my whole life
ate my tongue
ate my tongue
ate my tongue
i am so full of my tongue
you would think speaking is easy
but it is not.
-for we who keep our lives in our mouths
My arm muscles are locked up into tight knots, my fingers can’t move. My shoulders are scrunched up tight against my neck, and my legs have collapsed under me. At least I think they have, I can’t really tell where I am. My eyes have gone into tunnel vision and my brain is swirling. A tight knot of frantic twisting. Fighting to escape. Clawing to escape. I move a little and realize that my legs haven’t collapsed. I can still walk. But when I move my feet, I just walk in circles. Escape. I must escape.
But I don’t know how to.
My stomach heaves.
There is no escape.
I am watching the Last Airbender Series with my children. Their favorite character in the series is Toph, the smack-talking little girl who fights grown men and wins. Mine is Zuko. The kid who screams and yells at everybody and somehow manages to sabotage himself in every way imaginable. I identify with his frustrations and find myself just as confused as he is at certain points in his journey. How did he wind up here, again? With everything blown up in his face, nothing working out like he intended it to?
Zuko’s Uncle Iroh attempts to mentor Zuko, and in one fantastic scene, tells Zuko that he must let go of his feelings of shame if he wants to be successful at anything. Zuko protests that he’s not ashamed of anything, in fact, he’s proud. To which Uncle Iroh replies that the only ‘antidote’ to shame is true humility.
I watch and rewatch that scene multiple times, not really sure what it means or why or how ‘humility’ could possibly be an antidote to shame. How could being or feeling humiliated be different than shame? Much less an answer to shame?
Even as the scene brings up questions, I know it is the start of something for me. Because that word, shame? I know that word.
I know shame. Like I know my own heartbeat.
People are screaming at me.
My shoulders are tight, and I feel sick. They are right to scream, what I did was wrong. Unforgivable on many levels. I am shaking.
They are right.
Do you know how when you let your device’s battery run down too far, you can plug it in, but it takes a few minutes for it to finally register that it’s officially charging? On my Ipod, there’s this light mist of red over the charging bar, until there’s finally enough juice in the battery to click the screen into the green charging mode.
That space between the plugging in and the green charging is where I’ve existed for the past 5 years or so. Most people who’ve known me online for awhile have heard me talk about ‘the breakdown.’ After years of organizing, attending university, nearly daily blogging, two very very hard pregnancies, and living in poverty, I finally couldn’t force myself up to do it anymore. I withdrew from almost everything, organizing, blogging, even friends and family. I spent most of my time in bed, allowing myself to admit for the first time in my life that I hurt. My stomach was a knot of agony, my spasming gallbladder made me throw up multiple times a day, untreated hypothyroidism had me sleeping for 17+ hours a day.
I was the dead phone, then. The really really dead phone. The dead phone with not even enough juice to tell anybody that I was dead. But the thing is, even though I didn’t have the energy to tell anybody I couldn’t do it anymore, next to nobody noticed that I wasn’t there. When they did, it was just because there was something that needed to be done, and nobody was there to do it.
When I wasn’t there or stopped answering phone calls, they just called somebody else.
After months of healing, getting on the right medications, getting my gallbladder taken out, graduating from university–I finally started to feel bit better. Just a bit. I could turn my head without throwing up. I could even go on walks again, if I walked slowly and kept them short.
I felt a little better. So I did the only thing I understood as possible–I immediately announced to the world I was feeling better, and kept right on doing what I had been doing all along. Oh, sure, just to prove I had really learned my lesson, I stopped doing unpaid activist work. I found a job as doing an activist work and I assured myself that getting paid fixed most of my problems.
And it made sense, it really did, that as long as I was being paid, I would stay healthy. Occasional pauses in stress to gather myself back up seemed to work just fine. Being able to afford feeding my children was like massage therapy. Being able to buy a new bra for the first time in almost a decade was like heaven.
But for some reason, even with a paid job, I wasn’t shifting out of that that space between ‘plugged back in’ and ‘green charging.’ And I wasn’t anywhere close to being ‘fully charged.’ Even though I felt better, I’d still come home from work and collapse, unable to get out of bed, even to eat or go to the bathroom. I still spend big parts of my day at work attempting to cover up my spasming stomach and my head to toe pain. I spent so much pretending things were fine in every area of my life, not even my partner suspected things were as bad as they were. Did other people do this, I wondered? Was other people’s ‘normal’ spent entirely recovering from life so they could get back out there? Did other people hide in plain sight from their coworkers, their loved ones?
I made a goal to practice editing on my writing. Editing is an essential aspect of writing–when I was teaching writing at university, that was the mantra we’d repeat over and over to discouraged kids who had never written more than a paragraph or two during high school. Writing is a process. Writing is editing. Don’t edit in your head. Get the words out of your head, onto the paper. We can fix it easier there. Editing skills are what make a writer.
I was determined to finally give my writing the seriousness it deserved. I had spent so long not giving my writing credit. Not considering it any good, not valuing it, and so I rarely spent time editing. Looking back at old essays, I see some really great ideas that would’ve made fantastic essays if I had spent any time editing what I wrote. But I never did. What was the use of putting so much time and effort into my writing if I was never going to go anywhere or do anything with it?
I decided that I needed to do something with all this writing of mine. If I am a writer, then I need to start sharpening my skills. And I am a writer.
So I spent a lot of time gathering up and buckling down on old essays. Essays that I had forgotten I wrote, essays that I thought were pretty good, essays that made me cringe, even after all these years. I have spent so much time teaching others how to edit, assuring young writers that writing is a process, I thought it would be easy work to finally sit down and edit my own stuff.
Imagine my shock when I pull up and old article and am unable to make it past the first paragraph. I read the first few sentences, and my eyes blacken into tunnel vision and my heart races. I read a bit more, and my mind whirls as fast as my heart already is. Omg omg omg omg, what is this omg omg this is CRAP is what this is! I can’t believe I wrote this omg I can’t gather all this crap together so everybody can see it omg UGH.
I must escape.
But there’s no place to go. This writing is mine. It is me. And it is crap.
My stomach heaves.
It never gets easier. I am eventually able to make it through (very poor) edits on multiple essays. But a missing “s” on a pluralized word can send my mind whirling into blackness, a misshapen paragraph can knock me back so far the only way to pull myself back is to close the computer and go for a walk.
But even walks bring no relief. On normal days, walking is a joy. I get out into the open air, fill my lungs down into my abdomen and feel almost instant calm. Walking is where I have my best ideas, where stuck ideas get unglued, where new ideas are brought into the fresh open air. But if it is an editing day, I walk entire blocks and don’t have any idea what I am thinking the whole time. All I know is that I haven’t walked fast enough. I haven’t escaped.
Eventually I just go home. But the sick heavy feeling in my stomach is still there. That sick heavy feeling never seems to go away.
I was fired from my job. It’s coming up on two year mark in February. I was fired from a place that called it’s workers ‘family.’ We’re all ‘family’ here, we’re a ‘family workplace, we believe in ‘family.’ I believed them too. I, the poor orphan, kicked out of my family as a teen, had lived life without family. So it felt good to be brought under the wing of a ‘family’ that cared about things I did. That worked towards the same goals, that believed the world could change. It felt good to just be accepted, for once. To be missed when I didn’t show up.
But then the ‘family’ came under financial crisis and the organization wanted to move in a new direction. And suddenly the dreamy cloak of family evaporated and left us all staring at what we really were. Workers. And so, expendable.
I wasn’t the only one let go that day. It worked like an assembly line. We all sat around waiting for our time. And then one by one we walked thru the door. Comparing notes later, we found out that we heard the same thing: Because of these hard times, we’ve had to make difficult choices…
Assembly line family firing.
Driving home, I called W*, my partner, my love, my life. I hadn’t cried in the office. I hadn’t cried walking out of the building or in the car. But as soon as my partner answered the phone, the control collapsed. I cried so hard I couldn’t breath or talk. I could only hear his voice telling me to pull over. Pull over until you feel better. Pull over. Pull over until you’re ok.
I pulled over and we talked. Him, calmly even though I could hear the worry in his voice. Me, hysterically. They fired me what am I supposed to do now?
An orphan again.
There is no escape.
My stomach heaves.
People love to talk about ‘boundaries.’ Especially in social justice circles. Healthy boundaries make healthy people. Unhealthy boundaries cause violence, destruction, chaos. Healthy boundaries for healthy healing.
It’s next to impossible to miss the articles assuring us that ‘lighting candles’ and ‘journaling’ are good ways to ‘keep boundaries.’ And even Oprah is all over ‘gratitude journals.’ This is where you’re supposed to write down all the things that you are grateful for every day, and then when you go back and read it from the beginning, you’ll stop feeling resentful and know how to lucky you are. And that helps grow your boundaries.
One of the very few things I am good at is being grateful. I’m the child of an immigrant, and the immigrant I am a child of is the kind that is ‘just grateful to work.’ Grateful to the great United States for blessing us with the lowest paying grungiest job that no white person would ever do. Grateful to be allowed the bounty of America.
So early in my life, when a lot of the problems that I am dealing with today were tadpole problems, I gravitated to gratitude journals. It was so easy for me to come up with stuff to be grateful for. I even emailed Oprah and got myself a free journal when she was giving away journals. Oprah told me that gratitude journaling was ‘me’ time. And having a nice journal showed myself that I was worth it. I wanted to be worth it. God how badly did I pray to be worth it.
The very first thing I wrote in that journal? Was how grateful I was to Oprah for all that she’s ever done for me.
And then I got busy writing page after page of gratitudes. The sunny sky, the cool day, the full tree in front of our house. There was nothing I couldn’t show a little gratitude for. After a while though, I began to realize that I wasn’t feeling much better than I had before, even after months of gratituding. My entire attitude didn’t change like Oprah said hers did. I didn’t get rich. I didn’t feel better about life. Eventually, I stopped and never did it again.
That is, until I was fired.
When you are fired (or just out of work) you exist in a weird place where there’s a ton of ‘self help’ expertise floating around, but all you want to do is punch all that self help in the face. But after it helps you, of course. Because you need a job and there’s nothing in the world worse than not having a job. Especially when you’re a child of an immigrant who is just grateful for the right to pick berries for 50 cents a bucket.
I started reading all that self help, looking frantically, desperately for the answers. What was I going to do? I live in Michigan, where the most reliable work is the restaurant industry. I took out thousands of dollars of loans so I could go to school and escape the restaurant industry. What the hell was I going to do?
Self help told me to meditate. To drink coffee. To use the firing as a way to decide what I REALLY wanted to do (what happens when what you really wanted to do is the job you got fired from?).
To keep a gratitude journal.
I know how to show gratitude, I tell myself. I know how to do something. Maybe this will work this time. Maybe…
People are yelling at me. I don’t understand why. I didn’t do anything wrong. They yell and yell.
My shoulders are tight. I am flushed and sweaty. I didn’t do anything.
I say nothing. There is no escape.
They keep yelling. And finally,
I am watching a documentary on Henry Ford. Henry is a dictatorial tyrant. I could go on for days about how terribly he treated his workers, how he degraded the environment in SE Michigan, how he almost destroyed his company rather than give an inch to the unions.
But what interests me in this documentary is the relationship he had with his son, Edsel. Edsel was the only child of Henry and was groomed to take over the company. Only Henry had no intention of giving up control of the company. Especially not to somebody like Edsel.
See, Edsel somehow managed to be raised by this dictatorial tyrant, and at the same time, turned out to be not that bad of a guy. He was by all accounts, a kind man, one that didn’t have the stomach to treat others the way his father treated them. It was Edsel that negotiated the deal between Ford the company and the unions. It was Edsel that absorbed the disgust and anger of his father so that others didn’t have to. And as a result, his father had not a shred of respect for him.
There is a story about Edsel. He wanted to relieve overcrowding in the building where he worked, so he decided to build an addition onto the building. Mind you, at this point, he was president of the company (by his father’s design), and he was the head of the plant that he was working at. He, along with his father and mother, owned the entirety of the shares of Ford. He had every right to build an addition onto this building, even without getting his father’s approval.
They got as far as digging out the foundation before Henry saw what was going on. When Henry asked Edsel about the work, Edsel told him that the accountants needed more room to work. Henry, the dictatorial tyrant, fired all the accountants, and then told Edsel there was plenty of room. Edsel agreed to stop building the addition and said he’d have workers pour in the foundation. To this, Henry told him no. Leave the big hole, just as it is. For everybody to see.
Every single day after that, Edsel had to walk by this unfinished hole–a little reminder to him (and the entire plant he was the manager of) from his father. That his decisions were nothing. That his needs were nothing.
That he was nothing.
I’m not surprised to find out that Edsel developed stomach cancer. That he spent years suffering through what he thought were ulcers, only to find out it was cancer. I’m not surprised to find out that Edsel didn’t tell his father that he had cancer and that it was terminal. What could Edsel’s illness be but another failure? Another thing he couldn’t do right? Another hole to carry in front of the whole world?
A colleague of Edsel and Henry summed up the difference between father and son. Henry felt that he knew best what was best for the public. Edsel, on the other hand, would try to give the public what they wanted.
Try to give the public what they wanted.
My stomach heaves.
I can’t escape.
I read in a book about ‘boundaries.’ In it, it tells how the body and mind work together to read cues from others. It’s a type of mind reading, almost. Our bodies are miraculous things, designed from babyhood to notice cues from mothers/caregivers. It’s a survival instinct as babies. Mother’s cues let us know that we are loved, that we are cared for, that if we act a certain way, she will respond with food, if we act a different way, she will respond with hugs.
As we get older, our ability to read other people’s cues becomes more refined and gets incorporated into areas of our lives that are not so survival centered. The book points out that the reason your own fingers traveling across your body don’t feel the same to you as the fingers of another person is because you already understand your intentions with your body. That is, you know where your fingers are going to go and what they’re going to do when they get there. If you’re blind folded, on the other hand, and a loving partner tickles your body, that brings about a sensation in you that is in part, based on your inability to read your partner’s cues about what they intend to do to your body.
But for many of us, there is a dark side to this mind reading as well. When you have a sick parent that alternates between rages and gross depression, just walking into a house after school can give you clues. You don’t need to talk to the parent, you don’t need to even see your parent. You can read the signals in the air. Are the lights on or off? Are the curtains open or closed? Is the house quiet? Or can you hear sounds of movement?
By the time you actually encounter the parent, you already generally know how to handle the parent. You read their cues to make sure you’re not wrong, and then you follow your playbook. Mind reading is a great technique of survival. But when you become hyper vigilante as a mind reader–you start to associate reading minds and situations successfully as ‘who I am.’ This is ‘who I am.’ I am a person who reads other people and makes them feel better. I am a person who knows without being told what to do. I am a person who takes care of others. I am a good girl.
But being a good girl means you spend hours and hours monitoring the cues of people who have never once hurt you. It means you take off running from the very safe home that you intentionally created at the slightest sign of other’s displeasure. It means you keep insisting your fine over and over again because you can read the cues of others and you know it’s what they want to hear.
It means that eventually, you forget that your spirit, the person that you really are, the person who has desires, needs, dislikes, integrity, is not there anymore. That there’s no room for that person you really are to exist, so it floats over you, attached to you by a thread that grows thinner and thinner with each act of hyper vigilant mind reading.
That’s when you end up in that space between dead and ‘charging.’ Assuring the world you can do it, not because you can actually do it. Not because you actually want to do it. But because you know it’s what they want to hear.
When you’ve gotten so used to the rush of adrenaline that comes with knowing that you are safe for that one moment that somebody isn’t mad, angry, disappointed in you, the idea of ‘boundaries’ is simply a foreign concept. Like trying to explain rotary phones to teenagers or geophysics to a normal person.
You know that boundaries are important. But they make no sense. You can’t even conceptualize what boundaries might look like. When your entire identity is based on meeting other people’s needs, your boundaries are their boundaries. They build them, define them, and you learn them so well, you feel like those boundaries are yours.
Is it even possible build a boundary around a floating spirit?
I am the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life. I can’t move. The cold grey engulfs me, strangles me. I can see no way out. When depression has come in the past, I had enough experience to know what it was and ride the wave. But now. I can’t move. I can’t breath. I can’t escape.
So I pick up my pencil and journal and start writing.
I am grateful that I woke up today.
I am grateful for the kids.
I am grateful for W*.
I am grateful for…
I am grateful for………..
My brain twists. My stomach is uncontrollable. I don’t know what else to say. I toss my pencil to the side. Close the journal.
That’s when I start watching the Last Airbender Series. And when I see Uncle Iroh tell Zuko about true humility being the only antidote to shame. It doesn’t hurt to type in ‘shame’ to the search engine. It doesn’t take much energy to type ‘guilt vs shame.’ So I do, and in between sleeping and watching the Last Airbender, I go back to those open tabs and surf through some of the links.
Just like the endless self help articles, articles on shame and guilt are often endless and filled with bullshit. Hippies and Buddhist hippies especially love to talk about shame. And to suggest using positive thinking or crystal therapy to get rid of it. But then I came across this.
Brene Brown on the differences between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’:
“Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
Because it isn’t too much work, I rent a book by Brown from the library. Then another. Books on CD, so I don’t have to move. But they start to unlock doors.
I already know about shame. But what I know…it doesn’t sound like what Brown was talking about in her books. What I know is ‘slut shaming’ and ‘body shaming’ and ‘fat shaming.’ I’ve seen untold number of articles written by *F*eminsts saying they were done with slut shaming. Articles calling for the end of body shaming. Articles critiquing how the latest movie or tv show was fat shaming.
Shame as I learned it from *F*eminists is an individual experience. A type of bullying. Shame is something that happens to an individual, and is an act committed by either one person or a small group of people. In worst case scenarios, an entire town does it to a survivor. Or ‘the internet’ does it. It doesn’t happen to everybody. It happens to certain types of people. Sluts. Fat people. Women. Victims of rape.
Shame is not something that is systemic. It’s not something that’s generational except in how an individual mother shames an individual daughter, or an individual father shames an individual son. It’s not the cesspool of capitalism we are birthed into and then repeatedly drown ourselves in until we die. And it’s not something that we learn so well, we barely even notice it. That we just grow to accept as ‘normal.’ Normal to feel tight and scrunched up. To always feel punched in the gut. To apologize endlessly for things you never did. To beat yourself up for the things you did do. So others don’t have to.
For some reason, as I worked through the books on shame, I returned to that gratitude journal. And I noticed something. I was very clear that I felt gratitude. But who was I showing my gratitude to? When I said I had gratitude for my kids, surely I was talking to God. But when I said I had gratitude that my kids hadn’t gotten sick or been killed–who was I showing gratitude to then? The police for not killing them? The state of Michigan for not taking them from me? The ‘family business’ that offered insurance until I wasn’t family anymore?
The more and more I parsed thru ‘who’ I was showing gratitude to, the more it kept hitting me in the face. I was almost always grateful to some abusive violent entity for not destroying somebody I loved. But even when I had gratitude for the sunny day or the deep red flowers that managed to grow next to my house, I started to notice that gratitude kept me in a position of passivity. I was not the agent, the person doing things. I was the ‘good girl’ that was busy mind reading others to keep them happy.
Can training a person carefully shamed into passivity to show constant gratitude to abusive institutions be an act of justice? Or liberation?
Can it truly heal me? Heal us?
might make them angry
it will make you free.
–if no one has ever told you, your freedom is
more important than their anger.
~‘salt.’ by nayyirah waheed
When I get home the day I am fired, everybody is there. My partner, my kids. I walk in and head towards the bedroom, intending to lock myself in and hide until people forget I exist. But my partner catches me. He signals to the kids, and they came over to where he and I are standing. The three of them pull me into their arms and hug me. I feel my kids hands patting my back, I feel the warmth of my W*s breath against my face. I am sobbing. They don’t try to talk or move away from me. They wrap around me, holding me, whispering ‘we love you.’
We love you.
We love you.
The big secret about ‘healing’ is that there is no magic trick. There is no one single ‘thing’ that allows you get back up and be fine and healed for the rest of your life. Almost everybody wants that single cure. There’s tons of pressure on healers and writers who talk about healing to say that there is a single cure. There’s a linear narrative around healing that says that you get sick, you admit you’re sick, you take some time out to do what you need to do, you’re better.
That’s why there’s listicles and ‘how tos’ and endless self help books, people don’t have time to heal, not really, so they look for what they want to hear. If they meditate or exercise or do gratitude journaling, their lives will be fixed. One healing strategy to rule them all.
I couldn’t tell you what has been my magic bullet of healing. Was it a particular book I read? Was it the time I finally said ‘no’ and didn’t feel guilty? Was it Oprah, who sent me a nice book to journal in? Was it disillusionment with all the listicles? Was it getting my gallbladder removed?
What if the answer is that it was all of these things, plus more? What if the answer is that the biological nature of humanity leans toward healing and we’re all going to figure it all out at a certain age no matter who we are?
What if there’s no social justice movement in the world that can ‘heal’ a person? What if there’s no such thing as ‘healing’–only life?
Are we ready to struggle with life? Are we ready to struggle with life for no greater cause or purpose than ourselves?
I start by hand writing letters to friends.
I struggle with the slowness of writing at first. It is hard to slow down to hand writing pace when you can type as fast as your brain thinks. I practice slowing down by paying attention to the rituals of letter writing. The date up in the corner. The page numbers on longer letters. The time down the side next to where I stopped or started back up writing. I realize that the time stamp tells people who know me a lot of information. Information I didn’t know about myself. I get my best work done in the afternoon, but I get the most work done in the morning. I am fried in the evening and rarely do much of anything then.
I am writing a letter to a friend one day when I find myself remembering free writing time in elementary school. I am sitting at one of those old wooden desks with the curved steel bottoms, the kind that always made my too long legs knock against each other. A long line of cursive letters are taped across the top of the table. Rain is splattering against the high glass windows. I am wearing a stiff wool sweater that clings too tightly to my neck and makes it hard to sit still in. There is a record player scratching out quiet music and the lights are off.
It is the smell of the blotchy ink on pulpy wood flecked paper that links 40 year old me to elementary school me. It’s a smell that not only calms both versions of me down, but that all of me loves.
It’s a small thing. It’s not the holiness of the smell of a baseball glove. Or the rejuvenation of a piney forest or the saltiness of the ocean.
It’s a small thing. But it’s a start.
Integrity is who you are. It’s a ‘state of being whole and undivided.’ It’s what is questioned when you do something somebody else (or you) doesn’t like. It’s what everybody tries to impose on you. It’s what is shamed as a way to control.
It is your morals. But it’s more than that. It’s what that ridiculous Julia Roberts movie points to with the ‘egg eating’ experiment. Julia’s character starts off the movie eating any type of eggs that the person she is dating does. Part of her character arch is learning which eggs she likes.
Integrity is learning what kind of eggs you like–but it is also not changing/shifting your likes based on other people’s opinions. Maybe your individual taste is such that eggs are not any big deal to you so you’ll eat whatever’s right in front of you. But the point is that it’s your individual taste, and that you made the decision of your own free will (not because you’re partner would think less of you or your mother is threatening you). Integrity is who you decide you are based on well reasoned thought (as Grace Lee Boggs might say) you’re own likes/dislikes, you’re emotions/feelings, etc. It is not deciding who you are because there’s no other choices available to you, because somebody is threatening you, or you’ll be enmeshed in life long poverty if you don’t do it.
At first, integrity confused me. I’ve made lots of choices. I’ve made lots of decisions. I’ve been going to rallies and organizing meetings and marches since I was a kid. I’ve been called ‘outspoken’ and ‘mouthy’ and ‘feisty’ and ‘sassy’ since I can remember. I’ve been called ‘fierce’ and ‘bitchy’ and ‘overbearing.’ I’ve been all the things that would make you think that my egg choice would never be in question, much less decided by anybody but myself.
What I never counted on (and I’m sure none of the people who called my feisty or sassy ever did either) was that organizing came easy to me, that fighting for what was ‘right’ came easy to me, because I had been so well trained to take care of and prioritize others. That organizing as it plays out far too often in the US, encourages and admires good girls to ‘fight for others’ to death.
I know somebody who died recently, and in a memorial written about this person, the author said how greatly they admired the person who died because on their deathbed, this person was making phone calls and advocating for others. The last thing this person did was make a phone call for somebody else. Then this person died.
This is what organizers admire. Sacrificing yourself to death. Pushing and pushing and pushing yourself so that even on your death bed, your very identity requires you to push aside dying and mind read the needs of others.
It makes sense, then, that even as I was busy being sassy and feisty and all the other names, I was busy carrying around my massive Edsel Ford hole of shame. Unable to fathom what a boundary was, and getting sicker and sicker everyday for it. I know now, that I was not the only one collapsing at the end of the day, unable to move. That I was not the only one hiding my inability to move, my desperate illness, behind the image of what I thought I was supposed to be.
That Edsel Ford and I could both have such similar life experiences points to exactly how common what I was going through really is.
Having integrity is a state of humanity. It is what God or the Universe or your ancestors or the Spirits slipped into your body before you were born and put you on the earth to develop. It is being human. It is uncontainable. It is the antithesis of everything our culture wants from us.
As I continue to hand write letters, I also scratch out a few notes and plot lines of a story that’s been swirling around my head for about three years. I’ve never given this story serious consideration, even though I alway said my goal was to write a book. I never took this story seriously because nobody else I knew took my story writing seriously. This makes me wonder: Is writing something I actually want? Is it something I need? Did I actually like to write? Does writing empower me?
I keep jotting down notes here and there while I think. And then I let the questions go. I am tired, and I realize for the first time, that sometimes you don’t have to have the answers blasted out to a fine point instantaneously. Sometimes, the urge to have everything figured out is just another way of making yourself more digestible to others. Just another way to be good girl.
I put away my writing and go for a walk. I figure the answers will find me on their own, eventually. And the only thing I need to do is rest until they find me.
It’s taken some time get used to this slower pace of life. I was diagnosed with ADD years ago, which is characterized by an inability to pay attention. But now, I’m beginning to question that diagnosis. The world has existed as one swirling huge frantic screaming mess of hysteria for so long, I thought it was normal. Just the way it was. Hysterical tunnel vision. I could hardly pay attention to anything because I was hyper focused on the only thing that counted, making sure nobody and nothing could ever ever be disappointed in me. Shame prevention. Anti-Shaming Hysteria.
This new world I exist in is slower. I keep noticing things I’ve never noticed before. Layers of colors, the texture of sounds. Little things, but things that grow me into a new person.
This is one of my favorite songs of all time, but when listening to it in a state of Hysterical Tunnel Vision, I only heard it as a heartbroken song of a former lover. Now I pay attention to the gentle decrescendos, the lingering over harmonies, the lyrics. Drown in my own tears–I let the words slip into me as they are, slow, quiet, almost a hum. They gather intensity and then taper off, losing the words in sound. Then I hear what I’ve never heard before. The self indulgence. The person telling this story of death through tears enjoys noticing how sad he is. To the point, there may even be a bit of playfulness in his words. An indulgent husband accentuating and exaggerating his longing for his wife on an endless Saturday night. A husband performing his desire and love for his wife. A man pulling a woman closer to him with his longing.
I smile as I close my eyes and drown in this song I’ve never heard before.
November hits, and everybody in my feed is talking about Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month.
Before I commit to big plans, I usually spend a lot of time obsessing and thinking through those big plans to the teeniest detail I can find. I make sure that all the things that could possibly go wrong are accounted for. And what usually winds up happening is that I spend so much time obsessing, the big plans pass me right by.
When I see that Nanowrimo is here, I don’t think about anything. I know without a doubt that this is the answer I’ve been waiting to find me.
I start writing. The world needs my novel, I’m told. I know this is true. But even more so, I need my novel.
Writing so much for an entire month is not easy. It’s more than I’ve written in years, and there are times that I feel like my fingers will crack off or my brain will implode on itself. I even fall into a wave of depression for a while and don’t write at all. But the depression crests and I feel better, and I get back to it.
I don’t hit the 50,000 word mark, but I get close. I write the novel that I have always said I wanted to. I notice the teeny flame of integrity budding inside me, and as I get stronger, I fan it. Not enough to kill it or to push it out of control. Just enough. So that it is warm and cozy and a place that I enjoy being in.
I never enjoyed anything so much in my life. And I never felt so proud when I was finished.
I did it. I did it for nobody else in the world but me.
I did it.
The other big secret about ‘healing’ is that having boundaries is not always joyful, peaceful or smooth. It feels good to say you are saying ‘no’ as an act of respecting your integrity. But the reality is that not many people enjoy being told no, and I like saying it even less. My early attempts at saying no most often saw me falling back on what I was used to–hysteria. Somebody would ask for something, and instead of just saying ‘no, not this time,’ I’d yell, or more often, cry. I wanted people to just understand without me having to tell them, like I did for them all those years.
I also spent a good long amount of time really pissed off when it turned out that one grand show down with ‘no’ wasn’t going to be the end of it. That I would have to keep saying no, over and over and over again, for the rest of my life.
But I’ve stuck with it and kept practicing. It’s still not that easy for me to say no, but the hysterical self-defense is almost non-existent now. I am more confident with my boundaries, and I have created ways to protect them that are filled with my own sense of integrity. Old patterns are slipping away as I birth a new me.
Even so, I’ve gotten in more fights with W* than I ever have in my life. But they aren’t like the old fights, me slamming a door or doing the silent treatment. Those things were me not feeling like I had the right to say no. So I was letting W* know I was mad, without telling him no.
W* is who I practice saying ‘no’ to the most these days. And sometimes he says ‘ok’ and moves on and other times we fight over it. But now, our fighting is the two of us standing up for our boundaries. It is the both of us figuring out when our integrity will allow us to adjust our boundaries and when adjusting our boundaries will betray our integrity.
I understand what Uncle Iroh meant now, when he said ‘true humility is the only antidote to shame.’ True humility is not self berating or self abuse (or: just another version of shaming.). True humility is knowing yourself, your boundaries, your integrity so well that you don’t have to impose yourself on anybody or anything to know who you are or that you are allowed to exist in this world. True humility is having such a strong sense of integrity that it doesn’t matter how anybody tries to impose themselves on you, you remain true to your own self and your own value system. True humility is being alive to your own self in the deepest most spiritual sense possible.
It’s not easy work, to be alive. But to be alive is to notice the smell of ink on paper, the sound of rain on glass. It is the pure joy of hearing a beloved song with new ears.
And so it is worth it.
I think back to that day I came home from being fired often. There is something in that day that I spent 40 years on a desperate hunt for, but was unable to feel, even when it was wrapped around me. When you’re filled with shame, you are filled with gratitude to others who are willing to take a moment to relieve that shame just a bit. On that day, I was filled with gratitude to my family for relieving the shame of being fired.
But now…I see that day differently.
The arms, the warm breath, the gentle pats.
Whatever comes. Where ever we go from here. However this changes things. Whatever way you choose to fill yourself going forward. We love you.
I don’t believe in God. But the sublime universe is there in that moment. It wraps itself around me and us and whispers, you have permission to be just who you are.
For the first time, I can see the universe. And I believe what it says.
We love you.
We love you.