Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Break-down and Re-Cover

(photograph from the side of a dumpster I took awhile back, that will now be on a set of electronic tunes by my brother, Alex Hall, for a collection of breakdown beats)

"I had another breakdown this last week"
"I feel like I'm heading for a breakdown"

A friend, who's in a rough spot, said these two things to me yesterday. She is grieving the death of her father only a few months ago, and picking up the slack he left behind with her mother, who has serious mental health issues, in "taking care of her mom" and making sure she is ok.

We talked a lot about grief and dealing with mental health issues - my mother having been an alcoholic, likely suffered from serious narcissistic personality disorder and depression - and how to handle both at once. The thing is that I am not sure I would classify what my friend describes as breakdowns as just that. Unless we consider things not operating "as normal" or "as expected" a breakdown. Which I suppose broad culture does. I'm just not sure that is such a problem.

Last night my guts gave out. On the way home from seeing this friend, in fact, I felt the gurgle gurgle my IBS issues don't usually manifest as. I am used to constipation, tightness, pain - this was looseness, giving way, liquid. I managed to make it home, get rid of what I could, and spend the rest of the night in bed. This wasn't a bad thing, once the pain passed. I read - finally finished Heat by Bill Buford - and snuggled, with Dylan and the cats. I drank lots of sparkling water, tea, and ate toast. Definitely Not What I Was Planning, but who cares. Really. Who cares? To expect our systems to never break down would be an awful lot to ask. Especially in special circumstances like that of my friend.

And for that matter, what circumstance isn't a special circumstance? We bumble along, treating every day as if it is the same day as the last and the next. Every moment a continuation of the one before, the one after. What if, as the texts tell us, this is in fact NOT THE CASE? If we really look at this, notice how we string together our lives, then "breakdowns" of guts or the happiness strand we maintain for public consumption, are actually not a breakdown of anything that exists. They are a break in a system which is systematically made up. A break in a fantasy. A gap. That's a good thing. A chance to catch up, to see things as they are.

The thing is that we only label things as breakdowns when they are bad - losing a job or a partner or parent, breaking a leg or worse, being "unable to function" at work due to old issues cropping up and taking us over for a bit. These are breakdowns. Is leaving work early to go watch the birds migrate or see the spring flowers bloom in the forest a breakdown? Not unless associated with other aberrant (read: negative) behavior. Yet a moment of pure bliss can do far harsher "damage" to daily fantasies than a "breakdown." You realize this isn't the work for you because you experience a moment of real connection with the world and that isn't present in your current relationship/job/place of living. That breakdown begins in a space of what we normally classify as "revelation."

I am struck by the scene in Battlestar Galactica, for me a flashback as I didn't see the beginning of the season, when Madame President runs out to a fountain and wanders in it, soaking herself completely, upon getting a heap of super bad news. After my mom died, I felt there was a statute of limitations on doing things like this - the crazy shit that others do in times of grief or breakdowns. Driving across country with nothing but a Bjork cd in the car. Wandering into public fountains and soaking oneself in full daylight, fully clothed. The kind of behavior one "gets away with" to a certain extent because they are "breaking down" and we expect the unexpected in those circumstances: we forgive it, some even see it as healthy. Why isn't it healthy the rest of the time?

The dying, the diseased, the grieving and the disturbed really have a leg up on "the rest of us" this way. I am not romanticizing being in those situations - having gone through and likely going through many more of them myself - rather noticing that there is a level of permission allowed to those in pain which the rest of us, so fearful of breakdowns, avoid. I wouldn't call it breakdown. I would call it "uncovering." Exposing. Revealing. Opening. It is freaking painful but also so helpful. This friend and I talked about how losing our fathers actually made it possible to crack open some things we would not - could not - have otherwise seen for decades to come. The pain, the horrible gut-wrenching pain, wears us down, breaks down the walls we work so hard on building. That is what is broken, not us, not our emotions, but our hard-struggled-for tenuous connection to the fantasy of every day reality. And what do we call it when we gather our strength for a day of work after being disgustingly ill in the guts, or weeks or months or years of missing those we lost who meanst so much to us? Recovering. Recovery. Re-cover.

We cover it back up. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says regular meditation practice is necessary purely because of the sheer effort factor. If you meditate every day for 15 minutes, you continually dig the dirt off your real, actual self, and you can keep working over time. If you don't, it is akin to digging a big hole then filling it back up. Re-covering it. We can do this kind of discovery work - dis-cover (un-cover) - either as a practice, through meditation, yoga, writing practice, art, whatever - or we can wait for something horrible to happen, let it rip us open, break-down, then re-cover. Or, we can let something horrible happen, as it is wont to do, and let it open us, break us down, and try to let ourselves be there, without re-covering it, without putting the dirt back into the hole.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. I would be one of the first to know this. And it is all a practice. But the fact is shit is going to go down in all of our lives. If it hasn't that much already it will. Impermanence promises this. The question is, are you going to see it as a breakdown or as an uncovering? Are you going to prepare the ground by doing some early non-trauma associated digging on your own, or wait for death or loss or insanity to rip it open for you? I'm not just asking you. I am asking myself. From my very limited experience, in the large perspective of things, it feels a hell of a lot safer if you have gone ahead yourself a few steps before everything falls apart. Becauase it will fall apart. The question is how much we are going to bother covering it back over afterwards.

(In honor of this friend who opens her heart steadily and regularly through the pain of loss, and to all of my students, who are "off" for the summer, facing their demons on their own)


  1. It's a wonderful piece you've written here, Miriam. I love the idea about the fountain. When I got dumped by a former boyfriend of 8 years (15 years ago) I spent the first night alone in the soaking rain on the rooftop of a tower building, with a bottle of red wine, crying the hell out of myself, actually screaming down to the world - just inches away from the abyss. No one heard me, no one passed by, it was as if I was the last person on earth, and the feeling of solitude, loneliness from being dumped was reinforced in a way that actually was helpful for me and triggered a healing process. That night up there alone was one of the most intense experiences in my life. Probably it's these 'exceptions' which stick best to our memory. On the other hand: Maybe you don't have to act exceptional, but just try to see the things you do as exceptional - because, in fact, that's what they are. You'll never swim the same river twice, as they say...

    Anyway, thanks - certainly an inspiring essay.

  2. Thank you - and especially thank you for your story. Wow. Wonderful. I do think the key is not action but attitude. A friend recently replied to another similar post saying she doesn't feel the same way about chaos as I do - who said I feel that way all the time?
    ; )


  3. dear miriam,
    you are awesome.

  4. I love the points you make here. And I want to add that I am finding lately that my work in "uncovering" (meditation, yoga, etc...) has unexpectedly led me to have more trust in the experience of "breaking down", that no matter what I experience, it's okay. Pain, loss, death, growth, joy, all of it is okay, even if it's not pleasant or even tolerable. That doesn't prevent me from crying out or wishing sometimes that things were different. But that core okay-ness is always there.