Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hard-Earned Life Lessons

A week ago today, I walked into a nightly devotional service at the yoga retreat center where I’ve been living most of the summer. A woman stopped me in the foyer, and told me that another guest, Barbara, was having a severe allergic reaction and needed an epi-pen. She didn’t know who to ask for help, so I found the first aid lead, got the keys to the car and drove the first aid woman and Barbara down to the main house to wait for the ambulance. 

I stayed with Barbara while others came in and out of the room, trying their best to make her comfortable and help her. Nothing helped: not the epi-pen, not oxygen. Barbara’s airway slowly closed off; she was at least unconscious, but the paramedics think she had already passed away before they arrived. Although they immediately cleared her airway and performed CPR for 45 minutes, she never responded.

Barbara told me when we first arrived at the main house that she wasn't sure what she had eaten that had caused her reaction. Over the days following her death, it became apparent that there was no single thing that could have helped her; there was a series of things had led to her death, none of which could be attributed to any single person, action or event.

I couldn’t sleep that night, for obvious reasons. What could I have done differently? Could I have saved her? Could I have helped her in any other way than simply holding her hand, telling her she wasn’t alone, and standing by her side as it got harder and harder to breathe?

I have come to the conclusion that the answer is no. After hearing from the coroner, a trauma doctor friend of one of the other guests, and my own mother, a veteran ER nurse, I accept that I did the best that anyone could do by being calm, collected, focused on Barbara, and witnessing her last moments. 

I may know this is true, but I cannot write it without tears streaming down my face. The 25 minutes the ambulance took to arrive are the longest of my life; I may know that I did the best I could, but that does not stop the grief at the unexpected loss of a life in my presence from bubbling up and overflowing in a torrent of tears.

I had introduced myself to Barbara that day; I barely knew her, and yet somehow she has forever become part of my life and memories. I feel that there is a lesson here, and as I have struggled with her death and my feelings at having been there, I have tried to put a name to it. Although many people at the ashram said they realized – as we all often do with death – how precious life really is, and that it should not be wasted, that does not seem to be my lesson.  

Instead, it seems that perhaps my lesson is that sometimes the most you can ever do – the most helpful, positive and loving thing possible – is stand next to someone and witness their struggle; know that your presence in their time of need is important, not because you can fix it for them, but simply because you are there.

There are many times in my life when I have thought it was my job to fix someone else’s problems; that the most caring thing I could do was take away their struggles by applying my own solution. This has rarely worked the way I wanted it to, either because I became frustrated that they didn’t think my solution was the “right” one, or because it truly did not work to apply my experiences and answers to their problem. There are many reasons that trying to live someone else’s life is a bad idea, but mostly, it is because it is not actually my life – the same rules do not apply. 

I have struggled a lot with the decision to publicly write about this. I was afraid of coming across as callous, unfeeling, or trying to dramatize a terrible situation. I hope that this isn’t how it comes across, but the truth of the matter is that I need to write this, not just to process it for myself, but also in the hopes that my experience will help others somehow – that there are more lessons to be learned from Barbara’s death than just the ones that I took away. I hope, invisible audience, that this post brings you something you didn’t already have today – some piece of wisdom or understanding that wasn’t there before. If it doesn’t, however, please try not to judge me too harshly; please try to simply be a person willing to stand next to me, and witness my pain. There is truly nothing that would help me more.

Love and tear-stained kisses

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mourning Who He Thought I Was

Author's note: this is not a post about any single ex-boyfriend, rather an analysis of my romantic relationships in general. This is my view of my experience and should not be taken as a commentary on anyone but myself and my own process.

It seems like a simple concept: you date someone, you break up, and whether or not it’s amicable, you go your separate ways and continue on with your life. In a perfect world, you accept that there are things about you that were not compatible with aspects of your partner’s aspects, shrug it off and go on your merry way, looking for someone whose aspects meld better with yours. Right?

I actually think this might be the case for many people out there, but that’s just a theory. I know people who claim this is their process; I have read books that say that people should feel this way, but I cannot actually claim to have experienced this in a breakup, ever. 

I have only just been able to determine what it is I feel instead: that my persona has been eviscerated. You know…like some witch woman took a really long scary looking knife and slit open my belly, letting all my guts pour out onto the ground, then cackled loudly and kicked them aside for the cat to eat.

Gross, I know. Gross, but please don’t misunderstand what I mean. This has nothing to do with my heart; I am not heartbroken by every man that has ever broken up with me, or whom I have broken up with, for that matter. In fact, there are some men that I haven’t even liked all that much, and yet when the dreaded end of the relationship comes around, regardless of whether it was amicable, there lie my guts, a slimy heap on the ground.

What exactly do I mean by this disgusting mental image? I mean that during a relationship, I have started to define myself by my boyfriend’s idea of me. I have started to keep track of the attributes he has complimented me on and played up on those; I have started to hide my strange habits or insecurities so that he sees only the best side of me. I gather his comments like clues, and use them to build a version of myself that is the kind of woman that I think he wants me to be, for better or worse.

Once I’ve done this, there is little room for error. With each piece I add to the puzzle, I become more strictly defined; confined. It isn’t long before the strain gets to be too much, and I suddenly try to break out of the box I have fit myself in. At that point, my boyfriend is surprised by my outburst because it’s so unlike me.

So here’s the kicker: for better or for worse, this constructed person of me isn’t the right construction. It can be my feelings, or his, or both, but suddenly something is wrong and it’s over. As I said, regardless of how much love was involved, the evisceration scene occurs, because I realize that I have lost track of who I was before the relationship.

I am not this person, and yet this person was dropped by my now ex boyfriend. I am destroyed, literally. Suddenly, there’s room for the real me, but that person is nowhere to be seen – she went on vacation, and has decided not to come back until the tourists are done gawking and she can have her space all to herself again. She must be coaxed, and often, this takes a long time.

I consider myself a slow healer when it comes to relationships; I am not one to jump from one into the other, or even have more than one a year, for that matter. I used to think it was heartbreak, but if that was the case, why was it so hard for me even when I didn’t love the person? Ego? Pride? Perhaps, but it was also the process of recovering my sense of self – of no longer defining who I was in someone else’s eyes. Once I get used to seeing me as he did, it takes a long time for me to find the real me again after he’s gone. In a sense, I am not actually grieving for losing him, I am grieving that the person I built for him was tossed to the wayside, and then trying to pull my real self back in – the one that he fell for in the first place, and that I chose to hide.

Yes, that’s right, invisible audience: I do this to myself. No one asks me to reinvent myself; no one tells me that I must change to be loved. I’m not sure, but I would hazard a guess that most of my ex-boyfriends wonder what happened to the funny, strong, independent woman they met at the beginning, that was less concerned with pleasing them in ways they didn’t ask for and more about wringing the pleasure out of life however she could. I don’t know what they think, but I think that ultimately the breakups have more to do with my inability to be authentic than they do anything else.

That doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is this: it takes me a long time to get over an ended relationship because I must recover the person I was before the relationship, and mourn the rejection of the persona I created FOR the relationship. We can’t all be Sybil: my personalities are slow shifters.

So, what can I learn from this? That it’s ok to be me. That I will ultimately save myself a lot of time and energy if I can be my authentic self, and allow someone to either love or leave me for that person. I can also learn that my worth has nothing to do with others’ perceptions of me and everything to do with my perceptions of myself. If I love me and let the me in me shine, it won’t matter what anyone else thinks. Their perceptions of me can fade into the night, and I won’t even know they’re gone, much less mourn their passing. If I can do this, I can keep my guts intact.

Love and gutted kisses

Saturday, September 1, 2012

All Parts of Me

Tonight I gave a man a hug. I gave it to him because he needed it, but he wasn’t the only one to benefit.
The ashram is many things, but it is not the place to hug. It is a celibate community that does not encourage exclusive relationships of any kind – friendship or romantic relationships. Although it works to encourage introspection and giving people their space, human contact falls to the wayside. A couple days ago I showed my hot sauce stash to another man at the ashram, and he touched my arm in thanks. It jolted me to realize how long it had been since I had been touched like that by a man – not in a sexual way, but a squeeze to show me physically that my generosity was noticed, noted, and appreciated.
I forget where I read it – fact or fiction? – but somewhere, I read that babies can die if they aren’t held, simply from the lack of contact. Even if they don’t physically die, there is certainly an emotional component to this lack of touch. I know it because I feel it now in a way I didn’t before – when someone reaches out to me in love regardless of whether it’s platonic or romantic, my entire being blossoms in response.
It’s unfortunate that this lack of touch is what brought my appreciation for physical affection to my attention, but then again, it’s a very human characteristic to realize how much you miss something once it’s gone. I am still reeling at the thought that I get to hug Kyle Jaynes again because he was found alive after being lost for four days and thought dead after he disappeared on a hike; I ate a hamburger today because I got the chance to eat beef, and I haven’t had the opportunity to do so for awhile, since the ashram serves mostly vegetarian fare.
When I first came to the ashram, I thought it was the first place I had been in a long time where I could be myself, but that’s not true. This is the first place I’ve ever been that I could be THIS self, but that doesn’t mean I’m ALL parts of me here. I have found emotional support here, but not the physical comfort to accompany it; I have found a spiritual path, but it doesn’t leave room for my trucker’s vocabulary or my road rage at tourist drivers (many of whom actually come from British Columbia in their campers and manage to drive in front of me…regardless of where I am!)
Tonight, I feel enlightened, because I can focus on being here, now, without worrying about where I will go next, or what I want to be, when I’m already it…I’m already me. This morning, I didn’t feel enlightened. I will probably lose my enlightenment at some point – like when my alarm clock starts beeping at me tomorrow morning. Someone pointed out to me here that enlightenment comes in small pieces; in mundane tasks and every day moments, where you feel such profound joy to be where you are that all other thoughts are whisked away. In those moments, it doesn’t matter if I’ve reached some far off space that I hope to hold for the rest of my life; it doesn’t matter if I have everything I need or want to live the life I want and deserve. All that matters is that at that moment, I connect in a way that is tangible…as if I put my finger on a thread of the universe and can feel the vibrations resonate through me, as if I were the guitar body, and someone else is twanging the strings. 

Love and sometimes enlightened kisses