Monday, May 20, 2013

A Year in Review Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a little bit about what was happening a year ago, and how it affected me. I included a letter that I wrote to my dad, and I got an amazing response from some of you, invisible audience, who chose to make yourselves visible to lend support, encouragement and your own stories to my family and me. Thank you.
I talked a lot about then, but very little about now. Now, as I said, I am living in Panama, writing a book. The actual process of writing – which brings joy and meaning to every single day here – is helping me to unravel the things I have been through over the last year, to realize what part I play in my own story, and how my role needs to be different.

Selfish. It’s a word that I have to relearn, in a new context. Coming to Panama felt selfish. Going to Canada last summer felt selfish. Doing things that I need to do, regardless of what others want and need of me, feels selfish.

And they are. Making decisions based solely on what I want and need is a selfish act. My mistake is not in admitting to being selfish, but in considering selfishness to be a bad thing.

I cannot take care of others if I have not taken care of myself first. It is not my job to be a martyr, to give and give until I have nothing left. There is only one person responsible for me and my ability to take care of myself, and that is me. Not only can I not expect others to do this for me, I shouldn’t. It’s not their job, just as it’s not my job to take care of anyone else at my own expense.

In my original letter to my dad, there was a line that I removed when I posted it on my blog.

Originally, I wrote:
“I know my role, but I want you to know: if it were in my power, if I could change it, fix it, take it away, or even take it upon myself, I would do it. I would not hesitate for a single moment, if it meant you would never wake up depressed again.”

I took out the line first because I realized that I have learned something essentially important in this last year: that it is never my job to take someone else’s experience from them, no matter what that is: depression, sadness, or even joy. Once I started thinking about it, however, I realized that I did take it upon myself.

I have been told many times in my life that I am sensitive, too sensitive even. It’s true: I am sensitive. I can also feel others’ pain. Part of the reason that I felt I had to leave last summer was because I felt Dad’s pain so thoroughly that I started to get depressed myself. I found myself reflecting his symptoms back at him, and struggling with them, too. Recognizing this has been a huge step for me. I can let myself get flooded so much with someone else’s feelings or emotions that I start to feel them myself, whether it’s panic, fear, depression, or even enthusiasm or joy. Realizing this has made me realize that there is another possibility: I can pick up on someone else’s state of mind, and just let it go. I don’t have to take it on.

There’s a more important lesson that has come out of this, though. When I read through my letter to my dad and found that line I had written in October, I realized that I had taken on his pain, and it didn’t lessen it for him at all. Instead, my action doubled it: I could take it on myself, but that did not diminish what he felt. I was sharing it with him, but not in a way that lightened the load. I tried to sacrifice myself for him, and instead caused both of us to suffer instead.

This is what I’m here to learn, invisible audience. This is why the book is not finished. My entire life I have been picking up on the people around me, and thinking it was my job to fix it, lessen the pain or heal someone’s wounds, without realizing that I was not actually helping them. All I was doing was hurting myself so we could stand next to each other: both in pain, both bearing open wounds; theirs legitimate, mine self-inflicted.

I need to say here that, despite all the soul searching I am doing, despite the sometimes tough days that I have when I realize that I have inadvertently been making my life much harder than it needs to be, I am incredibly grateful, and ecstatic to be figuring this out. I love where I am living and what I’m doing, and I am grateful for the chance to do it. So please, take any part of my writing that appeals to you or helps you, but don’t for a minute think I am suffering in my revelations. I am here to learn something, and I’m learning it. When I look around, I literally see rainbows, I watch lightning storms roll in and cause the lightning bugs to blink furiously in response, I go for walks up dirt roads lined with fragrant pine trees, and I stand on stages, looking out into darkness, and hope that my performance touches someone. It is not always an easy existence, but it is a fulfilling one, and I am infinitely grateful to be having it, because it’s just mine. All the feelings I have around it are – finally – just my own.

Love and all my own kisses

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Year in Review

A year ago almost to the day, my boyfriend and I broke up. I had quit my job that had seemed like a perfect fit because it was part-time with benefits just a month before, and although many people didn’t know it, my family was struggling with my dad’s depression, which was the worst it had ever been in my lifetime, and most likely the worst it had ever been in his, too.
If you had told me that a year from then I would be living in a beautiful mountain town in Panama, about to perform in two one-act plays and 80,000 words into a book I’ve been wanting to write for years, I would have wept with relief, even if I didn’t believe you. This time last year was the toughest time I’ve probably ever lived, and it has become a central theme in the book I’m writing.
Last weekend I spoke to my dad on the phone, and he asked if there were parts of the book I didn’t want my parents to read. I said yes, but that it wasn’t for the reasons he might think.
“I can’t tell my story without telling part of yours, and I’m worried about what you might think of what I have to say,” I told him.
“Well, I’m not afraid of the truth,” he said. “It’s no secret that I was really sick, and I would hope some good comes out of it – that maybe you learned something from the experience.”
It was exactly what I needed to hear.
Even as it has become obvious that this book is most importantly a processing of the last year of my life, it has also become apparent that the story is not over: that there is more to learn. I am continuing to write it, not about the past anymore, but about every day that I live here, everything I learn about myself: where I've come from, and where I want to go. I’m not sure when I’ll reach a good ending, but I just have to trust that I’ll know it when I see it.
An important part of the journey, however, is gathering the courage to share some of the most painful parts.
Below is a letter that I wrote to my dad last October – when he was already MUCH better than he was at this time last year. I share this partly to gather the courage to share my story, and also to celebrate. I’ve come a long way in a year, and truth be told the mileage from home is the least important part.

Dear Dad,

I can’t keep the silence any longer. It is excruciating to me to see you in pain. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a child, considering the powerlessness I feel that you are my parent and there is nothing I can do to make you better.
For as long as I can remember, my universe has been shaped by your depression. This fact of life was discussed in the family, but not outside of it. You wanted to wear your anonymity like a cloak of invisibility, but when I borrowed it – which was often – I wore it like a badge of honor, especially because you wore it so well: so bravely, so stoically. Few of my friends could claim a depressed father, even if, at that point, your depression was held in check by medications that no longer work.
Do you realize, Dad, how inextricably we are linked? When I fled to a yoga retreat center in Canada this summer, you asked me why.
“Is it the money?”
“No, it’s because of you, Dad.”
“Me?!?” you exclaimed, as if you existed in a vacuum; as if our family hasn’t been battling implosion as we helplessly watch you suffer.
I am not without resources, thank goodness, and they have told me in many ways and under no uncertain terms that there is nothing I can do to empower you more than to simply live my own life and love you for who you are, regardless of how you feel. I am to trust you to your own path, as you have trusted me to mine.
I can know this to be true with all the intuitive fibers of my being; I can know I am attached to my laundry list of ideas to banish your depression and I want them to work, but there is no guarantee. I am just one in a room of many voices, clamoring for your attention, wanting to be heard, insistent that I know you better than all the other people you see for their professional opinions.
I know my role, but I want you to know: if it were in my power, if I could change it, fix it, or take it away, I would do it. I would not hesitate for a single moment, if it meant you would never wake up depressed again.
Do you know that watching you struggle is terrifying, horrifying, painful? Every time I talk to you and you say you don’t feel better, that you feel worse, that you’re anxious, or afraid, I want to hunt down a physical version of your illness and cut it to pieces and watch it die a slow, painful death so that I can know it has suffered even a little bit for the vast amount you have endured on its behalf.
You cannot see out of the hole you’re in; even when we assure you that you’re improving, that the treatments are helping, that you are better, your shoulders stay drooped, your spirits stranded, your eyes downcast. What I wouldn’t give to make you smile; a smile that would lift the corners of your mouth and cause you to laugh at the absurdity of it all, of your life, of the little problems that you used to remind me meant nothing, but now weigh you down like cement shoes.
I may think I have the answers for you, Dad, but they are my answers applied to your questions. Until YOU find the answers to your questions, there is only one thing I can do: stand next to you, hold your hand, and tell you that I love you; that I always have; that I always will. Because I do; I always have, I always will.

Love and a whole year of kisses

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Life is Strange. And Wonderful.

“So, Kira, are you ready to spend 10 days with a complete stranger?”
In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start my first conversation ever with the 15-year-old girl that I was going to be staying with. It’s rare for me to hang out with 15-year-olds anyway, and I had just emerged from rehearsing for a play where I am a depressed young woman who leaps to her death from the lookout at Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian Argentine border. To say I was not in the right mindset to develop rapport with a teenager is an understatement.
In one week, my life went from a tranquil, peaceful existence in my little casita up on the side of a mountain to one full of running to and fro, from town to Kira’s house on the highway between my haven of Boquete and the next big city, David.
Kira’s mom, Jennifer, is my yoga instructor and a fantastic massage therapist. When she left for 10 days to offer massages at a surf competition, I temporarily inherited her house, her daughter and her yoga classes.
Don’t tell, but I’ve never lived with a 15-year-old, or taught yoga for that matter.
Fortunately, however, I HAVE taught small children to ski, and after that – not to mention learning Spanish in Southern Spain, where they have one of the thickest accents I have yet to encounter – I discovered that almost nothing seems impossible to me anymore.
The first day was a little rough. I taught the class without too much trouble – aside from the groaning of the poor participants – and ended up at Jen’s house, awaiting Kira’s return from school.
She did not come home.
Ok, it was only an hour, but it felt like a couple days.
(I should say here that I knew Kira wasn’t in any real danger. She always came home from school with her boyfriend, who lives right up the street. If he hadn’t checked in with his mom and they were really missing, I knew I would have heard.)
She told me that she hadn’t heard her phone, and that they’d stayed in town to eat pie.
Well, shit. Who could say no to pie??
I said – very firmly…ok maybe not as firmly as I had hoped – that next time she needed to let me know if she wasn’t going to come home right away. She agreed.
She went to her boyfriend’s house. She texted to ask if she could stay a little later. I said she had to be home at 8:30. She had not shown up by 8:45. I texted her. She hightailed it home. I told her she needed to think about getting ready for bed. She gave me The Teenager Face: no emotion, just eyes rolled upward to take in my face, presumably to see if I was serious.
“Come on Kira. I let you stay later than you usually can at Isaiah’s –“
“Thank you…”
“And you came home later than you were supposed to.”
“Now it’s time for bed.”
And that was the end of it. The end of our strife, that is. For the next couple days she did what I asked of her, but continued to use The Teenager Face to study me. She was never rude, just withdrawn, detached.
Then her mom texted me to ask me to tell Kira to water the yellow flowers twice a day.
“I don’t know which flowers she’s talking about,” Kira said.
In truth, I didn’t see anything that looked like it needed watering, either, but I pointed to a flowering plant on the coffee table.
“Could it be this one?” I asked.
“That one’s fake,” she said.
I burst out laughing. Something about my foolishness – and inability to discern a plastic decoration from the real thing – caused her Teenager Face to break into a smile.
With that smile, a new Kira emerged. She’s shy, but holy cow is this girl intelligent and interesting. She’s really into anime and times her trips back to the States to see her friends and family with a huge anime conference in Vancouver, Washington, not far from Eugene, where she grew up. She loves to write, is a voracious reader, sews costumes, dresses like a courageously Goth version of Carrie Bradshaw, takes pictures and hates it when her room gets messy. I took her to the library when I found out she’d never been and helped her get a library card, then sat in a chair pretending to read, watching her peruse shelves of books for almost an hour.
I see myself in her, but a different version of me. Kira may not have had the stability that I grew up with, but I was already suppressing all the things I liked to do when I was 15; I had already found alcohol and the cool kids; I was already too interested in trying to be liked, and not interested enough in what made me really happy. At that point, I’m not sure I would have even been able to tell you what would have made me happy, unless it was fitting in. Kira, on the other hand, is in the process of writing seven different stories, one of which is already 70 pages long. Today she bought hairspray for her wig, which is part of the costume she wears to the anime conference.
There may be things I wish had been different about my childhood, and yet overall I had a fantastic one very similar in at least one aspect to Kira’s: it was filled with adventures, people who loved me and the makings of fond memories. Not quite the same as Kira’s, perhaps, but important and life-forming nonetheless.
Besides, I would not be here now if it had been different. Despite the last hectic week, the stretching of my comfort zone by a teenager, a yoga class, the characters I’m playing in the one act plays, the soul searching and unexpected bumps that have paved the way, I am more grateful for where I am now than perhaps anywhere I have ever been before. It just goes to show that all those little steps will lead you to somewhere big, but most likely to nowhere you have ever expected to go.

Love and teenage smile kisses

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Choosing Me, Every Day

I have realized lately that I will pick up anything – absolutely anything – to keep from looking at myself. My favorite item is another person: all their wants, needs, fears and hopes. I want to help them, I say, I want to make their lives better. I want all of this, and yet often it comes at the expense of myself.
I have found that the best answer I can give when someone asks me for something is, “let me think about it,” because in the moment, I can’t get past their excitement or what they want or need from me. In order to connect fully with what is best for ME, I have to physically step away from them and into an empty space. I have to take some days to mull it over. During that time, I have to work pretty hard to separate what I think they want from me from what I want for myself. I find that in my head, I hear a lot of “yeah, but, they need you…they want you…they’ll appreciate you.” I find I have to catch myself, stop the train of thought and say, very firmly, “Yes, it would be good for them, but what about me?”
Recently I made the decision that I was going to wait for something better; that my choices in life are this, or something better. I made a decision in my head to be different, to act differently, to give myself more of my own time and energy, and I thought that suddenly the entire world would know that I have changed. They would know that I have given up taking on other people, that I have given up self doubt, that I have given up sacrificing myself for the good of others, although in reality no one is asking that of me; they all expect me to put myself and my own needs first.
I think this, and then I am blown away and thrown off balance when something is asked of me that does not align with these new decisions I have made. Until now, it was not actually clear to me that I have to make them again: again and again. That every day, when someone asks me if I want something that will not serve me, if I know it won’t make me feel good, I have to decide AGAIN that I don’t want it. That first time I decided it was a thought; the thoughts only go so far while there is no enticement. The actions kick in when I’m out in the real world, and people who know nothing about me – and ultimately, whose task in life is to take care of themselves, NOT me – ask me to do something that I don’t want to do, or that I know will ultimately not make me feel well.
At the risk of looking rude, ungrateful or disagreeable, I have to say no. I have to make that decision again: the one where I choose what I know is best for me, despite everyone else.
Of course this can apply to anything. I asked someone once who had almost 20 years sober if they ever still just wanted a beer.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course I do. The difference is that now I don’t act on it.”
I had this conversation years ago, and yet the reality of it seems to have just sunk in. I have to choose me, over and over again, before it can really be about me. After every decision that I make for myself, it will become easier to make another one, but that does not necessarily mean that people will stop asking me. Perhaps one day I’ll stop wanting to distract myself with the needs of others, but until then, I have to decide not to take them, regardless of if they’re offered; regardless of whether I want them or not.

Love and choosing me -- again -- kisses,