The spring before I got married, I belonged to an all-female gym in San Francisco. It was tiny, cobbled out of an old Victorian, and I always wore headphones (and my Discman!) while I worked out on machines. I remember this time in my life as very internally chaotic, but I never questioned what that might mean about my future with Paul and I never told anybody about the mental disarray. I had already decided that my story’s main theme was that I would be married to Paul, and that everything would be okay after that. This is just something I concocted — the part about everything being okay. I had no reason to believe this after I had already lived in this relationship for 8 years and it had never been what I’d call okay.
I loved him though, I really did, and I wanted what other people had. So it made sense to marry him. I was 29 years old and that felt so old at the time to be unmarried. What I remember is being at the gym and being extremely anxious, trying to exercise it out of myself. I remember, too, that my eating and food issues were at an all-time high during this timeframe and into the beginning of my marriage. Again, I never considered these were symptoms of something deeper, I thought only that my anxiety and disordered eating were evidence about how defective I was and that I should be relieved that I found someone to marry me despite my obvious shortcomings. That was my story. Defective and grateful and finally married and now I didn’t have to worry about that ever again.
I bring this up because my sisters and I are reading Pema Chodron, and she talks a lot about the stories we tell ourselves and our mistake as humans to think things won’t change or to seek security above all else. We are programmed to be this way, I think, to seek security, to go in the direction that seems the least scary, to cling on to what makes us feel safe. Our brains seek to find order. But Chodron would say that this is all futile and actually doing these things pepetuates feelings of insecurity and pain in the long run. As a Buddhist, Chodron tells us to be in the moment, to experience life as it’s unfolding. I am super-summarizing here, and I don’t mean to over-simplify what Chodron is trying to teach (you should read her cause she’s awesome). But you get the gist of what I’m saying.
Chodron also suggests that we create stories about ourselves and our lives and we cling to those, too, even when they don’t actually work for us. I have learned, like most people my age, that even the best-laid plans often times do not pan out in the way we imagine, and that getting to know yourself is probably a really good idea as we weave our way toward the hope of of daily contentment. I didn’t know these things when I was 29, and I did not listen to my gut (literally) when it was telling me that maybe I should not be marrying this man. I had my entire life story already written and I was unable to budge from that creation. No one could have convinced me that maybe I was making a mistake because I couldn’t even listen to my own self.
Are your stories benefitting you? Chodron says we should work toward letting go of stories that don’t make our lives better. That when we have memories that haunt us, we need to divert our attentions elsewhere and actively work at not having those experiences define us. I am not talking about trauma that needs more extensive therapy — I do not want to minimize intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts. But I’m talking more about the self-talk we all have, some of that talk maybe we’ve been doing for years or decades. I know for a long time, I defined myself as the “loser sister,” the one who could not finish college in a respectable amount of time. The one who was moody and needed fixing. I could not see events as dots on my timeline but instead as some proof that supported my loser thesis.
I think this pandemic has brought me face to face with myself. Struggling with mental health issues AND a pandemic is not easy, and I sometimes forget that everyone doesn’t have the same struggles as I do (though I’m sure people have DIFFERENT kinds of struggles, too, that I cannot understand). There is sometimes too much quiet time in my own head, too much introspection, too much trying to make my life into a linear screenplay when it’s more like a Jackson Pollack canvas. I told my sisters yesterday that I feel like my life is a series of mistakes with periods of survival in between. Where did I get this? Why does what I perceive as bad always bubble up to the forefront? My sisters don’t see me that way, and if I knew someone with my same life experiences, I would not see them this way either.
I need the freedom to rewrite my story, or abandon the story all together. Do you hold on to old tropes that don’t serve you anymore? Do you let life unfold and remain in the present? Now seems like the perfect time to actively work on finding appreciation for today.