Dian Fossey, famous zoologist and anthropologist, who spent an extensive amount of time studying gorillas in their natural habitat, came to understand that the best way to approach the magnificent creatures was without weapons of any kind. It was a daring undertaking – gorillas are potentially dangerous; no doubt their strength and size could cause harm. But every scientist who came before her noticed the gorillas were not themselves when the scientists were armed with guns and other weapons; they were on high alert and hyper-vigilant – unfriendly, dangerous, ready to attack. Instead, Fossey attempted the path of surrender, of least resistance, and of benevolent curiosity, which allowed the wild animals to relax into being themselves and her and her team to make the most authentic observations.
Emotions and feelings and difficult experiences are sort of like wild animals. Perhaps it is best that we approach them with tenderness, not attack. Ah, metaphors. Don’t they make life grand? Security and defense are necessary to an extent, but vulnerability and gentleness offer more healing and truth.
This goes against my natural instinct – I can be quite defensive. I put up my dukes. I get afraid and want to fix or fight, get on the riot gear on and destroy what is making me so damn uncomfortable. But true love breaks the spell, not armor. I have had to learn this through a whole lot of brawling, and the final contender is always me – over in the corner, beating myself up. I have to give up my own battle and fall at my own feet. Weeping feels better than rage. Forgiveness will always dissolve resentment. Underneath fear is an ocean of sadness, and at the heart of the ocean is joy. But oh, to practice.
I come from tough stock – football players and raging men and alcoholics and very few women. I say this without blame, but I believe I was born a soft little feminine creature who had that emotionally and mentally beaten out of her. The message was to toughen up and stop being so sensitive. The message was to fight and overcome. Surrender was weak. Even my mother, who I love deeply, was not the sensitive, emotional type – she was playing football with the boys, and proud of it. I was a bit of a flower born into a family of lawnmowers. Defenses kept me safe, but then the message was, don’t be so defensive, what is the matter with you! (You can imagine why I drank the way I did.) I sometimes think my whole life’s purpose is to keep taking off every piece of armor I was handed as a child.
Last summer, I traveled to Europe with a crew from high school to witness one of our friends get married. He had fallen in love with a girl from Belgium, and they were residing in her hometown, Ghent, with their beautiful new baby. It was a trip that combined joy and excitement with tension and enmity. Throw any group of high school friends together in a foreign country, and try not to have a semblance of drama. We actually did pretty well, overall. No broken dishes in our Airbnb.
At one point in the trip, my best friend, Jane, grew angry with me and treated me in a way that hurt my feelings. When I tried to talk to her about it (with my own snippiness and drama) she shut down. I felt sad and afraid. Then I grew angry. I was twelve years old again, unsafe and excluded and dwelling in that the world is against me perception.
Even though we forgot about it and moved past it, when I returned home I went through waves of feeling angry and hurt. But beneath that I understood exactly where she was coming from. My friend was suffering, and as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. She had her own personal issues going on, we were thrown into the cauldron of teenaged high school wounds, and I wasn’t exactly travel companion of the year; for whatever reason the best she could do was place me in the crossfire of her pain.
Of course, understanding this did not necessarily make me leap to bone-deep forgiveness right away, but it did help me begin to tease apart the reality that her behavior was not personal and did not mean she didn’t love me. She later apologized, and I graciously accepted her apology. She and I have had our ups and downs before, but we have what I consider a profound and solid friendship that has been able to withstand both of our personal demons.
Despite my understanding and forgiveness for her (minor) transgression, it wasn’t until recently that, due to, as they say, the flipping of the script, it hit me how I have done just what Jane did more times than I can count – hurt someone because of my own hurt – and that compassion and forgiveness and vulnerability, not defensiveness and shutting down, are the remedies (but that it sure can take time to get there.) Justified anger or clinging to feeling wronged is a goon, however seductive and comfortable it might seem. Approach the wild beasts of anger, fear, and hurt with sweetness; leave the whips and chains at home (or in your S&M dungeon, if that’s your thing.)
Only days ago, I committed a similar hurtful act against my dear friend, Lily, and it has brought up a world of lessons and truths that I desperately needed to witness. This experience certainly helps me love my Jane even more and have such gratitude for her, such deep compassion and empathy for her, because I am just like her, as well as recognize the transformative and healing power of forgiveness and understanding. How foolish it would be of me to stay angry at Jane over something that I have done and still sometimes do. Karma, as they say, is a… well, it’s enlightening is what it is. With Lily, I take full responsibility for my shitty behavior – there is no excuse – but in a way, there is an explanation, and there is certainly a spiritual lesson and an opportunity for transcendence.
A bit of backstory: for weeks I have been experiencing pretty rapid mood swings and some extremely unpleasant thoughts. I started a new teaching job in January, which has brought upon many new stressors and triggers. It’s too tedious of a tale to go into here, suffice it to say that I am a highly sensitive introvert who simply cannot thrive in today’s school environment, no matter how much I meditate and pray and run and write out my feelings and eat vegetables and etc. Constant noise and movement, bright lights, strong smells, having to be “on” all day, hundreds of personalities to mirror – it is soul-crushing exhaustion for me. Though I love education and connecting with students, the job has always sucked the life out of me, like a vampire to a fresh and pulsing neck, and it has become very clear that it is an unsustainable career path, at least in the conventional sense. (Stay tuned.) I am also in the midst of working the twelve steps again, and sometimes this excavation process, this mining of the black bile can bring up a lot of icky feelings. My grandfather passed a month ago, which was not only emotionally jarring but logistically stressful. My distorted belief that I need a boyfriend/husband/baby to be OK certainly doesn’t help, considering that I’m still swiping left and right on good ol’ Tinder. Chronic pain often visits me (a symptom, actually, of my emotional turmoil.) Despite immense growth in recovery over the past six years, I wrestle with my demons and deepest character defects, namely that of self-hatred and anger, which really covers grief and fear. I still get very overwhelmed when I am not trusting in the flow of life. So, you know, reasons.
In the days leading up to hurting my friend, I was very much in my small sense of self, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, irritated, and lonely, all of which make me believe I am ugly and unloved – the classic emotions that come up when I start believing the mean and terrified voices in my head. I had family in town the week before and spent every moment with my precious little sister, and though I love her very much and value our time together, I didn’t get my usual rejuvenating quiet weekend after a stretch of teaching. I showed up to the dinner for my dear friend overtired, hungry, in self-pity and self-centered fear. I made it all about me. Why is she not paying more attention to me? Why is no one talking to me? Why are they all best friends but not me? Why do I look so awful in that picture? Why is it hard for only me? (ha!) Why me why me why me?
I was in it. I did not pause to take deep breaths or fill my belly with needed food or say a little prayer. I didn’t go home. I stewed in the self-pity and anger, and by the time the evening was over, I was mired in my funk and thus engaging in passive-aggressive, cold, and disrespectful behavior. Total selfishness! It’s yucky sludge. Lily confronted me and began to cry, and I shut down. There were other people around bearing witness to our conflict, and that added to my mindlessness and discomfort. I knew I had been here before, hurting someone because I felt hurt, letting the darkness get the best of me and spewing it at others. As a friend once said to me, my insides are so soft (I still cry in Disney movies) that when I get scared, I become a porcupine and prick others. I sat in my car afterwards bawling my eyes out and feeling like the worst person in the world. It was so clear to me: sometimes my behavior can be awful. This is not who I want to be. Later, more became clear: when you do not take care of yourself, this is what happens. I love you. Also, quit teaching.
It was a horrible feeling, knowing I had hurt my friend, and I take full responsibility for my behavior. Despite my reasons for being in a sour mood, I am not a victim to life, and only my personal attention and spiritual path can help changes take root. But I have compassion for the struggles and deep wounds, because I did not choose (or maybe, in woo woo terms I did choose in order to learn lessons…did my little primordial soul choose Scotch-Irish tough as nails Texans for my family tree? Dadgummit!) as a small child to encounter trauma and abuse and to be born into a deeply sensitive little system that has caused me to be build immense defenses and feel chronically overwhelmed.
We peel that stinky onion, don’t we, and recovery is a jagged line. I am, indeed, no picnic. My mood swings and stress and darkened thoughts have been trying to tell me something, and finally I’ve been shaken into paying attention. Transcending the whole don’t be such a bitch number ringing in my head is, how about not treating yourself poorly? Because beneath the introversion and the work exhaustion and the singlehoodedness is the reality that I’m just kind of mean to myself and hard on myself and tough tough tough all the time. I am like the gorillas when the scientists are carrying rifles. Obvi I would then be tough on someone else (rifle carrier.) Our stuff is bound to leak out. I am afraid of feeling bad, so I preemptively strike – you’ll never get me! This is a terrible strategy, because not only does it exhaust me trying to defend myself, but the perception that the world is a hostile and unfriendly place creates that reality.
My actions that night had absolutely nothing to do with how much I love and respect Lily (and I madly and deeply love and respect her, without equivocation.) But of course she took my rotten behavior personally, because who wouldn’t? Just as my friend’s behavior in Belgium hurt my feelings, so did my behavior hurt another, even though the attack was based on a delusional harm. My friend did nothing, but I created a suffering in my head and went on the nasty defense, because it is something I do and have done my entire life when feeling threatened and empty. Again, there is no excuse, but there is an explanation. Call it an emotional relapse – I am an alcoholic, I am prone to dark depression and the suppression of feelings – if I don’t continue to practice a willingness to grow spiritually and look at the part I play in my relationships, I will continue to harm others. I do not want to harm others, just as I do not want to be harmed.
This is growth for me. I am of the slowbriety variety, meaning that it has taken me years to untangle the dark web in my brain and become willing enough to look at my behavior and thinking patterns with complete honesty. It has also taken me quite a while to honor who I am and not feel this fierce impulse to be different or better. (If only I were a yoga Instagram model who lived on fresh air and grass, all would be well. Alas.) Addiction is very much about denial and pretend, ignorance and repression, and it has taken time to feel safe enough to truly acknowledge and admit that I am an imperfect human with twisted and distorted perceptions and behavior that is sometimes, as Shakespeare said, pretty whack.
For so long I was so clogged with shame that the best I could do was feel good about cracking the iceberg – getting sober, quitting smoking, holding a job, healing from bulimia and compulsive food and body issues. And that was good enough. (I mean, that really isn’t too shabby.) The only way out is through. We must first learn to stand and walk. We cannot rush the process. As one of my mentors often reminds me, it is all happening as it should, and each painful experience is a gift, if we allow it to be. Because I earnestly want to grow and become more free, more kind and gentle with myself and to others in return, I can trust in her words. And perhaps for all of us, this is a process done over time. We all have our different wounds and demons that show up.
Some of my understanding is that I think I have matured enough and have enough recovery under my belt to reflect with rigorous (but neutral) honestly – without beating myself up – on my patterns over the years, both in and out of sobriety. As I mentioned before, I carried such deep toxic shame for so long and hated myself so much that the best I could do for a while was defend and guard. I had to build a semblance of self love and self acceptance before I could examine my sketchy perceptions that have affected every single relationship I have ever had. For whatever reason, the childhood trauma, genetics, astrological alignment (hehe), I have a mind that often believes people are out to get me, that judges harshly (both self and others) and that is highly defensive and reactive to the actions of others. I jump to conclusions, I mind read, I label, I fear weakness and vulnerability, I filter through a negative lens. I tend to repress emotions until they become mindless and volatile, and then I create problems where there are no problems. I am human (and an alcoholic), therefore this monkey mind small sense of self stuff is inevitable (and is more likely to come when I am burning the candle at both ends) but mine comes out like my father’s came out – mean, snappy, scary, harsh, tough like Gary Cooper (Texas Scotch Irish) – and this is not how I want to be. The feminists may burn me at the stake for this, but I ‘d rather be the fragile damsel Cooper rescues and romances. Just, you know, softer. Maybe that soldier in Hacksaw Ridge who refused to use his weapon. Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Sansa Stark. Cordelia (you know, before they hanged her and stuff.) You get the idea, I hope.
Despite my growth in terms of my self-love and compassion, there is still gentle work to do, and yet it’s not a game of self-improvement. I spent my entire childhood and adolescence, namely ages nine to well, yesterday, just steeped in self-hatred and judgment and trying to be different. I was completely numb and shutdown. I had slammed all of my grief and rage deep inside of me and covered it up with addiction. I literally felt clogged with toxic glue. So it isn’t that shocking that it would take some years to awaken that numbness. This recent experience showed me that on many levels, I am still keeping that self-hatred story alive and well. I still beat myself up too much when I make mistakes. I still judge myself extremely harshly. I still look at pictures of myself and feel disgust. I still make myself rush and worry and fear, rather than let go and relax and trust. I still feel like there is something wrong with me when I have big feelings. I still focus on the bad things. This is not nice behavior, and this does not help me treat others well. In a nutshell, this behavior is lacking compassion and wisdom. It is far too tough, far too cutthroat, and incredibly suffocating. No wonder others would feel they must walk on eggshells with me! If I cannot extend myself lovingkindness, especially when I am having a difficult experience, it is hard to offer it to others. Compassion is so deeply essential, especially when we are suffering.
Fortunately, suffering is the touchstone of spiritual growth and a great catalyst for awareness and shaking it up. I do not mean that my behavior to my friend was justified by any stretch – it wasn’t. And though I do hope that she gives me a chance to make amends and finds a way to forgive me, this is not guaranteed. But the answers do not lie in me beating myself up for days on end or letting this experience spiral me into shame and guilt and believing that I am a terrible person, nor do they lie in me scrambling like a madwoman to try and fix it and get her to forgive me. I would not want those who have caused me harm to wallow in such hell. I used to think I wanted this, immature little victim mentality that enveloped me – now I know I do not. I have to learn, I have to forgive myself, and then I have to let go.
I know I am not a terrible person. I know I am a decent person with a big heart and a capacity to love and nurture immensely. I know I am also very imperfect, and still quite young and foolish, and that I have much to experience and learn and heal from. As Sharon Olds wrote, I can be “full of cruelty and full of kindness.” Good and evil cuts through the heart of all humans. My job is to work out the kinks and to take emotional and spiritually inventory, so I don’t have to unleash my cruelty to the world. All coarse straw can be spun to gold with breath, with pause, with loving attention. Sometimes we need to befriend our demons in order to get them to smile. We give it a shot like Fossey – to approach the wild animals without armor and artillery. I think I’ll try that and lay down both my weapons: the one aimed at you, and the one aimed at me.