A lady friend of mine asked me recently how I felt about personal responses to my book.
“Do you get triggered?” She asked politely. We were at a dinner party and I could tell she was trying to be sensitive to certain topics I write about. Abuse, alcoholism, and dysfunction aren’t exactly super fun dinner conversation.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to figure out.
“When people tell you about their pain… does it bother you? You know, bring it all back?” I was beginning to wonder if she might have something she wanted to share.
“Occasionally I despair for our species,” I laughed, “But when people feel compelled to share their stories with me (whether in person on online), I am really very honored. I think of their impulse to share with me as a sacred trust. But it doesn’t upset me. Not at all. And since I finished the book, my past is just a story for me. It’s a true story, and my story, but it’s just a story. (Thank God). EVERYONE has a story.”
But this conversation got me thinking. Since everyone has a story, that means everyone suffers. It is simply a fact of human life. How we choose to deal with our suffering is what creates our character.
Some people like to hold their suffering close to their heart. They nurture it as if it were a precious plant they were keeping alive. I have heard many, many people say something like this: “I will never forget what so-and-so did. It will always echo in my mind.” I’ve said it myself! I take this to be a sign of two things:
1) That the event that occurred was traumatic
2) That the person holding onto the trauma might (unknowingly) be defining themselves by that event.
So it doesn’t sound like I’m being judgmental here, let me tell you how I know this is true. If you read my book, you will know I had a crap load of craziness to deal with. Even though I later figured out I had all the symptoms of PTSD, I couldn’t think of myself as a survivor because I hated the word. It still seemed so limiting to define my whole self in relation to a past I could do nothing about. But I couldn’t think of myself as someone who HADN’T gone through these humiliations. That would be a lie.
I was in a pickle. How could I define myself WITHOUT my past informing everything?
Then I had an idea, inspired by a saying from 12-step meetings: “We will know a NEW freedom and a NEW happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it…”
I loved the word “freedom.” It rang in me like a bell for years. Could I find freedom from the pain I was feeling AND freedom from the past? Could that be possible? I didn’t know, but it was an idea that compelled me to go forward and at least try.
Deep down, I knew I was a fighter. I was tough, without a doubt, but I didn’t want to approach life as a battle, always having to fight off this or that asshole. I decided that the best way to describe myself was as a spiritual warrior fighting an internal war. This worked for me. Every day I would go to war against my internal pain and memory of my past.
Having grown up on the TV series “Kung-Fu,” I remembered there were students, deciples, and masters. I decided that I would stay a student, endlessly willing to be taught, until I really had something to pass on. I decided that going forward, no matter what, everything that happened in my life, and everyone I met would be a teacher.
My pain? A teacher. My past? A teacher. My body, my anger, my fear? A teacher. Even my resistance to being taught would be a teacher.
When I looked at my life from this perspective, I found myself in a position of choice as to how to think about myself. I could choose to feel at the effect of another’s behavior, or make another choice.
When I chose to fight for my peace of mind, to find the wisdom in the pain, I was actually fighting for my FREEDOM from that pain.
Now I do this as often as possible. Sometimes I forget (hey, I’m only human) but as soon as I can remember to it gets me out of pain and into FREEDOM from pain, which I like to describe as peace of mind.
Here’s how it works:
Let’s say I get an uncomfortable feeling: a blast from the past, a moment of shame, loss, grief, or fear I will be attacked unjustly. Or say I suddenly feel deeply judgmental of myself, and I’m no longer “enough” in any category. (You know how the mind turns on itself. It can be such an a-hole!)
Instead of fighting the thought, I say, “Hello teacher. What do you have for me to learn right now?”
Usually, the upsetting thought says something like this, “Oh, I just wanted you to know that I was here.”
Then I say, “Okay. I recognize you. Perhaps you need something. Do you?”
And sometimes it needs a hug, or for me to cuddle in a blanket and watch TV. Then I do that.
Sometimes, however, it just wants me to know it’s there.
That’s when I say, “Okay. I hear you. Don’t stress. I got this. I can handle almost anything, remember? I’m a warrior.”
And that seems to do the trick.