Another Lesson in Radical Acceptance: A Loooooong Birth Story!

Warning of sorts: This tale includes a lot of details, many of which may strike the reader as boring and unnecessary. I intentionally left them for a few reasons. If my story resonates with that of others and so helps to increase a sense of connection and empathy while decreasing isolation, the extra detail is worth it. At least in my experience, throughout the pregnancy and birth journey too often people neither invite birthing parents* to share their experiences nor demonstrate a willingness to simply listen and witness those stories with compassionate understanding--to hold space for whatever a parent wants to express. Instead of being asked what is happening, too often we are told what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. Assumptions, generalizations, and rapidly drawn conclusions also abound, none of which helps us to feel supported and validated through what is, for many, a challenging process. Moreover, once the baby is born, many people are quick to say, "That was rough, but now you have this beautiful baby! Be grateful! What's wrong with you for not feeling only joy!?" If nothing else, I hope this post can reinforce what I know to be true: suppressing part of our experience so that others can feel comfortable or so we can avoid the difficult chapters of the story does not helps us to heal and learn from suffering. And suffering can be an amazing teacher when we allow it to serve that role. Human beings have the capacity to feel a panoply of emotions all at once and, as poet Danna Faulds instructs, "The only safety lies in letting it all in–the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success." I'm not sure where to start this story but acknowledging how much effort it took to bring our child into the world, well before her birth, seems too important to leave out. By no stretch of the imagination was she accidental. We needed some extra help to conceive this kiddo. L'il miss emerged from our sixth and final intrauterine insemination (IUI) at a fertility clinic, and two of those IUIs ended in miscarriages. When I found out I was pregnant for a third time, I waited with bated breath for the other shoe to drop. But the weeks kept passing, and the milestones kept piling up--hearing the baby's heartbeat for the first time, completing the first trimester, seeing those tiny legs kick at the 20-week ultrasound. I soon could not deny that this new life just might make it into the world. I'm not sure I took a full breath, however, until we arrived at the third trimester, and I knew our child would likely survive a premature birth.

A plaster version of my torso at week 36, inspired by Birthing from Within.

Around that time, we moved across the country, and I transferred care from an OB/GYN to that of a registered midwife. I dreamed of birthing the baby in the low-stress environment of my own home, surrounded by my loving partner and supportive midwives who view childbirth as a rite of passage, not a medical event, and the birthing parent as a wise collaborator, not a patient who needs to be compliant to be "good." We began to prepare our house for the big day, and I planned for a natural birth the best I could by doing things like participating in a Birthing from Within class and yoga birth workshop. The birthing class, particularly, helped me to identify and confront my fears about the birth process as well as move toward acceptance that our best laid plans rarely turn out as expected. One particularly poignant memory I have from the class is the facilitator splashing black paint on the art projects we were in the process of creating. Our response to this action highlighted how attached we were to a particular outcome and presented an opportunity to be more flexible in our thinking and actions--to accept and surrender to situations beyond our control. She also introduced us to the useful metaphor of the labyrinth. As the Birthing from Within founder explains it,

The labyrinth is an ancient symbol representing our journey through life, ordeals, and transitions. Its single, convoluted pathway begins at the opening, leads directly to the center, and then returns along the same path to the outside again. Walking or finger-tracing a labyrinth invokes a sensation of turning inward, then outward...you could be blindfolded and still reach the center by feeling your way through the path. You don't need to study the path before you enter it. You don't need a birth plan or a cell phone to call for help! There is no time-line and no mistakes. Any and every birth fits within the labyrinth--whether long or short, medical or natural, cesarean or vaginal--or anywhere in between!...In the Labyrinth of Birth, the journey (with its twists and turns) reflects the emotional, spiritual, and social experience of giving birth.

Time seemed to simultaneously slow down and accelerate as my due date, November 11, came and went. Knowing that most first-time parents go over their "estimated due date," I tried to relax and enjoy the time off, as I had just begun maternity leave. I also began following the various counsel I sought out and received about triggering labor, such as going for a strenuous hike.

Gregory Canyon hike at week 41 day 3.

As 41 weeks approached, I went in for an ultrasound to make sure everything was still functioning well. Turns out my placenta and umbilical cord were still rocking and rolling, and the baby was not in distress. So we marched past the 41st week mark. I went to an acupuncturist for an induction session and my midwife for a membrane sweep (fun, fun!). I had received lots of signals from my body that things were moving in the childbirthing direction, but this visit to the midwife dashed my hopes. The unsuccessful membrane sweep revealed that I looked more like I was 39 weeks pregnant, not 41 weeks and a day.

Not my finest hour at 41 weeks and 2 days

I began to face the reality that a hospital induction may be necessary, as the medical community and my midwife did not support me going beyond 42 weeks given the potential harm to the baby in that scenario. Of course I did not want to put the baby at risk either and was not exactly feeling stellar--physically or emotionally--by that point (and I won't go into detail about hemorrhoids, but they were definitely and acutely on board as 42 weeks approached). Still, a hospital induction meant throwing out my birth plan and possibly facing the thing I feared most--a pitocin induction that significantly increased the likelihood of needing an epidural and, ultimately, a cesarean section. Starting to feel some desperation, I went to a chiropractor on week 41 day 2 and got adjusted, hoping a more relaxed and aligned pelvis would do the trick.

Hazel requested a cameo appearance in this post

Within 36 hours of those three interventions, I began to have more consistent, intense contractions throughout the night that arrived every 5 to 8 minutes. I called my parents the morning of 41 weeks and 3 days and asked them to pick up our 11-month-old dog whose presence at the birth would have been a bit too much for everyone, including her.

That evening, I went to my midwife's partner (my midwife had left town for Thanksgiving--another twist in the labyrinth) for a craniosacral session, hoping it would relax my body enough to bring on active labor. But the contractions had already begun to slow down. I was able to get a good night's sleep and relished the rest but once again felt the disappointment of getting my hopes up about an eminent birth. I discovered the term prodromal labor on the Internet and hoped all this preparatory work would mean a faster delivery once I transitioned into active labor. I was in the thick of the labyrinth, feeling the jolt that comes from moving inward toward the center (i.e. childbirth) and then suddenly finding myself at the outward edge again.

At 41 weeks and 5 days, after another night of rough contractions and very little sleep, I went to town on induction strategies, which helped to lift my spirits as only frenetic activity can sometimes do. I returned to the chiropractor and acupuncturist. I also got a non-stress test and was happy to find out the baby was still chilling in my womb. My new midwife gave me another membrane sweep, this time successfully, and reported I was about 2 cm dilated and 50% effaced, which was a bit hard to hear given how exhausted I felt but at least showed some progress. That night, the contractions grew even more intense, to the point that I was on all fours through each one, praying that this not go on another day. But they remained inconsistent, refusing to show the patterned frequency that marks active labor.

At 41 weeks and 6 days, I went back to the acupuncturist for the third and final induction session. I also procured Chinese induction herbs and a homeopathic remedy. I crossed my fingers that these efforts would finally bring about active labor and, more importantly, my daughter. The midwife came over to our house that night to give me a pep talk when the thought of facing another night of frequent, painful contractions seemed overwhelming, particularly since my body had started shaking like a leaf that afternoon. Another craniosacral session calmed me down enough to face the night but active labor did not come.

However, the morning of 42 weeks and 0 days, I felt a surge of energy, recognizing this day was my final chance to have the baby at home. I used a breast pump to try to stimulate active labor and kept drinking my Chinese brew, plugging my nose to get the strong-smelling liquid down the hatch. My partner and I also went to a sports field where I carried my very pregnant belly up and down the bleachers, hoping the stairs would jostle that baby closer to the womb's exit. I had been resisting castor oil as the final non-medical induction strategy because I have a very sensitive system but decided at 11 a.m. that the possibility of avoiding a medical birth still outweighed the potential costs of taking this powerful laxative. I only consumed a tablespoon of that disgusting substance and, 30 minutes later, threw up everything in my system. Utterly deflated, I called the midwife, and she planned to come over for one final prenatal exam before we headed to the hospital. No sooner had I gotten off the phone, I had to run to the bathroom and, lo and behold, active labor commenced! I felt a wave of excitement, believing this was finally the transition I needed to stay at home and finish what I had set out to do. But after an hour, the contractions slowed down and became shorter, once again revealing a false start.

We headed to a hospital that uses nurse midwives that evening. They welcomed me with open arms, and I will forever be indebted to the wonderful staff at Denver Health Medical Center. After checking in, I learned that I could take morphine, which would not harm the baby but would block out the contractions enough for me to get a good night's rest after five days of on and off again labor. Then, the next morning, which happened to be Thanksgiving, I could take cytotek, a much friendlier induction medicine than pitocin. I felt confident I could face active labor after some solid hours of shut eye. As my partner and I joked, I had trained for a marathon, not the Ironman, but I definitely felt like I was in the middle of the latter.

I fell into a deep, dreamy sleep for approximately two hours before the intense contractions started up again. Unfortunately, I had three of them within ten minutes, which took cytotek off the table, as the nurse midwife could not control what happened in my body once I ingested it and did not want to put the baby in danger. Although I had moments that looked like active labor, the contractions were still too variable, and my cervix was opening at a snail's pace. Pitocin was fast becoming the only option to induce active labor, and despair began to sink its teeth into my worn out skin.

Early the morning of week 42 day 1, the nurse midwife messed with my cervix, opening it up a little more and creating a bit of a scare as I dripped blood while walking to the bathroom. The nurse/midwife team put me in the tub to try to help me relax, as my body was shaking nonstop and my energy to move through more contractions was rapidly declining. A new set of nurses and nurse midwives started their shifts, and I reluctantly left the tub to see what my body would do next. I had dilated to 4 cm and was 80% effaced, which was progress to be sure but the road ahead still seemed awfully long. All hands were on deck to help me through each contraction, which continued to be inconsistently spaced apart. I went back into the tub and had some moments of zenned out bliss before we proceeded to the last non-pharmaceutical possibility--inducing active labor via the breast pump. As I watched my body create a bunch of colostrum (something that was actually going right!), my intuition screamed to me that this intervention was not going to do the trick and that I was fast reaching my system's limit to cope with more contractions.

Through tears, I asked if I could get an epidural before pitocin, and the nurse midwife said I could. They warned me that I would have to sit still through contractions for 20 minutes while they set up the epidural, but I found the procedure to be a piece of cake compared to the last 6 days. The relief from the nerve block was immediate, and I finally started to breathe deeply and stop shaking. They waited a little while to see if I would go into active labor. Surprise, surprise, I did not. The long dreaded moment had arrived, and they very slowly and gradually introduced pitocin into my body. All was going well until the pitocin hit 8 ml (22 is the maximum amount they use to induce labor). My water broke, and the poor little baby was hit with both the synthetic oxytocin of the pitocin and the natural oxytocin created by my body. Her heart rate plummeted for several minutes, so they stopped the pitocin and calmly repositioned me until her heart rate became normal again. The nurse midwife proposed starting pitocin again at 4 ml, and I agreed, not realizing how significant the baby's distress had been.

Immediately after they began the 4 ml drip, the baby's heart rate dipped again as my uterus began contracting like crazy. They injected me with something to calm my uterus, stopped the pitocin, and positioned my nearly immobilized lower body in a kneeling position to shove a censor through my cervix and onto the baby's head. Her heart rate sounded like a door knock through this device, and I took solace in the steady, patterned sound. The contractions were starting to break through the epidural, so the anesthesiologist reappeared to administer a bolus of what by then had become known to me as "the good stuff." The nurse midwife wanted to try one last option before turning me over to the surgery team: start the pitocin at 1 ml and see if we could get my cervix to dilate fully. I had been at 6 cm for a few hours at that point but also had been in active labor.

In the meantime, she wanted me to meet with the chief OB and ask her any questions I had about a cesarean birth in the event I needed to go that route. The surgeon was a lovely human being and with every passing minute I surrendered to the outcome I had once dreaded. I clarified to my midwife/nurse team that I was not resisting letting go of my birth plan. Hell, I'd thrown that out the window long ago. I mostly feared the baby would experience trauma on account of the surgery and miss out on what I have come to believe is an important event in a person's life whenever it's possible--pushing their way into the world. My lovely midwife told me we could repair the traumatic effects of a c-section soon after her birth, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then the resident who would be assisting the c-section entered the room. She wanted me to know who was behind the mask once I was in the OR. The anesthesiologist also returned once more to explain to me how he would numb my body for the procedure while I remained conscious. I did my best to utter my sincere gratitude to all of the people who were doing their best to make this experience bearable for me. I also made some requests, including to hold the baby right after the procedure if I could, as the pitocin drip began once again.

We made it to 2 ml of pitocin before the baby's heart rate decelerated yet again. The nurse-midwife said we could try to go up to 3 ml, and I said enough. A new shift of nurse midwives and nurses came on board (round 3!), and everyone began prepping for the surgery. I had been dilated at 6 cm for 6 hours when my parents came in from the waiting room for the grand send-off. My midwife was not allowed to accompany me into surgery, but my partner was. They transferred me to a gurney and told me my partner would join me after they had anesthetized me.

They transferred me once again from a gurney to the operating table, this time removing the sheet from my naked body under some very bright lights. All that covered me were the various tubes and needles protruding from my skin. As the numbing medicine rolled down my back like a waterfall, the staff around me spoke of everyday things like their work schedules. I have never felt so exposed and vulnerable and hope I never have to again. The nurse midwife noticed tears running down my cheeks and grabbed my hand. Soon after my partner arrived and whispered to me how sorry he was as he stroked and kissed my forehead. That moment of grace still brings tears to my eyes.

The unflattering AND blissful reality of my post-surgery state

Being awake while someone opens you up is a strange sensation, to say the least. The surgical staff spoke to me about what they were doing and within just a few minutes, they had pulled the baby from my body. They told my partner he could look over the sheet if he wouldn't pass out but absolutely would not let me see what was going on. They were surprised how in shock the baby was, given how long I had been in labor, and immediately needed to give her oxygen. They took her to the far end of the room, and my partner was allowed to go over and be with her. Though only a few minutes passed in real time, an agonizing eternity took over my landscape. When I heard her cry, I finally took a deep breath and the tears began to flow again, this time streaming a mixture of joy and relief. The surgeon told me she wanted to take the baby to the NICU to give her more oxygen and monitor her for a short time, but I was able to look at this miracle, welcome her to the world, and touch and kiss her cheek before she and my partner left the room again.

After suturing me up--it's also an odd thing to hear someone say, "Now we're putting the uterus back in your body"--the surgical team released me to a recovery room, where I was reunited with my partner and the newly coined Reese Mae. By then, her respiratory system was fully on line, and she has been thriving ever since. Reese was born at 10:26 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day 2015, weighing 7 lbs 10 oz and measuring 21 inches. Words cannot capture the experience of finally getting to meet her, but poetry comes closest as I do the work of moving from the center of the labyrinth back out again. So I leave you with Mary Oliver's "Messenger":

5-day old Reese Mae

My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird— equal seekers of sweetness. Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums. Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.

* I intentionally use "birthing parents" rather than "mothers" to honor that individuals with diverse gender identities and expressions birth children and may not identify as a woman or mother. See this blog post for a more in-depth inquiry into this topic.

 

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wisdom in the Vet's Bathroom  

A lot of crazy stuff is happening out there right now. While I contemplated this post, a critical voice erupted in my head that sounded something like, "Are you really going to write about your dead cat when the world has so much unaddressed injustice and violence?" Thankfully I snapped to my senses. That is precisely what I am going to do because, at the end of the day, what matters most in this life is making and sustaining connections to this living and dying world. Chopper (aka Choppy and Chopperpants) taught me how to do that and so much more. So this post is a tribute to him--one of my greatest teachers--with photos to boot.

Acceptance

Chopper came to me with no whiskers in the summer of 2004. He and his litter mates had been abandoned by a stream soon after birth and most of his siblings drowned. His living sister chewed off his whiskers during this time so he only had short stubbles on his face when I adopted him from a local rescue organization. Unsurprisingly, this early trauma made Chopper pretty needy. I rarely could sit down without him wanting to be on my lap. Initially I would get frustrated by his insatiable desire for affection and frequent talking, which I interpreted as, "I'm here! Love me!! I'm here!!! Love me!!!!" I found it difficult to accomplish things, like typing papers for graduate school, with him standing on the keyboard.

 

On My Lap and All Zipped Up

 

Over time, however, I came to see him and myself more clearly. When I stopped doing and gave him my full attention, he did not need so much. With a little maneuvering, he could get the touch he craved, and I could still complete the tasks at hand. Perhaps more importantly, he helped me to pause more and observe myself. Frequently, I was caught up in worried thoughts. His furry self (my partner said he was the softest cat in the world) brought me back to the present moment. He reminded me to rest and receive the comfort of his noisy, unremitting purr. When I stopped trying to be somewhere else with someone else, grace came in the form of Chopper, as well as acceptance of and gratitude for what I have in this life, right now.

The Ability to Receive Love

With my former, incessant craving to be and do better, I focused much of my attention on the external world. I should be working harder, loving better, giving more, all to get some desperately sought-after approval and recognition from others. Chopper was not having any of this self-defeating performance. I could be in the foulest mood, and he still gave me the look in the above photo. I often half-joked with my partner that he could never gaze at me the way Chopper did. Try as I might to push him away, like I did with everyone else who got close to me, he just kept coming back with those big green eyes and pawed at my face until I rubbed his chin. He wouldn't even bite my hand unless it was disguised by a blanket. That fierce and gentle love again instigated a pause. Maybe I could lower the fortress I had built to protect myself from rejection and heartache and at least let Chopperpants in. He wouldn't hurt me. And he didn't. With his patient determination (and, admittedly, significant therapy), I learned I was worthy of love and that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, understanding, and so many other good things.

 

A Typical Pose

 

The Capacity to Stay

Almost three years ago, I found a lump near Chopper's jaw. A biopsy revealed he had Hodgkin's-like lymphoma. The third time a tumor appeared, my vet said he should go to an oncologist. The oncologist tried one kind of chemotherapy. When that stopped working after a couple of months, he tried another, more aggressive (and expensive!) form that required 16 treatments. Chopper hated the car rides across town to the clinic, but he was his perky, kind self once there. Apparently he was the only cat who didn't hiss at and try to bite the veterinary staff during the blood draws.

He lost his whiskers for the second time in his life. When I grabbed my car keys, he would hide. But he endured the treatment to its completion, and we all hoped he would have at least a year of remission. No such luck. Three months later, I was back in the oncologist's office after finding another tumor. The doc said he didn't want to give up yet. We tried a third kind of chemotherapy that I could give him at home. I arranged for him to get the necessary blood work done at a nearby veterinary office, as he began to howl and throw up when we arrived at the oncologist's office. Propelling such anxiety for short spells of remission stopped making sense.

 

Chopper Not Loving Being in the Car for a Cross-Country Move (June 2011)

 

When another tumor reappeared this past May, I called off the chemo and weaned him off the steroids he had been taking. He stopped being afraid of my car keys and resumed being his playful, cheerful, talkative self. He would serenely sit on my lap while the lovely Carrie Donahue put acupuncture needles in his back, and he did not balk at me shoving supplements down his throat twice a day.

Then he began having trouble breathing. We started the steroids again. Another tumor appeared and quickly enveloped his throat and chest. The tumor eventually became infected and made his breathing extremely labored. On January 7, 2015, Carrie came over to our house and euthanized my beloved cat who was, at that point, gasping for air. He died peacefully in my arms, and I am forever grateful to Carrie and thankful I had the resources to let him go in this way, before he could no longer breathe.

 

Brothers, Since Foster Care

 

Why am I recounting the details of this sad tale? Because I had no idea I could witness such suffering without fleeing the scene (which is my favorite definition of compassion) until I experienced Chopper's prolonged struggle with cancer. I frequently wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid the painful parts of his illness, but I didn't. I sat with him. I loved the shit out of him. I let him go. I never want to go through this process again with a pet or human being, but now I know that I can. And that makes all the difference. May you rest in peace, sweet Chopper.

to live in this world

you must be able to do three things to love what is mortal; to hold it

against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go

--Mary Oliver

Mr. Green Eyes and Pink Nose

Going Home

Describing Bowenian family systems theory, James Bitter wrote,

Bowen taught individuals or couples about triangulation* and then expected them to go back to their family-of-origin to extricate themselves emotionally from these triangular patterns. The purpose of going home again is not to confront family members, or even to establish peace and harmony, but to encourage clients to come to know others in their family as they are.

Credit to Hey Girl Social Worker

I recently returned to my childhood town for my twentieth high school reunion. Although this event did not directly involve my family-of-origin, it did involve a kind of "going home again." While I looked forward to discovering the shapes of my classmates' lives, I also entered into that space with a fair amount of trepidation. After all, high school had been a challenging time for me despite my efforts to put on a happy face much of the time. As I performed the role of a high-achieving, engaged student from a "stable family," most of my peers had no idea that I begged my parents to let me leave our huge, competitive, suburban high school or that I struggled with the significant anxiety and depression that accompany perfectionism. I worried that I would face limited and limiting perceptions about who I am, thus feeling like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the person I consider myself to have become during the past twenty years. I imagine I was not alone in carrying this fear into the event.

How grateful I was, then, to encounter warm hugs, smiles, and heaps of curiosity about where we each had been during the last two decades. I learned of meandering career pathways, children born and children lost, and relationships that came together and fell apart. For the most part, we weren't there to prove something to each other but, rather, to reconnect with a significant part of our life history and those who contributed to it.

I have learned the hard way that trying to reject our experience is a recipe for suffering. We derive peace and contentment from developing a coherent life story that includes its many chapters, not just the ones we like best or that feel comfortable. As May Benatar eloquently stated,

So many of us have accepted, wholesale, someone else's version of our lives. If you have been told forever that your childhood was idyllic, you might be tempted to go along and not validate some of your own memories, or even your weak suspicions that things were not always perfect...It is truly amazing how much fog, depression, confusion and anxiety begins to lift when the story one narrates starts to be one's own. It needn't be a pretty story or even a wholly accurate story -- just one's own.

The people I encountered at my twenty-year high school reunion reminded me that being the author of our own stories directly and positively correlates with our well-being. I like to joke that I genuinely took back my own narrative in a parking lot a few years back when my dad asked, "You always wanted to be a [MD] doctor, right?" I responded, "No, Dad. I always wanted to be a writer, and I AM a doctor [of the PhD kind]." I needed years to know myself as I am so that I could assume roles I freely chose, such as writer, therapist, and recovering perfectionist instead of professor, striver, and stressball. That work allowed me to enter into my high school reunion speaking as the author of my own story and so feeling less scared than I otherwise would of my peers' projections of me. To the best of my ability, I listened to others' narratives about their own becoming, without assumptions or judgments obstructing my hearing. I am thankful for feeling heard in just this way by so many people that night.

My classmates also reinforced my sense that our ability to trust our experience as it unfolds is essential to feeling freedom and joy. Letting go of limiting beliefs (e.g., my childhood was idyllic) and roles (e.g., the good girl and the high achiever) that we learned from people and contexts outside of ourselves clears the path for such trust to take root. In the poetic words of Kaveri Patel:

Someone is Dying

 

That someone is me.

 

Not a 6 month to one year prognosis from a terminal illness, but a letting go of all I have ever known.

 

I used to believe that fear would save me. Worry just enough, and maybe even sprinkle just a little extra anxiety to convince myself I can control future events.

 

I know nothing. Except for this moment. Beginner’s Mind, my mind is like an empty page. The words cannot be written, the colors cannot

 

be painted until the moment arrives.

 

And when it does, I will know who to be, what to say, what to do. I am on the right path. I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of what will happen. The only thing I wish to hold onto is trust in this practice.

 

Good bye old mind. I do not hate you. I do not wish for you to die sooner than you must. You brought me here. I will collect ashes from your pyre, let them scatter with the wind and float on the river.

 

You will join the earth, as I am born again.

 

* For those unfamiliar with triangulation and curious about what it is, Bitter did a great job summarizing Bowen's theory: "Bowen (1976) notes that anxiety can easily develop within intimate relationships. Under stressful situations, two people may recruit a third person into the relationship to reduce the anxiety and gain stability. This is called triangulation. Although triangulation may lessen the emotional tension between the two people, the underlying conflict is not addressed and, in the long run, the situation worsens."

 

Returning to Intention

Some of us are like Lotus, we can only grow in the mud. Extraordinary things happen when your world is tested. We may yearn for calm but yet we resist. To find your kind of extraordinary, recognize the opportunity, and take a moment to be still. Let your heart flower and grow. If it makes you feel alive, despite the challenges, keep it close for this IS your story. Live like the Lotus--pure in intention, rising above adversity, extraordinary, beautiful, and divine.

--Rita Said

Credit to The Cosmic Collage

 

As an academic who poured my attention into challenging injustices when and where they arose, I was fond of disregarding intentions. "Almost no one wakes up in the morning wanting to stomp on other people's heads," I would declare. "As the saying goes, the path to hell was paved with good intentions. I care about impact. Show me how your good intentions lead to justice and equity, rather than oppression and domination."

Although I still believe that we often evade taking responsibility for the contributions we made to harmful outcomes by using the "good intention" justification, mindfulness practices have deepened my understanding of how important clear-seeing intentions are for helping positive actions to unfold. More specifically, the realization that we need to pause and listen inwardly to become conscious of what our intentions actually are has been a game changer, bringing more aliveness and wide-awakeness to my daily life.

If we take a moment to be still and turn inward to understand our intentions , we may very well find they include a desire to be in control, an avoidance of pain and fear, and/or the receipt of approval. These intentions come from our ego self and warrant compassion, as they are trying to get us to where we THINK we ought to go and to protect us from PERCEIVED danger or harm. However they are, at the end of the day, "my will, not my heart's will."* As Tara Brach so beautifully articulates, listening inwardly with heaps of kindness is like moisturizer for the heart. We come back to what matters most to us, which is where pure intentions reside.

Since illustrations often work best to bring these kinds of insights to life, here is one:

Having committed myself to radical self-care, I frequently come up against old judgments. "That's so selfish!" one voice screams. Another chastises,"Way to buy into capitalist hedonism, escapism, and hyper-individualism, you self-centered piece of crap!" Man, can the voices inside our head be mean and take the wind carrying us toward a rest break, a nap, a sitting meditation, a slow flow yoga class, or--can I even say the words!--a massage right out of our sails. Becoming aware of the judgments that take me down the rabbit hole of despair is the first step toward finding my kind of extraordinary, and that awareness is no small thing. It comes with practice and the intention to be kind to myself. Only once I have actually hit pause on the self-criticism button do I experience enough stillness to listen to what matters most.

In that quietness, I know in my heart that my intention is not to prove something or to win a prize. My intention also is not to navel gaze. Here is what it IS: I wish for ease or peace, not only for myself but also for others. Additionally, I aspire to discern the goodness within and all around me so that my attitude is one of sufficiency and gratitude, with the wonderful side effect of seeing that my attention does not so easily turn toward what is lacking. These intentions make me feel alive AND contribute to a pathway that includes fighting for social justice without turning on others or myself.

To live like the lotus seems more like a wise intention than a  "good" one. I will keep it close as this IS my story, and I want to live it remembering, "The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing."

* Tara Brach uses this language in several of her dharma talks. Three in particular informed this blog post: Compass of the Heart, Listening with an Awake Heart, and Nourishing a Liberating Intention.

Connecting busy-ness to laziness

Yesterday I did what I usually do when my mind is humming and an undercurrent of dis-ease is clouding the landscape. I went for a walk and listened to a Tara Brach talk. Her newest one had not yet been posted so I chose an oldie, "Vulnerability, Intimacy, and Spiritual Awakening," that I intuitively sensed might calm the storm within. I'm so glad that I did, as the alarm bell for which I longed sounded during this talk. It came in the form of a Tibetan belief: busy-ness is the most extreme form of laziness. Those words stopped me in my tracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_Yz0EAG78

In three days I will begin, in earnest, a full-time psychotherapy practice after a year of juggling my practice with a part-time job. My conditioned response is to keep riding the high-speed train of the past 12 months. What I know how to do best is attack my task list with gusto and hit the ground running with as much manic energy as I can assemble.

Thankfully I have some supports in place that regularly ask me to pause and reflect on my intentions and actions. Two of my fellow pilgrimage-goers, Marcelle and Grey, reminded me just this morning that my busy-ness is covering over significant fear and grief. Those emotions, in turn, are hovering over that which underlies everything in this living and dying world--our vulnerability.

This morning's gathering brought to life Brene Brown's wisdom that shame thrives in a petri dish of silence, judgment, and secrecy whereas it dissipates in the presence of empathy, or "me too." In the midst of two other souls working hard to realize their creative visions, I found the courage to touch the brakes and remember the questions that matter most: What is happening? Can I be with it?

Upon making this inquiry, I understood that my current journey involves creating anew not from a blank canvas but from ruins. I am drawn to the model of transition that highlights how major transformation begins with loss. The loss within me that has been wanting to be named and given loving (not critical!) attention is that this career is not my first one. I spent much blood, sweat, and tears--not to mention nine years--becoming an academic who had just begun to feel confident in her work. I also chose to walk away from that carefully sculpted career. On this new path of becoming a healer, I am once again unsteady and full of the self-doubt that new beginnings engender.

Earlier today I was able to reconnect with that tender point in time when I was a graduate student who did not speak during her first semester of classes and constantly second-guessed her ability to be a contributing, welcomed member of an academic community. I also remembered that I did not stay in that place but grew, and even flourished, until that particular season of life ended, as they all do, with my conscious and encouraging assent. By slowing down, I came back to this wish: May we grant ourselves the space and time needed to let go of dying dreams so that new beginnings can unfold at their own pace.

With recognition of that vocational loss, enough space opened for another one to emerge. This more vulnerable wreckage wants air, too, so that it does not bloom on the petri dish of shame. Yet this particular loss is terrifying to share publicly, especially for those of us engaged in healing work, as it has the power to tear apart our sense of efficacy and value and, for me anyway, can instantly assume the spectre of the ultimate failure. Even as I write now, my chest is constricted in fear, and my stomach is wildly generating knots. That, after all, is why it's so important to name these remains and work with them--their power wilts in the face of "me too." Can I be with this? I think so.

A short time after beginning my private practice one of my clients committed suicide. I had no idea this highly pre-meditated end was on the horizon, and it brought me to my knees. To borrow from poet Danna Faulds, the suicide ripped off the doors of my heart and veiled my vision with despair. And what do you know? In the face of this violent finale, I got very busy.

Today, with the passing of time and the invaluable support of colleagues and friends, I have great compassion for the busyness-laziness that was born of trauma. I went into survival mode, largely functioning from the fight, flight, freeze part of my reptilian brain until I sensed enough space to remember that I could remain safe when staying with my experience. In other words, I arrived at a place of not needing to engage in a high-speed chase away from what initially felt like an oxygen-free zone of pain.

All of this is to say that sometimes the grief and fear are too much. We need time to be lazy and regather our shattered selves. My own aspiration is not to stay in a zone of busy-ness until I find myself gasping for air in a stagnant pool of exhaustion and misery. As a professor and survivor of suicide, I came close to inhabiting that place.

So I will close with gratitude for the beings and natural spaces that brought me back to the land of the living where the wind once again touches my skin and reminds me that this too shall pass, whatever this is. I also am thankful for writers and teachers like Ram Dass who shared in a letter to the grieving parents of a deceased child, "Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts--if we can keep them open to God [or the interconnectedness of all things]--will find their own intuitive way." May we therefore allow our hearts to open and believe in our capacity to let pain "burn its purifying way to completion," when  we can once again rest in stillness and love.

 

Going Wild

You will do foolish things,

but do them with enthusiasm.

--Colette

Two weeks ago, I got hitched. I wrote about showing up and letting others see me, imperfections and all, in my last post. My wedding day delivered quite an unexpected opportunity to put these words into practice.

Credit to Joe Dillig

A dreamy outdoor ceremony kicked off the day and involved heart-warming shows of love and support for my partner, our relationship, and me. Because the rain and wind would not quit, we exchanged our vows under a tent that provided an ineffable intimacy.

Thereafter, when the dance floor started hopping, I was way into it. First, I got to rock out to the song I performed in my sixth-grade talent show, Aerosmith and RUN-DMC's "Walk this Way," with a wonderful friend from my Peace Corps days. I also struck out to find my adorable and adored friend who can do the worm. She has pulled off this feat on numerous occasions with amazing precision and grace, and I had requested in advance that she perform her best dance-floor deed on my big day.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B_UYYPb-Gk

The fact that she is in her early 40s is important to the story because her awesome undulations momentarily contributed to a comparison that was not at all useful: If she can do the worm, I, a 38-year-old woman, can still do the splits. Never mind that I last actualized this exploit several years ago, experienced a fair amount of stress and limited sleep in recent days, and, perhaps most importantly, spent much of the day shivering in the cold. By golly, I was going to do the splits on the dance floor, AND I was going to make sure I made my move in front of the camera. So I tracked down our lovely photographer, and Sharon cheerfully prepared herself for my performance. I went down. Nothing felt good about the movement, but I got up without too much ado. Looking crestfallen, Sharon informed me that she had not captured the Kodak moment.

My chance to practice what I preach had arrived! I could pause. I could listen inwardly and hear my pissed off body say, "Don't you ever do that to me again!" I could heed that voice and resume dancing in a way that honored my body's current state. The show would go on and be just as satisfying without that particular snapshot.

I leapt into the splits with even greater fervor the second time. As I landed, I knew in the farthest reaches of my being that I was done, not only for the night but also for some seeming eternal period of hell. I sort of blacked out for a few minutes after landing on the floor with a horrifying bounce but vaguely remember hobbling to a bag that had pain medication in it and finding my way to a chair on the edge of the dance floor. I tried to be brave and gracious as various loved ones offered me healing words, ice, and, in some cases, drunken, unsolicited advice. Like Cheryl Strayed when she lost her hiking boot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I kept imagining I was the butt of a practical joke. The throbbing pain would cease and desist, and I would resume my merriment. As she wrote, "But no one laughed. No one would. The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted, and it would never give it back." My hamstring was toast. No amount of wishing I could redo my foolish act would miraculously heal my broken body.

Once again, I confronted an opportunity to walk my talk and show myself some compassion. I could replace the inner judge, who had begun to chatter intensely and rapidly about how stupid and ridiculous I was, with lovingkindness blessings like, "May your leg heal quickly. May you feel at ease." I could recognize I made a mistake and repeat to myself the Brene Brown quote I intentionally placed front and center on my website: "Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together."

The critic grew louder. I sat in the chair, the blood now drained from my face, still trying to be brave and gracious as the songs I selected for the DJ played on and people continued to rock out within reach of my stationary post. I did not want anyone to suffer with me, but I sure longed to be out there in the heart of it all. When Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" came on, I could no longer could keep the tears in check. My partner and I had crooned to this song on a road trip early in our relationship. When I picked the tune, I envisioned us dancing to it, close and slow, on our big day.  As tears streamed down my face, the internal voice of gloom and doom grew louder: "You not only screwed this up for yourself, you big fat idiot, but you also are ruining the party for the people keeping you company on the sideline."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaA3YZ6QdJU

Happily, my wise aunt appeared on the scene and told me to sock my pride. She is fond of the saying, "My mind is making promises my body can't keep," because she has made some of those promises herself. Her understanding provided a saving grace. A friend found my partner, who was in the other room conversing with cousins he rarely sees, and reported that I needed him. When he arrived, I told him I wanted to go to the emergency room; what I managed to accomplish on the dance floor was no joke.

At this point, my out-of-town father left the reception to get the rented van, located five blocks away at his hotel, so he could drive me to the hospital. My partner's former roommate carried me up and out of the building to wait for the van. Unbeknownst to me, my sister had taken a cab to the 24-hour Walgreens to purchase crutches and appeared with them in hand. My inner critic went hog wild in the face of all this grace. I started apologizing profusely to everyone around me, begging them to go back to the party. "Abandon the wounded bride; leave her to self-made pity party!" I almost shouted (I turn to third-person voice when I am being particularly hard on myself).

To make a long story short, my dad got lost after taking a wrong turn out of the hotel parking lot. The wait for him grew more and more unbearable until my partner and I decided to take a cab by ourselves to the ER--a sort of symbolic separation from our families of origin, although I certainly did not see the irony of our departure at that time. Thankfully, the ER was pretty much empty. The various health providers I ran into appreciated the story about why I had appeared on the scene all gussied up and someone put a warm blanket over me. I almost passed out from relief. I got the prescription-strength drugs I was after and reassurance that although I likely tore my hamstring, the tendon had not appeared to rip away from the bone.

We got back in a cab and headed to the bed and breakfast where my aunts had paid for a beautiful photo(8)room for our wedding night. The room was located at the top of a winding set of stairs. I surrendered my hope of arriving there. "Let's just go home," I sighed to my partner. We were going to do no such thing he informed me gently. He gingerly hoisted me over his shoulder and carried my whimpering self to our sought-after destination. This feminist never imagined being carried across a threshold on my wedding night. Alas, the universe had other plans for me.

Although in the days that followed, the judge took up her fair share of minutes and hours, I came back to the practices I consistently recommend to my clients. I allowed myself to view my injury as a loss without comparing myself to all the people in the world who have it so much worse than me. Because I named the injury a loss, I could grieve it and move on. Whenever I mustered the presence of mind to do so, I also allowed rather than rejected my moment-to-moment experience, acknowledging, processing, and letting go of the numerous feelings and thoughts that arose. I remembered Tara Brach's phrase, "Where your attention goes, energy flows," and focused my attention on the gratitude I felt for the people who came to my aid without resentment or expectation, only love. I reframed the event as an impassioned moment of glee--a misdirected one, to be sure, but not a tell-tale sign that I sucked as a human being, daughter, sister, friend, and partner. I reread one of my favorite Danna Fauld's poems, "Allow":

There is no controlling life.

Try corralling a lightning bolt,

containing a tornado. Dam a

stream and it will create a new

channel. Resist, and the tide

will sweep you off your feet.

Allow, and grace will carry

you to higher ground. The only

safety lies in letting it all in--

The wild and the weak; fear,

fantasies, failures and success.

When loss rips off the doors of

the heart, or sadness veils your

vision with despair, practice

becomes simply bearing the truth.

In the choice to let go of your

known way of being, the whole

world is revealed to your new eyes.

photo-4Turning loving attention toward my experience remains an ever challenging practice. This particular episode continues to represent what one of my mentors calls (and don't read on if swearing offends you) "another fucking growth opportunity." But I am growing. I keep thinking about the many moments during my wedding day when I felt connection, beautifully defined by Brene Brown as "the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment." I am healing, not just my body but also my spirit. Sufficiency is my reality, and I wake up each day aspiring to strengthen my belief in that radically transformative truth.

Credit to SV Heart Photography

We Belong

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

--Brene Brown

While creating a song list for a certain upcoming celebration, I remembered Pat Benatar's "We Belong." Now the song lyrics do not depict a particularly reciprocal or mutually beneficial relationship. But the song's title. Now that is something I can get behind.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxZInIyOBXk

This blog post will be short, as today is the actual day of my wedding. I write this morning both because I cannot sleep and because being surrounded by dear friends and family from near and far gives Brown's words more weight than ever. Despite my roller coaster emotions during the last few days, I feel so much gratitude for this life I have. I also understand more deeply the importance of daring greatly during the time we have on this earth. As Brown wrote,

Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It's about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It's even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there's a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I'm standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

May I have the courage today to show up and let myself be seen, imperfections and all, so that I can experience not only the love all around me but also the sense of true belonging of which Brown speaks.

Since people keep telling me I can do as I wish on this day, I might as well close with some Rumi!

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.

They're in each other all along.

On the relationship between gratitude and joy

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown introduced the concept of foreboding joy:

In a culture of deep scarcity--of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough--joy can feel like a setup...We're always waiting for the other shoe to drop...Some of us...scramble to the bleakest, worst-case scenario when joy rears its vulnerable head, while others never even see joy, preferring to stay in an unmoving state of perpetual disappointment...Both of these ends of the continuum tell the same story: Softening into the joyful moments of our lives requires vulnerability...We're trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don't want to be blindsided by hurt. We don't want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment....When we spend our  lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can't hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy.

Alas, we once again have come up against the reality that our controlling self, which is trying its hardest to protect us, prevents us from experiencing joy more fully. In the case of foreboding joy, Brown offers a lovely solution: gratitude. In her words:

For those welcoming the experience, the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us...Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it's scary. Yes, it's vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen--and they do happen--we are stronger.

A brief video appearing on Upworthy powerfully shows the human experience of increasing happiness via gratitude. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this 7-minute video since words cannot do justice to the sight and sound of the "experiment" featured in it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg

That said, one story in Daring Greatly brings to life this connection between joy and gratitude:

A man in his early sixties told me, "I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn't happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn't prepare me well at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn't fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment now. I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that."

Another powerful way into both recognizing the inherent vulnerability of being human and feeling gratitude for our lives is a Hawaiian healing practice called ho'oponopono, which I learned from Tara Brach. Although seemingly simple, this practice invites us to believe some thoughts we may very well resist. More specifically, it asks us to acknowledge and show compassion toward our pain and fear. It also asks us to view ourselves as worthy of being cherished. The practice involves saying to ourselves the following phrases:

I'm sorry.

I love you.

Thank you.

When I work with clients, I recommend saying these words even when we do not yet believe them because they begin to rewire the brain's neural pathways. In other words, we begin to interrupt the scarcity and fear driving foreboding joy with the compassion, love, and gratitude that feed sympathetic joy. For those of us who have deep circuits of negativity and fear, creating alternative pathways can be a slow, long process. The good news is that our frustration about unlearning the core beliefs that do not serve us well (e.g., "I am undeserving"; "I am inadequate"; "I am a terrible person") provides yet another opportunity to practice ho'oponopono! Compassion, dignity, and gratitude are within us and so accessible whenever we have the presence to turn toward them. Moreover, turning toward them strengthens the aspiration and actuality of healing ourselves.