the stories we tell and keep

my whole story

I started this blog post a while ago. Today, there is a new moon in Leo and Leo season has started. It’s a little easier for me to write about such deep spiritual and emotional matters since things have lightened up a bit (although the house these Leo transits are going through is not a light one (8th house)). For the first time, I was considering how this will be received and it was a bit painful to come back to this topic, since it’s a very personal one for me. It was like reviewing my scars and feeling a little phantom pain.

Still, this is really meant to be a conversation. I can only write about what I know and experience, and maybe you have a different experience or knowledgebase. Either way, I’d love to know what you think in the comments.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13, verses 1 through 3

It’s wedding season so most of us have heard what is called “The Love Chapter” from the Bible’s New Testament. But it was only yesterday that the first three verses really made sense to me.

Simply put: there are a lot of people with good intentions about how to help others in the spirituality realm, but the love is lacking. Instead of promoting healing through grace, it further hurts and sounds like a racket.

I had a bit of a tweetstorm that was implicitly inspired by someone else’s tweets. I think now I was triggered by the verb usage, not the noun, but it’s still in this vein of spirituality and personal development that I’m not really flowing in.

As I stated in that thread, Chiron stationed retrograde yesterday, in Pisces. That’s a five-month long transit. Chiron is the wounded healer, so a retrograde transit, especially in intuitive, spiritual Pisces, is going to be pretty powerful.

Retrograde transits–where planets look like they are moving backwards in the sky–are about reviewing, resting, realizing, realigning, recovering, restoring–you get the idea. So this particular transit is about going back and healing old wounds. The idea of jettisoning old versions of ourselves or old “stories” will probably come up.

Tell Me Your Story

So there’s been this persistent idea that, as a writer, I really take great offense at, and it’s one you may have heard: drop the story. I’m a writer and storyteller by trade, so when I initially hear that, I’m like, excuse me?

The idea behind is really just about living in the moment, not in the past, not in the future, yeah yeah yeah. It’s not a bad idea, even if it’s a cliched and trite one. But words matter, and I want to make sure that we, especially I, use the right words and concepts.

My first impulse come from this Joan Didion quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” Stories and narratives are who we are. Oral histories of who we have been, what we have been through, what our ancestors have been through–we are living stories, still being unfolded. And I think this is beautiful, in all its gore and grace.

Transformation involves having a “before”–and many times, I feel that this process ends up being shortcut or circumvented because it’s messy and unglamourous. Even I want to fast forward through the struggle and the disappointments and the muck. And as I right there, I’m encouraging myself to glory the gory middle of the stories I live.

Stuckness and Struggles

Dropping old selves, identities, stories, etc.–even snakes don’t do this. It’s a gradual process, the shedding of old kin. The word “drop” is what upsets me. Yes, this is a case of semantics, but I’ll come back to this idea.

For example, it’s been a really tough time for me here in Florida, both financially and socially. I have some very persistent Venusian problems–or at the very least, I have a very long saga of trying to establish a sense of community and security here, which you could also call Cancerian and Capricornian problems.

Grad school was pretty traumatic–lots of rejection, betrayal, hurt, and my feeble ways for me to be heard and understood backfiring on an exponential scale. That’s a big part of my story. And then the aftermath of homelessness, losing my car twice, being in abusive housing situations–stability has been a very elusive thing for me, and as a Capricorn with a Cancer moon, it was living my worst nightmares on a daily basis.

Right now, though, it’s been almost two months since I’ve had a car. It still kinda stings, but with time, the sting is fading. My housing situation isn’t ideal, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m not in contact with anyone from grad school.

In this moment, no one is abusing or taking advantage of me here. I’m not in fear of my life. As I write this, I’m watching my favorite people on YouTube share their spiritual wisdom–it’s become a tradition of how I spend my Sundays now.

I’m “fine.”

I put “fine” in scare quotes because there are still things I want to accomplish (surprise! a Capricorn with goals!)–not just lofty things, but just basic things, like paying my bills on time, building up my freelance business, having local friends. I deserve all those things and more.

But there was still inordinate amounts of trauma. Did I have any post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? I’m not sure. I’ve never been diagnosed. If I did, I do not have any symptoms right now. But to think that the shit I went through has absolutely no impact on how I’m viewing my life right now just because I’m living in the moment doesn’t ring true to me. There’s still some healing that could and should occur, maybe even in ways that I can’t fully see yet. But I try to do my best–and honestly, that is enough. I trust that the Universe will reveal whatever else needs to be healed when I am ready.

But let’s say, that on this road to wholeness, I continued to talk about the horrible places I live. If I was talking to a friend about it for the 30th time, and they told me to drop the story, I’d be deeply offended. It doesn’t really leave me with something else to do instead of re-telling this story. I’m offended and now I want to just drawn inward, which usually is not going to help me to talk about something else–whether it’s because my friend is just tired of hearing it, or if it’s because my friend can sense that holding onto this isn’t helping me anymore.

How We Talk About Pain and Struggle

Either way, in my opinion, it’s phrases like dropping the story, poverty consciousness, and victim mentality that are ultimately pejorative and not very helpful. Maybe they were meant to be diagnostic terms, or even empowering terms, but to me, they are just shortcuts and spiritual bypass that do not deal with the larger stories that have been going on for millennia and need to be challenged and transformed. These catchy terms do not deal with the fact that I’ve sustained prolonged trauma that even if my situation changes, my psyche can still be stuck in another house, in a shameful moment in class, in that key moment of pain.

Spiritual folks could use good, large doses of both sociology and psychology so that they can understand why individuals and groups of people do what they do.

Maybe this is due to the Age of Reason, but a lot of Western spirituality is so heavy on personal responsibility, as if we all live on our own little islands and never interact. There’s a reason why I can give such perfect advice for others but I can’t really drag myself out of my own mire of despair. I’m going to venture  to say that that’s how humanity is set up–it’s a team sport.

In light of this, I see a lot of these buzzy terms have no real connection to the fact that we live in oppressive systems such white supremacy, patriarchy, antiblackness, homophobia, transphobia, abelism–systems that hold us back from being our true selves, systems that wound and traumatize us. This can also look like generational trauma and wounds, pains and struggles inherited from our ancestors. I rarely hear spiritual teachers and healers talk about this. Someone may be stuck in the past because of some systemic ill or a generational trauma, and the person seeking understanding and healing gets victim blamed.

On the positive side, this also means when individuals get freed from a personal struggle, there are ripple effects that can be seen and felt within their families, communities, ethnic groups, and beyond.

Future generations can be freed.

Sidenote: This makes me question what we use spirituality for. If so much of what we are dealing with has to do with people we may have never met, or actions from hundreds of years ago, what are we doing to systemically change things? Personal development has been so key in helping individuals, and sure–eventually, individuals become groups and there can be systemic change. But when use buzzwords that limit our point of view about what individuals do, we are only looking at a sliver of what’s possible for not only personal healing but what beauty queens all over want: world peace.

The Psychology of Trauma

So what is trauma? Here is a definition of what psychological trauma from the Sidran Institute, which is an educational group that helps others learn about trauma.

[A] traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope, and leaves that person fearing death, annihilation, mutilation, or psychosis. The individual may feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss.

There are coping strategies for psychological trauma, like avoidance and numbing, but I want to posit that when we share our stories and we are stuck, then that could possibly be a sign of trauma. It’d be helpful to think that this person doesn’t want to be stuck in a place of past pain, and talking about is a way to move towards a place of healing and wholeness. There’s a reason why talk therapy works.

Trauma is real. I helped with research on trauma in children for a few years. Trauma as a diagnosis almost made it into the DSM-V, but it presents itself in so many different forms, it was hard to pin down to a set of universal symptoms. This larger understanding of trauma and how it affects people–both physically and emotionally–is missing from the spiritual waters I swim in.

Why Don’t We Want to Hear Stories?

So, if we dismiss people telling their stories, we have to think about why we don’t want to hear them.

My experiences have been that people just get tired of hearing it and suffer from empathy exhaustion. Since I was in grad school, I have had to ask for help multiple times, for years, with diminishing returns. I’ve already written about some reasons why this happened, and I think empathy exhaustion is one of them.

Another reason is this idea of people just wanting to focus on positive things. They are positivity junkies that do not want to see someone else suffering with their basic needs. Love and light, y’all!

Yet another reason is just people just don’t want to be bothered. Maybe it’s due to a subconscious fear that someone’s bad times are contagious. There’s also just the impatience of walking with someone through their dark night of the soul or valley of the shadow of death. It’s messy and many times you can’t pull someone out of his or her bad spiral. So we turn to axioms and pithy sayings, hoping that somehow, people will just wake up because we asked them to.

“Drop your story.”  It really sounds like the people who tell those suffering from depression to just “snap out of it.” Hopefully, dear reader, you know that by telling someone to snap out of depression is way worse than not saying anything at all.

And usually, it’s not your job to do that, to pull anyone out. There’s something very powerful and transformative about being present, about just being there, about listening to someone tell their story, about not trying to solve anything.

Watch Thich Nhat Hanh talk with Oprah Winfrey about compassionate listening and how it can alleviate suffering.

Just by listening, you can be a catalyst for  transformative healing. You don’t have do anything except hold space and listen with compassion.

Whether we’re operating from impatience, fear, or judgment, we have to treat people’s stories, however old and worn out, as sacred. Hearing someone else’s story is an honor, not something to take for granted. If someone is stuck, listening to them re-tread stories should alert you that this person has been traumatized. You don’t need to cajole them into healing. You know that a journey to wholeness is usually a long one.

Re-Writes and Re-Frames

Finally, if you’re asking someone to drop something–a story, an old self, an identity, remember that nature does not like a vacuum. What are you inviting them to pick up? What are you inviting them to write instead?

Maybe we can invite people, invite ourselves, to re-write or re-frame our stories. The events of what happened cannot change and many times cannot be forgotten. But maybe the theme can be changed, or even a larger story arc can be created.

Let’s take my story for example. It’s a typical Capricorn story of struggle and triumph. It can be hard while you are in the middle of the story to even see what the story arc is. I could easily think that my story is just going to be never-ending struggle.

And that’s where we can hold up mirrors of hope for each other. We can let each other really see ourselves for who we are: adorned with love.

We may have been pushed face down in the muck of shame, sorrow, and humiliation, but we can be lifted up in the bright glory of grace, mercy, love, and redemption.

Erasing the beginning of our stories only dishonors our pain and all we’ve gone through. Tell it all. Find people who you can trust who will listen with compassion. Find people who can trust you so you can listen with compassion.

From the most benign to the most pernicious, stories and identities serve some sort of purpose, and it’s usually safety. It’s what we know. Going into the unknown is scary, for most people. Many times, too, people telling and re-telling stories is to actually make some sort of sense of what happened–it is a way, maybe a fumbling and awkward way, of usher in healing.

And sure, there can come to a point that the story has been fully examined, understanding has been realized, and it’s time to close the book and open a new one. That takes both patience and discernment to know when someone reaches that point. My concern is that people are jumping the gun on where that place is.

What I’m not advocating is for people to overwhelm their own boundaries and just take on a bunch of negative stuff. Honor your boundaries: there are definitely people who end up feeling like they are stuck in this emotional black hole.

If you can’t offer any more assistance, I strongly suggest telling people to go to therapy. It’s not for everyone, but especially if the therapist is trauma-informed, there can be some breakthroughs that can happen with spiritual teaching and healing is coupled with psychotherapy. Participating in a support group can also be of help.

Both Sides Now: Walking Away and Being Walked Away From

This issue comes from a deeply personal place for me. Years ago, I was dumped by a friend who thought I was too toxic and negative–but my life was in shambles. Granted, this woman really tried to be close to me way too soon and was one of those perpetually happy people. I made no apologies for my journey and have no regrets that she was no longer my traveling companion.

I’ve been on the other side as well. I had an online friend many years ago who was really stuck. She lived in a horrible living situation and was most likely clinically depressed. We were friends for years, but my own patience just ran out. There was nothing I could do.

Looking back, though, I could have done a couple of things differently. I could have limited my time talking to her and I could have just listened and tried to not fix her. Holding space for someone who is suffering and is in pain is a sacred duty, not something to be taken for granted.

What’s the Story? Who Are You?

Ultimately, I’m asking for folks to not use empty spiritual buzzwords, to be more patient and kind, to be more discerning, and to realize that the human condition is a cumulative experience.

I have many old stories that I am not living in any longer, but they are chapters in my own book of life that are sacred, that are precious, and that brought me to this place.

…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

a writer’s back

love yourself

Working from home, from my bed, I do not have the best posture.  The bed I sleep on is not my own, and it’s hard to sleep on. I sleep on all sides of my body throughout the night, and recently, my left shoulder started to hurt again after many years of being healthy and whole, after tons of physical therapy.

My shoulder was just aching and throbbing, even with meds. Then it started with my right shoulder. It wasn’t just the pain; it was how I was holding myself: stooped forward, my left shoulder pushing forward. Not a good look.

Because this pain wasn’t really going away on its own, I decided to get a massage, just at a chain place near my house. I wasn’t seeing this as a treat. It was necessary. I was in pain, distracting pain, and I need to start healing my shoulders and god knows what else.

The last time I had a massage was on my 35th birthday, on a beach in Key West in a little hut, a dream realized. It was so relaxing and felt luxurious, but it was not therapeutic.

Even further back, maybe another 5 years, I got a free massage after I was done with physical therapy for my knee. Again, relaxing, but not therapeutic.

Even further back than that, probably another 5 years, I got free chair massages from a massage therapist who came to give massages for our employees. That’s where I also learned that masseuse was a passe term and that I should the proper term massage therapist. I also learned how knotty my shoulders could be.

All those other times, I had been carrying a lot of weight with heavy bags and purses. Also, like a lot of people I’m sure that I carry tension in my shoulders. Now I don’t do much of that except sit in bed and write. I knew my back would also be a mess, after hours of bending over at my computer.

I arrive at the massage place (shop? facility?) and was there 30 minute early (that never happens). It’s a benign, bright place of wood and gleaming white surfaces, located in a glorified strip mall. I wasn’t expecting to be seen quickly, but I filled out my health history on an iPad and as I was done, my massage therapist walks through the door.

 

Good handshake, good energy, big blue eyes (oh hey, he’s kinda cute). Also, I just feel so weird and vulnerable. It’s been so long…

Also, to add to all of this, I’m on the rag. Ugh.

After passing this dark brown waiting room that was in stark contrast to the light and bright waiting area out by the front desk, we walk down this dark brown hall of many doors and we go into the room.

This guy is very…quiet. Of course, this is a quiet place–it has to be. But can I imagine him jumping up and down cheering his favorite basketball team? Or yelling at a rock concert? And then those eyes are just taking so much in…it’s like his whole being is doing that, in a quiet way. Maybe his inner serenity is just so easily coming out…at the glorified strip mall.

It doesn’t scare me, though, even though I may be writing like this. It’s not creepy. It’s just subtly intense, the attention. Maybe I’m realizing that he’s good at being present while I tend to live in my head all the time. It’s a bit like someone opening the car door while I’m driving.

I’m also going to be present with this dude for 90 minutes, and it’s just going to be about me. The last time that happened, I was in therapy. Last summer. That isn’t happening often at all anymore.

We’re both standing, and it feels so awkward. Why am I standing? Should I be sitting down? I talk about my injuries. My whole left side, from shoulder to ankle, is basically jacked up that’s what I wanted him to focus on.

He leaves so I can change down to my granny black period underwear. I get on the table face down, under the sheet and blanket. The room is Florida cool, a little too cool. Soon afterward, I hear a soft knock on the door. I tell him to come in, my voice muffled by the headrest of the table.

At first, he starts with the sheet over me. I believe he’s using the heel of his hand and just starts compressing my back, straight down.

I’m frantically thinking, “Dude, is this some chaste version of massage? I came for hands all over me, not this youth group version of a massage.”

It was just a technique, and it didn’t last long.

My mind was even more active that it would be during meditation. I had to internally tell myself to shut up a few times. But the thoughts weren’t necessarily that bad.

As he started tending to (maybe more like deconstructing) my back, I wondered when was the last time someone had affectionately touched me. It had been probably over two months, back when I went to D.C. and that saddened me. It saddens me still. And this massage didn’t count.

As someone who lives in her mind more than anywhere else, it can get really frustrating when trying to live in a physical world. “The life of the mind” is the tagline of my alma mater–boy, do they have me pegged. Yet I can see now, too, the massage gave me time to reflect, so all those thoughts zipping out were also a part of the release. Mainly the thoughts were about deserving to be worshiped, needing this to happen more often so I’m not having so many back issues in the future, feeling good, feeling sad that it’s been so long, and other thoughts I’ll keep to myself. 😈

So many knots. He went after it and I didn’t complain once. I barely spoke to him. I’m sure he used his elbow on my back many times. It was so strange to hear the friction of skin on skin. I could hear his arm hair over my back. All of these sounds are soft, even in this quiet room playing some soft New Agey music.

One time, I heard the loud clatter of rain pound on the roof and cursed that I didn’t bring an umbrella. I was glad I didn’t chat him up–I usually try to have small talk with folks, even though I don’t generally like to do it. It’s usually important, to have some point of connection. But basically, we already had that.

Another time I spoke, it was because he had moved to my arms and I had my watch on, which had been buzzing with a gazillion alerts. I wish I had turned the DND on. Embarrassing.

Here’s a funny unexpected thing that happened: to deal with my shoulder, he had to go through my armpit, many times. It was a little bit stubbly. In all my time with massage and physical therapy, I have never had anyone work through my armpits before. 😂

So all my limbs got a rubdown, with my back, shoulders, and neck getting the most attention. There is something humbling for me to get my hands and feet massaged, like really thoroughly. It definitely felt luxurious, but then I felt him tending to my right forearm and I was taken aback at how junky it was in there. 😫 It’s sore right now.

So after getting the most thorough massage of my life, which I didn’t want to end, he asked how I was feeling. Dammit, it’s over. I told him rather sheepishly and almost with embarrassment that I felt good.  It’s weird to be on your back half naked with a sheet around you and answering that question.

He left so I could get dressed. He came back and brought me a glass of water and I asked him how often should I come back. He said at least once a month. Right now, I can afford it, and I can’t afford to be in pain as I was before. My shoulders are now pain-free and I like to keep them that way.

It was funny, we’re in the hallway and I had no idea how busy it was, but it was probably because it was at the top of the hour. People kept excusing themselves as they passed us by, but we didn’t decide to go back in the room. He told me I needed to stretch more, which I actually did right after I had put my clothes on. I have an app for this, and if I can’t exercise in this heat or at a gym, stretching is the least I can do.

I signed up for a monthly plan and I’ll go back right before I have this retreat in St. Pete that week. I tweeted later that I was going to marry him. I felt really invigorated instead of relaxed. But that was about it, right then anyway.

I went to Target and picked up a few things. Even that ride back was interesting. Long story short: the lady who picked me up had just been sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver, so we talked about accidents, car insurance, injuries, work, wages, housing, racial discrimination. She gave me a tip for the neighborhood that I want to live in. I may need to take a little excursion out there soon.

But back to that tweet about marrying my massage therapist, though–that’s usually how I am, but I haven’t been in a long, long time. Effusive, bubbly, silly, goofy, a little surly and flirty. Comically hyperbolic. I have only begun to rediscover her as new friends enter my life. My life is a little more stable now, so that could also be a part of it. For once, I feel like I’m not nearly as defined by all my losses.

And then, even deeper: I had read a tweet about a particularly watery astrological transit that I had been backstroking in, and then I realized that yesterday was the anniversary of the best/worst date I had been on, and how it had hurt me so deeply while leaving me wanting this dude who literally abandoned me in the dark. This was all at the beach, too.

What I realized was that I was healed from that humiliating experience. Sometimes, things are so traumatic and awful, you don’t have time to process it all. I never got to mad with that guy–just wondering how someone so seemingly great could be such a dick and just leave. Me.

But the real news is that this wound has closed and healed. The scar is fading. My self-worth is in no way tied to that mysterious, rude disappearance.

The body remembers and stores these old stories, both the painful and the pleasurable. It’s possible that the massage helped me realize that this particular excruciating story of loss and rejection didn’t need to be reviewed anymore. It didn’t even need to be re-written. I could put the story back on the shelf.

Body work is important for physical health reasons. I’m also more aware of my body now. It’s interesting how having someone work on it, especially while you’re in a vulnerable state, makes you hyperaware of everything, of everything outside of  your interior world. That massage probably has opened me up in ways that I have yet to discover and in ways that I didn’t know I needed, like realizing that I was (already!) healed from a traumatic experience.

Afterward, I was thinking I’d feel like rubber, like really relaxed. Instead, I felt more confident and open. I felt taken care of. I felt deserving. Not even being melodramatic here: I felt like I had a reason to live. It had been way too long that I hadn’t felt that good.

But I didn’t want to show it. While I was getting a massage, I was trying to have a poker face, no matter what was going on in my head. I didn’t want to break out in a shit-eating grin or that something felt uncomfortable or whatever was speeding and careening through my mind at that point. Maybe I see sharing my emotions as a sign of intimacy…

Yet one thing I’ve been noticing since Thursday is how my emotions have been more intense and more earnest–like not covered in shame or embarrassment. Unadorned. Raw. Powerful. I’m trying to think of a specific example right now. I just feel like some masks and costumes that I was wearing fell off during that session.

This massage wasn’t a treat. This was mandatory for my well-being as a human being, especially since I haven’t formed the in-person friendships and relationships that I am still seeking and calling in. It literally puts me in touch with another person, and that’s a big deal to me. I pray the Universe continues to provide so that I can continue to go…

The power of human touch is really underestimated–especially in my life. I’m very much into and live for some good hugs, but I am not typically a huggy/affectionate person.

So I am torn. There’s this moat of uncomfortability with my own vulnerability. I must create a drawbridge to cross over the moat so I can get to and receive the care that I need. Getting a massage once a month can be one way to start walking over the bridge.