When You Just 'Know'

When it comes to my personal toolkit – the knowledge and experience that keeps me from going off the rails in Life (always an option, no matter how ‘together’ I feel) – I’m continually on the prowl for new perspectives on complicated issues and topics. But to grab my attention, whatever wisdom is on offer has to come from someone who’s been doing, feeling, living, and surviving pretty significant challenges. Even better, whatever lessons have been learned through navigating Life’s choppier moments hasn’t caused permanent bitterness, wariness and self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. It’s pretty clear to me that the wisdom I’m chasing comes from the Wounded Heart; now even more open in its suffering; more determined to not only survive, but to flourish. More receptive and, ultimately, more loving.

There’s a global celebrity who’s parlayed her traumatic childhood and young adult years into what I call a Syndicate of Wellbeing. Her media presence and brand is instantly recognizable, credible, and obviously hugely helpful to people around the world. Especially women who’ve survived abuse. Although I don’t track this mega-star like I used to, there’s a meme — always featured in the first pages of her monthly magazine – that resonates with me daily. The meme’s actually more of a mindset: a gentle invitation to come closer; to settle-in comfortably with the intimate friend who knows you so well, whispering, “What I Know For Sure”. Her revelations about Life –  always unassuming, transparent, inclusive, and offered sincerely – encourage and reassure at the same time.

I realized recently that I’ve incorporated this meme or mindset into my daily ‘process’, as a way of self-checking my own authenticity. Am I being honest with myself and others, especially when it’s super-hard and even painful to do so? Am I being true to Who I Really Am, and to the kind of life I want to live? It’s so easy – too easy – to stumble around in relationships and decision-making without truly participating in the effort. Realizing and accepting that every single thought I have and every single action I take comes from my accumulated ‘baggage’ takes an unwavering willingness to not only look, but to see.

Why did the relationship end? Why didn’t I get the job? Why do some opportunities that I thought were so ‘killer’ turn out to be disappointments? Looking at Life from the perspective of “I got myself onto this particular stage; the other people here with me are really just bystanders” is a tough reality-check. It requires ownership. It means accepting that most of Life evolves from how we think, what we do, and how we do it. The act of living comes together as a whole string of teachable moments and lessons-learned (or not).

Distilling Life’s Lessons down to “What I Know For Sure” is a way of acknowledging that, at the end of the day, it’s up to me – and me alone – to chart my own journey; not rely on anyone else’s compass or coordinates for Bliss. I get to decide what my heart wants, and whether or not I have the courage to go after my deepest desires. It also means that, no matter how black and unbearable in the moment heartache and suffering may be, in the morning I’ll have added new knowledge to my personal toolkit. The journey may feel a little lonely at times, and the new information hard-won, but the ‘knowing’ comes from my own inner being, so it’s mine forever.

The Black Dog

Depression is sometimes referred to as “the common cold” of mental illness, due to its prevalence in the United States. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is constantly tracking data on people 12 years and older, relative to such things as doctor and ER visits, prescribed medications, racial disparities, vulnerable groups, and depression that leads to death by suicide.

sheffield.co.uk
enwikipedia.org

Britain’s former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill suffered from it profoundly. He called it The Black Dog: a dark shadow that slipped into his mind quietly, without being summoned, or welcomed. According to historical records, the prime minister made no secret of his depression, which would sometimes last for days. “Taking the Black Dog” is still a familiar expresson for depression’s symptoms, and an important mental health facility in Sydney, Australia uses the phrase in its name.

With stats reflecting that depression is not an insignificant problem in the U.S., it continues to amaze me that it’s still so hard to talk about. Even in family situations, where a young person is involved, an inability to share ‘just how bad it is’ is common. I know that I could easily extend that statement to mental illness in general. But even though psychological disorders have been “outed” in the media, making it seem as though depression is akin to the common cold, we see it, but we don’t really understand it. I suspect, too, that often we’re reluctant to accept it as a valid, potentially serious illness.

Recently I provided some direction and encouragement to a young adult who’s roughly halfway through her doctoral studies. She described an array of personal concerns that, to me, sounded like a version of depression (defintely not diagnosing, here). She linked her feelings about work, school, and her parents (still living at home) to her general aimlessness, lack of focus and energy. But she also referred to her emotions as ‘fake’ because, as she put it, “There’s just no logical reason for me to feel this way. Life isn’t that hard.” Or is it? Can depression be misinterpreted as mere self-indulgence? My parents looked at it that way, with disastrous consequences for my mother.

Churchill, annamasonart.com

For years after Churchill left public service, a debate raged about whether or not his darkest Black Dog moments allowed the prime minister to perceive Hitler’s threat more acutely than allied politicians. Regardless of the help or hindrance, Churchill was never accused of malingering or being too morose; rather, he’s remembered to this day as courageously fighting his own inner demons by acknowledging them publicly: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…” Far from ignoring his problem, this man wove his depression into his life as a strength: paradoxically, a reason to persevere. I aspire to such Bravery.

The Big Relax

netdoctor.co.uk

After week-two of being back at home, I knew that what I felt wasn’t jet-lag. I couldn’t clear my head; I felt drowsy and dreamy; I thought I might be catching what a lot of people on the flight back from Montreal seemed to be passing around. (Is there anything more unnerving for the weary Traveler than a plane chock- full of hacking, sneezing people? Almost – but not quite — up there with the ‘Mechanical Trouble’ announcement.)

womenshealth.com

As soon as I arrived home, I lined-up my natural remedies, hoping to boost my travel-stressed system against whatever was trying to get me. It seemed like I was losing the battle when, three days after landing, I botched my portion of a group presentation. At least, that was my ‘read’ on it – I didn’t press my groupmates for their input; didn’t really need to, sadly. But as I walked away from that particular humbling experience, it was only a minute that I felt bad. (Humiliating myself is one thing, but I hate to reflect poorly on my group.) Before long, I was feeling ‘Whatever !’, in mind, body and soul.

absolutelycultured.co.uk

And then the ‘dominoes’ began to fall in my head:  I didn’t care at all about the topic that I’d presented on. My heart wasn’t in it. What’s more, I was annoyed with the way my colleagues had been fussing with one another about work responsibilities. (Really?) I realized that people and situations in my immediate surroundings were making me feel like, “Enough, already!” Lastly, even my urge to write seemed to have waned. What the…? That never happens.

And it came to me:  What if I stopped trying so hard at everything I do? Having recently completed my doctoral program (a major accomplishment on my cosmic To Do list), I never missed a beat before I was on-to-the-next-thing. Where was my Off, or even Pause button? Do I even have one of those? Where did all of this ‘drive’ come from?

independent.co.uk

Not long ago I was doing my four-mile racewalk and came across a guy riding one of those funny little collapse-able bicycles (they’ve always appealed to me, so small and so low to the ground – packable?). We chatted for a bit (he was quick to tell me he was the proud papa of a local, somewhat famous chanteuse in my city). He asked me about myself and I told him about my doctoral work. “Oh,” he said, “You’re one of those super-ambitious women.” Say what? Rather than get into the whys and wherefores of how ambition becomes a different kind of trait when a woman possesses it, I proudly said, “Yeah, I am.” Did that kill the guy’s interest in further conversation? I don’t know, and didn’t care that he suddenly pedaled-off.

Despite the odd (sexist and judge-y) way he framed it, bicycle man was correct. I do have more than my fair share, it seems, of ambition. But after my recent international trip (celebrating the official conclusion of my doctoral work), my body, mind and soul said Hey. It began with a foggy brain and less than stellar professional moment. Then came the acceptance that it’s probably ‘ok’ to down-shift for a minute. I eased-into what I’ve been calling The Big Relax. Staying up late, sleeping in; ignoring The News of the day, phone calls and texts. Most importantly, ignoring my need (compulsion?) to produce:   the evidence that I’m not just taking up space on the planet but actually making each moment count for something.

The Big Relax is already over, but my takeaway is that I can slow down, without stopping. The sky doesn’t fall if I’m not productive. Bingeing on Netflix and Talenti has mental health benefits that, for some reason, I’ve truly overlooked.

Things We Do For Love

This recent trip overseas, I decided to guinea-pig myself in an experiment. Always seeking remedies to reduce the dreaded Jet Lag, I’d read about how face masks – the kind that filter germs – can actually shorten your ‘lag time’. Something about breathing moist air, reducing overall dehydration caused by flying, which apparently contributes to feeling so rotten. So, on the roughly 13 hour flight over, I wore the mask pretty much the whole time. Whether it was the excitement of landing in a new country, or the mask actually working, I perked-up  after only a day and a half of feeling rough. The second half of the experiment:  I didn’t wear the mask at all on the flight home. What a difference. Four full days of a spacey head and not wanting to do much beyond sleep. I’ll definitely be packing a mask from now on.

Back home, while I was still feeling like a zombie, I decided to go to my local grocery store for a pick me up ‘shot’ of immune booster. (What I eventually settled-on was an eye-watering, nose-running, cough-spluttering combo of really hot fresh ginger, turmeric, black pepper and some exotic berries I’d never heard of.) While I was trying to read the teeny tiny print on itty bitty Alice in Wonderland bottles, all in psychedelic colors (is that part of their appeal, I wonder), I felt a person behind me. As I scooted out of the way, the woman began talking to me.

I’ve never heard a person talk so fast. Of course, she didn’t know my brain was ‘toast’ from flying. I smiled, and nodded, and she talked. And talked. Some of what the woman said filtered through my mental fog – she seemed to know a lot about those little super-shots and had tried most of them. Helpful. But then the topic meandered a little…to her battle with all kinds of Life stressors and her body’s ‘breakdown’ as she put it.

This happens to me a lot. I’m in a store. Any store. Someone wants to know, “Does this melon smell ripe to you?” “Does this dress look good on me?” “Do you know anything about the benefits of celery juice?” This last question came from the woman in the store yesterday. Far from being annoyed, or anxious to be on my way, I was transfixed by her story:  it just kept rolling out as I continued to read labels, hoping that one in particular would whisper, Choose me!

In a span of the past five years, said the woman, she’d endured the following:  flying 2,000 miles to support a niece through rehab; caring for her mother-in-law until her death from breast cancer; taking-in her brother and his wife when he lost his job; losing another brother to alcoholism; and coping with the death of a dear aunt who meant more to her (she said) than her own mother. After sharing an impressive (and scary, to me) list of meds she’d been prescribed by various doctors (“I had a full-on breakdown and was hospitalized”), the woman told me she was intent on getting well naturally. Clean foods. Juicing. Ah – that explained her super-shot knowledge.

It was time for me to try to edge – gently and tactfully – away from this encounter. I wished the woman luck – she seemed better for having talked non-stop for a bit — and almost immediately flashed-back to when I was a care provider for my own father. How it wore me down. How my love and care for him caused me to almost get into a similar state of total physical, mental, emotional and spiritual collapse. I can’t imagine a succession of caregiving demands. Love is strong. Love is the greatest power on earth;  but we are fragile systems, often unaware and unable to realize when our breaking point is near. Love allows us to endure unimaginable hardship without a thought for our own welfare; love blinds us to any and all things that are not a part of our impulse to care, to sacrifice, to find strength when strength is gone.

I was glad, suddenly, that I was there yesterday in that store isle. The woman who unburdened herself to me didn’t know I had a minimally-functioning brain. It didn’t matter. She talked. I listened. We both connected, intimate strangers. I walked away marveling at her strength, and at the amazing things we do for Love.

“Just Relax & Breathe Through It”

I hate going to the doctor. Any doctor, any time (even when I’m sick and might need one), for any reason. Even benign check-ups. It’s not quite at the phobic-level, but close. Recall what early American pioneers took note of as they moved out West, and encountered Native Americans for the first time. If a newcomer wanted to take a photograph of an indigenous person, they were refused. As American folklore explains it, these original Americans felt that a photograph would rob them of all, or part of, their soul-essence. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s how I feel about most of the medical profession. Irrational, maybe, but there it is.

telegraph.co.uk

When a person reaches his or her 90’s, even in relatively good health, more and more doctors creep quietly onto the stage. Yesterday, as I do every week, I spoke with my uncle who lives about 2,500 miles from me. He’s 91 and still able to be independent; mentally and physically active. And yet, his health has to be ‘monitored’. As he puts it, “At my age, it’s always something.” So off he went, to one of his half-dozen doctors two days before our talk, feeling fairly strong and fit, considering. But as soon as he was put into a room to wait for the physician’s assistant, my uncle said he began to feel anxious. When the P.A. arrived and did a blood pressure check, my uncle’s was abnormally high. “You know,” he later told me on the phone, “it doesn’t do a damn bit of good for them to tell me to ‘relax’.

I can relate. The next day I went to get a flu shot (which I always argue with myself about, but end up doing it anyway). Waiting for the nurse my pulse was amped and my breathing was shallow. When she arrived and was ready to jab my shoulder with her needle, she put her arm down, eyeballed me, and said, “Relax this muscle and try to breathe through it!” as she poked the target on my arm. Easier said than done.

As I was leaving that place (as fast as I could), I began thinking about all of the scenarios in which someone had told me to Just-relax-and-breathe-through-it. Labor pains, and the birth of my son; a therapist I went to, when my entire organization was melting-down and people were literally ‘keying’ one another’s cars and slashing tires out of spite; trying to focus on my attorney’s words, as we discussed my brother’s lawsuit over my father’s inheritance, robbing me of two years of peace of mind.

whitespacestudio.co.uk

Relax. Breathe. Sometimes I play a mental game with myself during stress. I compare what I’m presently going through to the absolute worst-case moments I’ve had before.  Just to keep perspective. Which, I know,  isn’t the same as breathing-through whatever ‘it’ is. Because breathing-through it means allowing the terror to enter my heart, to lie coiled there for as long as it wants (while I try to ignore it), until it gets bored and goes away. Intellectually, I understand that a tensed muscle equals resistance, which equals more pain. But something much deeper, and more primal closes my ears and makes me want to hide from scary moments. When I hear, “Relax and Just Breathe Through It”? Well, the expression “Hold my beer…” comes to mind.

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