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.

Relaxing: As a Man This Isn’t So Easy

Recently, I’ve been making relaxing a priority in my life. Though this has proven to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. Just sitting still was difficult. I felt as though I was supposed to be productive in some way. This led me to feel guilty about just being as I was. All of this seemed strange to me, seeing as how I used to have no problem relaxing. But when I thought back to those times I was relaxed, I realized I was usually in front of a screen, drinking a beer or mixed drink. Something I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing. So I thought about what most people consider to be a relaxing endeavor and I settled on taking a bath.

How Fixing My Bathtub Led to Me Relaxing

But before I could take a bath, I needed to fix the overflow drain on my bath tub first. I had tried taking baths in the past, only my attempt was thwarted when I realized a large amount of water had pooled under the bathtub drain. Then I watched a few videos that suggested looking at the gasket on the overflow drain to see if it was cracked. I checked the gasket and it seemed to be fine, except when I went to unscrew the plate, that held the overflow drain to the pipe, it was barely screwed in.

So I assumed this was the issue. I tightened the plate and went to my local hardware store to get a drain stopper for the tub and to get a second opinion. They said that should probably do it, but to give a call back if I’m still having trouble. So I paid for my stopper, left the store and hopped on the bus, eager to try my newly fixed bathtub. But something didn’t feel quite right.

What Taking a Bath Says About Being a Man

When I got home, I was excited to see if I had taken care of the issue. So I set myself to cleaning the bathroom (something that was long overdue) and try out my new way of relaxing. I cleaned the bathroom, and after finishing up with the tub, I popped the new drain stopper in and turned on the water. Hopefully the tub would fill, the overflow drain would do its job and I would be on my way to relaxing that evening. Fingers crossed, I filled the tub.

To my surprise, it worked! I had a working tub and it only cost me the price of a rubber stopper. Bathroom clean and tub working properly, I set out to a local store to buy a bath bomb to enhance my bath taking experience. But still, something didn’t feel right. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. But I left the house again in search of a bath bomb.

And I can’t remember if I Googled ways that men destress while I was on my way to the store or at home, but when I did, it was eye opening. The first page was filled with, not things men do to relax, but how a woman can relax her stressed out man. This was crazy to me! Somehow, men had outsourced the job of relaxing to their partners?

Taking Responsibility for Our Relaxing & Emotions as Men

I still couldn’t believe some of the advice I was reading, or rather, the audience it was directed to. “Give your man a massage” and “actively listen to your man” were some of the items suggested to calm down your stressed out man. Now don’t get me wrong, I feel that these are good things in general practice, but not as the only source of stress release for men.

As it was, self-care is something that is relegated to the domain of the feminine. Now de-stressing and relaxing are also the responsibility of women as well. This seemed strange to me. Upon further inspection, when I found a Men’s Health article about how men are relaxing, they suggested activities such as playing golf or hitting the heavy bag. This was also unhelpful.

One suggestion said to “Hit the sauna after you workout”. And later in the slide mentioned that men felt more relaxed after a therapy session if they sat in a sauna. The title and the content weren’t even correlated, leading to more confusion. No wonder men have a difficult time relaxing. With advice like this, it’s easy to see the disconnect.

It’s Okay to Like What You Like

So I went out for the night on a date with a woman I had recently met, with plans to take a bath in my newly fixed tub when I got home. We went to a local restaurant, then for a walk on a near by beach. The night went well and we parted promising to make plans to meet again.

After the date, I was on my way to try out my newly fixed bath tub. I got home, readied the tub, brought a few candles in the bathroom and settle in for the night. Ready to enjoy the feeling of weightlessness. I hopped in the tub after putting in the bath bomb and relaxed for a long while. It was better than I expected.

The scents and the feeling of lightness and the dimly lighted room all helped to set the the tone for a relaxing post date evening. While I was in the bath, I was thinking about how so much of what we like is determined by what others perceive is likable, depending on our gender or other measures that have nothing to do with how we feel doing them. For example and from my experience, it’s okay to like being in a hot tube as a man, but a bath is too feminine. This doesn’t make sense to me. You like what you like. And that shouldn’t be an indicator of anything other than, liking what you like.

Relaxing Shouldn’t Be Relegate to a Specific Gender

More to the point, relaxing and what we do to relax also shouldn’t be judged to be the task of a specific gender. It seems our culture has made the act of relaxing, the job of women. I’m not sure how this happened socially, but for my family, I think it has something to do with feeling taken care of.

In my family, the men were hard and the women were soft. It was the man’s job to take care of the family. And all the toxically masculine ideals that went along with the job. And the men had to always be seen as “strong”, physically and mentally, never “weak”. But what we perceived as “weak” was actually being sensitive, kind or caring. All of these traits, we collectively off loaded onto woman. Deeming them as “weak”, because we were too afraid to feel these traits. Most likely because they had been abused in us. All too often by those we made carry them for us. Creating an unhealthy power dynamic.

And these were the relationship dynamics I grew up under. As men we never spoke about emotions because that wasn’t our job. But unfortunately those we were carrying were stressful ones. For example, needing control, anger and unforgiving were a few of the default ways of being as a man. So, we were usually stressed and frustrated with those around us. This left us unable to relax.

When Relaxing is Provided By Something or Someone & Not Found In Yourself

As a man, I learned that relaxing was something I needed to acquire outside of myself. For me, this meant drinking lots of alcohol at night and sitting in front of a screen. Or eating something unhealthy and lots of it. This was also something I had modeled for me in my youth. There weren’t many trips to a local hiking trail, or time spent around a board game. We seldom spoke about feelings. And when we did, we usually told each other how they were feeling. This added another layer of confusion to knowing whether or not what we were feeling was actually true.

So I never learned how to just be, without help from something else. This lead me to adopt unhealthy behaviors. Habits such as smoking, drinking too much coffee/alcohol, over eating, using pornography. The list goes on. Whatever I could do to distract myself from sitting and just being, I would. But this changed for me when I fell in love with a woman.

Learning That Relaxing Happens From the Inside Out

Something switched in me one day when I was working with someone I truly felt seen and heard by. This combination made me feel as though I could finally be accepted and loved. I was in love with the idea of being loved as I was. That’s when I started meditating, stopped drinking and started other healthy habits.

Habits such as running and yoga. I was cooking more often and more healthy meals as well. I was cultivating a healthier lifestyle around the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Only I hadn’t realized our foundation wasn’t as solid as I had thought it was. She left me and I was left on my own. But fortunately for me, I had a host of healthy habits I had cultivated that would serve me well.

I continued to meditate and learned I could relax, on my own as I was. It wasn’t easy. And I still get caught in what Tara Brach calls, “the trance” of cravings. But now I’m able to know that they are fleeting. The old adage of, “this too shall pass”, fits well this description.

Another way to look at it is from a post I read on New Buddhist, “It’s odd. Instead of feeling like I have to do something about it – if I just relax, recognize it for what it is – I find that it’s not such a driving force as I was thinking it was.” – Michael.

Find What Helps You Most

And finally, we all have different experiences and different circumstances in our lives. Finding the situations that trigger your stress is the first step to handling your stress as a man. In healthy and caring ways. There’s no need to muscle through your stress. Or to taking it out on others. Find what brings you peace in a way that’s in line with your needs. For me, it was taking a bath being surrounded by the scents I love.

For you, maybe it’s a walk in the woods. Or finding a cozy place to curl up and read a book. I like to listen to music in a ambient lighting, listening to a few of my playlists tailored to my moods. Finding what brings you peace will serve you well over time and lead to a healthier way of relaxing. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

If you have ways you enjoy relaxing as a man, I’d love to here about them in the comments section below! Thanks : )

Image Credits: “bath caddy with book wine in glass and scrub brush with foam bubble bath tub towel” by PersonalCreations.com 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.

Creating a Safe & Calm Place

I was reading a book a while ago. It was about reparenting and in one of the chapters, it suggested creating a safe space. A place where you can go in your mind to feel safe, at ease. I’ve done work like this before, but what I realized was, that I didn’t have one. Everywhere I went, I felt as though I had to preform, never make a mistake. Always be at my best, preforming or feeling as though I was a guest. There was never a feeling of fostering ease to any of the places I could feel relaxed in. So I decided to change that.

Creating a Safe, Calm & Cozy Space for Yourself

After reading the chapter in the book, I scanned my life for what seemed like the safest place to be. And to my surprise, it was my bedroom. I wondered why this was the case, as I’m not particularly fond of the room. But for me, it checks all the right boxes.

It’s cozy. I have a few well placed textiles and trinkets, lending it a sense of my personality. It’s well lighted, as in it has all the right ambient lighting I enjoy. A few candles, some Christmas string lights and a diffuser that also has a low light function. The aforementioned diffuser that has any number of my favorite scents diffusing. It’s clean, comfortable and not too crowded. AKA, jut right for relaxing.

The Elements of Cozy

So this is where I started. I went about creating the place that would bring me the feelings of comfort and safety. But first, I needed to define what this meant for me. When I first started out on my journey to cozy, my safe and calm place was a section of the A.T. on Mt Killington, VT. There was a shelter I stayed in that had stunning views draped in mists and vibrantly green ferns and moss. Here was definitely a high point in my hiking in and around New England.

Section of the A.T. on Mt. Killington VT

But all I have of this place is a photo I seldom look at. Though I’ve made some plans to have this photo printed and framed to keep in my new safe and cozy space, it isn’t something that I can easily call on or see myself in and a part of. Something I feel is an important part of feeling safe. And that’s where my planning began. How do I want my safe and cozy place to look. What are the elements of safe and cozy.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Aesthetics

I appreciate good design and always have. Often I’ll find myself on Pinterest, picking out the the element of the house I someday want to build. I also spent a semester in architecture school pursuing design, when I thought that was a viable career path for myself. Design is something that has always been important to me. Especially with my surroundings.

So in my safe and cozy space, I want it to look a certain way. Inviting. A place that would make me feel more at ease just by virtue of being in and around it. To this end I’ve collected a few things that give it a sense of comfort for me. One example is of an afghan my grandmother knitted more than 30 years ago. It’s multi colored and comfy and made from “granny Squares”. Also my space is surrounded with small trinkets that brings me joy.

A skull painted with colorful chilies I picked up in Mexico. A mug with my first initial on it with a sphere of petrified wood resting on top. Pieces of driftwood I’ve collected and a jar of sea glass that was gifted to me. And some Tibetan prayer flags hang from my wall, making my space more me, more cozy.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Plants

I also have a verity of green little friends that adorn my room. I started collecting jade plants about eight years ago and was inspired by a friend who had a jade plant that he was in awe of. You can propagate these plants fairly simply from cuttings and I was seeing a lot of jade plants in the places I would visit day to day. One at the library, one at an insurance agency I would walk by. So I started collecting clippings from them.

I also went in search of air purifying plants that I could bring into my environment that would give it a boost of fresh, purified air. Snake plants soon joined the party, aloes and ferns as well.

The plants in general have helped to keep my room a bit more humid. But due to the latest additions, my ferns, I’ve been running a humidifier on a low level to keep the environment more suited to my plants. This helps to keep the atmosphere a little more comfortable for humans as well. Especially in the winter months. It also helps to make the room feel more alive. Something lush and inviting. The way a greenhouse feels in the early spring; fresh and green.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Lighting

As I’ve said above, lighting is something that is of particular importance to me. I’m not entirely sure what it is about a perfectly lighted room. It could be the soft way the light welcomes you to whatever task you are encapsulated in. Like sipping a cup of herbal tea by candle light. Or how a set of old Christmas string lights lend a sense of interest to something ordinary. Like the bright green chair and bamboo shelf that holds my ferns, all draped in a set of string lights.

Candles are something that have been important to me since I was in my early teens. They lend a softness to the room and have a timeless feel to them. I burn beeswax candles now due to their ability to clean the air of negatively charged ions. But the soft flickering light definitely invites an atmosphere of cozy and safe.

Also in the book on creating a safe space, they suggested watching a video of a fireplace online. I was skeptical at first, but decided to give it a go and was surprised at how relaxing it was. The sound of the crackling wood, mixed with the ambient flickering of the flames was calming. Cozy.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Scent

This is another important aspect of my surroundings feeling safe and comfortable. I used to burn incense. A lot of incense. I started when I was in high school. Thinking back, living next to Salem MA, The Witch City, was a big influence in my incense burning ways. I also had a girlfriend in high school who loved burning Nag Champa and I used to wear a lot of patchouli oil as well. Dirty hippy, check.

I don’t burn incense so much anymore, but I do use an oil diffuser to create a relaxing atmosphere when I’m ready to wind down. I have a few favorite scents that I keep on hand. Geranium, citronella, lavender, jasmine… There are more to be sure, but these are on pretty heavy rotation. Being surrounded by a comforting scent is a kin to being emersed in a hot bath. And for me, sometimes leaves me just as refreshed.

There’s also something elemental about steeping your environment in a smell that brings you peace. For me, it’s like the feeling of smelling a campfire on your clothes. It’s a reminder that pops up when you’re not expecting it that lulls you into a sense of feeling at ease. A soothing surprise. Something I’m sure we could all use a bit more of.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Victuals

For me, there are few things that bring up the atmosphere of cozy as a cup of herbal tea and a well cooked meal. Maybe a glass of lemonade : ) There’s something about the tea itself, where it comes from and how it’s processed that makes the experience not only soothing, by sipping the freshly brewed cup, but also interesting. An experience.

I often brew a cup of tea before bed and relax for a while before sleep. For example, a few days ago I brewed a cup of watermelon, lime, basil and cracked pepper tea. It tasted like a quiet summer evening and is quickly becoming one of my favorite teas.

Also I’ve come to enjoy a special self-care meal at the end of my week. It’s a way for me to show myself that, I’m taking care of my nutritional needs and I’m doing it by carefully selecting meals that I know I’ll enjoy. And the entire process is relaxing. From prepping and preparing the meal to when I partake. Usually surrounded by candles, my diffuser and the other elements, the word wellness is manifest for me.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Cleanliness

And there’s one element that brings the entire package together for me. Clean surroundings. When I say clean, I mean free of dirt, but also clutter. Organized, but not so much so that it feels sterile. The plants and their earthiness helps to give the environment a sense of clean but naturally so. Balance.

Being organized for me is something that makes me feel at ease, but it’s not something that came easily. My family cleaned a lot when I was younger. We still do and are good at it. But in my twenties I had gotten to the point of not caring for myself or my environment. One of my first apartments was so bad that it had trash drifts!

But even when I was living in this environment, I still took pleasure on the days I would clean every aspect of that apartment. I’m sure my roommates appreciated it too. But living in an orderly space lends to it a sense knowing what to expect. Things have a home which makes me feel more at home. It also makes me feel less apt to get up and clean. Which I enjoy, but I also value my down time as well.

Finding Your Elements

I believe this is what the Danes are referring to when they practice Hygge. And it is something that is important and often times overlooked. Or in my case, the 20 something version of myself would have had some machismo outlook on the idea of “pampering myself” thinking I was being “self-indulgent”. I was also raised on action movies where the mark of being a man was based on how brutally you could sacrifice yourself for the greater good. No bueno.

We need these places. Places where we can feel safe, comfortable and without reserve. Living as though you’re constantly on edge and stressed, asides from having health consequences, also pulls the joy out of life. If you don’t have a safe and calm place to go to, then we’re really free floating in place where fear and anxiety can come to visit at will. And finding your place, one that brings you peace and safety is important to keep these feelings at bay.

So make your space. Find your own elements and tailor it to your liking. Maybe you find peace and ease while you’re on your yoga mat. Or maybe there’s a spot in a park or forest that you’re drawn to. Whatever your elements are and wherever your space is, make sure you take the time to steep yourself in them. Because they will bring you peace.

And there is also something gratifying about building these spaces yourself. As I’m typing, I’m sitting in my room with all of the above mentioned elements, including some others as well. Such as music (which could be a post all its own) and I’m definitely feeling relaxed, cozy and safe. And I bring this place with me wherever I go.

Take Your Place With You

For example, while I was at work today I was imagining relaxing at the end of the day and enjoying doing my tasks in my peaceful setting. Just the idea of being in my cozy space brought me a sense of calm in the moments of dis-ease that came during the day. And this is the benefit of creating this space, because you are also creating a little peace of mind as well.

So if you’ve struggled in the past with relaxing or feeling safe, start your own safe, calm and cozy space. Start small if you have to, but keep going back to it. Because eventually, when you take the effort to care for yourself, you will learn to trust in yourself. And when you trust yourself, then you can learn to feel safe and love yourself : ) Take good care, peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Misty Mountain” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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