Gifts and Thanks.

The other day, my co-worker and I were talking about the beauty of thank you notes. I told her I was raised to write a thank you note every time, for every gift, and that I still do it to this day. She said she does the same, and then proceeded to blow my mind: as a kid, she wasn’t allowed to play with, touch, or otherwise engage with any toy or gift she got until a thank you note had been written.

That is some diabolical next-level shit, and I AM HERE FOR IT. Reason #462 why I wish I could procreate: I’d do the same thing.

I love thank you notes. I love writing them, even when I hate writing them. It feels… official. Formal. Like, I can say thank you a million times, but if I send it to you in writing, then I mean it and you’ve got permanent evidence of my gratitude. C and I wrote a good portion of our wedding thank-you’s while we were on our honeymoon, and it was a lovely way to relive our gratitude. Not just for the gifts, but for the people who showed up for us on such a huge and wonderful day. I had it in my head to send thank you’s to everyone, present nor not, just because it meant so much; I don’t know that I ever did it, but certainly, the gifts were acknowledged. I wouldn’t and couldn’t rest until all the notes were sent.

I keep a lot of the thank you notes I’ve received from my nieces and nephews. They’re funny, sweet, and the handwriting is a heart-tugging way of seeing them grow up. I’ve written before about the value and importance of hand-written notes from that perspective; getting a note from your nephew and having it hit you that he’s not 7 years old anymore, and he’s got a teenager’s handwriting… it just does something to you. Like seeing the change in your own writing as you age. Or that of your mother’s hand.

Thank you notes aren’t everyone’s bag, and really, as time passes, the beauty of a written note seems to be getting lost. I don’t hold it against someone if they don’t send a note, because I know it’s a thing that not everyone values, but I gotta say, I love them and will probably always send them – even if the recipient says it’s not necessary. Maybe not for them, but it absolutely is for me.

And that brings me to the topic of presents.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten progressively more unreasonably rabid about not wanting physical gifts for Christmas (or birthdays, or anything else for that matter). Some of it stems from not wanting people to blow their money, some of it comes from not wanting to be at the mercy of someone’s idea of what a good present for me might be, and a lot of it comes from the practical side of my brain: if you’re going to spend money on me, then put it in the form of cash so I can buy groceries or some shoes that don’t have holes in the soles. Give a gift card to Lowe’s or something so I can get a new dishwasher or a light fixture.

Practical presents, instead of giving something just for the sake of giving something. Especially if it’s something I’m going to have to figure out how to discretely donate or hide or dispose of. That just seems like a waste, all the way around, AND there’s a self-inflicted emotional guilt component to it that I loathe.

Giving presents – and expecting presents – at Christmas has lost its magic for me, for some reason. And I have to think there’s more to it than just practicality, because it’s… visceral. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the money to buy what I’d want to for people. Or maybe it’s because I’m not the type to be super thoughtful about gifts, you know, like someone who manages to find something perfect and perfectly suited for the recipient, and it’s something you’d never think to get for yourself but it’s awesome? Yeah. I’m not that person. And I don’t ever want to spend money on something that a person wouldn’t want, nor would I want to inflict a gift that they’re going to have to “manage.”

And why are we giving each other presents, anyway? Why is there an expectation of gift giving? I mean, I get it. It’s fun to see wrapped presents under a tree. Fun to see little kids get excited and tear through everything. But then, at some point, it becomes perfunctory, an expectation, and the magic is gone. Of course, there’s the original religious aspect to the whole thing, which may very well perpetuate the magic for the believers, but for the rest of us…

If I’m being honest, I probably love getting presents, and it’s just the guilt of not being able to reciprocate because I’m broke, coupled with a total disdain for EXPECTATION OF THINGS (because expectations = disappointment and premeditated resentments), that has me feeling like I just want to cancel Christmas. I don’t know. It all makes me feel like a scrooge.

BAH HUMBUG.

 

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Hello, My Name is Human (and so is yours)

(with a nod to this great song by Highly Suspect)

November, 1998: It was a beautiful morning in Buena Vista Park, in the Upper Haight district of San Francisco. The sun was shining, the air clean and crisp… a perfect time and place for a father and his daughter to walk through the park, enjoying the great outside. As they ambled along the path, the young girl saw someone lying in the grass on (and under) some cardboard, appearing to be asleep. The girl, curious, asked why the person was sleeping there. The father responded, “Because they’re a loser and need to get a job. Either that or they just need more coffee. Maybe we should bring them some!” and started laughing. The girl laughed a little, too, and they continued to walk.

I was the person feigning sleep on that cardboard in the park, and I heard every word.

It’s interesting what people say when they think the person in question can’t hear them. Already in a place of deep shame, depression, humiliation, and a strong desire to just not be alive anymore, that overheard conversation served to verify what I’d suspected about myself for years, and it helped carve a larger space in which I could nestle and roost in those feels. I’d been attempting to survive on the streets for a month, but I’d been addicted for the 3-4 years leading up to it, and if there’s one thing an addict knows, it’s the feeling of being unworthy and less-than. Sub-human, even.

Shame.

Brené Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher, and if you haven’t read any of her books, I highly and strongly recommend you do. Read all of them, and start at the beginning (The Gifts of Imperfection is my favorite). But if you only choose one, I’d say to pick up her latest, “Braving the Wilderness.” I say this without having finished reading it yet (I’m working on it!), but in there, she offers up four paths to true belonging; to being bravely and wonderfully ourselves. She makes it clear that we cannot experience true connection or full acceptance and belonging until we show our genuine selves to the world.

I bring this up because one of paths begins with, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” It reminds me of the father and his daughter as they walked through the park that day. The father had a choice in that moment: to be kind, to lean in, to empathize and to share some real insight with his daughter about the world, about humanity. To encourage connection. Instead, he chose the other path: derision, sarcasm, and judgement.

I genuinely believe these choices are what lie on either side of fear. If we find that we’re afraid or unsure of the unknown – like addiction, or mental illness, or homelessness – it can be easy to let that fear take us to a place of judgement. To “otherizing” that person in order to grant ourselves some semblance of feeling control over our own destiny. “That would NEVER happen to me.” Right? But from that fear and uncertainty, we have another option: to move in, as Dr. Brown recommends. To understand, to empathize, and to ask how we can help. This helps drive connection with those who are suffering, and who may simply be in desperate need of a kind and loving heart to shine bright enough to light their way to the other side of the struggle.

And I find myself thinking about all this after watching a video of a woman from Kentucky who is faced with no choice but to stop her dialysis because she can’t afford to get there and back 3x a week, and is dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for her healthcare – which is currently under near constant threat by our administration. You should watch the video, and then tell me you don’t feel something in the depths of your stomach, heart, and throat for this woman who you’ve never met, and likely never will.

I guess the question is, do you feel empathy and compassion, or do you feel disgust and derision?

In case you’re wondering, I fall firmly in the empathy & compassion camp. I don’t know how you can watch it and not see the pain in her eyes and the desperation (but also, the resignation) in her voice. There is no doubt in my mind that this country has the power and resources to take care of every single person in it, comfortably and compassionately and comprehensively, without it negatively impacting anyone else or causing a lack of resources in other ways. We just have to prioritize that, instead of buckling down in fear of losing what little we have. The powers that be have convinced us there is scarcity, and they do this because it continues to line their pockets as we all move further in the other direction of struggle.

I think it all starts with getting back to in-person connections. The internet enables us to stay connected, but there is something significantly lacking in those interactions: the humanity of each other. We all need to start holding hands more, talking in person more, listening more, letting our guard down more and getting real and vulnerable and brave more.

I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the common connection we all share, just by being alive. There’s room for all of us.

Battle of the body and the brain (aka facts vs. feelings), Part 3

SOCIAL ANXIETY. FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING. TUNNEL VISION, HOT FACE AND NECK, BUTTERFLIES, FUZZY BRAIN, SHAKY VOICE.

aka Some Bullshit.

So, I get that public speaking is a common fear. It reveals itself in different ways, of course; some people get sweaty, some turn red and splotchy, some get a lovely combination platter of some or all of the above… I get it. I mean, literally. I get the shaky voice like I’m about to start crying, I get the tunnel vision like even my hearing is impaired, I’m unable to focus on what I’m trying to say, and I am in full on fight, flight, or freeze mode. It’s great, really. My favorite thing ever (she says as her eyes roll around the world and back).

The problem for me is that it isn’t just public speaking. It happens any time attention is placed on me. If it’s one person asking me a question, no big deal. But if you add even one more person into the equation, I am a nervous damn wreck. I can be standing up in front of people, sitting down at a table in a meeting, or anywhere in between; as soon as the attention is placed on me, I lose my shit. (er, not literally, thank goodness… I mean, not YET, anyway.)

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a few C-level executives. It was a casual meeting, mostly to discuss the health information management industry, to get a sense of what all is out there, career-wise and opportunity-wise. I was excited about the opportunity to pick some brains of people who’d worked in the industry for a while, just because I’m starting on a path with a LOT of different branches, and I don’t want to waste time pursuing options if it’s going to lead me on a dead end. So, I’m excited, they’re generous with their time, we sit down, one of them asks me about myself… and I freeze. And panic. My heart jumps up in my throat, my voice starts to shake, and my normally eloquent self takes a damn hike, leaving a quivering bowl of skin Jello to answer the questions.

It was mortifying.

I eventually calmed down and was able to relax a little, and I even admitted out loud that I was nervous in an effort to just move past it, but damn. There was NO reason to be nervous. These were non-threatening people, it wasn’t a job interview or anything critical or even that important; just a conversation. And yet, I immediately panicked.

It happens at work, too. People I’ve worked with for 2 years now will ask me a question or call me into a meeting and I’m a bucket of butterfly-filled, hot-faced, shaky-voiced, jumble-thoughted twitch. Not just the Toastmasters Speechcraft class I did, although that certainly saw more than my fair share of nerves; but every time I have to present something in an even remotely formal setting, it’s like my brain doesn’t know how to handle or process it, and I’m immediately transported into freakout mode. I can’t make eye contact, can’t focus on anything, can’t control my shaking voice… I hate it. Mostly because I feel like it undermines the confidence I know people have in me, and, more importantly, the confidence I have in myself.

It would be one thing if I could associate it with some sort of past experience that caused me to be so insecure and full of fear when people actually pay attention to me, but I cannot for the life of me figure out where it’s coming from. And it seems to be getting worse as I get older, which sucks because this is when it should be getting BETTER.

Especially – and here’s where the body and brain are at odds – when I KNOW I AM AWESOME AND SMART AND HAVE GOOD THINGS TO SAY AND CONTRIBUTE. There is no doubt in my mind that I have something to offer the conversation, at least most of the time, and I know well enough to keep quiet on the times when I don’t have anything constructive to say. Those times aside, there is no reason on the planet that I should feel like I don’t have a right to speak up, to be heard, or to even just be seated at the table.

And yet, it’s like I’m intimidated in some way, and my body is what’s reacting. My body (or, I guess, the brainstem/monkey brain) is programmed to go into fight or flight mode when attention is placed in my direction, when people are looking at me while I speak. Once the reaction starts, there’s no stopping it, either. Eventually it might get better, but if I even allow myself to think about it for a second, it’ll come back and I have to fight it down again.

I’m working with Noelle to try and get to the bottom of it, because this absolutely needs to get deprogrammed and OUT of my system. I have a lot to offer, plenty to say, and value to add; I just have to trust that my voice needs to be heard, and that people actually do want to hear it. I am sure that getting some practice with public speaking would help; I just don’t know HOW to go about getting practice. There aren’t really many opportunities to speak in public without being weird, I don’t think. Maybe finding some networking events would help, where you have to practice speaking to strangers? I don’t really know.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s just really terrible social anxiety/insecurity, something that lives way deeper than the rational knowledge that I am worthy. Old programming, maybe? I mean, every time I walk into our agency’s cafeteria and it’s filled with people, my eyes immediately shoot to the floor and I don’t make eye contact because I’m nervous and overwhelmed. I can fight my way through it, and remind myself I have every right to be there, and then it’ll pass, but it’s pretty heavy until I do that.

Anyway. Just one more way my body and brain are at total odds with each other… although they also seem to be somewhat in cahoots, too; brain says, “Hey, let’s freak out!” and body says, “Duuuuuuuuuuuuhokay! Watch what I can do!” *red splotchy face* *shaky voice* *sweaty palms* *eyes crossed* *brain fries*

Battle of the body and the brain (aka facts vs. feelings), Part 2

I have HPV. I found this out a few years ago, and because of that, I have the distinct pleasure of annual “lady doctor” visits which, you know, whatever. I am also the only student from my women’s health class who took the professor up on the offer for my very own (new, still wrapped) plastic speculum. Anyway. Last year, I had a biopsy & colposcopy, and everything came back fine. This year, there was something not normal but not ABnormal about the cells (atypical, I guess), so I got to have another biopsy & colpo. Only this time, thanks to some scarring on my cervix, she had to really dig around in there trying to snip the samples. It… didn’t feel good.

I’d already been feeling a little low after yet another, what will likely be my last, visit to the fertility clinic the week before, where they – bless them – have been nothing but kind. And HONEST. I am 45 years old, with 45 year old deteriorating eggs; on top of that, a low egg count thanks to a low-functioning ovary, and what appear to be polyps inside my uterus (which we discovered after doing the HSG/fallopian tube dye test). At this point, my parts appear to be no longer viable, although there is one more procedure (hysteroscopy) I could endure on the off chance I might be one of the VERY FEW women who, at my age, is still producing quality eggs. Otherwise, if I wanted to have a baby, then it would have to be donor eggs (~ $20K) or a donor embryo (~$10K).

I’ve already talked about how much I wanted to be a mom. I had the chance when I was 18, but I ended the pregnancy, and I don’t regret it for a minute. There’s no way I’d want to be tied to that guy for the rest of my life, not to mention I just wasn’t anywhere near ready to be a parent 27 years ago. Besides, there was no attesting to the quality of that dude’s DNA, considering the “shotgun in a trailer park” incident, the stalking, the cheating… yeah. Even now, faced with the reality that I probably can’t have a baby of my own, I know I did the right thing back then; there have been no second thoughts, no regrets, and I wouldn’t change a thing (unless I could have met C 27 years ago… that would have been nice).

Anyway. I don’t really need to get into all that again, but suffice to say, I am still working to let go of the embedded disappointment of having finally found my person but then also having to accept the fact that we won’t get to create a life together. There are, of course other options – including adoption, which we agreed probably makes more sense, if we do anything at all. If we’re even thinking of dropping that kind of money at all on a baby that isn’t biologically ours, we might as well find one in need of a family. I mean, C already has kids, and I suppose I get the consolation prizes of: freedom to travel and only being responsible for two cats; having some expendable income; not risking my body being permanently affected or damaged by carrying or birthing a baby; and not worrying about raising a child in our current mess of a world. Selfish, but that’s all I got.

On top of coming to terms with my body no longer being a viable baby maker, I’m also having to come to terms with there being potentially cancerous cells trying to form on my cervix, and I just can’t help but feel like… I don’t know. Saying I feel like less of a woman doesn’t really fit here, but it’s something like that. And it sucks. After last week’s appointment where the doctor was digging around to get her samples to send off to the lab, I just started crying. It was a little scary, but more than that, it was just a goddamn lonely experience. Even though I know I have the support of C and family and friends, none of that seemed to matter. My heart hurt.

So that’s what brings me back to feeling at odds with my body and AND my brain. And differentiating between facts (like, knowing I’ve got so many loved ones on my side) and feelings (feeling totally and horribly alone on that exam table).

In the piece I wrote last year, I talked a lot about how I’d already come to peace with not being a mom, and that’s true. How I’d started to mourn the loss a 2nd time because of having met someone I could have totally seen procreating with, and having another outlet for the huge love we have for each other. All of this is true… but if I’m being honest, I’m totally good with it. We have a great life already, and it just keeps getting better. We will absolutely be okay, no matter what happens. Admittedly, it’s still a little hard being around all the pregnant women at work – clients and coworkers alike – but I don’t begrudge them the happiness so much as I just wish I could have been able to participate in that part of being alive and human and a woman. To relate to that experience. That said… the feelings of loss I’m feeling are more like memories of what I used to want/feel, as well as acceptance of what’s reality now.

Facts vs. feelings.

Something else I’ve been thinking about are all the ways people try to be supportive. In my case, people have tried being supportive by reminding me that *plenty* of women have babies at my age (that’s not actually true; it’s possible, yes, but not probable, and certainly not typical and absolutely not likely for ME). And part of the problem there is that I haven’t been broadcasting all the information I have about my body and what’s working and what isn’t, so they’re basing their comments on assuming I’m just being flippant when I say I’m too old. I get that people think they’re being helpful by trying to offer hope… when what I really need is just a heartfelt, “I’m really sorry, I know that must be hard.”

Empathy.

And none of the silver linings people like to offer, either: “Well, at least you met the love of your life.” Yes, and I’m eternally grateful for that. Doesn’t change how I feel about THIS, though, and I don’t appreciate being told to stop feeling a certain way because I am blessed in another area of life and should just focus on that. It would be like if I tried to not feel the disappointment because I don’t have a right to feel that, when most of my life is really going so well… like, how dare I want for more?

I get that people don’t really know what to say in the face of difficult things. I am, admittedly, terrible about holding presence for people during hard times. At least, I feel like I am. I assume people want to be left alone, when that may not be at all what they want or need. I assume people will come to me if/when they need me to be there for them, when I know damn well I tend to hibernate and not reach out when I need people the most. So, I shy away at the risk of saying or doing the “wrong” thing. Other people just can’t shut up, and feel like they have to talk their way through someone else’s pain, instead of just being there for them.

And people really just say terrible things meant to be helpful ALL THE TIME. In fact, I’m going to write another post about that.

Back to body and brain betrayal, I guess what I was getting at up there is that most of my brain has come to accept my physical reality. But there are parts of my brain that seem to want to dredge up old feelings, beliefs, assumptions, desires… all of it, just for the sake of ruminating and trying to convince me I’m still not over it, when I really am. Like, I really am good. There are little waves of lamentation and mourning, sure, but it’s primarily acceptance, with some old memories of wants and desires, reminding me of what I used to want, and am I SURE I’m okay with it? Don’t you actually want to continue to wallow and be sad and beat yourself up a little bit while you’re at it?

NO. No, I don’t.

It’s like part of my brain is a pusher – of bad ideas, of self loathing, of cravings, of poor choices, of bad thoughts – and the rest of my brain is the resistance. It’s weird. But by compartmentalizing the way I think about things, by understanding where it all comes from (like, cravings come from basic genetic programming but resisting the cravings is a learned behavior), my hope is that I can get better at resisting urges and cravings. Get better at letting the thoughts and feelings pass when I know that to let them stay is to invite the devil in.

All of that to say… I’m actually doing pretty damn well with all of it, as long as my brain stays the hell out of my way. ❤

Battle of the body and the brain (aka facts vs. feelings), Part 1

Do you ever have days (or weeks or months or years) where you feel completely at odds with your own body? Or your own brain? Maybe both at the same time which is always a joy and a pleasure?

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I can know – with every fiber of my being – that certain foods make me feel terrible… and yet, as soon as it crosses my mind that I want one of those foods, it’s like I’m powerless to resist and all that sense flies out the window. Cheez-Its, mac & cheese, cookies, pizza (this is the hardest one to admit and accept), popcorn, anything with sugar in it, anything made of bread… you get the idea. The ONLY time I feel good physically (and mentally) is when I eat lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and the occasional dairy or brown rice. Everything else gives me heartburn, gas, indigestion, foggy brain, lethargy, body aches, weight gain & bloating… it sucks. A lot. If I eat too much sugar or too much salt, my heart pounds out of my chest and my brain goes on overdrive.

And yet, KNOWING this does little to prevent me from shoving any and all of it directly in my pie hole, when given the opportunity. Why is that?

You know how, in flight, fight, or freeze mode, your rational brain (and a lot of other brain & body functions) shut down because YOU IN DANGER GIRL, and it’s not until that FFF reaction is gone that your brain & body resume normal function? Like, your rational brain ceases to function in order to conserve the energy you might need if you find you’re going to have to haul ass away from whatever threat is there – whether real or perceived.

I’m wondering if there’s a similar thing that happens when a craving pops up. Cravings are fleeting, of course, and the feeling of one is a whole lot different than fear for your life – mild anxiety because you’re panicking at wanting the THING, depending on what that thing is – but until the craving passes, your rational brain can’t play the tape out to the end and remind you of what happens every time (EVERY time) you eat pizza.

And that leads me to think about other situations in life, where you can absolutely KNOW WITH EVERY ATOM IN YOUR BODY that, say, a person is bad or wrong for you, but you’re still drawn to them and subject yourself to prolonged agony by continuing to spend time with them while everything else falls apart around you. Or you can know that getting laid off from a job was nothing personal, purely business, and yet you can’t help but be hurt, angry, and take it personally. Or, you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a cigarette is going to taste like you’ve licked a dirty ashtray and make your lungs burn, but you just can’t help picking one up because IT’S THERE, and it was your social crutch for so long you’d rather suffer a little than have to go without.

There are so many things… but ultimately, I think it comes down to what you know vs. what you feel. There’s a difference between facts and feelings. And sometimes, I think you just have to let the feelings float on through – acknowledge them, call them out, say, “I see you” – before you can return to your sane, rational state of being.

Maybe it’s just me, though. I mean… when I’m driven by a feeling or a craving or a reaction, I’m really not my best self, most of the time. Certainly if the feeling is one of love or joy, then ideally the outcome of whatever behavior it inspired would be a good thing. Since I’m referring more to the URGE TO ACT when you’re overcome with anxiety or hurt or anger or fear, or the urge to make the feelings go away, or you’re beating yourself up for feeling the way you do, then it’s the negative outcomes I’m thinking of. I’ve never had a good outcome when driven by fear, anger, hurt, anxiety, or insecurity. But when I’ve allowed those feelings to show up and opted out of acting on them, I’ve found better alternatives on the other side of the feelings. Usually, fact-based alternatives. Goodness knows, my brain can make up some crazy shit when I’m anxious, and when I think about taking action – mostly in the hopes of assuaging the anxiety or fixing what I think is broken – it’s never a healthy response. I just don’t think it’s possible, at least for me, to engage in a healthy way when I’m in the throes of an unhealthy brain/body behavior.

I’m finding lately that I keep sinking into poor eating habits, and it’s… vexing. Especially because as soon as I go there with it, I STAY there with it, and it makes me feel worse (physically and mentally and emotionally), which prompts me to beat myself up and lose any momentum I may have had with eating well and/or exercising. Vicious cycle. Over the weekends, I tend to start moving in a better direction because I have no outside influence, but as soon as I go back to work – where there’s candy and baked goods and a convenience store and a Starbucks on the same block – all hell breaks loose and I’m back to eating junk, which usually prompts me to just give up and order fast food for dinner. With C traveling as much as he does, it’s been hard to get in a routine that isn’t disrupted one way or the other; I don’t seem to have much in the way of discipline OR will power, and the only way I am successful is when I am consistent, and don’t allow myself to stray from the path. At all. I know there’s all that “moderation” talk out there, and allowing for treats and normal meals and whatever else, but it’s like a portal to the devil for me, and THE DEVIL WANTS CAKE.

Anyway. I’m splitting this into two pieces because it could get real long, real fast, but there’s a whole lot more I’ve got to say on the matter of bodies and brains betraying us, facts vs. feelings, etc. Nothing more about food/exercise, though; this took a turn I wasn’t quite expecting, but it’s certainly one of the many things I’ve got on the brain. I think I just needed to get this out there and get the ball rolling.

Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Every year about this time, I reflect on where I was – WHO I was – in November of 1998. For those of you just tuning in: I was an IV drug user, addicted to heroin, cocaine, and anything else I could find… and for a brief time, I was homeless on the streets of San Francisco.

I’ve told the story of Thanksgiving, when I sat in the rain in Golden Gate Park, eating food prepared for the homeless by a Latinx family who spoke little to no English, who wanted simply to feed everyone they could. I’ve talked about knowing my sister, her (future) husband, and their/our friends were having dinner together just miles away in Oakland; knowing I was invited, and also knowing I was too full of shame to attend. Thankfully, it wasn’t much longer after Thanksgiving that I finally had enough, finally hit the low emotional point where I was ready to accept the consistent, gentle, and loving offers to help from my family… finally willing to admit I deserved to live, and that somewhere deep down, I still wanted to.

I’ve told the story about being in the throes of addiction, spending time in a relationship with another junkie who made it clear he was in love with someone else, but who continued to spend his time with me unless/until she opened the door for him to come back, even temporarily. He lived with me when I was still able to keep a roof over my head; ours was a partnership of desperation and despair. I remember once writing the words, “please help me” on a piece of paper and sticking it in a book, hoping the message would somehow float out into the universe.

I find it fitting that I would look for a solution in a book, considering it’s where I’ve found so many of them, before and since.

But it’s that apartment I keep thinking about. I’d taken it over from my sister when she moved across the bay to live with her dude; I thought if I did that, I’d stop spending money on drugs, and instead use it to afford a home in a great neighborhood. But good intentions and wishes can never overpower a demon or disease; in this case, I was suffering from both, and my only hope was a wholesale revolution of self, which wouldn’t come until much later.

I lost that apartment when I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and when my family discovered the extent of my drug use. I was taken to treatment, where I lasted all of about 4-5 days. That’s when reality hit. When the bad feelings started to crop up. And I don’t just mean the dope sickness, which in and of itself is panic-inducing and enough to make anyone run to the hills in search of something – anything – to not have to feel it anymore. Instead, it was the thoughts and the feelings and everything else I’d been working to numb and avoid… THAT was what had me climbing the walls, unable to focus on anything else but my misery and the one thing I knew would fix it, even while exacerbating it everywhere else. When you get to that point, repercussions don’t matter. How you’re affecting other people doesn’t matter. The possibility of overdose and death really don’t matter… in fact, the possibility of death seems almost a sweet reprieve, even when you’re absolutely not seeking it out with intention.

So, after those 4-5 days in treatment, I walked out. I knew I had money waiting for me in a bank account, certainly enough to get high for a week or two, and then I’d figure it out. I didn’t know what “figure it out” meant, nor did I care; you live in the moment when you’re in that frame of mind. It’s mindfulness of the worst and most desperate kind.

It’s funny, though. I wouldn’t “spare change” people… I wouldn’t steal from stores to eat or sell things for drug money… I wouldn’t prostitute myself… so, I had limits in how I was willing to survive on the streets. And those limits rendered me essentially useless. I ate out of a few garbage cans here and there, but mostly I just didn’t eat. I didn’t bathe for a month that I can remember. I smoked other peoples’ cigarette butts out of public ashtrays. I slept in parks. I terrorized my family, manipulating and lying to them to get them to send money so I could eat, but mostly so I could keep buying drugs.

Eventually, I met up with a guy named Mark. I’d met Mark through my ex several months prior; he became something of a guide for me during my short time on the streets, helping me survive a little longer. He was the closest thing to a friend I had out there, and I’m grateful for the protection he offered when I needed it. It was a rare thing, to find someone in a similar situation and to actually be able to trust them. At least for a little while, anyway; I guess at some point, it might eventually get back to “everyone for themselves.” out of necessity, but I wasn’t out there long enough for that to happen.

On what turned out to be my last night on the streets, I’d joined up with Mark to buy drugs and to find somewhere safe and dry for the night. It was dark, with a light rain falling; we trudged through the streets of the Upper Haight, and finally came to a place where Mark said he knew we could crash for the night.

It was my old apartment building.

But we weren’t going IN the building… we were going UNDER it.

He’d found a crawlspace, accessible from the street; we proceeded to crawl, wriggle, and otherwise navigate our way to a spot just big enough for a few people to stretch out. We were lying on the earth, building belly as our sky. I remember, even then, finding bittersweet and sour humor – is it irony? – in the fact that what was once my home, meant to envelop me, was now a big, dark, looming beast essentially landing on top of me.

Like the house on the wicked witch… only this was all self-inflicted.

In a way, it was a poetic end, right? The house done killed the witch, alright… but the house was, in fact, still a home. It was a beacon of what was possible, what was out there if I fought for it and let people help me get there. And the witch was my addiction; it didn’t fully die for a few years after that, reappearing as a spectre or yet another death rattle in other kinds of behaviors and actions and thoughts and things that just needed time to work themselves out. Like cutting off a chicken’s head… the body is still gonna do its thing for a bit.

Getting sober is a lot like that. You can take away the substances, and that’s cool, but then you’ve got a holy shit pile of thought patterns and behaviors and survival skills and defense mechanisms and dysfunctional programming to undo. Addiction doesn’t just HAPPEN… and neither does recovery.

I’m not sober anymore, and haven’t been for 12 or 13 years, I guess. I took the absolutely necessary time of being sober, did the work as best I could, kept and employed the tools I learned in AA… and now, I have wine with dinner, or the occasional cocktail out on the town, and there’s no fear of me returning to where I was. Not everyone is like that, and I think it’s a huge mistake to assume anyone else could “do sobriety” like me and have it work out exactly the same. We are the sum of our own experiences, and it doesn’t mean I’m better or worse – just different in what works for me. I still go to therapy regularly, all these years later; I’m hyper-vigilant when it comes to self-introspection, evaluation, and assessment. I constantly take personal inventory, because it’s how I’m wired. And I think that, more than anything, is what keeps me alive and thriving.

Here’s to another year of reflection and gratitude. The further away it gets, the more surreal it all seems; but I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for everything I’ve been through. And you know… I like who I am, so I’ll take it.

The perils of not being true, to (and with) yourself.

I always know when it’s time to sit down and write, because my brain gets full to overflowing and I can’t fully process any of the things swimming around up in there. Lately I’ve been thinking and wanting to write about: dehumanization (h/t Dr. Brené Brown); life and love lessons to share with my nieces; fears about how the world around us is changing, people and connections devolving; defense mechanisms – how they reveal themselves and what we can do to recognize, abide, and overcome…

It’s a lot. As usual. 🙂

But right now, all I can think about is how very free to be me* I feel these days, and how much of a 180 that is from most of my life. What an impact it’s had on my sense of self, my sense of security, my sense of belonging and my place in the world.

*With this comes the very necessary awareness that a lot of this freedom stems from being a white cis het woman in America. While being a woman has its own built-in challenges (harassment, lower pay, healthcare decisions being made by old white men, etc.), it is, for me, not compounded by intersectional challenges of skin color, sexual preference, or gender identity. All the more reason it’s on me to do the work of learning how to be not just an ally, but an accomplice

So, with all of that said, here’s what I mean.

I’m not sure when or where it started, or what caused it (although I have some ideas), but at some point in my early years, I came to the conclusion that I needed to be someone other than myself for people to like me. For people to want to spend time with me. For people to stick around. I felt like I wasn’t good enough as-is, so I would take on characteristics of those with whom I spent time, whose company I wanted to keep, those from whom I sought acceptance or love. I figured, the more like them I tried to be, the more likely they’d want to be around me.

The problem was that I could only pretend to be like one person at a time. I couldn’t emulate more than one because it was too hard, too confusing… so I wound up having one really good friend at a time, or a boyfriend, but rarely both at the same time and certainly not more than one good friend at a time. At some point in those relationships, I’d realize the persona I’d been trying on no longer fit, which meant the relationship itself would fizzle and I’d move on.

The friendships were always “easier” to sever. It was the relationships that were a struggle, because my entire self worth was wrapped up in the other person, making sure I did whatever I could for them to like me, and when it didn’t seem to work, I’d double down and try harder. Take it personally when it eventually and not surprisingly didn’t work out.

Even into my 30’s and 40’s, much to my shame and chagrin, I found myself denying who I really am in an attempt to make a go of it with someone else. I’d leave my critical thinking skills by the door, my common sense in the trash, and let my sad and desperate heart do the “thinking.” And by that, I mean I’d deny what I knew to be true – that the person wasn’t at all a good fit, and that I shouldn’t be anywhere near that relationship, such as it may have been. On occasion, they were good dudes who just weren’t right for ME. In a lot of cases, I knew deep down they were abusive, manipulative, or otherwise harmful, but instead of standing up for the real me, I’d try to get smaller and fit into the space that might could occupy part of this person’s life, if they’d be so kind.

The hustle for worthiness, as Brené says.

Like, the last person I dated before meeting my husband (eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!! still not old!! SO WEIRD!!!!! hearts and stars!! <3), for example. If you had a list of every bad thing you could find in a person, he’d meet all the criteria. You’d think, if you know me at all, that I wouldn’t give someone like that a 2nd look. And maybe it just had to get THAT BAD for me to break this lifelong habit of mine, who knows? Anyway. It wasn’t long – like, a month, maybe? – before I started getting anxiety around him, around our situation… all of it. And the more I doubled down to try and make it work, the more anxious I became. It affected my work, my school, my friendships… all because I was trying to force this thing to happen when it never should have. Friendships lost, quality of work suffered, my ability to focus and tend to regular life things all but disappeared, all because my brain was too busy trying to figure out WTAF I was doing, and why.

Certainly, anxiety is bound to happen when you’re trying to have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person; there is no way to meet crazy with sane and have it come out okay. The two don’t mix, and in fact, the crazy can – and usually does – start to wear off. But that anxiety, though. It was telling me something. Not just that he was unhealthy, sick, and not worthy of my time and effort… but that I was going against who I am by being there in the first place. Denying what I want and need and deserve, and have every right to expect in a relationship.

I shouldn’t have to make myself small to be with someone else. I shouldn’t have to change or hide who I am to get someone to like me. I shouldn’t have to pretend to be something I’m not, pretend to like or want something I don’t, just for the sake of someone else’s favor.

I’m married to someone with whom I feel safe to be completely and entirely and unabashedly ME. I can sing and dance in the grocery store while we’re shopping; he smiles and looks at me like he just discovered a way to love me even more than he already does. There isn’t a single thing I’ve thought or felt that I couldn’t share with him, even if it was embarrassing or made me cry; he will always respond with a kind and loving heart. He thinks I’m smart, funny, competent, and beautiful, even on the days when I definitely don’t. There hasn’t been one single day when I felt like he was attempting to manipulate me, to lie, to try and get me to be anything other than who I am… and instead, he is just excited to get to know the real me even better.

Talk about freedom.

THIS is what it’s all supposed to feel like. Our relationship isn’t work, because we’re both willing participants in it. All of it. Yes, sometimes we talk about hard or scary things, but that’s not really work, either. It’s what you do when you feel safe enough to go there with it, if you’re at all inclined to dig deeper and show your true self to the other. The only insecurities I’ve ever suffered with him were old things that I needed to let go of, and that’s just going to be a work in progress.

But it’s not just my relationship with my husband (heheheheh); it’s how I show up in the rest of my life, too. I work in a place where I absolutely get to be myself, too, and am loved and appreciated for it. I am honest and direct, and make no bones about how I feel. I might do well to temper that sometimes, but man it feels good to be honest and tell the truth as you see it. My opinions and insights (and humor) are valued just as much as the work I do, and that’s one of the many reasons I’ve been reticent to look elsewhere for a new job, despite money being a significant (and growing) stressor. You don’t find workplaces like mine very often.

I wonder sometimes if this “settling into my own skin” business has anything to do with getting older, and realizing the folly of placing my self worth in the hands of others. I mean, it sounds funny to say that, considering I just waxed poetic about how free I am to be myself with my partner and my co-workers… but they don’t hold the key to my worth; they simply give me the safe, comfortable freedom to explore and express it, and then reflect it back.

When you try to deny who you are, what you want, what you need… it prevents you from showing up. I mean, you can’t. Right? If you’re busy pretending to be something you’re not, then you can’t fully show up anywhere. And that means you’re not being accepted for who you are, and you know it. Deep down, you KNOW you’re relating and engaging under false pretenses, even with the best of intentions. If you are in a relationship where you feel like you’re settling, just to make it work? You’re not showing up, and you’re selling yourself short, if not out. Whether it’s because you’d rather do that than be lonely, or you are convinced there’s nothing better out there, or you think this is how it’s supposed to be, or maybe you realize it’s because you just don’t think you deserve to try harder and do better (or different)… authentic connection can only happen when you show ALL THE WAY UP.

And if the person you’re with does anything to try and prevent that, then maybe it’s time to find someone who won’t. Find the person who will celebrate your arrival instead, someone who gives you the room to keep blooming.

It is all of this that finds me trusting my voice, finally seeing and knowing who I really am. Trusting I have insight and wisdom and a heart to share, that I have every right to be here; to want what I want, seek what I’m after, to demand and expect I be seen and heard, just as I am. I still get scared on the inside that I’m a fraud or a fake and that other people will see it or figure it out, but I think that’s because I’ve got about 30 years of programming to undo. I am, in fact, smart, competent, funny, kind, insightful, and, as DeRay says, “flawed. & (still) worthy.”

I feel like I’m repeating a lot here, talking in a circle around what I’m really trying to say. I guess it just all comes down to the realization that I am finally comfortable in my skin most days, and now that I’m no longer trying to hide parts of myself, I can put all of me out there to pursue more. Like seeking true and real connection with others, whether via friendship, or a common goal (like getting people registered to vote and to the polls!!!), or whatever. Now that I know and (mostly) love who I truly am, now that I’ve settled into a comfortable space in my own heart, I can show up everywhere else. I don’t have to hide from the people who know me and could call me out; I don’t have to pretend to be something or someone I’m not; I don’t have to force friendships or relationships… I just get to show the hell up.

It’s pretty spectacular.