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 which 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 highlighting 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 obtaining 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.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
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Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
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Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
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May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.
The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of a local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 84 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane lap pool. The therapy pool is about 94 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.
As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me to be paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.
I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.
I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.
For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.
There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.
I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?
In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.
The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.
As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.
Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom encompassing all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.
I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.
Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.
In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.
I’ve been thinking about loyalty recently. Loyalty is one of my bigger rabbit holes. I most often use the term when I’m beating myself up. A nasty little internal voice frequently hisses “Disloyal!” in my ear. This happens so constantly, in fact, that I’m bored. I’ve decided to unpack the concept of loyalty, spread it out, let the cat sniff at it, and either own my own disloyalty without shame or permanently silence that particular internal accusation.
The first thing I notice is I want to be loyal. Loyalty is a virtue. Good, loving people are loyal. I certainly want to be a loyal family member, friend and partner. Loyalty has always been an important part of my identity, which is why it’s such an effective lash for me. What’s more shameful and ugly than disloyalty?
I don’t want to be shameful and ugly. If I am shameful and ugly, I certainly don’t want anyone to find out.
Loyalty, then, is something that depends on what onlookers think about my behavior and choices.
Before I’ve even crawled into the mouth of the rabbit hole I’ve moved out of my power. Interesting.
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Recently, I took my morning cup of tea and spent two hours with dictionary, thesaurus and my laptop looking at poetry, quotes, memes, definitions and articles. I read about families, patriotism and dogs. I discovered 80% of results returned for a search on loyalty have to do with manipulating customer and product loyalty. Of course. What a world.
At the end of that two hours, I felt no wiser. I had some notes, but I still didn’t have a clear idea of what loyalty really is, what it looks like, what it feels like to give or receive it, and how it overlaps with trust, authenticity, truth, enabling, coercion and control. I can point to people in my life I feel loyalty for, and I can point to people who I feel are loyal to me, but the truth is I don’t trust myself on this issue. Maybe my confusion means I am, in fact, shamefully disloyal. A humbling and humiliating thought.
At the same time, would I feel so torn apart by family and personal social dynamics if I was thoroughly disloyal? My sense of loyalty to others has given me much anguish over the years. Surely if it was absent in me I wouldn’t struggle so hard with it.
Simply defined, loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance. That definition leaves me even more clueless than I was before. It has to be more complicated than that, doesn’t it?
Well, doesn’t it?
Is it just me, or does the cultural definition of loyalty consist of a much more convoluted hairball of expectations, assumptions and false equivalencies?
I often use back doors when I feel stuck. My two hours of research did give me some ideas about what loyalty is not, at least in my mind. But already I can see others might disagree. Still, that’s why we have dictionaries and definitions.
Loyalty cannot be slavery or prostitution. If I have to compromise my integrity in order to fulfill someone else’s expectation of loyalty, it’s no longer a virtue, but an abuse and manipulation. True loyalty must be freely and heartfully given. Authentic loyalty can’t be bought, sold, stolen or owed. It’s not demonstrated by obedience or compliance. If it’s not free and spontaneous, it’s only a sham, an empty word that sounds great but has no substance. Loyalty is not a weapon. It’s a gift.
Said another way, from a perspective of power (and you know how much I think about power!), loyalty is a tool of power-with, not a weapon of power-over.
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Loyalty is not blind. Part of its value is its clarity. We prize it so highly because seeing and being seen clearly, warts and all, and demonstrating or receiving loyalty in spite of it is an act of strength and love. In that case, compassion, tolerance and respect are all involved in loyalty. It follows, then, that loyalty does not require agreement. I can feel entirely loyal to a loved one while disagreeing with some of their choices and beliefs.
Loyalty does not imply denial, arguing with what is or colluding in rewriting history in order to sanitize it. Loyalty is not a right or an obligation.
In fact, the thesaurus suggests the word “trueness” as a synonym for loyalty. Interesting. Isn’t trueness the same as authenticity? I count on those who are loyal to me to tell me the truth of their experience with me and of me. I count on them to trust me with their thoughts, feelings, concerns and observations. I count on them to ask me questions about my choices, and to forgive me when I’m less than perfect. I hold myself to the same standards. This can mean a hard conversation now and then, and uncomfortable vulnerability and risk, but real loyalty is not cheap.
The thesaurus also supplies the word “constancy” as a synonym for loyalty. Constancy is an old-fashioned word these days, but it leapt out at me because consistency is very important to me. I’ve had some experience with Jekyll-and-Hyde abuse patterns in which the goalposts and rules constantly change without notice, keeping me nicely trapped in trying to please people who have no intention of ever being pleased no matter what I do. Loyalty is present one day and absent the next, then present again, then unavailable. That kind of “loyalty” is an abuse tactic.
As always, the construct of loyalty is two-sided. There’s the loyalty that extends between me and another, and then there’s the loyalty I extend to myself. This circles back around to slavery, prostitution and silence. If I have to betray my own needs or make myself small in order to earn or retain someone’s loyalty, something’s very wrong. If I’m called disloyal for saying no, having appropriate boundaries or telling the truth of my experience, then we are not in agreement about the definition of loyalty or I’m being manipulated (again). How loyal can I be to others if I fail to be faithful to myself?
True loyalty will never require me to make a choice between myself and another. Loyalty is strong enough to compromise and collaborate.
Loyalty becomes weaponized when we demand or command absolute agreement, devotion and unquestioning support. Then the concept becomes very black and white. This is demonstrated all over social media and media in general. One unwanted question or view leads to unmerciful deplatforming, silencing and a torrent of threats and abuse. Our loyalty is questioned and tested at every turn. We allow bullies, tyrants and personality-disordered people to achieve and maintain control, terrified of tribal shaming, being unpatriotic or being cast out of our social groups and communities.
The label of disloyalty is extremely powerful, but when I strip away all my confusions and distortions around loyalty and return to the simple definition, it’s not complicated at all. I certainly feel a strong allegiance and support for many individual people, for my community, for my country, for women, for writers, for this piece of land I live on, and for myself.
I suspect many others would like me to wear the label of disloyalty, but I can’t do a thing about their distortions except hand them a dictionary. Very elitist behavior, I’m sure you will agree. Not to mention the disloyalty of refusing to collude in my own shaming.
Being called disloyal doesn’t make it so.
That voice in my head has to do better, find a new slur. I’m willing to own being disloyal if I am, but my conclusion after this investigation is mostly I’m not, and when I am, my greatest trespass is against myself. That I can do something about.
Loyalty. Setting down the weapon. Picking up the tool.
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.
Photo by Florencia Potter on Unsplash
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.