Forces of Nature, Forces of Nurture

Last Friday, I drove blindly home through monsoon-like conditions. There was no visibility, just the horizontal stream of rain and gale force winds. The storm came out of the blue. I left the Home Depot just as normal rain began. Five minutes later, I was jerking the steering wheel to avoid crashing tree branches and the rush of water across the road. I couldn’t see beyond the front of the car, but I feared rising water or falling power lines would strand me. I knew the roads by heart and could wend myself home at a crawl. Once I arrived home, closed the garage door and shut off the car, I rested my head on the steering wheel, shaken and relieved.

The storm came on the heels of a recent family visit. I drove hundreds of miles to see family members I had not seen for a few years. I had been anxious in the weeks prior. The separation of time and distance had allowed me to become more of who I wanted to be – to have the family that I wanted to have. My fear was that what I had grown, together with my husband and daughter – a family built on respect and love and kindness – would be made less than by an offhand comment or reminder of what kind of person I really was – angry, judgmental, unkind, selfish, fat, ugly, cruel and responsible for that which befell my family of origin.

It seems silly, at my age and with my life experience, to be turned into a sulky 14 year old with an axe to grind (albeit not the Lizzie Borden kind).  I’m perceptive enough to know that it might happen, intelligent enough to run through the emotional tools at my disposal and yet I still want to run away and hide my nose in a book. Every family has its history, both negative and positive, but as I recounted mine to a friend over coffee the other night, I realized that no – my family is pretty damned weird. Suicide, murder, mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, unwanted pregnancies…some people would call it colorful. I find it weighty and gray and have spent my life trying to separate from it.

I once read that dealing with people who have mental illness is like dealing with a force of nature. Without blame, without negative characterization, with an acceptance that it just is. As a bystander, raised on fear and unpredictability, the best that I can do is to stay out of the way and not put myself in the path of destruction. I have many friends, off and online, who deal with depression and bipolar disorders. The key phrase is deal with. With borderline or narcissistic personality disorders, you, the bystander, are the one who gets dealt with and turned around, until you feel like the problem is yours. They take on a “what me worry?” persona, while you’re left scrambling to find your footing. Acceptance, compassion, self-protection  – it’s the necessary trifecta to come out the other side with your marbles intact.

Like the roads I crept down during the storm, the journey home, to the life I now live, is known to me. The path is well-trodden. The whispers that tell me I’m not good enough, that I should have done more, will sink into the crevices of my mind. I will be depressed and moody for awhile, until the present engulfs the past and I shove it back in the corner. Will I ever feel right? Will I ever feel like I belong in this fortunate life? Will I ever believe that it’s okay for me to be happy? My Buddha mind notices these recurring fears with curiosity and affection and softly reminds me that I have passed through the storm and that I am home. Shaken, but relieved.canstockphoto6502520

25 Comments on “Forces of Nature, Forces of Nurture

  1. That which does not destroy us makes us stronger. Sorry, it sounds cliche, I know but it sure seems to describe you and your journey. You may have your demons, and thefe may be times when you feel like they are getting the better of you, but from what I just read — and often read in your blog — is that nothing could be further from the truth. You’re not the victim. You’re the victor. And you will continue to navigate safely out of the storm because you want to.

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    • Thanks, Fransi. I think one of the reasons I write so much about these issues is that I want people to know that you can come out on the other side – that you are not doomed to repeat history. It takes a lot of work and introspection and for me, in the case of mental illness, a lot of reading and education. There are moments that remind me how far I’ve come and how fortunate I am.

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      • Writing is cathartic. We are lucky we have this outlet. And yes, you can never forget how far you’ve come, especially on those days when the storm clouds are in your mind.

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  2. You’re absolutely right about the trifecta.
    And I’m glad you have enough sense of self that when the little voice speaks up, you know it will pass and can ground yourself in the better life you’ve deliberately made for yourself.

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    • One of my favorite ideas that I’ve learned from Buddhist teachings is this skill of noticing thoughts without letting them take hold of you. It’s such a tremendously helpful skill, especially if your thought patterns are self-injurious. Instead of fighting them and admonishing yourself for having those thoughts, you just say “Hey, how ya doin’?” and then with a nod, you move on.

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  3. Funny, I was about to post something similar today, on nature and mental illness, but didn’t, for fear it would upset a friend who recently lost her husband to just that. Feels like a verboten subject, if for just one of my favorite people and readers, if that makes sense. I was triggered by the loss of a musician this week, and the thought that some people just can’t cope with the pain they have in this world and have to leave it, no pill for that, and maybe that’s OK. Easy to say if you’re not in the same family as them. Anyway…happy Friday! Insert smily face! – Bill

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    • It is a very difficult topic to address, especially if you are not the one with a mental illness. It’s hard to write about the effects of it on bystanders without sounding like you’re condemning people for things ostensibly out of their control. Obviously, given a choice, one would rather be a bystander than the person suffering from mental illness. On the other hand, the impact of mental illness on our society, left untreated and treatments unfunded, is profound not only for the sheer numbers of people who suffer, but for the people who love those people. The suffering doesn’t stop at patient zero.

      Suicide is very difficult to talk about. Unless you’re in that person’s head, there’s no way to know if anything would have made a difference and the guilt that stays with survivors is heavy. The “what ifs” can last a really long time, as well as anger. Hopefully your friend has a strong support network and the resources to find her way home.

      Thanks for stopping by, Bill. It’s a beautiful Friday here and despite this post, my heart feels lighter than it has in days. Enjoy your weekend!

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      • I like light hearts. Bird squawk in your direction says “smile”

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  4. Freeing oneself from the clutches of a difficult past can be a lifelong journey, but it’s one worth taking. You have to save yourself and if that means distance, among other things, do it. I’m glad you’ve built a far better life for you. That will be a fine legacy for your children.

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    • I think the saving of one’s self is probably the toughest part for me. There is a bit of “survivor’s guilt” that I somehow came out of my family relatively unscathed in terms of illness. Distance and time and sadly, emotional disconnect are the practices that work. It feels selfish at times and I wish it were different, but then I look at my child and understand that it is what I need to do.

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      • Absolutely, Michelle – for the sake of your child and your marriage, you are doing what you need to and should do. I very much admire your strength.

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  5. I’m glad you’ve survived both storms.
    Michelle, in case I haven’t told you enough, I have so much respect and admiration for your writing, your perspectives on life, your insights. I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. It makes a difference to my life, and I’m sure it makes a difference to others.

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    • OK. This is my teary moment of the day. Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. I have enjoyed writing this blog and “meeting” so many other bloggers, but on occasion, when I’m on a navel-gazing bender, I wonder if it’s too much, if I need to pull back and write on topics that are at arm’s length. It’s nice to get this kind of affirmation that it’s okay to be open, so thanks again!

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    • Ha! (and I’m sorry?) I’ve been challenging the eyeballs a bit lately, to get caught up on work and blogging and reading blogs. I have bottles of eye drops at the desk, gallons of water to drink, have dutifully taken my gi-normous fish oil pills and I’m taking plenty of breaks. They’re removing the bandage contacts next week. If you hear a shriek that causes dogs all over the country to howl, it will mean it didn’t work and that my corneas are now attached to contacts. I’m dreading it, but the doc says he’s had good results with the contacts. Keep your eyes crossed for me and thanks for asking!

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  6. I just read your comment above — good luck with the procedure!!! I will keep my fingers crossed.

    As for the storms, glad you made it through both, shaken but not stirred.

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    • Thanks, Elyse! Shaken, not stirred indeed. We were pretty lucky with the forces of nature – many people are still digging out from the mess. They’re estimating 3,000 trees were blown down in the Metro area, many on top of cars and houses. It was the weirdest, most unpredictable weather I’ve ever been caught out in, so I was very grateful I got home okay.

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  7. i know how you feel…you are brave to bear your soul in a post with the benefit of cathartic release. I am finding this online community supportive in a way that I wasn’t expecting and it and your comments here re-affirm that. I was working on next week’s card reading just now and find it to be interesting timing to read your post. You should stop by my blog Sunday night, it will speak to you:) have a wonderful weekend Bella!

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  8. I needed this. The people in my life don’t tell me how I affect them. They keep silent about what my illness does to them. Out of fear of hurting me, maybe, or once started they couldn’t stop. Thank you for this.

    Also, my family is my biggest trigger. It’s taken decades to accept this and to keep my distance. I can deal with them one at a time, but know I can’t keep my footing if I attend family functions. I’ll never take a trip like yours again, even if it’s just a few miles down the road. The guilt comes and goes with this, but the serenity stays.

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    • As I mentioned to a commenter above, it is often hard to talk about being a witness or bystander to mental illness, without sounding blaming and/or angry. Intellectually, you can know everything about a mental illness and still resent how it has impacted your life, while feeling compassion for the sufferer. It’s a difficult balance and one I would guess, many people avoid having to deal with by remaining silent. It’s good to try and see things from other people’s perspective, but not get hung up on it – the choice is theirs to associate with you. You don’t have a choice, except to try and manage your illness the best you can.

      I think for most people from dysfunctional backgrounds, that family is the trigger. The more distance and time I take away, the more emotionally disconnected that I am, the less likely the trigger. I still feel heavy and dark after a visit. I won’t be repeating this last trip. It’s easier dealing with them one-on-one, but as a group, it feels claustrophobic, like I’m stuck in a loop out of which I can’t escape. My guilt is following the law of diminishing returns as I get older. I’m less invested in the relationships, since generally, I have to do the work.

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  9. You pegged it – I have been the one “dealt with” by someone not dealing with mental illness, and inside a family it’s so toxic. Glad you’re back and made it through the rain.

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