Category: PTSD

naked truth

For weeks, i have searched for a way to talk about this through fiction, because i did not want to dwell upon my personal experience more than i already have.  However, telling the truth is what i do best.  And, to be honest, part of the problem is that i do not want to ask for help.  i do not want to talk about what i cannot do alone.

The first person to mention the near impossibility of the situation i was creating for myself was my primary care doctor, just after my divorce.  “Without doubt, you qualify,” she assured me, “with the PTSD alone.” The physical problems – asthma, thyroid disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia (or whatever that diagnosis would be now), the back and hip problems – they would all be gravy.  She all but begged me to accept that I needed to apply for Social Security Disability.

Only, the statement strung me up between two different agonies.  i need to work, for i cannot quite give myself quarter for any suffering – mental, emotional, or physical – but simultaneously, i feel like i am dying by inches, pushing myself too hard.

Regardless of my bull-headed stubbornness, i am drowning financially.  Even though i am working as hard as body and mind are able, i quite literally cannot make ends meet.

This is not a new story, unfortunately.  Nor is it unique to myself.

Over $20,000 of medical debt hangs around my neck like a noose.  This is the aggregate due from years of issues: two major surgeries, a hospitalization, three trips to the ER, two ambulance rides, not to mention every deductible, copay, and uncovered medication. Add to that the small business loan that i got when things were going ridiculously well, that now feels like cement boots.  This past month, in order to pay them, even partially, i had to forgo food, gas money and put off the mortgage for about two weeks. If you want to make me cry, lets talk mortgages.  i finally got it refinanced, but now, eight months later, i will be two weeks late.  The angry letters have already started. Not only am i at a loss for utilities and the cats’ vet bills, i have no idea how to buy the medicines i need to treat the aforementioned diabetes, thyroid disease and despair.

Last night, i wept because the list of things i have bought recently would not stop going through my mind.  i purchased a lawnmower because the grass was as high as my nipples.  My car needed new breaks, because stopping can be a good thing. Then i got $12 of new shoes so that I would have something other than the $5 flip flops to wear to work.  For my birthday, i bought a $28 pair of wireless headphone so my constant need for music would not drive my new tenants to madness.  When i got a promotion at work, two days after my birthday, i celebrated by going out to eat.  Let me tell you, guilt is a terrible seasoning.

For a solid year, i have focused on the regular job that makes reliable money, but its paychecks cover the mortgage, the small business loan and maybe my car payments.  All other responsibilities make me seem like a deadbeat.  Only by the time i am done working this job and making some art, i am exhausted beyond all measure.  Things like selling art have languished.  Too many paintings and drawings are collecting dust.

When i first heard the word foreclosure – only to find out that the mortgage company with whom i had been working for months had sold my mortgage – i reached out to a mortgage specialist.  It was my first day in the studio after having shoulder surgery, and i was still unable to bend because i was awaiting a hysterectomy.  The pain i faced was intense.

“You have done everything right,”  he said gently, “I am looking at how you paid everything off until the medical bills began to pile up…”

i am still digging out.  This month, i am short.  Something will not be paid and i have no clue how i will get the cats’ vetted, my medication purchased or food bought.  Meanwhile, i continue to get messages from clients who have not paid me, asking me if these long standing health issues have vanished so that i can do more work for free. This perception that art or design is not work worthy of being paid for, or that the artist is not worthy of being recompensed for their effort, devastates.  If you value what i do, if you like my art, then this is the time to let me know.

A $100 would pay a bill.  After that, it would be a war within my heart over feeding and maintaining my animals and myself and paying other bills.  The past three years have been, quite literally, hand to mouth.  Desperation has made me put art up for sale again, despite the exhaustion and overwhelm, and with that i hope to at least get the cats to the vet.

However, i bleed over my financial failings.  To a large degree, it feels like i bet on myself and lost – but i knew before i started working as an artist professionally that my health was compromised. Only the call to make art is something fundamental to me, it cannot be denied.  i feel shame that i fell into such disability that i was unable to continue my business’ growth. This fuels my determination to make good on every debt.  Even if i am still making tiny installments when i am ninety, i will pay everyone, even the ones to whom repayment has not begun.  i tell myself – ceaselessly, hoping the repetition will hypnotize me into believing it is true – that things will get better.

Still, i never forget, i am the person who is reviled by those who talk about the poor like we are pariahs.  i have been utterly undone – more than once – because if ill health.  Even now, living paycheck to paycheck, the struggle to maintain this level of activity is punitive. Daily i am faced with the choice between taking care of my health and fulfilling the responsibilities placed upon me. Even making art or writing a poem comes at a cost, wearing me down further.

How else can i live, though?

Being able to work feels like a privilege – and one too many have thought i could not manage.  My friends who are on disability are much braver than i am, able to move down a path i could not.  Unfortunately, i know, someday i may have to follow them despite my best efforts, but for now i am doing every dance i can to keep myself from that excruciating choice.

Whether i like it or not, i have to spend money on food, gas, car and house repair and medicine.  Therefore, i have to burn the candle at every possible point, throwing my work out into this world, no matter how exhausted i am.  Even if i were content to make art in a vacuum, which i am not, i am not going to be able to survive without more income.

So, here i am.

For once i am being utterly transparent about my movies and situation: i need your help if i am going to keep going as a human being, much less as an artist.  Your support will keep my animals and me alive.  If you buy a painting, or a drawing, it clears space for another to come into being.

And, if you are in the same position i am financially, i will be grateful if all you do is share this story, spread word about my art, and use both to build compassion for those of who us toil on fulfilling our dreams and who work our hearts out to live on the razor’s edge between triumph and dissolution.

 

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For a few hours yesterday, i published this blog.  However, i woke up after a night of howling nightmares and put it back into draft mode. The dreams kept going back and forth over the same ground – my subconscious pacing – obsessed with the one thing that i had forgotten to mention.  This blog talks about how troubles that i face came to be and how i have to ground my hopes in art again which can only be done with your help. Talking about the naked truth of my current situation made me feel exposed, more than all the poetry that i have written combined.  Yet the thing that my dreaming kept reminding me of was that i should not be alive.  During the past few years of struggle with agony and illness, i have tried to kill myself twice.  Haunting despair crumbled my heart more than i could describe. It has been because of friendships, unexpected blessings and hard work that i am still here.  i have a job that gets me most of the way to solvency and for now, my health lets me manage it, even if the margin is narrow at times.  i have friends that are unbelievably good and slowly i am coming to terms with who i am at this moment, and beginning to appreciate this hot mess of being.

So, yes, I am asking for help, for understanding, for a sense that i am not howling into the darkness – but i need to leave this writing by telling you that i am so grateful to have made it this far.

change

screaming_squarei am learning so much about myself during these past few months.

In a pinch, i can wake up early in the morning, consistently, although apparently never with joy.  i much prefer waking up in the very late morning after a night of work.

Despite having massive anxiety issues, i can put on a mask of confidence that, miraculously, people seem to accept as reality.  If i can keep the nightmares in check and manage to get some restful sleep every night, then i’ll keep getting better and maybe, someday, that mask will truly be real.

i am at peace with not knowing things… much more than i ever expected i could be.

After so long struggling, it looks like i might be able to get my house refinanced, avoiding foreclosure and a traumatic move.  However, even with that boon, it will be a long slog for me to dig myself out of the hole i am in financially.  Still, i have a slightly bigger shovel to use than i did four weeks ago.

Poetry and drawing will make their way through me, even if they have to ambush me during still moments. Stories, too, queue up and wait patiently for their time.

thesun_squareThe most profound lesson is that i am stronger than i expected, particularly when it comes to interacting with others.  Looking back, i don’t know when this shifted, but it is lovely to no longer care about those who hurt me like i once did.  Gone are the endless second guessings and guilt, well, unless it involves those i love – i care so much more then. Unfortunately, i remain quite wary of people after they have wronged me – but at least, now, i have the chance to work on it.

For these lessons, i am so grateful.  For the trial that i had to go through to get to this place, well, i suppose i’m grateful for that too. And, i know, this is just a beginning. In so many ways, i am still a hot mess. i will keep writing, keep drawing, keep working to maintain a balance between other responsibilities and the overwhelming drive to make art… and, maybe, i’ll be able to start blogging here again – for a month, all my effort has gone into my other blog.  Still, there is no rush.  All things will come in their own time.  In this moment, all is well.  For that, how can i be anything other than thankful?

 

the face i dare not show

Again, today, i heard something familiar.  When discussing anxiety and the trouble it can cause, the person i was talking to smiled brightly and said, “Yeah, you say you have anxiety, but you always look so cheerful and confident to me.  I don’t think it’s real.”

At first i felt frustrated.  Her image of me spits in the face of the reality i know.  Then i realized, to her experience of me, she must feel fully justified in her opinion.  There are faces i dare not show.  She only sees me on my best, bravest days.  For, thank heavens, i have days were i can walk through the world unhampered. Whether it be from medication or a sense of duty or just a miracle from the divine, i get these gifts of days when i am useful and reliable. Responsibilities have always had enough power over me to push me past fear and worry – only, i tend to fall apart when i get home, once the adrenaline wears off.

Yet, on the highest anxiety day, no one will ever see how fear and self-loathing can cripple me, because i will be hiding behind locked doors with the computer and the phone off.  Pain feeds the anxiety, and they will amp each other up over the course of time until i am rendered impotent. If you come to check on me during one of those spells, and knock on the door without my expecting it, i will hide in the bed, or crawl into the tub where no one peering in a window can see me, utterly terrified.

On the next step up, i might interface with you through social media or text or email, but i cannot get past my fears to pick up the ringing phone.  i stare at it in mild horror as it bleats for attention. It jars the fragile zen i can maintain while alone. Those moments are what caller ID and voicemail were made for.

Those days, i meditate for hours to keep myself calm.

Most of the time, i feel like an overfilled apple cart, one more apple and the whole thing will fall apart. My wheels will roll off in opposite directions, the structure of my being will collapse into a thousand pieces, fruit flying everywhere.  Worst of all, that new apple could come from anywhere.  Someone asks me to do a job, and i don’t feel like i can say no and i am suddenly (more) overwhelmed.  Another medical bill comes to me, that i cannot pay, because i am still limited in how i can make money.  A lot of days, i cannot check the mail.  The thought of it makes me start to tremble with angst.

The worse it gets, the more impossible it is to reach out for help, because people can be too helpful trying to solve my problems, as though anxiety means i cannot know what will work for me.  For every useful piece of advice, i have also had my heart broken.  What if i unburden my anxiety and someone uses that as opening to stoke my greatest fears (thank heavens you can’t make art so much any more, it was really awful) or my most tremendous guilts (Is that why this paperwork isn’t done?  What do you do with your days?) and the whole rickety construction of coping disintegrates?

Even worse, what if i do ask for help and then i am too needy, i keep talking too long, my need for a sense of belonging or compassion overriding my common sense? When i am in great pain, i distract myself by talking – it uses up so much less focus than listening. i am aware that i am listening too little and talking too much just like i am aware inside a dream.  Seeing that look of boredom or imposition on someone else’s face in response to my yammering can wreck me too.  i do not want to be the one who complains all the time, one of those people who see doom in every moment and cannot begin to have a positive thought or feeling.

For the anxiety, the depression, always live in tension with the joy i get from making art, the love that i feel for my friends, the multitude of blessings that i freely admit exist in this life of stress.

There are those tremendous days when i can move mountains. Thanksgivings pour from my throat until i am hoarse. And, there are the terrible days when no one sees me because i am hiding in a dark house, too afraid of everything to turn on a light.

It’s both.  Most of the time, i am in some kind of middle space – not moving mountains but not paralyzed either – and there’s no magical solution.  Progress can be excruciatingly slow, but inching forward nonetheless.  If i can work, i do.  If something urgent needs to be done, i can often put on the big girl pants, despite the chafing, and get it finished.  Often i am better at a regular job than my own art, because i am less invested in the ultimate outcome.  There are clear rules and procedures that help guide me. i can be glib and funny and am expert at hiding my pain.

So, with me and, i imagine, with many others who have anxiety and depression: what you are seeing is the best of us.  The worst is reserved for my cats, my dog, the two or three people closest to me, and those moments of solitude when suffering echoes around inside my own skull.

 

false starts

Over the past month, i wrote at least six blogs, then deleted them or never published them. Dozens of poems hemorrhaged out of me.  With each new one i thought, ‘This will be something i can share with the world,’ only to type it in and be paralyzed by trepidation. As i have moved through these days, i kept wondering about the kind of writing and art i want to share with the world.  Creating beauty can be a raison d’être on its own, but what about the art of change and chaos and loneliness and pain?

theoceanNothing i’m going through right now feels pretty.  Exhaustion and pain have worn me down more than they have in years.  Whatever equilibrium i enjoyed before has been destroyed. 

Unstable, i have been unable to find a new balance.  The most terrifying depression i have experienced in years gripped me to the point of death two weeks ago, and even now, i am having a hard time shaking off its shackles. Except for poetry, art just stopped cold in its tracks.

Unfortunately, i have had spells where i was not making good art for a long stretch, because of mood or physical issues, but to get so low that the desire to make anything at all just tapered off into weariness, that terrified me.  It robbed me of my will to live, because without this engine inside me, creating even when i am asleep, constantly driving me forward, i am absolutely lost.  i searched for my desire like the suffocating for air, but for days that seemed to stretch on forever, i could not bring myself to work. Staring at the half finished painting brought on nothing more than increased sadness and impotence.  i lacked both the strength and focus to bring even the simplest of stories or forms into being.  Sitting at the wheel stained my face with tears more than it did my hands with mud.  Eventually, my imagination grew so disheartened that even inspiration silenced itself.

If you had asked me before this crisis how much of my self-esteem is wound around the art that i make, i would have unwittingly lied. Until this experience, i did not truly know. Even as i turned like a wheel, head and then feet, falling into the pit, i could blame other things for my descent: the realization that my physical pain won’t get better without medical intervention; the epiphany that many things (particularly anxiety and depression) are not actually a matter of my being weak or undisciplined but are caused by my brain’s chemistry and thus also require medical intervention; the understanding that the longer i am paralyzed by these things, the more unlikely it is i will preserve the freedom to keep making art; and the sharp certainty that i will need help from those that love me, whether i want to ask for it or not. 

Maybe those would have been enough to cause the crisis, but what surprised me was that none of these truly depressing facts compromised me half as much as being so broken that i could not do more, or imagine doing more, than scribbling down maudlin poems.

i should not disrespect verse. Without that outlet, i would have been in even worse shape. Certainly, one of my previous depressions would have ended me.  For decades, i have given poetry credit as the saving grace in my life, a true blessing, a refuge into which i can tuck myself until the suffering abates.  This episode of despair, however, taught me that my fundamental needs have grown. i have rooted myself deeply into visual art, into storytelling, into clay. The thought of losing those made my existence completely worthless. Honoring the love and friendship i have been given felt impossible, when all i could see was how much my suffering effects them.   Even the poetry i was writing seemed likely to spread despair like a contagion.

i crashed on the rocks, but didn’t realize i had hit bottom until the next morning. Sunrise surprised me.  i shook with weakness and fear from where i had been.  Climbing out of that hole has taken many days, and i fear i am not finished. My footing keeps giving way, and i fall back into the mire, flopping like a fish trapped on land. Even as i start to make art again, pen and inks, a tiny sculpture, i continue to shake with the nakedness of vulnerability.

Now that i am aware of this newly exposed nerve – and still have all the other problems standing on my neck, trying to force me back down into the muck – i have to find a way to mitigate them. i must discern how to save my life.

But, i get ahead of myself.  i keep fearing for the future when the present is shouting at me.

In this moment, i am still trembling and weak from this spell of sorrow.  Sunlight makes me blink as though i have been blind. The warmth and darkness found under covers or curled up in the couch’s deep corners still feel so much safer, like a shell under which i can hide. When i do move, it is with the uncoordinated awkwardness of a fawn trying out its first steps.

If i manage to think clearly, in those moments of blessed clarity when depression forgets to crush me with is suffocating weight, i feel like even this crisis has changed my relationship with the world.  Only, i have no clue what will manifest from this.  Newness remains formless.  i can sense many of my give-a-damns have irrevocably broken, but lack the internal clarity to see which. My mood remains too fragile to aimlessly poke around the shadowed corners of my psyche; i am afraid what stresses and sorrows might come flying out and completely undo me. 

Nevertheless, without my seeking it out, one possible benefit from this crisis has been laid bare:

i have lost my will and desire to continue this dance of self-hatred.

i am simply too exhausted and my spirit’s too raw to listen to that music any longer.

For years, i have felt i had to be someone that i am not.  i have absorbed so much advice, heard so many suggestions as to how i could be better, and i have believed them. Indeed, i had a long list of my flaws and limitations that i was determined to transcend. i tormented myself trying to become someone who has skills and gifts radically different than the ones with which i was naturally blessed.   i learned bookkeeping, for heaven’s sake!

i am so weary of trying to remake myself; i long to find some way to exist, to thrive, with the talents and flaws that already reside within this skin.  i want to stop pruning myself in a fruitless mission to conform to a shape unnatural to me; instead, i would be wild, find out what can be done with nothing more than sunlight, wind, rain, the seeds already planted in my soul, and the love to let them grow. i want to strengthen my roots as i reach for the sky.

fallingintotheoceanWhen i fight hard enough to think about things clearly, i only see two primary needs in the short term, both of which will help end self-hatred’s waltz: to be kind to myself, kinder than i have been before and more forgiving, and to follow my still, quiet voice. 

Kindness and listening. 

Kindness and internal awareness. 

Kindness shoving a gag in judgment’s screaming maw. 

Earlier, i heard the whisper within, telling me to rest, to write, and here i am.  Perhaps i will even publish this blog.  With such a little spark of progress, hope raises its head out of the mud and takes a deep breath. 

If i give myself the gifts of kindness and deep listening, things might keep getting better. 

Maybe, soon, i will have gained enough strength to rise and start burning with word or image again.

7 february 2016

right on the edge

For weeks, i have been having profound issues physically. Even my ability to produce art, beyond sporadically writing poetry and fiction, has completely stalled. i lost most of the week before last, taking four sick days. For a while, i rallied, although after three days of shuffling through my obligations, things took a troubling turn. i went to the emergency room on Tuesday evening and got home fairly late Wednesday, without any joy.  Everything between now and then has been a blur of misery.

i have been struggling in the most profound way. The smallest things cause tears to stream down my face.  The world keeps spinning on me.  Food has become the enemy, all of it digestible only with intense suffering and pain. Usually, i cope very well with pain – working around it – but this is different.  i am graceless, frustrated, constantly on the edge of cognitive overload.

IMG_2380
poor Martin

i could not even let my cat, Martin, cuddle (he is always starved for love) – the physical contact made the pain one whisker more than i could bear.  Eventually, he figured it out and started sitting beside me, cautiously creeping closer and closer, until i was in a good enough place for him to curl up close and get pets and scritches.  Thankfully, Roxi and Darwin are more self-sufficient, content to sit nearby and rest.

The worst part of this has been how it debilitates me emotionally.  My issues with anxiety get augmented wildly by this level of exhaustion and pain.  Chronic illness can lead to feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, but this has been a much stronger reaction than usual. i keep getting jumped, every phone call, each time someone knocks at the door, each time the dog barks like he announces the apocalypse, i nearly come out of my skin. i freeze and shudder and cry. There are a few really unflattering anecdotes i could share about hiding until the unexpected passed – and i acknowledge the irrationality of it. The fear is useless and misplaced.  However, this knowledge doesn’t make any difference. Indeed, the feeling of anxiety was so overwhelming and acute that i unplugged the house line for three days, knowing that people could text or leave a message on my cell (the ringer was set to vibrate) if it was urgent. The boweddown_11x14mail piled up, because i could not get to the box, either physically or emotionally.

Today, i was treading water slightly better, and predictably life felt a little more possible, a little less terrifying.  However, no illusion dwells inside my heart.  As i write, i have expended what energy i have, dinner is at war with my gastrointestinal system, and i can feel the anxiety ratcheting up.  Useless worries crowd my mind.  i try so hard to redirect myself into gratitude – this is a whole meditation/prayer i use to get through, focusing on whatever i can find to be grateful for inside even the worst present – but for now, i am a mouse and my fears are a cat.

Still, i am surviving. i am working to make bloodyminded stubbornness a blessing. All i can do is focus on tiny bits of work before i completely lose myself to sleep and pain.  In tiny, baby steps, i am making progress.  As you can see my website and online store are back up and running, i have edited the books i’ve completed this past month, and i continue to write the one that has its hands wrapped around my heart.  And if i remind myself of these tiny steps forward, maybe the rest of the hulking mountain of problems and fears will seem less intimidating.

The floor won

photo 4Two conversations derailed what I intended to write tonight.  I had gotten as far as typing the title and setting up categories when the evening escaped from my clutches.

I was supposed to describe cleaning the studio – how even though the floor is much cleaner, I still feel like it conquered me more than I conquered it.  For two days I have been bent with pain; even though I wanted to crumble – and did disintegrate a few times – I came back together and returned to work on the job.  My psyche needed the studio to be cleaner, more hospitable to humans.

After waxing on for awhile about the painful tedium of cleaning floors and how fluently cursive can flow from my lips when I’m on all fours scraping newly reconstituted mud up off the floor, and how being present in some moments doesn’t make them less unpleasant, I would have been telling you about how it is all worth it because I get to make the floors filthy again throwing and glazing tomorrow.

Only after two unexpected conversations, my mind is in a totally different place.  My attention has been brought to the person I used to be, to the greatest pains I have suffered and to the woman I am in this moment. This path has taken me through some terrible places and miraculous moments.  My current situation isn’t completely devoid of stress.  I continue to be lonely and feel acutely vulnerable. Oh, Lord, I still have a long way to go on the path of compassion and kindness.  Still, in the middle of all the whining I have done lately, I have found great peace and happiness.

In both conversations, I surprised myself.  In the first, I realized with gentle shock that I was at peace with something that had hurt me terribly five and a half years ago.  Talking about it, I finally could see past the pain of my reaction to what might have been going on in the heart of the other person.  Great forgiveness and compassion filled me. Indeed, for the first time, I could see the whole experience through his eyes, and from that view his actions seemed comprehensible.  A deeper peace settled within me.

In the second discussion, I actually lost my temper a bit about not being heard – because I had learned a great lesson that could not be muddied by misunderstanding. We were on the same page about how living in the moment – not projecting into the future or dwelling in the past – is the key to lasting happiness. I agreed with him that there are times when terrible things happen and you can do nothing to stop them – being present in the moment, even if it’s awful and painful and traumatic – can seem like an impossible thing but is necessary. Running away just makes the healing take longer; it encourages denial and prolongs suffering. Likewise, I concurred, refraining from revenge and hate even when you’ve been badly wounded by another can be necessary for the health of the soul.  Love is always the best way to respond to anything – however, where I vigorously disagreed was in how that love manifests as we walk through the world.  You do not have to keep dipping into the well of abuse voluntarily.  You can forgive and love but simultaneously strive to avoid situations with people who have treated you terribly in the past.  Masochism is not the same as enlightenment.  Ideally, any form of violence and cruelty should be responded to with love – but I argued that practically, in the moment of injury, the most basic act of love can be getting yourself through intact.

There are spiritual levels to love on on hand and the very practical needs of social interaction in the other. We can be compassionate and keep ourselves safe. If we do not stay safe, we can forgive those that transgressed upon us, but not allow them to wound us again. I have not demanded such forgiveness of myself when I was still actively suffering at someone’s hands, as he suggested is the ideal. In my experience, that was too much to ask in that moment. Those nows centered around survival. Peace and forgiveness came later, after the physical danger had passed. Likewise for smaller frustrations and cruelties: as they are occurring, practicality demands that choices be made to accept someone else’s judgment, or defend oneself, or avoid a greater confrontation. Perhaps perfection demands that we never lose our tempers or get irritated (although Jesus did, come to think of it) but reality often means that anger is sparked and we pray for grace in whether or not we stoke the fires and in how the flames escape us.

We can honor God within every single human being, even the ones who leave a swath of destruction through the world, without having to submit to their malevolent behavior.  There are moments that we have to love ourselves enough to be firm and protective.  There has to be a way to face the world in a compassionate, loving way, but do not allow ourselves to be hurt or diminished.  On a very basic level, we must love ourselves and treat ourselves with kindness.  We can get into a great philosophical debate about the non-existence of self and how we are all manifestations of the divine, but as we move through the world in these skin-covered constructions, there remain ways to hurt us.

More than I ever did before, I have been irritated and pushing back to behavior I don’t think is appropriate during the past year. My vision has cleared. It has been incredibly hard for me to finally wake up enough to realize that I cannot fix another’s problem by arguing with them or by indulging their whims to the point of self-injury, or by altering myself to suit their mood, or by letting them hurt me.  Love has to include myself – I am part of creation too.  I love living this life; I enjoy this particular skin-covered construction.  Rather belatedly, I have realized it is alright to make my safety and happiness a higher priority without sacrificing love or being less loving.

Perhaps this is too simplistic.  Almost certainly this is not the most fully enlightened model of behavior.  However, it has helped me quite a lot over the past few months.  Every time I do tonglen meditation, I realize that I can breathe in pain and suffering and sorrow and release kindness and joy and love. There are endless depths to love. The energy of a room can change just by breathing in negatives and breathing out positives. An eternal spring of compassion flows up within our souls into which this meditation taps. This practice helps deepen my understanding of the reality and omnipresence of love.  But that doesn’t mean that I would willingly allow someone to hurt me.

I don’t want to cause harm to other people either, but I have finally found out that I have no patience for those who would cause me pain. I find myself avoiding those who would insult me, or ignore me, or actively hurt me. Even when they are not acting out of malice, I consistently find myself walking away from cruel or judgmental or crushingly negative behaviors. My vexation has been leaking out my lips too often, but I still marvel at its existence. I know that I deserve to be treated better, just because I am a child of God – just like they deserve to be treated well for the same reason. Tonight, I found out that I could say with complete conviction that love for others, a global kind of love, universal love, does not conflict with being kind to the one looking out from behind these eyes.

Ah, I have written too much.  It might be hazy and indistinct because it is already tomorrow and my back is still singing with pain.  After I awake, when the sun has long since risen again, I will deliver pottery to a gallery and then come back to the studio to glaze. Surely the floor will be messy again before the next sunset.  But it will all be well, because I will be back to making art.

thoughts on social anxiety

The past three days, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Sunday’s blog.  I suppose I should admit that the social anxiety has not gone away, in fact it has magnified a bit. An endless stream of apologies seems to be flowing from my mouth. At any rate, while I wrote Sunday, I had a tiny epiphany. My conviction that it might lead to the truth has grown stronger over the past 48 hours.

Although, I wonder if I haven’t had this epiphany before and just keep forgetting it.  Perhaps I should go back and check through older blogs.  My memory sputters like a car that refuses to start.

The back pain has left me right on the edge of cognitive load; I feel impaired as I try to process what’s going on around me.  Moving through space while hiding the amount of pain I’m in requires nearly all of my focus. If I drop my guard, I am probably going to become a trembling ball of whimpers. Certainly I was a wreck after dismantling my bedroom so I could flea treat my cat. This hyper-focus on keeping my shit together makes me acutely insecure that I’m missing things like social cues and snippets of conversation. Things get lost. Indeed, I forgot all about a student this afternoon.  Thank heavens she had her own key to the studio, knows what to do and has a forgiving nature.

Social situations have always left me anxious; large groups of people intimidate me.  As blissful as I can be with my life, I have very little confidence in how others see me.  Usually this doesn’t matter, because I’ve learned that trying to please anyone other than myself is fairly moot.  For everyone that likes some aspect of my personality, there will be someone who detests it. One will complain when I am passionate and effervescent, another adores it.  When friends try to comfort me I find myself blinking back tears, for I know if we went down the inventory of my character traits, I could give them someone who is a fan and someone else who rolls their eyes in despair for each and every item on the list. (This fact parallels in art, too: for every one who loves it there is another who will tell me I’m wasting my life.) Worse, when I am in this much pain, all perspective disappears.  Overwhelmingly, I feel forsaken, lost, like the world has suddenly become huge and terrifying. Solitude weighs on me like heavy stones, dragging me under water. All the strength and resilience I have demonstrated is forgotten. The joy I take in I am when I am alone does not soothe me, because in that moment the pain overwhelms all logic, memory and sensation.

Which does nothing to improve my cognitive load issues.  The pain itself can feel like a strange punishment for whatever my sins might be.

All the coping techniques that I can use when I find myself in a triggering situation to minimize the anxiety, and that I can use to derail the post-event insecurity, are not accessible when my body  screams so loudly.  Even if I quiet myself through meditation – something less likely when I cannot sit still without crying – all I can really manage is not fighting the onslaught of emotions and thoughts.  For the past three days, I have been nothing but apologies – desperate not to hurt people while I walk around in this haze – and I have continued to struggle with pain.

Eventually my back will feel better.  Or, I’ll just get used to this level of discomfort.  In the mean time, I’ve got to try to remember that this current spasm of loneliness and worry is happening for physiological reasons more than actual, rational ones.  When I lose perspective, I have to realize that it is only a shift in perception, not a condemnation.  If I say it often enough, I’ll start to believe it.

Right?

And, next time I have a big injury or an incapacitating illness, I’ll try to remember to re-read this blog.

 

two steps away from oblivion

As good as my mood has been for the past several weeks, I am aware that I always walk two steps away from oblivion.

angel_smThere has been great progress, though, for I used to be one step away from oblivion.  Indeed, I spent a lot of time with my toes dangling over the edge.

A quirk of my character refuses to let me to take most things for granted. I have been told my endless ‘thank you’s for even small acts of kindness are off-putting. Each great pot I throw still wows me, because I remember the many long years when I could not throw well at all. When loveliness comes out of the kiln, I find myself singing and dancing. Every month I manage to pay my bills, I celebrate (albeit from a place of anxious overwhelm).  When my friends reach out to me, I rejoice in their actions.  The good painting, the poem that makes me smile, the story that bears some grace, all leave me wildly grateful.

The flip side to this gratitude is the keen and certain knowledge that these gifts can be lost at a moment’s notice.  Whether we realize it or not, we all stand two steps away from our personal oblivions.  None of us has any real security, even if we can convince ourselves that we do because we cannot know the future.  Illness, an accident, financial stresses (and who is without those) – well, I will stop naming them.  There are countless ways to fall into oblivion.  Focusing on them is unhealthy, which I know from experience.

If I estimate conservatively, I spent a decade wallowing in fear and anxiety without the ability to move forward effectively.  PTSD, general anxiety, debilitating illness, I can come up with a lot of reasons why I was stuck, but honestly, the reason why isn’t half as important as my getting to the place where I could be brave and start moving.  Angel

So I keep going, seeing the edge beside me, realizing how vulnerable I am, and yet knowing that even if I fall in the most catastrophic way possible, even if I lose everything, this movement is better than the fear and paralysis in which I was trapped.

And, tonight as I write, this is the blessing for which I sing thanksgivings.

art of the broken

studio_005_02232011This is a first: a blog by request.  My friend Shawna Barnes has begun writing a book about art and health issues – a few hours ago she asked me for my thoughts on the subject above and beyond what I wrote in a survey she sent out.

Part of the reason she asked me this was because she knows my history.  I was in graduate school, type A, writing poetry and fiction on the down low before I got very sick. While I had painted a lot before I fell ill, I had never allowed myself to think of poetry, fiction or art as a possible career. Everyone told me that trying would make me a fool – how many have had the message that no one makes a living at art drummed into their head.  However, getting sick changed all that.  There is tremendous freedom in having nothing to lose.  I reacted to my situation by throwing myself into the arts.  I wrote thousands of poems, several novels, over a dozen short stories and started painting and drawing and sculpting.  I dealt with a lot of  depression and PTSD through art.  While many of the pieces I wrote and painted reflected my sorrow over my situation, creativity became the greatest healing force in my life.

At the time, I was married and didn’t have to worry about making a living through this compulsive creating.  Which wound up being a wonderful thing.  At the time, my health would not have allowed for any regular or reliable efforts.  Deadlines would have been impossible.  Therefore, I had years to educate myself and practice and create.  Indeed, I was coding my website earlier today – adding dozens of paintings, some for sale, some from the days when I was just starting down this road.  It proved to me how much I have evolved and improved as an artist.

I cannot bring myself to regret getting sick because it brought me to this place – where I am doing what I love.  Indeed, I am even learning to get better at running the business that keeps my art going.  However, I doubt there will ever be a time when I can ignore my health in the equations of being an artist and a business-woman. There are still days I cannot work.  Deadlines continue to be a struggle.  Without doubt, it has an effect on the environment I set up inside the studio.  A lot of the changes I expect to make within the next year are because of my health mandating adaptations in how I order the space in which I work and live.

The problem with defining such things, as we discussed when Shawna asked me to write something up, will be that everyone’s needs are radically different, disability or not.  Each artist – every human being – has their own method of work, their own particular habits and preferences.  When disability or sickness is added to the mix, that just intensifies the need to think about what each individual needs.  The joy I experience in what I’m doing means I can work through a massive amount of pain – last year I threw 150 bowls while I had a broken vertebrae and a busted disc – but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

Because I am the one that uses the studio most, my first concerns were to make it a comfortable and energizing place for me.  That sounds selfish, but really the bread and butter of my business is my own art – not the teaching that I do.studio_008_02232011

For me, the most important thing is movement.  Stillness gets painful after awhile – so if I can throw (seated), then sculpt (standing), then write (seated in a different position), and then maybe sculpt a bit more it helps.  Either way, the entire work flow is designed to serve my need for movement.

This has actually been a very good thing for my teaching.  One of my students has a fused spine, so she uses the surfaces that work well when standing. I have gathered about every possible height of stool and chair, along with a whole lot of bricks and cement blocks, all so people can move up or lower themselves at the wheel or at a table.

When I write, or code websites (for 10 hours today!), or use the computer for social media and marketing, during my “off hours” (I laugh every time I write that) at home, I have the option to use this desk as a standing desk or as a seated desk.  I wrote a blog entry about that, too.

Part of the reason I shift my environment so frequently is because I am in pain, I find a position is stressing my body, so I keep trying to get the best possible positioning for myself. As the my muscles, nerves and bones improve or deteriorate, the configuration of surfaces and seats must shift as well. I encourage my students and members of the studio to move chairs and blocks and bricks around to help them best.  The next step is to make sure that afterward everyone moves them back.

studio4Another aspect of organization was to have a space that encouraged me to create.  Both upstairs and down, I have music.  Wide tables allow for any sized project to be tackled.  I can have the lights low if my head is pounding and yet there are spotlights for close detail work.  Reading glasses have been scattered throughout the entire studio.  Most of all, I try to listen to both my body and my students – if something isn’t working then I shift the furniture and tools around until we find a better configuration.

Other adaptations are easy.  Turn off the ringer for the phone if a student has PTSD or Autism and would be jarred by the noise.  Play music that they find inspiring or energizing or comforting – most of my students have their own Pandora playlists.  If someone has poor impulse control, make sure that things which might injure them are safely stored away.  When teaching a small hoard of children, make sure there are other adults around to help herd them properly.

Yet, the most important thing I have to do is encourage my students and be kind.  All teachers will know this, but the challenge is to find a way to give advice that is true and helpful but doesn’t diminish the student’s artistic vision – or their vision of themselves as artists.

That was one of the hardest messages to digest.  Even though I had been telling people in grade school that I wanted to be a writer and I had filled nearly every notebook from the first day of kindergarten through the last day of graduate school with doodles, drawings and poems, I felt like I was somehow less legitimate as an artist because I had planned my education around another path. At art events, I found myself apologizing for studying history and language.

The insecurity ran deep.  Simply because I spent nearly every waking hour creating in some medium or another did not mean that I was good or that this was something I ought to be doing. For a long time, I thought of what I did as the art of the broken rather than simply art.  Then I surrendered to the compulsion and the bliss of it – and like magic questions of my legitimacy no longer kept me up at night.  I realized I had as much right to make a living with my art as anyone else.  It sank into me that I am truly blessed to have had this passion to embrace when other dreams fell apart.

Alas, the message that I should not be doing this continues to dog me.  Just this past weekend it was suggested that I throw out all painting, drawing, sculpting and pottery because I lack skill at them. At least this time, the speaker said my writing was worth all my attention.  So there has been improvement!  Regardless, it took years to be able to shake such judgements off – to realize that for everyone who dismisses my creations there will be another who likes them – and I don’t want to give someone else that burden.  We have enough to deal with just being artists.

And that, Shawna, basically sums up my thoughts on the art and disability.

thinking about the power of thoughts

Over the past three days, several people gave fairly randomly mentioned the power of thinking positively, and the unconnected conversations have caused a cascade of musings on my part.

i do think that our thoughts matter. Despair can make any situation worse; peacefulness can make everything better. However, there are moments when even the most blindingly positive thinking cannot deny reality. People get sick, they die. It is not a matter of choosing it, or willing illness onto yourself – everyone gets sick, everyone eventually dies. If someone has positively thought herself into immortality, she is keeping it quiet. Arguments could be made, i suppose, that the truly enlightened are the exceptions that proved the rule, but after his awakening the Buddha did choose to die in the end, and Christ begged in Gethsemene. Even they knew pain, which means to me that i cannot take my own as unique and singularly tragic.

Part of life is suffering, we cannot fully escape it. Someone’s free will can damage another’s best  intentions and challenge their most positive thoughts to the core. Just the difficulties of life can knock people down, regardless of their mindset.

i have watched people face profound illness and their mortality with awe inspiring grace, kindness and merit. Their strength and faith and wonderful attitudes made their time more pleasant, possibly longer and their trials certainly more bearable. Positive reactions filled the moments between pain with a better emotion, but they did not cure cancer or muscular dystrophy or keep mindless violence from ending a life.

So, i remain skeptical of positive thinking’s success in curing all ills. However, i am also acutely aware that it does help. Joy makes life precious, love is something worth fighting for. It is hard to underestimate how potent changing the internal dialog about challenges and reversals and self perception and health can be. i have seen it with vivid clarity in my own life – the color of the words i say to myself about a situation lend their hue to the whole experience. Without a certain amount of optimism (i have written about magical thinking and stubbornness as tools before) the impulse to surrender can be overwhelming – both personally, professionally and in the greater realms of politics and society. Believing unshakably in the worth, decency and dignity of the individual – yourself no more and no less than all others – is necessary in this world of negative messages and judgment.

It can drive not just personal healing but can provide fuel for the engine for social change.

That said, positive thinking itself can be wielded like a club when others insist that the suffering have somehow chosen their situation or simply lack the strength to think their way out of it. People do not suffer because they are weak or lazy or bad; every life is full of challenges that cannot be predicted or controlled. We all get sick; we all eventually leave this world. Neither is a cause for condemnation. More importantly, we cannot know the intimate sensations and abilities within another’s form – much struggle and pain hides beneath the skin without giving any outward clues to its existence, which makes it impossible to judge their will or merit by their perceived physical state.

Quite literally, positive thinking might need to be the antidote to someone’s orders to think positively – exchanging an honoring of self and celebrating the joy that intersperses with pain for the command to think oneself out of pain, or disability, or grief, or poverty, or any other trouble. If you have fallen in the mud, wishing and thinking “I am not in the mud” won’t be as useful as forgiving yourself for falling, struggling to stand again and then using the mind to come up with a way to move through the world that takes gravity better into account, if such a way exists.

Writing this is easy, living it has been outrageously difficult. i continue to have one foot stuck in negative habits and reflexive reactions while the other stands on solid ground. Spasms of despair and anxiety occasionally tackle me and wrestle me to the ground. Too often i stumble into puddles of self-pity. And i have never been able to fully disarm the recordings of insults and cruelty that can be triggered into playing within my memories. However, i have gained the ability to question those messages, ignore them and even tell them off. Dwelling in gratitude helps immeasurably, but i know i am still vulnerable to negative thoughts and emotions.

Perhaps this is why i am receiving these messages about positive thinking, if i choose to seek meaning behind such gifts. Today, a wonderfully wise and kind woman talked to me about acceptance and letting go. The compassion in her voice and manner melted me a bit. As she spoke, i saw the image of forgiveness as a layered process, hitting the mind, then the heart, then the gut. All of the positive thinking In the world would be ineffective – even at simply soothing a flash of pain in the moment – without it reaching down from the mind to conquer the heart and then convert the guts. Mental, spiritual, physical.

She said nothing about having brought suffering onto myself. Instead she described healing as this ever deepening process of bringing love, kindness and forgiveness (the most positive emotions of all) deeper within, like they move through shakras or penetrate to the depths of the soul. This kind of positive deepening can bring marvelous change, but it does not change a basic reality: barring marvelous, miraculous enlightenment, i am still bound to this mortal coil and the suffering it entails.

i leant her Showings by Julian of Norwich, with a quote i love so well that a version of it is tattooed on my arm:

all will be well.
and all will be well,
and all manners of thing
will be well.

that masterpiece is the best positive thought of all.