Here’s What Makes Her Beautiful

We met long ago, in middle school. I was the troubled girl with shiny hair and a sneer, she was the thin, tall girl with the gorgeous clothes. We were both smart. We were both funny. I noticed her right away, and in that bullying way I had then I went to her, and pointed to the empty seat next to me. “You? Are sitting there. You’re my new best friend.”

We were in gifted class together. This meant we got to sit in a circle on the floor, on pillows, every week, to discuss the readings our teachers had given us. We participated, outwardly philosophical and engaged. But we also leaned into each other and whispered the sorts of wry, unkind teen girl observations about the teachers and their weaknesses that left us giggling inappropriately, holding the laughter inside until it burst from our noses and closed lips like a bad cough.

Leslie Gallagher. My best friend.

I remember her father’s apartment, and the pet Chinchilla that hopped high enough to hit its own head on the ceiling. Was it unkind that we laughed as it fell back to the bed, shaking its little noggin back and forth as though asking “What the fuck just happened?” Ay, ay, ay.

I remember Leslie’s father, a quiet man, an engineer. He barely looked up when we’d come home, his social awkwardness and shyness feeling, to me then, like disapproval. Children take everything personally. My own father took up so much room, was so boastful and pontificatorial. Leslie’s father, by incredible contrast, was almost invisible.

They moved to Denver from Albuquerque, and I felt the bottom fall out of my world. Who would wander the neighborhood with me, making fun of everything now? My father was kind enough to buy me plane tickets to visit her, and I remember going with her to her new high school in Aurora. It was bigger and nicer than any school in Albuquerque, and the kids had more money than any kids I’d ever known. I loved how it felt, walking the halls with Leslie there. We were young and beautiful and filled with intelligence and potential. After school, we went to the tennis court, but rather than just volleying back and forth we hit the balls and screamed “Wap” the way we imagined the balls might, if they could talk. It annoyed everyone around us, but we didn’t care. We laughed until we couldn’t breathe. That’s just how it always was with Leslie.

This week, Leslie’s quiet, invisible father died.

She texted me from Arizona, having flown there from her home in Minneapolis. Her husband and children stayed behind, the boy being autistic and needing constant specialized care. When did life get so goddamned complicated and painful, Leslie?

She texted me on the day before he died. She and her dad were sitting on his patio overlooking the golf course. They had made a game, she told me, using their iPhones to make fart sounds every time one of the sunburned retirees took a swing at the ball. Invisible father, fading fast, had chuckled then. This is your gift, Leslie, one of many. The funniness. The ability to stare down the worst monster, eye to eye, and crack a joke at its expense.

Some things never change. Nor should they.

Leslie. My God.

Even this, even now, you are still that girl, you are still beautiful, you are still hilarious, you are still the best friend I’ve ever had.

My heart hurts for you.

After he died, in the moments after, she spoke to me. Her quiet, reserved, emotionally unavailable father. He’d been the reason she found men just like him, all her life drawn to those who would not react. But something amazing had happened when she was in college, with the advent of email. Her father, who had difficulty with eye contact and rarely spoke in person, was a thoughtful, compassionate, funny and wise man in email. He offered her advice there, listened to her there. He was born for machines. There were times, she told me, when she would call him with a problem, only to be met by silence, but that he would email later in the day, or the next day, with warmth and kindness. The complexities of the human spirit, Leslie. How blessed, that you found your father’s soul among the zeroes and ones. How beautiful, that you connected there, and how incredible that he, the silent man at the periphery of our adolescences, was more like us than we ever knew then.

I am so sorry, friend. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the many years that have passed like a comet. I am sorry you have had so much pain, so much loss, so many ways in which life has not lived up to its promises to that tall, thin, beautiful girl I first met in middle school. I am sorry I wasn’t there with you, as he took his last breath and you played Etta James for him as he did.

“I’m picking up his ashes,” you texted me yesterday. “I refuse to say cremains.”

“Cremains sounds like a terrible non-dairy liquid foodstuff,” I replied.

“Yes. The cheapest kind.”

Oh, Leslie. How you make me laugh, even when you’re crying. How beautiful you are.

How I love you.

Why “Happiness” is a Debilitating Goal

If you’re a woman, you are probably familiar with the annoyance that is having a complete stranger, almost always male, occasionally terrifying, tell you to “smile” or “cheer up” when you’re doing something like walking down the street doing a mental comparative analysis of various brands of cat food. The dude isn’t really telling you to smile; he’s telling you he’s threatened by you unsmiling. He’s seeking to shame and control you as a means of regulating his unbearable inner world.

This happens to all of us, male and female, in a way, every day, through the incredible American cultural pressure towards happiness. “I just want you to be happy,” say our friends. “How are things, good?” ask our coworkers. Even if you’ve been up all night crying into your top sheet because life is extremely difficult right now and you were too depressed to get up for another box of tissues, you do what everyone does: You smile and say everything’s fine, then lock yourself in a public restroom stall to cry a little more.

Our society, focused primarily upon the peddling of things unnecessary to those who can’t afford them, uses happiness to sell stuff, through the dark prince of propaganda: advertising. We are inundated every minute of our waking life with images of shiny, happy people. Got irritable bowels? Just take this pill and you, too, will be joyfully riding a tandem bike in the woods with a super hot girl! Legs hairy as a yeti? Just use this depilatory and, presto, your kids will love you so much they’ll smilingly take their lunch boxes from you as they trot towards the school bus helmed, of course, by a smiling and not at all creepy driver.

This grinning delirium, we are told, is the goal. Of everything. Just get happy, and the rest will follow. We write McFerrin anthems to it, and when the singers of those anthems get too old to look happy (even if they’re still smiling, those pesky frown lines!) we find younger stars to Pharrell it all over the airwaves again. C’mon. Get happy! Americans are more fixated on this one-dimensional emotional ideal than any other culture. We pop antidepressants at a higher rate – much higher – than any other culture. We are desperate to be happy, and never stop to consider that it is the very expectation and requirement of happiness that is making us so unhappy to begin with.

There are many problems with mandating happiness.

One: Life is hard sometimes, and it’s okay to allow space for pain and sorrow. In my own family in the past month we’ve had a murder and a cancer diagnosis. That shit sucks ass. It is okay to be unhappy under unhappy circumstances. In fact, it is necessary, healthy and human.

Two: Sometimes, the only rational response to something is fury. There are many people walking around alive today because anger carried them through pain and abuse that would have otherwise destroyed them. Rage, properly directed, is the catalyst for every liberation movement in human history, and the basis for all comedy worth watching.

Three: To be peaceful is not always to be blissful. Sometimes, peace comes to us in the guise of poignancy, melancholy, despondence. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply getting through another day in full acceptance of all that is, and this can be a kind of disconsolate pleasure.

Four: The cultural insistence upon a Happiness Goal is not only unrealistic, it is highly invalidating and judgmental. Our discomfort with a full spectrum of human emotion leads us to heap shame upon ourselves and others, for feeling the things that everyone else is also feeling and hiding. This causes undue suffering and self-hatred, and lots of lying. This causes many of us, over time, to learn to doubt our own experience of ourselves, and life, which leads to an insecure sense of self in the world.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I am an awe-struck humanist defined by my unique spiritual smoothie of Buddhist and reasonably Christian fruits. I am at home with the mystery of it all, comforted by our relative insignificance among the vast unknowables of space-time. I am also, as an artist, drawn to all emotions, because without a full spectrum of feelings there is no creative endeavor worth a damn. Happiness is wonderful, when it arises. But so, too, is everything else. To feel is to be alive.

It’s okay to be whatever you are, wherever you are.

It’s okay to feel what you feel.

Just be.

 

Why “The Secret” is a Weapon of Privilege

 

I have written two screenplays in the past two months. One is artsy and historical, about a forgotten woman genius from Victorian-era Berlin. It was a passion project and I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of people about it. The other is an adaptation of my second novel, done at the request of my producing partner, for a Mexican TV and music star. That one, I’ve rewritten twice, from the ground up. Hundreds and hundreds of unsatisfactory pages tossed into the bin of discontent. Writing, they say, is rewriting. Man, is that true.

Meanwhile, my money is once again running out. It has been this way for the past ten years. I lurch from project to project, paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I get paid once a year. Sometimes twice. Sometimes, not at all. I have to find a way to make the money last until I sell the next thing, and sometimes the timing is off because of a million unanticipated setbacks. This is one such time. I’ve got enough to last me maybe another month, and then – nada.

So I do what any artist with a kid does: I look for a day job. Those are hard to come by in Albuquerque. This is the poorest state in the nation, with the highest unemployment rate. Wages are low, and demand for my skill set is next to zero. I have been stuck here since my divorce 13 years ago, because I am not the sort of mother to take her son across state lines without permission, and my ex is not the sort of father to not care whether he sees his son regularly or not.

This morning, as I shared my frustrations in job hunting with a friend, I was dismayed by his response. He came at me with all this “quit your stinking thinking” bullshit. “Write the job and salary you want to get, on a piece of paper, and put it on the wall next to your bed. Put that energy out into the universe and it will come back to you.”

This is the usual nonsense spewed by people who adhere to “The Secret” and other magical thinking around prosperity and success. If you’re failing, the theory goes, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to be shiny, sweet, happy and optimistic. It’s no coincidence that the person who told me this happens to be a white male working in the health care field and making a six figure salary. He owns three homes, rents two of them out for income. In his mind, my failure to find money is entirely my own fault, for just not trying hard enough.

The first problem with this pseudo-psychology/science is that it blames the victim. Most of the 7 billion people on earth live in extreme poverty and deprivation; by this privileged man’s “logic,” it’s their own fault. The entire third world just isn’t living up to their potential because of stinking thinking. This is nothing short of metaphysics, in the worst way, a type of prosperity religiosity that absolves society and community from the responsibility of helping those in need, by giving everyone permission to judge those in need as being just not happy enough to deserve success.

The second problem with “The Secret” and other such “advice” is that it isn’t advice at all. It is judgment, often uninformed and unfair, usually given by those who have more than enough and believe they deserve it. It does not take into account the very real issues of classism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, ageism, economic disadvantage. It ignores the prejudices of the world, and says, in essence, that those who have, have because they deserve it. This is utter bullshit.

The third problem is that “The Secret” is nothing but a grand experiment in confirmation bias, allowing people to extrapolate and see whatever it is that they want to see, without requirement of empirical evidence or, of course, compassion.

I’m not in this position because I am negative. I’m not in this position because I don’t work hard enough. I’m in this position for a host of reasons, many of them out of my control. My “friend” likes to think of himself as a Buddhist, but in truth he, like so many other new age adherents from backgrounds of privilege, misses the point. Buddha never taught that you could think pain or difficulty away. Quite the opposite. Buddhism gives people the tools with which to endure and accept circumstances beyond their control, without losing their minds or souls.

While it is certainly true that there are some people who find themselves in difficult circumstances because they lack initiative, that is not the case for most human beings. If “The Secret” were real, most of us would not be struggling. But it’s not real. It is nonsense. It’s no different than the idiotic claim some make that we bring about our own illnesses through negative thinking. Sometimes, motherfucker, you just happen to have grown up a block from a toxic waste dump and now you have fucking cancer.

How to Let Go of Everything You Thought Mattered

PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place. This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else. In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything hurts. I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

If I’m lucky, I am, right now, at about the midway point in my lifespan. I am 48 years old, so probably I am more than halfway to the drop off. We do have longevity in my family, though, so, you know.

I spent the first half of my life as so many people do – figuring out how to GET stuff. An education, a career, a mate, pregnant, parenting skills, health, fitness, the right car, a nice handbag. Whatever. I was focused on finding and holding, on becoming the things I had always imagined I would be.

For the most part, I am happy to report I succeeded at all of it. I got almost everything I set out to get. A good education, a successful career, a husband, a child, a home. But then a funny thing happened, a thing for which no one had prepared me and about which I had never even stopped to think.

I lost it. All of it.

For the young, life is thought to be about getting and becoming. Live long enough, however, and you will learn that the real journey, the raw and incomprehensible reason for existence, is exactly the opposite of this. Life is not about getting and becoming; it is about losing and unraveling.

That great education? Was in two fields that are essentially now obsolete. The career? Also dead. And the mate? After a decade together he met someone better, left me for her. Our child? He’s growing up and won’t need me much anymore, and that is how it should be. The house? Lost it in the mortgage crisis, have another now, thanks to my mother’s generosity. Health? Comes and goes. Cars and handbags? Here and gone.

So, here I sit, a woman I never imagined I would be, when I was young. Single, unemployed, facing a soon-to-be empty nest.

So much loss.

You don’t consider, when you are in the frenzied act of accumulating your accomplishments, what, exactly, you will do once things change – and they will change, for all of us, in one way or another. At least I didn’t.  So when I finally realized that all of the markers to which I had gone to hang my identity out for the world see were no longer there, I was devastated. Depression hit and was not budging.

At least, not until I had a profound realization. I was not unique. I was not tragic. I was not unfortunate.

I was human.

And the human condition, should we all live long enough, is simply this: We are here to learn to let it go, all of it.

Life, by its very design and nature, is about loss. Everything that is, ceases to be. Everything that is, will become something else. We all lose everything, eventually. This can be a reason for terror and sorrow, or, looked at with compassion and non judgment, it can be the very thing that allows us to become open, tender, and curious about where we are right now. Not where or who we were; not where we’re going; not who we will become. What is, now.

Buddha taught that pain was inevitable but suffering was optional. So too, for loss. Peace comes not in accomplishing what you’ve always set out to achieve, but, counterintuitively, in releasing all attachment to everything.

Be open. Be a curious observer to your own life’s changes. Learn to let everything go. That is where peace lies.

 

Getting Over the Guy You Never Actually Had

PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place.

This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else.

In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything fucking hurts.

I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

So, lately I’ve been getting over someone. I am always getting over someone. If I’m not getting over someone, I’m obsessively getting INTO someone else. There has always been a someone, since I was fourteen years old, and that someone has almost always taken up most of my energy and thoughts. That someone almost always falls very hard for me, because we with ERD can seem incredible, at first. Invariably, though, that someone will soon discover that loving One Of Us is like chewing sugar-coated razorblades, and they retreat. This is why one of the hallmarks for my disorder is tumultuous and unstable personal relationships. I piss everyone off. Friends, family, coworkers. I don’t realize I’m doing it, till it’s done. Usually I just think I’m standing up for myself, or educating them. Heh. Nope.

So, anyway. Lately, I’ve been getting over someone. He was a colleague and a friend, and we sometimes crossed the line into lovers. He is 18 years my junior and was clear from the start that any physical relationship we ever had would be “just for fun” and would never lead to more than that. “I will never be your boyfriend,” he said, very clearly. He is holding out for a woman “at the same stage I am, who fits my life and goals,” which means, basically, someone who isn’t one year into menopause and can have his children. Fair enough.

When I was emotionally regulated and reasonable, I could love without condition and accept what we had for what it was. I was open and caring without becoming attached. I was very Buddhist about all of it, letting him come and go as he pleased and never seeking to possess, knowing I was just a placeholder. But as time went on and we got to know each other better, and even threw the word Love back and forth, I became attached.

In my attachment, I did what many with ERD do, which is I created a fantasy world that did not look like reality. In that world, he would realize we were soul mates and meant to be. We would adopt babies and I would have cosmetic surgery and never grow old. He would stop looking for others.

That never happened.

What happened? He kept feeling exactly as he’d always felt, except less and less so as I obviously grew more clingy, needy and attached. One day, as we were working on a script at a bar, I grabbed his hand and asked him when he was going to just stop fucking around and be my real boyfriend. That was the beginning of the end. Things got more tense from there, and finally came to head with him telling me he didn’t love me, didn’t care about me, and had been with “many women since I started seeing you, all of them far more interesting than you.”

So, yeah. That was a wake up call. Now, I know it seems like he’s an abusive asshole. But people like me tend to push decent, honest people to the point of HAVING to say things like that, because unless it is spelled out, we just don’t get it. Even after he was super clear about this, I continued to roll around in my fantasy. He was perfect for me, and he’d come around. He’d realize it.

So, this is where I was when I finally realized I needed to STOP and DO DBT and FAKE BEING NORMAL until I stopped breaking my soul against the jagged rocks of his truth. I’ve spent the past week coming to grips with reality, using a skill DBT calls RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. People like me tend to ignore facts that hurt us, and create elaborate fantasies instead, then try to jam everyone into our stories. This has made me a very good novelist and screenwriter, but not so good at life.

My mind keeps wanting to go back to the comforting lie. Him, marrying me someday. Him, telling everyone how amazing I am. Him, looking me in the eyes and telling me he can’t live without me. None of that happened. None of that will EVER happen. I have had to mentally tell myself over and over and over to STOP fantasizing. I have made myself radically accept the truth – a thing that healthy people would have done automatically.

One of the saddest things about living in this elaborate fantasy has been that I have been emotionally and practically unavailable, for 7 months, to at least two very decent men with whom I might have actually had the sort of relationship I was pretending I’d one day have with the other dude.

Healthy people are able to accept that someone else likes them, thinks they’re beautiful and brilliant, and even likes having sex with them, but doesn’t think there is a future because of the 18 year age difference and desire for children. A healthy person doesn’t take this personally, but instead realizes that it is true, practical, and just the way things go. Someone with ERD, however, tends to derive much of their sense of self from other people, and therefore feels as though they will literally disappear and die if the object of their affections doesn’t want them. Knowing this, recognizing it’s happening, does not mean it doesn’t happen. It just means I get to start the difficult work of dealing with it.

A very important skill I’ve been using for the past two days is PUSHING AWAY. Now that I have RADICALLY ACCEPTED this dude will never be mine – and never was, even when he said he loved me – I must start to PUSH AWAY obsessive thoughts about him. Like? Imagining him with all those other, superior women, for instance. Or dreaming of losing 50 pounds and blowing his mind when I look better than every model or actress in New Mexico. Thoughts like that. Negative fantasies, positive fantasies, fantasies fantasies fantasies.

I’ve found that if, every time I start to indulge a thought of him or us, I instead turn my mind to running scales (I play saxophone) in my mind, visualizing playing the hardest of the scales (Eb minor? Hello?) then my biochemistry comes back to normal and the emotional pathways don’t get lit up all out of control. And it’s a good thing. When the pathways DO get lit up, I tend to do awful self destructive shit like compulsively text him, or call him, or try to figure out a way to get him “back” even though he was never mine.

When I stand back from it all, and write it out, and look at it, the conclusion is easy: From his point of view, I look like a lunatic. But I don’t have to. I can radically accept the truth, and push away the thoughts, and focus on doing things for me.

This is shit normal people do instinctively. We don’t. But I’m learning. Still.

Sigh.

 

 

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