On an impulse, I Googled “intimacy” this week. My partner and I frequently talk about connection, and I think a great deal about relationships, past and present, trying to understand the psychological dynamics of being human.
I expected a simple definition. I found a lot more than that.
The older I get, the more disgusted I am with public education. Why don’t we teach emotional intelligence to kids? Why do we fail to provide an adequate education in biology, sexuality, complexity and holistic management? Why don’t we model and teach critical thinking skills and how to research properly? And why, oh why, are we not taught about connection, love and intimacy before we become adults? Aaargh.
Intimacy turned out to be a rabbit hole, and I started taking notes and bookmarking sites. I read an article about eight kinds of intimacy. Count ‘em. Eight! Before I even read the piece, I knew I was in new territory. The simple definition of intimacy is closeness, but I never thought of closeness as having so many different facets. Well, of course it does, we all know that, but I didn’t know there was any kind of a theoretical model that broke intimacy down.
So I clicked, and read, and made notes. I’m not going to rehash the article. You can read it for yourself. However, here are the categories of intimacy in this particular model:
It wasn’t clear to me whether these were listed in any particular order of importance. The article was written by a woman. That’s important, because males and females are very different in their language, styles, agendas and motivations.
The piece doesn’t propose whether all these forms of intimacy are equal, which I appreciate, because I suspect we each want and need an individual balance of these eight pieces, and we’d probably list them in different orders of importance.
The first thing that really strikes me is the discernment between physical and sexual intimacy. The blurring and confusion around the boundaries between the two reflect what I see as our cultural brokenness around sex and sexual expression. Rape culture is inherently distorted and unhealthy for men and women. I’ve written about touch before. Where are the lines between sexual and physical intimacy? Are there solid lines, or are they more fluid, depending on context and the people involved? How do things like trust and consent factor in? It seems terribly complicated and fraught with potential for misunderstanding, manipulation and abuse. When I read or hear the word “intimacy,” I think about sex, but this model demonstrates many other facets of close connection, including nonsexual physical touch.
As I’ve looked over this list for the last couple of days, it seems clear to me that our ability to participate in healthy intimacy is only as robust as our ability to be intimate with ourselves. Without the foundation of a loving, connected and authentic relationship with ourselves, nothing else works. If we don’t explore, accept and validate our own physical, emotional, spiritual, creative and sexual needs, we’ll never be able to share these intimate facets with anyone else.
Conflict intimacy really caught my eye. Huh? What does that even mean?
It means the ongoing experience of successfully managing tension, disagreement and conflict. It’s closely tied to experiential intimacy (the history of experience we build in relationships) and emotional intimacy (which requires trust and authenticity). I’m charmed by this one. I never would have come up with it on my own, and I wouldn’t have recognized it until the last few years with my partner, who is the first person I’ve ever been intimate with who behaves like an adult.
All my life I’ve wondered why simply getting along seems so impossible. I’m willing to listen, negotiate, try to understand, be tolerant and be authentic. Why can’t two people who are connected and have some degree of mutual history and commitment simply talk things through?
They can. If both are responsible adults who are prepared to be honest and vulnerable. It’s not hard at all. It’s interesting, stressful and brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings to manage conflict, but it’s also a marvelous way to deepen understanding and, well, intimacy! Working out conflicts is every bit as useful and connecting as I always thought it could be. It also gives relationships stability and deep roots. I have absolute faith that my partner and I can manage any conflict or disagreement, whatever happens.
Experiential intimacy is complicated. My partner and I run into this all the time. A good example is stacking wood, which we’ve recently been doing as next season’s firewood is delivered. For him, stacking wood is a task based on a lifetime of skill and experience. He has a system in the barn where we store wood. He sorts it according to age, he stacks it just so, and the whole thing is carefully planned and managed.
Me? Stacking wood is an opportunity for connection, for us to do something that helps sustain our life together. The task is nothing but an excuse for good exercise and together time. I’m happy to take orders and let him have total control. (Stop laughing! In this case, I am!)
So we have wood dumped in the driveway, and I’m all excited because we’re going to spend several hours together stacking it. After breakfast, he goes into his office to do his morning thing and I go upstairs into my aerie to do mine. I get immersed in writing, or a book, or a rabbit hole like intimacy, and lose all track of time. At some point, usually because I have to pee or want another cup of tea (could these be related?), I come back to consciousness and discover the music is on, the barn door is open, and he’s happily stacking wood without me! I drop what I’m doing, grab my gloves and go out to join him, usually just at the point he’s ready to take a break.
This has happened many times, and every time I’m pissed off and feel rejected. Every time, we talk about it, and he’s sorry. “I forgot to call you,” he says.
He forgets because to him it’s a task to be done competently. I’m hurt because to me it’s a chance to do something together, and that’s always my priority. The competency and skill involved mean nothing to me. I want the connection.
Same activity, but entirely different ways of experiencing it.
It works the other way, too. He likes to share certain movies and TV series with me. For him, that’s important connection time–experiential intimacy. It can be for me, too, but sitting through yet another Star Trek or Star Wars or superheroes spectacle is at best boring and at worst overstimulating. It’s something I do out of love, but I’d rather stack wood together.
Another aspect of intimacy that highlights the confusion between men and women is creative intimacy. At first glance, I assumed this meant sharing our creative selves in our relationships, but that’s not quite how it’s defined. Creative intimacy is showing our affection for one another creatively. At this point I checked to see the sex of the writer of this piece and found it was a woman, which I would have predicted. In my experience, things like surprises, unexpected cards and gifts and other small (or large) playful tokens of appreciation and affection are much, much more important to women than men. A special card means a great deal to me, but my partner hardly notices such a demonstration. I know this because I sent him one—once! I got tremendous fun and pleasure out of it, but he was unimpressed. Watching the latest Star Wars with him would have meant more. Sigh.
I once spent a couple of weeks planning a birthday surprise for an intimate partner. Few things have given me as much pleasure. I went to his workplace and taped a card to his steering wheel before filling the cab of his truck with balloons. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.
He was furious. He said I had humiliated him. I was beyond crushed. I never again tried to do anything like that for him or anyone else. It left a deep scar.
Intimacy is one of those tricky aspects of relationship that’s probably equally longed for and terrifying. We fear losing ourselves, being vulnerable, being authentic. We long for connection that feels safe and real, for people in our lives we can trust and rely upon. We’re terrified of spending our lives alone, yet we resent having our freedom limited. Old traumas or health issues damage our ability to participate in physical or sexual intimacy. We have no emotional intelligence. We have no spiritual life. We avoid conflict at all costs.
We’re lonely. We’re lonely. We’re lonely.
Intimacy is one of our primary needs, but it’s messy and complicated, and now I wonder if it means different things to different people. We use the word, but there’s no consistency about what, exactly, we’re talking about. Is a relationship “real” if one or more of these elements is missing? How many of these aspects must be present to keep different kinds of relationships viable, and in what combination and balance?
I experience committed relationship as one long negotiation and contest of generosity. It’s hard work. The rewards are great, and such a connection requires ongoing, consistent investment; investment in ourselves. What do we need? What do we want? What can we say about what doesn’t work for us in relationship? What are our deal breakers? How do we manage conflict and uncomfortable feelings like anger and fear? What are our priorities? What are our expectations of ourselves and the other? How do we maintain healthy interdependence? What is our strategy for getting resource, help and support outside the relationship? How do we repair trust, manage the peace treaty of tolerance, practice forgiveness and manage power?
What does intimacy mean to us? How are we prepared to create and participate in it? What kinds of intimacy are we unable to offer? How close is too close? How distant is too distant? How will we handle the ways all these elements of intimacy might change over time? (They will.) How does intimacy show up in all our relationships—friends, family, romantic partners and community?
When I was 20, life was so simple. Intimacy was sex, and sex was mostly enjoyable. I didn’t find out until it was too late that sex is perhaps the most one-dimensional aspect of intimacy, and certainly not the longest lasting. When I was married at 21, I could feel some mild concern and eye-rolling from my family. I heard quite a bit of the “marry in haste, repent at leisure” thing. But no one stepped forward to give me resource and education about human connection. No one talked to me about the intricacies of a longstanding, committed relationship. No one had any emotional intelligence or a clue about its importance. No one talked to me about romance or expectations or intimacy. How could they? None of them knew about any of those things. No one had taught them.
Well, better late than never. I’ve learned a lot since I was 20.
The author proposes restraint as a superpower. Oxford Online Dictionary defines restraint as “unemotional, dispassionate or moderate behavior; self-control.” The ability to manage our own behavior is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.
Understand that this does not mean making ourselves small, or silencing ourselves or others. It’s also important to think of restraint as an internal control. We have no power (usually) to restrain others, but we can develop self-restraint, which may influence others to be more restrained in their behavior.
As I think about restraint, it has two aspects. One is the choices we make as we interact with others. The other is the choices we make about our own attention; for example, we can learn to refrain (or restrain ourselves) from taking everything so seriously. This kind of restraint is invisible to anyone else, but it significantly changes the quality of our experience and life.
I’ve noticed, as I work with this blog, how the vehicle of social media seems to encourage saying more and meaning less. We seem to have a need to share our most mundane activities and decisions as though they’re filled with meaning.
A good example is the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) trend, which has long fascinated me. As I navigate through the Internet, reading my news feeds, researching and exploring links that interest me, I often stop reading articles and essays before finishing them. Sometimes that’s because I don’t have the time right then to do it justice. Sometimes I’m finding no value in it.
It never occurs to me to make a comment indicating why I made the decision to stop reading. If I’m too busy to read a lengthy piece, why on earth would I pause to say TLDR about it, either aloud or in writing? Why is that important? Why does anyone care? Is such a comment a passive-aggressive way to say the writer is too long-winded? Or that the reader has an important and busy life? Or that literacy is elitist? It seems to me an utterly useless comment.
I also think it’s fun when people write comparatively lengthy comments about why they didn’t read. I have the same set of questions there. It’s impossible to take feedback seriously or have a good discussion with someone who hasn’t read the piece, so why bother saying anything at all? We read what we’re interested in, and we don’t read what we’re not interested in … don’t we?
As we become more embedded in social media and texting technology, we act as though If we have the ability to say something, we must. But does having the means to constantly share our thoughts and choices mean we should? Is it useful? Is it truly connecting? Is it meaningful?
I’m amused and appalled by modern dating. Younger friends and colleagues inform me that the norm now is to exchange frequent texts throughout the day in even a first date relationship. Romantic, meaningful texts like:
“How was your commute?”
(Icy. It’s February in Maine and it snowed yesterday, you jackass!)
(Distracted and interrupted because you keep texting me about nothing, Dude! You’re not a swimmer, you’ve never been here, and you don’t know anything about my job. What can I text you about work? Nobody’s drowned yet today. The pool is cloudy, and we don’t know why. Send chocolate!)
The parenthetic replies are mine. My friend was much kinder and more tolerant! Apparently, however, if texting like this doesn’t happen, one or another of those involved are hurt, or feel rejected or otherwise insecure.
It makes me smile to think of restraint as a superpower, but maybe the writer is on to something. The article did make me think. I’m more comfortable listening than talking, but it’s evident after a few hours at work how lonely so many people are. They talk about their pets, their families, their health concerns, food, their pain, their history, their financial struggles, their work, their gardens, and the ice in their driveways. Sometimes their conversation is long, rambling, and interminable. I’m filled with compassion for them.
Many people of my generation and older are uncomfortable with texting, e-mail and social media. In fact, e-mail is now used much less frequently than messaging or FaceTime. My 30-something kids are scornful of e-mail and those who use it. They much prefer texting, which I do with them for the sake of staying in touch, though it’s deeply unsatisfying for me. I’d rather write long e-mails or talk on the phone (if I must; I hate talking on the phone!).
Nothing replaces actually being with them.
People crave face-to-face conversation and contact (FaceTime doesn’t count), contact that can’t happen in a text with emojis. They’re so hungry that when they get it, they have no restraint at all. Everything comes out. Being “connected” through technology appears to be a toxic mimic for what we really need.
I wonder if part of what drives younger generations to compulsively send words into cyberspace is that same hunger for authentic connection, though unrecognized. In their loneliness and isolation, they send more and more impulsive, unedited, unrestrained words out into the world, longing for meaning, connection, and validation, but having no idea that their extreme oversharing is making them less connected, not more.
Superficiality is not connection. The ability to be in constant technological contact is not necessarily intimacy, security, love or meaningful in any way. Restraint seems to be a lost art. We’re better at it when interacting in real time and place than we are online, where it appears nothing is too mean or hateful to say, but we all say an awful lot of nothing.
I’m disheartened by how easy we are to manipulate, from click bait to disinformation to trolls. The Internet and tech provide us with endless tasty poisoned bait to nibble on, and we pick it up every time. Stimulate our fear, guilt, outrage, defensiveness or paranoia, and we’re hooked into long, pointless debates and arguments, competitions over who gets to be right, and spending our time engaging with the world in a way that makes us and our relationships neither healthier nor happier, but is probably quite satisfying for all the Cluster B and otherwise destructive, manipulative folks out there with agendas for power and control.
The mice in our house are smarter than that. They’ve figured out how to lick the peanut butter out of the trap without triggering it.
So much for human supremacy!
We all have feelings and impulses, and most of us have said things we regret later. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to be lonely, or to want to be seen or talk things out. I do wonder sometimes if technology is taking us farther and farther from our ability to participate in healthy, authentic relationships, however. Publicly documenting our every move, choice and experience (with pictures!) and participating in the culture’s indiscriminate oversharing makes me wonder where this road will take us. We’re getting very skilled at monologues. Real discussions and conversations in which people both speak and listen? Not so much. We spend more time waiting to speak than listening and attempting to understand.
After reading this article, I’m paying more attention to what I say, and why, and to whom. The point of language (a symbolic system for sharing meaning) is communicating. If we have nothing meaningful to say, why are we speaking (or writing)? (What is meaningful? Who gets to decide? Never mind. That’s for another post!)
Why is just being silent or present as a listener or reader not enough? Must we find something to say about everything to everyone? Do we cease to exist if we’re getting no attention or validation or have no comment? Does everyone need to know about our TLDR choices? Do our private lives need to be public plays with stage directions?
When I went through emotional intelligence training, I learned about three basic human needs: Contribution, connection and authenticity. If these primary needs are not adequately met, our lives don’t work well. I’ve written about my wary relationship with my own needs before. As I explore emotional intelligence, I’m struck by the simplicity of the three basic needs, the paradoxical complexity of each one, and the unique ways, often unconsciously, we each approach getting these needs met. I also notice the way these needs are inextricably woven into each other.
In these first couple of weeks of a new job, it’s been necessary to build a new schedule, which felt overwhelming until I remembered the three basic needs. I’m a creature of habit and I quickly stop assessing how I spend my time once I have a workable schedule. I engage with activities I’m accustomed to engage with and that’s that.
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When I trained as a medical transcriptionist and started working from home, I was motivated by the necessity of earning a living and managing my then-teenage sons as a single mother. Medical transcription was a perfect solution. Gradually, without me really noticing, I allowed the job to become a prison. The boys grew up and moved out. I was promoted twice, but never earned a comfortable living. The job came with intense pressure that triggered my stress and perfectionism. It was isolating. It was difficult physically and keyboarding began to give me overuse injury.
I depended on my inadequate paycheck. It was the only income I had.
I was aware during the last couple of years I worked as a transcriptionist that the job was no longer meeting any of my needs, aside from the paycheck, but a paycheck is kind of essential. In fact, in my mind it was the essential priority in my life, and I labored away in spite of migraine headaches and increasing pain in my upper extremities and shoulders until the day came when I could no longer keyboard without sobbing and I developed a frozen shoulder. I couldn’t take off my shirt without feeling faint from pain.
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The hardest thing about that job was not the poor pay, but feeling my contribution didn’t matter. The medical professionals were dictating into a piece of equipment and rarely, if ever, considered the human being trying to transcribe their dictation, unless it was to complain and criticize errors. The company I worked for is a huge global conglomerate on the cutting edge of speech recognition technology and a whole host of other businesses. I was nameless and faceless. All training and in-services were done remotely. Management had a high turnover. Changes happened without notice, like getting transferred to a new book of business. Overtime, when needed, was mandatory. Transcriptionists were expected to work 24/7 and weekend shifts were required.
Many people can type quickly and accurately. It’s mostly a matter of practice. I was a pair of hands and ears racing the clock, along with hundreds of others like me, both here and overseas. The job wanted no authenticity from me or anyone else. It’s a job for robots.
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I am not a robot.
I’ve been seeking a new job because I want to start earning income again, but this time I promised myself I wouldn’t take a job that didn’t feel meaningful to me, and I knew exactly what I meant by meaningful. A meaningful job is not about the paycheck. Yes, obviously, I need money in today’s world. Not a lot, but some. Enough to justify my time, travel and commitment. However, the work I do in exchange for a paycheck of any size is only meaningful if it makes a positive difference in the lives of others. I don’t want to be paid for being a robot impersonator. I want to be paid because I contribute something wanted or needed out of my own authenticity.
Working as a member of a team in order to keep people safe, assist patients in rehabilitation, and teaching swimming feels meaningful and allows me to work from the heart. In my little corner of the world I can be part of something healthy and healing for myself and others.
As an ex-people-pleaser, I endeavored for most of my life to make a positive difference in the lives of my family and immediate connections. I worked as hard as I could at it, and making a meaningful contribution was my top priority. In spite of all my efforts, I failed. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried the more obnoxious I was to those around me. Naturally, I concluded that I was nothing. I had nothing to offer that anyone wanted. It would be better for everyone if I disappeared and relieved them of the burden of my presence.
Two important things I’ve learned from those years are people pleasing doesn’t work, and some people are determined never to be pleased. I learned to define for myself what a “good” job is. I began to seek paid work I enjoyed as much as volunteer work and kept my focus on the feeling of making a positive contribution.
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I see and hear a lot of discussion about the increasing problems of loneliness and depression, and I suspect many of those affected feel unable to make a meaningful, authentic contribution in their families and/or communities. Somewhere along the way we decided a paycheck is more important than the quality of our contribution, but ultimately, as human beings, no paycheck is an adequate substitute for feeling our contribution matters. Our culture does not necessarily reward authentic contribution. We like our infallible robots and good soldiers, those who do and say exactly what they’re programmed to do and say. Loose cannons like me are a problem nobody wants in the classroom or the boardroom.
I’m sorry I believed for so long I had nothing to contribute. It made me miserable and was the root of many destructive choices. Now I believe we all have a great deal to offer, and someone out there needs exactly what we can contribute. What would the world be like if every man, woman and child truly felt they had something unique to give that made a positive difference in just one other life? What if contributing and receiving contributions were not tied to money? What if we all woke up in the morning knowing the world is a better place because of our presence?
What would it take to make that a reality for everyone?
I’m fortunate to have found a way to make an authentic, meaningful contribution combined with a paycheck. Not everyone is able to do that. But everyone is able to do something. Plant a tree. Walk dogs living in animal shelters. Visit hospital patients. Assist in schools, day care facilities or retirement homes. Volunteer to answer a hotline. Buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person. Teach literacy.
Someone out there needs what we can give. Someone is waiting for us. All we have to do is go find them.
Slowly, I’m finding online communities of writers. As I’ve shaped Our Daily Crime, I’ve connected with other bloggers. These connections mean I spend at least an hour a day reading the work of others. I’m inspired, touched, tickled and provoked, and I feel at home in these digital communities because we all share the need to write and be read. We also share self-doubt, confusion, vulnerability, loneliness, the need for connection and the problem of earning a living.
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Over and over again, I read about personal struggles with depression, fear and anxiety. Many a writer sits down to their daily writing practice with goals and intentions and finds him or herself unable to do anything but express the here and now of their experience of ambivalence, avoidance, distraction or block. To be a writer is to occasionally live with shame and guilt about what we meant to write, what we should have written and the quality and subject of what we actually did come up with. We all doubt our ability, our value, and whether anyone will care enough to read our words. Creative expression is a daily leap of faith.
I’ve struggled all my life with depression. In more recent years, I’ve come to understand anxiety and fear are also large parts of the feeling I recognize as depression. Over the years I’ve tried to manage depression in many ways. Some worked, at least temporarily, and some didn’t.
It hasn’t been until the last decade that I’ve finally found a way to effectively manage and even largely banish depression. It doesn’t play with me anymore. Fear and anxiety still show up regularly, but the same method works to manage them, and I no longer worry one day I’ll just give up, step over some unseen edge, and disappear into crazy, a fugue state, or death.
One day, for no reason in particular except I felt exhausted, despairing, and bored with both, I said to Depression, “You win. I give up. Why not come out of the shadows and show yourself?”
Fat and happy, secure in its power, it did just that.
The first thing that I realized was Depression is an experience, not an integral piece of me. It’s something draped around me. It can be separated from me.
The second thing I noticed was my depression is male. He walked with an arrogant male strut and swagger and he spoke in a male voice.
I didn’t name him because he wasn’t a pet, he wasn’t a friend, and he most definitely wasn’t invited to be a roommate. He was merely someone who showed up at more or less regular intervals and made a nuisance of himself. He didn’t have the manners to knock on the door, wait to be invited or give any notice of his arrival. He just appeared.
I wondered what it would take to discourage him from visiting. What made me so attractive?
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Clinical depression is like a grey cave filled with fog. It numbs the senses and fills head and heart with cold, sticky, lumpy oatmeal. One is entirely alone with no hope. The simplest action, like opening one’s eyes, takes enormous effort. Depression envelopes and consumes every spark of power.
The only reason I’m in the world today is because I’m an unbelievably stubborn butthead. I’m also very nice. One does not cancel out the other, but nearly everyone persists in missing that second important point, with the result that I’m constantly being underestimated. This is a wonderful advantage in life.
Depression was no exception to the rule. When invited, he disentangled himself from me, parked his butt in a chair I pulled out for him, and began to tell me how things were going to be from now on.
On that particular day, I hadn’t showered (or the day before that, or the day before that). Annoyed by his high-handedness, I interrupted to say I was going to shower. He told me not to. Who would care? What was the point? I wouldn’t see anyone. No one would see me.
That was all I needed. I went and took a long shower. Washed my hair. Shaved my legs. Put on clean clothes and some jewelry. Depression sat in the bathroom and muttered at me. I ignored him.
I felt better then, and my irrepressible creativity began to stir, along with a childlike streak of playfulness I usually keep well-hidden. One small act of rebellion had helped me regain a tiny sense of power.
One of the things that used to happen when depression struck was that I stopped eating. I’d go all day with nothing but a salad and a piece of toast. I hadn’t eaten a solid meal for several days on this occasion. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry (this is common), but I knew I needed to eat.
Depression didn’t like it. He threatened and complained and trotted out all the usual points. I was too fat. I hadn’t been doing anything useful and didn’t need to eat. I didn’t make enough money to deserveto eat.
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I put a chair at the table for Depression (I lived alone at the time), invited him to sit, set the table for two with complete place settings, right down to two glasses of water, made myself a meal, and ate. I offered him some food, but he refused. I read while I ate and ignored Depression, who sat and sulked.
Well, you have the idea. The more he protested when I wanted to take a walk, sit in the sun or work in the garden, the more stubborn I became. I politely invited him to join me in my activities, but he refused, which meant the more I got out in the world and did things the less time I spent with him. He hated my movies and my audio books. He thought walking to Main Street for an ice cream cone was a criminal waste of money, along with feeding the birds. The only activity he approved of was my work, which involved sitting for hours in front of my computer with headphones on doing medical transcription as fast and accurately as possible for only slightly more than minimum wage.
He absolutely hated my music. I quickly developed the habit of turning on Pandora first thing every morning and listening to it most of the day.
We also conflicted over sleep. Depression said there was no point in getting up in the morning because no one would notice. No one would care. In fact, the only things really worth doing in life were working and sleeping. This attitude ensured I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. and walked every day at dawn.
I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t fight or struggle. I made sure he had plenty of space and a good pillow in my bed. I gave him a spot at the table and a seat in front of the TV. I took out a clean towel for him and invited him to browse in my personal library.
Every single time he told me not to do something I did it, no matter how much I didn’t want to. I was pleasant, noncompliant, resistant and stubborn as a mule.
You know what?
He went away.
One day, he was just gone.
I knew I’d found the key.
Externalized, Depression suddenly became more pathetic than terrifying. He was so predictable, and so limited. All he had to say were the same things he’d been saying all my life. He was boring. He was like a batty old uncle who must be invited to every family gathering and tells the same interminable stories year in and year out.
He came back, of course, but for shorter and shorter visits at wider and wider intervals.
“Back again, I see,” I’d say. I’d set a place at the table, take out a clean towel, make space in the bed and on the couch. I’d realize I was sliding again and concentrate on eating more regularly, exercising, playing music, putting flowers on the table or maybe scheduling a massage.
I tried to have conversations with him, but Depression had no conversation, just the same tired monologue, mumbling and whining. He was really quite sad. He stopped spending the night and then gradually stopped visiting altogether.
I guess he was no longer getting what he needed from me.
Fear and anxiety are still regular visitors. Things are different here in Maine. I don’t live alone, for one thing. I still play imaginary games, but only in my head. Still, when either fear or anxiety show up, I recognize them. (Anxiety bites her fingernails; I always recognize her hands.) I don’t try to keep them away and I don’t try to hide from them.
I focus on giving them no power. I don’t buy into their catastrophizing. I appreciate they’re trying to keep me safe, poor things. All they can do is make up terrible stories about what might happen and then sit, paralyzed by their imaginings. I know they’re wretched. I wish I could help. I try to be kind — at a distance. They usually don’t stay long.
This experience is the sort of thing I used to hide, but I realize now my struggles are not unique. I’m inspired by the creativity, honesty and vulnerability of other writers. Coping with depression, anxiety and fear is like figuring out how to eat. Every body is different. Everybody needs to find their own path to healing, health and sanity. At times, it’s difficult to break through social expectations and shoulds and make a complete left turn into something creative, intuitive or outside the current norms.
Still, nothing succeeds like success. Turning Depression into an externalized character helped me see I didn’t have to define myself by it. I could choose to set aside that label and all it implies. Once I truly believed I had the power to choose, everything changed.
Sometimes, running away from sudden or passing danger is appropriate. However, running from these chronic spectres dogging my heels has not worked. I can’t get away from them. I can’t avoid or evade. Being chased by anything is fearful. The moment when I stop running, turn around and deliberately go toward whatever threatens me is the moment in which I begin to regain power. Monsters suddenly become mice. My own fear and abdication of power are what made them monstrous. I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to defend. I only need to consistently and patiently demonstrate I will give them nothing they want so they choose to leave me.
Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.
I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.
I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.
I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for the second book in my Webbd Wheel series, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.
Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.
A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.
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It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.
As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.
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We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.
Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.
I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.
I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.
I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, fleeing and climbing ladders we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.
What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expectedto be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.
On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.
I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.
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For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.
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At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I awoke at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.
I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.
By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?
Reclaiming what I’m made of, one choice at a time. My daily crime.
The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.
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The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.