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Nick, on roles:

The talk about roles shifting is something I’ve been think about a lot. Partially because I see myself taking on new roles (trying to be the “cool uncle” figure to Tilley’s nieces, while simultaneously arguing with my own uncle…), but also in a more general sense. I don’t remember who, but some rabbi I read a while back talked about starting and ending your day by reflecting on the roles you play in the lives of others. In the passage you excerpted, Jack focuses on the many roles a single person can play in the life of one other person, but the rabbi was focusing on the differing roles we play in the lives of many people, including those we may never have even met.

I am a son, a brother, a friend, and a lover. I am also a co-worker, a colleague, and an employee. I am Jon’s friend, Katie’s ex, and someone else’s mystery. I am a regular customer, I am part of the 8 AM rush, I am “black coffee and an everything bagel.” I am the smile that brightened one day and the complaint that ruined another. I am bad directions and good advice, but I’m also good directions and bad advice. I am the guy who held the door and I am the guy who rushed past. I am a friendly wave and I am a disappointed look. I am all these things and more, not all times and not for everyone, but taking stock of all these aspects of myself and my impact on others helps to keep me mindful (or at least I hope it does).

I listened to a show recently on recognizing and managing dementia. Gurney Williams talked about what happened when he realized his wife needed full-time, out-of-home care, and talks–with warmth–about the period after she moved into a care home:

We started looking to a new life for all of us. And I particularly began to come out of a hermit phase that I was in. To reach out to people, to realize that there was this world in New York city that I was missing, there were people I was missing, there was life I was missing.

 I came into sort of a blue sky place where I could see her more as, well maybe the analogy would be, I was a parent to her, and am now, of a young child, and sometimes she delights me by saying a word, and if she were a child I’d probably Facebook it. I would say, my kid just took her first step! Or something. But it’s definitely not a relationship with a wife at this point.

It made me think of this passage from A Grief Observed:

For a good wife contains so many persons in herself. What was H. not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more. If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created a scandal…

 Solomon calls his bride Sister. Could a woman be a complete wife unless, for a moment, in one particular mood, a man felt almost inclined to all her Brother?

I always read this as talking about the way roles shift through moments or days or maybe weeks. A permanent shift is a different thing, but still lovely to see someone navigating such a difficult situation with so much love. It also resonates with Jack’s idea that marriage is a permanent contract, a familiar relationship, as undoable as any blood relationship. The change in circumstances necessitates changes in living arrangements, roles, and so on, but not the in the promise–not in the will to love.

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It’s taken so long to figure out what “self-care” is. And I’m still working on it. 

In some serious ways, I was neglected as a child. Not in the casual sense, but the clinical sense. Kids learn to care for themselves by being cared for, and seeing other people take care of themselves. In many basic and important ways, I wasn’t cared for. And my parents weren’t great at caring for themselves, either, so I didn’t have people to model it, either. 

It’s been a slow process. Some of this was motivation: not having been cared for in my early years, I didn’t think I deserved it. It’s like this for so many kids who are abused or neglected: you think it happened because it was what you deserved. I think, in my case, this made it somehow more bearable: the painfulness wasn’t amplified by a sense of injustice. It was also, I think, a way of maintaining hope: if I can be good enough, I can get the love I need. 

It was unfair. And there was nothing I could have done to have gotten the love and care I needed from my parents. 

One of the problems, too, was that abuse–“Neglect is really serious abuse,” Joel told me once–meant I had a lot of pain. And so asking therapist about what to do when I feel terrible, and getting lists like, “Read a book! Take a bath!” was like telling me to put neosporin on my ripped open chest. Naturally, I think, I needed ways of coping that could sooth traumatic pain, and the shame that came from that abuse. I cut myself. I starved myself. I ate until it hurt, and then made myself sick. I distracted myself with obsession with weight. I had an affair with needles. Used sex as a compulsion. 

And other, better things: lost myself in being useful to other people. On a few occasions, been able to throw myself into workaholism and avoid my emotions. 

Taking care of myself and caring about myself were work that I did concurrently. Learning to care about myself happened mainly through meditation. I did metta meditations. I’d start with someone easy, usually Leah or Matt: “May Leah be happy. May Leah be healthy. May Leah be at ease.” I’d say it in my head over and over, lying down on my sleeping bag in that Boston apartment where I never had a bed, working up warmth by thinking of her and wishing her well. And then I’d move on to myself: “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be at ease.”, hoping the warmth would carry over. For months, it felt like it went cold the moment I switched to myself. But it did change something. I remember a moment of shock, in that same apartment, making some stupid mistake and saying to myself, “It’s okay, baby”, and being stunned with my spontaneous affection for myself. 

There was also cognitive work. There were big shame hurdles in learning to care about myself. Again, this sense that I didn’t deserve it. One American Buddhist maxim helped a lot: “No one is more or less deserving of your love than you.” This appealed to my reason, and to my innate sense that people as equally deserving. 

The taking care of myself had cognitive hurdles, too. Reminding myself that I’d be better prepared to take care of others if I took care of myself was part of it. There was also a big emotional hurdle of shame–doing things for myself I felt I didn’t deserve. I had to work with shame to learn to take care of myself. This consisted of being with my shame, feeling it, and comforting myself when I was in it. I had to feel it. I had to stop running away from it, abandoning myself when I felt it. And I had to do the cognitive work–remind myself why it was okay to take care of myself.  It took daily awareness and effort, which was greatly aided by mindfulness meditation practice. It helped me slow my thoughts and feelings down enough to see them individually, and address them individually. 

Mindfulness also helped me know myself well enough to trust myself. It helped me see my motivations, and see that while I am neurotic, anxious, procrastinating, and flawed in a million other ways, I’m fundamentally good. There wasn’t something fundamentally wrong with me that meant I wasn’t worth caring about. 

And then the practicalities: what does it actually look like? Here, I had to consciously think of what I would say to or do for a friend, and then do it for myself. Sometimes I thought of what a friend would say or do for me. I watched how other people took care of themselves. Along with work on trusting myself and feeling my emotions, I started to be able to feel what I needed. And experiment with trying to meet those needs. This was only possible by doing the work to dissolve shame so I could actually see and feel what was under it. 

I’m still working on it. And still making progress. Last year, Max bought me rainboots because I couldn’t buy them for myself–weather-appropriate gear was one of those things my parents didn’t bother with, and I’ve seen as frivolous or self-spoiling. Not when other people do it, but for myself. 

A few weeks ago, I bought myself sandals. Nice ones; $140 Birkenstocks I’ll wear for the next three years. And without shame, or hesitation. 

 

I spent so much of my early life without much touch and craving it badly, that I usually enjoy even the touch that happens in haircuts, eyebrow waxing, physical therapy, etc. And massage, of course, is wonderful.

I’ve started seeing a massage therapist. I can’t really afford it, but my body needs something, so I’m giving it a shot. Today was my second session.

I lie down on the table, unders only and a sheet over me, and she starts touching me. Massaging my arm, loosening my pec muscles, moving my shoulder and neck to get more mobility through the joints.

And I panic. This lay back, relax, surrender, let someone else drive for a while that I usually find to be such a relief–whether it’s a haircut, a massage, or kinky sex–is, today, incredibly frightening. I lie still. I try to relax into it the same way I relax into the more painful parts of the massage. But I am fear, fear, fear.

Eventually she moves to the other side. She’s said many interesting things during the session, about how to use the body – trying to find movement and flexibility rather than one correct position, trying to relax the body without collapsing it, trying to support it without being rigid. Important, difficult concepts applied to the physical or the emotional.

I’m telling her about anxiety. Not the fear in that moment, but anxiety in general. Asking about what she thinks about anxiety and muscle tension–whether the anxiety obviates this kind of work, or whether there is a feedback loop of loosening the muscles that helps relax the nervous system, too. She says no to the former and yes to the later, though that would, naturally, be her bent.

And we’re talking about meditation. About when I have or haven’t found it helpful, how difficult it is in the worst moments, and she says she’s seen that moving meditation–walking meditation, yoga or tai chi done meditatively–can be helpful for people in anxiety when stillness doesn’t work. She suggests even just pressing my feet into the floor, my knees against the underside of a table, my body against a wall.

I don’t know if any of this will work, but I’m open. As I’ve written before, my anxiety is so somatic that it’s not cognitive tricks or fixes that I need. I’ve done much of that work. It’s something else–maybe experiences of being safe, experiences of connection, experiences of relief. Those things that teach the nervous system, experientially, something new. And, ways to relax the mind and body, and release tension. And, I’m an experimentalist. It’s my job. It’s the approach that’s gotten me this far in recovery. I’ll try it.

She begins talking about feeling the body as a container. As a boundary. I didn’t know what she meant–I still don’t–but at this point I can’t keep it together anymore. Something about that touches me somewhere tender. I start crying on the table.

She asks what’s happening. I tell her.

She takes her hands off me. Says she’s going to back up from the table a bit. Asks how that feels. It helps. She backs up more. It helps. Should I go even farther she asks? I say no. I am breathing a little easier now. I reassure her, twice, that it has nothing to do with her. She gets that.

This is outside the scope of what you came for, she says, but not outside of the scope of what I do.

She talks me through it a bit. Asks me how it feels in my body. What the response feels like, and the fear. I’m not sure they’re separate. She asks me what I want to do. Curl up in a ball and hide, I tell her.

You can if you want to, she says.

I say, no. It might be too vulnerable, she says. I say, no. Explain that if I did that every time I had the urge to–my image here is of a clamshell slamming shut–I would do it all the time. I would close into that death that Jack talks about.

I don’t explain that this is a superpower of mine. And, of course, a liability, too. That I stay with it. That I stay open.

She starts to explain something to me–about having the reaction, and bracing in response to it. About trying to let the reaction happen a little, in pieces. To curl up just a bit. To see that it won’t last forever. This makes sense–I used to run from my emotions, fearing they would last forever if I let myself really go into them, and the opposite seems to be true–though I don’t believe her yet.

 

I’m tired and raw. A bit dazed, still. And I’m scared for myself–where am I right now that such safe touch is triggering?

Many of my friends are alone
and know too much to be happy
though they still want to dive
to the bottom of the green ocean
and bring back a gold coin
in their hand. A woman I know wakes
in the late evening and talks
to her late husband,
the windows blank photographs.
On the porch, my brother,
hands in pockets,
stares at the flowing stream.
What’s wrong? Nothing.
The cows stand
in their own slow afternoons.
The horses gather
wild rose hips in the sun
the way I longed for someone
long ago. What was it like?
The door opening
and no one on either side.

-Jason Shinder

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver

An excerpt from Laura Munson’s Modern Love column:

Sure, you have your marital issues, but on the whole you feel so self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy.”

But wait. This isn’t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It’s a story about hearing your husband say “I don’t love you anymore” and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result.

Here’s a visual: Child throws a temper tantrum. Tries to hit his mother. But the mother doesn’t hit back, lecture or punish. Instead, she ducks. Then she tries to go about her business as if the tantrum isn’t happening. She doesn’t “reward” the tantrum. She simply doesn’t take the tantrum personally because, after all, it’s not about her.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying my husband was throwing a child’s tantrum. No. He was in the grip of something else — a profound and far more troubling meltdown that comes not in childhood but in midlife, when we perceive that our personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward as it once did. But I decided to respond the same way I’d responded to my children’s tantrums. And I kept responding to it that way. For four months.

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t.

From Susan Silk and Barry Goldman:

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

I cannot rid myself of my demons without risking that my angels will flee with them.

–Sheldon Kopp

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