I had an epiphany yesterday: My sense of surreality in dealing with some people and situations comes directly from feeling like they are responding to something other than the real me.
Have you ever read The Invisibile Man? It might be from Ralph Ellison. I read it at least a dozen years ago. I had previously attempted to read it about five or six years earlier, but found it annoying. It seemed disjointed to me. When I picked it up again, it dawned on me. That’s the point! The book goes from one weirdly unrelated scenario to another in the life of this black man. The way this man is treated has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with him. Rather, it is all about other people’s reactions to who they think he is or should be. People are not seeing him at all, only their own projections. The way they treated him was not personal, in the sense of good or bad being directed at him as a distinct individual. Once I got the point, the book was quite engaging.
That’s why I felt like the email from Barry’s sister was oddly inappropriate, but could not initially figure out why. Nothing she said was bad or wrong—just irrelevant to my concerns and urgent issues. It would be kind of like knowing that someone’s home was just destroyed by a fire or hurricane and then emailing them happy birthday wishes. The only response is, “Huh? Really?” I said a lot of emotionally-laden things this past summer and her response was, “Happy birthday!” She is not responding to the real me at all. Whatever relationship I have with her is not reality-based.
I can get along fabulously with people, if I just tell them what they want to hear. I concluded this summer that such relationships are generally not worth the time and effort required for their maintenance. I am at a point in my life where I would truly prefer for someone to get in my face and scream, “I hate you, you f*****g b***h! How dare you speak to me like that!” than to send me birthday wishes. Then I would at the very least feel heard, like my message had gotten through even if it were not well received.
This sense of surreality has presented itself forcefully. For example, a few weeks ago, I almost got run off the road. The person simply cut into my lane as if I did not exist. Later that day, a lady (I thought was looking directly at me) almost ran me over with a shopping cart in the parking lot of the grocery store. Nothing personal.
I also had the same issue at church—and it was part of why I left. The very first Holy Week Wednesday I attended, a couple of Greek teenagers stepped on my foot. They didn’t apologize because they did not notice me. I did not exist in their world. They literally did not see me. Later, the priest would treat me like crap, but I knew that, since he treated everyone like crap, it wasn’t personal.
That’s the point: sometimes, things need to be personal. Sometimes, when things are not personal, it gets difficult to imagine why I should continue maintaining a relationship with a person or organization. If my presence is not noticed, perhaps my absence won’t be, either.
Zen is part of how I try to ground myself in reality. I notice my breath, my feet, my heartbeat, etc. This is part of the antidote to living in my head, spinning around in my thoughts while being oblivious to the outside world. Zen is the fount of authenticity.
I confess that I have presented many masks to the world. Often, when people are not responding to the real me, it is because I have never shown it to them. I remember, in my early 20s, wondering if there even was such a thing as a “real me.” I acted one way at school, another at work, another with my husband, another with my friends, and a completely different way with my parents. I felt like I had multiple personality disorder. The concept of integrity was nonsensical at the time.
Back then, it was simply survival. I had to do whatever was necessary to get the rent paid, get good grades, get along with my dysfunctional family, get along with Barry’s dysfunctional family…I do not regret the many masks I wore back then because it was absolutely essential. Without any real social skills, pretense kept me fed and warm.
But now I am pushing fifty. The pretense was mandatory in the past, but just feels icky today. The repression of my feelings that was needed back then can only create unwanted physical and emotional symptoms now. I crave authenticity today. When I don’t get it, I feel it, and it feels deeply offensive.
Today, I went to a respite care place to find out about how to get help with Barry. I broke down and cried at just the prospect of getting some relief. It will likely cost a lot of money. But the alternative is for my life to not be worth living. Just to be seen and heard was huge. To have my needs acknowledged at all was profound.
What I got out of today was that I have to do whatever it takes to take care of myself, even if it costs a pretty penny and drains us of some of our savings.
I don’t know who or what I am, still. But I do know one thing for certain: I would rather have the real me rejected than to have the fake me praised or to just not be acknowledged as existing. Go ahead. Hate me. Just hate the real me.
I got an email from one of Barry’s sisters recently. She wished the both of us a happy birthday. It struck me as oddly inappropriate and I had to figure out why. I think I may have figured it out.
This past summer was the worst summer of my life. I realized I could not take care of Barry and the house. My car had serious problems. I had a questionable mammogram. Barry had prostate and thyroid problems (ongoing). I asked one of Barry’s sisters for help in taking care of Barry while I try to get some of the more disruptive things done to the house and was turned down. The insurance I have paid for for so many years rejected my one and only claim ever. So, uh, yeah, I became embittered and (somewhat rightfully) took some of it out on Barry’s sisters.
Things right now are calmer, but not necessarily any better. When I received the email, I wondered how to respond. I decided that the only proper response was simply to delete it. What could I possibly say? Thanks for not being there for me in my darkest hour? Everything is fine (even though that would be an outright lie)? There is no honest and simultaneously positive reply. I could lie and pretend. I have spent most of my life doing that. I’m good at it.
I am also done with it—forever.
Part of what happened this summer was that I became utterly incapable of repressing my real feelings. This enabled me to lose 15 pounds effortlessly because I no longer overeat emotionally. But once the lid came off, I started expressing my true feelings, not a popular maneuver. I am no longer interested in investing the time and energy in relationships that offer me nothing while costing me everything. I just don’t have the time and energy to do so even if I wanted to.
So I am invisible. I am dealing with the reality of death every single minute of every single day. Making payments on your own grave marker and having a chronically ill spouse give a different perspective on life’s events. Most people have sequestered their knowledge of death into a safe, compartmentalized space. And that isolates me, should I have the audacity to have actual needs or talk about death during this time in my life.
I feel like I am a ghost in a house full of people that do not “believe in” ghosts. I am throwing dishes across the room. Even as they are hit in their heads by plates being flung by invisible hands, they act like all is well. There is no part of this that is not a tad surreal.
Talking about cake and ice cream seems vaguely inappropriate. And now I see why.
I had an epiphany yesterday. It was odd and yet obvious.
I have been meditating more lately. I have been letting go, out of sheer necessity, because holding on to things has been horrendously painful and impossible. Events in my life have been out of my control. An old Zen saying puts it best: “Let go or be dragged.” Letting go, letting go, letting go, all the time. I have also been intentionally changing my relationship with Barry because of his cognitive decline and my feeling like I need to start preparing for the next phase of my life more aggressively. I have been feeling awfully guilty about consciously withdrawing my attention and, to some degree, my affection from him by changing my routines, even though I feel it is best for both of us in the long run. Can he ever let go of me if I am clinging to him almost as hard as he has been clinging to me? As we all know, Buddhism emphasizes not clinging to things simply because all things are impermanent.
Seemingly randomly, it hit me. What is the difference between an emotional investment in something versus clinging to that thing? Is there a difference? Am I playing semantic games with myself? I have always assumed emotional investments in relationships to be a good thing, part of the give-and-take of having relationships. Now that assumption seems increasingly absurd and simply a recipe for unnecessary pain.
The problem is that anything I cling to will ultimately have to be let go of. Given the amount of time and energy I’ve been spending lately letting go of things, I really do not want to create more stuff I will eventually have to let go of later. I have been working at allowing things from my past to rise to the surface so that I can release their pain and move forward. I have been making progress, albeit awkwardly and unevenly. So the last thing I want to do is to create more drama for myself to have to untangle at a later date.
This all raises questions. Is it ever wise to emotionally invest in relationships? I’ve never found a huge upside to it. As I meditate and let go of layers of emotional crud, will I become extremely emotionally detached in the process? Who and what am I becoming?
Part of what prompts these questions is the realization that self-control is far more important than facts, reality, or even sanity in any social situation. I have been watching the political weirdness lately. What I see are politicians behaving badly. What is worse is that they seem to be trying to out-stupid and out-crazy each other in order to gain attention. However, the shining lights as of late have been the calmer, more deliberate speakers. The problem is that sometimes the crazier ones have more facts at their disposal, but who wants someone out of control as their president? We don’t need a hot head as president, no matter how well-informed he or she may be.
I’ve also seen the exact same thing regarding the workplace. Companies seldom hire the most qualified candidates. No, they hire the people that interview the best. A good interview is all about selling oneself and exuding confidence. The problem is that the people that interview the best are often extremely narcissistic. No one radiates confidence as well as a pure narcissist. They can lie on their resume and have zero integrity, but they will get the job and by the time they are found out as having been deceptive on their resume, they have already been on the job for a few months and are often good at it. How do companies hire so many narcissists and incompetent people? It’s because narcissists interview phenomenally. Truth is not the issue; keeping one’s cool under fire is.
These layers of emotional crud that I’ve been having to sort through lately have shown me how not resolving issues reduces one’s self-control. I am controlled by issues I didn’t even know I had. I’ve been having strange reactions to things and feeling like, “Damn. Where the hell did that come from?” I am talking about over-reactions in conversations with people and even more random things like hearing a song almost bringing me to tears. Given that I was never a fan of Guns and Roses back in the ‘80s, there is no reason that “Sweet Child ‘O mine” should make me want to cry. Yet it does.
Self-control is easy when one does not have an emotional dog in the fight. Letting go is about reducing one’s resistance to the events and realities of life. That’s where I want to be. And all of this goes against everything I was raised to believe and be. Isn’t mutual dependency what relationships are about, at least to some degree?Yet, I have tasted the rewards of serenity and detachment and am willing to do whatever it takes to get there and stay there.
For some reason, it all seems very, uh, strategic. Is that the right word? I don’t know. And it all started in earnest when and because life was giving me more than I could handle or hang on to. This feels ironic.
As any reader knows, I have been in the process of letting go of everything: control, timing, my husband’s health, getting things done to the house, the weather, my friends’ expectations, etc. Sometimes, however, I am unsure that I have something to even let go of. It is kind of like that Zen saying, “If you understand things, things are just as they are. If you do not understand things, things are just as they are.”
Watching TV with my husband has been increasing weird lately. Sometimes, especially when watching political stuff (or watching people touch Donald Trump’s hair, seriously), I speak my mind regarding the stupidity of the culture we live in. And Barry says…nothing. At first, I thought maybe he just didn’t have a response to my opinion. But then I noticed he wasn’t responding to many of things I was saying. The other day, I gave him a fabulous opening. I mentioned that I could see the neighbor’s black cat outside. He loves to mock cats. I played the straight man, waiting for some snideness to ensue and…nothing. (Chirping crickets.)
It is a little like being married to someone in a coma. I speak and no one answers. Because of the Huntington’s, I am left with some of the same questions. Does he hear me? Does he understand what I am saying? But, since his eyes are open, I also wonder, “Does he just not care about what I am saying? Is he deliberately ignoring me?”
Then I wondered if he is starting to let go of life. I have always wondered what he was holding onto.
So I tried an experiment. I stopped talking other than utilitarian stuff, such as his preference of this over that or what he wants regarding something. Within 2 days (48 hours!), he went to bed earlier than normal, 10:30 as opposed to 11, which is his norm. That doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but I have never known him to go to bed early for any reason. I’ve even encouraged him to do so, but he was always hesitant to go to bed early for fear of getting up too early. So this is noteworthy, to say the least.
Today, we went to Mitchell’s seafood place for his birthday. I was feeling a little depressed, about feeling like I am losing my relationship with him. I actually shed a couple of tears while we were there. As near as I can tell, he did not notice.
OMG. He did not notice. Okay. The lighting wasn’t that great, but we’re talking about the middle of the day with ample windows to illuminate everything. I am in this marriage by myself. I can no longer pretend this is a mutual relationship.
I have tried for the past few years to keep some sort of relationship going with him. It has been hard and not to be simply assumed. His ability to understand things is highly questionable. When I talked to him about the potential futility of getting a nodular biopsy performed on his thyroid, his response was, “I’ll get a biopsy for you!” So not the point. His heart is generous, but his mind is just not there anymore. I have been trying to keep his brain engaged by talking to him. Basically, I am stopping that effort because it seems a little late for that now.
I feel like his spirit is letting go. It is not mine to hold on to.
What I cannot do is to pretend that there is a real relationship there anymore. I have to move on. I have to prepare myself and the house. I suck at pretense. I’ve had my lifetime fill. Things are just as they are.
I’ve been looking within for answers. For example, I am letting go of getting the windows installed. I didn’t get them installed this past week because it rained. It may rain again this week on the day they are scheduled. It is completely out of my hands.
Also, I’ve had a rash since my mom and I did some serious yard clean up. Perhaps it is poison ivy. I decided to look at it through the eyes of intuition. What do I see? Very angry skin. Am I angry at something? Absolutely. I am furious with life. I feel like I cannot go right, left, up, or down. I have had to let go of the itch. It has been unbelievably hard. I woke up one night with my skin itching so badly that it hurt. I have never had an itch of that magnitude. I had been using hydrocortisone cream on it, which helps a little. So I tried vitamin E, which also helps a little. Then I saw online to use vitamin D lotion. I don’t have vitamin D lotion. But I do have vitamin D capsules. So this morning, I busted open some capsules and smeared them on my hands and arms. It is now about six hours later and the difference is huge. Most, not all, of the itch is gone and the rash is visibly less red and angry. Wow.
I believe that what made the difference are the vitamin D and the letting go. What made me think of busting open some capsules and smearing them? I believe that was the intuition.
I have to let go. I have to dig deep to find a clue. I have to turn off my hyper-rational brain. That is where Zen comes in.
Learning to interpret things intuitively is new, but doable. Plus, I don’t feel like life is giving me many options right now. It is almost like, “You will learn how to view the world intuitively or else you be stuck forever.” That’s what it feels like, at least.
Have you ever found yourself giving others the same advice to the point that there was a clear theme? That’s where I am. I have been telling my friends that, when their external situations are spinning out of control, the real long-term answers can only come from within. They want me to tell them what to do and I don’t have a clue.
Now I am taking my own advice. I feel like my own life is spinning out of control. I have zero control over Barry’s health, when the house sells, when the couple of new windows get installed, etc. I realized yesterday that I was getting seriously depressed again. I so hate this life I am living and pretending that I am okay with things as they are is simply not working. I felt how desperately unhappy I truly am. So I am meditating more and just listening (hard!) to what’s going on inside me. I don’t want to miss any intuitive guidance should I receive any.
I haven’t received any visions, but when I woke up this morning, something had shifted. I am now investing my time and energy, as much as possible, on my future. I am done investing my precious resources on a situation I have no interest in prolonging.
One thing I am doing is to not sit around and watch much TV with Barry. I always have abundant reading material and he needs to get accustomed to watching TV without me. I plan on working after the move. If Barry needs adult daycare, then every penny I make shall go towards that, but the point is clear: I will work and get a career going.
My life needs meaning beyond being someone’s long-term, never-ending, maritally-bound caretaker. Every time I start to think about when Barry will die, I do something that will prepare me and/or the house for the move. I am channeling my emotions towards something I actually have some modicum of control over.
Spending time getting behind my thoughts and just witnessing them has not granted me any life-altering visions. What it has done, however, is give me the emotional space to process what I am feeling and allow reality to transform my life, as opposed to me just acting like a good little victim, which is what I was raised to be.
I feel that I have little choice. When the outer world is chaotic, true direction can only be found by going within. This is true for everyone, including me.