Eventually, it Catches Up with You

temporaryhappinesslongtermpainRecently I received an email from a man whose wife left him suddenly. One day, just shy of their ten year anniversary, she came home and said she didn’t love him anymore, and he needed to move out. He was stunned, and begged her to go to couples counseling. She agreed, but two weeks into it she said it was pointless and over. And so he moved out, and is now seeing his children one night a week for dinner, and every other Saturday. The kids are young, one is four and the other is two. And it seems mom has a new boyfriend who’s spending time with them already. So you can imagine our friend is having a tough time.

To be fair, I’m only getting one side of the story. It’s highly unlikely this happened one morning. Mom didn’t just wake up and think, “I don’t love him anymore.” There’s more to the story. Nonetheless, the ending was hard and fast, with little or no time for understanding or closure. She may not be feeling the pain of her actions just yet, but these things have a way of biting you in the a$$, hard, when you try to race through them, or distract yourself in the arms of someone else too quickly. The kids are in shock, particularly their four year old, who is suddenly wetting the bed.

He wrote to me asking how he’s supposed to accept this. His vows meant something to him, and he wanted to fight for his family and fight for his marriage. One night he went over to his old house uninvited, and begged her to just talk to him. To help him understand what had happened. And she called the police, so now he can only contact her about issues pertaining to the kids. It seems incredibly cruel and unfair, but again, this is only one side of the story. Whatever the other side may be, and wherever the truth lies, this man is in agony. His heart is broken, his trust is shattered, and he’s tortured by thoughts of this new man spending time with his not-yet ex-wife, and their children. He misses his kids. And he didn’t see it coming. Maybe he missed the signs. Maybe she had a million conversations with him and he didn’t take her seriously. Maybe he took her for granted. And maybe she just got involved with someone else and didn’t look back. Or forward. I don’t know, but I do know he’s suffering the effects of trauma and shock, and that he needs some help.

Life is like this sometimes. We’re going along, we think we know what’s happening, and suddenly, the rug gets pulled out from underneath us. Betrayal is one of the toughest experiences we’re asked to withstand. Whether it’s betrayal of our trust, our friendship, our marriage vows, or the worst betrayal a person can suffer, the betrayal of the self. Those times when we override our intuition, or sacrifice our deepest truth, or numb out and stick our heads in the sand. Being human is sometimes a messy, painful affair. Sometimes it’s so incredible it takes your breath away. But when life hands you a set of unforeseeable circumstances, you really have to have some compassion for yourself. And ask for help if you need it. There’s nothing worse than being in shock and feeling alone. Like you want to reach out in the dark, but there’s no one there to take your hand. The feeling that no one would care if you disappeared. There are always people who care. The world is full of loving folks who would happily hug our friend, or invite him over for dinner, or meet him for a hike or a tea. We’ve all been this guy at some time or another, to varying degrees. We’ve all had our everything fall apart. And all you can do in times like those is sit down in the debris of what used to be your life, and pick up the old photos and a letter you wrote four years ago and the sweater that still smells like what was, and just allow your heart to break. Allow yourself to be enraged and confused and shattered. There’s no magic bullet, it’s just a process and it takes time.

Also recognize you’re not alone. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”, Leonard Cohen. “The wound is the place where the light enters you”, Rumi. I could go on and on. There wouldn’t be so much written about it if it weren’t universal. This is it, this is sometimes what’s required as we move through this experience of being alive. We will all suffer at some time or another, and some people will suffer more than others. But these experiences can soften you and open you if you let them. Or they can harden you and close you if you let them. The choice is yours. Sometimes when it all falls apart, something newer and stronger and more real emerges. Some secret strong place in yourself that you didn’t even know existed stands up in the middle of the storm and starts to co-create the new story. But don’t tough it out alone. When you’re sitting in a pile of broken glass that used to be your life, by all means, ask for help. Sending you so much love. Ally

Anchors Aweigh…

guilttripI grew up with a guy whose mom used to tuck him in at night and say, “Goodnight, honey. I hope I see you in the morning.” This was especially difficult because his dad overdosed and died when my friend, (I’ll call him Rick), was eight years old, so he had a real and understandable fear that he could lose his mother, too. And as he hit his teenage years and wanted to hang out with his friends instead of staying home with his mom, she’d say, “Okay, let’s hope this isn’t my last day on God’s green earth!” as he walked out the door. My friend started doing drugs at thirteen, I think mostly to numb out the guilt, and underneath that, the rage. Sometimes he’d get drunk and end up crying about all of it. And other times he’d stay home, locked in his room, headphones blaring. Because it feels awful when another person tries to make us feel responsible for their happiness, or their ability to be okay. It’s too heavy a burden to bear.

Rick went to college in the city, and although he moved out of the house and lived on campus, he went to visit his mom every week, and often stayed home on the weekends. He rarely brought a girl home to meet her, because no one was ever good enough for him in her eyes, and because she wasn’t especially kind to the girls she did meet. Eventually he met a really lovely woman and they fell in love and decided to get married. At the wedding, his mother stood up and gave a toast, wishing Rick and her daughter-in-law well, even though she and her son’s wife had, “had their struggles”, and she also reminded everyone that she loved her Rick, “first, and best.” It was uncomfortable, to say the least.

One day not too long ago, I got a call from Rick telling me he was losing it. He and his wife have two children, eight and four. Rick’s mom and his wife have had a rough time over the years, but I have to say his wife has been incredibly patient and kind with his mom, and tried every way humanly possible to reassure her that she isn’t “taking Rick away.” They live nearby and see her every weekend, and she comes over at least once a week for dinner. But it seems it’s never enough. Rick called because his mother started saying things to the kids like, “I hope I see you tomorrow”, and both his kids have cried themselves breathless after grandma leaves, asking why she can’t just move in with them so they can keep her safe. So the cycle continues.

Guilt attacks us in two ways. Either we engage with someone who wishes to manipulate us through guilt and we allow that to happen, or we take it on ourselves. Either way, it can be crushing. Rationally speaking, it’s normal to feel guilt if you’ve done something you really wish you hadn’t that ended up hurting someone else. But we all have choices we’d love to make over again, and times when we didn’t act from our highest selves. Just like worry (another very human emotion), guilt won’t get you anywhere, and it won’t help the injured party, either. It’s not a feeling that leads to growth, it’s a feeling that keeps us stuck. It’s draining. Where joy lightens us and makes us feel we could fly, guilt is heavy and it weighs us down like an anchor. Here’s Rick, going home every weekend for years, spending tons of energy trying to be enough for his mom. Trying to hold up the load. You can’t save other people. And it’s not reasonable to demand that other people try to save us.

When you experience feelings of guilt, it’s really good to examine what’s happened. Have you actually done something wrong, or are you allowing yourself to be manipulated? If you’ve hurt someone, intentionally or thoughtlessly, own it and apologize with honesty and kindness. That’s all you can do. You’ll be forgiven or you won’t. But you do have to forgive yourself. If you’re participating in a manipulative and controlling relationship, it’s probably time for some healthy boundaries and compassionate conversation. Otherwise the rage builds, and if you push it down, you’ll end up feeling depressed. It’s exhausting to repress those heavy feelings; you won’t have much energy for anything else. And somewhere inside you know you can’t make another person happy. They are or they aren’t, and if they aren’t, they need to get busy. You can be supportive, but you can’t solve it for anyone else.

Vacations are fun, but guilt trips are a waste of time, and even if you pack a bag, you won’t be going anywhere. Anchors aweigh! Wishing you love, joy, and liberation. Ally

Throw Some Luggage Overboard!

losingsomeofthebaggageOne of my oldest girlfriends, I’ll call her Sue, is incredibly self-aware when it comes to identifying her “stuff”, and owning it when she doesn’t show up the way she’d like. She started going to therapy when she was thirteen years old due to her parents’ ugly divorce, and as she got older, for her own relationship issues. She had watched her parents tear each other down directly and indirectly, through her. Her mom said horrendous things about her dad, and her father said awful things about her mom. When they each remarried (which they both did, more than once), the bitterness was quadrupled. Her stepmothers made snide remarks about her mother, her mother couldn’t stand her father’s new wife, either time. Her father thought her first step-dad was not very bright, and her step-mom said he laughed like a woman. I witnessed a lot of this myself, as did all our friends, at sleepovers and afternoons at her mom’s or dad’s house, and once, sadly, during Sue’s sweet sixteen. Her dad got drunk and took the mic to toast Sue, but it somehow deteriorated into a tirade about Sue’s mom. Not so sweet, and Sue ended up in the bathroom, with a bottle of champagne that she downed, and then threw up all night. And so it went. In high school Sue struggled with an eating disorder, and I watched her turn herself inside out trying to be perfect. To control the little bit she could. She was smart as a whip, but sometimes she’d play dumb because she thought guys liked that. Her family has a lot of money, and Sue would often buy lunch for a whole group of us. Or more accurately, she’d pay for lunch with her American Express and her dad would pick up the tab. Because her parents believed throwing money at the situation would somehow make it okay. We went to college together as well, and as we grew up, a pattern emerged for Sue that was no surprise to any of us who’d watched her struggle over the years. She kept picking guys who ended up hurting her. Not the typical stories of ways men and women can misunderstand each other, or not show up all the way, but deep, “I just realized he’s been stealing money from me for months” kind of pain. The relationships were usually high-drama, and there were many times Sue showed up at my house unexpectedly, eyes puffy and red, sobbing in the middle of the night. Sue started drinking heavily, first a couple of nights a week, and then most nights. Eventually she cleaned that up. If you were to talk to Sue, you’d know within minutes you were speaking to an awake, aware person. She’s intelligent and funny and kind. She can tell you exactly why she’s done the things she’s done. She can give you the whole road-map to explain all her choices and all her behavior. But so far, it hasn’t helped her resist the pull of that ancient pain. Sue wants a happy ending. But she keeps trying to go back and carve one out of her past. As if she could rewrite history. As if she could change her parents into people who were mature enough and loving enough to put her first. To love her well. And time and again, Sue ends up crashing into the brick wall she keeps choosing, even though the crashing part sucks. A few years ago, I really worried for her. She’d hit such a low point I wasn’t sure she was going to be okay. I went back to New York to teach, and I saw Sue for the first time in many months. She was gaunt, and her nails were bitten down to the quick. Her eyes were dull, and so was her spirit. Through it all, Sue has always been a force. So I was really disturbed to see this lifeless person who looked like Sue sitting before me. She’d just had another painful breakup, and I could see this time she was taking it particularly hard. She started to relay all the details of what had happened. What she’d done. What he’d done. What she said, and why she felt the way she did. I listened as I had so many times before. And when she was done, I looked at her and said, “Sue, I love you. You’re an incredible person with such a beautiful heart. But you have to put the baggage down now, or it’s going to destroy you. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re as lovable as a person gets. Your parents did the best they could but their best kind of sucked. You have to stop letting this own you.” And Sue started sobbing, right there at the restaurant. People looked over at us, and Sue apologized to me for making a scene. I went to her side of the table and hugged her, and told her to go ahead a make a scene. Because sometimes you work your sh&t out on a rainy Tuesday afternoon at a Thai restaurant downtown. Sometimes you’re just sitting there sobbing with chopsticks in your hand deciding it is finally enough.

Carrying your old, painful stories around with you wherever you go is exhausting, back-breaking work. At a certain point, it simply drains the life out of you. Everybody has pain. Everybody. Some people have more than others, and some are better equipped to deal with the everything that life brings. The heartache and disappointment. The trauma and abuse. The neglect and loneliness. The confusion and shame. We’ve all experienced at least one of these, some people have seen all of that and so much more. I once met a girl at a workshop I taught, who told me she had to stay angry at her father so he’d pay for what he’d done to her. I asked her how that was making him pay, since she never spoke to him or saw him. I said I was pretty sure she was the one paying. Your past will shape you and inform the way you think about yourself and the world. If that way isn’t loving, you’re going to have to unlearn some stuff, which is, of course, harder than learning it the right way the first time. If you think people suck, for example, you’re going to have to unlearn that. If you think you suck, you’re going to have to unlearn that first. Have some compassion for yourself. Be kind. In some way or another, we’ve all been Sue, collapsed on the bathroom floor, throwing up our pain all night long. If you want to travel back to your past in a productive way, go back there and give yourself a hug. Re-parent yourself if you need to. But put some of the heavy stuff down. It does not have to own you. The destination that really counts is your journey to inner peace. You’re going to have to throw some bags overboard to get there. Wishing you strength and love, Ally

Run Like Hell

runmydearI’m going to state some things that may seem totally obvious when you read them in black and white, but which I think we tend to forget in our tender hearts. Unconscious people do unconscious things. Damaged people do damaged things. Unkind, hardened people are not suddenly going to be soft. People with rage are going to behave in violent ways. If someone is envious of you, they are not going to have your back. Selfish people will not suddenly think of you, and how you might feel in any given situation. And there are people who are so damaged, they actually want to drive the thorn in your side intentionally. Hurt people hurt people as the saying goes. People who behave in any of these ways are in pain themselves, and are living in a certain kind of prison. All kinds of abuse and trauma can lead to imprisonment like this. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” The sad fact is, help is only available to those who decide to help themselves. You can’t do it for someone else. You can’t save anyone except yourself.

Of course you can’t define a human being in a word, we are all complex beings and only to the degree that we examine our pain and our motivations will we be accountable for our actions and the kind of energy we’re spreading. The way we’re being in the world. A person coming from an angry place most of the time may be able to pull it together to do some great stuff on those days they’re able to rise above. What I’m talking about here is a baseline way of being. If someone is commonly thoughtless or cruel. If someone consistently behaves in ways that are hurtful. If someone is generally so wrapped up in their own experience it doesn’t even occur to them to think about the impact of their actions. People who hurt us the most are usually also suffering the most. And you can have compassion for them, and you can practice forgiveness. But you really don’t want to put yourself in their path if you can help it; you don’t want to keep paying the tab for someone else’s cruel or thoughtless acts. If a person stabs you in the back, don’t expect them to turn around and call an ambulance for you. We can look at any of this stuff and say it’s not personal, right? A scorpion will sting you because that’s the nature of a scorpion. You can also open your heart and your mind to the idea that a person can change and grow. Where they are now is not necessarily where they’re always going to be. And if someone hurts you, it’s the most liberating thing to wish them well. But you do that from a safe distance. The part that IS personal is how you choose to respond. You don’t stick around to see if they want to push the knife in more deeply.

I say this to you because if you’re kind and open and trusting, if you want to hope for the best from people, you may need to look at whether you’re sacrificing your own well-being in the process of loving someone who is not able or willing to love you well. Or participating in a set of circumstances that insults your soul. Your work is to heal your own heart so you can open to all the love within you, and give it away freely. If you keep hanging out with people who crush your heart, thinking tomorrow might be the day they realize what they’re doing, that’s kind of like “expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian”, as Dennis Wholey says. Forgive if you can, for your own sake, so you’re not held hostage or made sick in your soul by the actions of someone else. But set up your boundaries, and be prepared to get out your hammer and nails and shore up those walls when you need to. Because some people just won’t get it. Not in the time-frame you’d like, and maybe never. If it’s a person you must have in your life, like a family member, then you figure out what it is you need to maneuver as safely as possible through painful terrain. You set up the best possible circumstances you can to take care of yourself. But if it’s not a person you need to be dealing with, run like hell, my dear. Sending you love, Ally

Grab Your Suit, and Let’s Do This

There-are-two-ways-to-beI think a lot of people search for happiness, but a long time ago I started searching for the truth. When I say the truth, I just mean the truth as it exists in my own life; I’m not suggesting what’s true for me is true for you. I just don’t believe it’s possible to find any kind of inner peace if you’re lying to yourself in any way, or refusing to accept the truth about relationships or situations in your life. That means knowing yourself, understanding what lights you up, recognizing when you don’t show up the way you’d like to and examining what happened for you so you can do it differently the next time. Being accountable for the energy you’re spreading, being aware of the things you’re feeling and saying and doing. That kind of truth.

Blaming other people for your unhappiness (which I certainly used to do), is a form of lying to yourself. If you’re over 25 (and I’d really kind of like to say 20), and you are not happy with the way your life looks and feels, it is on you, now. No matter what may be behind you, what you’ve gone through, or how many different ways you’ve been hurt or disappointed, only you are responsible for your own happiness.

Clinging, manipulating and numbing out are all forms of lying to yourself. Love is not something you force. It’s something you give, freely, with the understanding that you may be hurt. Sometimes you’ll get hurt because we are always growing, and two people don’t always grow together. Sometimes you’ll be hurt as a result of where a person is on their particular path. People can only be where they are, they can only give what they’ve got. If you don’t accept the truth of the situation, you are in for a world of pain.

We all know when things just don’t “feel right”. There’s no hiding from that reality, but people try to do just that all the time. They hide with busy-ness or distraction or drinking until they’re comfortably numb. With shopping or decorating or eating or not eating or video games. With trying to manage another person’s journey, or trying to cajole the love out of them. Love is not a sales pitch. You should not have to prove you’re worthy of it. If you feel you do, you need to stop everything and figure out how you could not know that you are. Because that is some deep pain. That is the number one thing you’d better get busy healing. And time passes in the fog of a lie. It won’t get you anywhere. Wherever you go, you will bring the pain of the lie with you, and you will have to use most of your energy to push it down. You will make yourself sick in your soul.

I would rather know the truth and be in pain than sleepwalk in a lie. There is no beauty in delusion. The truth to me is a comfort, even if it cuts down the center of my heart. Because it’s real and I know I’m awake. I don’t want to distract myself from life, I want to be soaked in it. I want to swim, you know? I do not expect smooth waters all the time. We are all going to be thrown against the rocks in life. In my experience, that’s when the growth happens. When you’re cut and bleeding and you think, “How did I not see this coming? Why did I swim this way, and hang out here in the eye of the storm for so long? Why don’t I love myself?”. You need to find the answers to those questions if this is speaking to you. And you know, sometimes you love yourself but a storm hits, anyway.

This may sound kind of dark, but it isn’t at all. Its simply that life is full of joy and pain, of darkness and light, of laughter that comes from your very center, and tears that come from that same place, too. And if you’re awake and swimming, you will also be there to appreciate and soak in all the love, all the joy, all the yes of life. The incredible moments when someone looks you in the eye and you know you are being seen. Understood. Celebrated. You’ll know that that’s real, too. If you want to be happy, you’re going to have to swim in the ocean of your truth. That’s where the love is. That’s where you find your happy. Grab your suit and start paddling. I’m sending you so much love, and a boogie board, Ally Hamilton