Black dog

My anxieties are up. I’m afraid of too many things to name, and the fear is paralyzing. I haven’t been out of the house much without my crew (partner and/or children), and have consequently racked up a fair number of jobs that are waiting to be done.

They’ll have to wait another day because it seems my resilience is also at an ebb. I went to my children’s school today to have lunch with my girls, first my neuro-eccentric eldest, and second with my affectionate youngest. I set my alarm so I would be sure to stop whatever I was doing and get in the car at the right time. I packed a bag of dried mango (I’ve not had much appetite lately) and a can of fizzy water. And I set off, excited to surprise my girls, who seemed disappointed when I told them earlier that I thought I couldn’t make it to lunch with them today.

Long story short, I was at the school for 20 minutes, just long enough to watch my eldest eat a small portion of her lunch and pretend to be someone else. Who was this child who had swallowed my intensely empathetic little girl? And then, she dismissed me. She said that it wasn’t every day that she got to have lunch with her mates, and wanted me to pack it in so she could hang out at the soccer goal with the boys.

I couldn’t force her to be with me if she didn’t want to, so I left. It was a full hour before the lunchtime of my youngest, so I knew I wouldn’t make it to lunch with her. I knew I wouldn’t make it to the pharmacy afterwards to pick up my meds. I really just wanted to go home. I needed to be home.

It’s not the sadness that hurts as much as the burn of invisibility or unimportance. My fears force me to withdraw and then I’m upset by the fact that nobody can see me and that nobody cares.

I know what this is. This is the start of a nasty depression. It’s just so strange how my depressive episodes have changed over time, allowing me now to feel joy and even positive emotions for a time, allowing me to think I’m doing well or at least on the right track, before sending me swirling down into bleak contemplation of my nothingness. So, these days, I almost don’t know when a depression is descending. I can still laugh. My heart can even soar (this, most often with plants). And so I fail to see it coming.

But then: Did I hurt your feelings, mama? Yes. Oh, well, bye then. Yes. Bye. And–oh!–here we go again.

By the time I recognize it, the black dog has got its teeth sunk down to the bone.

It will be interesting to view this through a Buddhist lens. But on some other day.

Snail meditation

I am a gardener—an amateur horticulturist and botanist, if you will. I grow fruits and vegetables and, apparently, snails. This is the first year that I have gardened without a nemesis. Aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths, ants have all been the target of my wrath at one point or another. This year, I have been preoccupied with snails, treating them with a fury I didn’t particularly feel, and which always made me wonder how one could simultaneously grow food and be a Buddhist.

This morning was one of those magical spring mornings after a night’s rain. My youngest and I were up before the sun, letting the chickens out in the blue light. The air was paradoxically heavy and fresh, as if an accumulation of the sighs of all plantlife. The sense of connection to all things was so great, I was subtly aware that I was swimming in a womb of the universe.

When I made my usual rounds of the gardens, I found an incredible number of snails devouring my succulents, peas, garlic, asparagus, and even relaxing in my garden furniture and sliding up the walls of my house. I got my snail jar to collect them all, something I’d started using since holding them in my hand forced me to feel their life energy and made sending them to their deaths that much harder.

In the process of gathering up a pint-sized salsa jar full of snails, I came face to face with a particularly tenacious one, which had oozed up the side of the jar and peeked out to explore its path to freedom. I held it close to my face and seemed to recognize something in it. I can’t quite describe what exactly that was, only that, at that moment, I was aware that I was no more or less than it was. That we were both essential to the universe. I felt something shift deep inside me, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to feel something so obvious.

The thing is, this is central to everything. To letting go of ego. To understanding the connectedness of all things. To walking the right path. That such a lesson should come from a snail rather than from the words of the many sages and scholars I’ve read somehow seems fitting.

After all that, the chickens enjoyed their morning snail snack and I got no closer to reconciling gardening with Buddhism.

Routine

I am just emerging from a haze induced by three weeks of disrupted routine and augmented by oblivion-seeking behaviors involving a dragon video game. I am rediscovering the value of routine in helping me to manage myself emotionally and practically.

My partner replaced our  fence on his three-week holiday from work. Which means that there were at least three days when our private lives were completely exposed. I had not realized what an intensely private person I am, how much I perceive exposure as a danger. I banned the use of all overhead lights at night. I found myself retreating to my cave of bedcovers day and night. (It occurred to me at the time that the bear is my spirit animal.) I became super sensitive to everything; anxious in all situations outside of my curtained room. And I lost the fight against my oblivion-seeking self.

It didn’t help that there was disruptive news from extended family. Deeply troubling, and particularly upsetting to me with no routine to anchor me to this life. I floated away.

No yoga, meditation, writing, or painting. My third eye closed. I kept up only with my plants, perhaps more as a way to feel I had accomplished something at the end of each day. Or maybe just because I felt most comfortable with plants. Anything or anyone requiring more than a gentle chat and a watering felt like an awful lot of stress.

My cognitive functioning is a wreck. I am misplacing words and names in almost every sentence. I am hearing music again in white noise—samba from the vacuum cleaner; a violin ensemble from the spring winds. I am smelling stale piss, burnt garlic, and dog shit, and removing things from the house which seem, at the time, to be the source of the odors. Of course, the odors are merely hallucinations. I refuse to take anti-psychotics ever again, but that means that reality can get pretty squishy in high-stress situations. Without a routine.

And maybe that’s where our tendency to seek out oblivion comes from: maybe folks with bipolar are trying to slow things down, quiet our minds, grow some skin—in short, manage our stress before the rush of mania or psychosis sweeps us off our feet. It seems counter-intuitive that we should choose activities that ultimately make us lose control (drugs, alcohol, dragon video games) in an attempt to take control of ourselves. But maybe it’s not really about control, but about having a buffer between the world and us. Because, at such times, we are skinless–we feel everything with excrutiating intensity. And we just need it to stop. Bear in a trap. No time for thinking things through.

At least with oblivion-seeking behaviors we have chosen our outcome. And we no longer notice so acutely all the noise in our heads. Yes, self-medicating mental anguish, and all that. Not condoning, just explaining.

Anyway. The importance of routine. Bipolar tendencies for oblivion-seeking behaviors. Disruption and skinlessness. Stress. It’s all connected.

The revolt

My children, the weather, the dog have all turned on me. In my hour of need.

We are in the home stretch of my partner’s absence, and it’s as if the universe is collapsing, just in time for my partner to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Which is completely unfair, since I have been a champion for the last two weeks: making all meals (mostly from scratch); getting my children to and from school and activities with no assistance; sticking to a schedule and getting to bed most nights at a reasonable hour; more or less keeping my house clean, including doing the dishes on an almost daily basis. You know, tasks that are normal for you but Herculean for me. And the thing is, I have enjoyed it. I am finding purpose in pedestrian productivity.

But in the last few days, I suppose the stress has caught up with us all. I have had some visuals and a feeling that my blood is vibrating. The condensation on the inside of the greenhouse has turned my tomato seedlings’ tropical paradise into a refrigerator. The dog leaves me a shitty gift on the doormat every single morning and then expects me to feed her before all others. My eldest refuses to wear a coat because the weight of it prevents her from taking flight at recess, or something.

And the biggest stain on my successful run as a lone parent: On Saturday, my youngest jumped off a trampoline and landed on her forehead. Can’t quite figure out how she managed it because there is a safety net encircling the trampoline. I suppose I should be writing about the pointlessness of safety nets—literal and figurative. Anyway, she couldn’t have helped it, and it really was quite scary for all of us—a concussion, no matter how mild, is never delightful. But the worst part was her insistence that her injury was more severe than it was. It was like she was hoping for the worst-case scenario, claiming symptoms that she expected would land her in the hospital. She reminded me of me. And frankly, that scares me.

But the faultiness of safety nets and the heritability of parental flaws is not under discussion today.

It is the revolt—of human, beast, and nature—the high stakes conspiracy that the universe has orchestrated for my edification—that is the subject of my thoughts. And the fact that I am still standing and even laughing about it, planning to get on with my housework as soon as I rattle this off, is a testament to the fact that I am winning. This long, slow recovery from breakdown—now in its fifth year—may very well be shifting into a new gear, the pace of life becoming more delightfully challenging. I am buzzing with excitement. I have in mind an image of a world-weary woman standing on a hilltop in a thunderstorm, face and arms lifted, laughing hysterically, and challenging the lightning to strike.

That old saying that the universe gives us only what we can handle? It’s true.

On failure

I am beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as failure. Failure suggests an absolute system of judging correctness, success, goodness. But, in what has been revealed to me of the universe, there are few true absolutes—and certainly moral absolutism is far too small to be of universal consequence.

What I’m getting at is that on an individual level, failure is an illusion.  Take this morning. Despite all my preparations to help things run smoothly (but oh! Even now I am thinking of more things I could have done! My monkey brain working to accept responsibility for the failure of our morning), my neuro-eccentric daughter lost control and had another one of her fits. It could have been very messy indeed, but there was no shouting (from me at least), no holding of arms and legs, no attempts at “controlling” the situation. I sat and acknowledged that the natural consequences of her actions were sufficient. My children were late to school, but I feel no responsibility for that fact.

From the outside, I failed. According to society, my job today as their mother was to feed them, clothe them appropriately, and get them to school on time with all they needed. While this morning didn’t go how I had hoped, and my own schedule and emotional equilibrium was disrupted, I succeeded at being mindful in my words and actions. This success is significant for me. So much so that I cannot view the morning as a failure. But perhaps that is because I am getting better at not holding myself and my neuro-eccentric daughter to society’s standards of success.

This is the key. People like us cannot function well within the socially defined parameters for how one should behave or even according to the standard definitions of productivity and success. (Many would argue that it is because we exist outside those norms and many others that we are valuable tools for social change, while others would argue that that is precisely the reason we need to be locked up or at least medicated, sedated.) Thus, “failure” is a highly charged concept for a neuro-eccentric.

My point is, I have spent a great deal of my life feeling ashamed of my “failures,” holding myself to standards that were not meant for me. I did an incredible amount of damage to myself. From the age of nine, I have been aware that I am different. What I did not know was that that was something to be celebrated. So, I spent decades hurting myself in one way or another, trying to be more like something that was accepted, raging against all that was accepted, or punishing myself for not being acceptable. And for what? Some nonsense absolutist ideal of success and failure?

I wonder what I could have accomplished by now if my difference had been celebrated from the beginning. And then I hear a little voice that says that my value is in my path, in the way I walk that path, in the discoveries I make along the way. Not in accomplishments, because, quite frankly, no accomplishment would ever have been enough to make me feel truly accepted.

I don’t mean to get all pop-psychology here. I mean to talk about the false structures that inform our perception of who we are and what our purpose is. Society paints a backdrop of a world based on false absolutes. The world we see in that image is not the real world. The real world lies beyond the backdrop, and the way to see it is to dissolve society’s falseness in our minds. This is part of what the Buddha’s teachings mean to me.

So, I am not a failure, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am in fact making progress on my path.

Forgiveness

The morning air is fragrant with mountain laurel. The plum tree is covered in blossom and bees. The chickens are frantically laying and then settling on their infertile eggs, expectantly. In much earlier times, we would be preparing for the end of our late-winter fasts, as the ground would finally be workable again, and the first edible leaves would be emerging.

My sap is rising too. I am feeling hopeful about the true start of the new year—when I feel truly reborn. I suppose, then, it makes sense that I should be thinking about forgiveness. Spring is our release from the suffering of winter—forgiveness is our salvation from self-imposed suffering.

I found myself talking to my father this morning. I have always struggled to let go of my difficult feelings about him—and there have been many. But it wasn’t until he was murdered almost six years ago that my failure to forgive turned inside out, and I became aware of my need to forgive myself. I can’t explain the alchemy underlying that strange transference, that backwards inheritance of my own failings. Yes, some of my need for forgiveness had to do with not being there for him when he died, or somehow not preventing it. But most of it had to do with the way I had conducted myself in our relationship: laying all the burden of guilt on his shoulders when I could always have thrown off the mantel of the victim and embraced him for the lovely man he truly was.

So, daddy and I chatted today about one particular instance from when I was a child, an instance for which I now realize he unjustly punished himself. He didn’t need my forgiveness today, but his own—this I understood. I, too, need to forgive myself for carrying the memory of that hurtful event for far longer than I should have. I need to lay down any blame I am carrying for how his life unfolded.

At some point in my yoga routine, Sean Corne asks: “Can you forgive yourself for the things you have done?”

The answer is: I have not managed it yet. Though I recognize that this is the root of so many difficulties—this is what makes me a bad person in my own eyes, unworthy of love, a narrative which in turn informs my interactions with others, none of which can ever seem to erase that essential fact, regardless of how loving those interactions may be.

And this is the point. If I cannot forgive myself for the things I have done, I will continue to believe myself unworthy of love and kindness. Forgiveness starts with the self: a kind of psycho-spiritual renewal brought about by simply letting go of the narratives we have about who we are and what we’ve done. Only then can we let go of the narratives we have about others.

There is a Buddhist story that involves two monks. The monks come to a river crossing and find a well-dressed woman there who needs to cross, but who does not want to spoil her silk dress. The first monk grumbles and crosses without her, angrily gesticulating as he does; the second monk carries her on his back across the river. On the other side, the second monk leaves the lady by the bank, and the monks continue on their path. After walking a great distance, with the first monk growing more and more angry with every passing moment, he asks his companion why he carried that self-absorbed rich lady across the river. The second monk replies that it really was no burden: he had put her down by the river long ago, though his grumpy companion still seemed to be carrying her.

Spring, ripe with its resurrections, is the time to set our own rich ladies by the river and continue, unencumbered, on our path.

Recantation

I just finished a phone conversation with my mom, during which she asked if I was talking to someone else in the room as well as her. I was alone.

I had just been telling her about a message I received while I was meditating this morning, suggesting that some of the odd symptoms I have been having were my body’s way of informing me I was not supposed to be medicated any longer. She laughed quietly in all the right places that could not possibly cause offense. I had given her those opportunities, I suppose. Opportunities not to take what I was saying very seriously. This is an old habit of mine—wanting folks to take me seriously but making it very very hard for them to do so. I think that would be classified as borderline.

You see, I was making my breakfast and having an imaginary conversation with my doctor about how the real problem with psychiatric medicine lay in the fact that it is secular and does not allow much room for spiritual inquiry. I don’t think anyone can accurately explore mental wellness and illness without maintaining for themselves some spiritual connection that guides them in their studies or frames their perspective. Of course, this should also allow room for the patient to explore his or her own connection to spirit/universe/god, and for that exploration to be considered valid and not a sign of madness. What spiritual practice folks choose is of no consequence—only the fact that they have one. Anyway, the imaginary argument was much more involved, and ultimately led me to feel that I have an important contribution to make to Western psychiatry, that my own connection to the universe is a valid way of receiving information about the human condition.

And then, I finished my breakfast and called my mom back, and apparently held multiple conversations at once with who knows how many entities.

Well, that’s one perspective anyway. Mine is that we had a bad connection (I do believe my phone has been hacked), and she was distracted—listening while doing something else (as she often does) and so not following the (I’ll admit) rather erratic line of argumentation. She laughed politely and, instead of suggesting that I needed medication (and possibly more than I am currently taking), claimed instead that I was having a simultaneous conversation with some unseen party. No doubt she hoped I would get the hint. I got it.

There are two people in my life who feel very strongly that I should be on medication: one to whom I was born and the other whom I chose as my life partner. (Yes, I chose someone like my mother as my life partner, as it turns out. And, yes, I know there are no accidents in the universe.) They are both atheist pragmatists, who have a clearly defined sense of what is normal. I am oversimplifying, of course, since just knowing me for all these years has undoubtedly shaken some of their assumptions.

My point is, they are both excellent individuals on which to try my latest theories. Or rather, to test the strength of my conviction about my latest theories. And perhaps if it weren’t for that damn borderline personality disorder knocking around in my system, I might not back down so often. But with the situation as it is, if I experience a metaphorical gasp when I present the fruits of my recent meditations, I generally laugh and blame hypomania or lithium’s imperfect correction of my faults.

In case my partner is reading this from abroad, please know that the fire of this idea and the self importance it presupposes has most certainly died out now. Forty minutes of my mother’s tonic of secular reason has flattened the message to the extent that I can no longer recognize what key it was in or even hear it very well. So, don’t worry. All are safe.

After over a decade of stumbling about in the dark—perhaps in part because of my reactions to resistance—my partner and I have finally found a way to head off any uncomfortable discourse before it begins. And by that I don’t mean that we should avoid. I mean simply that the way that we speak to one another requires guidelines. So, I created the following to avoid my partner triggering a borderline response from me and so that we could both be heard with the respect we deserve.

I would say this arrived to me in a message if I thought that would make it catch on faster. But in fact, it’s just a step-by-step breakdown of a mindful handling of a relationship challenge. Anyway, I present it here as a gift, universal wisdom rendered practical. (I suppose this is an advantage of having folks like my mother and partner in my life—they require me to bring my thinking down to Earth.)

New strategy for managing conflicts in our home, written on the kitchen door. Hopefully the change will be more permanent than chalk on a blackboard.