adversity · life · mental-health · nonfiction · recovery

Setbacks

Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten.  These song lyrics have run through my mind all night, keeping me from sleeping.  A perfect lead in to today’s topic.

I am old enough to know that setbacks are not the end of life; they are usually just a transition point.  If you have been reading along, you know that it is the stuff of my writing.

When I experienced what we used to call a mental breakdown, at the age of thirty-one, I recognized that it was a wake up call to make some changes in my life.  Obviously, the way I had been living was not working for me, so I needed to learn a new way.

Losing my mind was like falling into a black hole.  I felt as if I was at the bottom of a deep abyss, with no visible means of escape.  Four things saved me:  my faith, my children, my writing, and my friends.

I knew that if I was to survive the experience, I would have to build my own stairway out.  I began with my beliefs.

Step one.  I believed that God never gave us anything we couldn’t handle, so therefore, I had it within me to heal.

Step two.  I believed that what happened, happened for a reason, so that there was a purpose for my suffering.

Step three.  I believed that God gives us what we need, so that help would be there for me.

Don’t get me wrong, losing one’s mind is a horrible thing.  In the beginning, I shook uncontrollably for most of the days, lying in a fetal position on my bed. But I knew if I was ever to get better, I had learn to “walk” again.

I set baby step goals for myself.  As my children were still considerably young, I made them a priority.  The first goal was to spend fifteen minutes a day of quality time with my children, without the trembling and tears.  I found I was able to control the anxiety for short periods of time, when I focused on them, instead of me.

The second goal was to get out of the house everyday, even if I was only able to walk to the end of the street (driving was out of the question). This was difficult, but I knew it was important not to give into the fear and become housebound.

In between times, I wrote and wrote, processing every thought, fear, and emotion, until I reached some aha moments.  I used my dreams as a guide.

When I grew a little bit stronger, I called upon trusted friends, who put together a healing circle that met once a week in support of my healing.

I learned many things from that time of darkness.  Mostly, I learned that if something is not life or death, then it is not worth worrying about.  I let go of my need for perfection.  I learned that nothing is as precious as the relationships that sustain us.  And I realized the depth of my own inner strength.

None of us would ever choose setbacks, but in retrospect, would we ever grow without them?

life · mental-health · nonfiction · recovery

Accepting Success

My husband always tells me that I am failing my way through life with an A+.

It started when I returned to university to upgrade my degree.  I would sweat over every assignment, proclaiming uncertainty about the expectations and certainty that my efforts would fall short.  I would get the paper back with a mark in the nineties.

Despite my high marks, the insecurity persisted.  When I graduated from the Faculty of Education, I didn’t even notice that it was with distinction until my stepdaughter asked me what that meant.  Surprised, I responded:  “It probably means that I was the oldest.”

The assumption behind all this angst is that I am not capable, and that every task is designed to trip me up.  Of course, this is nonsense, and when I spell it out like that, my rational mind can see that it is.  Yet, somewhere inside me is an insecurity that my success is phony; that I am a fraud.

I am working on moving towards an easier approach to life.  I am trying to be consciously aware of how I complicate things with insecurity, and replace those thoughts with simplicity. I’m trying to take a step back before responding.  Reassessing a situation usually does reveal a simpler solution.

 

adversity · disability · Family · health · life · mental-health · nonfiction · spirituality

On Suffering

“All I need is to win the lottery,” Mae often proclaims.

“That’s not true,” I tell her.

“But if I had enough money, my problems would all be solved.”

“No.  If you had lots of money, you would still be schizophrenic.”

She takes this in and nods solemnly.  Then she laughs.  “You’re so funny.”

“I am studying the dictionary, though.  If I can get smarter then I’ll be better, don’t you think so?”  (Mae finished nursing school with 96%).

“Schizophrenia has nothing to do with intelligence, it’s a chemical imbalance.  You are smart already.”

The conversation is redundant.  We will revisit it many times.

Mae, like many people, just wants an end to her suffering.

As a student of alternative health care techniques, and a caregiver, I too have looked for answers to the riddle of why suffering exists in the world.  I have witnessed parents watching their infant die, and young children sitting at their dying mother’s bedside.  I have met those whose disease has debilitated them to a point of total dependency; and others whose lives have changed in an instant due to an accident or violence.  And I have met many, like Mae, who are born into suffering, with no hope for a cure.  Void of answers, I am only left with more questions.

What I have come away with, though, is a sense of awe for the spirit that drives each and everyone of these people.  In the midst of so much tragedy, I have encountered strength, willingness, compassion, and incredible resilience.

I don’t believe, as some do, that suffering is a choice; I believe it is inevitable.   And in some instances, I believe that suffering can open the doors for much discovery.

life · memoir · mental-health · nonfiction · recovery · spirituality

Emptiness

Sue Bender, in her book Everyday Sacred, uses the symbolism of the bowl to depict the spiritual life.   She relates this image to Tibetan monks, who as part of their training must survive with begging bowls:  they must ask for what they need and make use of what they are given before they can beg for more.

Everyday Sacred literally fell off the shelf and into my arms one day, as I was reaching for a novel in the library.  It could not have appeared at a better time.  I was mesmerized by Bender’s words, and loved her analogy.  I could relate to the idea that we are bowls, or vessels for Spirit, and that whatever comes into our life must be consumed and processed before we can ask for more.  In this way, we make life sacred.

Shortly after discovering the works of Sue Bender, my marriage ended, leaving me shattered and scarred.  I prayed for a sign that everything would be okay.  Signs and omens surrounded me, and I felt comforted.  Then I got my new phone number.  I was disappointed that it had no obvious pattern to remember: 2695 were the last digits.  One day as I sat musing over how I was going to remember the number, I had a thought:  what did the numbers spell?- b-o-w-l.  Bowl!

Life had served me up a full helping of misery, and it would be a long time before I could empty it, but I came to understand that emptiness is what I needed before anything good could come my way.  As long as I hung on to anger, grief, or resentment, my bowl did not have room for anything else.  Empty was the goal.

 

 

(Image: www.hungrysouls.org)

abuse · adversity · creativity · dreams · life · memoir · mental-health · recovery

Risking Excellence

I am with my son’s friend, and we are headed to meet John downtown where he will be competing in a skateboard competition.  John is a very gifted skater and the odds are good that he will win, but he is nowhere to be found.  As time passes, I feel more and more anxious that something has happened to him, and begin to search in closets and corners, anticipating I am going to find him dead.  Suddenly, a car pulls up, dumps a body, and squeals away.  A crowd gathers, and as I make way through, I know it is John.  He is not dead, but severely beaten, enough to stop him from competing.

I wake up,  immediately afraid for my son, but once I am conscious enough to remember the focus of today’s writing, I realize the dream is about me.

I was eight-years-old when school officials began to pull me out of class and subject me to a series of tests.  “She is gifted,” they told my parents,” and we would like to accelerate her one grade and enroll her in a special class with her peers.  She will have to attend school across town, and transportation is not provided.”

My mother didn’t know what to think.  I was a girl, and according to her, girl’s who were smart did not do well in life. (Doing well, in my mother’s eyes, was being a stay-at-home mom with a husband who made a lot of money.)  My father supported the decision.

Gifted children often feel like an anomaly, and I was no exception.  I knew I didn’t fit in at the regular school, but I somehow always felt like they made a mistake with me and I didn’t belong in the gifted class either:  these kids were so smart and, well, geeky.  I didn’t think I fit the mold.  Academically, however, I thrived.  The self-contained classroom was far more engaging and intellectually stimulating.  I loved school!

After school was another matter.  While I was driven across town each morning, I had to take two city buses home each afternoon, arriving long after my old classmates had been dismissed for the day.  The bullies waited for me, and I soon became game for their taunting, and physical abuse.    When we moved out of town in the middle of grade eight, I was thrown in with the regular population and the rift was apparent.  A town thug was hired to beat me up one day after school.

I learned to hide my abilities, and refrained from competing with others.  I developed the expectation of being beaten, both literally and figuratively.

As I’ve mentioned before, John shares my introspective side – that part of me that doubts, questions, and turns things over and over.  The friend that accompanied me in the dream suffers from depression and delusions.  I have that side to myself also.  Combine the introspection with the inability to see beyond negative thinking and there is an expectation of futility:  why try?

John is a gifted skateboarder, and if the dream was real, I would encourage him to hire a bodyguard and go for it.  By objectifying the issue, is the dream telling me the same?  While you may have been beaten at times, you still hold the same bright potential, so don’t give up.  Just let go of the expectations.

adversity · Family · health · life · memoir · mental-health · nonfiction

Racing Towards The Abyss

Ice, c’est Radio Canada.  Il est neuf heures quinze, et maintenant…..

“9:15!  If traffic goes my way I can be at work by 9:30, and with a half hour lunch, be done by 5:00”, I calculated while racing through the yellow light.  My day had started early with a brisk power walk to get me going, a quick shower, breakfast for the kids, then off to morning French class at the University.  Fortunately for me, my job offered flex time, so I could catch the early class before starting my shift.

I strained to catch the gist of the radio program.  Something about the funding of English schools in Quebec, and a debate about immersion.   A hole opened up in the line of traffic to my right and I weaved around the slow driver in front of me, just grabbing the tail end of a yellow to turn the corner and enter the parking lot.  I would make it to my desk with two minutes to spare.

“Bonjour!”  I greeted my co-worker on the other side of the cubicle.  I had been thinking in French since I left school, and forgot to switch back.  “When is my mind going to shut off?” I wondered.  It seemed like it was always racing these days, but I did have a lot to juggle.

I landed this job in early February, at a time when most corporations were not hiring.  I got lucky.  Just as the receptionist was turning me away, the Human Resources Manager was walking into the room and caught my eye.  “What are you looking for?” she asked.  “Can you speak French?”

“As a matter of fact, I can.”

“Follow me.”   She grabbed some papers off a nearby desk and led me into a conference room.  “Write these tests,” she said pushing the papers towards me.  “There is a job freeze on right now, but if you do well, I’ll keep your name on file.”

The call came that same afternoon asking me if I could come back for an interview.

“No one has ever scored so high on the tests”, she said.  “We’d like you to start right away.  There is an eight to ten week training program you’ll have to do first in Toronto.  We’ll put you up, all expenses paid.”

I was both excited and anxious.  I hadn’t worked full-time since the my first baby was born, and I while I was happy to be able to provide for the family again, I wasn’t sure how we’d all manage.  I’d made the promise to my husband though, that I would support the family while he took some time off to establish a new business.  He hadn’t been happy for some time, and so we decided to swap roles.

I completed the course in five weeks, wanting to reduce my time away as much as possible.  A year of training on-the-job proceeded the initial training.  I was exceeding all expectations within months and at the approval of my manager enrolled in a fourth year French course to be paid for by the company.  A pay increase followed as I was now their bilingual representative.  I was moving up in the world.

My husband was not having the same success.  Caring for the house and children turned out to be harder than he thought, and he finally admitted that it just wasn’t “his thing”.  I found a sitter, resumed the cooking, housework, shopping, and laundry. He bought himself a race car. He was looking into starting a mail order business.  Worrying that my income wasn’t enough, I picked up a job working weekends at a restaurant.

Sometime in the middle of all this, my oldest sister’s health took a turn for the worse.  The doctor’s wanted to hospitalize her, but she refused, saying she wanted to die at home.  A nurse was assigned for eight hours a day, but she needed around the clock care.  In the beginning, the family rallied around, and we all did our part, but that was waning.  Now it was only my mother and I who were committed to seeing her through.

“Can I see you in my office?”  My boss’s voice brought me back to the moment.  I followed her brisk walk down the hall.  “I have been reviewing your work and there are a few areas for improvement.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “I don’t understand,” I protested.  “I thought I was meeting all the quotas.”

“You are,” she said, matter-of-factly.  “There is always room for improvement.”

Driving home from work that night, I felt particularly exhausted.  What more could I do?  I arrived home to realize I had forgotten to pick up the kids.  It was Wednesday night.  Stuart wouldn’t be home till late.  He was meeting with the car club.

Don’t ask me what happened next; the night, like many others, passed in a blur of cooking dinner, trying to keep the kids from killing each other or themselves, completing homework, baths, and then bed.  Then when my husband got home, I’d grabbed my schoolwork and headed to my sister’s for the night shift.

I don’t remember Thursday at all.

Friday, Stuart headed off to the racetrack for the weekend.  He’d be gone five days.  It was the Thanksgiving long weekend.  Even though he had a cell phone, he didn’t anticipate it would work where he was going, and the track did not have a contact number.  I would not hear from him again till Tuesday evening.

It was later than usual before I got all the kids to bed that night, and even though I still had work to do, I just couldn’t face it.  I decided to go to bed early.  I was asleep within minutes, but not for long.  I was jolted out of my sleep by an all too familiar image – myself alone with the children, living in a townhouse complex.  Although I had dreamt of this place many times, with no emotional attachment, this time I woke up crying.  What was wrong with me?  The tears just wouldn’t stop.

Saturday was recreation day, and each of the children were enrolled in different programs.  Marie was taking art, Ester dance, and John was attending some sports clinic, all held in the same building.  This had been our Saturday morning routine for two months now, but somehow after I loaded us all in the car, and set out on our way, I could not remember where we were going.  I drove up one street and down another, and with each miss, grew more and more anxious.  Ester began to scream in the back seat.  Marie asked me what was wrong.  I didn’t know.  I started to tremble.  The tears started to come again.  I turned the car around and headed for home.  Our street ran off a main road, and all I had to do was turn left and we’d be there, but suddenly, I froze, mid-intersection:  mind, body, and emotions no longer under my control.  Ester screamed louder and the other two began to cry.  A siren flashed behind me and a police officer stepped up to the driver’s side.

“Is there a problem, Ma’am?”

I looked at him through a flood of tears.  “I don’t know where I am.”  I handed him my license.  He was young, and I could just tell he hadn’t expected this.

“Ma’am, your license says you live just down this street.  Do you want me to follow you there?”

“Yes, please.”  I don’t think I’d ever felt so humiliated.   We crawled down the street and into the driveway.

“Is there anybody you can call?” he asked.

“I don’t think so.  My husband’s away, and my sister’s dying, so my parents aren’t available.”

“Well, you need to call somebody.”

“Thank you, officer.  I will.  I’m so sorry to have bothered you.”

In the end, I called my Dad.  Between choking sobs, I told him I needed help.  He came right away.

That was the day I discovered that I have limits.  In those days we called it a breakdown, but in retrospect it was a breakthrough:  the beginning of a new way of being, one that took me out of the rat race.

(Image: fineartamerica.com)

health · mental-health · nonfiction · spirituality

Calming Breath

Imagine being able to clear the clutter of your mind; to set aside all your thoughts, worries, obsessions, and just breathe.  Imagine letting go of all the tension in your body; setting aside pain, and discomfort in favour of just being.  Imagine the noise and distractions of everyday life just floating through you without sticking; your awareness not blocked, but heightened.

Through the practice of meditation, I have experienced this feeling of being suspended, at peace, in a state of harmony.  It is calming, reassuring, refreshing.  Reaching this place offers renewal, and at times, a sensation of bliss.  It is amazing how, no matter how stressed, this state of being offers such relaxation, that it shifts perception.

Breathe deeply, slowly, and let your exhale carry the tension out of your body and mind.  Take your time.  Let thoughts flow in and out.  Perceive them, and let them go.  Everything that is important will be there later.  Affirm it.  It’s safe to set all thoughts aside.

Let your in breath fill you with clear, calming energy, washing over you, helping the out breath carry away the tension.  Give your self permission to relax.  Empty yourself, body, mind, and spirit.  Surrender to the nothingness.  Suspend your grasp on reality.

Just be.

Hints for success:  Practice the same time each day.  Create the opening.  It doesn’t take long, it takes discipline.  Practice in the same place, establishing a routine.  One of my teachers suggested taking 2-3 minute intervals throughout the day where you stop and breath consciously.  She said she would find a tree, and focus on that tree, imagining what it would be like to have roots that run deep into the earth, and branches that reach high into the sky, and bend with the breezes.  She described it as strong, but calm, centered in peace.

Aside:  I learned to meditate when my children were babies, which meant that the only place I could get any alone time was the bathroom.  Meditating in the bathroom established a correlation that still exists today.  Some of my best inspirations happen when I visit the bathroom.

(Image:  quotesgram.com)