vulnerability and visibility
It’s been thirteen years since I lived in a place with a winter. And while this won’t be a shovel-out-the-driveway, trudge through falling snow winter, it has suddenly gotten cold. Just last week I was still wearing t-shirts and shorts in the afternoons. Now it drops below freezing overnight. Plants are brought inside, or die back. We start to burn through the winter wood. Learning how to build the most efficient fire, how tight to spin down the vents on the stove before bed, to keep the flames alive and not waste any of the heat. Another layer to the multiverse of textures and meanings and competencies that I must learn to navigate to survive here.
I am faced with my own frailty. Trusting that it will teach me how to be more fully alive. This is the first home I have ever lived in without central heat, in a place that has winters. This tentative budding interface between my own insecurity and the basic tasks that get us through the days is raw and new. If I want to build a fire in the mornings before I sit down to write, I’ll have to get up even earlier. Make sure to pull down wood from the pile the night before. None of this is what I’m trying to say. The fact that it’s freezing is a convenient distraction, a way for me to write about what it means and feels like to return to living closer to the earth. Still, not that close. I turn on the electric kettle for tea, the electric heater in my studio because the fire doesn’t warm this room anyway. I didn’t chop the firewood, don’t know the land where it comes from. But it is closer, by degrees, than automatic central heat and power in the city. And despite the dream of a paradigm shift that could lift me from myself in an instant, I know by now that any progress of mine only ever happens by thin degrees. There is always a backslide and a reckoning. The ground is never as stable as I’d hoped.
Here is what I want to say. When I have spent a weekend, or a day, or just a piece of a morning, breaking down, then to carry myself from there into my abstract outer world, my professional sphere, presenting myself with the persona and skillset I have constructed to function in and transact in exchanges of ideas and values, there is an undercurrent of amazement that flows with me. Not amazement in a good way. Perhaps that’s not the right word. Nor is flabbergast, which lacks the feeling tone of latent destruction, but it is closer. No, it is a sort of astonished tension. The sensation of this slight sense of remove, as though I am watching myself interact with the world from a slight distance, confounds me. I see myself in cross-section, an exploded diagram. In meetings, saying what others perceive as useful or insightful things, helping my clients move their work forward. In writing, negotiating the terms of a job or project. All of that simultaneously appearing against the turbulent backdrop of my emotional and neurological life, the infrastructure of my own body and mind. On the edge of my mental seat, I watch myself hold ‘it’ together. Counting down the moments until the meeting ends so that I can breathe and regather myself. I’m not saying this right at all.
For fifteen years I have been studying Tibetan buddhist teachings. Studying the mind. Taking to heart the lessons, testing them in my own experience. Attempting to understand how consciousness and perception work. The many habits and layers of perception and projection that combine to make the world and our experience of it. Thoughts and feelings are not reliable, are not ultimately true. Nor is our identity, what we take as our ‘I,’ our personality, our sense of self. They are all less solid than we take them for, they can be seen through, when watched closely. Their apparent continuity shown up to be false. I have taken all of this inside. Taken to heart the messages that none of us are beyond this, that the workings of the mind are the same for all sentient beings. It is not an easy path, to relinquish our ingrained exceptionalism, to extend deference, love and respect to all others. Loving-kindness meditation made me an asshole to be around at first, I was so triggered. But it also transformed my relationship with my mother, laid a foundation that gave us a second chance.
And I have used these teachings both for and against myself. In one instance, pushing myself not to believe the thoughts and feelings that flood me. Not giving them the power. Pushing hard to see beyond them. Applying all the skillful means I have at my disposal, countering my experience in turns with logic, compassion, distraction, and grace. While in others, failing to interrupt or transcend them, failing to recognize them at all, I have been swept away, drenched in the floodwaters of tyrannical misperception. Then, I dress myself down in the aftermath. Wringing out my clothes and my damaged pride. Shaming myself for my failures.
The wisdom teachings of indigenous and mestizo cultures of South America that I have encountered, I have engaged with in the same way. At moments, buoyed by the truth of their insights and my fleeting tastes of them, I have triumphed. Risen above the vagaries of my fickle mind to see a larger picture, a longer view. Galvanized by something like hope. At other times, all the wisdom in the world sounds to me like blame. It’s a liberation simply to know that our thoughts and feelings are not real, not the ultimate truth, that our hurts and our past do not define us. That we can change them, amend them, concoct our experiences and our futures at will, when we know how. And yet. In the throes of an emotional storm, brought on by neurological impasse, the changing of the seasons, whatever deceptively insignificant incident in my day presents itself to me dressed as the inevitable icing on my home-made failure cake, all of that truth just occurs to me as blame. ‘I don’t need another teaching to tell me that this is all my fault,’ I cry. What good is it to know that, when I’m already in the trigger. When I’m already in the reaction, when I’ve already taken things, or been taken, too far.
I’m still not describing this right. Let me try another angle. When I encountered the Buddhist teachings, I decided that the days of reliance on pharmaceutical drugs and western psychological and psychiatric interventions were behind me. Models and diagnoses that categorized and dealt with lived experience at purely symptomatic levels had never worked to do anything but manage and treat symptoms. There was never any getting to the root. And I wanted, I needed, to get there. To the root of mind.
It was easier after my father died. That may be the most unlikely sentence I’ve ever said. Nothing was easy after he died, of suicide, after years of estrangement, which themselves followed years of fighting a losing battle not to lose him. What I mean is, by the time my own mind was consumed once again with the effort of combating my own suicidal thoughts all day long, thoughts which built and gained momentum all through the first complicated year following his death, by that time, it was easy for me to see, this is what the drugs are for. To interrupt this crisis. Give me my energy back, so that in the space of a day, I can free some of that energy and attention and direct it back to myself and my own priorities, to my own immediate life and work and heart instead of simply surviving my mind. So that the immediate response to the smallest thing, a slip on the path while running, a momentary misunderstanding in a conversation, wasn’t a direct line to the constant conclusion that I should quickly, and by my own hands, die.
Lithium was helpful then. It functioned like a straight razor or a plane, shaving off the unwanted edges of my darkest experiences. In a mostly clean and straightforward way, it simply moved certain options off the table. Suicide no longer seemed like a reasonable and logical response to an email, or burning supper. It stopped being the first thing that occurred to me each time I entered the house through the garage. (Dad killed himself in a garage). Aside from the systemic allergic reaction that ravaged me for the first few days of taking it - a strange swelling, an eruption of itching, splotchy hives covering my legs, my lips and cheeks as puffed and tender as if I’d been bee-stung all over, making it hard to talk, or laugh, or breathe - the side-effects were minimal. Hydrating became more important, because lithium is a salt.
But I don’t have anyone’s recent suicide to blame now. If the outer edges of my mind’s logical menu of options expand indiscriminately once again, to the point where the choice between setting a wildfire or writing a song both seem equally reasonable actions in a given moment, does that mean ‘something is wrong?.’ And if so, and if I can’t honestly blame my father, and I can’t honestly blame external circumstances of any kind, then I’m only left blaming myself.
I know it’s not about blame. And that since I was nineteen and twenty years old, and I stopped taking the antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs that seasonally helped me through college, was years away from the antipsychotics and mood stabilizers that came before, and I encountered the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa for the first time, and was finally (because I had tried reading Buddhism before, but only understood it as more proof of my own untrustworthiness), finally receptive and/or desperate enough to allow the possibility of my own basic goodness to pervade me, replacing the paradigm of ‘there is something wrong with me’ and ‘I will always need help from professionals outside,’ with ‘there is something in me that is entirely beyond right or wrong, that cannot be hurt, harmed or endangered, and I can learn to live from that,’… since that moment, I began bending the arc of my life towards a ruthless sense of personal responsibility. Holding myself accountable for my own experience. My actions, my thoughts. The beginning of reclaiming a personal power, an agency that I had always longed for, but never until then believed that I had.
When I am on a video call with a dear colleague who tells me that she has never experienced much anxiety, that her first surprising encounter with her own rage occurred just last month, then it hits me. I remember something that I seem to conveniently forget in the moments of explosion and the subsequent moments of beating myself up for everything I have or haven’t done. Not everybody works as hard as some others do, simply to be alive. This is not a matter of personal weakness. I don’t know why this is always a surprise.
It leads me to wonder. I can barely imagine the interior landscapes of others’ lives. What must a person be able to do in a day, in a year, in a lifetime, not having to spend down their precious emotional and cognitive energy, burning through their spoons simply resisting anxiety’s avalanche, or the constant impulse to throw another tantrum or run out the door? I’m not saying this right.
Everybody struggles. I’ve rewritten my own narrative for years. I no longer use my adolescent psychiatric hospitalizations and the florid stories of mental illness as my litmus tests for friendship and trust. I don’t feel the need to disclose those pieces of my past in order to make sure that somebody sees and appreciates ‘all of me.’ I know that they can experience the benefits of ‘all of me’ through my gifts, my insights and honesty, my hard work and both my begrudging and my joyful contributions. That they don’t need to know or understand my curse. But now I wonder. Could there be a benefit to revealing my experience? Pulling back the curtain on the intricate and tangled pathways that I constantly traverse as I make my way back and forth between ordinary and non-ordinary states of perception, of mind? This is what I’m trying to find out.
I’m sick of nondisclosure. I’m sick of leaving so much unsaid that the common ground I build with others is still hardly wide enough for me to fully stand on. I want someone(s) to understand that there is a fuel behind my insights. That there is a reason for the creative connections that my mind makes. That when I map a conversation, or see a pattern, or offer a framework that provides a handle on a whole, or when a poem or song or turn of phrase captivates them in an incisive or haunting or life-affirming way, that all of that comes from somewhere.
It comes from somewhere dark. It comes from somewhere terrifying. It comes from somewhere within me. This is what I want to share. I can’t say precisely why. I’m not looking for pity. I’m looking for a reason to keep wrestling with this. Maybe, I’m looking for gratitude. Not for me, but for my demons. A collective appreciation that inside this darkness there is something intelligent and lovable and whole. Maybe this could help me keep fighting. Maybe this could help me, when I am breaking down the next time, to know that I am not alone. That this struggle does not need to be invisible. It is time to truly be seen.