Tag Archives: psychology

The Darkness

This post has been knocking about my brain since I first read the article that spurred the thought.  It’s an article about a man named Bill Zeller, whom I never met and whom none of you have likely ever met.  Bill Zeller was apparently a gifted programmer, and a couple of weeks ago, he killed himself.

At first I only took interest because suicide is a morbidly pet topic to me.  Both of my parents killed themselves (my father in October of 1974, my mother in October of 2003, six months following the birth of my daughter), and at least one good friend has chosen to shuffle themselves from the mortal coil over the years.  I would be lying if I said the odd suicidal thought hasn’t crossed my mind, but something about losing both of your parents to the most befuddling way to die (to everyone else anyway) caused me to make a long-ago deal with myself that I would never do that.  Mostly because I know what it does to everyone left behind.  I can’t do that to the people who love me, no matter how despairing I may ever feel.  And in all honesty, it has been a very, very long time since such thoughts have dwelled in my brain more than fleetingly.  Thank the gods.

Nevertheless, it’s a topic sadly close to my heart.  So I read Mr. Zeller’s very long suicide note with interest, and as I read, with growing empathy.  Mr. Zeller finally succumbed to demons that were given to him by someone else: notably, his childhood abuser, whom he does not name.  What he does do is speak at length about “the darkness”: that thing that prevented him from having intimate relationships with anyone else in his life, whether they were emotional or physical.

I know this “darkness” of which Bill Zeller spoke.  The darkness falls like a veil over every attempt at closeness and taints every pure sensation of love and passion with distrust and suspicion.  It is the worst manifestation of the curse of sexual abuse upon children, and it’s something most victims don’t even realize they’re suffering from until much, much later in life as they try to go about the business of being “normal” like everyone else.  Which is something that we never will be.  Not by everyone else’s standards anyway.  Until someone invents neurosynaptic erasure that won’t result in the fuckuppery of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind“, it is impossible to be a person unaffected by that kind of abuse and violation of trust.  We must simply accept and work through the things that have happened to us through the best of ours and our therapists’ abilities.  Even then, we may have to accept that, like Frodo at the end of “The Lord of the Rings“, there are some hurts that are too deep to heal completely.  We are changed permanently and irrevocably by them.

My heart ached for Mr. Zeller, whose darkness was clearly much more oppressive than it has been for me.  To be sure, my relationships have been deeply affected by things that happened to me when I was much younger, but unlike Mr. Zeller, I was not hindered by an inability to speak of those things.  Which does not mean those old demons do not still lurk in the corners and recesses of my memory.  I still suffer from a distrust of most men, whom some part of me perceives as predatory.  My impressions of men have been twisted and perverted by my earlier experiences and I often cannot help but interpret what is the perfectly normal sex drive of most human males into something dangerous that is to be avoided.  Each time I am approached with love, I must struggle through my brain’s automatic suspicion, which inevitably asks in fear, “What do you want from me?”  I often fail in this struggle, I have no doubt much to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to be close to me.

Which is when the real “darkness” sets in.  The darkness that made Mr. Zeller finally decide to give it all up, that it was no longer worth the effort.  The darkness that whispers, “You’re damaged beyond repair, what possible good are you to the world like this?”

And I whisper back, “Fuck you.  You don’t own me, and even if I’m 80 fucking years old before I banish you with the Light, I will destroy you.”

I wish I could retroactively lend that inner strength to Mr. Zeller, and to my parents, and right now to everyone who suffers from “the darkness”.  I do not know where this inner tenacity comes from that I possess and that has saved me from countless destructive paths.  Guardian angel?  God?  Fate?  Pure luck?  I have no fucking clue, but I wish I could bottle it and sell it.  No, I wish I could give it away.  The ability to speak.  The ability to point a finger and say, “That person’s hurting me.”  Even if they’re not around anymore.  The ability to say, “This was not my fault.”  The ability to say, “I’m bigger than this, even if it left some marks.”  Because secrets kill just as surely as cancer.

Slowly, the darkness dissipates the more I say these things to myself.  I am no longer ashamed of my mental scars.  At least, not AS ashamed.  They make me who I am, and people keep telling me I’m a fairly amazing person.  I am better at believing them than I used to be.  I still have scars over my mental ears, but they get a little thinner each time I make the effort to let in the truth and beauty.  It means I have to leave myself vulnerable to pain, but it is perhaps one of the oldest yet truest cliches that there is no love without pain and no light without dark.  If I want one, I must deal with the other.  Lest I fall victim to The Darkness.


I’ve been trying to restart my yoga practice recently.  I first started doing yoga back in 2007 when a good friend needed people to take her very first classes so that she could complete her yoga teacher certification.  I realized that I had been doing “yoga” for a few years at least in the form of my own stretching regimen at home.  She asked me, “Are you sure you’ve never taken a yoga class before?!”  Like many things in my life, I had been doing something that others do, I just didn’t know that’s what I was doing until I found them!

I found yoga profoundly moving yet calming, and it instilled a confidence in my body that I had never had.  I have always had a *strong* body, but it wasn’t something I was really proud of or confident in, particularly after a childhood in American physical education classes.  I recall PE as something torturous run by lesbians-in-denial who were unsatisfied if I could not run cross-country without getting a stitch in my side or do the beginning-of-the-year fitness assessment as well as everyone else.  Chin-ups?  *points and laughs*  Consequently I spent the greater part of my life feeling inadequate and weak, not to mention just plain fat and ugly thanks to growing up in the 1980s and its standards of beauty that no one could possibly live up to.

A lot of that changed with yoga.  Spurred by the newfound knowledge of what my body could do, I searched for any and all outlets.  Fortunately I live in a city with so many yoga studios it’s not even funny, including an actual chain of yoga studios that is responsible for churning out a steady stream of fresh graduates from their training program.  I had no fewer than three yoga studios within a five minute drive of my house, and I utilized them heavily.  I wanted something more, though.  The local yoga chain largely caters to the segment of America that just wants somewhere quiet to stretch after work, which is fantastic.  I was more interested in the spiritual aspects of yoga and the teachings of Patanjali.  Yoga wasn’t just exercise to me: it was a form of physical enlightenment.  I found my way to another studio further away but with a heavy emphasis on Buddhism.  The classes were also much harder.

The journey to yoga’s enlightenment is not without its troubles, though.  Yoga teachers often speak of practicing without judgment, which is extraordinarily difficult in a society defined by judgment.  We judge each other constantly in Western society, for our appearance, for our careers, for our clothes, for the food we eat, for the subdivisions we live in, for the cars we drive, etc.  We are steeped in judgment from the day we’re born.  Yet judgment has no place in yoga and will in fact hinder the precise work one hopes to do.  It creeps in there, though.  It casts its glance about the yoga studio and says, “You’re not bending as deeply as that person.  Your shoulders aren’t as flexible as that person’s.  Your hips are too tight.  You’re shaking too much.”  So on and so forth.  Without a lot of care, an otherwise extremely pleasant yoga session can be completely ruined by the monkey mind upstairs prattling on endlessly about all the ways I’m not measuring up.

I have to remember that the only person I’m not measuring up to is myself.  My yoga teacher isn’t judging me.  The other students aren’t judging me, unless it’s to similarly get on their own case about how they’re not doing something well enough to their taste.  The thing is that there really isn’t any one right way to do yoga.  It’s so incredibly individual that to compare one’s practice to another’s is foolhardy and self-defeating.

I have to work with my judgment if I want it to go away, though.  I have to acknowledge it and tell it, “I see you.  What do you want?”  Because judgment wants something.  It’s trying to tell me something, even if it’s going about it in an unhealthy way.  I listen to my judgment so I can figure out how to make it happy and send it away.  More often than not, my judgment is unhappy with my shoulders, which are fairly stiff and inflexible after a life of sitting at keyboards and hunching forward in an effort to minimize what is some fairly ample boobage.  Many women would flaunt their boobage, but since I’ve been the object of unwanted sexual attention from the age of 7, I’ve unconsciously slouched since Mother Nature decided to make my chest expand at the age of 14.  But that’s another post.

All that has resulted in shoulders and chest muscles that are almost wholly unfamiliar with being flexible and open.  They’re also laden with emotional baggage: I’m a firm believer in the theory that trauma lives in our body until we figure out a way to process it.  When I work with my shoulders, a well of anger and sadness opens up inside me and comes pouring out.  Or tries to anyway.  I’m in a room full of practicing yogis and yoginis, so it’s really not the time to have myself a little tantrum, which is often what I feel like doing.  Then comes the flood of judgment.

“Why can’t I get my shoulders where I want them to go?  Why am I so stiff?  What’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room?  Why am I even doing this?  I’ll just fail at it like everything else.  I hate my shoulders.  I hate my body.  I hate myself.”

And so I stand there in the remotest corner of the room possible with hot tears running down my face, trying to hide them from anyone else who might be looking at me, struggling through whatever the pose is.  When I first started doing yoga, when this happened I would just try to ignore it and plug through the rest of the class, suppressing my feelings.  I would usually leave those classes feeling terrible instead of better like I should have (and I have indeed attended some magical yoga classes, free of my internal judgment, that I left floating on a cloud of peace and calm).  Well what’s the fucking point in that?!  I actually stopped going to formal yoga classes for some time because I was unable to stop being so goddamned judgmental of myself.  I was standing in a room surrounded by beautiful people, a beautiful non-judgmental instructor, and statues of the Buddha: it seemed sacrilege to violate the space with my own negative feelings.

Over the next couple of years I continued to do yoga at home, and I continued to read about yoga and its underlying principles.  I also began to study Buddhism much more fervently.  It was no longer just something with pleasant imagery that made me happy to look at.  Slowly I figured out how to sit with my judgment and counteract it.  Not completely, but enough that I could do yoga without ruining it.  Eventually, I figured out what my judgment really wants.  It wants love.  Love from the most important source of all: me.

When I feel that judgment creeping in, when I feel that inner hatred rising up, when I hear the inner voice saying “I hate this part of myself,” I tell myself in another voice, “I love this part of myself.”  Because I really do, deep down underneath all of that judgment.  Judgment which actually DID serve a very important purpose in my life for many years.  It was a survival mechanism that allowed me to discern people’s loving behaviors from their damaging ones, which is a very difficult game to play with some people.  I got very good at it, and when there were no more people around to play the game with, my brain began to play it with myself, which was inappropriate.  It made me label parts of myself as bad when they really weren’t.

I’m still undoing some of that self-damage.  Going to yoga is part of that, because it brings me face to face with my feelings and my ego, which one of my instructors tells us manifests the “pain-body”: the ego’s attempts to prevent us from seeing things how they really are.  My ego was very, very good at protecting me for a very long time, and now that I don’t need that protection anymore, it’s giving up its post very reluctantly.  It’s convinced I’m making a mistake, that there’s still danger out there that I need protecting from, and even if it has to make me feel like a pile of shit, it’s going to keep its vigilant guard over my borders.

It has to go, though.  Like an overprotective parent who keeps telling their kids, “You can’t do that!”, it has to be told, “Yes I can.  I don’t need your help anymore.”

This particular journey is harder than anything else I’ve done in my life.  I’ve finally managed to quit smoking (and there was much rejoicing, yay!), and I’m halfway through losing ninety pounds (for the second time in my life): this is harder.  Loving myself is harder.  Loving my body is harder.  Forcing myself to look away from the mirror when I find myself being critical is harder.  Telling myself “I love my shoulders,” is harder than telling myself how much I hate them.  I don’t know why, either!  It makes no logical sense to me, but something else I’m learning as I shed the protective mechanisms that I no longer need is that logic often has no place in determining the emotional vagaries of human beings.  I may as well try to make sense of why cats find it necessary for doors to be open, at all times.

So that is my path these days.  The path of judgment, or rather, the lack thereof.  The path of self-love instead of self-hatred.

I love my shoulders.  They are strong and can carry impressive loads.
I love my arms.  They are strong and can punch targets HARD.
I love my legs.  They do a good job of moving me around all day long.
I love my feet.  They support this body impossibly well (have you ever really contemplated what your feet have to do?).
I love my hands.  They type amazingly fast and can create beautiful art.
I love my back.  It holds the rest of me up very well.
I love my belly.  It carried my daughter for nine months.
I love my brain.  It’s the only reason I’m not dead or crazy.

I love me, and one day I will believe that as strongly as everyone else who tells me that without bursting into tears.

Credit Where It’s Due

Around 1am on Sunday morning, I marked four weeks since I had my last cigarette.  While this is not the first time I have quit smoking, it’s the first time I quit just for me.  The last time I quit, it was for my unborn daughter.  Other times I’ve quit, it’s been for boyfriends, or because “I’m supposed to”.  This time was different, though I haven’t quite put my finger on all of the different ways that it’s not the same.

I suppose the most important way that it was different was that it really was mostly for me.  Sure, I was also quitting because I knew it would make my family and friends really happy that I had finally quit, but as any addiction counselor will tell you, the addict has to want to quit, way deep down.  They may be able to go through the initial stages of quitting a bad behavior for other people, but it won’t stick.  They have to want it badly enough and think they’re worthy enough of the effort.  It also helps to have actual evidence for how things will be better afterwards.  I had that in the form of knowing how much better I would be able to do karate and other exercise after I quit.  At least, that was the most tangible reason.  Others made themselves known over the next few weeks.

Like not being stinky, though my friends tell me I was unusually conscientious in that regard.  I could tell the difference in my vehicle, mostly.  I also noticed I needed less sinus medicine and had less frequent headaches.  Food did indeed taste a bit better.  My sense of smell improved, which was good and bad.  Good when I wanted to catch a whiff of a bowl of potpourri, bad when one of my aging cats laid a stinkbomb in the catbox (which was almost enough to make me want to smoke again just to dull my senses again!).

Then I went to the gym, where the difference was showed to me in red numbers across the stationary bike readout.  I had to work much harder to get my heart rate to its target zone and keep it there, whereas before I had to struggle to keep my heart rate under my target zone.  This meant I wasn’t heaving for breath anymore, but my legs were on FIRE.  Consequently I’m getting a much better workout than I was before and I suspect I’m incredibly healthy for my age, all things considered.  At least that’s what the longevity calculator said in my fitness book, which told me my life expectancy has gone from a frightening 59 to a more reasonable 72.  A few more adjustments and I’ll have that puppy up in the 80s.

The first two to three weeks were undoubtedly the worst.  And I’m here to tell you that whoever came up with that bullshit about cigarette cravings only lasting 3-5 minutes needs a swift kick in the ass.  Sometimes that shit goes on for hours, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it except keep busy and wait for it to pass.  Indeed, many cravings are brief, but not all.  Telling quitters otherwise is doing them a disservice.  I’ve become quite opinionated over the last four weeks about the phenomenon of cigarette addiction in America, and without going into too much detail just yet, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that if we really want to get that last 20% of the country off the smokes, we need to treat it much more seriously than we have.  Quitting smoking is just as important and as difficult as quitting alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or any other addictive substance or behavior.  It’s not a weekend activity or something to be taken lightly.  If I ran things, everyone who wanted to quit smoking would get a paid month off work and a voucher to go somewhere nice for a week while they detoxed.  It’s that big of a deal.  I’m sure some of my friends who have met quitting with less success than I have might agree.

Indeed, if we treated things like smoking and food addiction with the urgency that we treat something like heroin or cocaine addiction, I don’t believe those problems would be as prevalent.  Of course, addiction treatment in general needs a serious overhaul in our country.  Namely, we need to ditch our Puritanical roots that make us think that someone who has trouble kicking something just isn’t trying hard enough or somehow deserves their fate.  Really?  Why not just shoot them in the head if that’s how you feel?  Or do they deserve to spend the rest of their lives in unhealthy misery as punishment for their inability to kick said habit?  Health begins with love, not punishment.

And that is perhaps the biggest difference between this attempt to quit and my others.  I wanted to do something good for myself, not punish myself by taking something away that made me happy.  And smoking did fill a pleasant niche in my life.  If it didn’t, I would have stopped long ago.  I had to give myself something bigger and more important to fill that gap, and I did.  I filled that gap with the love and support of my friends and family, and in doing so knocked yet another light-filled chink in my stalwart wall of self-loathing that I’d built for the last three decades out of fat, sugar, and cigarettes.  Now I’m building ladders out of karate, yoga, and community.

So, credit where it’s due.  It’s been four weeks since my last cigarette, and I miss them less and less every day.  I’m sure some gut-wrenching stressor will come up at some point in my future, during which I will have to resist the temptation to drive to any one of the four convenience stores within less than a mile of my house that sell my favorite brand and style, but I’ll just have to deal with that when it comes along.  So far a healthy dose of “be here now” has helped a great deal and I hope it continues to do so.  Not being afraid to have a good cry every now and then also helps a lot, something else our culture seems to have a lot of trouble with.  Mostly, though, I had to think I was worth the effort and give myself enough carrots to keep me going on the path.  And even if I had NOT successfully quit these last few weeks, telling myself I was worth the effort was a remarkable exercise in and of itself, because I still have trouble believing I’m as awesome as people tell me I am.

2010 in Review

I started to make a bulleted list of everything that happened this year and realized that was way too much information.  What was important wasn’t the events, it was what happened because of them and where they took me.  I feel like a lot has happened to me this year and it may actually be a while before I realize how it has all impacted me, but for now, here are the ways I’m different today than I was 365 days ago.

1. This year I learned some of the most powerful words in the English language: that’s not my problem. I was still a bit of a doormat last year.  Certainly far less of one than I had been in previous years: it’s been a long, slow process that has actually taken about three or four years, I think.  This year, I’m very much NOT a doormat.  I blame, if that’s the right word, karate.  I’ve been taking karate for just over a year now and I directly attribute what I’ve learned there, both for my body as well as my mind, to my increased inner strength.  I just don’t take shit from people anymore, no matter who they are.  I try to reject other people’s shit as politely as possible, and whenever possible try to find a way to work through that shit, but if that’s not possible, oh well.

2. I learned another powerful word this year, which is somewhat related to the ones in #1.  NO. Really, it’s okay to say no.  Do so as nicely as possible, but don’t be afraid to do it.  If it helps, say it like HAL in 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  This words for a whole lot of situations and people.  This year I said “no” to the media.  It was making me really, really angry to be exposed on a daily basis to the rampant asshattery that goes on every day, not to mention the outright shortsightedness and ignorance of the vast majority of our culture.  It’s hard enough to deal with people’s dumbness just driving from my house to the dojo, I don’t need to add more by reading things that piss me off and I can’t do anything about.

It’s also what enabled me to walk away from henna and housecleaning.  I lost a relatively decent source of extra cash when I ditched the cleaning, but I was happier.  The extra money wasn’t worth feeling resentful and bad about myself because I was cleaning houses instead of doing research like I thought I would be when I was 19.  I realized that at the end of the day, and certainly the end of my life, I would be answerable to absolutely NO ONE but myself.  That set off a mental chain reaction that is still yielding good things for me.

3. Like not caring quite so much what other people may or may not think of me.  I believe it was William Burroughs who basically said that it’s none of your damn business what other people think of you.  And since I don’t think much of people who like to pass that kind of judgment on others anyway, why should I care what those kinds of people think of me?  Again, the inner strength imparted to me by my karate teachings helped a great deal in this endeavor.  The only important question was, “What do YOU think?”

4. Which made me realize, “I think I suck, and that’s a problem.”  I began addressing my life-long self-esteem issues this year.  Issues I didn’t really realize I had until I started examining my behaviors through the lens of love and compassion.  I found myself asking questions like, “Would you treat another person this way?  Why do you treat others better than you treat yourself?  Why do you think so little of yourself?”  I still do not have all of the answers to those questions, but at the very least, I was cultivating awareness of the fact that on many days, I feel like a complete piece of shit.  I know that’s not true, which tells me I have a severe disconnect between my rational self and my emotional self.  Reconciling those two aspects of myself is going to be crucial if I really want to continue to grow as a person and accomplish some of the goals that I have.

5. One of those goals is making sense of my family’s past.  I received what I call the Box of History this year: a box full of more than sixty years of letters between my late grandmother and her best friend.  With very few gaps, I have a nearly complete history of my grandmother’s life from 1940 until her death in 2008.  Which means I have at least some of the answers to very long-standing questions about what happened between various family members and why there was so much estrangement.  I also wrote down my memoirs up until about 2003, when my daughter was born.  It was an amazing thing to plow through my memories the way that I did.  I was in the midst of NaNoWriMo, and after some encouragement from a friend, I started at the beginning, and I did not stop for three days. At the end of that marathon, I had nearly 72,000 words chronicling a good 90-95% of my life from 1971 to 2003.  I was forced to finally admit to myself, “Yes, it really was all that horrible,” after years of my brain’s efforts to play down some of the events of my life and in some sick and twisted way make it all a flaw of my own perceptions.  See #4.

Another family-related catalyizing event was the death of my Wicked Stepfather.  Technically he was my adoptive father, but I refused to acknowledge that intimate of a connection given that he was a drunk, a wife-beater, and a pedophile.  His death, despite our having not talked in some 14-odd years, released a flood of strange and conflicting feelings, as did the fact that he left me a small amount of money, which blew me away.  Only enough to take care of a few things, but enough to make me question the nature of wickedness in people.  I began to think a great deal about the nature of compassion and understanding, and it is during this time that I consider myself to become a “real” Buddhist.  That is, the first time that I really begin to apply its concepts to my life in a practical and useful way, not just in an ethereal, more meditative way.

6. In that course of various family realizations, I began writing again.  Really, really writing.  Writing has been a constant in my life since I learned how to type at the age of 10.  I’ve done so seriously from time to time but never to any kind of fruition or completion.  I’ve kept everything I wrote, though, and all of that combined with what I wrote this year finally comes together into something cohesive and understandable.  All of that writing is ripe and fecund and just waiting to be turned into something else that I have a deep feeling will not only benefit myself but also others.  Hence the birth of this blog.

Many doors closed this year, and just as many opened.  I found myself questioning many things in my life and why they were there, and much in the way that an ancient Greek god could be controlled by merely acknowledging it and uttering its true name, I found many demons dissolving into mist just by being called out by me.  “You there lurking in the shadows, let me see you.”  One by one they stepped forward, and either disappeared or transformed into something positive.  Which is not to say my corners are completely lit and my secret closets empty, but they are much lighter and less crowded than they were.

I’m still processing a lot of what happened this year, and I will be writing about and sharing the Box of History as well as the fruits of NaNoWriMo in bits and pieces, but I feel as though, finally, things are coming together.  I have enough to complete a puzzle I have been working on for many, many years.  Or if not complete it, at least form a picture complete enough to read the story.