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In Troubled Times: A Personal Sanctuary

When I received a letter from the Department of Corrections, informing me of the late March parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother, I felt overwhelmed. It had been as much as I could do to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of the election and then the illness and death of our wonderful German Shepherd Dog, Tajji. I knew the next hearing was schedule for 2017, but I did not expect to begin the year in dread of that ordeal. I know what these hearings have done to me in the past and how hard I have had to work on survival and recovery. Each hearing has not only opened old wounds but created new ones as more was revealed.

Almost immediately, I started noticing worrisome changes in my mental health. In the 30 years since my mother was killed, I’ve come to know the “warning signs” quite well. I no longer ignore them as I once did. I dare not “soldier on” or bury myself in work: that way lies madness. Thank goodness, I have never been tempted to use substances, legal or not, to escape. Instead, I run to anxiety as my drug of choice. This time I decided to take action on my own behalf before I got into serious trouble.

First I enlisted allies. At the top of that list is my family, both my daughters (one at home, one across the country) and husband, and my sister, with whom I’m very close but who lives in a different part of the state. I let them know I was having a hard time and that if I was distracted or irritable (or flaming irrational), to not take it personally because that meant I needed help. No matter what’s going on, extra hugs are always helpful! So it goes without saying that I am asking for – and receiving – more physical affection. I find my whole body relaxing into a hug and I often fall asleep while cuddling with my husband, I feel so safe and loved.

I decided to tackle my broken sleep first. My daughter and I had gotten into the habit of watching videos until it was bed time. We made a pact (and shook on it) to turn off the television early, to not begin a new episode of whatever program we were streaming after 9 pm. I was delighted at her enthusiasm for meditating with me. We got out our cushions and sat on the living room floor, facing one another. The first evening, we lasted only 5 minutes, but that was enough to produce a sound night’s sleep. Since then we’ve missed a night here and there, but have been continuing the practice for progressively longer times. I don’t need an hour; 10 or 15 minutes seem enough right now. Soon we realized that one of the cats was joining us, sitting in between us or on my lap, and purring. I found the purring added to my relaxation and mental calm.

Secondly, I began keeping a journal again with the specific purpose of using this method to sort through the various logistical decisions surrounding the parole hearing. Taking out the old spiral bound notebook was like meeting an old friend again. This practice had the effect of “corralling” stressful thoughts into a specific setting. Knowing I had a time and place to figure things out – and that I was not allowed to do so at other times and places! – is very helpful. I reminded myself that once I decided what order I wanted to do things in, it was necessary to only worry about the one at the top of the list. One thing at a time, breaking what seemed like an insurmountable load into small, manageable steps. Soon I had prioritized the decisions and tackled the first, most time-critical action. At this point, I had to take myself in hand and not go on to the next one but to allow myself a breather in which to regain my emotional balance.

Third, I have been reaching out to other people I trust, most of whom know the whole wretched story. This way, I have people to talk to with whom I don’t have to rehash history. I miss my best friend, who was an incredible source of support through very painful times, but since her passing I have gotten closer to other friends. As has happened before, I have been sometimes surprised and deeply touched by the kindness and wisdom of the people in my life.

Next up is to ask the Quaker meeting (of which my husband is a member, and I an attender) for a Clearness Committee. This is a small group of weighty Friends who sit with you not to offer advice but to support you in your discernment of a path. I’ve done this for the last two parole hearings and the experience of being “held in the Light” with such tenderness has sustained me.

I find myself missing the comfort of a dog, especially one as responsive and emotionally literate as Tajji. The cats have been extra cuddly since Tajji died, and Shakir, the one who meditates with my daughter and me, curls up beside me at night on the other side from my husband. But it’s too soon to get another dog, so I imagine Tajji wagging her tail at me and giving me a big doggie grin.
I am convinced that Trump cheated and manipulated his way into being POTUS, in collusion with an unfriendly foreign power. I am willing to allow that he himself may not have explicitly given orders to rig the results, but having long since become a pawn on Putin and the extreme right (Pence, Ryan, Bannon, etc.), he played right into their hands and remains under their control. The Russians gamed our system; Trump was not elected by the American people. He is not a legitimately elected President.

Trump Tweets so explosively, we buy into his smoke screen. Ignore his histrionics -- pay attention to what's happening! The truth is that our country is now run by a gang of plutocrats bent on looting America for every penny they can get at the expense of the most vulnerable: women, the poor, working people, people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Muslims, and so forth.

I have run out of patience with "respecting the office" or "giving him a chance" or dancing around the truth. We are perilously close to a fascist plutocracy and about to plunge into the abyss.

In Troubled Times: Overwhelm

Life has treated me to a bumpy ride recently. I’ve written about challenging times following the election, with all the fear, confusion, and so on. It seemed the bad news would never end when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. We lost our old German Shepherd Dog after a short but difficult illness that turned all our lives inside out. Through this, I tried to practice good self care, cultivate insight and perspective, and share my journey. Mostly I was able to regain my emotional and spiritual balance, and the periods of feeling at a loss grew shorter. The grief for our dog felt natural and healthy; she had gone peacefully in the end, surrounded by love, and we all had so many happy memories of her.

And then I received a letter from the Department of Corrections with the date of the next parole hearing of the man who’d raped and murdered my mother. It’s such a horrendous thing to be reminded of at the best of times, but now, when my stability is already fragile, it’s particularly awful. I’ve written about the murder many times over the years, from my introduction letter upon joining SFWA to a recent post as part of #HoldOnToTheLight (a blog campaign encompassing posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues). I tell my story when I campaign against the death penalty. As much as I do not want to give a single thought to the murder and its aftermath right now, I’m going to have to deal with it. Whether or not I attend in person, send a letter, record a video statement, ask friends to write letters opposing his release, it’s in my mind. Like some particularly vile parasitic worm, it’s wending its way from my thoughts into my guts.

Sometimes treading water is the best you can do, and that’s enough. Running as fast as you can to just stay in place at least keeps you in place. Life flattens us and we have a good cry and then pick ourselves up. Our friends (and sometimes strangers) give us a hand up. We do the same for them. But sometimes what life piles on us is Just. Too. Much.

I didn’t get to vote on this. I didn’t ask for it. My mother was an amazing, compassionate, intelligent, radiant soul. Even if I walk away, the way her life ended will still be with me. I can’t take it out of my mind and body, let alone my spirit.

It sucks bigtime.

That’s where I am today. Despite all the self care, I’m sleeping badly. I’m irritable, at times bordering on irrational, although my family nudges me back to sanity. My muscles reflect the inner escalation of tension. Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun to be me, but not now. I’m not sure why the people who love me put up with me.

Sleep is my miner’s canary, my early-warning signal that I’m no longer treading water, I’m sinking. I don’t ever, ever want to go back to what happened to me after the first parole hearing, so I take these signals very seriously. I take it even more seriously when a dear friend and, separately, a family member express concern for me. I’ve learned to not brush off such concerns with, “I’m fine.” I’m so clearly not fine. If someone who cares about me sees something in my behavior, or hears something behind my words or in my unguarded expression, for them to say something to me is an act of pure love.

When we’re drowning, we need all the love we are offered.

I am loved, and that’s how I’m going to get through this as a sane, loving person.

In the next installment of “In Troubled Times,” I’ll share some of the ways I’m giving myself extra help. I don’t expect it to be an easy passage, but I’ve learned a lot over the years about surviving even what seems to be unsurvivable. Please come on that journey with me: it’s not one anybody should ever take alone.

In Troubled Times: Tenaciously Hopeful

Recently, I’ve noticed more articles on staying grounded in joy and hope, even when surrounded by fear. Perhaps such articles have always been part of the general social media discourse and I am only now becoming sufficiently calm to notice them. But I rather think (hope!) this is a trend. In me, it certainly is. After the initial rounds of fear and trepidation, the constant adrenaline wore off. I’m not naturally a person who enjoys being fearful; from my experience training dogs, I suspect it’s not an appealing state for most of us. Some, I suppose, enjoy the “high” of confrontation, even violence, but I’m not among them. Harming others and myself is not where I want to live my life.

I see also posts affirming commitment to action, often in terms of “We Will Fight On!” and I’ve been resisting the urge to jump on that bandwagon. (Also the “Organize the Resistance” brigade.) It all sounds so necessary, a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. And is just as unrealistic for me as remaining in that state of terrified fury.

As unhealthy.

I am not objecting to others following the paths to which they are led. Resisting fascism and protecting the most vulnerable are inarguably vital to our survival as individuals, communities, and a society. I am thrilled that people have the drive and knowledge to organize such resistance. I will be right there, cheering them on. But I won’t be in the forefront.

It’s taken me a long time, coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool organizers (labor unions, radical politics, war resistance, etc.) to come to terms with not being one of them. Undoubtedly, seeing the cost to my family played a role in my reluctance. I’ve marched in my share of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, written a gazillion letters, painted an equal number of signs. But it’s not where my heart is. I’ve seen the joy in the eyes of those for whom this is their passion, their “thing.” I want to hug them all and say, “I’m so glad you’re out there, doing this for both of us.”

The fallacy is that making the world a better place is an either/or proposition. Either I’m out there, making headlines by facilitating events of vast numbers for the people’s revolution (as an example), or I’m sitting at home, knitting while Yosemite burns.

The fact is, any social movement happens on many levels. There’s the outward, banner-headline, political level, one that often requires organization on a national or international level. There is a community level, supporting your neighbors, particularly those in need. Soup kitchens are just as necessary as demonstrations outside the White House, although they serve fewer people. Taking care of ourselves and our families is yet another.

Quiet, mindful actions that focus on compassion, justice, and unity need not be limited to small numbers. In fact, outward activism must be balanced by inner activism. We can all find where we are called to act along that spectrum, and we can move back and forth (or in and out, whichever image works best) with circumstances, experience, and energy levels. What a relief to realize I don’t have to pick one thing or level of involvement!

So what speaks to me right now is remembering joy. The year to come is almost certainly going to be full of occasions for grimness if not despair, so I don’t want to start off that way. I want to full up my “savings account of hope” as much as I can, cultivating those people, places, and things that lift my spirits. I want to never, ever let go of believing we can survive this, kindness and persistence will triumph, and no matter how dark it may seem at the moment, love will win.

I refuse my consent to fascism. I also refuse my consent to despair.
I affirm that I will cling tenaciously – relentlessly – to hope, and I invite you to do so, too.

Staying put...for now

This friend speaks my mind, although I was never active on Dreamwidth. I find LJ more conducive to conversation that say, Twitter.

Originally posted by sartorias at LifeJournal
I've always kind of liked the international flavor of LJ, and I have a lifetime membership, and I never liked Dreamwidth--I think the interface is ugly, and while I realize that it gives users what they wanted, to me all the constant logging and retyping of passwords and so forth felt like a least-liked aunt scolding constantly and telling me that she knows better that I do what's good for me, while breathing down my neck.

So, not moving, unless LJ becomes fallout from Russian political dynamics. (Or ours, since we're about to face an onslaught of our own above-the-law kleptocrats.)

In Troubled Times: Bouncing Off the Bottom

Last week I had a meltdown. It did not take the form of tears, irritability, or burning pots of vegetables (as I am wont to do when I am upset and distracted). Instead, a horrible doomsday scenario popped into my mind and I could not talk myself out of it. Normally I’m not given to imagining worst-case no-hope futures. I try to keep in mind that no matter how distraught I am at any given moment, whatever is bothering me will not last forever. (This goes for good times, too. All life is impermanent.) This time, however, the dreadful sequence had taken hold and would not be dislodged.

So I did what I have been advised to do about other problems. I put my nightmare out there and asked folks what they thought. I often joke that we muddle along because we’re not all crazy on the same day. I figured that even though my brains had taken a sharp turn to crazyland, there were some saner people out there. Some agreed with me, others had their own dire forebodings, and still more had confidence that wiser heads would prevail.

After I’d calmed down, I had a serious moment of “What got into me?” I admit that I was a little embarrassed at losing it, especially in such a public way. I tried to make light of the situation by joking that aliens had eaten my brains (one of my stock explanations for moments of temporary insanity).

Then I remembered to be kind to myself. No harm had been done, after all, except to the illusion that I am always calm and rational. That’s a good illusion to shatter now and again for fear of being insufferable. Through painful experience, I’ve learned the importance of getting friendly with things that upset or frighten me. What if my lapse were doing me a favor and what might it teach me?

Once I got some distance from the moment of panic, I realized that I’d been expecting myself to progress in a straight, continuous manner. No backsliding or side tracks. No relapses. Recovery sometimes works like that, but more often it’s full of slips and detours, three steps sideways to every step forward. Just as when an alcoholic or addict “hits bottom” before they are ready to make substantial changes in their attitudes and lives, going “off the deep end” was a wake-up call for me. I saw then that I had been stressed by more than the political situation. We have two sick or injured pets, one of whom will likely not recover and will have to be euthanized. Several other challenging events have occurred that, taken singly, would be manageable, but all together on top of everything else pushed me off-center.

I’m grateful to the friends who offered sage (and not-so-sage) comments and thereby helped me to gain perspective on my own condition. I’m incredibly annoyed that the universe ganged up on me in so many ways all at once. I’m also appreciative of the experiences I’ve had (good, bad, insane) over the years that have shown me I am not invincible but that if I am willing to ask for help (and then take it), I am resilient and resourceful. I value everyone and everything in my life that helps me to keep my priorities straight.

In Troubled Times: Annoyed? Irate!

As the days post-election melt into weeks, I observe myself moving from disbelief to despair to relative calm . . . and now to feeling just plain annoyed. I am tired of the news being dominated by one horrible announcement after another, and even more tired of how much attention is paid to the continuous verbal effluvia flowing from the president-elect. I am tired of being jerked around emotionally by a bloviating buffoon whose chief delight seems to be keeping everyone else off-balance. I’m tired of every conversation about the news beginning with “Guess what outrageous thing president-elect/his newest appointee/some member of Congress just said?”

It’s one thing to be appalled and frightened by the statements of politicians now in power. There’s a time to focus on politics and a time for other parts of my life. It’s quite another to have my thoughts and days hijacked by irresponsible sensationalism. Not to mention counterfactual (aka “lies”) distortions. Remember the meme of the person who can’t sleep because somewhere on the internet, someone is wrong? When my brain gets taken over by provocative statements, that’s where I am, duped into a cycle of research and refutation. It’s a gazillion times worse if I give in to a lapse in judgment and actually reply to one of those folks-who-are-wrong. That never ends well, no matter how many times I persuade myself into believing otherwise. Social media do not, by and large, promote genuine discourse, but I get sucked into trying. Of course, the responses only get me more wound up. That’s my responsibility, because I know better. But I really would like to be able to glance at the news or visit a social media site now and again without having to fend off the lure of the outrageous.

Why is the fruitcake (and surrogates) dominating the news? I swear, every time he twitches a finger (especially in proximity to his cellphone), it makes headlines everywhere. On his part, the tactic of controlling the dialog by throwing out pompously outrageous lies is nothing new. That’s how he dominated the primary debates. He got billions of dollars worth of free air time during the general campaign by poking one hornets’ nest after another. Now he’s doing it on an international scale. And the news media buy into it every time, battling the hydra that grows a hundred heads for every one they whack off with facts. We’ve gone from sucking all the oxygen out of the room to sucking all the oxygen out of the news sphere and now the world.

I draw the line at sucking all the oxygen out of my head. Okay, I’m not hopeful that the media will take my suggestion to just ignore any sentence that includes “Trump” and “Tweet,” nor am I a good enough nerd to reprogram my computer to do that for me. Nor do I want to shut myself away from news of any sort. For one thing, I know myself well enough to admit that would be too anxiety-provoking. I will likely do better when I become better at not responding to trollishness.

But right now, mostly I’m annoyed to the point of being downright pissed. I recognize that anger can be friend or enemy. It’s energizing, which can be exhausting if I spend too much time wound up, or focusing if I master it. If I give in, I run the risk of descending into petty insults and ad hominen fallacies. Or I can use it to point the way to improvements in my own attitudes and behavior. What’s getting to me, and why? My anger can show me the line between things best shrugged off and those that call for action.

Tajji news

Our sweet girl Tajji is spending a couple of days at the vet. Saturday she had an episode of severe ataxia (to the point of being unable to stand or walk), nystagmus, head tilt, and nausea. Either a stroke or idiopathic vestibular syndrome, which elderly dogs of large breeds are subject to. Treatment's pretty much the same, either way, and we didn't see any point in putting such an old dog through expensive imaging. So she's on IV fluids and meds to support her and keep her hydrated until the nystagmus resolves. Poor baby was utterly miserable. She might recover partly, fully, or not at all. We just have to see how it goes.


Tajji on rug 2.JPG

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In Troubled Times: Numbing Out

I have long understood the dangers and seductions of overwork. I’ve frequently coped with stress by balancing my checkbook or going over budget figures. Or reading and replying to every single email in my Inbox. It needn’t be intellectual work: scrubbing bathrooms or reorganizing closets works just fine. All these things involve attention to detail and (to one degree or another) restoring a sense of order to an otherwise capricious and chaotic world. I come by it honestly; when I was growing up, I saw my parents, my father in particular, plunge into work in response to the enormous problems our family faced. He and I are by no means unique. We live in a culture that values work above personal life and outward productivity over inner sensitivity.

“Work” doesn’t have to result in a measurable output. Anything that demands attention (preferably to the exclusion of all else) will do. Reading news stories or following social media accomplish the same objective and have the same result: they put our emotions “on hold.”

As I’ve struggled to detach from the waves of upsetting news, I have noticed an increased tendency in myself to overwork. It occurs to me that I reach for those activities in a very similar way other folks might reach for a glass of liquor or a pack of cigarettes (or things less legal). Or exercising to exhaustion, or any of the many things we do to excess that keep us from feeling. There’s a huge difference between the need to take a breather from things that distress us and using substances or activities in a chronic, ongoing fashion to dampen our emotional reactions. The problem is that when we do these things, we shut off not only the uncomfortable feelings (upset, fear, etc.) but other feelings as well.

The challenge then becomes how to balance the human desire for “time-out” from the uncertainties and fears of the last few weeks and not numbing out. In my own experience, the process of balancing begins with awareness of what tempts me, whether I indulge in it or not. Is it something that can be good or bad, depending on whether I do it to excess? (Exercise, for example.) Or something best avoided entirely? (Some forms of risk-taking behavior, like unprotected sex with strangers.) If it can be both a strength and a weakness, how do I tell when enough is enough, or what a healthy way to do this is?

When is it time to run away (to Middle Earth, to a night club, to answering every single Tweet) and when is it time to come back? Am I able to extricate myself or do I need external help (an alarm clock, a family member)?

What about getting creative with escapes? Instead of binge-watching Stranger Things, how about taking the dog for a long hike and then watching one episode? A bubble bath instead of a drink? Calling a trusted friend before clicking on FaceBook?

Finally, a word on being gentle with ourselves. No matter how resourceful and conscious I am, I’m going to slip. That’s part of human nature. All these numbing escapes work, and that means not only will we reach for them, we’ll keep doing them. Will power alone isn’t enough to break us out of a session that’s gone on way too long (or that fourth drink or second pack of cigarettes). Some days we’ll do better than others. So it’s important to be kind to ourselves and others. We’re all coping with a difficult time, sometimes in healthier ways than others. Beating ourselves up for spending too much time playing video games won’t stop us the next time we reach for the console: it will only give us one more thing to escape from. One of the most helpful things I’ve done is to talk to others about what’s going on with me. If I notice my eyes and shoulders are screaming at me from too many hours staring at a computer screen, that’s a great opening for a conversation. I can ask for a friendly ear, whether I want advice or not. Commiseration and sharing of our different experiences – our failures as well as our successes – makes me more likely to try something else.

What escapes appeal to you particularly these days? Are they healthy (or can they be, if indulged with moderation)? How do you handle occasions of excess? What helps you to stay in touch with your feelings, or to come back to them after a break?

In Troubled Times: Antidote to Despair

Recently a friend voiced her despair about the effect of the elections and the president-elect’s nominations on the future of the planet. She said “fear” was too mild a term. Her conversation kept referencing the Permian extinction event and the destruction of the Earth. I admit I didn’t respond well. I tend to react to emotion-laden exaggerations of complex issues, and that reaction overrode the compassionate thing to do, which was to listen to her feelings. My mind flipped from a conversation about emotions to one about facts. Needless to say, she was not interested in whether current projects are for a target global warming of 3.6 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius.

In observing my own mind, I notice what I do when faced with the notion of looming ecological disaster. I run away to information. In this case, at least, I find it calming. The facts don’t change, but researching the issue and reading the considered opinions of people with legitimate scientific credentials who have studied the matter in depth changes my emotional reaction. I suspect a portion of this runs along the lines of, “Whew, I don’t have to figure this out all on my own!” I’m only one of many who are grappling with the problem.

Clearly, this was not my friend’s process. A little bit of information (the Permian extinction event plunged her into even greater hopelessness. From this I take away something so simple, its profound truth often escapes me: we don’t all cope with stressful news in the same way.

I’ve written about paying attention to what makes me feel calmer or more distraught, and then making mindful choices. Although information is helpful to me, it can also have an addictive quality. We writers joke about doing so much research on a novel project, the book never gets written. Similarly, I can mire myself in one source after another until I go numb. That numb state is a sure sign I’ve either made a poor choice or gone too far.

Blogging about my process, however, seems not to have a down side. I suspect this is because such writing puts me in better touch with my feelings and increases my sensitivity to what is good for me and what is harmful. It has the added benefit of being of service to others who are wrestling with the same issues, searching for a way through the morass of upset feelings to a way forward in what the Buddhists call “right action.”

Reaching out to others, offering my help, sharing my experience and insight and listening to their own, all these things lift me from despair.

What things help you?