Monday, June 26, 2006

Time Out

My best friend sent me a Zen parenting book. It’s called “Time-Out for Parents.” What I’ve gleaned so far is the notion that we parents are doing no service to anyone by ignoring our own needs and emotions.

We all know that. But making a change is really hard when you don’t know exactly what it means to pay attention to your own needs and emotions. When you are so used to being pissed off, there’s no warning flag. Nothing actually feels amiss. “Yeah, poisonous anger! Here it is again! What else is new!”

As I’ve regained some level of health and functionality, it is easier to fall into the old habit of ignoring those moments. They come back in the old way, these subtle feelings of anger and frustration that seep in practically unnoticed. I wonder if they come so sneakily because I am so used to swatting them away or ignoring them for more “important” issues, like finishing the laundry or completing an endless game of Candy Land with my son. Then later, something sets me off and lo, I’m already at my limit. How did that happen?

Here's an example. This spring, my family and I were having a nice, peaceful Saturday, when my son suddenly fell into a massive temper tantrum. This was the screaming, crying, limb-flinging kind of storm that nothing can abate. It just has to pass.

At first, I stayed present with him and observed his outburst with a barely restrained desire to smack him silly and toss him in his room. That’s what my grandmother and mother did. (But that’s not the kind of mother I want to be.) With M’s help, we got him redirected and calmed down. It took a lot out of us.

I didn’t realize how much, until J and I were playing with his train set and suddenly I realized it was approaching the deciding moment for dinner: are we cooking, getting take out, scrounging, or going out?

Suddenly I was fully irritated at my husband. He never seemed to notice when it was time to make these decisions. He didn’t get how long it took to cook, to shop, to plan, how much it took out of me to always be the one in charge of this, how much I really resented it some days.

“So what are we doing for dinner?” I snapped, trying to shift responsibility. (FYI, this tactic never, ever works.)

“I don’t know, I can go to the store and get stuff to cook if you want.”

If I want!

“There isn’t time for that,” I said. “I don’t have time to go looking through cookbooks and make a shopping list and cook all before the kids are ready to eat.”

“Well, can we just scrounge on what’s here?”

“Such as what?” I demanded.

“I don’t know, can we just make sandwiches or something?”

I thought for a moment. Part of my troubles before had been that it was hard for me to present too many makeshift meals per week to my family. M had been trying to convince me for years that he truly did not care. I had been making it my new practice to stop caring, too. And to accept M’s suggestions, no matter what. We had too long a history of me demanding that he take responsibility for a decision and then rejecting it. So, I said, “Fine. We’ll have sandwiches.”

I turned back to the train set. I was still feeling huffy. J insisted on trying to link up two ends of a circle that just weren’t going to meet. Then he got frustrated and started trying to force them.

“Stop it!" I admonished. "If you have to force it, it isn’t going to work!”

Some wrangling ensued. I realized I was all of a sudden engaged in “duty play.” Duty play is “playing” with my son and hating every minute of it. M had observed this in the past and told me that when I’m doing that, I’m not being nice to J, and no one is having any fun. So I stopped and sat back on my heels. M was still sort of hanging around the scene and he looked at me.

“Susie, do you need to…”

“…take a time out?” I laughed. He laughed nervously back.

“Well, yeah.”

“Yes,” I said. I stood up. “See you in a half hour.”

I had resisted leaving the scene for many reasons. First, guilt over not having played with J earlier when he needed it, thus setting the stage for a tantrum. Second, relief at having gotten him calmed down and fear that he wouldn’t stay that way. Third, duty to M, who said he really wanted some kid-free time to work on our taxes. So we had guilt, fear, and duty. No wonder I was in a foul mood.

In my white bedroom, with the door closed and afternoon sunlight streaming in the windows, I opened the Zen parenting book and flipped to a page that said,

Stop! Take time out to be present to yourself, to your breath, to your feelings, to your experience of the moment.

What a fucking concept, I thought. How is this even possible right now?

Take a few slow, deep breaths, and notice what it’s like to be present to the thoughts, emotions, and sensations you are experiencing.
Ask yourself, What am I feeling?

I’m annoyed at my husband over the dinner thing. I’m annoyed at my son for causing such a scene and throwing me out of balance. I am scheming about how the rest of the day will happen, should happen. I’m out of balance. And annoyed.

Simply be present in this moment, just noticing.

I noticed, and then I closed the book and stopped “working.” I was literally sitting on my bed with a notebook and a pen in hand, ready to “work” through this problem.

But there was no problem. I was just having some feelings.

I watched them dissipate.

I set aside the book, the notebook, and the pen. I lay down under my down comforter in what I jokingly call “reclined meditation pose.” I observed myself settle into a quiet state between meditation and dozing. I still had twenty whole minutes to stay like this.

Afterwards, I went downstairs, hugged my husband and had a good chuckle with him. Then I opened the refrigerator and mentally threw together a bunch of ingredients I’d forgotten were there.

There was no problem.

Floating on the Path

I keep asking myself when I am going to get better.

Then I find if I shift my question from a medical perspective (“When is this medicine going to fix my problem?”), and look at it from the perspective of a person on her path, the question melts away.

Then, my benevolent witness arises. She notices that all this time, I have continued to be on the path, whether I realized it or not. And she reminds me gently that, no matter how long I continue to look for relief in the external world, I will continue to be myself, and I will continue to be on my path.

This is a thorny and complicated idea for a person with mental illness. It’s a thorny and complicated idea for many of us with a long history of either/or thinking. It involves the idea of acceptance, which is nearly impossible for so many of us. It involves the practice of floating, which is a skill almost no one possesses.

Denise says, make the effort, and then surf. Ride it.

This is essentially what I am doing. I make my effort: in yoga, in therapy, in taking care of myself in the ways that I know I need. And then I ride the effect. It is not just my own effort that I am riding. It’s the Great Energy, the Life Force that I’m riding. Surfing it, riding it, allowing it to work, is the only way to “get better.” It involves surfing out into the great unknown, having no ground beneath my feet, and being open to the possibility of what I find.

This is preferable to my own methods of “fixing” myself, which tend to be quite small-minded. If I make a game plan, I have expectations of what should happen along the way. There’s just no getting around that; it’s what our minds do. We look for results, the grade, a chance to critique our progress so we can decide if we are the most excellent student of [blank] in the universe, or the most pathetic [blank] in the universe. (This whole procedure amuses me when I think of what it really is: flipping the coin of judgment to grasp either grandiosity or self-degradation.)

My goal after my breakdown was to cease self-improvement. This may sound counter-intuitive: If I was broken, didn’t I want to be put back together?

I did not, and I do not. I do not want to be put back together in the same way. I have lived most of my life in repetitive cycles of the same kinds of conflict, of endless boxing rounds with the same opponents. If there was some way to make myself better using my known methods, I would have done it already. But the truth is, nothing has “worked.” So, facing no other choice, I let go of almost everything.

Now, I make my small efforts at health (yoga, therapy, medication, attention to my needs) and float.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

For Real

I am a total nightmare. Every time I'm doing okay, I think that's how it's always going to be , and then, woops! Guess what? I think, Hmm, I have about ten Xanax left, and a whole untouched bottle of Paxil; if I chased them with a bottle of Maker's Mark, I bet that would be pretty nice.

Pretty nice?! I was just having a day, you know, driving the kids and the dog to Magnussen Park. Then along comes this Okkervil River song on KEXP. Talking about how some nights he has the thirst for real blood. Talking about how he's obsessed with all this edge-of-suicide stuff. And I'm driving over the grating of the Montlake Bridge, and the sun is glinting in through the sunroof of my station wagon, and I'm thinking, "Mmmm, yeah, that does sound good."

That's what a good song does, though. You can feel all this crazy stuff in the space of two and half minutes and you can just let it wash through you and go on with your day.

Unless you are a depressive. Then the feeling stays with you. Then the feeling gathers strength, beomes distorted, scrambles your perpective, and sometimes, completely fucks you up. You're predisposed.

So what did I do? I didn't drive into the Montlake Cut. I drove to the park. I threw the tennis ball to the dog. I took the kids to the playground. I slid down the tandem slides with Miss A. And then, as the kids diddled around in the sandbox, I wrote in my notebook about how I'd do it. And then the next day I told my shrink.

Truth be told, I was already thinking about it the day before. Considering if I really wanted to die, or if I just wanted to make everyone think I wanted to die, so I could get lots of attention and care. How could I have these fucked up compulsions and just keep living daily life? Is this my illness or is this just bratty existential ennui?

Either way, the only thing for me is to keep on keepin’ on. In AA parlance, I say to myself that just for today I won’t kill myself. Or, as I read in last week’s New York Times Magazine back page story, “Oh, what the hell. I could always kill myself tomorrow.”

But I won't, of course, because I have children. In a terrible movie called “The Anniversary Party,” a high-on-X mother played by Phoebe Cates says to Jennifer Jason Leigh (with some consternation), “Once you have children, you can’t commit suicide. They completely rob you of that option.” I think about that, think about J and A at six, ten, fourteen, with no mother, knowing at some point that their mom offed herself. Of course they would blame themselves, that’s what children do. And kids don’t get over that kind of thing. I mean, how could they not go through their adult lives waiting for the other shoe to drop? Terrible. I won’t do that to them.

So I have to stay alive for them. Can I be more than a ghost? I don’t want to be a ghost. I don’t want to be a checked out parent. But I think of the long life ahead of us, the years and years of having to be there, giving them my love and attention. Protecting them. Going to bat for them. Making sure they are getting their needs met at school, in their social lives. Gotta be there for that. Gotta do that for them. Why have kids at all if you’re not going to do all of that?

There’s no escape hatch. That’s the tiring part. Maybe it wouldn't feel so tiring if I wasn't dealing with depression. Or maybe it wouldn't feel so tiring if my ultimate goal in life was something other than reading and being left alone as much as possible. So here we are.

When I'm quiet, my benevolent witness arises. Today s/he's in the form of a jovial Buddhist monk. Oh, yes, suicidal thoughts again, he says, smiling. Breathe in, breathe out.

p.s. My shrink was unconcerned. "We all fantasize about suicide at some point," she said. I must not seem like a high risk.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Tell Yourself a Story

My yoga teacher, Denise, one day casually named the crazy mental leaps we make all the time: it’s called making up stories. We do it instinctively. Whatever is happening, we create a storyline about what it is, who caused it, why they did it, and what is going to happen next. Usually we pay more attention to the story than to what is actually happening.

Through repeated conjuring, these stories gain a lot of power. I’ve made up so many stories about myself over the years that I’ve gotten to points where I was sure I couldn’t do anything. Just bring in a wheelchair and the life support, and while you’re at it, a vodka martini and a bottle of Percocet.

Meditation is teaching me that they are just stories. Mud over the pearl. I don’t have to be mad at them, I can just observe them as they come in, and observe them as they go out.

One of my recurring stories is that I’m not athletic. “I’m an indoorsy type,” I used to tell people wryly. Someone throws a ball at me, I cringe.

The great thing about yoga for someone like me is that there is no point system. The goal is self study, not winning a contest. Still, most of the time I’m pretty sure I can’t do certain poses. And I get into a habit of simply not trying, or I use some handicap I don’t need. So it always comes as a wonderful surprise when one of my teachers invites me to get out of the wheelchair.

For example, one night my teacher Bianca came up to me while I was in triangle pose and said, “Susie, your hand is almost to the floor. You’re getting stronger.” Wow! Who knew? I had stopped trying to get there a long time ago.

During another class, Denise came to me while I was in my usual handicapped version of side-angle pose and said, “I bet you can put your hand on the floor in this pose.” And I did. So that’s how I practice it now. It feels free and strong. “I’m one of those people!” I tell myself. “I’m one of those people who can touch the floor!”

And this morning we did this crazy pretzel-y lunge thing (bound side-angle pose). Denise offered the hard version and the slightly easier version. I paused briefly at the easy one, and then went right into the hard one.

And I did it.

And I felt great. This kept happening pose after pose. Finally, I was so exhilarated that I felt light-headed.

The old story I believe about myself is just a story.

In this class, during the relaxation pose, we were all lying quietly in the dark with blankets over us. On the street outside the studio, a van was idling. (Denise is a bit of a stickler about idling vehicles outside the studio. She once trained a delivery truck driver to turn off his engine when he parked in front of the studio. She did this by repeatedly going out there in her leotards and ankle bracelets and asking him to do it.) So at one point, she got up and walked outside the studio and looked up and down the street. Then she came back in and we continued to lie there. After our closing chant and meditation, she said,

“Did you guys notice that engine running outside the whole time during savasana?”

Some people did, some didn’t.

“Here’s something to try next time: Tell yourself a story. You’re going to make one up anyway, and it’ll probably go something like this: What a jerk!”

Everyone laughed. Denise nodded.

“So instead imagine something like – well, I went out there and looked and it was one of those Elder Care vans that take people to doctor’s appointments. So I made up a story about how they were delivering an elderly woman who needed a lot of assistance. That felt like a much softer story than ‘what a jerk.’ Maybe it was even true.”

Maybe the new stories I’m making up can be true, too. Maybe I am one of those people who can, you know, touch the floor.


There is a lot more emptiness in my life right now than there has been in a long time. This is by necessity. Recovering from my “depressive episode” requires it. I’m liking it very much. I wonder if it is sustainable. Joan, my therapist, told me of a 4th century saint who said, “The emptiness in life is full of God’s angels singing.” This is true. You can see and hear more when there is a lot of emptiness. Some people run from it. I like it. I think I could basically live this way forever.

Alas, the children need to be registered for school. Our friends have stopped calling. Can this be a way of life, or just a healing time?

I told my women’s spiritual group that my new method for introducing calm and order and peace in my household is that I’ve stopped doing. I don’t make lists. I take a long time to return phone calls. I don’t pay attention to false obligations. I don’t roar off in the car five times a day. We do without things rather than go shopping. Lo and behold, we are still here, still functioning. We’ve lowered our expectations for ourselves considerably.

(A few of the women blinked at me. What did I mean, I stopped making lists? And when group was over, one of them asked, “What do you do when you’re doing nothing?” I said, “I hang out on the floor with my kids.”)

This makes life feel fuller. I can hear my breath. I can stop and listen. I am not rushing headlong into anything, I am not reacting all over the place, doing stand-up comic routines for laughs with my friends, smoking, swilling, rushing, running, dying to be somewhere else. I am learning to sit where I am, and let things go, and see what happens. I am learning the great power of floating.

It is hard to know, though, when or if to stop floating. I have no real desire, or necessity, to go back into noisy lawnmower-mode. Floating is a great skill they teach you in 12 step programs. It’s how you survive crises and calamities.

If you can float to survive, can you also float to thrive?

What does it mean to thrive? In babies and animals it means to grow, to be in robust health.

What would robust health look like? Could I really put robust spiritual health above other things? What would I really have to give up?

It’s like doing yoga or meditating to help heal a strained lower back and stop smoking. OK, now I’m healed, can I be done with this?

Of course, we are never done with this process of growing up, opening outward, observing the fluctuations of the mind. There’s no end. If you stop, it’s just a pause.

Pema Chodron talks about the illusion of choice. We think we have the choice to pay attention to our spiritual life or not. But really, everything we do is part of the path. If I pause now and join ten committees and start yelling at my husband again, that’s part of the path. And of course, the path will lead me to another round of breakdown and awakening.

So what do I have to give up? Let’s see…I have to give up my judgments about my husband. I have to stop forcing myself to slap a job title onto my interests. (“I like yoga! Maybe I should be a yoga teacher!”) I have to give up guilt. I have to give up controlling the world. I have to give up hating myself and wishing I were different.

Yeah, I can live without that.