Monday, January 16, 2017

Wrestling with Fear

"Fear gets its power from our not looking, at either the fear or what we're afraid of."
~Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Two weeks after D-Day #1, my mother was hospitalized with a lung infection. She had COPD thanks to years of smoking so this lung infection quickly became critical and she slipped into a coma. Doctors gathered us at her bedside and told us to think hard about whether we wanted her on life support or "do not resuscitate". Alone with her not long after, I whispered in her ear. "Not now, Mom. I need you. You can't die now."
Her doctor laughingly called it a "miracle". "We thought she was a goner," he said. But while she was relieved to have emerged from the coma, she was also terrified. "It was so dark," she told me. Though she had a strong religious faith, she became terrified of dying. Not of death, she told me, but of dying. My mom, however, had never met a fear she wasn't willing to stare down. So she began talking about this fear. To her doctors, to her minister, to her family. Her doctors assured her that, if she was suffering, they had ways to minimize that. Her minister assured her that she believed God would be there to meet her. Our family assured her that we would do what we could to ensure that she wasn't suffering and advocate on her behalf.
Six months later (three weeks after D-Day #2 for those keeping track of just how hellish this time was me), she slipped into a coma for a second time. This time, I whispered in her ear that if she was ready to go, I was ready to let her go. But, I told her, "I will miss you every day for the rest of my life."
She died a few hours later. It was peaceful and beautiful and it felt like a privilege to witness her passing.
And it also taught me something valuable.
About fear. And our response to fear.
She began by naming her fear. Not death. Dying. We can't underestimate the power of naming what we're afraid of, nor can we battle something that we can't name.
And then she gathered those around her who could help her dissect this fear -- to address each aspect of it. She was the one who did the hard work of wrestling with it. She was the one awake at 3 a.m. thinking it through. But she felt surrounded by those invested in supporting her.
What are you afraid of?
So many of us feel terrified after a partner's betrayal. My fear was being abandoned, which, I've come to learn, wasn't so much a fear based on current reality as a knee jerk reaction to long-ago issues with my dysfunctional family. It took a lot of time and therapy to face down that fear and come to a place where I feel confident in my ability to be "abandoned" and be just fine.
A whole lot of us fear making the wrong choice about staying or going. We fear going through this pain again. We fear being duped. We fear that we can't trust ourselves. The list is, no doubt, long.
But as long as those fears remain nebulous, as long as they drift just out of reach, they will remain terrifying. They will feel like a threat.
But if you nail each one down as best you can, if you gather those around you who can help you dissect them and really determine how realistic your fear is, you can eliminate a whole lot of them.
Fear of being abandoned? Well...what would that look like? Painful sure. But what does it really look like? You would have been left by someone who doesn't value you enough to stay. That stings. But, to an outsider, you just escaped someone who doesn't value you enough to stay. That's...a good thing. The fear, I suspect, is more around what you're telling yourself. That you aren't loveable. That you aren't worthy. That you aren't good enough. And that's entirely different than being abandoned. That's you abandoning yourself. And you can do something about that.
Maybe your fear is rooted in being "wrong" for staying. Well, what does that look like? How can you prepare yourself for that possibility in a way that reduces the logistical issues. See a lawyer perhaps and determine what position you're in should you separate? Think through your finances? Get a therapist to help you create a system of transparency so that you'll know sooner than later if he's cheating? In other words, create a plan.
What I'm advocating is having the courage to stare down your fear. To name it and to refuse to let it control you. To wrestle with it.
To take away its power. And realize that the power is yours.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Good Grief: How Our Healing Holds Grace

"...grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential experience of being human." Francis Weller, from The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

Not a problem to be solved. Not a condition to be medicated. 
Yes but how many of us understood that before now? How many of us struggle with that still? 
To start, let's be clear. It is not that our methods of managing grief are necessarily wrong. If your grief is incapacitating, then please, see a doctor and determine if medication can help you. If your grief is swallowing you whole, then please know that there are strategies for coping.
What Weller, a psychotherapist and grief counsellor goes on to say is that it's our culture that convinces us that grief is unnatural. Grief becomes problematic, he argues, when the conditions necessary to help us manage it are absent. 
How many of you come to this site for the community it offers? How many of you soak in the compassion that's here, the recognition from others that your grief is real and valid but that you have the strength to feel it and heal? Most of you, I imagine. And yet, those communities in which we can share our grief are rare. Despite what we know about the healing power of community, our culture pressures us to "get over it". We're not a society that's comfortable with others' grief or our own. We vilify emotional pain and are masters at avoiding it. We dismiss it as weakness. And so we mask it with anger. We numb it with booze or shopping. Some, like our husbands, distract themselves from emotional pain with infidelity.
And look where that got us.
Grief. 
It is a part of our human experience. No more. No less. It is a season in our lives, sometimes lingering, sometimes surprising us with how quickly it passes. And sometimes, too, surprising us with the gifts it brings, with the lessons it imparts, with the grace it ushers in.
But it needs to be respected. We can't rush it. We have to resist the pressure to "get over it" on another's timeline and instead honor our soul's work, as Weller puts it. Sure it's great to triumph over adversity. We all love a story in which the heroine rises and conquers. But that's never the whole story and we can't gloss over the part where the heroine pulls the covers over her head and sobs great gulping sobs. We can't ignore that, though we can't see the healing on those days, it's taking place beneath those covers, just as a deep cut heals incrementally, invisible to our critical hurry-up eye. 
There is no moral failure in grief. Rather there is danger in rushing a crucial part of the human experience of loss. The danger is an unhealed heart. The danger is moving forward when we're not ready, in appearing stronger than we actually are, in trying to stand alone on still wobbly legs. 
Rather we should take Weller's advice and rest on that healing ground until we are certain. We need not apologize for the time it takes to heal from our grief, to disentangle the emotions within. (And we need not apologize for the pharmacological help we seek when grief turns toxic for us.)
Rather we should accept this season of grief, no matter how long it lasts, and prepare to recognize the grace that always always appears at the threshold of healing.

Monday, January 2, 2017

They don't get it. And that's okay because we do.

Every year my husband and I hold an annual holiday party (except for that year. You know the one. The one where I could barely lift my  head off the pillow, let alone host a party for four dozen of our closest friends).
This year was particularly fun. I had good friends visiting from out of town, both of whom know the whole story of me. Both of whom love me and my husband, even though they urged me on as I verbally ripped him a new one in the early days post D-Day. They, somehow, have hearts big enough to love him for how hard he worked to repair the damage he caused.
Another good friend was also at our party. Two years ago it was at our party that she confessed to me that she and her husband were separating. He had been seeing another woman. And despite appearances of the perfect marriage, it had been hell for years. He's a charming narcissist and all I saw was the charm. All she got was the narcissism.
The divorce is not settled. He fights her on every single thing just to flex his muscle. He's determined to punish her in every way he can.
Despite this constant hell, she's doing pretty well. She's a highly respected doctor who works shifts and, when she's not saving people's lives (literally), she takes care of her kids, mentors medical students and makes me laugh.
And yet, a mutual friend of ours at the party commented to me that our friend "is still pretty bitter".
Wow huh? "Still pretty bitter."
This less-understanding friend just doesn't get it. Where I see a warrior fighting every day to shield her kids from her ex's manipulations, others see someone who isn't moving on. At least not fast enough for them. Where I see someone who somehow has managed a challenging career as well as two teens with their own issues and an eight-year-old who misses his dad, others would prefer she didn't air her dirty laundry.
Seriously?
I responded that yes, she's pretty bitter though I think she disguises that bitterness brilliantly most of the time. But that this time, this particular night which she spends each year with our family and friends, she felt safe enough to share her pain. And, after all, we're her friends right? The least we can do is listen to her. To remind her she's among friends.
It's this whole culture of infidelity, isn't it? A culture that never really reveals just how shattering betrayal is and so those lucky enough to not personally experience it just don't get it. A culture that prescribes the 'kick-him-to-the-curb' response because, after all, "once a cheater, always a cheater". A culture that thinks we should be over it by some arbitrary period of time that makes everyone else comfortable. A culture that prefers to hear about infidelity on the pages of the tabloids, not in the kitchen of a house party.
A culture in which infidelity is as common as dirt but where nobody wants to talk about it, not really talk about it.
If you've found support in your real life, as I was lucky enough to do with my friends (though it took me close to a year to confide in them), then hold fast to those people. They are rare gems indeed.
And even so, you'll likely also be subject to those other people. The ones who insist that the only response to cheating is to walk away. The ones who know, exactly, what they would do if it ever happened to them, which it won't. Ever. The ones who can't believe you didn't know. That you didn't somehow kinda sorta deserve it.
Sure.
The rest of us? You'll find us here. Learning to laugh about the inane comments we endure. Remembering that we were, sometimes, those people so smug that our husband would never cheat. Ever.
We'll be here. Somedays we'll "still be bitter" and other days we'll realize that the good days outweigh the bad and amen for that. Some days we'll need a virtual hug and other days we'll be offering up high-fives like a Pez dispenser to the amazing warrior wives who are walking, every single day, toward healing.
Lots of people don't get it. I hope they never have to because I wouldn't wish this on anyone. But that's okay. Because we get it. We really really get it.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The most simple advice for healing: How do I want to live today?

Quick story: My yoga instructor has lost two children to suicide. I hesitated to take classes with her because I thought I'd spend my "me" yoga time feeling horrible for her. I simply couldn't imagine how anyone could move on with life after such pain. And yet...she's warm and lovely and incredibly grounded. She speaks occasionally about her grief but always in the context of meeting grief with grace.
Over the years that I've been downward dogging and head-standing, my admiration for her strength has grown. And I've wondered how she does it. The answer is deceptively simple. She's made a choice: To live today.
And it's a choice each of us has to make every single morning.
How do I want to live today?
I can already hear the resistance. But what about the fact that he lied to me last night about a text on his phone? What about him being 10 minutes late? What about him refusing to tell her to stop driving by our house?
Valid questions, every single one. And questions that can be addressed by establishing clear boundaries and then enforcing them.
We get in trouble when we try to control other people. We get in trouble when we lose sight of the only question we need to pay attention to: How do I want to live today?
Lots of you have shared how you found your way to this question. One of our betrayed warrior wives told us that she imagines looking back from the future and seeing a picture of herself. How does she want to look in that picture? Another noted the wise counsel of her therapist who urged her to ask herself each day how she wants to live – and then behaving accordingly.
None of this means brushing aside dishonesty or disrespect from a partner. There's nothing about asking yourself how you want to live today that is about ignoring your pain or pretending that things are fine when they are anything but fine. It's about paying attention. Honoring your feelings. It might mean making some really hard decisions. And today might include plenty of moments where you are decidedly not living exactly as you would like. But the goal is to work toward a life in which you are exactly where you want to be and surrounding yourself with people who value you.
With 2017 just looming over the horizon, what if your only goal is to approach life from that question: How do I want to live today?
It would usher in a zillion smaller shifts that can't help but make your life more full – more full of joy, more full of people who deserve you, more full of opportunity.
Happy new year, my wonderful betrayed warrior wives. I can't wait to watch you all heal and share all of your wisdom and strength and compassion. It's there. I promise.
How do you want to live today?

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