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It has been a while since my last post. This year has been quite the roller coaster and I was definitely in for the ride of my life. And what a ride it’s been! I have made some huge decisions in the last few months, but looking back at the last decade of my life, every single thing that happened was building up to this exact moment. Have you ever felt like you were on the edge of a cliff? Unsure whether to let go, fearing what lies beneath; yet knowing that you could not hold on forever? Well, that’s been me for the last two years. Petrified of change, but knowing that if I didn’t change something then I would go crazy.
The thing about your mind though, no matter how long you ignore what it’s trying to tell you, it will still find a way to get your attention. Mine sure did and in a way that ensured I could no longer put up with the status quo. In my last couple of posts, I was in the process of trying to figure out heavy stuff with the help of a wise old man. Throughout the entire process I was still determined to maintain a façade of being in control. If you know anything about masks, then you know that eventually they slip off revealing the turmoil and trepidation beneath. The thing about crossroads and cliffs though is that the choice lies with you. You can choose to keep burying your head in the sand. Or you can choose to let go. You can choose the unknown. Being an adventurer of sorts, I chose door number two. Or the Red Pill. If you watched The Matrix then you will know what I mean.
Honestly at the beginning, it was terrifying to say the least. I had to face my real self and harsh truths that were not easy to stomach. Things I had lived in denial of came rushing to the fore and it was excruciating to deal with. With each wave I came close to caving, yearning for the deceptive bliss of masked ignorance. But like the proverbial genie out of the bottle, there was no recourse. I soon learnt that the less I fought, the more bearable my designated path became. Once the initial furor died away, I realized the grave price I would have to pay for my new level of self-awareness and identity.
I could now see with crystal clear comprehension, all the things that had held me back for so long, including my sometimes stereotypical societal expectations. And just like in The Matrix, the Neo in me clamored for urgent change both within and around me. Daring to go out on a limb I asked God in faith for a change to a place where I would be empowered to add value and actually enjoy my work while being recognized for my coaching and mentoring talent. Just to make it interesting, I asked him to do it before the end of the year. Long story short, I start at my new job in a week, with a whole month still to go in the year. Also it’s a start-up company meaning I get a blank slate and a brand new paint brush.
As if that wasn’t huge enough, my sisters and I launched Sage, a business and lifestyle magazine. The launch was the culmination of several months of hard work, pounding the streets and fervent prayers asking God for a miracle. He delivered several and Sage was born. It’s a whole new ball game for me and I am literally learning as I go. Did I mention that I’m also a columnist in the periodical? 🙂
For those who know me well, this is nothing short of a transformation. I am the kind of person who used to plan every single thing down to the last detail way in advance – reluctant to leave anything to chance or faith. The last few months I have basically operated on bucket loads of faith and winging it. The best part for me has been learning how to have a completely open mind and literally anticipate anything. Nothing fazes me now because I know even if I have absolutely no clue, I will just figure it out and enjoy learning something new in the process.
Since my blog is all about inspiring people ( 🙂 hoping this is what it actually does), here are my snippets of inspiration. Stop overthinking things and just do them. The worst thing that can happen is that it won’t work out – so just ask yourself what you would do if you fell flat on your face. Once you have the answer then go ahead. The only way to really know if you want something is to just do it. Only then will you know how badly you wanted it. If you are walking around living your life for other people – showing them how “wonderful” your life is when in reality you are shattered inside and barely hanging on, just stop. No one cares, not the people who matter anyway. You need to be your true authentic self and make no apologies for it. If you have no clue how to find your authentic self, then just start by asking yourself who you really are; when everyone and everything is taken away, who remains? That’s you. It might not be impressive to start with, but with some effort you can be just about anything you want to be. The reality is that you are the only person standing in the way of your destiny.
To quote Steve Harvey, “You cannot just exist in this life. You have got to try to live. If you are waking up thinking there has got to be more to your life than there is, man believe that it is. But to get to that life, you’re gonna have to jump.” (In case you have been living under a rock and have never listened to this now famous clip, here you go.)
I grew up knowing that all the people who live in Somalia are starving. If your household was anything like ours then you know of the “incentive” some mothers would use to ensure that their kids finish their carrots, pumpkins or other eeky veggies. (To this day I still cannot stomach cooked carrots, pumpkin or french beans)! When this incentive failed (which it inevitably did), she would threaten us with a severe beating and we would have to sit at the table till every single morsel was off the plate. Luckily we had cats and the felines quickly learnt whose feet to sit at under the table for discreet food drops when mum wasn’t watching.
I always used to wonder though, what did eating my carrots have to do with starving Somali people? Like, if perhaps I didn’t finish my food, could it then be shipped off to feed one of them?
Closer to the present, I have noticed that the greatest hindrance to life’s solutions is comparisons. We are always comparing ourselves to one thing or the other. If we get a pay increment at work, it still isn’t enough because there is someone we know that earns more. Or whose car is bigger. Or whose house is owned and not rented. We place lots of conditions on our right to contentment thanks to all the comparisons that we subject ourselves to.
That’s not the only disparaging aspect of comparisons however. Often without even realizing it, we use the very same comparisons to shame people about their issues or concerns. The same way my mother tried to use it unsuccessfully to shame me into eating those yucky carrots. You know it because at some point you have done it to someone else, just as I have.
Have you ever tried to talk to someone about something that you’re going through, only for this person to tell you that you should be grateful to be alive, or have food or have a house etc? Or worse, did the person tell you about how their problems are way worse and delve into a blow-by-blow account of their issues leaving you feeling like crap for ever opening your mouth? Or have you ever started to talk about a problem you have and the first sentence out of your mouth is “I know this sounds silly/stupid/like a small thing……” Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If yes, then you have been shamed at some point for something you felt validly enough about to vocalize. And you were probably shamed by someone you felt should have known better.
When I first started dating my husband, I would constantly apologize for my feelings. Whether angry, hurt, sad, whatever I felt; I would always feel the need to say I was sorry. He always responded the same way and to this day this phrase reverberates in my head.
Feelings are neither wrong nor right. They are simply what you feel.
This phrase had such a huge impact on me. Knowing that I didn’t need to validate my feelings created a safe environment to simply release them. Talk about them without feeling like I would be judged. Or shot. Or shamed. It also helped our relationship to grow to the point where I knew that I could express anything I was feeling safely and he would not take it personally. The trick of course was to express my issue as what I was feeling and not as an accusation towards him. The latter will predictably turn anyone on the defensive.
Despite knowing all this, during my initial self-exploration sessions, I started every single sentence with that phrase. “I know this may sound silly….” It took a couple of sessions for my “sage guru” to constantly affirm to me that whatever came out of my mouth was valid. My regression made me realize that I am still constantly apologizing for having any issues at all. That I still feel the need to validate a low mood or a sense of discontent or anything vaguely construed as negative.
After a while of validating myself and still getting shamed, inevitably I simply shut down and didn’t open up about anything at all, no matter what I was going through. Outwardly I put on my brave face which fooled a lot of people. Inside however, I was piling up unresolved issues which was the result of constant shut downs.
You see, when people constantly shame you for even having an issue, you convince yourself that what you’re feeling isn’t actually valid and train yourself to numb the feeling. What you may not realize is that you are actually not dealing with the underlying issues that led to the feeling, hence a buildup of pent-up emotions which eventually go boom! Not to mention the additional resentment that you feel towards the person shaming you.
So this is what I have learnt. Every single feeling I have is valid. After all why did God put such a feeling in my body if it serves no purpose? Every feeling I have is a sign of something. Usually something that I need to address. Ignoring the feeling only makes it worse and postpones the inevitable which is that I will have to face it anyway. Most importantly I have learnt who to speak to when I need to vocalize what I feel. The initial step to dealing with anything is to acknowledge its existence and vocalizing it is a critical part of awareness. Most people will tell you that just saying something out loud helped them to actually start dealing with it.
If someone trusts you enough to tell you about something they are going through the least you can do is put your own issues aside and listen to the person objectively. If you find yourself inclined to give them a comparison analysis of how someone else (or yourself) is doing worse, or how they should at least count their blessings, just hold your tongue. It doesn’t help at all and only makes the person feel worse.
The truth is gratitude and problems are not often directly related. Simply being grateful for everything you have in your life does not automatically save you from having problems though it will probably alter your focus and attitude towards your problems.
The first and toughest step is to talk about your problem. After that anything is possible.
When did the rain start beating us?
Yes I know. It’s one of those weird metaphors typically heard in our local corporate lingo. I heard one of my colleagues say it last week as we were trying to establish the root cause of yet another typical work complaint. Then for some strange reason, it popped back into my head a couple of days ago. I was pondering my current life situation which is one word. Overwhelmed. I’m basically waist deep in search of answers, which is more or less where I left things in my last post.
It’s been a whirlwind really; especially once I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own and decided to pay my favorite head doctor a visit. Despite my two year disappearance, we nonetheless picked up right where we left off which was him trying to find any reason to drill a hole in my head. Can’t blame a man for trying. This time however, he quickly latched on to the fact that my issues were far from physiological. I probably gave him a clue or two. Which was how I ended up with a referral to a supposedly great head shrink. Ok. A counseling psychologist. The former just sounds more…..intriguing. His reasoning was that I just needed someone to talk to. Apparently and much to my surprise, he turned out to be right on the money. Well, so far anyway.
So the way it works is every week I get to see this shrinko…..ok, head shrink. He’s very unassuming and soft spoken. Old doctor, Asian, very sage looking. Reminds me of those Hindu programs we used to catch on local channels with subtitles, where they had all these wise old gurus. The kind whose advice everyone takes without a single protest simply because you would never dream of questioning anything out of his mouth. My shrinko is like that. Then he asks these random questions. Simple questions. And listens keenly to my responses, then links his fingers together in his lap and stares down at them deep in thought before looking up and softly asking the next question. He strikes me as having limitless patience. Anyone who has to deal with me certainly needs to.
So we just talk. And talk. And talk some more. And the time flies by. I only get one hour and I have exceeded my limit every single time. There’s a clock right behind him and despite my furtive glances at it, he calmly continues to prod the recesses of my brain till he reaches a point where perhaps he feels is sufficient. I’m never very sure what he’s looking for or even what he shall find. It’s very exploratory and often as thrilling as it is terrifying in equal measure. The initial session left me feeling heavy, while the next left me as light as a feather. I never know what to expect and he tells me the best is yet to come.
So a couple of days ago, this phrase pops into my head. I had to see yet another doctor following a very nasty throat infection and it occurred to me just how much our bodies (and minds) seem to be failing us. Think about it. Lately, all you hear about is people seeing this or that specialist in relation to something ailing us. And half the time they cannot seem to find anything wrong with us, though that doesn’t stop them billing us regularly as they poke and prod till they find something. The other half of the time when they do find out, it’s our worst nightmare come true and that’s only if they catch it in time. Too often in the recent past, I have lost very young friends to so called lifestyle diseases which in past eras seemingly only afflicted people of a certain (old) age. These days, young people passing on due to cardiac arrest, strokes, clots and high blood pressure are becoming alarmingly common place. Hence we are getting increasingly concerned with our aches and pains and more inclined to letting the doctors poke and prod in search of answers. Myself included.
And I could not help but think; When did the rain start beating us? Is it our largely sedentary lifestyle? Unhealthy eating habits? Excessive drinking? It almost feels like we make conscious choices to be more healthy when we get to a certain age (typically early thirties) but does this negate any of the crazy excesses we subject our bodies to in the preceding decade? Is it possible that we spend the rest of our sometimes-miserable lives, paying for what we put our bodies through when we were too young (and silly) to know any better?
When did it become so normal-like to see all these doctors and almost seem fashionable while doing so? Infact these days if you aren’t seeing Dr-so and so for some weird sounding ailment then people stare at you strangely. Like there’s something wrong with you. Hehehe, pun intended. People carry around their ailments like a calling card, which they flash glamorously almost in competition.
“….yeah, I’m seeing Dr MD for my (insert complicated scientific long name here) issue. You should try him, he’s very good!!”
These days we market our doctors around and swap their contacts as if we have already diagnosed ourselves and the doctor will simply rubber stamp what we have as affirmation. Seriously though. When did the rain start beating us? Disease has become such a normal thing that when we hear someone passed on we barely flinch before proceeding to our next appointment. Young men and women drop from clots or cardiac arrests and we barely pause to ask, what exactly is the problem?
Anyway. Far from asking the pertinent questions and failing to get any satisfactory responses, I am left to focus on my own journey. I intend to live a long and beautiful life if I have any say in the matter and to that end, I will do all it takes to always be ok or atleast work on the process of getting there. Including weekly riveting conversations with a very old wise man who might just teach me a thing or two. I’m just glad there are zero needles and medications involved. I think that’s a start in the right direction away from the rain.
It’s OK to not be OK. Yes I said it.
It’s OK to fall apart. To have no clue where you are going or what the heck you are doing. To not know whether you’re moving forward, backward or just oscillating around the same point for goodness knows how long. To constantly grasp at straws in the hope that one of them will be the one that saves you from drowning. Yes, all this is OK. Why you ask? Because at least then you are conscious and self-aware of just how far you fall short of your own expectations. Which probably means you will eventually do something about it.
If you aren’t falling apart, if you are perfectly put together all the time, if you always know exactly what you are doing and where you are going……It is likely that something is deathly wrong with you.
Speaking of death. In the space of ten short months, I lost three people who were very close to my heart. Each loss more harrowing than the one before it. I partly attribute this to the probability that I barely allowed myself to deal with any of the tragic losses. The first one made me angry. I’m told that’s a common reaction to loss. The second, I regarded with disbelief and denial. The third and most recent was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. Finally acceptance. And with it, some semblance of peace and comfort. That we are all on borrowed time anyway and it’s best to get our affairs in order since each day is borrowed, measured, precious.
There’s nothing like the taste of death to make you appreciate being alive. And I don’t mean the cliche living – you know, appreciate what you have, be positive, blah blah blah. Not that. I mean the raw, ugly truth of what living really is.
I’m the kind of person who looks very put together. Not the type who constantly annoys us with their ever-positive banter (I hope!) but rather the type of person who people are drawn to because I listen. I don’t give solutions but people walk away feeling lighter. A type of catharsis I suppose. So generally I don’t seem to be the kind of person who would fall apart. Or who wouldn’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. I know now that this is due to the fact that I work very hard to “Be OK”.
A couple of weeks ago I featured a series of guest posts from a good friend of mine. Very routine. I remember reading his post when he sent it to me. It struck me as a very deep post, and I thought, “Wow, this could help someone out there….someone who could be struggling with the same thing…” And up went the post.
A week later, I called my friend and told him that I might as well have written the post. One day I was perfectly OK (my version of it anyway) and the next I suddenly wasn’t. I was spiraling out of control and I couldn’t even make out what was my reality any more. Out of nowhere, or maybe just a long overdue buildup of glossing over issues, my emotions were raging all over the place. Nothing felt right anymore and I questioned almost every single decision that I had made in my life. All I knew was that I had created layers and layers of being OK, time and time again, over and over. To fit in. To make other people comfortable. Or to avoid making them uneasy. To avoid being selfish and deal with my issues. Yes, you actually need to be selfish just to get time for yourself to deal with whatever you’re going through. And the things just kept piling up. Until the dam literally burst.
When I finally stopped spinning, it was very clear to me. I had been so busy dealing with and helping other people that I had conveniently forgotten to deal with Me. Some of it was avoidance obviously. Dealing with other people is so much easier than dealing with yourself. If you’re anything like me, you will understand when I say that I constantly put myself on the back burner to prioritize another person’s issue. I never even realized how much it had cost me. Until I crashed. Part of me desperately went into Urgent Fix mode. Trying a band aid solution to a gunshot wound quite literally. I couldn’t be down right? That’s what I had told myself for so long so it was just natural to get fixed asap. But my heart just wasn’t in it.
Now I don’t typically wallow. But this time I was neither ready nor willing for the quick fix. The more I pondered it, the more I realized that my quick fixes had covered up things I wasn’t ready to face. The deaths of my loved ones. A sense of failure from certain decisions I had made. Feelings of not living up to what I perceived as other people’s expectations and opinions. The more I dug, the more ugliness I unearthed. The truth is hard to face, bitter to swallow; yet for all its harshness, it was a welcome reality and almost fresh in its raw deer-in-the-headlights authenticity. It was liberating. For the first time in a really long time, I was OK not being OK.
The best part about this was that I felt human. Mortal. Real. And deep in my soul I sensed that I needed to be completely taken apart just so that I could be put together again. Almost like being reborn and seeing things with the naïve simplicity of a little child. It is terrifying and at the same time, delightfully exhilarating. Like being handed a blank slate to write on.
It’s just the beginning of the journey for me and I know I have a lot to learn. The one thing I know for a fact though is that it’s absolutely OK to not always have your ducks in a row. Because now I know it means that I am always continually working to improve on me. Figure myself out. Get better, do more. And every once in a while, it’s OK to cry. To hurt. To fall, just so I can figure how to get up in a different way. Because ultimately none of us really wants to stay down forever.
It’s just unrealistic to believe that you will never fall.
“Addiction!” The second time I heard that word was while sitting in a chair in a little room as a therapist described my own life back to me. She followed it up with “Depression!” Another big word she used to describe my situation. I wanted to argue. But I was also the one who told her only minutes ago that I had been feeling tired with the whole “living” business. I did not get to argue. I did not want to actually die. But I knew I needed help. Positive thoughts were not going to keep me going for too long. I could feel it. So I reached out in secret and, as with all things secret, I paid for it myself. By this time I was very good at keeping secrets. And I had a part time job as a writer. So, I could afford it.
She was a nice lady. My therapist. She listened to everything I said and mirrored it back to me. Then she asked me how I would react if someone I loved talked to themselves the way I talk to myself. I told her I would comfort them. I would make them feel safe. She asked me why I cannot do that for myself. I had never said it out loud before. “I don’t deserve it…” It came out simple and with so much authority that it surprised me. Over the three months I visited her office. Once a week, like clockwork, first thing she asked me was why I didn’t think I deserved my own compassion. Have you ever had someone frantically try to convince you that you are good enough for yourself? She was Sisyphus and I was the rock. But she gave me the tools I needed to ask myself that question. Every day.
I cry sometimes when I am by myself. 20 years of pent up rage. It comes out unexpectedly sometimes. But I also know where the wounds are. So I know what to do about them. Compassion. Ask questions. Take a moment. Write. The tools I was given to cope. I withdraw and take a moment to reconstruct. A moment to breathe. Life gets heavy sometimes. So I need to remind myself that “I can…” I know what is waiting at the end of the alternative train of thought. So, “I can…”
I have a wife now. Friends and family who understand me. A job I am lukewarm about. But who isn’t lukewarm about their job these days? I am good at what I do and I like doing it. I still have my siblings. We lean on each other. Through my wife I have a whole other family too. They are good people. I also, still have my parents. They haven’t changed. They have gotten older which is a whole other world of responsibility. But they are still mine. I can’t abandon them. But I can take care of myself too. I understand that people are just people. They are the way they are. So I let a lot of things just “be”. That’s OK to do. My wife says I am too Zen sometimes. Maybe. But I see the world very differently. I know where the wounds are. I know what happens when I pick at them by reacting to everything too personally. I also know that my shit is my shit. I own it. I deal with it. Every way I can.
But every chance I get, I smile. It makes people feel safe somehow. I don’t know how. But it does.
Have you ever had someone look at you with a pity? I have had people look at me with pity. A face that is one part judgmental and two parts charity. A look that will make you realize just how low you really are. A look, today, I only give to street kids. It’s the same look. I know. I give it to street kids and simultaneously feel horrible for doing it. But what is one to do? Help? How? One cannot help when they cannot even fathom the scale of how deep the problem is. The people who gave me this look saw that I needed help. But how? Where to even start? Should they remove me from the household? Pay my school fees? Pay for counselling? Clothes? Food? This very train of thought is becoming too much of a responsibility. “Is he being physically abused?” No. “He’s fine.”
The thing about growing up in an addiction environment is that you learn to smile. You learn to act. You can never tell anyone what is really going on. Because that will hurt mom and dad. You have a duty to protect your home. Both mom and dad and society will remind you of this regularly. You cling to your siblings closer than you, probably, will ever cling to anyone else. Nobody else can understand it. That feeling of wanting out but not wanting to leave people alone for fear that they will leave you permanently. Only siblings do. We keep our secrets. Nobody needs to know. So we put on Oscar Award worthy performances. Big smiles and tall tales whenever needed. But if not required then we stayed invisible. I am still proud of the fact that I can walk into a room, be recognized, and then forgotten almost immediately after leaving. Practice makes perfect. I have been practicing for 20 years. Daniel Day Lewis has nothing on me.
I got out. Out of reach at least. I went to school. A university far away from that little town. Away from the daily reminder of the addictions. A guilt trip or two over the phone. But I was out. I even made new friends.One of them used to say to me, “Smile until it hurts”. It sounds strange. But for him, he was just flipping the script. He had a lot of hurt in his life. He smiled because it hurt. So I suppose the destination of “until it hurts” for him was more about when the smile would run out of flavor. But unlike dad and his brown bottles, my friend found his smiles at the ends of Stand Up Comedy shows. Sometimes at the beginning of them. Sometimes at the end. A constant supply. As long as the internet could supply the Stand Up, he could find a smile. The internet has a lot of Stand Up.
As a friend, he was the best. We had similar backgrounds. Broken things tend to fit well together. We went on many adventures together. One could say, we discovered the world together and we almost ruled it. Almost. We did not see it coming. We did not see her coming. She had a nice smile. We both noticed. But she liked my smile more. So I thought, because she appeared to fly in my direction, like a moth to a light bulb. But moths fly in many directions. They only seek warmth. They could care less about the source. She smiled for me and she smiled for him. At first it was in secret. Then less secret. Eventually, she only smiled for him. I remember the day he told me what had been going on between them behind my back. He was smiling. Winners tend to do that.
I put my smile away for a while. A teacher stopped me in the halls. She heard me give a mumbled correct answer in her class and wanted to know my name. I told her my name. She looked at me and told me to smile. I asked her why. She told me to smile again. So I smiled. Then she asked me my name and I told her my name while smiling. It felt unnatural. She smiled as she said, “That’s better! You look better that way!” It made her feel safer in a way. I don’t know how. It just did. So whenever I saw her or was in one of her classes I smiled. I couldn’t do anything else. She checked to make sure. But it was not real. It was a means to an end. To keep her off my back. Practice makes perfect.