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.

Pushing Yourself & Resilience or Self Abuse: Where’s the Line Between Being Tough and Being Abusive?

Ahh, more lessons from the toxically masculine 80’s. And everybody had a good time… When I was a child in the 80’s, there was a hyper focus on what the roles of men and women were and what it means to be tough. These were crazy, polarizing times. What I was taught about how to be a man is pretty much summed up by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from “The Predator”. In this post, I’ll be going over the difference between being tough, and resilience, and how I’ve cultivated a new definition for myself around what it means to be, “tough”. So lets take a look at where my definition was forged.

What it Meant to be a Man in my Childhood

In summation, this meant that they (men) were always in charge and used force to keep control. They were unforgiving, especially towards those who were considered to be weaker (accept women and sometimes children), and displayed proudly their anger in destructive ways. I.e. by breaking things in the heat of an argument to show dominance of the situation.

I’m sure that all men weren’t like this, but the popular culture I was raised in valued and glorified this type of gender role assignment. I was often called sensitive as a child because I displayed a range of emotion that was greater than anger and confidence. Being scared as a man, regardless of your age, was unacceptable. And I was scared often. Due to the amount of abuse I was experiencing at the hands of my caregivers.

Manly Expectations

I’d like to talk about what some of the expectations were for me, growing up as a man, and the impact they made on me in my life. There was a lot of reparenting I had to engage in, due to the toxic lessons I was subjected to. And I know I’m not alone.

So if you’ve been measuring yourself to an impossibly masculine standard of self-reliance to the point of not being able to ask for help, or your emotional arsenal consists mainly of indignant rage, then keep reading. We maybe able to help one another by practicing another skill that most men from my generation were taught was too feminine for men to experience. That of listening and attuning to our feelings. And hopefully in so doing, find some ways to heal ourselves in the process.

Are We Being Tough or Abusive? Where do you Draw the Line?

Resilience is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days. I struggled with what this word meant for a long time. As a man, I was taught that we were supposed to be tough. This meant able to handle anything. Resilience was an unspoken part of that package. But what I’m finding out now is, the difference between emotionally resilience and how I was taught to be “tough” by covering over difficult emotions with anger or alcohol.

While I was taught how to be tough, there wasn’t really much of a lesson plan. There was however, a lot of bravado. Posturing and drinking were ways we covered over our emotions. There were other ways we covered over our emotions too. Pleasure seeking by abusing pornography and dissociating from our emotions by projecting them onto the women in our lives and denying we had them at all. We were neither tough nor showed resilience. We did however, run from our emotions to the point of denial. And numbed them out when we were too tired to run.

What we were doing was a form of self-abuse. By disconnecting from ourselves so thoroughly, we completely ignored our own needs for emotional attunement. To ourselves and with others. Being tough and resilience has come to mean something else completely, from how I was raised to imagine it.

Resilience Not Toughness, Why Words Matter

So if what I was taught about being tough was all a show, then where did that leave me when it came to face my difficult emotions? When they all came rushing in at once? It wasn’t ideal or fun, that’s for sure. When the fear and insecurities came flooding in, it left me feeling overwhelmed and filled with fear and anxiety. I had no tools, relationships or resources that I had been cultivating to help because I was relying on avoidance as my only coping skill. Also practicing extreme independence. And in case you don’t know, you can’t avoid your emotions forever.

This is when I started searching for better ways to manage my neglected emotional world. Meditation was one that came in particularly handy. There’s a phrase I learned while listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks, about meditation. It goes, “sit, stay, heal.” This is sound and straight forward advice. As I’m writing this, Kings of Leon are singing in the background, “ride out the wave”, which has a similar sentiment. Both suggest that you need to feel through it, in order to heal through it. This is also what is possibly meant by facing your fears.

And that’s the trick, that there is no trick. You just need to feel the fear, the insecurity and the sadness, and you’ll be all the stronger for it. But that’s a difficult task for a lot of us who are struggling to deal with our difficult emotions. A friend of mine once told me that the more you feel your emotions, the easier it gets. And he’s right. It isn’t easy at first, but necessary if you want to live a life free from avoidant and possibly addictive behaviors.

Quick Fixes are Not Long Term Solutions

Too often we get caught up in wanting to feel better in the moment. For me, I would drink lots of caffeine to alter my emotional state. Or alcohol if it was after work. Looking at pornography was another way of pleasure seeking in the moment. But pornography, along with going to strip clubs and objectifying women, and other ways of covering over difficult emotions, were the mark of a “real man”, as taught to me by my caregivers.

Of course, I didn’t realize I was covering over my difficult emotions. I didn’t even really know what I was feeling. I was just doing what was taught to me, and what felt good in the moment. So when I started feeling the emotions I was covering over without directly, without a quick fix of pleasure, they were most definitely overwhelming. But my friend was right. The more I feel my emotions, without covering them over, the less intense they become. It’s amazing what a little practice and patience can accomplish.

So what feels like abuse, subjecting yourself to staying in the difficult emotions, is actually the way to build resilience. And this isn’t to say that relying on aids such as medication isn’t wise. Especially if we’re dealing with very intense emotions. It’s when we self-medicate by abusing medications, or other drugs or activities, to avoid our emotions that we run into trouble. And when in doubt, ask a professional. Such as a therapist or counsellor. Mine has been an amazing resource for me.

When Pride is Confused for Being Tough

Muscling through difficult situations, as though we need to face them all on our own, is nothing short of foolish pride. This was a characteristic that was found in abundance in my family. We were all too proud to ask for help. This usually meant we were in over our heads. But for us, it was seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help. So we muscled through by avoiding the difficult emotions in the moment and actively sought to numb or speed pass them in lue of finding support. This is abusive behavior.

I think what we were avoiding the most was the ridicule we would receive if we asked for support. We would be seen as weak. And weakness was active sought out and used against us, by making fun of each other in the cruelest ways we could muster. I feel that this was a way to release some of our pain and resentment we were holding in from past wounds. But one thing is for certain, for me it was not safe to be seen as weak by those closest to me.

This is how pride became our main line of defense against each other. It was the one way we were able to keep ourselves as safe as possible, in an environment that was steeped in dangerous circumstances. There was no safe place to turn, including inwardly. So we dissociated from ourselves and one another in order to survive the thousands of tiny wounds we were constantly inflicting.

I think what perpetuated this way of being was, fear of being cut down in the ways we watched those closest to us cut others down. It’s a cycle that we repeatedly engage in. In order to keep the temporary illusion of safety, in an otherwise treacherous environment. And it takes willpower, strength and resilience to break this cycle.

Disengaging From Patterns of Abuse

This ain’t easy. In order to break free from the patterns of abuse, of giving and receiving it, we have to be the first to show our “weaknesses” or vulnerabilities. This is a scary proposition and one that needs resilience to be successful. As I’ve said above, my family was trained to maliciously attack any sign of “weakness”, as defined by our family’s unspoken rules. So putting yourself in a place where you know you will be abused, takes courage and, you guessed it, resilience. Especially because, once you’ve been torn apart, your intention will be to not attack the other. Hopefully breaking the cycle.

And the worst part is, there is no guarantee that the relationship will be salvaged once you put yourself on the line. If you’re ready to be done with the cycles of abuse, but the other isn’t, then you’ll be left wounded and alone. This is where it’s important to have supports already in place and to have built up resilience to these types of abusive situations. So if things don’t end up working out, or progress is slow, then you’ll be able to find comfort in knowing somebody else is there for you. Or that you are there for yourself.

Setting Boundaries

This was something I practiced a few years ago, when I attempted to reconnect with somebody from my past. We met at a local Whole Foods to get lunch and catch up. When we sat down to talk, I noticed that we were slipping into old patterns of verbally abusive behavior.

The person I was reconnecting with, was used to more hostile interactions. The ways we used to interact was by making small, cutting remarks, mixed in with the normal flow of conversation. Essentially being mean for no reason. When I recognized that this was happening, I knew I needed to give the relationship more time and space between us. So I ended our meeting early and took some time before reaching out to them again.

It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the effort in order to properly care for myself in the relationship, while establishing a new standard of how I want to be, and will accept being treated. But it’s not enough to take space without explanation. If we can, we could tell the other person what we’re doing and why. Otherwise disengaging can be taken as an act of passive aggressive punishment. Withholding love without a proper explanation can feel, to the other person, like a cold slight. Leaving them to wonder why you aren’t talking anymore.

Finding Support

And while you’re working on your relationships by setting healthy boundaries and practicing resilience, it’s good to have people who know what you’re going through. People who can offer some advice, some insight or maybe just an ear to listen. It’s also helpful for these people to be practicing healthy boundaries themselves. This can be difficult if you are just beginning the journey of learning how to cultivate healthy relationships.

Therapy

A therapist is a great place to start when looking to expand your support network. They can offer unbiased insight into how you can go about establishing these new rules you’re setting in your relationships. They can also help you find other healthy resources. Ones that will aid you along the way. They can be a healing ally and guide, as you sort out the unattended areas of your life.

Friends

Friends are also invaluable during this process. I have one friend that I know I can count on for just about anything. To field a phone call about a hairy situation, get some logical advice about practical matters, or text about something that’s happening in the moment. I’ve talked to a few friends for their perspective of this post topic alone.

It’s also nice to feel the support of someone who knows you and what you’ve been through. To feel seen and recognized too. This is especially powerful if you’ve been emotionally neglected. If this is the case, the act of attempting to connect with others can bring up emotions of anxiety and fear. By having friends and other supports in place, the feelings aren’t as strong as they would be if you were facing them alone.

Finally, Being Tough Means Finding Support

And finally, if you’ve been closing yourself and your emotions off from others, you become weaker in the process. It’s not healthy to be isolated from those around you for too long. We need one another to be the best versions of ourselves. Staying connected and growing stronger in those connections, that’s what being tough really means.

So if you’ve been told that being tough means grinning and bearing it, or rub some dirt in your wound, you’ve been mislead. Caring for ourselves by knowing our emotional limits and checking in with how we’re feeling is our true strength. This and the support of others is where we’ll be able to stop the cycles of abuse and become the healthiest versions of ourselves. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Tired” by Geoff LMV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Updated: 11/25/22

Extreme Independence and Trauma: When Doing You, Affects your Relationships for the Worse

I was on Facebook not too long ago, scrolling through my feed when I saw a post about how extreme independence is a trauma response that stems from being unable to trust those closest to you. The cause, they said, was mostly due to experiencing neglect. From those who should have been attentive to our basic needs for love and belonging.

This felt true as I read it. Most of my family has a very strong judgement function. Usually when it comes to autonomy and deciding what’s the best course of action. And further more, this only extends so far as their own needs are concerned. Not usually taking others into consideration. Hence the fear of connecting with one another. So what do we feel the benefit is, of acting so independently?

Extreme Independence and Acting the Part

The ability to choose decisively how to act in a situation is useful. It usually gives us the added benefit of being seen as someone who is in charge. A.k.a. someone who is competent, who knows what they’re doing. But what I’ve come to find out, from my own experiences and those close in to me is, that this is little more than a way to survive. Those who modeled this behavior for me, were acting the part. They chose extreme independence so they could feel as though they were doing what was best for themselves. Also for those they were in charge of caring for. But it was only an act.

They had to keep up the façade of always being seen as in charge. Strong, never letting on that they had the same fears, vulnerabilities and worries that everyone else does. We were playing a part. One that was void of a large swath of our emotional lives. This lead directly to a lack of there being moments of intimacy and tenderness in our relationships. There were only stark, contrasting times and polarized ways of being with one another. On an emotional level, this usually took the shape of heated arguments, judgements or just being mean to each other.

The Fear Under The Act of Extreme Independence

For example, the good times consisted of us drinking, while loudly verbalizing our opinions of whomever or whatever was around. The difficult times were filled with more loud verbalizing. Only this time, focusing on how the men weren’t being heeded, while sometimes being accompanied by shattering dinner wear. This happened while the women spewed hurtful and demeaning messages. Words designed to cut emotional wounds that were left to fester.

What both these examples have in common is, the “good” and the “difficult” times were both ways to keep others at a distance so as not to seem weak. Or rather the distance was to keep others from seeing that they were emotionally wounded. Nursing these wounds in the midst of the relationships that we were supposed to be enjoying. So why does this happen? I have a feeling it has to do with a few different factors. Ones that we all experience and shape the ways we see our world and how we build relationships. And it starts in childhood. While we’re bonding with our caregivers.

Forging Our Attachments

When we first learn to love and trust, it is usually with our parents or guardians. These bonds tend to be tight. These bonds set the stage for the relationships we form well into adulthood. If there is a nurturing bond, one where the caregiver is attuned to the needs of their child, then healthy and balanced relationships are forged. But if the bond is broken time and again by emotional distance, neglect and abuse, then the child learns that the love they once felt has betrayed them. Trust becomes fickle and the bond they once built disintegrates.

This, I imagine, is where extreme independence is adopted. Not knowing if we are accepted or loved by those who are supposed to love us unconditionally would add an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear to our everyday interactions with just about everyone we meet. The lessons learned being that no one is trustworthy and we need to protect ourselves from everybody. So we learn to survive. Feeling that the only person we’re able to trust is ourselves. And that’s only if we somehow learn to attune to our own needs! In my experience, this most likely comes in the form of pleasure seeking. And pleasure seeking is not substitute for attunement.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see how trust relates to fear for our belonging. And abuse of this trust by loved ones, the source of our belonging, leads to our feeling alone. As though we have no one to rely on. So we rely solely on ourselves.

The Difference Between Isolation and Extreme Independence

Extreme independence then, is really a form of extreme isolation. And there’s a difference between isolation and independence. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with the image of being independent. It’s often romanticized as the loner, striking out on his own. Or romanticized as braving the wilderness, armed with only our wits. There’s a sense of being able to handle whatever may come up, no matter how difficult it may be. Which is a trait I feel like we’d all like to embody to some extent.

Isolation however, is something that leaves us weaker as an individual. Less resilient. It’s used by most societies as the main form of punishment. To separate those from the whole of their communities. And if we see this type of isolation as punishment, then staying in this isolation is a form of unrealized self punishment. Or what Buddha called the “second arrow”.

The first arrow is the breaking of the initial trust from the caregivers. Something that we have no control over. The second arrow however is something we do to ourselves in extreme independence. Regardless of who we learned the initial lessons from. So if we continue to isolate, after we separate from those who had done the abandoning, then we are continuing to do ourselves harm. Even if it’s the only way we know how to be.

Isolation Doesn’t Only Effect those Isolating

This is why isolation is so debilitating. It leaves us with the inability to care for ourselves by being unable to connect emotionally with others. This is because we feel it’s protecting us by doing what’s in our “best interests”. But also why extreme independence is so destructive when disguised as a virtue. And not seen for the damaging isolation it can be. But it also hurts those who care for us as well.

If we’re isolating all the time, then when someone does get close enough to do something that hurts us, or rubs up against an old wound, our reaction is to neglect the other relationships in our lives as well. Those that remind us of our initial hurt. And what triggered our initial isolation. Also, the ways we act aren’t solely relegated to our own worlds. They have a ripple effect that touch almost every other aspect of our lives.

Knowing When to Take Healthy Breaks

For sure there are times we need to take a break from everything when it gets to be too much. And that’s healthy. Going to your favorite coffee shop to journal, or draw up your monthly budget while sipping on a warm cup of your favorite tea or coffee, can be just the right way to slow down a little and gain some much needed perspective. But when you check your texts, and the last four times you checked in with a “loved one” is on major holidays or a birthday, something’s amiss.

And unfortunately, what’s amiss usually involves more than one person. So even if you realize that you’ve been the one who has been working under the guise of extreme independence, unless the other people in your life are, or have been open to building and fostering a reciprocating relationship, than you may be left with the hard realization that you’re sort of still in the same place.

When We Realize We Need to Change But the Other Doesn’t Want to

And this can be a tough place to be. How do you keep the door open, to possibly reconnect especially if it’s a painful prospect of being abandoned again? I don’t know that I have the answer to that. But I know what helps. Fostering healthy new relationships.

The more healthy, robust relationships we build, that are based in mutual respect and understanding, the more resilient we become to the ups and downs of all our relationships. And by keeping the door open, I don’t mean we have to stay loyal to the lessons of ways of being in unhealthy relationships we learned from the past. Unlearning those lessons should be priority. Instead we forge new bonds and learn new lessons. Ones that leave us feeling good. About ourselves and others.

Once we have a blueprint, a map on how to navigate a healthy relationship, one we want to be in, then we can bring that along with us when we attempt to reconnect with someone who has historically been difficult to connect with. So we don’t fall into familiar territory or old patterns of the unhealthy ways we used to interact.

It definitely takes patients, but with some persistence, you may just find yourself surrounded with caring, loving and a healthy support network. So do not give up hope! There are healthier times ahead, we only need go out there and bring them to fruition. And remember, you don’t need to do it alone. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Image Credits:“THE DARKNESS IS ON THE WAY/ ARE WE GOING TO BE ISOLATED?” by HORIZON is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

United we Stand..?

I’m from the United States, so for the past few months the only thing that anybody’s been talking about is the election. And I have to admit, I’m breathing a bit easier now that Biden has officially won. But the degree by which this election was called, the contrasting starkness of how this country is divided is more than a little concerning. And what I feel is worse is, that this isn’t something new. So the question I’m asking and I’m sure others are as well is, “are we all that united?”

The Divide

We’ve been talking about one divide or another in the U.S. for a long time. Economic and racial to name a few. But in a system that has two parties that represent two very different halves of the whole, it stands to reason that one half of the country isn’t being heard. Or at very least, feeling as though they’re not being heard when it comes to what’s important to them. This is not a recipe for feeling united, for sure.

That’s a lot of people. And if people aren’t feeling heard, united, they will find ways of making themselves heard to feel unity. This country was based on this premise. No taxation without representation. So we revolted. There are more positive ways to feel heard. Such as peaceful protesting or volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about. But there are also other, more tragic ways of being heard.

Unsettling Trends

The popular trend of school shootings comes to mind. Something that seemed unimaginable in the not so distant past is now unsettlingly familiar. Or the “Proud Boys” movement. A recent neo-fascist organization that is known for political violence.

These are truly unsettling trends. But something about this divide feels all too familiar. Like I’ve lived through this before. Then it struck me. I realized that it reminds me of the ways my own family is divided. All of us in our own, small, fractured factions. Feeling hurt and unheard. We’re all alone, not knowing how to connect or if it’s even safe to reach out. This leaves me, and us, with the questions, what do we do now? How do we reconnect? Do we start from scratch? And build new relationships after having been so badly damaged from past abuses?

I know I’m not alone in this experience. Many people I’ve talked to have had similarly difficult familial relationships. And with a 50% divorce rate in our nation, it isn’t difficult to see that we are literally a nation divided. It’s also clear that what happens in the smaller units of our families, are the building blocks of what happens in the larger whole of the society.

Power and Its Effects

For example, abuse of authority may look similar from parent to child as it does from political authority to constituent. Both authorities have the power to take rights away from those who are in their charge. So the settings are similar in some regards. And it’s in those settings of overlap that I want to search for similarities. In hopes of finding how we relate to one another. How we may be able to help to heal some of the unease of those who are feeling as though they aren’t being heard. Because regardless of how those who feel unheard react, they are still people. With just as many feelings, hopes, needs and rights as everybody else.

And who’s job is it to listen to those members of our society if it isn’t our own, as members of that same society? It is in this vein that I want to explore these areas here on the blog. I don’t have a set list of issues, or even know when I’ll be posting them or where to even begin. But one thing is for certain, we can’t keep pretending that everybody is being accounted for when there is such a stark divide among us.

Coming Home

This mentality breeds an, “I’m right and you’re wrong”, way of thinking. In short, those who think they’re right, stop listening to those who they see as wrong. Depending on who holds the power, that could make for dangerous circumstances. And we need to learn to listen to one another again. To be sure, there are probably some puns to be made or parallels to be drawn about how political labeling is in line with the ethos of this blog. And there will be time for that, but right now there is work to be done. We’ve been a house divided for far too long. It’s time to make the journey back home. To one another.

It’s not something that will likely be easy either. But few things that are worth the time usually are. But do not lose hope. We’ve seen difficult times before, we can travers them again. Together. There’s an old saying that goes, “if you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together”. Let’s see how far we can go. Thanks for reading, peace :]

If you’re interested in reading about healthy connection and feeling united, check these articles out:

Food and Family

Creating Healthy Boundaries

Image Credits:“No Known Restrictions: Picketing the White House When Coolidge Refuses to Listen (LOC)” by pingnews.com is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Toxic Masculinity: The Pitfalls of Growing Up Male

I was a child of the eighties. As a male, that meant a lot of different things but toxic masculinity was near the top. As far as my most influential role models were concerned, they were Sylvester Stallone from “Rambo 2” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in, “The Predator”. Two men who used gratuitous violence to get what they wanted and to defend what was rightfully theirs (usually a woman). These two characters, for me, defined what it meant to be a man, in my childhood.

With regards to male emotions, as far as I knew we only had two. Anger, which was most prevalent and the self righteousness to use our anger to protect what was morally right. These were the lessons that I used to view my world with and they started before I was able to communicate with those teaching me.

What I Thought It Meant to Be a Man

In the world I grew up in, men were men and took what they wanted while drinking whiskey doing it. Women were weak, caretakers of the men and children and watched soap operas during the day and went shopping, a lot. At the time, I had no idea how unhealthy this polarized idea of how men and women “should act” was. But I was also a child, where black and white thinking was how I, and most children, view and navigated their worlds.

Unfortunately for me, I experienced a fair amount of abuse, trauma and neglect, because of the above form of masculinity. Something I’ve come to know as toxic masculinity. I would later break the mold of this toxic masculinity and the lessons I endured as a child from it. Although not before I bought into the curriculum.

I drank whiskey neat, because I thought it was the mark of a real man. This was because two of my role models, James Bond and Jim Morrison, did and I wanted to be just like them. I watched movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Fight Club” on repeat. Taking notes on how to be the manliest of men by mostly looking, but also acting the part. I even studied Heath Ledger’s Joker from “Batman”, because he was sort of in line with the ideology of what I thought it meant to be a man. It helped that the role models I had terrorized me in the way I saw the Joker psychologically terrify people.

Luckily I no longer look to role models like these. Or God only knows where I’d be. But what was so insidious about how I came to idolize these characters was, not because I had loads of quality time with my male role models. Role models who mirrored the above type of behavior. But rather it was the neglect mixed with criticism from them, that left me not knowing how to be my own man.

Unclear Messages About Being a Man From Unhealthy Role Models

There were a lot of unspoken messages around what was and was not okay for a man to display. For instance, one of my caregivers told me that I was sensitive on a regular basis. Something that I was sure was not a manly trait, though never explicitly told to me. This usually happened when I was showing an emotion other than the two, pre-approved “manly” emotions of anger and self-righteousness.

I unfortunately did not have the ware-with-all to say that they’d be sensitive too, if they were neglected while wave after wave of terrifying men abuse them. That being said, I recognize that it didn’t start with my caregiver. Their caregivers handed down to them, their child-rearing handbook. So I know they must have lived through some of what I experienced and for that I have empathy for them.

Though telling me that I was sensitive in a way that felt as though I were being harshly and critically judged, taught me that it wasn’t only not okay to display my feelings, but to have these feelings at all. And for a good portion of my adult life, I didn’t even know what emotions were. Not only was there no one there to model healthy emotional states for me, anytime I expressed one that wasn’t acceptable or was considered “unmanly”, I was shamed for having them.

Not Having Words For My Emotions

The one feeling I came to know by name and understand well was anxiety. And that was only in the times between the 4 to 5 lattes I would drink during the day to stay ahead of my emotions and the 5 to 6 beers or mixed drinks I would have at night to numb them when they eventually caught up with me. And the anxiety was paralyzing.

Even then, my ingrained trainings on how to be a “man” still wouldn’t allow me to see my emotions as something to be listened to and cared for. As a marker for something being out of alignment and that they (my emotions) were there for a reason. The degree to which my perception of manliness was skewed was represented in a conversation I had with my doctor. During one of my yearly physicals, I was speaking to my doctor about the anxiety attacks I would sometimes have. I was looking to be prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for them. Only I referred to them as, not being able to live with this weakness inside of me anymore, referring to my anxiety attacks. Luckily, he looked at me with empathy and said that feelings aren’t weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that was one of the few times I could remember receiving any kind of healthy emotional modeling. I had a life’s time worth of harsh criticism and lessons all leading me in the unhealthful direction of toxic masculinity. And resulting in understanding my inner emotional life as a “weakness” to be rooted out.

Changing My Ideas of What it Means to be a Man

So what sparked this awakening so to speak, of how I came to understand just how the toxic masculinity of my caregivers’ perceptions of what being a man meant? And what gave me the ability to want to change myself for the better? It all started when I stopped running from my emotions. But to do that, I had to go digging through my past first.

The Legacy of Toxic Masculinity

When I realized how unhealthy this all was, I couldn’t help but wonder, why do we as men stay so wrapped in this idea of toxic masculinity and perpetually being unable to speak about our emotions? Is it that it’s just the way men are told to be? My caregivers are good examples of this legacy. One of them said to me countless times while I was growing up, “I don’t know how to raise a man”.

This sent me the message that I wasn’t adding up to what their standard of how a man should behave. But it also told me that there was no way I would be able to be a proper man in their eyes because first, they told me they didn’t know how to raise one, and second, I was terrified of all the male role models in my life due their abusive tendencies. The type of man I was supposed to grow into.

What I think my caregiver may have been alluding to when they said they “didn’t know how to raise a man” was, that I had no male role models, healthy or unhealthy that stuck around. None that took the time to show an interest in me and to find out what my strengths were and how I could cultivate them and become my own person. But these are just guesses and I’m no mind reader.

Looking For Guidance Still as an Adult

With the amount of fear and uncertainty I had delt with as a child, it was easy to fall into the trap later on in life, of looking for someone who would tell me what to do. Who to be and how to feel as a man. And there was definitely no shortage of people willing to fill this role for me.

I spent the first half of my life looking for someone to tell me how to be a man to my caregivers standards. To criticize me into being the man I was told I should be. There was a sort of comfort in knowing that your life isn’t your responsibility and that’s what I was looking for. Someone who would tell me who to be. But this way of living led me to stagnate and left me unwilling to move on with my life or effect real change in it. Not to mention the unhealthy drinking habit I picked up along the way as well. Mostly to avoid the responsibility of my emotional life.

I felt trapped in my life without direction. Due to being unable to get passed my feelings that I wasn’t in charge of my own life. That somehow, how others saw me was more important than how I was treating and responding to myself. Or more to the point, I thought I needed someone else to tell me I was on the right path when the only person who could know that was me.

Why These Lessons Were Toxic

I was unable to foster and keep close relationships with others. Or with myself to any meaningful degree because I was unable to empathize with or understand how or what someone was going through on an emotional level. I was completely controlled by my emotions. In that I was terrified of them popping up unexpectedly. So I stayed hyper vigilant to keep the fear of my “unmanly” emotions, those that felt most vulnerable at bay while finding ways of controlling my inner experience. This usually happened by numbing them or by using pleasure seeking habits.

This type of outlook, on how men should be raised according to my family and to a larger degree societally, is founded on two basic principles from what I can gather. The first principle being men should not talk about their emotions and the second, normalizing this form of abuse by labeling it what it means to grow up male.

Men were not supposed to talk about their emotions. As I mentioned above there were only two emotions that were acceptable for men to express in my experience. Anything outside the realm of anger or self-righteous was labeled as not masculine and as a man and in my case, you would be labeled “too sensitive” if you expressed them. Men were supposed to be hard, physically and emotionally, unyielding and unforgiving. 

Recognizing I Needed to Change

What then allowed me to recognize these unspoken family rules and implement the changes I needed for a healthier version of myself? It was the time spent away from my caregivers and me hitting my bottom which came in the form of a few failed relationships.

I had been married to a woman that I was with for about eight years, after which I left her and into the arms another woman. It wasn’t my best decision looking back, but the reason I left my then wife was because when I was with the other woman, I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. I felt like the man that I was expected to be through her and more importantly, through my family’s eyes.

This woman would later leave me. Which was for the best, but this experience left me with nowhere to go and nothing to do, except to come to terms with the person I had become. I moved back in with one of my childhood caregivers at 34 and began rebuilding a relationship with them. Only this time, it wasn’t based around the unspoken rules of how to be a man, as had previously been defined for me in my childhood relationship to my caregivers. And I was scared.

New Lessons On Being a Man

What I was doing went against all my teachings of what it means to be a man. This left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how to proceed with the new rules that I hadn’t figured out quite what they were yet. I was confused and scared, but I learned that I could live through these emotions. The confusion and fear and be the stronger for it. Not only that, but I was still the man I was coming to know more and more, without the old and toxic lessons from my past.

Since letting go of those toxically masculine lessons I was raised with, I’ve gained control of my life again. I’ve come to make healthier choices about my diet and spending habits. I seldom drink alcohol and have one to two cups of green tea a day. I’ve found direction in my life and I’m starting to build and maintain healthy relationships with friends and family members on my own terms. It isn’t always easy, but my life is my own to live. And now I no longer seek the approval of somebody else to tell me how I’m doing, at being my own man. And maybe more importantly, if I’m measuring up.

These are the gifts that being your own man are able to yield. Strong and soft are my new goals, not hard and unyielding. Because unlike the curriculum I was given in my childhood, might does not equal right. There is strength in coming to understand, attune and attend to our own inner emotional lives with care. But it takes courage and time.

We have it in us, to embody the strength we need. Some say we were built for it. So take heart reader. Know you are not alone, if you’ve felt as though you haven’t measured up to an unreasonable standard of manliness. And that it is not only possible to be the best version of yourself, however that may look, it’s doable too. You need only to allow yourself to be what you already are : ) Peace and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Texans bravado is a little chilling.” by Tolka Rover is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Edited: 6/1/22

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