Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What If We Strip Away the Artifice & See Each Other As We Are

(Originally published on elephant journal on October 15, 2013)

Artwork: Viscera by Jody Pham

What if I don’t want to talk about the weather?

What if, instead, I want to talk about the doubts that tiptoe their way up your spine, lodge between your vertebrae and soften your backbone? What if I want to ask about what keeps you up at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep and about the recurring loop-dream you’ve been having and what you think it means? What if I want to know about the pink scar on your chin and where it comes from and why you try to hide it with your scarf?

What if I don’t care about what’s on TV or the Breaking Bad finale?

What if, instead, I care about the secret song that lives in your lungs that nobody hears but you? What if I ask you to breathe it to me and I promise to listen and I really do? What if I’m curious about the last time you lost, the last time you grieved and is there anything in this world you would die for? What if I’m interested in your proudest moment, your most haunting regret, the face you thought you’d remember but that now you forget?

What if I don’t want to sit in a noisy pub and guzzle beer until the night becomes a blurry haze?

What if, instead, I want to sit with you in a park, in the dark, swallowing mouthfuls of moon and sharing memories of our mothers? What if I want to take your hand in mine and touch the bones that live there, the knobby joints, the rough patches, the creases at the wrist? What if I want to run my fingers up and down your arm, tracing the route of your veins, revering the blood flow that keeps you alive? What if—for a whole minute, a whole hour—I want to look into your eyes without flinching, to tour the truest part of you, that place that cannot die?

What if I want to break open your sternum and glimpse inside your tattered heart and tell you it may be tattered, but it is your loveliest organ and there is a blood-red garden growing there?

What if I don’t want to chat on Facebook and skim through your photographic highlight-reel?

What if, instead, I want to see your broken parts and blemishes? What if I want to strip away the layers and stand with you, skin and souls laid bare, bony bits protruding, ugly spots exposed? What if I want to place my head on your belly and listen to your liver communing with your spleen and feel the gurgle of your gut and the inklings of your instinct? What if I want to ask you the question that scares you the most and swear I won’t run away when I hear your honest answer? What if I don’t run away?

What if I’m choking on the artifice of it all and feeling like we’re missing out because we’re scratching the surface with the questions underneath the questions, but the veneer is thick and we have barely made a mark? What if we’re all here, on this perfect planet, at this time, together, because we are treasures for each other to discover and rediscover, but what if we’re too distracted by our Twitter feeds to notice?

What if I don’t give a damn about where you studied or what your job is or how much money you make?

What if, instead, I give a damn about the first time you found love and the way your cells shifted to make room for that new feeling that was more force than feeling? What if I give a damn about the tattoo on your thigh and why you have it and when you got it and did it hurt and do you love it? What if I give a damn about what turns you on, what turns you off, how you like to be touched and how you pray? What if I give a damn about the things that amaze you, that fill you up, that move you to tears, that move you to move, that make you wonder, that make you glow and go slow and look up and see the stars and feel the stars inside you?

What if I give a damn about you, remarkable, fragile, dangerous you?

But what if I don’t want to talk about the weather? What then?

Think we could be friends?


Lie beside me and let the seeing be healing. No need to hide. No need for either darkness or light. Let me see you as you are.” ~ Jeanette Winterson, Art and Lies.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It Hurts To Breathe (There, I Said It)

On days like yesterday, I do my best.  I get up, shower, get dressed, force myself to eat, and beg myself to act normal, be normal.  I drag myself to school, to work, to wherever I am expected to be and tell myself, “You can do this.  I know you can do this.”  I take deep breaths and try to ignore my heart thumping hard against my chest like a metal fist telling me to “go home, go home, go back to bed.”  I fight the urge to go back to bed because I’ve been here before and I know that one day in bed might lead to two, three, ten. I’ve been here before and have clawed my way back out of this bottomless pit, digging my nails into the swampy earth, my whole body burning with the effort of it, fighting against the force of gravity pulling me down, down, down to the darkness below.  I know how easy it would be to lock the doors, draw the blinds, turn off the lights, and let myself become a permanent fixture of this very room, motionless and numb.

If I go back to bed, it wins.  “It” – the monster that lives and grows and breeds inside of me.  It is always there, hovering below the surface of my consciousness, breathing its feverish breath down my neck, waiting for the right moment to spew its poison all over my world, its thick black ink staining everything in sight.  It’s always there – like a blemish nobody can see but me – though I’ve become a master at pretending it isn’t.

There is shame in admitting any of this – admitting that I struggle with mental health issues and admitting that I pretend I don’t.  But there is a stigma attached to mental illness that, even in this day and age, makes it nearly impossible not to lie about it.  What are you supposed to say when someone asks how you are?  How do you answer the question, “How was your weekend?  And what excuse do you give for calling in sick, for missing classes, for bailing on your friend’s birthday party last Friday?

I’ve said things like, “I have a really bad sore throat and think I’m getting sick.  I’ve said things like, “I just developed the most painful migraine and I need to stay home.”  I’ve said things like, “I have way too much studying to do.  I’ve said things like, “My family’s in town and I need to spend time with them.”

I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I’m anxious.  I’m depressed.  It hurts to breathe.”

There is shame, for me, on another level as well.  As a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, am I not supposed to know how to deal with mental health issues?  Am I not supposed to be the hand my patients hold as they travel their own healing journeys?   Am I not supposed to help others find their voice, heal their bodies and minds, and speak their truth?

“Healer, heal thyself,” right?

Right, of course.  But here’s the thing with anxiety and depression:  When they appear, everything else disappears.  The books I’ve read, the things I’ve learned, the tips that have been passed down by wise and worldly teachers – all of it sinks to the very bottom of the murky waters that have invaded my mind. The formulas for wellness that I know so well rearrange themselves in a sort of gibberish.  The very thought of trying to remember what steps need to be taken drains my already leaky reservoirs of energy and I am left in my bed, in the dark, as I had feared.

On days like yesterday – days I call my “rock bottom,” the crash that always happens after the weeks or months of surviving panic attack after panic attack – I feel weak, embarrassed, inadequate.  More than anything, I feel disappointed in myself.  Disappointed to find myself here, again, after years of battling the same demons. I feel like I have taken ten steps backwards.  

But on days like today, I make myself remember that there is no such thing as going backwards.  The very act of living is a perpetual forward flow.  These struggles that seem to be pulling us back are in fact pushing us ahead in our own unfolding, our own expansion into the unique human beings we are meant to become in this lifetime.  

In the calm after the seemingly never-ending storm, there are things I tell myself.  They are the same things I would tell my patients.  Things like:

  • Stop calling your anxiety a “monster.”  It is not a monster, but simply a manifestation of years of accumulated struggles and stresses that contains, within it, important messages for your own healing and growth.
  • Don't feed the panic.  Panic attacks are time-limited and if you can recognize and label the symptoms of panic as they arise, most of the adrenaline will be reabsorbed in three to five minutes and the scary symptoms will subside.
  • Respect your exhaustion.  Rest when you need to.  It’s ok to miss work or skip classes in order to practice self-care.  Sleep in, cancel your plans, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Acknowledge the emotions that need to be felt. Don’t judge them or push them aside or tell them they’re unimportant.  Taste them, chew them, swallow them, stomach them, and let them go – just as you would a piece of unfamiliar food with a taste that doesn’t appeal to you, but with health benefits that you know are worth the effort.
  • Talk to someone.  Reach out and ask for help.  It’s important to talk, to get thoughts and feelings out of your body, to allow someone to gently guide you to a place of peace.
  • Find those things you love, those things that bring you joy or make you laugh or simply make you feel calm and grounded and keep them close at hand - an arsenal to help you survive the toughest times. 

For me, writing helps.  Even now, as I type these words, I notice that I feel lighter than I did a few hours ago and certainly much lighter than I did yesterday, or than I have for the past few weeks.  Tea helps.  Breathing helps.  A text from a friend that reads, “I love you Vicki” helps. Reading Pema Chodron helps.  Stretching helps. Crying my heart out helps.  Hugging my cats helps.  Knowing my guy will be home soon with his big arms around me helps.  Taking a bath helps.

What helps most of all, though, is the being here, the surrendering to the present, the acceptance of what is and the letting go of trying to change that.  We, human beings, have a bad habit of trying to take the unpleasant, the difficult, the painful, the sad and mold it into something else, something prettier, easier, more palatable.  We are so uncomfortable with feeling “not ok” that we are quick to reach for the nearest distraction – the bottle, the remote control, the cigarette, the meds – in an attempt to fill ourselves up, to alter our thoughts, to dull the ache throbbing in our bones.  We want stability, damnit!  We want the ground to stop shifting, the floor to stop tilting, we want our thoughts and feelings to align perfectly with our current reality so that we can feel calm and comfortable within our own skin.

But peace, we must understand, isn’t found in stability; it is found in our ability to accept the unstable quality of life itself.  Life is change. Life is movement. It is a perpetual fluctuation of highs and lows, births and deaths, growth and decline.  The Earth never stops spinning – and if it did, we would all be in very big trouble.

Finding peace comes from being ok with being not ok, from accepting the inner and outer movements that cause us to lose our grip.   Peace comes when we stop fighting with the very processes of life itself and, instead, embrace the mess we find ourselves in, knowing that this mess shall eventually pass and another mess shall replace it. 

In her brilliant book, When Things Fall Apart:  Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

On days like yesterday, I forget all of this.  I become so caught up in the falling apart, I forget that the coming together is right around the corner.

But on days like today, I sit here, grounded in my own groundlessness, anchored within the unanchored.  I know I must be loving and gentle with myself, just as I would tell my patients to be loving and gentle with themselves.  I must trust that things falling apart is not a reflection of my own weakness or failure; that it is, in fact, exactly what I need at this moment in time. 

I tell myself to “be here, feel this, know that it will pass.”  I rest.  I reflect on the journey I have been on and am grateful for the progress that has been made, the healing that has already taken place.  I feel my heart beating in my chest, its rhythm no longer erratic, but soft, kind, compassionate.  I know I am on the verge of being ok, of greeting a new day, of standing again on solid ground - at least for a little while.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

Little Me

It is 10:30pm, on the eve on my 32nd birthday.  I just stumbled across a photo of myself at  3 years old and was struck by how big and bright my eyes were as a child - thirsty, it seems, for seeing the unseen and knowing the unknowable. In the photo, I am looking up towards an imagined sun, or moon, or shooting star - eyes wide open, ready to soak up the magic, the brilliance, the light, the good. I am so young, so “new," a part of this world, yet tethered to heaven - as ethereal as the rose I hold in my stubby little fingers. 

This little me has not yet been touched by the precariousness of growing up. She wakes each day with unwavering faith, trusting her mighty imagination, ready for the next great adventure in Cabbage Patch Land.  She loves to colour and play dress-up and feed Grandpa's chipmunks.  She receives plenty of hugs and Mama-kisses and is as free and as gutsy as she ever will be.

I am overcome with the irrepressible urge to warn this little me - to tell her that life is going to get very rocky at times, to inform her that Cabbage Patch Land won’t last forever.  I want to urge her to savour these years of being 3, of being 5, of being 6 years old.  I want to build her a suit of armour to protect her from the blows to come.  I want to shield her eyes from the ugly, her heart from the cruel, her sensitive soul from the unkind. I want to teach her about betrayal and fear and intense loneliness, so that she may be well-equipped to deal with these monsters lurking in her not-so-distant future. I want to prepare her for the firsts:  first love, first loss, first hurt, first moment of inconceivable courage.  I want to hold her tight.

I know, even as I write these words, that she does not need me to protect her.  She is a smart little girl and she will navigate her way just fine.  She may be small, but she is tough, and she possesses that special childhood wisdom that adults spend most of their lives trying to reclaim. She does not need me to guide her at all; in fact, it is I who needs her.

She lives within me, this little one.  I feel her everyday.  She is that part of me that refuses to be hardened by the harshness of the world.  She is that part of me that cries for hurt animals and has whole conversations with trees. She is that part of me that delights in butterflies and trusts strangers and hurries outside to stare at the sky when rainbows make themselves known. She is that part of me that never even thinks about giving up.  She is the most tender and the most fierce part of me.

I am blessed to know her, to BE her.  When I look at my life - at the choices I’ve made, the people I’ve loved, the relationships I’ve built, the career path I’ve chosen - I am filled up to the brim with gratitude for the little me who lives inside of the bigger me.  It is she who has guided my choices, she who has kicked me in the ribs when I have been foolishly naive and on the verge of making a big mistake, she who has whispered soft, sweet truths in my ear, she who has reassured me of the resilience of my spirit when I thought I may have lost it.

The child who lives inside of me - just like the child who lives inside of you - is the wisdom keeper and the overseer.  She is the compass that orients us when the territory becomes blurred, the unseen angel that guides us when the hurdles reach new heights, the mastermind behind the dream that lingers in the morning, offering sacred answers to our most burning questions.  She is the constant in the inconsistent, the knowing in the belly, the light in the eyes.

When we pause and listen, we can hear them - the little people we once were. They exist underneath all of our acquired layers and adopted roles.  They are there, wanting to play and laugh and sing and dance, to revel in the joy that comes simply from being alive.

On this - the eve of my 32nd birthday - I pause, I listen, I say thank you.  I give myself a little hug and vow to keep going - to keep riding the waves, braving the storms, boldly facing the difficult moments with grit and grace.

I vow to be kind and just and gentle, to protect the planet through my words and my actions, to fight for the oceans and the glorious beings who inhabit them.  I vow to speak up, speak out, speak well.  I vow to explore with the curiosity and open-heartedness of a 3 year-old, to leave smiles in my wake, to make this world a little bit shinier than it was when I got here. 

I vow to do this not because it is the “right” thing to do, but because I understand what a privilege it is to be here, what a gift it is to breathe in, breathe out, and breathe in again.  I understand what a miracle it is to have a heart and a voice.

I vow to do this, more than anything, for the little girl who lives inside of me because she deserves it.  She deserves to grow into a woman she is proud to be.

Happy Birthday to us.