from "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel
Last night, after a couple of hours of attempting to deconstruct our own and each others' mild to medium depressions, D. and I were finally silent. I had cried, struggling, D. had struggled mostly silently, back tense against my belly and the world and D'ness. I felt so sad, so overwhelmed with the sadness of human suffering, then it suddenly hit me. I could see how for the last hours we had each been so gentle with each other, and so hard on ourselves, we traded off this way, gentle/hard, hard/gentle. Finally, I said quite spontaneously, "You know what I wish?". "I wish we could be as gentle with ourselves as we are with each other.". I could feel D. smile (smiles sometimes even stretch into back muscles!) and, and then say "Yes. That, that's a good wish." I resisted the temptation to peek out of my insulated window cover to see if there were any breaking stars out there I could put the wish on, and we fell asleep to this wish, like a dream, like a reality not so far out of reach if we can smile about the idea of it, instead of just crying.
Last week, my therapist and I discussed a huge piece of my whole puzzle that had felt slightly off to me for years. A few years ago, my former therapist and I cracked a big one - that it's not so much that my mother was an alcoholic, as narcissistic. This might sound odd for those of you who've heard a lot about my mom, and for those who remember the myth of Narcissus, which is ostensibly about the "positive" attributes of his ego (how he adores his own appearance, etc), but actually the lesson (read a good writing of it and I trust you'll see this) is that ego absorption is dangerous not just in "I'm in love with myself" form, but also in "I hate myself and the entire world reflects this" form. This second version was my mother's. This revelation helped me a great deal because I always felt there was a drive to drink in the first place, and understanding a deeper psychology (which up to that point alcoholism explanations hadn't given me) helped me a lot to break open what I had learned from her and why, and face my own narcissism. Last Friday, we were talking about workaholism, the other "ism" I purportedly adopted from my parents, and I said "the only thing that is weird is I feel like I got workaholism from my mom, but she never worked a day in her life, outside the home, and really wasn't too hardcore about any other kind of work - caring for us, groceries, cleaning, etc (she could be quite neglectful, in fact)." He smiled. Then he asked me what makes me think of workaholism, and I talked about being at my former job (where I worked again for a week last week), where I would work through hunger, through having to go to the bathroom, for fear of being interrupted, or to keep myself attached to the pain or the work, despite pain in my back or insides. He asked me what I would think if someone told me their boss was "making" them do that. I told him that would be wrong, a bad thing to do to someone, abusive. There was a pause. I began to cry. He gently pointed out that it is not less abusive when one does it to him/herself, it's just that it's called masochism in that case.
I inherited masochism, not workaholism. As soon as he said that word it all clicked into place. The way that the only relief from masochism is indulgence. This is something I will have to explore more later, but was hugely evident in my mom's life and now has it's own spawn in my life. The fine line this carries with sadism, or, in my case, a former lack of compassion toward others in pain (rather than inducing pain in others, but a close cousin).
We also talked about compassion toward former actions - in my case, why didn't I leave a job for five years that my replacement could tell in 5 weeks is a severely psychologically unstable place, with all kinds of manipulations and awkwardness? I didn't *see* it, or rather, felt it but often blamed myself, or took it upon myself to fix it. I was so angry all week - why didn't I know, why didn't I leave. My therapist simply asked that instead of being angry for not knowing, that I try being *sad* for not having known. That really made me cry, to realize I could give myself some slack for not having known something. The weight of expectation fell off me and I felt (though it was momentary, it was strong) a serious relief. A Sisyphean-caliber relief.
Finally, I had watched an Oprah special the week before that had made me bawl. At first I just attributed it to depression/over sensitivity to abuse of children, which I tend to have. But after we reached this point in the conversation, I brought up the program, and half way through I realized I already understood what he was saying. In the program, they talked to the boy who has recently been discovered after having been abducted for 4 years (he's 15 now). Everyone wanted to know "Why didn't he call/email?" (he had access to both phone and internet). Even Oprah couldn't help but ask. The psychologists were unequivocating and clear: a) never, ever ask a victim something like this, especially a child, as they will get defensive and blame themselves and b)fear is a super powerful agent. Incredibly powerful.
So why didn't I leave? I was scared and I didn't know better. I was raised in a family so much like my former place of employment that as fucked up as it was, it seemed like home. And to rag on myself now for not having done something earlier will only make me feel worse. I felt such compassion for that boy, I felt like I understood why he didn't call, without words, without being able to say why, and so when I expressed this to my therapist, I could transfer that feeling to myself. Instant tonglen (compassion practice).
What I have noticed is that I tend to discover these things when I am ready to handle them, which usually means partway through healing has already begun. My work habits have changed dramatically in the last few months, between the model of gentleness D. exhibits toward me (today is our three month anniversary!), and the inavoidable evidence that, in being my own boss, if anyone hurts me, it is myself. Plus, and this is no small shakes, my students too inspire me toward gentleness, and all of my other contemplative practices help to set stronger habits and precedents toward picking the kind way instead of masochising myself (new word). So it makes it easier to see because it's changing, and I have new, positive and healthy things to compare it to, instead of being mired in the habits (trees for forest). But also the last couple of days have been tiring - in the masochistic way where even cooking dinner (something I normally like) feels tension-inducing, where teaching feels overbearing and awkward, where writing feels like pulling teeth. Erika and I talked this morning about needing new-ness, open-ness, breaking open the cycles, trying something new (something I insisted would help D. last night - and we're talking new at a really deep level, not just novelty). Still lost today, but some things feel slightly clearer. This is how it goes. Shifting allegiances from hurting myself to being gentle to myself is hard. It's a long and deep set of habits. But knowing I am doing it is inspiring - and realizing things half way helps to keep me inspired.
And finally, as birdfarm reminded me today (through telling me about her own experience) and as Erika and I talked about, sometimes it's really tiny steps that work best. When I am feeling really fierce, really masochistic, I have to give myself gentleness a spoonful at a time or I will spit it back out. I had what we think was the Norwalk virus this last weekend, horrible puking and diarrhea for 12 hours, with cramps and fever. I got so dehydrated that in the end, D. had to bring me back by giving me a quarter of a teaspoon every quarter of an hour. Sometimes, (I am listening to Pema Chodron talk about how we can't scratch our itches or they get worse) it's not even just about stopping habits, especially when it is so dense it's hard to see what is happening, it's about sneaking in a 1/4 tablespoon at a time of care, until I am back to the present and no longer wanting to hurt myself. I really didn't believe that would help last weekend, I was so fucking thirsty. And I find myself skeptical of it today, but I suspect it is right, and I will try it. Bit by bit, I'll try to work my way out of the trees and the forest and see the sky.