Shame is a small, smooth stone that sinks into our bellies and stays there. Incredibly heavy, impossibly dense, a tiny pebble that can tear down a vast machine. We feel shattering pain, then gnawing numbness, and the beast is at the door again.
Shame is frostbite. Creeping, seeping into flesh, consuming everything. I was so riddled with the sickness, my fingers swelled, darkened, and finally snapped off. Shame could take me apart piece by piece and leave me rotting on the cold and lonely tundra of the heart.
Shame is poison. Evil acid overdose, I writhe and tremble in the grips of that long fever. Cold sweat, stomach sick, snake in the belly. Black bile vomit. Hot stinging tears.
Shame is a whisper, the memory of loneliness. Shame is the half-heard melody spilling from some unseen neighbor’s window, bits of a song I almost think I recognize. Shame is the smell of spilled gasoline in summer, drunken rainbows swirling over asphalt.
Shame is a cavern. Cool and dark, the smell of bats and mineral water. A breeze arises from somewhere deep within the earth, ancient, beckoning. Come closer. I follow the sound of running water. Bioluminescent creatures hide in the hollow places. I see by the green of their starlight.
Shame is not endless. Reach into your belly and pull out the stone. Come in from the cold.
Vomit until no poison remains. Hum an old song to yourself.
Enter the cave.
Massive wall of water, suspended. Narrow space of dry ground, an alley through the sea. I am standing on a ladder in the sand, leaning against the liquid wall. I am frantically laying tiles on the water, one little square at a time, trying to hold it up, reinforce it. I am madly laying the tiles, covering up just a few feet of this massive surface that stretches on for miles. Suddenly, I stop. There is no need for me to cover the water, to build a wall against a wall. God has already parted the sea.
This recent dream pretty much sums up the pickle I’ve been in lately. I am feeling immeasurably better since my last post. I have reoriented myself internally and, though I am just as busy, I am far less stressed out.
I realized that I have been suffering from a severe case of trying too hard. Indeed, trying too hard seems to be at the root of much of my longstanding anxiety. I have a habit of constantly trying: trying to be polite; trying to be good; trying to be perfect. I try at everything. I try hard in school, work, relationships, life. I try hard in my spiritual practice. I try hard, very hard, to relax (what an oxymoron!).
There is a hilarious irony underlying all this, in as much as trying actually undermines both being and doing. This stressed out, effortful trying is an expression of basic fear. It communicates a fundamental lack of trust in the world and in oneself. Far from improving one’s performance or helping one to meet goals, trying diverts energy, corrodes calm, and goes against the flow of life. All in all, trying makes action inferior, cramped, inhibited, uninspired, and it is incompatible with wellbeing.
So I have stopped trying. I am not trying to be a good student, counselor, partner, friend or employee; I am not trying to be healthy, happy, or perfect; I am not trying to relax, be present or meditate.
Quitting trying feels like a great big trust fall in which I am both the one falling and the one catching myself. I feel I am just sitting back and watching the actions of the mysterious intelligence I call myself. With no effort whatsoever, I do all the things I need to do, know all that I need to know, and more than that. Words just come out of my mouth spontaneously, and they’re often very appropriate words; I walk out of my house and directly to my workplace, somehow knowing the way. It’s amazing. And it really underscores just how little good trying does me. It seems I can completely stop trying and, far from my fears of my life crumbling into a twisted mess of pain, the only immediate consequence is that I feel a lot better.
I am still doing. I go about my day; I attend to the tasks that greet me. When tension and anxiety arise I remind myself: I am not trying. I am not trying to do an excellent perfect job at this or that, so if I screw up, if it doesn’t turn out right somehow, what’s the big deal? At the same time, I am not trying to be a super present spiritual person, so if I am worried and preoccupied, who cares? I’m not trying to do or be anything in particular–so whatever I’m doing and being is fine.
I am struggling right now in my other transition–adulthood. I am feeling really overwhelmed. I’ve been stressed out for a while, but I seem to have hit some kind of new threshold. The combination of grad school classes, counseling clients, intensive supervision, my job, joining the board of a professional organization, looking for an internship for next semester with time running out, and, you know, life, trying to be a good partner, son and brother, and all the little tasks that demand doing daily: dogs, chores, shopping, appointments, bills, prescriptions, phone calls… Holy shit, how the hell do people do this?!
Writing it out, at least, I can see why I feel overwhelmed. I really have a lot going on right now. The counseling & supervision is such a challenge in itself. It’s very exciting and rewarding, and I can see growth and change in myself and my clients. But wow, it pushes me so hard, I don’t have that much energy for the zillion other things going on.
I keep getting waves of anxiety, feeling like an imposter. What the hell am I doing? Who am I kidding? I’m terrified.
On the one hand, I feel like, what a joke that I am supposed to be helping others with their mental health–I’m a fucking mess! On the other hand, the nature of the work inspires me to be good to myself, to not work myself too hard, because to make myself miserable helping others be well is just absurd (not to mention impossible).
It is so damn bizarre. I’m like, ok, one minute I’m scrambling to finish a paper; then I’m in a meeting for work; then I’m coaxing someone into a signing a piece of paper promising not to kill themselves; then I’m having dinner with my partner; then I’m giving a presentation on how to help undergraduates write essays; then I’m doing dishes; then I’m listening to someone talk about being raped; then I’m watching a video of myself listening to someone talk about being raped, as another person pauses the video every few minutes to ask, “What were you feeling at this moment?”; then I’m cold-calling agencies and pleading with them to let me work for them for free; then I’m trying to get somewhere on time; then I’m sitting in tiny room with a sobbing man; then I am stopping a moment to smell the first lilacs; and a voice comes through my headphones, saying,
One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually as it goes, and the wind returns again to its courses. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness beyond uttering. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is nothing new under the sun.
Alma and I keep joking that we are babies pretending to be adults. Funny cuz it’s true. I am in over my head.
[A more personal post.]
I’m in grad school studying mental health counseling. Six weeks ago I started seeing clients for the first time. The experience has been amazing, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, overwhelming, exhausting… Basically it’s kicking my ass.
I am confused and tired. It is strange to be suddenly doing the work for real, after a year and half of training. I feel a bit like an impostor, of course. I find myself acutely aware of my age, feeling both painfully young and oddly grown up. It’s the feeling I like to think of as “7th grade all over again.” The grade/age varies a lot by school system, but you know when you go from being the biggest kid at primary school to one of the youngest and smallest at secondary school? I feel like that, or like the first time you venture into the deep end of the pool. I’m treading water, but I can’t put my toes down anymore. Shit got real.
I absolutely love working with my clients. It’s fascinating, exciting, moving, captivating. I really enjoy it. I find myself extremely awake and present during the sessions. There have been times I was totally lost, and times when we connected and some real work got done. My biggest fear right now is, will I ever develop the endurance do this shit 40 hours a week without keeling over?
I have a wonderful, very committed supervisor who has been giving me great feedback. I am learning to breathe deeply and not rush the process. Interestingly, she pointed out that I seem more openhearted with my female than my male clients. I still carry a lot of “boys don’t cry” baggage and it gets between me and deep empathy with another man.
Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing an emotion in real time. It is so weird; the reflex to swallow, repress, so powerful, and then it’s gone. Not really gone, but no longer accessible, bound to come back later. One of the stranger times: Alma and I watched the very important and heartbreaking film Broken Rainbow. I got through the whole thing without crying, though it hurt. Then a year later, we were discussing the movie one night, and I just burst into tears, absolutely no warning. It felt like the very same tears I swallowed in the first place. I am still letting go of all my backlogged tears.
Flashes of memories of learning not to feel: my father’s exhortations of toughen up, determination, learn the difference between pain and discomfort, stop crying. I think my dad picked up on my masculinity and he trained me the best way he knew how. He taught me that you have to be tough or the world will destroy you. As a young gender-variant person, I keyed into messages of masculinity with a secret intensity, clinging to them for dear life. Onionskin heart, I dismantle one wall and I find another.
My world is changing. It essential to face the world with an open heart. Love is far more powerful than fear. The more I open to the world, the friendlier the world becomes. Strange how my family has changed. What would be dad be like if he were raising me now? Now that he seems so much less anxious and reads the Tao Te Ching?
Brick by brick, I keep dismantling. I will not compromise love.
We live like stumbling drunks, always falling down again on the unforgiving concrete of our own self-judgment. We are walls to ourselves, barriers; we are the rock and we are the hard place. We refuse to forgive ourselves for our failings, no matter how small. Then fences proliferate, and with fences, separation, and with separation, misery, misery.
Have you failed? Is there something you cannot do or should have done? A memory that makes you wince? We berate ourselves constantly. Talk about intimate violence. We mistreat our bodies, our hearts and our souls.
I come up over and over again on the hard edge of transsexualism, that bizarre state of defiance and perpetual surprise. Shame, shame, shame, that endless well of pain rising up once more and once more still. Shame rears its head and I become like a trapped animal chewing off its own tail. But unlike that wild creature, I have escaped my cage, haven’t I? Why do I gnaw at the stump and prevent the wound from closing?
Perhaps I am still imprisoned after all. I escaped my external trap of body and role. But inside, I remain my own jailer, and I am cruel. Cowering in fear of others’ judgment and rejection, I am crueler to myself than anyone else has ever been.
Twisted fate, sweet absurdity, I am a testament to the failure of all language and the limits of all forms. I must become beautiful to myself, scabs, scars and all of it. I am tiny, flawed, and terrified. I drink from the cup of the Infinite, yet I am forgetful. I am broken, miniscule, crooked–and perfect.
To be is to be radically limited. From the Endless Endless we are hewed into minute fragments. We feel small, abandoned, and horribly alone. But our condition is no tragedy. The One is endless, complete, unchanging. We are finite, fragmented, in constant flux. The One in its deepest majesty is complete already beyond understanding, yet longs, mysteriously, to crackle into countless forms. If we were unlimited, we would be God.
Every form, because it is one thing, is not a trillion others. Of all possible creations, we are that we are. On this level of reality, limitation is the precursor of beauty.
Radical limitation: wood and fiber brutally cut out of the heart of the Earth and meticulously fastened together in an exact formation. It’s mostly not: not a ray of light nor a star nor stardust, not a hummingbird, not a submarine. And yet the violin, that profoundly constrained and specific form, is a thing of sweetness and purity, a gift to the world. There is no infinite violin, for it would be no violin at all. There is only the tiny, limited, finite instrument, one thing and not countless others. All that it is results from the most severe limitations.
We are not worthwhile despite our limitations. Insofar as we exist in the world, we are our limitations. And we are wonderful.
You still haven’t started that paper. You forgot to send that email again. What’s wrong with you? You haven’t done the dishes in a week. When are you going to write your aunt back? I can’t believe you said that stupid thing at work today. You better call the dog in. Are you ever going to start that paper?
So goes the monologue that so often takes over my mind, and that’s on the good days. I’ve posted before about my experience with anxiety and obsessive thinking. I recently stumbled upon a strange method for getting a little distance form it. I named it Simon.
I got this odd notion from an episode of On Being (one of my favorite podcasts) with pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She explained,
I named my depression Frances because it was like a really bad roommate who would never leave. And at the time when I really suffered from depression, it was when Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had their child named Frances Bean, and so I named my — at the time they named their child, I named my depression Frances.
But I always pictured her more like Courtney Love, kind of emaciated in a vintage nightgown with like smeared lipstick and a gin bottle and a cigarette. Like that was Courtney. I mean, that was Frances, my depression. And like at first, she was kind of interesting to hang out with, but then she just never moved out.
Something just clicked when I heard this. Of course! All this time I’ve been observing my thoughts, knowing myself as the awareness, not the thinking/thinker. But it’s damn hard to remember when the dust-devil swirls in. What better way to disidentify from my obsessive thinking than to give it a name?
So I named it Simon. I picture him vividly: a skinny, scrawny boy of 18 or 19, with messy black hair and wire-frame glasses. I feel like he’s my younger cousin or something, and for some reason, I’m expected to live with him. Simon is the kind of roommate who leaves his dirty socks on the floor and eats the leftovers you were saving. Simon has strong opinions on matters on which he is utterly uninformed. Simon believes everything will go wrong and he wants me to know it.
Naming Simon has sparked something of a revolution in my mind. That evening, all my anxious thoughts were suddenly in sharp relief, obvious in their absurdity and complete uselessness. Shut the fuck up, Simon, I though to myself over and over. In the few weeks since this happened, my anxiety has plummeted. Best of all, whenever it rears its ugly head, it is easily shot down. I wouldn’t put up with this crap from a roommate; there’s no need to put up with it from myself, either.
No more Simon Says.
“I think of transexuality as a kind of birth defect.”
So do I. I was born into the wrong culture.
— Riki Wilchins, from “17 Things You Don’t Say To A Transexual,” Read My Lips
Dysphoria came first and fiercest as the sense that something was wrong with me. Something was terribly, fundamentally wrong with me, and it would never be put right. The feeling was vague and confused, yet vast, pervading everything. I didn’t know what was wrong, exactly, but I knew it was very, very bad. It seemed to be my fault, though I had never intended to cause it. It had something to do with the future, with world of adult relationships. I knew that I would never marry a man; the idea was absurd. Would I marry a woman? Would anyone ever want me? I did not know. I had a deep, gnawing fear that I would never have children. I wanted to, desperately, but it seemed extremely unlikely. I remember trying to comfort myself, Most people have kids, right? I wanted so badly to fix myself, solve the problem, grow up right, be worthwhile. I didn’t want to be a boy, per se. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be like everybody else.
When did the burden materialize? I have no recollection, and I suspect it is as old as I am. It was a strict taboo in my family. It wasn’t til many years later that my parents acknowledged I had always been masculine, that they knew something was going on with me, though didn’t guess what. My masculinity went unacknowledged like toilet paper stuck to somebody’s shoe. Embarrassing. I think my parents thought it would crush me to point it out–they felt a need to insist I was normal and adequate as a girl. But I just wasn’t, and that was far too obvious to miss. So instead of knowing I was masculine, I knew myself as a failure. Everything came so easily to everybody else, but all I tried to do came out crooked.
What was I supposed to make of it? I had been given no words, no examples, no stories, no chance. Occasional snippets caught from grown-up television gave intimations of freaks, wholly alien kinds of people, pathetic in doomed quests to be what they are not. “Men in dresses,” etc. I vaguely related to Joan of Arc and figured I’d missed the boat by a couple of centuries. I could only see myself as an abject failure, utterly hopeless, a doomed hybrid in a world of opposites.
Since no one ever acknowledged it, I thought I might be the only one who realized what I was. Here is where things really went to shit. Seeing myself as a freak and failure, and with everyone else pretending nothing was wrong, I learned it was my job–my most important job–to keep the secret. To fake it, to act like it wasn’t happening, to pretend to be a girl. They were pretending in an
insane extremely misguided* attempt to protect my feelings; I was pretending in a desperate bid to spare theirs, to spare myself the look on their faces when they realized what had happened, who I really was. I was suffocated by the burden of their hopes for me–hopes I could never fulfill. I learned to lie by example. [*Thanks to captainglittertoes for raising concerns about my use of the word “insane” in this post.]
The damage of that denial runs deep, deeper even than the gender issues that sparked it. I have grown up into a man; my whole family accepts me. Yet I still suspect I am not worthwhile. The bullshit habit has its own momentum. Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing a thought or emotion, recoiling from love in fear and mistrust. I struggle to release my stranglehold on the same old shit. I get good grades to be good enough; I am impeccably polite to be good enough; I mentally berate myself to be good enough. I was so afraid of disappointing my parents, but maybe I was disappointed with myself all along.
I remember my depression and rage as a child. I didn’t want this life. Strange. It seemed at once so fair, so unchosen–yet I blamed myself completely, believed I could fix it, be different.
I am so sick of carrying the belief that it’s all my fault. It’s not my fault. My body and soul were simply given, and then badly mishandled by an idiot culture and well-meaning young adults who knew very little about the world. And there is nothing wrong with me.
I know this. I’m still trying to feel it.
If guilt is hell, what is its opposite?
— A Course In Miracles
Sometimes, things really do get worse before they get better. I read a lot of blogs by people who are currently in transition, and I wish I could do more to help people survive that crazy time. This includes the process of self-recognition, questioning, and charting a course, as well as the process of physical, social and legal transformation. For now, let me just say this.
Transition is at once exhilarating, stressful, magical, devastating, terrifying, overwhelming and beautiful. Research suggests that during transition, we are at special risk for suicide attempts, even moreso than usual. Take care of yourself now. I personally guarantee that someday, you will see that this is one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, indeed one of the hardest things that anyone will ever do.
You went out on a journey, looking for a new life–one worth living this time. This is truly a mythic quest. You’ve met friends and enemies, overcome challenges, solved riddles. And now, you have descended to the underworld. If you feel like you’re in a living hell, well, my friend, you are. There is no way up, out or around; you can only go through. You will be a new person when you reach the other side. And you will–you must–reach the other side. Do it for all of us.
As Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Stay strong, comrades. You are not alone.
Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”
How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?
1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.
2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too. I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.
3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.
So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?
I wish that I knew.
Be good to yourself
Miss no chance for kindness
Neglect no small favors
You alone are the guardian of this sensitive being
Of this loving heart, fragile form, and many aches
Do not prolong pain when it may be soothed
Do not belabor anguish when peace is waiting
Never go hungry when food is available
Never overwork when the work can wait
Enough misery to last a lifetime
Will find you of its own accord
Why invite more?
For the task of life, try this:
Add no more pain to the universe
Begin with yourself