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Why I’m glad I broke my shoulder

I have what a friend once called “clever feet.” I’ve always relied on them; they turn on a dime, and they’ve never let me down. I climb, I hop, I zip around; When I’m busy—I’m always busy—my feet ping from one task to another. Sometimes, I actually complete something before dashing on to the next.

I want to meditate more consistently, but I avoid the unsettling quiet. Most evenings, I experience an edgy, uncomfortable feeling in my body. It’s a bone-deep dissatisfaction with nothing I can name. I am (in theory) committed to exploring it in meditation. But that would mean I’d have to feel it. It’s much easier to distract myself, and often, that’s what I choose to do.

Daily walking in the woods is a compromise. In the surrounding presence of the forest, my mind tends toward quiet. I admire people who can lose themselves in the passage of light among trees, but I have to keep moving. In many ways this is a blessing, and I’m very grateful for a strong body. Still, exercise plays into my busy-addiction. When that edginess overtakes me, it’s much easier to hit the trail than to sit in silence for even ten minutes.

And the compromise has an uneasy quality. The promise of stillness shimmers in the green forest, but I habitually pass it by. A few weeks ago, I hit on a solution: What if I start running a few times a week? If I work the edginess out of my system, I’d give myself full permission for sit in silence. Right?

Armed with this logic, on April 25 I was trotting through the woods, keeping to clear, flat stretches, careful of my 59-year-old knees. I was meditating on the cleverness of my feet. Not five minutes before it happened, I actually remembered a friend who’d had a nasty fall that required a shoulder replacement, but I thought in response: “I don’t fall. That’s not me.” I remembered several times when I stumbled, always with a graceful finish. Yep. I was good. Confident in my self-view, I revised my plan to avoid hills. The incline I started down was clear, open and inviting.

Well. If I was writing fiction, here an editor would complain, “set up far too obvious.” Do I need to mention the rock? I barely felt it. I went flying, my arm braced. A crunching pain in my shoulder, a crazy roll, and I landed on my back at the crossroads of three paths, arms flung up in surrender. I blinked up at the watchful trees. “Okay,” I thought. “I get the message.”

Long story short—a man who happened by with his daughter offered me a ride (but his car was farther away than my house) and his cell phone (but I had no numbers memorized). A mountain bike guy had found an old inner tube in the woods, and wearing it as an improvised sling, I walked home. One foot in front of the other, after which my sister-in-law drove me to the ER, where I discovered that lively conversation with someone for whom you are extremely grateful is a fabulous painkiller.

I knew I was lucky the day of the accident, and now that I’m healing with ten screws and a steel plate in my upper arm, I know it still. Not just because my arm is recovering; not just because my social life has new dazzle due to the wonderful, helpful people in my life who can perform feats like opening jars and chopping vegetables. I’m incredibly lucky, because with a setup like the one I had, it’s been impossible to miss the point.

There was no way in hell I was going to jump off the hamster wheel without being pushed.

And here’s the thing. We all say, “I’m too hard on myself.” Or “I should relax more.” But there’s a reason why we manipulate our lives to avoid the very quiet that we long for! Being confronted with my own mind during the enforced stillness of healing has been intense…imagine a manic monkey, high on painkillers, with a talent for scripting horror shows. Over the past two weeks, I have: Diagnosed myself as mentally ill; been convinced I’m addicted to opiods; consigned myself to “failed writer;” and spiraled into 3 a.m. panics, completely out of control. 

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Did I mention I’ve been wanting to meditate more? Truth is, I’d been waiting for  optimal conditions. But there are no optimal conditions. There is only now. When “now” is pretty damn difficult, what do you have to lose? So I began to meditate—knowing my life depended on it—in the middle of a mental hurricane.

 

Every hurricane has an eye, a center of poise and calm. And there’s only one way to get there. In order to travel to the quiet center, I had to experience the wild mind…allowing it to scream, accuse me, shame me, and predict doom, without shutting down, numbing, or running away.

Running away was what I’d been doing all along. But somehow I knew that falling into silence would not destroy me. So I stayed with it, stayed with the pain and the fear and the inability to sleep in more than one position, knowing that the world was not against me. I already knew I needed to stop. On the day I broke my shoulder, the world simply rose up to meet me there.

There’s nothing heroic about it. My adjustment to stillness is all about plodding. It’s seeing my cat at the window, silhouetted against the flowers, and loving what I see, rather than rushing on to the next five urgencies.

It’s about placing the attention, however tentative, on a single breath. One inhale. One exhale. Then another, then a few more. Then I feel tension in my chest. Crap, it means I’m not relaxed. I can’t do this; maybe I need more drugs. Maybe the drugs are the problem. Wait, I stopped taking them…When was that? Was it Tuesday? Thursday? Maybe meditation has nothing to do with it. Maybe I’m not meditating at all. Maybe I’m just high.

Then mindfulness spontaneously ‘wakes me up.’ I didn’t make it happen, but suddenly I’m experiencing the breath. Inhale, exhale. The chest softens. The thoughts fade. Something shifts inside. I’m shaky, vulnerable, but all I am now is breathing. I’m in this moment. Am I okay? Just breathing. Not adding anything.

I see it: I am not those thoughts. Rather, from a larger place in my mind, I experience the scenario-spinning part of my mind as a windup toy that’s trying desperately to manage the outcome of future events.

That’s all. In that half hour of meditation, this is my big revelation: the suffering mind is a windup toy, and I don’t have to buy into it. In that difficult stillness, I have touched something real. I creep downstairs to find something to eat. I still feel crappy. My arm hurts. I may not sleep tonight.

But I am happy. It’s small, but it’s huge: I can experience the workings of the mind without getting sucked into its game.

It’s a relief to know that in the same world where terrible things can hit at any moment, a mysterious grace rises up to catch us when we shatter.

It’s about taking the risk to place one foot after another without focusing on the outcome. It’s about taking one breath, then the next. It’s about accepting vulnerability… And finding great joy below the surface of things.

Healing from Trauma: Embracing the Irrational

I once met a bright young guy with a successful career and an active social life who had endured horrific, ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of his father. John was engaged in a prolonged argument with his therapist. On the surface, the position he took seems absurd. He kept trying to convince his therapist that his parents had been right about him all along: He was insane. He knew the facts about the abuse; he just kept trying to convince the therapist that he had concocted them himself. For his part, the therapist wouldn’t budge. Clearly, John was not crazy.

Why would John do this? Because of my own trauma history, I understood him implicitly. But a trauma specialist might be more convincing. “Everything about us—our brains, our minds, and our bodies—is geared toward collaboration in social systems,” writes Bessel van der Kolk, medical director of the Trauma Center of Boston and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. “Children have no choice but to organize themselves to survive within the families they have…I have never met a child below the age of ten,” he emphasizes, “who was tortured at home…who, if given the option, would not have chosen to stay with his or her family rather than being placed in a foster home.”

But John was an adult. Now, with support systems in place, surely he could see how irrational it was to keep letting his parents off the hook. Why was he torturing himself with visions of insanity?

The only way John could have survived his childhood, gone to college, and become successful in life was to distort reality: He had to believe that his parents were on his side. To face the truth meant accepting a horror of such magnitude that the adult John feared he would unravel—his integrated sense of self had been CREATED within a distorted belief. If he popped that bubble, would he cease to exist?

Healing can’t come from trying to reason with people about their abuse. “These responses are not reasonable and therefore cannot be changed simply by reframing irrational thoughts…Nonetheless, learning to recognize irrational thoughts and behaviors can be a useful first step,” Van der Kolk writes. “Generally, the rational brain can override the emotional brain, as long as our fears don’t hijack us.”

Survivors of childhood trauma have been hijacked. Often, this fact is a source of great human-skull-x-rayshame-we “ought” to be more in control. Seeing himself as crazy gave John a reprieve from feelings of abject terror and vulnerability. “It couldn’t have been that bad,” John reasoned. “I must be nuts.”

Actually, vulnerability is the terrain where healing takes place. Like John, we need to “reconstruct our inner map of the world.” This phrase of Van der Kolk’s carries great power. My healing moments have come when I stop talking about trauma; when, with help and guidance, I’m willing to revisit an inner world of absolute chaos and discover that it does not overwhelm me. That world includes the entire body–the nervous system, muscles, and guts in which trauma is encoded. Reason is an ally at those times. It tells me that what I’m experiencing is actually normal. It tells me that I’m not crazy, that my brain has processed trauma, unlike ordinary linear memory, in irrational, cubist slices.

Our culture still values reason above all else.But reason alone can’t heal.  It’s “reasonable”  to treat the symptoms of trauma with medication; it’s “reasonable” to expect traumatized people to simply drop the past and get on with their lives. The problem is that we’ve been trying to do that, and it doesn’t work. Trauma has never been reasonable. I would argue that until we are all willing to face and come to healing terms with our own vulnerability—John could be me. He could be you—trauma will continue to be, in Van der Kolk’s words, “our most urgent public health issue.”

 

 

 

 

Child Sexual Abuse: The Real Reason It Doesn’t End

When a victim comes out against an abuser, it throws their shared community into a collective mind f**k. People can’t get their heads around the truth: “He’s such a nice guy! He’s helped so many inner city youth/he’s a deacon in the church/he founded the shelter for wombats.”

In order not to get caught, to appease their tortured consciences, whatever: perpetrators often cultivate a rich, wholesome community life. They actually do good things. Can anyone say “Jerry Sandusky”? People trust the guy, and the truth is profoundly disorienting-so, rather than rethink reality-pow! They attack the victim.

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Last week in Kansas City, good family man and pillar-of-his-community Darren Paden pleaded guilty–and was sentenced to 50 years in prison–for “repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade.”  Paden and his victim live in Dearborn, Missouri, such a small town it’s really an extended family of 500 people–and it’s now divided. The girl he abused, now 18, has been ostracized and shunned by more than half the community. Some claim that Paden broke down under a too-forcible police interrogation. (He confessed after only a couple of hours.) But if other people insist he’s innocent, it just makes it harder for a self-confessed offender to change his ways.

A warm, church-going man, Paden “has a lot of good, positive things in his life, too,” said his aunt, who wrote to the court pleading for leniency.  That “too” says a lot. It implies she believes he is an abuser. Yet  faced with two irreconcilable images of someone we believe we know, one must prevail as being “the real person”; and so, we take sides. A community will maintain its sense of stability at all cost. Therefore, the victims of sexual abuse are labeled as community-destroying pariahs.

Matthew Sandusky, the adopted son and victim of Jerry Sandusky, faced a terrible choice in choosing to testify against his father. The elder Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse in 2012. As the jury went to deliberation, Matthew approached police: He also had a story of abuse to tell, admitting that he had lied to the grand jury by previously supporting his father. Ultimately, Matthew did not testify in court, but the sticky consequences of coming forward spun out nonetheless. In his July, 2014 interview on Oprah, Matthew struggled with the implications for his family–“they’re innocent,” he said, holding back tears.  It’s a telling word.  He knew his own children would be treated like criminals. In fact, they were harassed to such an extent that the family surname has been changed and is not publicly known.

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Viewing the characters in these too-true stories as either devil or angel is destructive because it promotes a false view of human beings (we’re all good or all bad). It promises golden opportunities to the next “closeted” child molester: If you’re clever and charming enough, even after you confess your guilt, half the town will be convinced you’re innocent. The truth is far more difficult. Yes, Darren Paden did many lovable things for his neighbors; and Yes, he did molest that young woman. Yes, Sandusky raped all those boys, and, Yes: he did do a whole lot for Penn State.

“Missouri Town Rallies in Support of Convicted Child Molester,” a current headline reads. As long as we keep viewing other people through a lens of black-and-white moral absolutes, we miss the point of Matthew Sandusky’s story: You can love someone even as you identify him as a criminal. We are also partly culpable for the perpetuation of child sexual abuse. And we aren’t helping perpetrators take responsibility for their crimes.

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