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Category Archives: pacifism

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. 

 

From “After the Movie” by Marie Howe:

Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can’t drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I’ve just bought —

again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.

What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he’s saying is “You are too strict. You are
a nun.”

Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things
of me even if he’s not thinking them?

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I still feel at a loss: how to process, how to move on. I’ve talked about it, for years, in therapy, and sometimes with friends. That hasn’t worked yet. I try to remember that it’s different to talk about it now: different to talk about it with an understanding of what it was, with the terminology, with self-compassion rather than self-blame. I don’t know if it will work. I know I need to get less attached to it working. I am trying to find a process of self-care around it to be dedicated to, rather than to results which I can never guarantee.

So, there’s that part: how to work with it.

And, there’s always, also, the question of how to make meaning of it. How to use it for something.

I was thinking about this last night, and then the thought came to me: maybe I already have.

I’ve used what I know from not being cared about or for, to do a better job of caring about and for other people.

Maybe I’ve already done it.

D and I are talking about anxiety. She’s opening her head and heart and putting it all on the table in front of me, and I love this. I love the nitty-gritty; I love going towards, “the far reaches of what humans can find out about each other“.

She’s talking about her anxiety in terms of attachment theory: anxious attachment, how that plays out in her romantic relationships, how her partners deal with it (or don’t), and the shame she feels about her anxiety.

So, I’m telling her a little about the work that I’ve done with shame. That I had to do cognitive work (rethinking what I expect of myself, what I consider acceptable from myself, etc.) as well as emotional work. That a lot of the emotional work was being willing to feel it, instead of running away from it. Being with it, and being nice to myself while I was in it. That I had to feel it to process it. No shit, she says, that’s what I keep being told, too. That I have to feel it.

She’s right to be daunted. I remind her that she doesn’t have to go in all at once. That it might not be wise to. We talk about the ways we’ve both hurt ourselves by pushing ourselves too fast, too far.

I tell her, too, about how I’ve been starting to have the experience of being with myself at times, rather than by myself. Does it feel like dating yourself? She asks. It’s more like parenting, I tell her. She asks why. And I explain about how nothing within me moves by force. It all requires gentleness. I have to be unconditionally gentle with myself. I recognized the look of distress on her face: it’s the recognition of some hard piece of work you probably need to do, and don’t want to do.

We talk about how I relate with my anxiety now. For me, I tell her, it’s about trauma. Of course I’d like to experience less anxiety, and I’m working on it, but I can’t force it to go anywhere. I tell her things I’ve written here before: that I know my anxiety is parts of me that are trying to keep me safe. And that they won’t go anywhere until they’re good and ready; until they know I’m safe. That it’s part of me trying to take care of me.

That’s so fucking loving, she says, her eyes on mine.

She is talking, I think, not about my anxiety, but about the way I relate with it. That I no longer react to it with shame. That I see its good intentions. How far I’ve come towards accepting it.*

And something good happens in me. It feels like light shining on this one particular piece of me that no one else has, I think, been able to see yet. So much of the work I do is like this: intimate, daily, invisible.  The labor of again and again choosing to love myself, and feeling out how to do it.

We part ways and I get on BART, feeling lighter than I have in weeks. I am suddenly sleepy with relaxation: despite the music blaring through my headphones, I fall asleep with my head against the rattling window pane.

 
 
 
 

*I don’t mean acceptance in the sense of giving up or passivity. I use acceptance to mean being willing to be with what is actually happening in the moment instead of denial, running away, or being stuck in wishing it weren’t happening. Acceptance is about working with it (and myself) rather than struggling against it (and myself). Acceptance leads to taking care of it, and myself.

Thay writes about keeping
his loneliness warm.
That must be what I do
When I sit quietly
in fury, in the sun,
and put my bare foot
again and again
next to the black ant,
willing it to crawl
up my toe.

Fear, anxiety, emotional pain all happen in my stomach. I put my hand there when I meditate, a way to be tender with my most tender part. Sometimes I ask him to put his hand on it when it hurts: the heat is soothing. But after a trying couple months, he’s talking to my stomach, telling it to stop with the anxiety.

I yank his hand off my stomach. Hey! I say. Don’t talk to my tummy that way! You have to be nice! We play at this a little, but I think it gets across after a few minutes. I try to explain, a little, what I’ve learned over all this time: that my tummy, my tender spots, don’t go away if you tell them to. I should know–I tried to tell them what to do and not do for so long. None of that works. They don’t respond well to roughness, or force. The only thing that works is being gentle, I tell him.

He tells me later that I am too anxious. And of course, in the obvious senses this is true: I’ve had diagnosable anxiety disorders my entire life. At times, I’m anxious to degrees that make speech and action incredibly difficult. Sometimes my anxiety gets so intense I can barely think. Or I can think only in obsessive loops. My anxieties are sometimes disproportionate to the situation at hand. Anxiety gets in the way of my concentration and pleasure on a daily basis. I would like to experience less anxiety.

And at the same time: they are not too much. They aren’t crazy, and they aren’t out of nowhere. They are exactly proportionate to my life experiences. To various injuries. They are parts of me that are trying to take care of me by putting me on alert, by keeping me looking around the corner, by making me prepare for the worst case scenario. They’re not going anywhere til they know I’m good and safe, and I won’t fault those parts of me for doing the best they can to take care of me. And I won’t let anyone–no matter how good their intentions–tell me I am too much, again. 

I am not too anything, I tell him, playfully defiant, and also very serious. I am just pic. Take me as I am, or get outta town.

I’ll take you as you are, he says.

This is a lot of it: becoming self-referenced. Strand by bloody strand, Audre said.

Self-referenced enough to wake up, and reread my new poem, and say: I love it. Not ask someone else, Do you think it’s any good? Whatever that means, anyway. But just to say: I love it. Asking the question is in that realm of being good enough or not. Is in the realm of ego. I love it is affection for self.

But… How?

Feel the feelings. Grieve. Anger.

Okay. What else?

Maybe also this: not expecting it to go away. The grief. The anger. Learning to live with them like chronic pains that kick up now and then. Learning to live with them as I have with anxiety: just do what I need to, anyway. Or as Noah Levine put it: “Let go of what you can, and let the rest of it be.”

But it takes a lot of work. I’m exhausted. I want to get all the way through to the other side, to acceptance.

Trying to Pray

This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
Still,
There are good things in the world.
It is dusk.
It is the good darkness
Of women’s hands that touch loaves.
The spirit of a tree begins to move.
I touch leaves.
I close my eyes, and think of water.

- James Wright

 

 

Rumi said it before Ben Lee:

Gamble everything for love
if you are a true human being.
If not, leave this gathering.
Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.

You set out to find God, but then you keep
stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.
Don’t wait any longer.  Dive in the ocean, leave and let the
sea be you.  Silent, absent, walking an empty road, all praise.

Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh:

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

And, most simply, Miranda July, in the “The Shared Patio”:

It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.

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