Friday, August 29, 2014

Beyond These Walls

Bridesmaiding at my sister's 1986 wedding.

As a newly engaged 24 year old, you'd have thunk I'd be immersing myself in typical bride-to-be behavior: selecting a venue, shopping for a dress, poring over china patterns and crystal stemware, and most importantly, deciding what flavor of wedding cake I wanted. I'll be honest, cake is really the only reason I go to weddings. God, how I love wedding cake! Or really just cake of any kind, especially yellow cake with chocolate fudge frosting, or salted caramel with true buttercream, the kind that's made with eggs and butter, not powdered sugar and Crisco. Wait, what was I just talking about?

Oh yes, back to being 24. Welp, that was waaaaaay back in 1986, the year Oprah Winfrey got her talk show on national TV. I was living on Briarcliff Road in the roach-infested basement of this crazy middle-aged Spandex-wearing divorcĂ©e's house. She augmented the fortune she made in alimony from her ex-husband by giving high colonic irrigations right inside her freakin' domicile. How gross is that?? I knew this because as soon as I signed the lease, she supplied me with brochures and booklets extolling the virtues of colonic irrigation while in the same breath admonishing me that I was to have no overnight guests. Yeah, right! 

Hardly working while wearing my fiancé's shirt.
I liked living alone, without a roommate. At the time, I was working as a mental health assistant in a private psychiatric hospital, a job which paid $5.85 per hour and provided me with full health care and profit sharing benefits as well as 2 weeks of vacation. I'd never felt so independent. Although I'd started college at Auburn in 1980--studying visual art--I dropped out three years later with a GPA of 1.2, mostly because of partying, but also because of raging insecurities, a complete lack of self-confidence, and lots of inner turmoil and self-loathing. Basically, I didn't trust myself or my abilities. I was too worried about what everyone else thought of me. 

That job at the psych hospital may not have sounded like much, but it was just what I needed to restore my confidence and get back into school. So, while I was working full-time, I was also attending community college as a full-time student. And boy, did I enjoy being a student. I wasn't worried about deciding on a major...I just took classes that appealed to me: music appreciation, French, German, biology, psychology. I ended up getting an associate's degree that was inconsequential. But, the experience of plunging headfirst back into school, doing it strictly for myself and raising my GPA to 3.9ish, was exhilarating. I felt like I could do anything I wanted to.

Sorry girls, I'm a man magnet, even for men made of bronze.

One afternoon, I was hanging around my apartment, daydreaming about life with my future husband whilst watching Oprah Winfrey. I'd just finished washing and drying my clothes at the laundromat, and was about to commence folding them when the craziest thing happened. Oprah was interviewing people who found out later in life that they were gay. 

Immediately, I was struck with panic. "What if I'm gay and don't know it?" I became so obsessed with this completely irrational thought that it nearly destroyed every shred of happiness and pleasure I'd permitted myself up till then. I couldn't get this thought out of my mind. It felt foreign, like it was originating from a source outside myself. I mean, I'd never been attracted to women before. Why would I all of a sudden turn gay, especially when I adored men so much? Wait, do people turn gay or are they born that way? It was pretty clear that I was tormenting myself, pulling the rug out from beneath my own feet. Cognitively, I knew this was insane, but I didn't know how to stop. It was as if I had a built in radar detector of self-defeat, ready to crush my happiness into smithereens.

Feigning happiness while wearing itchy tights

Overwhelmed by the unsettling fear that I didn't really know myself, which quickly segued into a disturbing sense of helplessness and lack of control, I went into therapy. I can't say that therapy did much for me. After months of rehashing old issues about my sexuality (yeah, I'd been around the block only about a zillion times by the time I was 20), which only served to stir up feelings of frustration and anger toward my parents, I called it quits. The thoughts were still there and showed no sign of budging. Everything felt mechanical. What was supposed to be the happiest time in my life was painful. Ruined. Why was I so different from everyone else? Why couldn't I just be happy

Well, the problem turned out to be that I didn't feel deserving of happiness in the first place. Somehow, I'd gotten this idea that happiness was something you had to earn, that if you worked hard enough and struggled long enough, eventually you'd be rewarded with everlasting happiness. In other words, I didn't perceive myself as the source from which my own personal happiness could spring. Not surprising when you consider that we're ingrained from an early age to believe that something or someone outside of us is responsible for our attitudes and actions. "Look what you made me do!" and "Johnny hurt my feelings!" are two perfect examples of this blame-gaming. By the same token, taking credit for our success is viewed as pretentious. We owe it all to someone else, right? Whereas Gallant might say, "My bones are growing," Goofus would declare, "I'm growing my bones." It's a matter of perspective, really. If we're not the ones controlling ourselves, then who is? 

Babies...all action, no talk. No talk, no thoughts. We sure had it easy!

Long story short, by ignoring those troublesome thoughts and feelings, I quit thinking about them. Pretty cool, huh? Instead of thinking my thoughts were being thunk, I determined that since I was the one thinking them in the first place, I could just as easily not think them. I'd been making myself miserable for no reason. Actions do speak louder than words. Thoughts are the mind's words, so they can only get the best of us if we let them. If you want to change your attitude, your feelings, or your thoughts, then change what you're doing. 

Hmmm, is Mom the victim of my full diaper here?

We are not helpless victims of circumstance, genetics, or biochemistry, regardless of what the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, the justice system, and society would have us believe. I'm well aware that this contradicts popular opinion, but human emotion and behavior are not diseases, except perhaps in the metaphorical sense. Attributing worry and unhappiness to genetics or biochemistry is basically just an updated version of "the devil made me do it." The good news is that just as helplessness is learned, it can be unlearned. Why give power to self-defeating thoughts and feelings? Seriously, it's about as necessary as drinking one's own urine (Is It Necessary For Me To Drink My Own Urine?), a matter of choice. (If you're offended by this, that's your choice as well). It is we who are responsible for our attitudes and our actions, not anything or anyone else. 

Chester & me, exercising our free will & self-determination in public

Because of my opinions on the subject of mental illness, especially with regard to biopsychiatry, I've been accused of being unempathetic and uncompassionate, of having never suffered through major depression myself, of being narrow-minded, and a host of other criticisms, none of which I take personally. Oh, the stories I could tell. People are free to think whatever they want to think, and what other people think of me is none of my business. The irony here is that people can and do think themselves into unhappiness, despair, and disability, as if they're not capable of thinking freely for themselves in the first place. Maybe it's a matter of whether or not a person believes he or she has free will. Self-determination, which is the essence of free will, means just that: making choices, solving problems, and taking control of and responsibility for one's own life, as well as accepting the consequences of one's attitudes and actions. As for compassion, this quote says it all for me: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Helping people help themselves to become independent is the highest form of compassion, IMO. 

Being silly is just one of  my special skills.

Without going into detail, it's taken me quite a few years and a lot of life experience to find my happy place. And, by no means does that mean I'm always ha-ha happy. Anyone who knows me knows I have a few things I could choose to be very sad about. Like sad-all-the-time-majorly-depressed-life-is-so-unfair about. At 24, I fixated on a single irrational and devastating thought that today, I wouldn't have given a second thought. It would have slid right on by. Being happy is an attitude, an approach to life that comes from a deep enthusiasm for life itself as well as the ability to keep moving on. It's impossible to be self-absorbed, imprisoned by your thoughts and fears, when you're immersed in the sensual wonders of each moment. My favorite Lao-tzu quote is "Stop thinking, and end your problems." The less I've thought about my problems, the more I've acted to change either the problem itself or my attitude about it. This aphorism by my friend, Marty Rubin, is also apropos: "We are the mountains we must cross." No doubt about it, we're our own worst enemies. Being at odds with ourselves--even on a frenemy level--is sad and wholly unnecessary, seeing as how we're stuck with ourselves for an entire lifetime.  Kind of pointless, really, when we can just as easily befriend ourselves. It's not rocket science. It's simply a matter of action.

We don't think about ice cream, we scream for it!

On a lighter note, the best part about not spending all my time thinking about my problems means I have lots more time for things I enjoy, like running. Lately, it's been so hot and humid that I've been running inside on the treadmill. Although I've watched all sorts of interesting documentaries and programs about cute puppies and kittens, I'll be glad when it cools off enough for me to get back to running outside. So much to see and experience beyond these walls. I do have one small problem, though, and it's the reason I've got to keep running. The problem is the ice cream shop that recently opened up down the street. Now I'm being confronted with the deep contemplation that invariably accompanies 24 flavors of soft serve and a dozen kinds of Philadelphia style water ice. The place has only been open 10 days, and already, I've been there four times! Less thinking means more running, and more running means more ice cream. Yeah!