With the year coming to an end, I thought it only fitting to write a holiday blog post, and what better way to do this than by writing a Festivus themed post! For those of you who may not be familiar with the Seinfeld episode on “Festivus for the Rest of Us”, I’ll give you the back story. Here’s a brief excerpt from the Wikipedia entry: “The holiday's celebration, as it was shown on Seinfeld, includes a Festivus dinner, an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole, practices such as the Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength, and the labelling of easily explainable events as Festivus miracles.” Along with its non-commercial aspect, I love the the practice of the "Airing of Grievances”, where everyone sits around the table and tells everyone else how they have disappointed you throughout the year—Yes, it’s sarcastic, but there might just be some therapeutic relevance to clearing out the wreckage and resentments of the past year and starting the new year off with a clean slate.
Because the mission statement of my blog is to be “positive” and to write about my year of transformation, I thought it prudent to avoid the negativity of the Seinfeld holiday, and for that reason, I’d like to turn “Fesitvus” on its head and write about how so many people have helped me throughout the last four months. The most inspirational quote to sum up my year appeared in my inbox last week. “After a while I looked in the mirror and realized... Wow after all those hurts, scars and bruises. After all of those trials, I really made it through. I did it. I survived that which was suppose to kill me. So I straightened my crown and walked away like a BOSS!” I love the brazen “kick-ass” nature of those words, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge all of those who have helped me dig myself out of a huge, dark hole.
For 35 years of my life, I’d lived with a secret that had slowly eaten away at my soul. First it chipped away at my sense of security and my self-esteem. Then it led to years of battling addiction, depression, and suicide. Eventually it left me with no place left to breathe, no place left to turn, and no alternative but to lift the veil of secrecy. In April of this year, two weeks before the Boston Marathon, I disclosed to my family and friends that I had been sexually abused as a child—my wife already knew a little bit, but she had no idea of the extent of the abuse. I registered for a treatment program to begin in May, and then the trauma of the Boston Marathon unfolded. When I came back from Boston, I was a broken man in so many ways. My first day back to work, I stood in front of my students and found that I couldn’t speak. I walked out of my classroom at 9:15 am, grabbed my jacket, and headed directly to my doctor’s office, where I immediately shattered into tears and a hyperventilating mess. I am blessed to have an incredible doctor who knew just what to do. She helped me sort out the paperwork for a medical leave of absence, and she arranged for some immediate PTSD support.
Another angel entered my life at this time too, and it arrived in a Facebook message sent to me after I disclosed that I had been abused. It was from a friend whom I hadn’t seen or spoke to since elementary school. She recommended a treatment program for survivors of childhood sexual abuse that she herself had recently attended. She tossed my a life preserver that I desperately clung to for three months. She promised that it would one day get better, and that there will come a time when I no longer am controlled by the trauma of my past. If she’s reading this, I hope she knows how much I love her and how integral she has been to my courage to “breathe through this”.
It’s often said that adversity shows us who are strongest friends are, and I can attest to how true this is. I have many friends in my life, but coming to terms with this childhood trauma has shed a light on how incredible a few of these individuals are. One couple in particular helped me when I was at my most vulnerable. They pampered me at their cottage, looked me directly in the eye and told me I had nothing to be ashamed of, but most importantly, one of these incredible people put me in contact with my new therapist. I would not be as far along the recovery path today, if it weren’t for my therapist Kim, who has sat with me for many hours and supported me as I pealed back the layers of childhood sexual abuse. She has taught me how to look at the world as a less scary place, and how to believe in myself again.
I hear a lot of people bashing social media as a mindless waste of time, but I consider it a significant piece of my recovery puzzle. For the first two months I was on my medical leave suffering from acute PTSD, I had zero concentration and was unable to read or watch television. Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts kept me sane and helped me stay out of severe isolation. I have become very close to a few friends on social media, and I am in daily contact with them. You know who you are out there—Please know how dear you are to my heart and how much you have bolstered me during this pivotal time in my life.
I decided to save the best for last because this person has been with me for 27 years—She’s seen the best of me and the worst of me, but at no time has her love for me ever wavered. My wife Mary-Anne is my bedrock. I put her through hell for years as the aftershock of my being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse cascaded throughout my adult life. When I finally cracked and could take no more, she gave me the strength to come to terms with the trauma from my past. The statistics are not kind—more than 75% of partnerships don’t survive a disclosure of childhood sexual abuse. It’s a fact that confronts us every day that we are going through this healing process. Mary-Anne gave my a card for our anniversary in August, and in it she wrote: “Who knew that 26 years ago that when we promised for better or worse, that it would be the worst that made us better.” If that’s not what wholehearted love is, then I don’t know what is.
And it is with this joy in my heart, and faith in what the new year will bring, that I wish you all a Happy Festivus for the best of us!
When I launched this blog three months ago, my sole purpose was to articulate what was percolating up in my mind as I work through issues regarding childhood trauma. What I wasn't expecting is how much what I was writing would resonate with other people, and on so many levels. Through the messages readers have sent me and the ensuing dialogs that transpired, I've been able to take many of my ideas further and challenge my core beliefs. Another beautiful gift that has come into my life as a result of this blog is the opportunity to correspond with people all over the world who are on a similar journey.
Yesterday, I received a comment on my blog from a long lost friend who I have recently reconnected with. He was responding to my post on patience and how I'm learning to embrace it to weather the inevitable swell of emotions, setbacks, and euphoria as I peel back the layers of self-doubt entombed in my experiences with childhood sexual abuse. My friend cited a well-known quote from Pablo Picasso. "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." The first time I encountered this quote was in a Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert when she too referred to the importance of action no matter what quest we may find ourselves on, be it spiritual or artistic. What struck me at the time was how often we wait in vain for our muse to appear, yet we neglect to be in the space to receive that inspiration because we haven't taken the initial steps ourselves.
One of my favorite quotes from President Obama is: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change we seek." I lived 35 years of my life with the secret of childhood sexual abuse, and every day I buried the shame a little deeper, and with each day, I became a little more detached from the person I wanted to be. I was naïvely waiting for the inspiration to change, for it to magically arrive in my life. This process of transformation finally arrived when I got busy doing the "working" Picasso refers to—when I disclosed the abuse publicly; when I entered a treatment program for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and when I began the soul wrenching work of processing the childhood trauma.
When I entered AA 16 years ago to deal with my addiction issues, the hardest lesson I had to learn was that “healthy sobriety” is not a gift that comes without action. It's an ongoing process of self reflection in conjunction with the regimented program of action suggested through the 12 steps. I believe this is where I, and many others, have stumbled in that simply willing the situation to get better, or a burden to be lifted, rarely occurs without a change in consciousness, or an action taking place in our life.
It is with all of this in mind, that I look upon my friend's comment on my last post as the beauty of serendipity entering my life through inspiration. Moving towards the dream of living a more wholehearted life requires only one thing of me—“moving", and this may be forwards, and at times backwards, but the simple act of working leaves me open to inspiration and growth, a continual reckoning of that which is within in my reach, but still lies beyond my grasp.
Throughout the past six months, I’ve been immersing myself in a lot of Buddhist spiritual writings, and I’ve been fortunate to latch onto two important lessons that have been immensely powerful in my healing journey. The first is coming to terms with unwanted, messy, and painful parts of my past, and learning to embrace them as catalysts of change rather than simply bury them in shame. The second, and by far the most difficult to practice wholeheartedly, is to nurture empathy for myself and others—this means learning to “be with” rather than “be there for” someone else who is struggling.
In May, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma, particularly survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I’ll never forget her telling me in our first meeting that in order for me to start feeling better about myself, I would need to “let go of the storyline”, in other words, learn to let the trauma simply exist for what it is, and not give it a life-force that enables it to reign as a continual theme reverberating throughout my life. Buddhists believe that suffering is universal, so it is a teacher to be met with grace rather than with resistance.
I was explaining to my wife how there have been many times during the past few months when I wished I could shove that “genie” back into the lamp and go back to the time before I disclosed the childhood sexual abuse. The predicament I’m in is that I’m currently in limbo—a can’t go back, nor do I want to go back, and the prospect of the emotional energy involved in continuing on this path feels daunting and overwhelming. American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes this feeling in our lives as the “big squeeze”. “We find ourselves in that place again and again, usually we want to run away: sometimes we want to give up the whole thing. It’s like burn out; it feels extremely uncomfortable and you can’t wiggle out of it…It feels impossible for us to buy our situation and impossible to throw it out."
What’s really at play here is that I’m becoming more self-aware, and I’m not being subjected to anything that wasn’t always there with me; however, the difference is that now I’m acknowledging the presence of these feelings. Life is simultaneously beautiful and wretched. The beauty emboldens me and inspires me to move forward—it’s very addictive, and I’d love to wallow endlessly in this part of my life. The harsh reality is that the wretchedness is inescapable, and in the Buddhist tradition, something to be welcomed because it softens our hearts and humbles us. As Brene Brown would say, true connection comes when we are at our most vulnerable, not when we are soaring above everyone else.
So, how do I go about nurturing an acceptance of the pain, or wretchedness, that may pass my way? Again, if I turn to the teachings of Pema Chodron, I see that the answer may lie in one simple word--patience. According to Pema, “Paitence is not learned in safety. It is not learned when everything is harmonious and going well. When everything is smooth sailing, who needs patience? …There is no cultivation of patience when your pattern is to just try to seek harmony and smooth everything out. Patience implies willingness to be alive rather than trying to seek harmony.”
That last sentence encapsulates every period of discord in my life—every time I felt overwhelmed, inconsequential, or trapped. I’m starting to realize that my idea of “harmony” is completely out of whack with the universe’s definition of harmony. For me, “harmony” looked like tranquility, with little or no friction in my life. Every time something, or someone, came into my sphere that caused me to question myself or caused me to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I recoiled immediately and frantically tried to get back to that place of utopian “harmony”. What I ended up doing was creating a lot of unnecessary internal strife, as I pushed away everything unpleasant. There has been much written as of late, by such visionaries as Brene Brown and Sheryl Sandberg, about the importance “leaning into discomfort”, but this is not a new concept. In the “Compassionate Life”, the Dalai Lama expresses the value of being able to accept the problems we encounter in this life that prevent us from fulfilling our goals. “If when these happen, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face these difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that not just we but everyone has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and our capacity to overcome troubles. By remembering the suffering of others, by feeling compassion for others, our own suffering becomes manageable.” I’m starting to accept that just as we can’t choose our family, we are powerless to choose our teachers—sometimes they arrive in the guise of goodwill and progress; other times cloaked in pain and discomfort.
Those of you who have been following my posts have heard me talk about the night terrors I’ve been experiencing over the past 3 months. At times, these nightmares have been debilitating and have left me feeling exhausted throughout the week. The recurring theme in the nightmares is a feeling of being pinned to the ground with someone’s knee on my chest. These dreams are simply my brain working through the sexual trauma I experienced as a child.
You may not be able to see it by looking at me, but I’m walking around with a scar on my brain—an etch in my psyche—that shapes who I am and how I interact with those around me. When I first entered the Gatehouse treatment program for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I felt a constant sense of being overwhelmed; I was almost incapacitated by the prospect that I would need to pull back the curtain on this part of me that I kept buried for 35 years. I remember getting an email from a friend who had undergone the same process, and she told me that each day, little by little, I would gain more perspective on the events that unfolded, until one day they wouldn’t be front and centre in my life anymore.
This is an exciting time in the field of neuroscience because more and more research is indicating that it may be possible to “rewire” the brain after it was destabilized as a direct result of childhood trauma. Childhood sexual abuse has such a far reaching and long lasting impact because trauma occurring in childhood changes the brain’s development as a way of “shielding” the child from the traumatic event(s). An international team of researchers in the field of psychology, including Charles B. Nemeroff and Leonard M. Miller have discovered that “victims of emotional mistreatment were found to have a reduction of the thickness of the cerebral cortex in specific areas associated with self-awareness, self-evaluation and emotional regulation.” It is believed that this part of the brain becomes desensitized as the brain enacts a protective mechanism to shield the child from further psychological trauma. That all sounds great, but this brain rewiring becomes more of an issue as the child enters adolescence and adulthood. There is growing debate in this field as to whether or not this neurological response may be an underlying factor in increased likelihood of addiction, mental health, and sexual dysfunction in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
My therapist is help helping me work through this issue by introducing neuroplasticity into my treatment program. Because the night terrors have a recurring theme, my therapist has asked me to write down a detailed account of what happened during the event from my childhood. The key part is that I have to write down a new “ending” to the event—one in which I’m empowered and able to push away from being held down. Every day for 2 weeks, I am supposed to replay the movie in my head about what happened, but now I need to tack on my new ending. The science behind this indicates that by “rewriting the script” and reading it over and over again, it allows the brain to get “unstuck” from the event and to move through the trauma. I have noticed a dramatic difference in my sleep pattern in the last couple of days, so I think this therapeutic approach is working. I have no idea where this road will eventually lead, but I am grateful that there may be a path to living a more wholehearted life—one based on feeling hopeful that the past can stay in the past, and not impede the future.
I have been clean and sober now for more than 16 years—In fact, I haven’t had a drink or drug in 6,106 days, or for you math geeks out there, 146,544 hours. Over the years, there have been days when I’ve felt secure with my sobriety, and there have also been many days when I’ve white-knuckled it from minute to minute. With the holiday season rapidly approaching, I thought I would share the “10 Lessons I’ve Learned in Sobriety” in case you or a loved one is struggling with addiction issues.
1. Fill ‘er up please
I firmly believe that some people are just born with an “addictive personality”. For years, I thought this was my curse, but now that I have some sobriety under my belt, I’m starting feel that this personality trait can be harnessed and put to good use. When I stopped drinking, I needed to “fill up” all that time I spent drinking, or recovering from drinking, so that meant I needed to find a healthier addiction. I took up competitive long distance running 14 years ago, and over 80 marathons later, I’m happy to report that I’m a running addict.
2. Leave an Impression
I remember Christmas approaching in my first year of sobriety, and feeling complete angst about having to be around all that alcohol. My sponsor at the time gave me some great advice that’s been a life-saver many times in my sobriety. He said: “Get in. Get out. Leave an impression.” So, that’s exactly what I do whenever I need to go to a party or get-together where there will be a lot of alcohol. I keep my visit brief. I talk to everybody I can. I make sure I’m lively and engaging, so people will remember I was there.
3. Two dozen cookies to go please
When I sobered up, I discovered that I had a wicked “sweet tooth” that must have been lying dormant all those years through my drinking. Sugar affects our brain by elevating levels of dopamine. This is the same chemical that gets released when an alcoholic consumes excess alcohol. There is also a direct link to sugar increasing levels of serotonin, the chemical that elevates our mood. I have been known to eat 2 dozen of my wife’s homemade chocolate chip cookies in one sitting. I should probably add that when I eat too many sugary treats, I’m left with that hungover feeling I used to get when I was an active alcoholic, and it’s usually accompanied by feelings of deep remorse. So, if you’re ever visiting someone in a treatment centre, bring a chocolate bar—You’ll be doing him/her a big favour.
4. Be an armchair traveller
A significant factor in my being able to stay sober for this long, one-day-at-a-time, has been my near “religious” adherence to routine. In AA, you often hear the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.” Whenever one of these is out of balance, I’m more susceptible to a relapse. I try to inoculate myself against that by keeping my sleeping and eating patterns very regimented. Whenever I travel, I try to take in an AA meeting if I’m feeling out-of-sorts, and I always keep an energy bar on me just in case my meal time gets out of whack.
5. Come out of the closet
Right from the very beginning, I discovered that it’s so much easier if I just tell everybody I’m with that I’m a recovering alcoholic. It puts an end to the inevitable “Are you sure I can’t get you a drink” comment. As an added bonus, hosts will bend over backwards to offer you expensive fizzy water that they would normally never keep in the house.
6. There’s life beyond church basements
In my first two years of sobriety, I went to a 12-Step meeting almost every day, and I learned to stomach some of the worst coffee ever brewed! I know how important it is to maintain my connection to others in sobriety, but I’m also well aware that there is a “big world” that exists outside of church basements. The happiest people I’ve met over the years in my sobriety are those recovering addicts who have learned to rejoin the real world and avoid getting stuck in the “sobriety club”.
7. Get Zen with it
One fact I know for certain is that 12-step meetings teach you patience. The typical meeting gathers people struggling with many substances, people with mental health issues, and people who might be in the early hours of their recovery. Learning to sit still for 90 minutes, while allowing others to share, vent, cry, and inspire has been a skill that I can use in many other parts of my life.
8. Lean into the tsunamis
About a month after I sobered up, I began to feel so much healthier physically, but I quickly discovered that I was not on a smooth upward trajectory to a life of blissful serenity. My advice to anyone new to sobriety is to expect waves—and sometimes tsunamis as emotions are apt to be all over the place when we are no longer numbing our feelings with drugs or alcohol.
9. What…It’s not all about me?
I’ve written before that if you get to really know any addict intimately, you’ll uncover a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex. The best way I’ve learned to keep this unsightly part of my personality in check, is to sit down and talk to another struggling addict. It really is magic how being present for someone in crisis and giving my time to be a sounding board for someone else, allows me to escape my own “monkey brain” for awhile and realize life is not all about me.
10. And the award for “Most Stubborn” goes to…
The most important lesson I’ve learned in my sobriety is that I am a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. Call it stubbornness, pig-headedness, or just plain belligerence, but battling to stay sober one-day-at-a-time forges a huge sense of accomplishment and inner strength.
Each of these lessons has held various levels of significance throughout my 16 years of sobriety, and at times, they have been my superhero cape that allow me to escape the downward spiral of addiction. If you know someone struggling, pass this message along, and let him/her know that there is indeed hope, and it is distilled one-day-at-a-time.
One of the unexpected joys I’ve received since launching this blog three months ago, is the incredible honesty, vulnerability, and wisdom that my readers share with me through their comments and emails. A lot of my thinking of late has been about my marriage and how I’m starting to perceive it as an evolving entity that defies any of my attempts to define it, or even describe it. I’m reminded of that famous Marshall McLuhan quote about how “fish did not discover water.” Maybe the very fact that I’m immersed in my relationship means that I will never be able to “define” it. This brings me back to an insightful comment I received on my last blog post. A reader wrote, “I remember in my youth a couple being interviewed who said after 60 years of marriage, that it was a fallacy, the concept of a long and happy marriage: that it is more like several marriages, recontracted in difficult evolutions and changes, that resulted in their enduring bond.”
This comment resonated so deeply with me, and it generated a lot of discussion around the dinner table with my wife. Our socialization really does a disservice, by suggesting to us at a young age that our goal in life is to fall in love with our prince/princess and live happily ever after. It doesn’t take long into our adult life to discover the fallacy of this notion and the angst that it entails. In fact, if you were to chart any long-term relationship on a graph, you would not see a steady line of increasing bliss, but rather, a fluctuation reflecting the inevitable ups and downs of the relationship. As a byproduct of industrialization, we as a society have become addicted to immediate gratification and the allure of “progress”—the next great thing coming around the corner.
I have been consciously inviting mindfulness into my daily life, and this is slowly (and I mean painfully slow), permitting me to give my relationship with my partner “space” to contract and expand into its natural "flow". So, what does this look like? Lately, it's meant having authentic, difficult discussions with my wife about what we each need in our relationship. This sounds simple, but in all honesty, many of us butt heads in our interactions with those closest to us because we “assume” they know what we need even though we’ve never articulated it. In this process, the easiest part for me has been expressing what I need, but sitting quietly and listening to what my wife also needs has at times, left me with a sense of unease and vulnerability primarily because of my perceived lack of control. It’s taken me awhile to realize that none of us ever has “control” of someone else’s emotions and primal needs. The beautiful part of this process is not to look upon this as a “loss”, but as an “emancipation”—permission to trust in our deep bond of love for our partner as we embrace the natural ebb and flow of our relationship.
Psychotherapist David Richo suggests that healthy relationships are based on the five A’s, “attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing.” For me, I struggle the most with the first and last on the list because these are the two that involve mindfulness and trust. When I think about my 27-year marriage, I can see how the reader’s comment on my last post clearly articulates the “several marriages, recontracted in difficult evolutions and changes” over the near three decades I’ve spent with my wife. Because we were married at such a young age, our “first marriage” was a blissful defiance as we set out to prove to ourselves and everyone else that we were mature enough to make this work. With the birth of our son, our relationship morphed into being present for this fragile person in our care. Later, as a result of issues involving addiction, mental health, and finances, our marriage became more about weathering crisis after crisis. Most recently, our marriage was “recontracted” yet again, with the disclosure of my having been sexually abused as a child. For my entire adult life, I had a huge part of me that I kept hidden in a box buried deep in my psyche. The person on the outside was not the person screaming to get out on the inside. The disclosure about my childhood trauma has allowed me to open that “buried box”, and with the support of my partner, I am learning how to reconnect with this part of me. Writing has been so cathartic because I’m witnessing the authentic picture of me slowly take shape before my eyes—it’s as if the words on the screen are parts of a scattered jigsaw puzzle finally coming together.
I may never be able to “define” what my marriage looks like—or means to me, but I am certain that part of its longevity is directly attributed to my falling in love with the same person over and over again as she evolves over and over again. It’s so tragic that many of us spend our life looking for someone who completes us when all we really need is what David Richo describes as a soulmate, “not the one who says he or she is your other half, but the one who shows you that you are whole."
I’ve had the joy of teaching English for the past 25 years, and during that time, I’ve often had to explain the difference between the words “lonely” and “alone”, but it’s only recently that I have “experienced” the difference between those words.
I believe that we are only given what we are ready to handle. This does not necessarily mean that we want what we have been given—just that we are capable of enduring what might on the surface appear to be unbearable. I am witnessing first-hand how strong the human heart and human will is to work through immense pain. I have written many times about the daily challenges I face having disclosed that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. What I am finding overwhelming at times, is how this childhood trauma has woven its tentacles into every part of my life. When I first disclosed the abuse six months ago, I was not aware of how tenacious this trauma was, and I think thankfully, that was another example of life only giving to me what I was able to bear at that given moment.
Undisclosed childhood sexual abuse takes many hostages—It has a devastating impact on the child, but until this trauma is brought into the open and worked through, the trauma continues to impact every relationship that this child has, and every relationship that this soon to be adult engages in. In my case, everything came to a head yesterday when I sat across from my wife on the couch with the stark realization that in the process of me finding my voice, she was wrenched from many of the ways she defined herself, and this in turn, has lead to her own self-actualization because she now has a new role to play in our relationship.
It’s an incredibly powerful feeling to sit across from the person you love with all your heart, the person you have spent 27 years of your life with, and look at each other in the midsts of complete raw emotions, and say “I don't know how to fix this, and I don't know what our future looks like, or where we go from here.” It was at that moment, when we both realized that coming to terms with trauma—an illness, an accident, or in my case abuse—often is the death nail to a long term relationship. Both partners are irrevocably changed, and your future together can be built on the past, but it can not look like the past.
There was tremendous pain in both of us, and the only way forward was to look forward and not look back. We needed to sit together not as husband and wife, but simply as two people who railed defiantly against every self-motivating emotion inside of us that said, “my needs are paramount” as we held each other and came to the realization that behind all of the pain, hurt, sadness, and confusion, lies one nurturing truth—our love for the other. I was listening to an interview with a palliative care specialist, Dr. Ira Byock, who said that when his patients are faced with their inevitable mortality, all the “superficiality” and “bravado” in their relationships with family and friends slips away, and what is left is pure authenticity. He suggests that every relationship that finds itself at a precipice can find the hope to move forward by one person saying these four simple sentences: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
For us to move past that point of “stuckness” yesterday, we needed to tear away all of the veneers that buried our hurt inside of each of us. In essence, we were stripped bare, and left with acknowledging the vulnerabilities in ourselves, and this permitted the window to see the same hurt in each other. As a culture, we are programmed to hide any imperfections in us, and to simply keep moving forward despite our feelings of “brokenness”. The most transformational lesson we learned yesterday was that sometimes, there is no “solution” to an obstacle. Sometimes all we can hope for is a “sign”—and for us, that sign was clinging on to love in its rawest and most redemptive form.
As a long distance runner, I spend many hours criss-crossing the streets of Toronto. Every morning on my way back to our house in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, I cross a majestic steel bridge with the following inscription on the upper trusses: “The river I step in is not the same river I stand in.” This is such a magical concept because it reminds me not to become attached to possessions and situations because like the river, they will flow to and from me continuously.
I’ve been married for almost 27 years, and I’m often asked what the secret is to our enduring relationship. The only thing I’m certain of is that my wife and I are not the same people we married all those years ago. Every relationship waxes and wanes, and learning to embrace that constant flux, instead of resisting it, is a cornerstone of any fulfilling relationship. Those of you who regularly follow my posts, are well aware that the past six months has been a tumultuous time in my life, so it’s inevitable that there have been significant reverberations in my relationship with my wife.
I've witnessed a monumental evolution in our marriage during this period, and recently I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define what “love” means to me. For years, I equated love with a feeling of euphoria, happiness, and general harmony of emotions, but today, I no longer define it in this way. For me, love means “space”—and I don’t mean what many people refer to as “needing space to figure things out alone.” It’s easier to go through life trying to create certainty whenever possible. When it comes to my understanding of my spouse, I’m conscious of allowing her the “space” to change, grow, and self-reflect. This is by no means an easy thing to do. It takes an incredible amount of faith in my bond with my wife to feel safe in the uncertainty of her constant evolution.
In order to be comfortable with my partner having this “space” to grow, I need to first cultivate this freedom of space in my own life. Being able to “sit with” this uncertainty in our relationship can only happen if I nurture a strong sense of compassion because this is manifest in understanding. Any time there is tension in our relationship, it originates out of misconception and poor communication. By learning to live with compassion in my heart, I feel less suffering in my own life because I become open to recognizing the pain and discomfort that others around me feel. I’m actively trying to be present in the moment when I’m with my partner because viewing every situation through the lens of compassion permits me the “space” to see what lies beneath, or behind, the strong emotions in our interactions. When we communicate authentically like this, we are no longer reacting, but interacting.
Another revelation in our relationship over the past six months, has been a tacit recognition of the distinction between “being there with our partner”, compared to “being there for our partner.” This is another example of why I now believe “love equals space.” When we care for someone deeply, our natural inclination is to try to fix his/her problems or to in someway change the person. As I have been wading through the complex emotions arising from my disclosure of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced, my wife has been by my side in the most meaningful way possible. We’ve been witnessing how simply “being with our partner” is not only supportive but transformational. In other words, it’s an example of “when doing nothing” is actually “doing everything.’
The spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle believes that all of us have something inside us called the “pain body”—It’s the residue of human emotion inside of us that metastasizes all of the pain, trauma, and discomfort we have experienced throughout our life. When we acknowledge this pain body in ourselves, it allows us to witness it in those we love as well. I believe that living a wholehearted life does not involve getting rid of this pain body, or even denying its presence. I think freedom comes from harnessing this pain energy and redirecting it as a spark for interpersonal growth and personal transformation. By releasing this feeling of “stuckness” and by no longer being controlled by our pain body, we open the door to more joy and calm entering our life. So again, it’s another another illustration of how permitting room for this “space” is in essence, nurturing love.
Lately I’ve been feeling this knot in my stomach—an overall sense that things just aren’t right. I know what the underlying issue is, but I’ve been reluctant to confront it. Like the mythical ostrich, I prefer to bury my head in the sand instead of working through the problem. In a previous post, I described myself as a “megalomaniac with an inferiority complex” because at heart, I’m very uncomfortable being around people. Today I made the decision that the only way I can “pull my head out of the sand” is to publicly voice what I’ve been feeling.
Many of you already know that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was abused for the first time by a coach, and later, I was the victim of a very violent assault by two strangers. After that violent assault, I began to bury the part of me that trusted others, and my mind went into self-protection mode as I hid this part of me from everyone in my life. In April of this year, I disclosed to family and friends about what had happened, and I entered a treatment program for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
I am grateful that my life is getting better day by day, but my self-esteem is still painfully low. Thanks to the support of family, friends, therapists, and my online community, I am slowly gaining the ability to trust again, so in terms of this issue at least, I have seen a noticeable improvement in my life. What I’m having the most difficulty with right now is this knot in my stomach—a feeling of general "dis"ease. I’m able to label all the symptoms, as they manifest in sadness, fear, and lately—apathy. Having talked to other survivors of abuse or trauma, I am well aware that many of these emotions have a parasitic quality in that if left unchecked, they derail recovery and movement towards a more “wholehearted” life.
If I’m being truly honest with myself, I can see that low self-esteem is at the heart of this current malaise. The real question is how does one actually go about rebuilding self-esteem that was truncated as the result of abuse or trauma? I wrote in a previous post about the need to give myself the “gift of time” for my healing journey. I think what that boils down to is a sense of “patience” in the process of reintegration with the piece of me that was left behind as a child. Buddhist scholar Sharon Salzberg describes patience “as [not] what we commonly assume…a dull endurance, but rather holding a much bigger picture of life. Patience involves carrying on—even flourishing—through ups and downs, twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies…Patience is peaceful awareness in the midst of weathering life’s storms, giving us the ability to go on in the face of adversity.”
Low self-esteem is an insidious problem because, as in my case, it is intricately intwined with trust issues. In my relationships with most people, this becomes apparent in my desire to withdraw, and with my spouse, it manifests at a more personal, intimate level. I’m so appreciative of my wife and of the fact that we have been together for 27 years. I can’t even begin to imagine what dealing with these issues would be like for couples who have not invested as much time in their relationship as we have.
I had the pleasure of attending a meditation workshop this past weekend, and the facilitator said something that really resonated with me. He said that as we become more mindful, our ultimate goal is to “change states into traits”. Instead of vacillating between brief bouts of happiness, joy, and gratitude (known as states), we could consider inviting these states to become our long-term embedded mode of being, thereby changing “states into traits”. It’s definitely something to consider as I travel this serpentine road to wholehearted living.
One of the issues that I need to be wary of is confusing permitting myself time to work through this process with the unhelpful behaviour of simply doing nothing. It’s often said that “time heals all wounds”, but I would include the addendum that we need “time coupled with constructive action”. Sitting around willing the situation to get better is not constructive in terms of my mental health. I was listening to an interview with the writer Andrew Solomon in a recent On Being podcast, and he pointed out, what I believe to be an important distinction. The opposite of “depression” is not “happiness” but “vitality”. This would indicate that living a “wholehearted” life will include riding the natural ebb and flow of emotions—the highs and the lows. I find immense comfort in this because I no longer wish to numb uncertainty and discomfort in my life. I’m witnessing spiritual growth and general well-being by learning to simply “be with” whatever is in front of me. I describe this as being “okay” with “not being okay”.