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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.
Let me tell you about my smile.
It’s not a particularly pretty smile. I have chipped teeth. Several of them. Others have decided that they will pose like Instagram models by turning a little to the side so that you can see their curves properly. It may look sexy in my mouth, and to one or two randy dentists, but to the rest of the world, it’s just crooked. Then there is the yellow. I brush my teeth until they feel like porcelain when my tongue glides over them. But I can never quite get the yellow out. I sometimes consider whitening them but, I am not one to make changes to things which work perfectly fine. After all, I can smile.
I do smile. Smiling comes naturally to me. I am always smiling. I always have an inappropriate joke, or a funny dance or pretty much anything to do that will make people smile. It’s what I do. I am that guy in the group. The guy who never shuts up but when I do, everyone worries. Why are they so worried? I better not let them worry. So I smile. They feel a little safer when I smile. I don’t know how I know. But it just does.
My dad had a great smile. His teeth were just like mine. Maybe not as sexy with the Instagram poses, but they were just like mine. Whenever things were going South for the family, he smiled. He cracked jokes. They were inappropriate jokes but they were jokes all the same. His smile made us feel safe in a way. I don’t know how. But it just did.
But “South” is a relative term. It just means downwards. Nobody ever predicted just how low “down” could go. I have heard the phrase “financial hole” get thrown around from time to time by different people. But I never really fathomed how deep and how wide a hole could actually be. It’s like when you go online and you see the size of those massive sink holes in Russia. You think you know a hole. But there is always a bigger hole.
A bad decision here. Even worse decisions there. Some excessive borrowing elsewhere. Before anyone knew what was going on, dad had stopped smiling. He lost his smile for a while. But when one loses a smile, a new one can be found. Yes, he found a new one. It was at the bottom of a brown bottle. It was temporary but it kept him going day to day. Whenever he felt his current smile fading, he popped open a bottle and found the next one. A system that worked. He smiled. But when he found this other smile, his smile ceased to make me smile. It was more maniacal than calming, this new smile. It scared me.
The new smile was accompanied to his face by words. Dad was always a quiet man. One or two words or a joke here and there but now he had a lot of words to share. Words I had only ever heard him reserve for politicians and bad drivers. “Idiot”. “Fool”. “Useless”. It took me a while to realize that he was addressing me and he meant it. It took me even longer to grasp let alone accept that he was slowly forgetting my name. In time, I ceased to be me and became, “You” and “That boy”.
In times like that I still had mom’s affection. I should have been OK. But mom had her own issues. Mom could not hold on to money At all. It had to go somewhere. It was one of the things they argued most about. Where does the money go? And she would just look at dad with a bewildered look and say, “I don’t know.” And that was that. But she knew. Mom had a problem. She was a gambler. Not your typical casino gambler. No. Her’s was high risk ventures, church groups and relatives. She was always starting businesses which failed as soon as they started, or making donations to the “less fortunate” which eventually just became donations to her relatives who had the ability to make her feel like they were less fortunate. But the bottom line is that the money never came back. A stay at home mom does not have an income, so the money had to come from somewhere in the first place. How many days of school did I miss because of this behavior? I lost count. Dad sent her money to deposit with the school. But she was convinced that if she took the money and “invested” in something she would be able to send me to a better school. Stories I grew very accustomed to hearing. They were nice.
Until I one day realized that all my friends had graduated from school and I was alone in a little town with very little to do.
I feel the need to point out something that may appear obvious but apparently isn’t according to most people.
Listen up. People – adult, live human beings with red blood running in their veins cannot be stolen. Belongings can be stolen. Cars can be stolen. Babies can be stolen. Money can be stolen. Even hair (ouch) can be stolen. But get this – human beings cannot be stolen. They can be kidnapped, which means taken against their will in exchange for a ransom demand before their return. Key phrase – against their will.
So when a person in your life one day ups and leaves please do not make excuses for them and say they were stolen. Because live human beings cannot be stolen. They upped and left of their own free will and accord; for whatever reasons that they felt necessary. To put it very simply, they made a decision to leave. Ask yourself a simple question; when stuff is stolen from your home or your car stolen, what do you do? You make a report to the police right? So why don’t you report these “stolen” people to the police as well?
One of the most frustrating things that coaches/therapists/counselors deal with on a daily basis is that the ones who are left behind seemingly get stuck at this point and became fixated on the person(s) who “stole” their loved one. This effectively ensures that they never move forward, refuse to deal with the reasons why the person left and basically stagnate in life leading to a medley of other issues. Meanwhile the person who was “stolen” is enjoying their life (or not) but most importantly, completely oblivious of the turmoil they have left you in. Largely self-inflicted I might add.
My question to such people usually is; why would you waste your time pining over someone who made an adult decision and executed it? What value does it add to your life to constantly moan about it when it will not change the said decision? Most importantly, why would you give someone so much power over you, just for the satisfaction of painting yourself as the victim?
Bottom line – life is short. Move on. Time spent moaning about it is time taken away from doing other constructive things focused on You. Because guess what? They don’t care. So why do you? In my experience, this is usually just a form of denial to ensure that you never have to face the real reason they left – whether it has to do with you or not. Plus this denial allows you to wallow in self-pity assuring yourself that they will be back, crawling on their hands and knees for forgiveness.
Whether this happens, and whether you take them back or not is really up to you. However, please be aware that no one can steal a person. If they left, it was because they chose to. Wake up and smell the coffee. Deal with it.