The Places That Scare Me.
My paps was in the ICU at the Kingston General Hospital when he died. That's probably not how they teach you to start blog posts at blogging school but bear with me; it gets more hopeful, I promise. He'd suffered a stroke and had fallen into a coma the previous day. The doctors, along with a social worker, had taken my mum and me into a special meeting room and given us a talk:
Things are not looking good. We don't know what's wrong. The results of the the CT scan don't match his state. But it's not good. If you have family or friends to call, who'd want to see him, you should do that now.
I'd never seen my mum the way she was in that room. I'd never felt the way I felt in that room. I remember asking if there was a priest I could talk to. I remember that I prefaced it with: Please don't judge me but (is there a priest I can talk to?) I didn't want them to think that I was a bible-thumper. I guess I figured that they were probably all atheists and I didn't want to create a divide between us and them. Essentially, I think I just didn't want to give them a reason to not like us and to not give my paps the best possible care. But, yes, I wanted to speak to a priest. I needed to speak to someone who also believed in heaven, an after-life, another realm, whatever you want to call it - anything that meant that this wasn't the absolute end. I wanted to be assured that my paps' soul or spirit or energy would make a safe journey to wherever it was going.
And there was a priest in the hospital that day, and, all of a sudden, he was there, in front of us. And I remember his words, trying to reassure us: This is the sacrifice you have to make. You have to take on the pain so he doesn't have to have any. And I remember thinking: OK. OK, yes. We can do that. Of course, we'll take on the pain if he doesn't have to suffer. Just please, please, God, don't let him suffer. My mum and I hung on to the priest's words for a long time. We still do. When one of us starts spiralling, the other will sometimes remind her that we took on the pain so he wouldn't have any.
And I remember - and I don't even know where this came from or why I said it but - I remember telling the priest that, if there is a heaven, I'd like my paps' soul to go straight up, no stops please, and the priest replying: I'll be sure to tell God not to put him on the milkrun. And I remember thinking, even in my hysterical state, that that was a pretty good joke for a priest, and that my paps would get a kick out of it.
Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh, yeah.
So, that day - the day my paps fell into a coma, the day before he died - I remember that, aside from being a fucking mess, I was really confused. I kept flip-flopping, between trying to be hopeful, wanting more than anything for him to wake up and for us to have him back, and trying to be at peace with the fact that he wouldn't wake up and giving him permission, in my head and heart, to let go. And I don't know that I can accurately explain why I was so troubled by this but the best I can describe it is that it felt like the ground had just been pulled out from under me, and I needed something to hang on to. I needed, at the very least, to figure out what to wish and hope and pray for. Am I praying for him to wake up? Am I praying for this to end and for him to be at peace? What the fuck am I doing here? I eventually shared my confusion with the social worker when she came by to check on us, and I was a little shocked when she suggested that, instead of focusing on one thing or the other, I could just wish for whatever was best for my paps. And I guess the reason I was shocked was that that had never occurred to me. And it was such a comfort to at least know what I was praying for, and that's what I did from then on; I wished and hoped and prayed for whatever was best for my paps. And it's such a simple thing now that I think about it. But I couldn't see it back then. I couldn't see it until the social worker suggested it. I thought I needed an answer. I hadn't realized that I didn't, or that not having an answer was my answer.
And I guess the reason I'm thinking of this story now is that it reminds of how I'd been feeling recently. Of how my mum and I wanted so badly to know what to wish for. Of how we wanted to find a way to be OK with all of this. Of how we wanted to find the answers to where we should turn to bring some meaning and joy and hope back to our lives. Of how we wanted someone to say: You do this and this and this, and then it all works out. Of how we wanted someone to swoop in and protect us from any more pain. Of how I'd been believing in the illusion of that possibility. Of how I'd been believing in the illusion of security. Of how I'd been believing in the illusion that it is possible to avoid uncertainty, discomfort and pain, and also in the illusion that there are people who have managed to do that, people who have built fortresses around them to keep the pain out, and that if I had or if I could still just build my fortress high enough, I'd have been or would be safe. Of how, on occasion, I believed that I was broken, and of how that belief crippled me. Of how I have other thoughts, about myself and about the world, that limit me. Of how maybe the answers lie in not having the answers.
I've been reading a book since I wrote my last blog post. I'd actually read half of it a few years ago but I'll damned if I hadn't forgotten every single bit of what I'd read. And the only reason that I know that I read part of it is that certain lines and paragraphs are underlined, and there are notes and stars and exclamation marks in my hand-writing next to certain sections. And recently, in my search for answers and hope and anything to help me through what felt an awful lot like rock-bottom, I'd also been on the look-out for books that could help me look at things in a different way. And this book kept showing up. On a suggested reading list for people who are grieving, in an email from a friend. And, I'll be honest, at first I was like: But I've read most it already! I'm not reading it again! But it just kept showing up so I finally gave in. It's The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön. And it's helping, a lot. Not in a here's-how-you-fill-the-hole kind of way. More like here's-how-you-get-comfortable-with-the-hole. And I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who's in a rough patch. And even to people who may have already read it, or read half of it, years ago. It's also not specific to grief, by the way. Frankly, I think everyone should read it.
It's reminding me that, despite the fact that I have a full shelf of books on psychology and spirituality in my bookcase, most of which I have read, a few of which had a substantial impact on me, I forget that having read those books however long ago doesn't necessarily help me that much today. Like a muscle that I have occasionally exercised but haven't worked on continuously or even recently.
It's helping me sort out my thoughts and feelings.
It's helping me peel away layers of bullshit and illusion, that both my own mind comes up with, and that the outside world fills my head with. It's helping me get to the bottom of thoughts, feelings or situations, to a place where there's no more confusion, no more questions, to where there are no lies left.
It's helping me look at my thoughts and my self-talk and pinpoint how I am and how I am not helping myself.
It's got me thinking a lot about fear, and of all of the branches on its tree - insecurity, anger, envy, perfectionism, loneliness - and of all of the things we do to try to run away from it - pick up our phones, surf the internet, shop, drink, work-out, work too much, eat, avoid, lie, gossip, blame ourselves, blame others, make excuses, isolate ourselves, busy ourselves, get into relationships, get out of relationships, have kids, cheat, get married. And, just to be clear, I'm not at all saying that I think that every time someone has a kid or gets married or goes shopping they're running from their fear, just that this book is reminding me that we do all kinds of things - little, tiny things and big, major things - to just not have to deal with stuff, to just not have to look truthfully at the parts of ourselves and of our lives that make us uncomfortable. To try to be who we think we're supposed to be and not just who we actually are. To not have to admit, to ourselves or to others, that we're scared, angry, sad, frustrated, lonely, underwhelmed, overwhelmed, bored, confused or that we feel stuck.
It's got me thinking about what exactly fear is and that, in turn, has made me less fearful. And being less fearful makes me less sad - about the loss and about most of the things that make me feel sad (or angry or confused or frustrated).
It's reminded me that fear comes from not knowing what's going to happen, and just that - right there - was helpful to me. Because what it means is that, sometimes, when I start to feel sad, or angry, or scared, if I can remind myself that part of why I feel that way is because I don't know what's going to happen, I can also then remind myself that no one actually knows what's going to happen. There is no certainty in life. And then, maybe, I can also remind myself that I'm worrying (or feeling sad or scared or angry about) something that doesn't even exist, about a future I have very little control of. And then, maybe, instead of having the fear overtake me, I stand hand in hand with it and say: I see you. It's OK.
It's reminded me that human beings are not designed to feel good all of the time. Happiness is a temporary state. If I'm chasing a temporary state, I'm setting myself up to fail. Honesty and authenticity seem like better goals, certainly more sustainable than happiness. If I decide that my goal is just to be honest, to listening to myself and to what my life is trying to tell me, to have the guts to look at the parts that are harder to look at, to admit the things that are harder to admit, to accept when I don't have all of the answers, the end result will very likely be that I'm happier.
It's reminded me that there's a certain amount of pain that I can't escape, that is unavoidable. I'm entitled to it. I'm justified in feeling it. There's no way to spin it to make it feel better. But what I can do is not feed it with bullshit or unhelpful self-talk. What I can do is gently watch my thoughts and figure out when I start getting off-track, and when and how I'm not helping myself. What I can do is not numb or run from it so as to not hear or see or feel what's really going on, what those feelings, thoughts or situations are trying to tell me. What I can do is not pretend. What I can do is sit quietly with it, make time for it, listen to what it's saying. Know what triggers it. Know how it tries to camouflage itself. Ask questions that peel away the layers of illusion. Befriend it. Be patient.
It's reminded me, as silly as it may sound, that I like my mind. It's helped me do lots of great things like create stuff, start businesses, attract interesting people, maintain great relationships, find solutions, and, occasionally, tell a decent joke. But, man, does it ever start freaking out when it doesn't understand what's going on. Does it ever start losing it when it can't come up with a solution.
There were things I knew or had read about fear and pain - a few of which I mentioned in my last post - but there was lots that still wasn't clear. Things like: All you need is inside you. While I believed that to be true, I'd hear that line or some variation of it and not quite understand how it was that I could feel stuck or how it could be that things felt hard if all I needed was inside me. Or, another example: I knew that I wasn't supposed to push away the pain but I didn't exactly understand what that meant, or what it felt or looked like to not push away the pain. I did understand that numbing it wouldn't work because I'd just be postponing or putting it on the back burner but there was a lot that still wasn't clear. Do I just sit here and be in pain? Is that what I'm supposed to be doing? This book has helped me answer those (and lots of other) questions. I get it now.
When I first moved back to Montreal after our time on PEI, I was excited. The city seemed new to me again. Familiar but also as though I was seeing it with fresh eyes. I was excited to spend time with my friends. I was excited to walk on the mountain. I was looking forward to going to all of my favourite spots. I was genuinely happy to be here. But within a few weeks of my return, the bottom feel out again. A romantic relationship that had gone from 0 to 250 in the blink of an eye ended just as quickly. My best friend moved away. A good friend had a baby and was understandably focused on her. Another good friend had just started a new relationship and was wrapped up in that. I was having a difficult time finding an apartment. I wasn't sure what direction to take the business. I wasn't sure whether or not to go back to hairdressing, which is what I did for work before I had the shop. And the grief had crept its way back in again, in a big, heavy way. I felt confused, scared and really alone. I felt really lost. And part of me was angry. Part of me felt like: Really?! After the year I've had, this is what I get? You've got be fucking kidding me!
Nothing was clear. Every aspect of my life felt broken. Aside from my mum, I felt like I had nothing. At times, I even felt like the world had it in for me, as though it was a personal attack against me. And I got really, really sad. And I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to learn from it. I felt like: I'm a good person; why is this happening to me? I wanted to fix it so badly but I didn't know how.
Until I read this book, I hadn't realize the extent to which I wanted something from the outside to make me feel safe, to make me happy, to fill the hole, to be the answer. I had tried, many times, to look inside. I've always been curious. I've always been a seeker - of answers, meaning and truth. I knew the answers were inside but I couldn't access them. I don't think I really understood until now how to go inside or what to look for. It just felt like the answers weren't in there. And so I'd feel sad until something happened to make me feel happy again. And then I'd feel happy until something made me feel sad, and the cycle was repeated.
But, recently, nothing was making me feel happy. And my insides just felt empty and tired. And so my mind, as usual, was like: Unacceptable! Start a new project, get a boyfriend, get on Facebook, get on Instagram, take a course, write a blog post, busy yourself, find an answer, find SOMETHING! But I knew that those things wouldn't do it. Not really. I've done that stuff in the past. I knew that those were all just temporary fixes. I knew that the outside stuff wouldn't sustain me. But I also couldn't find anything on the inside. So, for a while, I felt like I was just in limbo. In an agonizing, torturous limbo. And days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. And then it all came to a head one night, shortly after I wrote my last blog post, as I was getting out of the bathtub. I was at the end of my rope after too long a time of everything feeling hard, and of me feeling shitty and hopeless. And I started to cry. And the crying turned into sobbing. And the sobbing turned into a full blown meltdown. And I thought: What do I do? What do I do that I haven't already done? And all I could think of was to get down on my knees and pray. That's so cliché, my mind said. Who do you think you are? Liz Gilbert? But I could not think of one other thing to do. And I was desperate. Really desperate. So I got down on my knees, on the bathroom floor, with nothing but a towel around me, tears and snot pouring down my face, and I said, out loud, between sobs: Help me. Help me, God! Please! Show me what to do. I don't know what to do. I need hope. Show me how to look at this differently. Give me a reason to want to go on. I want to want to go on. Please give me a reason. Please show me how I go on. I didn't even really know what I was asking for, or who I was asking it to, just that I couldn't go on as I had been.
And then, the next day, or maybe it was the day after that, I got an email from a friend suggesting that I read this book. And, for whatever reason, instead of ignoring it as I had been, I found it in on my bookshelf and started reading it. Again. And it helped. And I found some answers. And a new way to look at things. And suddenly hope found its way in. And it felt real and honest and sustainable.
And I guess what I'm getting at here, in the most long-winded way, and where I feel like my last post fell short, is that it wasn't until I felt like I had nothing left, until I lost all hope, until I was hanging on by a tiny thread, that I came to realize what everyone was talking about when they were saying that everything I need is inside me. Everything I need IS inside me. Which is not to say that I don't wish that I could have my paps back because I do. More than anything. Or that I don't wish my best friend lived closer. Or that I wouldn't like to fall in love with a great guy and live in a nice place and do meaningful work. It's just that I finally understood, in my head and heart and body, that there is NOTHING that exists on the outside that can make me truly feel safe on the inside. Not a boyfriend, not my best friend, not even my mum and paps. Only I can make myself feel safe on the inside. And the paradox, and this is where I kept getting stuck, is that the way to make myself feel safe is by reminding myself that there is actually no such thing as safe. The answer lies in not having the answer. The answer is that there is no answer. The answer is that sometimes I will hurt and sometime I'll feel like a gift from God. And in the hurting times, there will sometimes be absolutely nothing I can do to improve my situation except to accept myself in whatever state I am in, and accept the situation, however shitty it is, and to not make it harder by fighting against it. And to just listen to what's going on inside of me. That's it.
And yes, I still have to make decision about my life. I still have to figure out how to spend my days and nights and who to spend time with and who to not spend time with and all of the stuff that makes up a life but I guess the difference is that I'm not expecting anyone or anything to fill a hole inside me, to make me feel safe, to fix the parts that feel broken or scared. I realize that, no matter how much I'd want them to, they can't. I don't need them to validate me. Because they can't do that either. And when I start believing that they can, or that I am less than (fill in the blank) without them, or not (fill in the blank) enough, when I start believing in an illusion, I am setting myself up for bad news.
It's amazing to have people we love in our lives, to have a job or a project or an activity that we find rewarding, and meaningful, to have exciting goals to work towards but, as good as those things are, and they can be soooo great, the hole is still underneath, the uncertainty still exists. It's just that we start believing that it isn't because those things make us feel safe. And we get attached to those things or to the idea that we need those things to feel whole, and we start believing that we can't survive without them. We start believing that there is a way around pain, and that we've either figured it out or that we need to figure it out. And the old me finds that so depressing - that there's always a hole, that you're never safe from pain, that someone's love can't save you - but the new me finds it so fucking liberating. Because what it also means is that there is ultimately nothing we need on the outside, and nothing that can be taken from us to prevent us from being OK, from being whole. What it means is that we can want the things we want, love the things we love, and miss them when they're not there or when they go away without feeling like we're nothing without them.
I don't know.
I'm the same as everyone, looking for answers, for ways to make things feel better and make sense, for ways to make the most of my life. I just happen to have taken a big hit recently, and coupled with the things I was already grappling with before the loss, it took me down so low that I didn't know if I'd find my way up or out again.
And I tried and looked and read, and was somewhat relentless in my search for answers and for making what I was going through make sense. And this book has been incredibly helpful.
I'm going to try to remember, when I'm feeling like I'm getting off-track, when I start believing in the illusion, when I'm frustrated because I don't have answers, to pick the book up again, to re-read it, to exercise the muscle.
But I'm also writing it down because I'm less likely to forget if I own up to it. And, to be honest, it lightens my load a bit.
And maybe there's some little nugget of this story that helps someone else get to a better place inside of them. Or maybe there isn't. Either way, I'm good. Whatever happens, and however painful it has been, however much I hated it at the time, I'm grateful for the bottom falling out. I now see that what felt at the time like a personal attack against me was in fact an opportunity. As terribly corny as it sounds, it was a gift. And that, without it, I'd have just stayed stuck, in the safe zone. Without it, I wouldn't have gone to the places that scared me. And it was in those places that I found answers, hope, inner peace, and, yes, even joy. It was in the places that scared me that I found what I needed, which, ultimately, was nothing at all.