I feel ready for the uncertain times I face in 2018.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Ashes In The Mouth

Myth 150We all know how difficult family can be. Our siblings know all of the buttons that will drive us insane, no matter how carefully we try to cover them up. There’s something about a comment from our mom and dad — even though they might swear it’s innocuous — that feels like a judgement passed on every decision we’ve made in our lives. Even in the best of times dealing with our folks can take a lot out of us. They know us intimately in ways most others don’t, but at the same time there are all these parts of ourselves we’ve learned to hide from them.

My mother and I have a relationship that’s more complicated than most, I would imagine. I left home for good a few weeks before I turned 19 and I’ve only seen my mom again earlier this year, for my sister’s funeral. While I can’t say we’ve grown closer over the experience, it has re-established the difficult bond we have with each other. She’s now 83 years old and under a host of medical conditions; she can’t walk without falling, she can’t see so well, and there’s a lot about modern life that confuses her. After the death of her only biological child last year and the recent sudden loss of my sister, I’m the only child she has left. If I don’t take care of her, who will?

It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. Mom has always been a difficult woman to deal with, and that hasn’t changed with age. She’s very particular about everything, even the amount of time it takes to get what she wants. It’s hard to negotiate with her because she’ll forget things that she doesn’t want but agrees to do and never lets go of the things she does — no matter how impossible they might be. Whether or not this is on purpose, we’ll never know.

The past two weeks have been especially trying. Mom is currently sitting in an inpatient rehab facility to hopefully regain mobility. Advanced arthritis and multiple falls have made a constant pain in her hip so bad it hurts her to move; she has been on pretty heavy-duty painkillers for it who knows how long. Now, they’re trying to ween her off the habit-forming stuff, giving her medication that doesn’t work as well, and putting her through pretty intense, painful physical therapy as much as they can. Mom doesn’t want any of this. She wants to be back in her own home, or at least in her own hospital, and she blames the caretaker that’s stepped in to handle her and me that this isn’t happening.

Phone calls to Baltimore are being made every day. Since Mom can’t do it, I’m in charge of trying to settle a mountain of debt on a fixed Social Security income (which has been reduced for reasons I can’t figure out). Utilities must be returned to good standing, property taxes must be handled, medical bills have to be settled; then we can turn our attention to seeing if the house is something that can be saved or if it’s something that can only be condemned. Since Mom has made the decision she can’t make things work with the caretaker, all of this has to be done quickly.

That, in a nutshell, is why I went dark last week and why I’ve made next to no progress on my word count and fundraising for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. For the past couple of weeks, life has been work, Mom, helping a friend with his cat and whatever small bits of rest I can manage in between. I can’t say I’ve been dealing with it all that well. I’ve gotten grumpier, quiet, and resentful.

One thing in particular continues to rattle me: a big argument I had with my mother last weekend. Fed up with the constant calls and texts from people passing along messages that Mom was unhappy, or that she was savaging the reputation of the caretaker who had taken her in, I spent an hour on the phone just letting her have it. If it was just about the way she had treated someone who tried to do a good turn and is getting punished for it, that would be one thing — but it wasn’t. I yelled at her about the thing she said to me when I came out to her, as well as the fact that she’s still denied it all these years later; I yelled at her about the money and time I’ve sunken into the family this year, and how I had to give up a semester of school and a summer session to handle things; I yelled at her about how whatever I do is not good enough for her, how I’m never appreciated for trying to do the right thing.

Of course all of this has been within me for a long time, and I accept that. What’s harder to accept is that these thoughts and emotions weren’t uncovered and dealt with in my own manner; it erupted over a phone call to an old woman in intense pain, who is very lonely, who has lost almost everyone close to her. My mother was not very good at raising me, and she did a lot of damage, but knowing what her life was like, where she came from, and who she had to rely on, I really do think she did the best she could.

There are a number of things that I won’t be able to forgive her for, and I accept that as well. But it’s clear that I have to do something with these difficult emotions — name them, explore them, accept them. Otherwise they’ll continue to curdle inside me, poisoning me in ways that I won’t be able to name or recognize until I’m screaming at an old woman on the phone all over again.

The work continues. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do with the Write-A-Thon at this point, but I’ll keep trying to write as much as possible. In the meantime, I’ll have to pull back a bit to tend to my emotional landscape.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) Using Anger in Practice

Buddhism 150It might surprise some of you to know that I consider myself to be an angry person, but it’s true. I have a pretty quick temper, and like most idealists there’s a strong sense of order and fairness within me that gets offended often. That sense of fair play isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead us to have strong emotions against the people who we think disrespect it on a frequent basis.

A lot of people think that anger is a negative emotion, but it’s not; it’s simply a difficult one to react constructively with. Acting on anger without thought leads us to do terrible things to other people in the name of “justice” or “revenge”, and that doesn’t really solve anything. It just directs pain somewhere else; instead of dissipating or eliminating it, it’s amplified and channeled. Instead of stopping the behavior that caused the anger in the first place, these actions can often harden the targets of our lashing out. It makes them more defensive, less likely to listen.

I’m seeing this play out in activist circles, and it unnerves and exhausts me. Being angry about the problems we face is a completely reasonable reaction; we’ve noticed how unfair our society is, how few times those in power do the “right” thing by us. As idealists, of course living in a world where anti-social behavior is accepted as “normal” drives us crazy. However, I don’t think we’ve learned how to really think about the best uses of our anger. I’ve mentioned before how it can be a catalyzing force for us to change, or a way that we keep ourselves firmly on the path of social justice. But way too often, I see us lashing out, hardening the very people we should hope to change, demonizing and disconnecting an increasingly large set of people. Our anger is beginning to put us into an echo chamber, where we’re only willing to tolerate the people who think exactly the same way we do.

That’s not good for anyone. So in order to find a better way of dealing with those injustices that are everywhere within the modern world, I have to figure out how to have a better relationship with my anger, to really understand and harness it. For me, the best way to do that is fall back on the foundation of my Zen practice and recommit myself to the precepts and Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths tell us that attachment and desire is the root of all suffering, and the elimination of suffering can be achieved by eliminating our attachments. This is often misunderstood as having no emotions on anything, having no likes or dislikes, simply existing in reaction to whatever stimulus comes our way. That’s a mistake; taking such an extreme view of detachment isn’t consistent with the Middle Way, of course. It’s a form of emotional asceticism, another attachment to a bad idea.

I think what’s happening these days in activist spaces is a deep attachment to our anger. Perhaps we’ve spent so long ignoring or repressing our anger that letting it out just feels too good. It’s an empowering thing to express our anger and have other voices rise up in chorus with it. But that attachment is simply preserving the cycle of suffering; we hold on to our anger, use it to lash out regardless of the situation, and the resulting ill will and alienation just creates more anger in others…who then lash out, and pass on this cycle to someone else.

What detachment really means is being able to disconnect ourselves from our anger just enough to figure out the best way to express it. Sometimes that’s organized protest; sometimes that’s respectful debate; sometimes that’s leaving a situation where it’s clear there is simply no way you will be understood or treated fairly. It depends on a multitude of factors that must be considered before action; even though the stimulus is the same (something offensive happened), the things that gave rise to that stimulus are different and have to be examined both on their own and in relation to one another.

Anger is one powerful emotion, but that doesn’t mean there is only one response to it. We must put our anger in perspective to figure out its proper place and usage each time we encounter it. Knowing more about our emotions, when and how they arise, what our instinctive response may be to it, and how people are likely to react to that all help us out with that work. And one of the ways we learn more about our anger is through meditation, self-reflection and listening to the experiences of our fellow human beings.

As someone who struggles to cope with a variety of strong emotions, it’s very important to me that I have multiple tools at my disposal to manage them. Anger, anxiety, despair and boredom are emotions that I’m very sensitive to; that makes it much more difficult for me to put them in their proper places. But hopefully, with a firm commitment towards Zen, I can do just that.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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