Mothering the self and others through suicidal ideation

I recently lost a family member to suicide. It’s not my story to tell, but what that action did – as suicide does – was cause the ripples of pain to go through the family, friends and community members of the person who died. Subsequently, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have lost their lives to suicide. I’ve been pondering what to do with all this loss and considering my own suicidal ideation over the course of my life. I’m contemplating what little contribution I can make to the conversation. Is there anything I’ve learned or seen that can help?

I first had suicidal ideation in 1980. I was 12 years old. My mother and I had recently moved to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was in 7th grade, in a Lutheran K-8th grade parochial school. It was the last year I lived with my mother, and at that time I hit the lowest point in my life to date. My mother had been prostituting for a long time to support us, though I’d only known about it for two years. The day had come that school year where she told me to go out, get food and money, and she said she didn’t care how I did it. I did not consciously think she was sending me out to prostitute, though a fleeting thought crossed my mind to “go to the bars.” After all, that’s what she did. But it wasn’t something I could really grok, so I went to the homes of our neighbors, instead, asking for food, for money. When the first family whose door I knocked on looking for help closed the door in my face and left me on the sidewalk, I stood and howled into the night. My heart felt like it would break. I felt physical pain in my guts and in my whole body, really. I felt a pain of abandonment and betrayal that sliced right through me. I tried to go home after that incident, but my mom turned up the radio and said she would not turn it down and let me go to sleep until I brought home what she’d asked for. So I headed back into the night until a kind family gave me $2.00 and a bag of groceries from their own kitchen.

The next day, I went to school. The kids there seemed to hate me. I was the new kid, and probably more than a little strange to them. I’d lived in Detroit, then Virginia, before Sheboygan, and the kids made fun of my accent, my clothes, my mother. I was awkward and homely, and I didn’t much like them either. I was often hungry, having not eaten at home before school (and sometimes after), so the highlight of my day was school lunch. Otherwise, school just brought more pain. I fantasized about telling them what I faced at home, hoping they would have some sympathy and lay off. I never told them, and they didn’t let up until the school year ended.

That school year, I walked outside a lot, and the two places I seriously considered suicide were the bridges over the Sheboygan River on Pennsylvania Avenue and at 14th and Indiana Ave. I would walk over and think, “I could jump.” I imagined drowning. My pain was profound and constant, and I could not imagine relief ever coming naturally. My mother could not help me. My teachers didn’t stop the bullying and abuse at school. It seemed I was as alone as I could possibly be. Eventually, I went into foster care, and my immediate pain was over. I learned to pretend my past never happened, and that worked for a while.

The next time I felt suicidal was in college, both my senior year and the year after graduation. I’d started therapy in college, and I’d opened the box of traumatic memories for the first time since they’d happened, including but not limited to my memories of being 12. I felt all the pain as if it were fresh, and I had no idea how to heal it. I couldn’t seem to make it go away, and stuffing it down and ignoring it had only led me to an eating disorder that increased my emotional ups and downs, my lack of mental clarity.

I’ve been thinking about the long road from those states of mind to where I am now, and pondering those who have died so recently, those who are hanging on.

One reflection I have is that it took so many years of people loving me for me to finally learn how to accept what I was getting as “enough.” I felt like an emotional black hole. People cared about me, but as soon as I left their presence, that gut-wrenching sense of abandonment returned. The image I had was that of having smooth walls inside myself, and I had no “pegs” to hang the gifts that others gave me. They just poured in and fell right through me. And finally, I got to a place where I somehow learned to create a peg that love could hang on. It was so many lessons that got me there that I hesitate to try to simplify it. I don’t think there’s a simple answer. I think about those who’ve died, and how loved they were. They were loved more than they knew, truly. They just couldn’t feel it in that dark place.

And with age, sometimes, comes the perspective of knowing that states pass. (Though Kate and Anthony belie that statement.) One friend told me her therapist said passing through a state is just that: pick the state you like the least, (I hate to name one here, but use your imagination) and say, “I’m passing through _____. I’m just passing through the state. I will get through to the other side eventually.” That helps me now. When I was suicidally depressed and in pain, I had no sense that the “state” I was in would ever change

But there’s so much more. There was 12-step recovery for the eating disorder, and so that particular component to my mental health picture improved. I stopped binging and purging. I went through an outpatient program that required I make three phone calls a day for my recovery, everyday. That habit is something I still use often. When I’m really struggling, I reach out. I connect with others. I don’t suffer in silence or suffer alone anymore.

One of my martial arts instructors told me to “sit down and watch my thoughts,” and out of that meagre instruction, I developed a taste for what meditation could do. I use meditation a lot now and metta (lovingkindness) practices. Meditation has taught me not only to observe my thoughts and feelings without judgment, but it has also taught me to practice kindness in my observations. I had internalized such deep self-contempt that even my very natural human experience in the face of deep suffering seemed to be a failing. Over years of practice, I’ve learned to sit with my internal experiences with compassion. That compassion is something I learned from so many friends who loved me, who loved each other and their children in my presence. I watched, and I learned. And I eventually could imagine looking at myself with that same kindness.

Metta, or lovingkindness, practice has also helped me to develop a sense of being on my own side. In metta, one repeats words of friendly intention toward self and others. For one’s self, one might say,

May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I be at ease.

The words aren’t magic, but when one of my meditation teachers suggested I do this practice for 30 minutes/day for a week, I found myself feeling resistance, and I got really curious about that. What part of me is resistant to my own wellbeing, I wondered? I unearthed the ancient-feeling pact of partnering with my mother, with her hatred toward me. Through metta, I learned to welcome myself to my own life,. When I suffer now, I am no longer separated from myself. I am entirely on my own side, caring for my own experience, whatever it might be. I now practice metta toward myself before I practice for anyone else. I feel I owe myself a living amends, and that is one way I do it.

And yet, in writing this, I’m aware that there was more, so much more. Therapy. Yoga. Martial arts. Authentic Movement. Mentors. Friends. Art. Music. Religion, faith. One overnight stay in a psych ward. Three years of antidepressants after hospitalization. So much hard work, and lots and lots of failure.

I don’t have any illusions that I am invulnerable now, nor that someone grasping at these tools will always find reprieve. When I went through cancer three years ago, I contemplated suicide as a distant possibility, though I never got close to taking action. So all of this work is not a guarantee. It’s a regimen that alleviates my depression, most of the time. And yet a blow from life can send the whole chemical balance into disequilibrium. I remember that I’m in a state that will pass; I move my body and breath in ways that return me to feelings of wellbeing. I remember to practice metta and that reminds me that I don’t want to be the object of aggression when I just want the pain to stop.

And that’s it, really. Suicide is the alluring answer to unbearable pain, a lack of perspective that it could ever change or could ever change enough. And so many who commit suicide cannot, for whatever reasons, feel the connection with others that is meaningful enough for them to hang on.

Part of the reason I write this is that it has been a complex path, with so many factors that helped me, so many people who loved me (and many who loved me through their frustration with me). And my path was uniquely mine. Kate and Anthony had their own. Robin Williams had his own. My family member, his own.

For those of us who live, don’t give up. Keep loving. And keep looking for the ways in which we can more effectively work as a society to cultivate connection, to cultivate places where dealing with our deepest pain is not met with pat answers or judgment. We need universal healthcare, with full psychological resources. We need to address trauma, both that which is individual and that which is cultural, from injustice and poverty. We need to learn to heal, ourselves and one another. We need shamans and magic and science and art. We need to bring all our resources to bear for suicidal teens, adults, famous people, rich people, poor people, bullied people, for men, for women, for our military, for addicted, for gay, lesbian, trans, for successful and for not successful. For all our suffering, we need to do our own work and our cultural work to heal.

May all being be safe.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be at ease.

Namaste.

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Skillful Filters: noticing – and choosing – the filters with which we view others

I have a recurring dream. I’m back at the job I had in my mid-20s. Things did not go well at that job. I tried to understand, tried to adjust my work to please my employers. I was actually quite enthusiastic about the work and saw it as a career move. I wanted to make it work, and when things started to go poorly, I initiated conversations, asked questions, tried to understand why they weren’t happy with me. Toward the end, when it seemed that nothing I could do was working, I interviewed at another job. The very day I finally had an offer in hand, my employer asked me if I was looking for other jobs. I answered honestly. He asked for my resignation. During that process, where I hand wrote a letter in front of him, he took the opportunity to say to me that Mary (a co-worker from my previous job) had told him what I did before I left there. When I looked shocked, he nodded his head and said, “That’s right. I know.”

The only problem was, I hadn’t done anything wrong that I was aware of, and I had no idea what Mary had told them. The look of shock on my face wasn’t one of surprise that he had discovered my secret; it was that he apparently thought I’d done something sinister at my previous job. In that moment of revelation, I was just beginning to register the ramifications of what he was saying. I was just beginning to understand that the reason that job had gone so horribly wrong was that no matter what I did or said, my employer was seeing me through a filter that had nothing to do with me. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was well on my way home before it occurred to me to ask what Mary had told him. I’d been too shocked at that moment, too pumped up on adrenaline with the anxiety of the situation to think clearly. I have always wondered what happened, wondered what Mary said, wished I could say, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Sometimes I dream I have found my former employer, and I have a chance to set the record straight. I awaken from these dreams with a sense of dread and lack of control. I had another such dream last night.

It has been almost 25 years since I left that job, and it was today I found release from the weight of that event.

These days, I’m sitting in meditation a lot. So I took that dream to the cushion with me. With my awareness anchored in the breath and my body, I allowed this scenario to unfold in my mind and my emotions, watching as it did so. I felt the deep sense of injustice of the situation. I perceived that my employers saw me through a filter I knew nothing about and had no control over, and nothing I did could win them over. Every action I took, every word I said, he interpreted through that filter, and I allowed myself in meditation to feel the full impact of that. I wept.

After several minutes, calm returned, and then as if in a mirror, I saw myself with my own filters firmly in place. I saw a recurring cynicism – a cynicism I can be quite attached to, even proud of. I can rock a room with laughter by being cynical. But I can also become mired down in my distrust of other people’s motives and intentions, a deep sadness that I can’t quite sink into full acceptance of the love and kindness that others bring to the table.

I felt my way back to childhood: I’d had no filters toward my caregivers whatsoever, and what I suffered in childhood cut straight to my heart. I’d assumed the best of mother and family, and as I’d been left unprotected, I assumed I deserved their abuses. By my teens, I’d finally found my armor. It seemed in retrospect that cynicism was actually protection, was actually wisdom, rather than an unnecessarily hard shell around me. My cynicism had come with an element of sadness that there was no one I could trust, not even myself. Over the years, my cynicism has become more refined, often repressed. But it is still there.

Deep distrust was a filter that prevented anyone or any group from succeeding in my life. By assuming ill intent or, at best, ignorance,  I could find evidence for it everywhere, and it could deflate the best of intentions in anyone. Even my own dear husband, a few years into our marriage, once asked me, “Couldn’t you give me the benefit of the doubt?”

I suddenly saw, as if in a funhouse mirror, that the gifts of my experience at that job so many years ago were ones I had not yet received: the gift of seeing how my own filters had prevented others from succeeding in giving to me as they’d wanted to do. It was the gift of seeing that I had choices about the filters with which I saw those I loved, those I worked with, those who employed me, those I went to church with. It was the gift of cynicism for my assumptions that fueled the filters themselves. It was the gift of empathy for those who suffer deeply when others filter them for the color of their skin, their religion, their gender. It was the gift of recognizing that filters are profoundly powerful. And it was the gift of having a little compassion for a man who was doing the best he could, at that time, with the information and skills he had. He was being human, too.

In meditation, I’m practicing compassion and generosity as filters with which I view myself and others. Every time I sink into a morass of shame or guilt, I expand the compassion with which I view myself to be just a little bigger than my faults. I’m also beginning to see that there are people who walk around with filters of kindness and generosity as the default, and those filters wield a powerful effect on those around them.

Having a filter of compassion doesn’t mean I never say “no” and or that I don’t create wise boundaries. I simply no longer need to do that out of a sense of fear or revulsion; I can do it with care and respect for both the other person and myself. I can also take time, when appropriate, to ask questions to really understand the person in front of me, rather than letting my habitual filters eliminate them from consideration prematurely.

After a wave of grief, I directed  deep compassion toward myself and toward the very understandable and human tendency to have filters like these. And I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude for my previous employer and his mistake. If it weren’t for his misunderstanding of me and the pain of that experience, I don’t know if I would have realized the pain I, too, cause others. I don’t know if I would truly understand the power of the filters with which I view others and how I can assist them in blooming – or wilting – in my presence.

Despite my best efforts before today, I have never felt anything other than sadness and resignation about that job. Today, I feel genuine gratitude. And I see before me another set of filters with which I can view my life and those around me. I’m excited to practice mindfulness through compassion and generosity toward others as part of this unfolding practice. I have the choice available to be skillful in my use of filters, or I can be unskillful and unconscious. I’m grateful to be restored to a sense of choice today.

Namaste.

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The Wisdom of the Mother

I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a cancer survivor. I have been a body worker, a meditator, a yogini. I have participated in Gender Reconciliation work, M. Scott Peck’s Community Building work. I have walked a path of inner healing and physical healing, and I have shared that path with others in my work. I have a particular perspective on current political events and broader world events.

I am very aware that our culture not only undervalues women; it doesn’t actually perceive the Divine Feminine in men, women, children, or the Planet. The Feminine is quite literally invisible. Machismo, brute force, power over, individualism are a comic book version of Masculinity, and they are exalted and revered, separated in some sort of sick, psychic surgery from any balancing power. The Mother, whether she washes dishes, soothes a sick child, or resides beneath our feet as the Planet who feeds and holds us, is invisible. We step on her without awareness for her consciousness. We don’t say thank you. Her work is not valued. God help us if we have emotions or intuition! Because no outside authority stamps them as “Truth,” they are fluff; they are a mere distraction from productivity and consuming. Story is seen as child’s play, rather than as our creative force expressed in the world. Our art is entertainment, rather than the means by which we digest life and use its nutrients to heal and grow. The power of attention and deep listening is something we feel but have so few words to express. The ability to hold experience – our own or someone else’s – takes our breath away when we experience it, yet it is so hard to find language to describe.

I come from a patriarchal, Christian religious background. It never occurred to me when I was in it to question where the Mother was. It was a given that God was our Father, but the marked absence of the Mother was never spoken, seen, acknowledged. It strikes me as the height of hubris to assume God would declare himself Father without a Mother. I don’t think it was God. I think it was men who didn’t value the Mother who decided anything that smacked of feminine religious experience would be demonized. Divination? Satan. Intuition? Witchcraft. Emotion? Sin. (I am not saying that these things are the realm of women only; I am saying that if it was considered to be “of women” by those in power, it was historically branded as evil by those who could not control it.)

And now we face a United States in which our religiosity has led to Donald Trump. He is the expression of evangelical Christianity and its immoral angling for power at the expense of integrity and the common sense of the body. When we are aware of and in connection with our bodies, we don’t pollute our water and our air. We don’t poison our soil. Or, as my own mother would have said, “You don’t shit where you eat.”

But we seem to have a deeply held belief that drives our actions that says we can take without giving; we can have power over without responsibility for care.

Breast cancer was a deeply physical and spiritual disease process for me. My breasts being cut off felt like both a physical violence and a metaphor. The bar is closed, folksBack off from the nurturing of others at your own expense, mother. You need to protect your own resources, or you will die. You will have nothing left to give, my cancer experience seemed to say.

I dove down deep, went inward. I found there the wounds of my earliest childhood, wounds passed down from an equally wounded mother. She could not validate my feelings, my experience, my existence, and so I walked through much of my life with a gaping hole where the validation of my being ought to have been. After cancer, I dove down into that wound, feeling instinctively that healing that energetic part was essential to my greater healing.*

Then Donald Trump became the president elect. As I write this, he will be inaugurated tomorrow. Every intuitive cell in my body says he is dangerous to our survival, not only the United States but also the whole interconnected world in which we live. He’s the proverbial drunk, molesting uncle you shouldn’t leave alone with your children, and his own words indict him as such. But his over-masculinized form of power and control – so valued by a vocal minority – have positioned him to rule.

I dive down deep into my own healing again. I am learning as I get older that all my grief and fear is something I need to own and love. But I cannot stop there, not if I take seriously my responsibility as a mother who simultaneously protects The Mother and depends upon Her. I must protect the sanctity of my inner wellbeing.

Light bearers right now are something like a single parent. The father figures at the helm have power, but they take no responsibility, and they aren’t living in the trenches. We need to dig deeply into our known experience; heal our wounds; love life; and love powerfully, love deeply, love wisely. We must say no to the violence, even the violence we perpetuate against ourselves. Maybe especially the violence we perpetuate against ourselves. We need to dig deep and find words to bring our divinity to awareness and to own its power, the legitimate power of fierce, gritty love; the transformative power of quiet presence; the healing power of embodiment. Let us all find within us the Good Mother, and in so doing protect The Great Mother.

*A great body of research and literature exists on the role of early life trauma and its impact on life expectancy and disease processes. Two great books on the topic include Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No and Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is not to blame anyone for their individual diseases, but rather to show that generational trauma impacts generational health. Personally, I empower myself to know that I am not helpless in the face of those traumas; I release blame, as it does not help me to love whatever lifespan I am given on this earth.

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Birth of a book

This week, I self-published The Wilderness of Motherhood: A memoir of hope and healing. It’s available for sale on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions.

I started the book the day after Isaac was born, recording his birth while it was still fresh in my mind.

Five weeks later, my mother died, and I wrote about that strange, healing, difficult time with my mother.

A series of essays began in those early days that eventually became this book.

That was almost eight and a half years ago. I wondered many times if I were a neglectful mother of this book. I knew a book was possible, but I was also a single parent, working. I got married when Isaac was four, and we moved into a house and newly married life, and I changed jobs and careers. The book needed editing; it needed cover art; it needed technical details managed, such as the lay-out, marketing plan and self-publishing channel to use. It needed a lot that I wasn’t sure how to make happen, and it took these eight years to complete.

Fortunately or unfortunately, labor of a real baby is over relatively quickly. We have little control over how labor progresses, and then we have a baby (whether we feel ready or not!).

This Book Baby relied on the force of my will, the assistance and availability of friends, my ability or inability to give it attention, and a mysterious gestation time to mature.

It’s here now. I think I’m ready, and I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating its arrival. I have to say, at this point, it’s sleeping through the night, requires a manageable amount of tending, and has met with a kind and generous welcome from friends and family.

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Connecting with Isaac through Maya Angelou

I’ve been reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. I’m sorry to admit I didn’t pick them up until she’d died.

This morning over breakfast, Isaac and I had a rare opportunity to talk alone. John is traveling for work, and Isaac’s camp doesn’t start until 8:45, so we had some unexpected and welcomed leisure to chat.

I told him I’d been reading the stories of a woman who had a son when she was only 16 years old. Back then, women didn’t have as many options: she had to put him in 24-hour/day care and see him only one day a week for much of his young life. Then, when he was about Isaac’s age, he stayed with his grandmother while Maya traveled as a dancer and singer with the European tour of Porgy and Bess, a welcomed career gem that gave her the chance to find her profession and the ability to support her child. She was gone for several months, and they both missed each other terribly. She came home early because her son was not doing well, and her family could no longer care for him. When they reunited, he clung to her and was afraid she would leave him again.

Isaac asked if I would ever go away like that. I told him I would not.

I told him that when I was pregnant with him, I worked very hard to get work that I could do when he slept and, later, use only minimal childcare. I didn’t want to spend 10 hours/day between travel to-and-from work, plus work itself. I wanted to be with him. I was older when I had him, and I had some options open to me that Maya did not.

He closed his eyes. Tears welled up under his eyelashes, puddles that sat there as he spoke.

“I don’t like going to school. I miss being with you,” he said, eyes still closed.

I asked him if he wanted a hug. He nodded, tears miraculously staying put under his inward gaze.

I knelt beside him and held him.

I told him I felt the same way when I was his age. I actually stayed home from school to be with my mom, but I got in trouble. The truant officer came to our house. I told him that parents who don’t send their children to school can be arrested and go to jail. Then we really wouldn’t see each other. We both laughed. We shared a lingering hug before moving on with the day.

We drove to Junior Water Sports Camp, a five-minute ride down the road. He asked me if four-dimensional bubbles were actually black holes. I didn’t know. He thought that was a good question for his Aunt Catherine, who has a PhD and studied black holes.

When I dropped him off, he ran off with hardly a backward glance. We were both sated from our time of connecting over Maya Angelou.

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Art and vulnerability in wilderness places

On Mother’s Day eve, I read from my book to a warm, friendly group of both friends and strangers who had come to reflect on motherhood, whether as mothers themselves; as children of mothers; as those who wish to be mothers; as co-parents. Some had warm, happy memories of motherhood, and others had more conflicted and challenging memories and feelings.

I read from Isaac’s birth story, the story of our bonding immediately after and the profound shift that happened in my universe from that event, and from the story of my mother’s death, five weeks after Isaac’s birth. It was intense stuff, and I was deeply touched that, as one person told me, “you could have heard a pin drop” as I read. I was moved by re-entering those stories, and my audience touched their own deep experiences in those moments.

So it was a surprise to me that the shaking and trembling I felt as I started to read did not dissipate. Rather, it got quite pronounced. First, I searched futilely for a middle rung on the chair for my feet; then I used one hand to steady the other; when that didn’t work, I rested my hands and the folio containing the reading on my shaking knees. Nothing really worked.

Why didn’t I write a book on something just a little less vulnerable, I had to ask myself. Something lighter (I really enjoy comedy and could use a laugh or two)? Something that wouldn’t make me sweat, shake and choke back tears at the most evocative moments?

People told me that they went to their own deeply personal and deep places during that reading. 

“I’d forgotten what childbirth was like; I remembered my own birth experience – I was there again – as I heard you read,” one woman shared.

“I was with my mom when she died, and I relived that moment tonight,” one of the men shared.

Not everyone wants to go to intense and deep places in their memories. For our time of creating together in painting and drawing and collage, however, those deep places fed the art that each of us wanted to create. We could explore the joys of mothering or being mothered; we could also explore the shadows and the ambiguities. Greeting cards don’t often give us such nuanced ways to express those profound and human feelings.

That vulnerability that I clearly felt – and shared transparently with others – gave them permission to do the same in their art. And they took that permission and ran with it. What a beautiful expression of community in wilderness places. Image

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Lora at a Mother's Day Eve reading and art journaling event.

Reading from my book on Mother’s Day Eve at Still Cellars, in Longmont (CO).

Lora at a Mother’s Day Eve reading and art journaling event.

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