I’ve had this mug with the most excellent quote from Dear Sugar (also known as Cheryl Strayed) for a few years now. This morning I woke up with the motivation to take this quote to heart and make a public commitment to write like a mother fucker as I navigate a great loss and make my way to meaning and healing.
I’ve been feeling this crazy strong urge to write and write and write some more the last few days and weeks, which is strange after three of the quietest years I can remember in 15 years of blogging. I have several notes on my phone written on my train commte and 20+ googledocs with pieces in various states of completion.
I am at a major turning point as I face a heart shattering betrayal and figure out how to live a completely different life than the one I had planned when I moved to Portland. My heart is a mess of questions and emotions, some days peaceful in the acceptance of letting go, other days raging like a hurricane behind my eyes.
I am broken. I am picking up the pieces. And I decided to document the process as its happening, because I’m tired of hearing narratives of triumph that are wrapped up in a pretty package long after the mess is cleaned up and shaped into a tidy book or TEDTalk or web community.
What does it feel like when I’m sitting in the dark, questioning everything I believed in? What does it feel like when the craving to self medicate is so strong that I can’t stop thinking about the thing I want no matter how I try to distract myself from it, whether it’s an ice cream bar or a glass of wine? What would happen if I came here and wrote when the moments of grief or rage or craving become too much?
What does it take to overcome betrayal? What does my heart need in order to stay open and vulnerable? What does learning to set boundaries for the first time look and feel like?
What will the unraveling of blood lines and lineage tell me about the choices that led me here? What will they tell me about my incredible capacity for resilience posttraumatic growth?
What tools, teachers, and storytellers will accompany on my journey to wholeness?
Though I have taken similar journeys many times before, this is the first time that I am making a map of my healing as it happens, documenting the steps from fractured to wholeness.
The first step: write like a mother fucker.
Why publicly? I think I need to write for public consumption because it’s an antidote to my natural tendency to withdraw and hide away when life is painful (I am a Cancer Crab after all). It keeps the Invisible Girl from taking over when she’s afraid, and sharing here keeps me open and vulnerable when I almost believe the lie that isolation will bring comfort. I need to use my voice. I need to wrestle with my thoughts through composition, which is always different when it’s intended for others than it is when it is for myself. Journal writing is not the same as blogging, at least not for me. I try to combine my emotional vulnerability with writing as a craft, telling my story and seeking out the universal story to help me make meaning.
After recently making a terrible, necessary, and life altering choice in response to the betrayal, I desperately need to find meaning. I need to find the way that I will transform my extraordinary loss into something beautiful, like I always have before. This time my soul is telling me I need to do that here, on the digital page, as it’s unfolding. Maybe mapping my healing is the meaning, fated or created doesn’t really matter. What matters is finding my way to a vibrant, emotionally healthy, and deep engaged life.
I am struggling as I live between two opposing forces – the desire to build community with my son and his adoptive parents, and the desire to run as far as possible from the birth mother bruising of mine-and-not-mine every day. My heart is being pushed and pulled between conflicting needs, a daily wrestling match that leaves me emotionally exhausted and withdrawn.
I crave this family, the belonging, and the sense of purpose I have found here. And my heart aches daily as our son simultaneously cements his preference for Mommy and shifts toward the independence of toddlerhood.
Despite the perception in popular books and movies, the Heroine’s Journey looks different than the Hero’s. Women undergo journeys of awakening and self definition, but it is often an internal process that happens through our emotions and our intimate relationships rather than through confrontation with forces in the world. Heather Plett says that feminine rites follow a pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence (vs the masculine rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation). I am currently between containment and transformation, waiting for emergence to occur.
I have come to understand that I am an emotional athlete of sorts, an emotional mountain climber. Much like people who train to endure, and even enjoy, the growing pains and discomfort of intense physical adventures (marathons, surfing, skiing, etc.), I am trained to endure and enjoy the growing pains of seemingly unbearable emotional circumstances. The traumas that often damage and break other people are just added weight to the barbell my powerful heart can bench-press.
I experienced life as deeply emotional and profoundly painful from an early age. I score at least a 7 on the ACES test regarding childhood trauma, although there are many more traumas that aren’t listed. I also have an unusually deep capacity for empathy, meaning I feel other people’s emotions in addition to my own. Imagine what that is like when everyone you are a developing child/adolescent and everyone you love is suffering in a significant way. And I’ve worked to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder, also known as Emotional Intensity Disorder. I am running a lifelong marathon to maintain my sanity, emotional regulation, and the chance to thrive in a healthy family dynamic.
My Heroine’s Journey is a map of how to navigate the world with a raw and open heart. I don’t wear emotional armor to protect myself. I don’t know how. Instead, when I am too raw for exposure I hide in my bedroom, my sanctuary, away from people. I am not interested in fighting – not other people, not my own demons, nor the world’s evils. I am passionate about creating and nurturing justice, reconciliation, and belonging through acts of love and generosity. As part of my training, I strive not to turn words into weapons against others when I’m hurt and angry, whether beloveds or strangers. I’ve spent my entire adult life disarming the triggers that can transform my typical gentleness to verbal violence.
One of the primary challenges for people with Borderline is that we have difficulty living with opposing truths, called dialectics. The term’s dialectical means a synthesis or integration of opposites. This is why Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) is vital to recovery. Through my research I’ve learned that I consistently provide my own DBT by confronting opposing truths over and over, often on purpose, in order to learn how to regulate my thinking, feelings, and behavior in relationship. For instance, my experiences of polyamory required embracing the opposing truths of my desire for big open love and my abnormally strong fear of abandonment (another BPD trait). I could simultaneously feel compersion and jealousy. I could be deeply frightened and keep choosing love anyway.
Physical masochism is also a dialectic. I surrender my body to experiences of pain from someone who cares for me. Pain, pleasure, love, and fear usually weave together to carry me into ecstasy. But sometimes the physical pain gets wrapped up with my heart pain and I have an emotional release, where something that causes me deep heartache becomes more bearable as the pain is pushed through me with a flogger or a cane. This happened over the weekend when my fiance and I played a relatively mild BDSM scene, the day after I read a memoir excerpt from a birth mother in an open adoption. Seeing myself in the mirror of her particular words and phrases brought my pain to the surface so that the slightest stimulus rubbed me raw and left me sobbing.
The emotional strength training I put myself through the last 20+ years gave me the ability to make an impossible choice – to give mommyhood to a beloved friend and retain my place as a different sort of mother in my child’s life. I live the dialectic of mine-and-not-mine with my son every minute of every day. I feel the biological and emotional pull to be his mommy and I keep my distance to allow another woman to be the foundation of his safety and belonging. I ache because he favors her now and I am immensely grateful that I don’t often have to endure all of the hard parts (irregular sleeping patterns, tantrums, etc.).
I try to nurture connection and distance at the same time, both with my son and his adoptive parents. I truly crave the intimacy of chosen family and intentional community. I also choose to live with them because I desire to lighten the burden of full time parenting and help them afford a nice home in a good neighborhood with all of the related benefits. After so many years as a single mom, I don’t want our son’s parents to ever feel alone in their care and responsibility of him. Yet as my relationship with our son shifts I become more withdrawn, spending less time with the family. I focus my attention on the parts of my life that aren’t so painful and complicated, like my relationship with my fiance and my book creation (and a good dose of television).
I am living in this family dialectic, navigating it mostly with grace, and yet I worry that I am not doing enough. I worry that I am not present enough, connected enough, or co-parenting enough. Because my work in the world is now focused on belonging, I am learning about the psychology of community and the practices that are required to keep community functioning in vibrant ways. Yet I refuse to act on these knowings with those closest to me because I am frightened of my own vulnerability. I don’t know how to be this raw with other people. In my journey to find emotional stability I have always lived in my own head – and bedroom – when in pain. It is how I contain myself, keep my emotions from overwhelming others. I have no idea how to be in this strange place I now live between love and pain in a home and intimate relationship with other adults.
Some days I feel like a fraud. Who am I to write about courage, connection, and community when I can’t yet find the strength to bring my own vulnerability to the table with those closest to me? I was able give a child from my body, I can give my work to support my family, and yet these past few months I can rarely share myself with them.
The focus of my self work these days is to hold myself in the same compassion and acceptance that I give others. I am working to stop beating myself up for falling short of my own high standards for conscious living and relationship. The truth is that to evolve from suffering a mental illness that will not allow opposing truths to living peacefully in a situation that is built of opposing truths is a significant accomplishment. It is in recognizing how far I have come these past 20 years that I see I need to give myself patience. I am in the endurance race of my life. I will be living in some form of this dialectic with my son and his adoptive parents forever, whether or not I continue to live in the same home with them. I have plenty of time and safe space in which to build my emotional muscles with people who love me no matter what I bring to the table on any given day. I am already enough simply by choosing to be here and contributing in this home with this family.
Image by Flickr Artist Christian Thompson
I woke up this morning with lots of energy and in an unusually good mood. To be honest, that I’m sitting here clear headed, motivated, and writing at 9:00 a.m. is mind-boggling. My heart tells me this is because I finally shined the light on the shame that was holding me back from community. Just the simple act of writing down the experiences that cause me to feel shame yesterday has lightened me. I feel stronger, bolder, more willing to be vulnerable.
Shame and vulnerability expert Brene Brown says the following in her book Daring Greatly:
“There are a couple of very helpful ways to think about shame. First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection…
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Shame is the number one factor in keeping us isolated and unable to experience the connection that surrounds us. I’ve seen shame in action – in my mother, my ex-husband, and other loved ones. I’ve seen how shame causes us to withdraw, hide, make ourselves small, and isolate ourselves from connection. Being disconnected makes the shame stronger as we become lonely, depressed, addicted, etc. Our behaviors in response to our shame make us more ashamed. It’s an endless cycle until we’re willing to drag our shame into the light and say, “I did this thing or have this behavior that is wrong, foolish, inappropriate, or harmful to myself and/or others. I am sorry I hurt myself and/or others with this and ask forgiveness. I am showing my vulnerability now in order to experience that I am still a human worthy of love and acceptance. I did something wrong, but I am not wrong and know that I can do better.”
Being able to face our shame is a significant aspect of resilience, a quality that defines our ability to pick ourselves up after trauma and/or failure. Before we can recognize someone else loving and accepting us despite our flaws, we have to be able to love and accept ourselves enough to look our shame in the eye. To name what we are ashamed of and be able to continue perceiving ourselves as a good and lovable human.
Facing shame is facing our humanity. We are such complicated systems of nerves, hormones, neurons, thoughts, and emotions. Learning how and why we behave the way we do empowers us with awareness, compassion, and an opportunity to change something we don’t like about ourselves.
I’ve often said that I believe my mother died of her pain, but really, I think she died of her shame. She died completely alone, having driven away everyone that ever loved her. In the months previous to her death, she manifested her shame physically as a skin condition in which she said “fibers” were growing out of her body. She picked at herself mercilessly. Initially it was only on her scalp and she choose to shave her head and wear a wig. Then she began creating sores visible on her hands, arms, and face, so that the school where she taught first graders was planning to let her go because she looked too sick.
I can see now that it was her shame, her belief that her flaws made her unlovable, that prevented her from healing and building connection with others. I know she was ashamed of traumas that happened in her childhood and she was ashamed of being a less than perfect mother. I know that she was ashamed she was in poverty most of her life and received more help than she thought she deserved. I imagine that she was ashamed of being mentally ill, an addict, and being a co-dependent partner with an addict for years. I imagine she was ashamed for being unable to find a secure job that didn’t make her miserable until she was 50 years old.
I will not live or die like my mother.
So here I am, making myself vulnerable by illuminating some of my shame.
What I am ashamed of:
1) I am ashamed of having a relationship with a man who later became a community joke for foolish and immature behavior. I am ashamed that he rejected partnership with me because of my emotional and hormone challenges. I felt I must be too crazy to be lovable.
2) I am ashamed of a relationship with a couple who compared me to a feral cat and gave me a two page of list of things I did wrong on our last date. This time I was too rough around the edges to be lovable.
3) I am ashamed of a power exchange relationship with a man who objectified me in every possible way, including emotionally (which was non-consensual). I still don’t know why I wasn’t worth anymore than a fling to him. I am ashamed that I chose that relationship over Eros for a couple months. I am ashamed of how that relationship literally brought me to my knees as I hit rock bottom with my addiction to emotional masochism.
4) I am ashamed of being publicly humiliated by multiple community members who put my flaws out into the world in unkind ways.
5) I am ashamed because I was judged and put down by friends and lovers as too emotional, too loud, too woo-woo, and too irrational. I am ashamed of every time my emotions have led to violent communication, even if I was provoked. And I am ashamed of backing down when I should have stood up for myself and/or others.
6) I am ashamed of compromising my integrity and self respect by having sex, or certain kinds of sex, when I really didn’t want to on several occasions.
7) I am ashamed of the number of rejections I experienced in my relationship explorations and the circumstances around some of them.
8) I am ashamed of my last time on stage in front of the Imps community, as well as leaving the event early. I was exhausted and couldn’t find my joy or mojo (I didn’t know I was having such a hard time because I was pregnant). I am ashamed I couldn’t finish the job. Then when nobody contacted me after to see if I was ok or say they missed me, I felt more ashamed because it seemed like no one noticed or cared that I wasn’t there.
9) I am ashamed of letting my partners down (I actually have bad dreams because of this one).
10) I am ashamed of having Fibromyalgia and how it limits me and what I have to give to the people I love. I am ashamed that my life mirrors my mother’s in this regard, that pain plays a role in my experience of life every single day.
11) And most recently, I am ashamed that I haven’t found a job after 8 months of applications and interviews.
Writing these things down is hard, but it’s not so big and scary as my lizard brain told me it would be. With all of these situations I can see where to have compassion for myself because of factors that were/are out of my control. I can see that I am so much more than any person’s perception of me, or any of the judgments people make about my emotional and flawed nature. With all that’s evolved in me the last couple years, I am reaching a place of less reaction and more compassion, both for myself and others. Each of those experiences and relationships was a building block to the amazing life I have now that only promises to keep blowing my mind and take me into deeper experiences of love. But that can only happen, I can only deepen these connections, if I shift my shame to resilience and my failures to opportunities.
What about you? Consider where shame may be preventing you from connection. Take the risk of pointing a light in that direction. While whatever you are ashamed of may appear to be a lonely black hole you’ll get lost in, it’s actually an opportunity bring connection and love into your life.
Thank you for listening.
There has been magic around my word of the year already. Within 24 hours of getting the word Community, I pulled a Tarot card for the year, as well as a card to show me where to find my strongest support. The card for the year is The Devil, which I have to admit made me throw up in my mouth a little, and would be easy to interpret in a hard and/or negative way (it generally represents the ego, the small self that wants to stay safe). However this line in the meaning of the card stood out for me, “One’s inner darkness and shame must be confronted, otherwise it becomes a chain.”
I recognized in recent months that I allowed my inner darkness and shame to prevent me from nurturing deeper relationships with my tribe, as well as resist building community in the ways I feel called since moving to Portland. After my year of Vulnerability in 2012 took me to my rock bottom as an emotional masochist, I’ve been hiding (duh – I was resistant to the word thing at first because I’m scared of having a word!). As a result, I have deep fear of being vulnerable, as well as shame related to my actions and experiences that year. In 2014 I have been taking what feel like tiny steps to start putting myself out into relationship, into art, and and public dialogue again.
I can see in hindsight this quiet and introverted time was needed to process and heal the heaviness and wounds of the last 6 six years, but now I am getting a resounding message that it’s time to turn toward the future I desire to create and step into my bigness again. Which leads back to community. I need to face my darkness and shame so that I can find my capacity for vulnerability again. It’s both exciting and terrifying (who wants to look their shame in the face?).
I also spent the last 8 months researching, gathering information, and planting idea seeds in the soil of my creativity, all in regards to radical mysticism, sacred activism, building resilient communities, creating belonging through radical inclusion, and the power of gift economies. The momentum is building and I am feeling sparked, fired up with inspiration. I have a notebook full of thoughts and information I’ve collected. When I reviewed it last night, I started seeing the bright threads that are weaving themselves into the foundation a web project and series of community art projects. So while this time being unemployed has been quiet, boring, and seemingly unproductive, it has actually been a time of incubation, the building of new life. (Huh – interesting to realize how similar it looks to the time I was pregnant with our magic baby.)
Anyway, the other card I drew, my support card, is the Queen of Cups. Which is perfect, because she is me. I bought the Universal Tarot deck specifically because I saw the art for this card and new I was looking at myself. Her description includes the following, which are my greatest strengths! “Emotionally based in a stable way. Powers to receive and transmit feelings with great subtlety, indeed she reflects those around her so precisely that it is hard to perceive her own true nature (empathy!). Pure soul, benevolent and receptive.” Empathy is one of my strongest gifts and is also one of the most powerful values needed in building community. Now that I am emotionally stable and have my needs for belonging met, it’s incredible to feel the power of turning to my greatest strengths as a means of support for this journey.
I am feeling a sense of magic and support from the Universe as momentum grows and I become more devoted to what is growing inside of me. Community is going to be a driving force in my life this year. Honoring that and guiding my choices by my values in relationship to community may be a powerful catalyst for a more vibrant existence as I enter into this new stage of my life.
Thank you for listening.