Trauma, Blueberries & Recovery: How the Past Informs Who We Become

I’ve covered a lot of ground on this blog. Much of my personal history is written in the pages of this space. I’ve also experienced a lot of trauma. Only some of which I’ve talked about here. This post is a little different than my others, in that I’m going to talk about trauma and the effects it has on our ability to feel, give and receive love. As Jay-Z once said, “it’s a hard knock life”. And the longer I live, the more I see the damage we incur from these knocks. We’re all hurt to some degree and we all deserve a little compassion. So let’s take a look at some of my hurt and how I’ve dealt with it. Hopefully, others will find some comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

My Song

When I was young, my family life was pretty good. My mother’s father was my best friend. We would sit in his den, watching baseball games together on the weekends when I was very young. We lived in the poor part of a very wealthy town, that makes most well-to-do suburbs look a little shabby. And I had a family that was supportive and seemingly loving.

That being said, there was violence happening in our family as well. The men in my family were prone to yelling at whomever wasn’t listening to them, while throwing breakables at walls to punctuate their rage. Also there was a lot of physical corrections being made in the form of spankings that were carried out with enthusiasm and zeal. And if the men in my family were terrifying, the women were just as scary.

Words were their weapons. As well as condescending judgements and withholding love. Also, setting a standard so high in order to gain their regard, that no matter what I did, I would never add up. Not to mention the emotional neglect. And this was the cycle. We were constantly hurting one another and not realizing the damage we were doing because we were so shut off from our emotions that we could barely feel anything. This was trauma inducing to say the least.

The Trauma

By the time I was halfway through my eighth year, things in my family began to fall apart. My aunt had developed an aggressive form of skin cancer that ravaged her body. My mother was the one who took charge and aided my dying family member by taking care of her through the worst of her struggles. I can remember watching my mother stick metal spoons in my aunts mouth to depress her tongue, while my aunt was having grand mal seizures. She had a mouth full of jagged teeth due to this practice. They did this because it was believed that the person having the seizure would swallow their tongue. Medicine has thankfully come a long way.

It was around this time that the fighting between my parents began to escalate. There was more yelling, more cutting words and more dinner ware being shattered. This happened until they finally called it quits. But by that time, my mother had been taking my sibling and I to the neighboring state, most times at 1 AM, after my mother got off from work, to comfort my deceased aunt’s family. This was where my abuse began.

Nighttime Visits

After having witnessed my aunt lose her violent battle with cancer, wasting away to a ghost of her former self, my family fell apart. I was spending more time with my deceased aunt’s family in an unfamiliar setting, away from all my friends and family, save for my mother. But that was about to change.

I don’t remember when these visits started, but at some point during the summer, my uncle had taken to coming into the room where I was sleeping in the dead of night, 2-3 AM, and pulling me from bed. I would later develop an obsession with vampires because of these visits. Usually he would yell at me while drunk, about what it means to be a man like a drill Sargant. I was living in constant state of fear for my life, not knowing how to keep myself safe. The first of many times he did this, he poured water on my groin and then violently rent me from my bed. He then punished me for “wetting” the bed. Making me clean up “my mess”. I have never felt terror like the night I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, not knowing what to do or where to go.

This painting sums up how I felt after my family divided while incurring all of the violence and trauma I was going through. Figure with Meat, Francis Bacon “Figure with Meat” by lluisribesmateu1969 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Later, I told my mother what was happening, taking a chance after being given strict instructions not to tell her by my uncle during his drunken rages. But when I told her, she turned her back on me and walked away. It was at this point that I was left completely on my own with zero support. I was eight and had experienced events that some people, thankfully never experience, and others that were usually spread out over a life’s time. And I experienced them all within six months and with no one to take care of me or to support me, at eight years of age. This is where my emotions left me. Frozen to keep me safe. It would take decades for me to feel safe enough to open to these emotions again, to defrost.

Living with the Trauma

As I aged, I would experience more traumas at the hands of my family. Only now I was old enough to start taking matters into my own hands. I stopped going to school by the time I was 14. My family life was deteriorating rapidly as well. My step-father was abusive and addicted to pornography as well as drinking too much. Something my entire family did and did well.

And, the apple did not fall far from the tree. By the time I was 15, I was drinking and staying out all hour, also addicted to pornography and looking to have a good time. Of course, this was what I was telling myself. But I was really terrified to go back to my house because I would most likely be abused. Either physically or psychologically and the neglect was a given.

By the time I turned nineteen, I got the boot from my house because I wasn’t going to college. I had stopped going to school by the time I was 14 because I was unable to be around others without feeling tremendous amounts of fear and anxiety. But by some miracle I was expected to go to college and do well. So I got my first apartment with two friends that were in similar situations and was on my own.

On My Own with Friends

Our first apartment wasn’t too bad. But we were living on our own, with zero life skills. I remember one of the first nights at the apartment, I came home from work and the fridge was completely filled with 40s. There was no food. Only beer and videogames. And that’s how it was most nights. We drank to manage our anxiety and fear. The only tools we had to navigate our out-of-control lives. We would eventually get the boot from that apartment inside of a year living there. Our neighbors, as it turned out, were selling heroin. So clearly, in the mind of my landlady, we were selling heroin as well.

We moved from that house to a temporary house that was going to be torn down in a few months time after we moved in. It was better to live there than to be homeless, so we moved in. This was the apartment that I lost my childhood friend to drugs. He didn’t die, but he was spending more and more time with his drug dealer than with his other friends. He moved out into the garage and started cutting ties with us. After that we became strangers to each other. Not an easy thing to experience, and only one of the many friends I would lose along the way. But what made this so difficult was, he was the only friend I had that was support from before my childhood trauma began. Losing him was a big blow.

After that apartment, we moved into an apartment that was too small for us, so I squatted in the entre way. Again, better that than to be homeless. That apartment was dirty. We had trash drifts in areas of the apartment that were up to our knees. I later upgraded to a bedroom when a roommate moved out, but that was still hard living. Another friend of ours moved into the entre way. Again, much like our first place, it was filled with booze and videogames. We also lived across the street from a bar that we frequented. This did not help in the drinking department.

Moving Up, Sort of

From there I moved again a few times, but by this time I had met my now ex-wife. We worked in adolescent group homes. Me at the one for boys and my ex in the one for girls. I was still emotionally numb from the undealt with traumas I had incurred when I was eight, but I somehow stumbled my way into a relationship that was somewhat stable.

I was still drinking regularly, about 100 pounds over weight and still viewed women as sex objects. I’m not sure how I managed to find someone to be with, because I had zero luck when it came to relationships. But we were together for about eight years.

Unfortunately, things still looked the same for me. I was in a state of stasis. Unchanged from the ways I had been living from the time I had been abused as a child. I was just coasting along, unable to appreciate what I had due to me being so numb from my early childhood and family trauma. So when I started waking from my emotional cocoon, things took a surprising turn.

Waking Up into My Emotions

Oddly enough, it was somebody that I worked with that started me down the path of waking up emotionally. I can’t explain why it happened with her, but there was a combination of feeling heard, with an empathic understanding and willingness to be vulnerable around me that made me feel awake around her. Also feeling safe with my current partner gave me the stability to open emotionally again. I was so used to being told how to feel and what was going to happen for me, that this was something completely new. There was a possibility present that I had never felt before.

So I started spending more time with this woman, in hopes to gain some of that emotion that was missing from my life. Looking back I would have done things differently, but I didn’t stand a chance. I was eight years old again with her, dealing with 24 years of trauma that had been piling up at my doorstep. To say I was in over my head is an understatement.

I realize now that what I was experiencing was finding a friend, friendship. Someone who had been through some of what I had been through and understood. She had her own list of trauma that she was dealing with. The term, “real recognize real and you lookin familiar” describes some of what I was feeling for the first time in a quarter century. But these feelings were all new to me and I was just tying to stay afloat.

My ex did all the right things however. She got us into couples therapy and desperately tried to find out what was happening with me. The only thing I knew was that I was feeling again for the first time since I was a child. I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I was feeling again. And finally, after I had come to a place that was relatively still waters for what I was experiencing, in one night heavy with tension, I stood in the kitchen with my ex and asked her if she wanted to try to make our relationship work.

I had no idea what was happening to me, but something inside of me knew that I needed to give our relationship another shot. But she was unwilling. She said that I had had an emotional affair with the other woman. And that, she couldn’t forgive. I didn’t know what emotions were, let alone know them enough to have an affair. So we parted ways that night. And it’s important to say I don’t blame my ex for leaving. For all I was experiencing, she was dealing with her own struggles. No one was struggling more than the other.

After the Separation

I lived with the woman who helped me to wake into my emotions for a while. It was a good time for me. I stopped drinking, started exercising regularly, meditating and started thinking about my future, all for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel like I was drifting anymore. But not too long into the relationship she told me to leave. She couldn’t handle the weight of the guilt of how I ended my relationship with my ex. So I moved in with family, something I had been running from since I was eight.

I was working a series of part time jobs after moving in with my family. And I was starting over at the ground floor, looking to build myself back up. I started dissociating, which is a way for me to protect myself from the feelings that were too trauma packed to feel all at once. How I discovered I was dissociating was, I had crashed two cars on my way to work in the morning. One into a suburban fence, and the other on I-95. The only thing I remember about the accidents is suddenly coming to and walking around the flipped car on the side of the highway or crashed into a fence. I’m lucky to be alive and that I didn’t hurt anybody in the process. This was jarring.

Also, shortly after I moved in with my father and step-mother, I went into a manic state two times and tried to run to Maine to start a blueberry farm to win back my ex-wife. I thought that this was a reasonable reaction to feeling the loss of my former relationship. Again, I was eight years old, standing on the landing after my mother turned her back on me after telling her about my abuse. I felt completely alone and unsafe. If it wasn’t for an old roommate of mine who happened to be driving by me while I was running, I don’t like to think what would have happened to me. Again, lucky to be alive. Thanks Jon.

It was here that I was feeling the full force of my unfelt trauma from my childhood. I was looking for something safe, running from what was too difficult to feel. But they say the way out is through. So I stayed. I stayed in what was more than uncomfortable. Staying with what was traumatic. With family, with my feelings and most importantly, with myself. It was here that I really learned how to heal from what had been a life’s time worth of neglected and abused emotions. No easy feat.

Continuing to Heal

I’m now in a much healthier place than I’ve ever been. I’m still exercising regularly, meditating as well. And I’m eating healthfully and am at my ideal weight for the first time since I was a child. I have boundaries for the first time and am building new relationships built on mutual trust and communication. It feels really good knowing that I have my future in focus after a life’s time worth of running from my past. Knowing I’m here for myself, and as a friend of mine says, “I’m here, I care” to my emotional world, makes me feel like a whole new me.

The trauma I’ve experienced in my past is only a story now. Not something that makes regular visits. The support I have from the community I’ve built around me is also world class. I can’t say enough good things about the people who have stood by and support me through some of the most challenging times in my life. And none of this was easy.

If you’re dealing with trauma and the effects of trauma, at any stage of your life, know that you are not alone. I’ve found the help of my therapist to be the guiding light out of my darkest times. Because as Tara Brach says, “we were wounded in relationship, so we heal in relationship”. This talk from Tara Brach, Buddhist psychologist, was pivotal for me learning how to navigate my emotions again. If you’ve experienced trauma, please take a look at it and seek help. There are good people out there doing good work.

Reflections on the Past

These are only a sampling of the trauma I’ve endured. I’d also like to say I’m not seeking sympathy, only sharing what I’ve experienced in hopes it may aid somebody else in their journey. Because life gets weird. And without each other’s help, we can be overtaken by the difficulties we encounter. So take heart and know that you are strong enough for this life that was given to you.

Also, I’d like to take the time to apologize for how I treated all of the people I hurt in the past. If you are reading this and I’ve injured you to some degree, know that I am truly sorry. My past is no excuse for treating people the ways that I had. And for this, I am truly sorry.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about what you’ve been through in the past, this article from The Good Trade goes over some online therapy sites that can help in your journey. So dear reader, this is where I leave you. Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear about them down below. You’re the best and as always, Peace & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Plant in dried cracked mud” by Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I Have a Work Problem: When You Can’t Stop Pushing Yourself

Work in a “Busy kitchen” by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Work has been a problem. For me and my family. We have no idea when to stop pushing ourselves past what’s healthy. Or how to set boundaries around who owns what feelings. What has been true for us is, that we feel responsible for the emotional states of others and this pushes us to work ourselves past the point of what we’re capable of handling in order to rectify or cover over our feelings of guilt and shame. In short, no bueno.

The Root

This became clear to me not too long ago when a few things happened that coincided with a perspective shift. I have been working in the restaurant industry for most of my working career, the same as my family has been doing for decades. In the restaurant industry, we work long days, through rushes and under difficult conditions. It was tough, but we had a lot of fun too.

Recently, I’ve switched to a new position that is office based work. I went into the job expecting the same type of environment. High stress and high energy. After all, the people I worked with seemed to be constantly busy and stressed in the same ways we were in the restaurant biz. So I jumped in with both feet, ready to wade through the human services industry. Things did not go as planned.

Change of Perspective

As I said, I started the position with the same tenacity that I was used to from the restaurants I’ve worked in. I was reaching out to people, making plans to meet with them, to find new resources. I was going hard and expecting that everybody else was on board. This however was not the case.

It seemed that the more I was doing, the more I was making others uncomfortable. I hadn’t realized it at first, but I was definitely stepping on some toes. When the situation finally came to a head, my supervisor and my boss’s supervisor called me into a meeting. We spoke for a few minutes when I realized that we were talking about how my attitude had become a problem.

At first this made no sense to me. I was doing my job and doing it well. My instinct was to think, “everybody else needs to step up their game.” But reflecting on this situation now, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation.

Difficult to Manage

One of my old jobs was as a bread baker in a popular, local bakery. I was good at the job, worked hard and not afraid to jump in where they needed a hand. Unfortunately, I was arrogant, mean and not afraid to let my opinions be known. And I had a lot of opinions.

It was in this bakery that I had experienced some major life changes. One being ending my marriage with my then wife. I was in a bad place and hostile. More so than was the norm for that environment, which was pretty hostile to begin with. I was baking with the owner one holiday when I made a big mistake. We got into an argument and he ended up letting me go.

What was so memorable about the experience was, he told me I was a good baker, as he told me to leave in frustration. But difficult manage. And this was essentially what I was being told again. Good at my job, difficult to relate to. Only this time, by the grace of God, I didn’t get fired. So I decided somethings needed to shift.

Impossibly High Standards

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why was I putting myself in these strange and confusing situations. I was good at my job. It was my personality that was the problem. I do this because I feel as though my self worth and value hinges on how hard I work. As a family member of mine would say, “how serious I take myself”. That was confusing too, translating “serious” to “works hard”.

But what happens if you take yourself too seriously? What happens when you take your responsibilities to the extreme, work too hard? Placing your productivity over the relationships you have with those you work with? As I’ve found, you put yourself in situations where you get talked to. Not for your job performance, but for your interpersonal skills. Something I need to work on.

Relaxing Your Standards

Upon further reflection, this too was a learned behavior. I was taught to have a good work ethic. I was also consistently being told I was lazy by my parents in my youth. Their standards were what I would call unreasonably high for a child to add up to. But I tried. And in so doing, I inherited their impossibly high standards. Something I’m now in the process of unlearning.

And it’s no easy. I find myself picking apart every job I see done. Whether it’s by myself or another. Nothing is ever up to my standard of how I would like it to be. My motto was, “if it’s not done perfectly, it’s not done right”. This is also an unhealthy stance to take. The perfectionist in me is something that took a long time to come to terms with. Something I’m still coming to terms with.

What has helped me is, to sit in the uncomfortable feelings, the dis-ease of my standard not being met. Reminding myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be done well, or that good enough is sometimes good enough. Also, reminding myself that I’m not perfect. Which is something I definitely thought I was when I was younger. And another reminder, that even if I feel as though I’m coming up short, I still care for and love myself.

You Are Loved Regardless

And ultimately, this is the message that we send ourselves when we tear ourselves down for not being perfect. Or are being criticized for not adding up to an impossible standard: that we are not loved unless we are perfect. Anything short of an impossibly high standard and you are forced to sit outside of the feelings of love and acceptance. This is a cold place to be.

It’s also a place that needs a lot of inwardly turned attention and affection. Because when the affection of those who were supposed to love me, was withheld, I learned to withhold it from myself. Not knowing why I “wasn’t loveable”. But if others didn’t love me, there must be something wrong with me. This was how I saw myself until somewhat recently.

This changed for me around the time I started practicing self-care Sundays. I realized that I had been living under the harsh and brutal régime of my family for far too long. Beating myself up in ways such as skipping meals, while also upping my workouts. This resulted in me passing out after a shower one night. This is a dangerous mindset to occupy.

Loving Another Starts With Loving Yourself

I was so used to the critical side of me, that that’s all I listened to. I realized, after practicing self-care Sundays, that I didn’t really know what self-acceptance and love felt like. It had been so long since I’ve been able to accept where I am, or even who I am, that I had completely forgot what those states felt like.

This was quite the discovery. And further more, I had no healthy role models to show me how it worked! So I started practicing self-care on faith, really, hoping something would change.

Wading Through Old Emotions

And slowly but surely, new ways of being began to raise to the surface. Patience was one of the more important ones for me. Because without patience, I wasn’t able to sit with the uncomfortable emotions that I was feeling and had run from in the past. The emotions of feeling inadequate and unlovable were two big ones. With the patience to sit with them, I was able to recognize them for what they were. Old messages that had nothing to do with who I actually am.

Patience for me came in treating my self-care dinners as the opposite of working in the food industry. I chose a recipe I knew I would like. Then I would go out and gather the ingredients at my local grocery store. When it came time to prepare the meal, I would slowly and mindfully, gather and prepare all the ingredients. Usually while a candle was burning with a favorite scent of mine in low, ambient light and with soft, gentle music playing and a cup of herbal tea. I took my time and enjoyed the process instead of rushing through it.

I also realized, during these dinners that these were ways my family had felt neglected as well. They were also withholding love and acceptance from themselves by rushing through their emotions. But if we can learn to withhold love and acceptance, we can learn to reengage with them as well.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The key to why my self-care dinners worked so well for me was, because I kept doing them. It was something I dedicated my time to and did regularly and consistently. Showing myself that, “I’m here, I care”, is important.

And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. If it was the consistent disapproval from my family members that brought me to a place where I wouldn’t approve of myself, no matter how much work I did, then it would be the consistent, positive reinforcement of caring for myself that would show me that I was worth the while. I am lovable. I am worth the time and caring affection I was seldom shown in the past.

But again, this is no easy. For this to take hold, you have to make it a part of your routine. I scheduled mine on Sundays, because that was the first day of my weekend. I knew I would have this day to myself, and seeing how I’m still paying down student loan debt, I don’t take many days off. So scheduling is important.

Find a Routine That Works for You & Stick to It

For me, my routine is my self-care Sunday meal. But I do this this because I enjoy cooking for myself, as long as I can take my time doing it. Because if I’m rushed, it feels like work to me. I enjoy slowly bringing the meal together while burning a candle and listening to some of my favorite tunes. The low-lighting and the aromas from what I’m cooking and my tea are soothing to me. Plus, the meals I make are pretty good. Thanks in large part to Minimalist Baker. But this is my routine and not everybody finds peace in the kitchen.

For your routine, find what brings you joy. This isn’t always an easy task. Before I was more attuned to myself, I would find relaxation at the bottom of 4-5 beers or mixed drinks while vegging out in-front of a screen. Either playing videogames or watching T.V.. None of those are inherently bad, but I was using them as an escape from my emotions. I enjoy having a beer or two while I’m out, or with my self-care dinners. But I no longer drink to excess. I’ve stopped playing videogames only because I haven’t found something I like and I still enjoy T.V., just a few episodes here and there.

When finding what brings you peace, ask yourself, “what are the things I do that I enjoy, that I’m good at.” Having a sense of mastery in a hobby brings with it a feeling of satisfaction. Knowing that you are good at something, like my cooking ability, can bring more overall joy to the experience. Or maybe start a new hobby or pick up a new interest. You never know where it could lead to.

Schedule Time For Yourself

And finally, if you’re busy as most of us are, find some time to carve out for yourself. I know what’s true for me is that responsibilities tend to multiply, not decrees. So finding a dedicated time for you to come back to again and again is important for consistency. Because it’s that consistency, that practice that shows us that we love ourselves by giving ourselves our time.

And it’s not selfish to take time to take care of yourself. This is something a younger me would scoff at. My opinion used to be that self-sacrifice was a given, and if you took the time to treat yourself then you were the worst kind of selfish. Self centered and arrogant were adjectives I would have used in my youth to describe who I’ve become today.

But we change. And healthy change can be a good thing. So long as we don’t over indulge. And finding the balance is key. Not going to extremes in either work, or relaxing too much. Take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the equation. Find your balance and you’ll find peace. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Busy kitchen” by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

More on Forgiveness: When We’re Our Own Worst Enemy

Forgiveness. This is not an easy topic. And if you’re anything like I am, nothing gets past your ruthlessly critical eye. Especially your own doings. This has been the case for me for a very long time. Something I’m just now learning to tamp down. But it took some doing to even recognize how unforgiving I was. Also, how the people I chose to surround myself with shared my sense of self righteousness. I cringe a little, thinking back on how I was acting with those around me following suit.

But things have changed for me for sure. I’ve given up many of the old beliefs that were holding me back. I’m no longer the “score keeper” I once was and I’m more willing now to let things go. But if we’re being honest, that was never my intention. My goal was to be kinder, not as mean or petty as I once was. But there in lies the catch. In trying to whip myself into shape, to be kinder, more forgiving, I was unwilling to forgive myself for the ways I was behaving. So I needed to learn to extend a little of that forgiveness inward, before I could be kind and forgiving outwardly.

Forgiveness Starts with Yourself

This is so rote, so cliché that it should be a no brainer. But I feel as though each family, or person has to learn this anew each generation. I know from my experience that forgiveness was something that was held just out of reach from me by my family. And to be fair, I don’t know that any of us felt as though we were even worthy of being forgiven. We carried with us such an air of feeling as though we weren’t enough, no matter what we were doing, that it just didn’t register that we could be forgiven.

Knowing What Forgiveness Feels Like

So instead of trying to practice a little forgiveness, we chose to cover over our unworthy feeling selves. We did this with our holier than thou attitudes. This however, did little in the way of making us feel better about ourselves.

As a result, we all had very low self esteem. We were lonely as well. Mostly because we were pushing everybody away but, also due to us feeling as though we were the only ones feeling that we didn’t deserve forgiveness or kindness. We were trying to be perfect to avoid the critical judgements of each other, while holding everyone to the impossible standards we had created for ourselves. This was a dangerous combination.

The result? Not to my complete lack of surprise, we didn’t know what forgiveness felt like. We were so busy holding it back from each other, that we held it back from ourselves a well. And in the process, forgotten what it had felt like. However there was, for me, a lot of free floating anxiety and fear. Mostly of not feeling accepted by others. Or feeling loved and belonging. Like I said, it was lonely.

Holding Back

What’s so strange about this experience was, that I could actually feel myself unwilling to let go. I could feel myself withholding love and forgiveness from myself. It feels like when you see a small child throwing a tantrum because they are told to stop doing something against their will. And that’s what made this feeling so difficult to manage. Because there was also a feeling of contempt for the part of me that was withholding forgiveness.

The part that I feel should have known better. The part that should know that I’m only hurting myself. But then how should I have known if it was the only way I knew how to relate to my ability to forgive? I wasn’t taught another way. So I continued to hold back my ability to forgive myself.

Realizing Something is Off

It wasn’t until very recently that I put the pieces together of what I was doing and the effect it was having on me. I noticed when I was speaking to someone about how unreasonable my standards are and how I didn’t want to go back to my old ways of being. Then she said something to me that made me physically feel well, cared for. She asked me, “have you forgiven yourself for the ways you used to be?”

The answer to that question was most definitely a NO. And to be asked that, to directly recognize that I was treating myself as unforgivable, a criminal, was eye opening. A feeling of being relaxed, full, washed over me from head to toe. As though I had been waiting for a person to ask me just that for a very long time.

And finally, I turned my attention to that place. The place that had been treated as though it were volatile. But I couldn’t have done this all at once and without a little prep work. The years of self-care I have been practicing, paved the road for me to be comfortable enough to open up as I did.

Listening to Ourselves & Taking Good Care

Here was where I was able to listen to myself with a different kind of focus. I had been listening inwardly for a while now as part of my self-care routine. But now I’m able to differentiate between the parts of me that need my attention. Now I’m able to respond with more patience and know what I need.

Now I know that the part of me that was holding back was doing so because my love and forgiveness have been so abused in the past. I am scared to be open and loving enough, to forgive. Because then I’ll be wide open to the ruthless critical judgements I’ve been so used to from the past. Including from myself.

The feelings of being turned on by those who are supposed to love me. Supposed to be there for me and show me care. I could be left again, as I had been so many times in the past.

Reparenting Our Wounded Parts

And it’s here where the work really begins. We need to guide those parts of us we had trained to turn their backs on us and others to show forgiveness and love again. Even in the face of inevitable pain. Our wounds will be opened again. That’s an unavoidable part of life. But it shouldn’t stop us from living and loving fully. This is the part I keep getting stuck on. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

It feels crazy to open up again after so much abuse. Abuse of trust mostly. And of not being able to rely on others to take care of us when we’re at our lowest. But it’s a part of being connected. For me, I had to open up slowly. I was so confused as to what trust and love meant, that I was guarded all the time. Not knowing when the other would finally turn on me. Because in my experience, it was a matter of when, not if.

So I started small. Really small. After I set up a safe and cozy place that I could use as a retreat, I started venturing out into what had been historically unsafe territory.

Sitting With Those Who Hurt Me

I moved in with my father after my last relationship ended. It was the best thing that could have happened for me at the time. I needed the time and space to put my life back together after the mess I had made of it. It was pretty bad. I alienated almost all of my friends, wound up about 115k in debt, with no plans for my future and no idea how to move myself forward in life. I was a drift.

But while I was licking my wounds, I was spending more time with those who had hurt and abandoned me in the past. I was spending time in physical proximity to them. Even if it was just watching T.V. together. For half hour increments, I was slowly getting used to the old feelings that were arising while just experiencing their nearness. And it was tough at times.

I remember dissociating a few times just sitting on the couch watching a show. This was how badly my trust and emotions had been abused. I felt unsafe in the safest possible environment. I’m in an affluent neighborhood, surrounded by (now) loving and caring parents, no concern for food or shelter, surrounded by a network of caring and loving support, financially stable and genuinely cared for. It couldn’t have been any safer for me.

But there were those parts of me that still remembered what the pain felt like. It was here that I needed to turn my listening ear towards.

Knowing When to Take Space for Yourself

And I needed to listen inwardly. I had no idea that there was an entire world inside of me that had gone unnoticed for as long as I can remember. Numbing it out with the drinking and the medication. The mean natured opinions I would dispense towards anybody who would listen. Anything I could use to quell my inner emotional world, I would use to numb.

So when I started practicing self-care, I begun to slowly learn that I could be kind enough to treat myself with respect. This was also a slow process and one that needed time and space apart from those around me. Because there’s a part of all of us, who wants to feel a part of something. Some belonging. But in the process of seeking that belonging externally, if we’re not strong enough in ourselves, we can drown out the inner voice that so desperately needs our caring and loving attention.

This is where taking space, along with practicing self-care, paid off. My safe and cozy place acted as a center for me to come home to. To feel at ease just being. The clean atmosphere, the ambient lighting and the refreshing scents, all coming together with gentle music playing, creating a sense of ease. Safety. It was here that I found a way to listen to myself. Slowly and with care.

Releasing the Expectations

This is also a place without expectations. A place where I can allow myself the space to explore what my needs are. To slow down and repair some of what has been damaged by the missteps of my past misguided self. A place to heal, and to quote a Peter Bjorn and John song, a place where “I am more me”.

Growing up I had nothing but expectation after expectation piled on top of me. First from my family but then by my peer group. It seemed a never ending stream of rules dispensed to hammer me into something that was acceptable to others. Not true to who I actually am.

And who I am is a sensitive man who feels deeply. I’m a hopeless romantic and lover of music that’s a little on the lighter side. I’ve been listening to Mree a lot lately. The antithesis of how I was raised to be “manly”. I do still appreciate some things from the past. But I wouldn’t say that they define me. And I feel that this is an important distinction to make.

Be More You

Because we all have a version of ourselves that is the truest form of ourself. I know I do. And I’m uncovering a little more of it everyday. It’s strange at times. Scary too. But there are also tender moments mixed in with crests of excitement. A journey worth the taking to be sure. But a journey that starts with letting ourselves be fully us and that starts with letting go of the past. Forgiving ourselves and moving forward.

So if you’ve been on the edge of letting go of the past, let this be your permission to let go. Forgive yourself and move on to the next challenge. There’s too many possibilities to explore that we won’t be able to if we’re dragging the past around with us. Don’t worry what others will think. They’ll come around or they won’t. What’s most important is, to be there for yourself. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “forgiveness” by cheerfulmonk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Women’s Rights: What They Mean For a Man Raised With Less Than Accepting Values

I’ve written a lot about toxic masculinity on this blog, but I haven’t spoken about women’s rights very much. This is mostly due to me feeling as a man, that it isn’t really my place to speak my opinion on the subject. But with the recent ruling of Roe vs. Wade being overturned, I feel that it’s important for me to show that there are men who support women’s reproductive rights. Especially in this polarized culture we’ve been entrenched in. So on that note, I hope to move the cause forward if only to show support for those in need of some. Let’s take a look at where some of the values I was raised under were forged.

Women’s Lib, Stuck in the 50’s

This was where most of the lessons I learned as a child took root. About three decades before I was born. In my family and in the popular culture at large, women were mostly viewed as sex objects. Everything from TV shows to work place culture. It was most definitely a man’s world and women were objects to be won or used according to what the man’s need was.

My family held to these values with fervor. My grandmother was a model in the fifties and took to the culture with a sense of pride. It also seemed to be what she developed her identity around as well as raising her four daughters in the same vein. Women’s rights weren’t even on their radar when making choices about themselves and their families’ future.

The women in my family, instead, spent a lot of time shopping. Mostly for clothes, but I feel it was more of a way to bond. Over a shared experience. I’m not saying that they were shallow or trying to speak negatively about their characters. Shopping can be fun, but it was something that we took to the extreme. It came to define us as who we were. Consumers. And that’s how we avoided the ways we were ignoring the unbalanced power dynamics that were playing out in our family’s culture and the culture at large.

Why This Type of Neglect is Dangerous

And it was a shame that they chose shopping as one of their main outlets of self expression. Because the women in my family were and are smart and talented people. My mother is a talented artist, though never pursued her interest in the subject. In a way, it felt as though, from my perspective that, they were holding back an important aspect of their self expression by buying into the norms of forfeiting their women’s rights. All in the name of feeling comfortable or safe.

I was raised and surrounded by mostly women in my childhood. This, I feel, gives me a unique perspective on what the culture was, in my family anyway, around how women viewed and interacted with their worlds. I also feel as though I received a fair amount of traumatic abuse at the hands of the men in my family. Another area where I’m able to relate with women maybe a little bit better than most men.

I received two very polarizing views of the world through my family. There was the toxically masculine side where drinking scotch and beer to hide your emotions, while objectifying women as sex objects was the norm. And on the other side, there was Friedan’s model of the Feminine Mystique. Where women had sharp tongues to gain what little control they could wrestle away from the men, while drinking equally as much to cover over the pain of not feeling heard.

And that’s the reason why this type of neglect is so dangerous. It takes away the voice that the women in my family, could use to speak up for their rights. When you place your power in someone else’s hands, you then become concerned with how to get it back. Not realizing that you have had it all along. So now that we’ve found ourselves in this position of skewed power, how do we bring some balance back to the social equation?

Bringing Balance to Women’s Rights

From my perspective, a few different issues need to be addressed in order to create a more fair situation for women. Firstly, men need to be more comfortable with women as independent individuals, and second, woman need to collectively work towards breaking the stereotypes and shed more light on the ideas that certain roles aren’t only a woman’s duty. I.e., child rearing, taking care of the household needs and being less career focused. These are already outdated views, but how do we take what’s already happening and make it more the norm?

Men and Their Views Matter

This is a difficult aspect of this problem, because men have been traditionally in the position of power. And if most men were treated as I was by my family, were women were forced to use manipulations to gain a sense of power, than the men raised in these environments would have a less than ideal view of the women in their lives. This was what I experienced growing up and the lens I used to view the relationship in my life for a long time.

I’ve said many times before, that women were viewed as an object to be had in the culture I was raised in. Personhood and women’s rights weren’t even taken into consideration. I know that for me, I had to first come to see women as people all their own. With personalities, hopes and dreams. And this was difficult, because I had experienced a fair amount of abuse from the women in my family.

But what I needed to realize was, that the pettiness and manipulations weren’t traits of women exclusively. But that of people in a position of being oppressed. If somebody feels as though they have no say in their life, than they will naturally do what they’re able to, in order to gain some control of their situation. And this was a strange place for me to be as a white male. Because I felt as though I had no power or control over my own life.

Feeling Powerless to Change What Is

This seems counter intuitive, but being raised by women who felt they needed to manipulate in order to gain a sense of power back for themselves, left me feeling powerless. What made this so confusing was, that being a white male, I was told time and time again that I was in charge. Though never feeling I actually was.

All the bravado and over-the-top machismo attitude I put on were all for show. It felt as though I had no control over the elements of my life and that the important decisions were being made for me. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living because I had no guidance to help me to find my path. So I went to college way to early, racking up a ton of debt for a degree I am barely using. I was married to a woman who I sought out to tell me how to live my life. As my mother had before her. And all the misguided steps along the way were learned from family that were in a constant power struggle, looking for their own sense of agency.

And I’ve seen close to the same situation play out with other men as well. We were looking for someone to live our lives for us. Instead of finding a partner to share our lives with. And with everybody feeling so powerless, nobody was feeling as though they could live a more fulfilling life. It always hinged on the other person.

Perspective Change

For me, I needed to realize that I was my own person first. The one in charge of making my own life decisions was me and my partner was not a replacement for my mother. I didn’t need a strong female voice to tell me who to be. I was already me. Regardless of what I was told to believe. But I needed to spend some time on my own in order to know this as truth for myself. I needed to get some practice in making decisions that made a difference in my life, to help me to move forward and realize my agency. This helped me to realize I was the other half of the equation in the relationships I had previously been in.

And this was how I broke from the ways I had been viewing women and their roles. By breaking the cycle of unhealthy relationships that had been modeled for me and that I was reliving. This helped me to see women as more whole, independent beings. But this wasn’t easy. And if more men are going to wake from the idea that women’s rights aren’t important, we are going to need more positive male role models to guide us. As well as healthy female role models who’ve come to know their own power in a healthy way.

Women And Their Power

And for women looking for women’s rights to be more equitable, they may want to find the same conflict of gender specific roles they’ve been tethered to and come to know them as human roles, not defined by gender. For the women in my family, this meant knowing that they are more than what they can provide for their family. That they are more than how attractive they are and their personalities are worth being explored and developed.

Finding Support and Breaking Old Ties

This means finding out and addressing the issues that the individual woman is wrestling with. The fashion and beauty industries are two big entities that have been telling women their value hinges on how attractive they look. This is just an example of old messaging that maybe still effecting some women’s actions on a daily basis.

They as well may want to feel and know that they are in charge of their own lives and have a say in what happens to them. This comes, I believe, with finding like minded people. Men and women to support and collaborate on making the world we live in a more fair and just one. Finding male partners who are an equal part of the child rearing process is one example. Also knowing that a woman’s career is just as important as a man’s. Finding work that matters to you and that you can make a change for the better, is a motivating aspect in life as well.

And knowing that all things domestic, do not fall under the category of a woman’s duty. This means finding a partner whose view of domestic duties goes beyond the scope of what they were in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

Women’s Rights Matters

And it’s from here that we can really understand that women have so much more to offer than what we’ve been telling them they are capable of. All the women I know have something unique and beneficial to offer the world around them. But it starts with us. I know this may be a bit difficult to hear coming from a white male’s perspective. After all, I’m part of the group that have been repressing women for a very long time. But I truly believe that women not only should have a say in what happens to them, but must in order to be happy and fulfilled.

With that in mind, I’m mostly speaking to the men who are reading. All I ask is that you take a look at the views you’ve had cultivated for you. Specifically on gender roles and gender stereotypes. Are they hurting women? Do they make you feel as though you lack something? That you’re less of a man if you don’t live up to them? If so, these are the areas we need to work on to be more fair and just. I hope this has been of some help. It’s not easy looking at ourselves and seeing the work that needs to be done. But it’s possible and know that you are not alone. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “women’s rights #blackprotest #czarnyprotest” by gregor.zukowski is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

How to Know What Support Looks Like if You’ve Never Really Had It In the Past

Support and feeling supported was something that didn’t come to me naturally. This was mostly due to me feeling like a burden to my caregivers, whenever I expressed a need or a want. The term, selfish was tossed around all too liberally when we spoke about one another and how we expressed our needs. It seemed that no matter what we were asking, it was always too much.

I’d like to go into what the act of support feels and looks like for me. If you grew up in an environment similar to mine, you’ll likely feel that anytime you express a need you are putting somebody else out for just having a need. This is unhealthy. But if we’re never taught what healthy support looks like, then we simply don’t know what we don’t know. Though it is possible to feel supported in healthy ways. All it takes is some hard work and the right people : )

What Does Support Mean?

While I was growing up, there was a large emphasis placed on the rugged individual. Someone who could hold their own. Usually a man, and no matter what the situation was, we don’t need support from others. All of us were expected to do everything on our own and do it perfectly. This is unreasonable. Though I didn’t know this at the time, but I was also idolizing action heroes such as Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from, “The Predator”. All the while not realizing how unrealistic these ideals are.

I used phrases such as, “man up” in my youth. Implying that if you were a real man, you’d be able to handle it, whatever “It” was. This vein of thinking was carried throughout my family as well as in popular culture at the time.

An example of this type of thinking is, my parents were divorced when I was eight years old. And I think I got the same speech from every male family member at the time. It was them saying to me, “you’re the man of the house now Adam.” I had no idea what this meant. And I’m guessing that they didn’t either. Judging from how they were acting as “men”. I was a boy, trying to understand what was happening to my family at the time. The prospect of being in charge was terrifying to me. And on top of that fear, my family was now my responsibility!? I had no idea what to do with this information at such a young age. So I disconnected from my family. Retreated into video games and stayed out late at night. Avoiding coming home to the mess that was being left unattended to.

When Your Environment is Corrosive to Support

In the environment that my caregivers created, we told the other how they were feeling. We never asked any questions about the other’s emotional states. Nor did any sort of mirroring emotions. We never asked one another, “how did that make you feel?” When we did talk about emotions, it was usually in a way in which one person was telling the other what the other was feeling.

For example, comments such as, “you were just so selfish, pissy or narcissistic” were injected into our interactions without asking how the other person was feeling at the time. We just told them how they felt, but if we dug a little deeper, behind the reactions, we most likely would have seen the hurt and neglect we were inflicting on one another.

And if we did speak about emotions, they were usually the more difficult ones such as anger. We did not have a vocabulary for what we were experiencing emotionally, because it wasn’t safe to explore our emotional worlds around each other. So we never developed a language to speak about them with. This was due to us being viciously demeaning and mean to anybody who was foolish enough to let their guard down and share an emotion.

Because it’s important to foster a safe place around our emotional selves if our goal is to create a supportive, loving environment. This was something that we just didn’t know how to do. Something we had never been taught how to do. Luckily, there are some resources for learning how to foster a supportive and nurturing environment. One where we can feel safe exploring our emotional experiences without trying to control them in ourselves, or maybe in my case and more importantly, in others. Which I’ll be getting into towards the end of this post. But this type of environment is a difficult and crazy making place to be, if it’s all you’ve known about navigating emotions and receiving support.

Losing the Support I Once Knew

It was around the time of my parents divorce that I began to preform poorly in school and get into trouble more frequently. Since what I had known of support was no longer available to me, I just fell off the grid so to speak. Everybody was so wrapped up in their own experiences of what was happening, that we were no longer available as a source of support or caring for each other. There was a lot of bad blood left during the process and everybody knew every detail.

We continued drifting apart, not even really knowing how to support one another. And that’s even if we had decide to wake from our own emotional experiences for long enough to see that our family had fallen apart. We were quick to point out how someone had done harm to another, but not to help each other through the difficult emotions that came up from those hurts. And that’s assuming that we would know how to be there for each other if we could see the harm we were doing to one another.

So we all avoided contact with each other. Seeing each other only when we had to. This was our way of keeping ourselves safe from the wounds of the past from being brushed up against. By an old memory or from a current interaction. And it was in this environment that we forgot how to not be support, for ourselves and another.

Licking the Wounds

We were so busy protecting ourselves and our wounds from one another, that we forgot how to be a support for somebody else in a healthy way. This was clearly for fear that we would find ourselves betrayed in the same ways we had in the past. Traumatic ways that left us wounded and untrusting. But we were also isolated. Focusing only on the hurt as a reminder of what it means to get close to another. A defense mechanism that was much too built up to let anybody past.

And it was in this way of focusing on past hurts that we avoided growing beyond our smaller, wounded selves. Even now, 34 years later, we still have issues connecting due to how we’ve treated one another in our shared histories. Forgive and forget is a practice that is definitely not alive and well in my family.

But it’s also these mindsets that keep us locked in our old patterns of not being able to move past the emotions that feel too heavy, too scary to confront. For me, it’s a sense of feeling abandoned by those who were supposed to care for me. Leaving me alone at such a young age and then telling me I was in charge was terrifying to an eight year-old! So what am I doing to move past the old wounds and live the healthiest version of my life? It starts with taking ownership of my life, just as I find it.

Finding Support by Owning My Present

For me, I had to sort through a lot of poor choices I’ve made in the past. Regardless of how I was left, without guidance or shown healthier ways of navigating my world. They were and are, still my poor choices.

And I’m not beating myself up over the choices that didn’t have my best interests at heart. I’m owning them in a way that acknowledges I made a poor choice. But it was the best I could do under the circumstances. This gives me the comfort of knowing that now, I am in a different place. One where I know how to ask for help. Find resources and rely on people. I can make the healthier decisions that will move me forward in my life. And this is what I mean by support.

Types of Support

Finance

Support looks like, to me, finding people like Dave Ramsey when I was 100k+ in debt from the poor choices I made in the past. Following his advice on how to get out of debt, while I watch myself achieve my goals, slowly but surely, paying down what I owe.

And teaching myself how to make and stick to a budget. This was no easy task. Even when I was throwing as much money as I could towards my debt, I was still racking up $700 grocery bills. Mostly in the form of taking trip to Whole Foods. That’s close to $500 a month I could have been putting towards my future! It was here that I learned the discipline to stick to the boundaries and limits I desperately needed to set for myself, in order to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Friends & Family

In terms of my relationships, support looks like asking the people who have hurt me in the past, to get together once a week and make dinner. To talk about who we are as people. Revisiting the past in a safe and comfortable setting while forging new relationships with each other. Also, knowing how and when to take a rest when needed, from those close in.

Also, keeping in mind that I need to ask direct, clear questions. Especially around how the other person feels. This also extends to me speaking up about how I feel during our interactions. And knowing when it’s time to give the relationship and the conversation a break if things get too intense.

Internal & Emotional

While I was revisiting some of the ghosts from my past in writing this post, I was feeling overwhelmed with all the memories that were coming up. So instead of pushing past the feelings, ignoring and neglecting them in the ways they were ignored and neglected in me, I stopped. I asked what I needed for and from myself and the answer came. To take a walk by the ocean. So I stopped, listened to and attuned to my own emotional needs to take a break, and walked down to the ocean.

Reaching Out

These may seem like basic steps, but for those of us who have been emotionally neglected and abused, this is like learning a whole new language. And it’s difficult. In my situation, my caregivers had no idea how to attune to their emotional worlds. Or listen to their own emotional needs. They avoided themselves and their emotional worlds at all costs. Using denial and alcohol to subdue their internal worlds.

So it was necessary for me to reach out to somebody who had experience with healthy ways of helping me with and accepting my internal emotional world. I’ve been working with a therapist for a few years now and the help I’ve received from her has been invaluable. Mostly just a safe place to explore how I’m feeling while also giving names to my emotional experiences. Also having her validate that they (my emotions) are real and valid. Again, basic but so important if you’ve never had this type of mirroring and support.

Friends

And finally, friends are so important for our sense of belonging and need to feel heard, loved and supported. As I’ve said in previous posts, most of my friendships were based on the good times. Avoiding the difficult work of supporting each other during the difficult ones. So when those times came, it didn’t take long for those bonds to break under the weight of hurt feelings.

I don’t speak to many of the people that used to populate my past. But the friends that did stick around for me are very dear to my heart. I literally don’t know where I’d be without them. One in particular being there for me at just the right time and place. It’s also important to feel a part of something more than just our own internal worlds. Best not to let the squirrels run to wild in the trees of our minds : )

And It Gets Easier

These are my experiences with what support looks like. If you feel as though you are in a place where you lack the support you need, go and find it. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. I spent too many years wondering without direction. Not knowing what to do with myself in my own life. And it’s worth remembering too that, no one can go this life alone. It’s hard enough even with the support! So if you’ve experienced a general lack of feeling and being supported, know that it’s not to late to do something about it.

Find a therapist, make regular visits with friends or maybe try reaching out to some of the friends you have on Facebook you haven’t talked to in a while. Find a group to be a part of with shared interests. Building relationships can be tough work, but it is so worth the while. Start sharing yourself and good things are bound to come of it. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Hug” by Hans-Jörg Aleff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Updated: 1/20/23

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