The Problem of Achieving a Quiet Heart

So, it’s been a long time since I last wrote. Interestingly, my last post was around the time that I started therapy with a wonderful woman called “L”. This blog started as a way to express my thoughts, to chronicle my attempts to choose courage instead of fear, to reinvent my life and pull myself out of the mental swamp that I was tired of living in. A lot has changed. So much has changed that I feel almost like a new person, renewed and fresh.

Therapy is such a weird process, one of the most challenging and beautiful and painful processes I have ever gone through. I say “gone through” as if it’s in the past, when I’m still in it. As much as it pains me though, I know I am nearing the end of at least one phase of it. I feel a deep ache at the love L has given me, over and over and over, the patience and the kindness, and the thought of our time together changing and closing. I know some of my intense feelings are just part of how therapy works. Yet, some of it is so much more than that: a genuine, deep, and meaningful connection, a striving for balance; tranquility and growth at the same time. At certain points the sessions were excruciatingly difficult, while these days it slowly settles. We still have moments where everything feels incredibly consuming, but mostly I feel a sense of peace and a knowledge that I have to take steps into my own independence.

My first post on this blog was about beginnings. My friend J’s correspondence art project and mission statement were what I started this blog with, and the concepts in her words still resonate with me:

Conservation of Energy (knowing– exactly –when to “end”/knowing what is a “beginning”)

I wasn’t thinking too hard about endings years ago, I was all about reinventing myself, making conscious choices to move forwards. But beginnings and endings are all part of one and the same cycle.

My therapist L introduced me to the I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes. The truths that fill this book are a special kind of wisdom about life’s rhythms, and the natural laws that govern our beautifully changing world of flux. It makes me happy more and more that the tattoo on my left arm is a tree with all four seasons. When I got it, it represented change: my changing moods, the cycles of my life, and the ways in which I tried to come to terms with the shifting multitudes in me, many of which I struggled with immensely. It was an attempt to see the beauty in something that tore me apart, a mixture of positive and negative. The tattoo on my right arm is one of flowers: growth, memory, and a re-writing of my past into something beautiful. Beginnings and endings are woven through the I Ching in a tapestry of life and death, acceptance and struggle, polarities in good and evil, the shedding of the old, approaching the new. In the first Hexagram it states:

Here it is shown that the way to success lies in apprehending and giving actuality to the way of the universe [Tao], which, as a law running through end and beginning, brings about all phenomena in time.

I realised recently that I’m afraid of the next ending. Ending therapy, finding my autonomy. I read back through some of my old posts on this blog, many despairing, confused meanderings through the darknesses of my mind. Those dark moments didn’t stop when I started therapy, though they come less frequently now. They are less deep, less severe, easier for me to pull myself out of. The light and the gold and the brightness that has come into my life is of a magnitude that is indescribable.

When I’m grateful to L, she often says that I’m the one doing the hard work. But I cannot imagine the responsibility of having other people’s minds in your hands, their happinesses, their traumas, their dreams, their fears and abuses and angers and loves and failures. I am doing the work in my own journey, but she has been right there alongside me showing me the path. With her help I have transformed in ways I never thought possible. L’s Dad passed away early this year, and I went through my own mini-grieving in response to hers. Over the last few days I kept thinking “I suppose none of us are getting out of this alive,” and for some reason it has given me a strange comfort and drive to be more brave, more open, more loving. I wrote a post some years ago talking about the “small but strong” version of myself that was scared of my depression, scared of my moods, scared of the darkness in me. I know now that my heart is stronger than I ever thought possible, more courageous than I dreamed. I can look at my moods, the darkness flitting around the edges and smile at it. It doesn’t beat me to a pulp anymore. The fear never leaves me, but most days now I can turn towards it with curiosity and an open heart.

Endings feel like they are a part of everything around me. I am planning to move away from Berlin to travel some more while the kids are still young and not in school, and I get sadder and sadder at the prospect of leaving. I told L that I was thinking of whether or not I wanted to have a personal relationship with her instead of a therapy relationship, and for the first time in a long time I am struggling to untangle the courageous choice from the fearful one. Am I afraid of the relationship ending, afraid of not having her in my life? Perhaps the courageous choice is to just let her go and focus on my own autonomy. Or am I afraid of attempting something new and different, following what I know my heart wants? Perhaps the courageous choice is to take a risk and try it. This odd bubble sits in my chest as well, reminding me that I am not the only person involved in this decision. Can I even fairly put her in a position where I would ask her to answer me? Am I being foolish even considering the idea? It’s an ethical minefield, no doubt. Maybe my courage and hope aren’t balanced enough with consideration, seriousness, and contemplation. Maybe the answers are clear, and I just don’t want to accept them.

One of my previous posts was about a relationship I was considering starting with a woman called A. My post was about my hesitance, my refusal, my resistance to her. Nonetheless, at some point I decided to go for it: falling head-first in love, it became one of the most fundamental and heart-rending relationships I have ever experienced. She made me feel alive, she woke up pieces of me that had been dormant for a long time, and she also broke my heart into a thousand tiny pieces, leading me on a journey of self-discovery, reflection, pain, and growth. Wandering in and out of each other’s lives by virtue of both proximity and a tiny red thread of enduring connection, we began something new. Our friendship has bloomed from the ashes of our romantic love, and I never thought I could feel so happy and calm with the way things have turned out.

I suppose this is what informs me with L, because I don’t want to live a life of regret. It’s hard to know what you should take a chance on, and what you shouldn’t. The main things I regret are the times I have harmed others, and I know that this is something L is fearful of. It is true that potential for harm lies in attempting to change our relationship into something else, and that staying in the safety of the therapy relationship is significantly less risky. Whenever I think about risk though, I smile when I think about how she often says “No risk, no fun”. So far, she has been totally right for everything I have encountered – I question now where the limit is. There are certain kinds of risk-taking that are akin to leaping off a cliff! At least for now I decided to do nothing and accept that everything comes in its right time. Maybe there never will be a right time, because it’s just not the right thing to do. I don’t know. What I do know is that when something is right, you feel it and experience it without so much internal conflict: it just happens. Something interesting about the I Ching is that “After Completion” comes before “Before Completion” (the two final Hexagrams).

While the preceding hexagram offers an analogy to autumn, which forms the transition from summer to winter, this hexagram presents a parallel to spring, which leads out of winter’s stagnation into the fruitful time of summer. With this hopeful outlook the Book of Changes come to its close.

A natural cycle governs everything in life. I could never have dreamed years ago that I would be able to consider anything with even some sense of the confidence and harmony I feel many days now. Pulled from side-to-side by my own mind, I felt only chaotic, wild, and out of control. One part of me hopes that actually it will never be fully tamed, because I grow to enjoy having a little bit of wildness in me. Anyway, I know that this path is not a linear one. As L says, we all do the best we can in the time and space that we do it in.

The Words We Cannot Speak

“[T]o love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

– Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

So much of life is about loss, and how we deal with it, process it, keep moving afterwards. I told my best friend M. that I love her, and that this feeling scares me because love is like my lungs have been scooped out and replaced with pop-rocks. She told me she sometimes feels as if she loves in a surface way, shallow and never quite getting so deep. When she loses someone, when someone dies, she cries and then keeps on with life.

I feel right now as if someone tied me up with red threads, as if the world is so much tinier than I imagined and all these connections are pulling me in different ways. What do I do with all the loves I have? How do I explain to people: I adore you, I miss you, I love you so much that the base of my spine turns to butterflies when I think of you. I can’t help but feel so alone sometimes with these feelings, like nobody else feels so strong and keeps it all so pushed inside. I store it in my bones, in my blood, and yet when the time comes to actually say the words I can’t, I can’t, and instead all that comes out is tepid.

The flipside of that coin is that I’m fickle, easily extinguished if I don’t get enough to keep the flame alive. I cannot say that either: if you don’t love me enough, if you don’t show me enough, the fear fills me again and I will leave. But where do I go? I can’t say what I need to say, and the sadness of losing someone makes me feel so scared that I just push it away and move backwards, move away, put something in between us so that the loss will not be so much. But all the feelings are still there, everything still simmers underneath, I just need the right thing to wake it up.

I think when it comes to my flight or fight response, I’m all flight.

I met a girl on Thursday who had a tattoo of a cormorant on her back. She told me that the cormorant stretches its wings out after diving, to dry them. It’s one of the only aquatic birds in the world that does not have fully water-repellent wings.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Tomorrow is the 9 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Discussing it is still so hard for me, and yet I’m increasingly realising that I must find better ways of dealing with it and talking about it. When I recount how he died, when I explain everything, I somehow feel like I have to give people a disclaimer.

It’s a pretty morbid story. I don’t know if you want to hear it.

I tend to avoid talking about it. But when someone starts asking about the scars on my arms, or about my depression, or about being a teenager, inevitably the topic of my stepdad comes up. And then through talking about my stepdad, I talk about my brother, and the whole dark and twisted story comes out. There’s no good way to talk about it all, there’s no simple way to say it. When I push the words out of my mouth it’s like I’m shoving them through a barrier of cotton wool, as if by uttering them, the person I’m speaking to will be so horrified that they will disappear in a puff of smoke.

He drowned, okay? He had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub.

If he was alive he would be 18 years old now. I can’t even imagine what he would be like, what his life would be like, what any of our lives would be like. When I think about him my chest feels tight and heavy, and I feel as if my mother must be consumed by this sorrow so large that she cannot even begin to climb it.

I remember stroking his hair in the hospital when he was in the paediatric ICU. His hair was flattened into a Johnny-Bravo-style peak, from everyone stroking his hair in the same way. It was so soft.

The doctors had to test if he had any brain activity remaining, so my parents could decide if they wanted to switch off the life support or not. The doctor shone a torch into his eyes, and I stared so hard at his pupils just hoping and screaming inside my head: “React! MOVE! JUST DO SOMETHING”. But nothing happened, they turned off the life support, and that was it.

I hated his hugs, because he was always sticky and slimy and he was so skinny that his hugs were bony and painful. He would hug me and say “I love you, Leah”; he’d wake me up at 3am, standing by my bed, wanting me to play with him; my boyfriend and I would babysit him and take him places and look after him as if we were our own little family. But then he was dead and the hugs were gone and I wished with every piece of my body that I could go back in time and love him better, pay him more attention, spend more time with him, make sure he knew in his bones that I adored him even though he drove me crazy.

Four brothers seems like a lot to most people. But to me it seems like such a tiny number, just four.