And what if
what the world needs-
and the world is too grand so
i’ll begin-again-with me-
what i need-
and i don’t need
Air in my lungs-
what i want-
for i do want, though i have to practice
the saying of it-
what if, what i want
is a poet who allows us, allows
to witness the salted rains of stormy emotions
as each teardrop falls onto the keyboard,
releasing their Heart
releasing their Brain
-because what if, what
is proof that i can be more Powerful,
See as clearly,
when i face The World
with tears in My eyes?
And so i’m left with
the gift of
instead of what if.
And what is,
is that the only proof i might ever have
is the Words i type
and the tears i allow to fall as my
keyboard clacks and
I Write On…
The day bus and the night bus are different. In the sunlight, people board brief-cased and fresh. We have a purpose, or the air of one, a destination in mind as we check our watches with a practiced flick of the head and sigh into our Smart Phones.
In the shadows, riders come and go unseen and silent. We move with a weight, the stench of exhaustion heavy on our sloped shoulders. Defeat is a passenger on the night bus, and Poverty, and Loneliness.
The bus itself is an entirely separate creature in the dark. Like the fluorescent fish that haunt the ocean’s unlit trenches, the bus brings streaks of dazzling glow to the sullied and tired corners of the city. It lures the drunk and tired with light that bursts forth, effulgent amidst dingy brick buildings and parked cars. Alleyways that remain mired in gloom even in the noon sun are suddenly exposed by headlamps, and people crawl forth like termites from the woodwork, scuttling towards the blaze and quiet community of fellow riders.
I realized, recently, that even when I’m riding next to Defeat, musty and crumpled, I’m sitting three seats away from Hope, too. I can catch an eye-glimmer from Glee, who is wearing a sunshine-yellow suit and whose jolly-nosed red shoes seem to be tap dancing under the bench. It might be me who is Sorrow, walking in the trenches of my well-trained Brain, until I look up and see Joy bouncing down the aisle with an alligator-grabber from the Zoo gift shop and the wide smear of a chocolate grin.
At a time when it is scary and uncomfortable for me to Come As I Am, the bus community reminds me that sometimes it is okay. Evenings right now are especially challenging, as the fatigue of the day wears through my protective coat, and I long to be alone and held all at once. So as dusk settles in, the bus pulls blazingly, blindingly up to my downtown stop, and my fellow termites and I scurry on board, join this tiny subsection of the Human Community with all its Emotions and Thoughts. And in a strange way, I am held by this sea of people, even as they are all alone in their own heads. We are alone, and yet forced to connect for a split second when we stand to allow someone else to sit, united when we hear the giggle of a child. Whoever I sit next to, whether it’s Shame or Frustration or Happiness, I get to hold a little piece of it for a short time, even if they don’t know it. And I get to give up a little piece of Who I Am, in the moment, too. In a strange way I am struggling to articulate, we strangers on the bus share the Weight of being Human until we get off at our stop.
It is imperfectly perfect, this Coming As We Are, this showing up as Human. I’m going to keep trying it, with Faith that good things come-on the night bus, on the day bus, and beyond.
Alert: this post may contain material that is triggering for some. If you find yourself in crisis, you can call 1-800-273-8255, or visit www.crisischat.org for support.
What I know to be true in this moment is that mental illness is like faith.
Some people say they believe absolutely in whatever they believe in, do it blindly and without doubt even if it is something they can’t experience through their 5 senses. They call this Faith. To me, Faith is believing absolutely, except when you are doubting absolutely, or when you are somewhere in between. It is having Faith that the only constant is change. It is absolutely believing it is okay to doubt, and okay to believe, and okay to be in the middle. Faith is believing, absolutely, that it is okay to come as you are, that you can show up as your True Self, even if you are punished for it. Joan of Arc was punished for it. Ghandi was, too.
Mental illness is scary, and full of suffering and pain and panicjoy. Pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, are subjective; there are pictoral spectrums for people in hospitals to help their doctors and nurses understand the amount of pain they are experiencing, because Words are of little help in accurately describing an internal experience (though for me they are the closest I can get).
Joy is subjective, too, though we don’t like to think about that, because it is a shiny, sparkly emotion that we like to think we can share. And we can share it, just as we can share pain-but my Sarah experience of Joy will never be experienced by anyone who doesn’t have my Brain. And the same is true for my Sarah experience of Pain.
And so I believe that Faith is subjective. My definition of Faith, as described above, is true only for Me in this moment. It might be true for others, in the moment that they read it, too. I can only hope, because that would mean that I’m not quite so alone. And it would mean that they aren’t quite so alone, too. Because even though my Sarah experiences will only ever be my own, they might resonate with the experiences of others who are Living, or trying to Live.
People start wars because of Faith. They always have. People start wars because of mental illness, too-it just isn’t spoken out loud. And I don’t mean that the people that start them do so because they are crazy. I mean that wars begin because of fear and lack of understanding, and the fierce desire to stand in Your Truth, even if it means killing someone else who is trying to stand in Theirs. Mental illness is biological, chemical, Real things happening in your Brain. And it is, for me, being surrounded by fear and lack of understanding when I am Living My Truth, and being punished, sometimes, for Living In It.
Mental illness is scary to talk about, because when you are experiencing depression, or mania, or anxiety, or suicidal ideation, It is a uniquely You experience. There are common threads, there are links, there are helpful and unhelpful things to say that are true for most humans when they are in It. And what I, Sarah, look like when I am in It, and how I feel when I’m in It, only I will ever know. That’s terrifying. And that’s where Faith comes in.
My Faith is that, as I continue to show up as My True Self, in my Sarahness, it might allow others to do the same. That in giving Words to this subjective experience, it might shine the light on the fact that it is subjective, but not unique. That because I have personally been trapped, I have personally felt the flames, that I can truly “understand a terror way beyond falling.” I’m on the sidewalk, now, and I’ve done the jumping.
David Foster Wallace understood the flames, too; he wouldn’t have been able to write those Words otherwise. I wish that he had known, in the moment before he hung himself, that his Words would help someone else, like me, be a little more brave, a little more willing to use my wild trembling Voice. Perhaps he would still be alive. Not because I have any delusions about my power or impact, but because what saves me, daily, is people around me modeling bravery through vulnerability so I that I can imperfectly attempt the same.
And so, as Intensely Intense as I am, today, I am so very grateful that I am Alive, and so very saddened that he, and many others, are not. And all I can do in this moment, despite the very real risks, is continue to stand in my Truth, to say the Scary things, and to hold on tightly to My imperfectly perfect Faith as I press the “Update” button on my blog.
I was a fabulous teacher. If you’re thinking it sounds self-centered for me to state that, don’t worry-I’m thinking that too, and saying it anyways. I was a fabulous teacher. I was a fabulous teacher because I would have done the job for no money at all (and it’s a sad truth that many teachers would say the same and many make so little that it is virtually true). I was fabulous because many of the traits that make me Me are traits found in Fabulous Teachers I’ve worked with or had. Fabulous Teaching traits, and traits that I have when I am in my Sarahness. They are are these: I listen, and I allow people to come as they are. What makes it Truly Fabulous, though, is that those are two traits children naturally possess, in a way that is so beautifully raw because they aren’t aware that they possess them.
You might be thinking I’m crazy (and I don’t use that word lightly!); anyone who has taught preschool, or had a child, or known a 3 year-old, would have good evidence to say kids can’t listen to save their lives (and I don’t use that phrase lightly, either!). You need only watch 1 minute of a typical circle time to have concrete behavioral examples of how challenging it can be for young children to listen to each other. But what I know to be true is that it isn’t challenging at all, it just has to be worth it.
Humans, little and big, young and old, make change only when they are personally invested. The layers of that investment might be thick; someone’s reason to change might be that changing will ease the suffering of those they care about, thus easing their own suffering. “I’m not going to binge today because I know that when I binge, people I love worry more, and it helps me when I help others not worry.” Or the layers might be thinner, more obvious: “I feel less physical discomfort when I eat one cookie instead of three, so I’m only going to eat one right now.”
We call children under a certain age “ego-centric” because they are; they can’t imagine that the way they experience the world isn’t the way everyone else does. It’s something we try to teach out of them. But, ultimately, all humans are ego-centric, regardless of age. We all act only when it is worth it, on some level, to do so. We all struggle to see outside our own lens of experience. The problem is, we “adults” add layers of shame and guilt and fear onto this-we tell ourselves we should be able to step into someone else’s shoes, that acting for selfish reasons is selfish, and that selfish is bad. But ultimately, we are all always acting for selfish reasons, no matter what. Children just aren’t afraid to be blatantly selfish, until we show them that they should be. We do this out of love and a desire to protect them, but what we really do is protect them from being their True Selves, give them the message that showing up as you are is not always okay, especially if “as you are” is Intensely Intense.
I stumbled upon this clip from an old Sesame Street show the other day, and I think it is brilliant. It is brilliant because I remember watching it as a kid and seeing it as entertainment, and wanting to find some paperclips after the end of the episode. And it is brilliant because when I watch it now, I see something totally different. I see a little boy who is listening intently, and picking up cues, and becoming more and more confused because the experience he is having doesn’t match other experiences he’s had. People don’t usually express Sadness, Anger, and Happiness all within a 1 minute, 25 second span (when they do, we label it disordered). He, at the age of three, knows this, because he is unable to do what the puppet is asking him to do-show on his face what it looks like to be genuinely Sad or Angry or Happy. Because he’s not any of those things, he’s totally, legitimately, confused.
John John does, in this brief clip, what I know kids to be innately capable of, when given the chance and motivated by their own desires: He listens, and he allows space for this puppet to come exactly as he is-Sad, Angry, Happy. He does this naturally, despite his own confusion. He teaches me more about emotion regulation and non-judgment than the adult human behind the puppet.
So, in my cyclical, long-threaded way, I’m back to this: I was a fabulous teacher. Because I didn’t teach at all. Because I recognized, early on, that kids are the true teachers. I got the privilege of observing them closely, of watching and listening and describing their journey as they made messes, literally and figuratively, and figured out entirely on their own how to clean them up. And because I got to do that, I also got to listen to them, when they needed it, and to always make sure to tell them that it is okay to come as you are. In telling them that, I was telling myself. My human selfishness was that, in telling an intensely sad child that it is okay to cry and be intensely sad, I was telling myself that, too. In writing these words I’m telling myself that right now. And isn’t that what fabulous teaching is all about?
I’ve written about thesamedifferent all my life, dancing around the concept by using Words like Change and Stagnation and Light and Dark. A superhero and cherished friend of mine calls it “showing up differently” and “rising up” and using one’s authentic Voice. Another superherofriend calls it using skills and Living Your Truth, based on an amazing book we both read. Yet another superhero I’ve been lucky enough to know calls it “living my Sarahness.”
Today, in this moment, thesamedifferent means I am living in my Sarahness. I’m also starting to recognize the smallest of ways I’ve been the true Sarah all along, shine the light a little through that darkness. That’s where the different comes in. I’m the same as I’ve always been, and entirely different all at once-thesamedifferent.
It’s thesamedifferent that I’m using my own Word to explain my current internal experience, not the words of anyone else. It’s thesamedifferent that I’m using my own wild, trembling Voice to share this Word. It’s thesamedifferent that last night, the night before my final Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skills group, I chose not to use skills, and instead used old behaviors to cope with overwhelm and panicjoy. It’s thesamedifferent because, instead of wallowing in the shame of my choice, I’m holding my choice up to the light, and telling myself it makes sense, that it’s okay, and that I can make the choice to never do it again. And it’s thesamedifferent that now I’m able to speak those dialectics to myself.
Yet another superherofriend of mine was fabulous at shining the light on my natural ability to understand dialectics at a time when I wasn’t able to. He gave me many gifts, in the form of True Words, as have all the superherofriends I’ve mentioned. What unites those superherofriends, in my mind, in this moment, is that they live thesamedifferently in their various ways every. single. day. They use the very skills they teach, though not all of them would call them skills or DBT, and they show up as their authentic selves even when it fills them with panicjoy. It’s thesamedifferent that I can thank them, and the various providers and group members I’ve been lucky enough to share a little of this journey with, without giving up any of my Sarahness. Because, in this moment, I am thesamedifferent.
Dream murmurings like last night’s leftovers cooling in the fridge,
There in the edges of your sleep crusted mind
Unfolding the brain as when you draw back the sheets and
Place your feet firmly on the cool wood floor-
First tentatively, easing into the hardness of the panels, then
Taking in the chirping beginnings of the day.
Alert: this post may contain material that is triggering for some. If you find yourself in crisis, you can call 1-800-273-8255, or visit www.crisischat.org for support.
The “turning of the tide” is an idiom that has threaded itself through my journey; I give the Words themselves ownership because it is only today that I’m beginning to remember, and connect, the ways the phrase has surfaced and dove, dolphin-like, over the course of my Story. It brings the Words War, and Ocean, and Change to my mind, allows them to shake off salt water drips and float in the air so I can look at them in new ways, brings up memories that my Brain has stored for, perhaps, just these moments.
I remember reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in high school English and discussing Stigma and Sterotypes and slavery, writhing in my new attempt to understanding the suffering of others, of our country, of a people who were dehumanized in the most horrifying of ways and yet refused to be, who rose above their Labels through Song and Words and Community.
The author of the novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is an imperfect (thank goodness, for aren’t we all??) model of a female writer who used Words to turn the tide, to impact and in some ways reverse public opinion, raised her Voice to shine a light on something inhumane, something difficult and scary to talk about. It is a complicated, flawed, many-layered Story to think of a white woman writer telling the tale of black slavery, and the Messiness of it is the Beauty.
Looking back, reading that Story I was also peeling back some layers of my own, uncovering some Light and Resiliency and Hope. Now I’m able to connect my story to theirs in some ways, for Stories are all thesamedifferent. It is one small instance when my tide began to turn. It is self-empowerment, as I start to stick my toes back in, shock my Brain Cells by dipping into my Memory Ocean, and dive in to the ways I have been answering my own Big Questions all along.
I also remember watching war documentaries with my father-Ken Burns’ Civil War series with the hauntingly Alive Ashokan Farewell (I had to stop and find this song in my iTunes library before I could continue typing-I’m listening to it as I write these Words-and in the spirit of imperfection, I found I had Labeled it “Alaskan Farewell.”), and a show telling some of the story of the Vietnam War protests that I remember only through memory flashes of tear gas and police barricades. While I’m not certain that the exact phrase “turning of the tide” was used in either of these, I am confidant that, even as a small girl, the notion that the smallest of events can alter the course of history resonated in a deep, mysterious, rumbling way.
Because my Story, all along, has been about warfare, messy and thick with blood and bile. Battles large and small have been lost and won. Until very recently, the casualties were Voice and Trust, relationships and freedoms and jobs and Growth. The fight was raging internally, showing up externally only though razor-clean cuts or bones visible through pale skin, crumpled candy wrappers in the bathroom garbage can, a bottle in a drawer. These were all evidence of daily carnage, the wake left behind as I struggled against myself to save myself. And though I couldn’t see it at the time, each was a separate turning of the tide, a “low ebb” that, when rolled up together, culminated in the motion of Change and Growth that is happening as I type these Words.
For now that I’m writing again, and Memory Diving, the tide is turning in Big, Beautiful, Terrifying ways. And when I say Big, I mean large for me, grand in the sense of my own Story. Because I’ve found a way to turn the internal battle outwards, to shine a little light on ways it is challenging for me to be me in this world. The warfare is different now. I’m speaking my Truth instead of smothering myself in shame. I can bleed safely, release some of my Intense Intensity in ways that free me rather than harm me, ways that are less scary and confusing for those around me.
I’m wildly in awe with it all, in this moment, filled to the brim with panicjoy. Panicjoy is a full-body physical response to Emotions. It is tearful, nauseating, and trembling even as it is grinning straight from the eyes. It is realizing that I’m Alive on this morning, drinking black coffee and in need of a shower, to write these Words. It is an awareness that I get to continue this warfare of Words, that I am Blessed, by Whomever or Whatever does the Blessing, to be in this world, Living and starting to notice when my tide ebbs and flows.
I go to therapy in an uprise downtown, an oddly angled, metallic expanse that always seems to be on the verge of blasting off. It has multiple stories, an eccentric amalgam of all kinds of business offices and insurance companies. I enter on the ground floor through round-robin glass doors, the kind that simultaneously delighted and terrified me as a child (what if you get stuck going around and around forever?), and am greeted by few plush armchairs and a couch seated beside an electric fireplace, a kind of corporate-cozy gathering space with a Starbucks in the corner and a hushed feeling in the walls.
I love this entryway, because besides the possibility of caffeine, it offers a mixing-pot of people. There are young men with spiked hair, square tortoise-shell glasses, and rolled-up pant legs, who rode their bikes in to work at tech start-ups. There are secretaries, almost always in a gaggle, and woman in power-suits and heels who move just a tad too fast because they are perpetually busy and important, and they have to walk that much faster than the men just to prove it.
And then there’s the patients. It’s often easy to spot them, for they fold into their sterotype just as easily as the people I described above. They are the ones without a badge, with a slight hesitance in their step, who have the uncomfortable look in their eyes that comes when you feel slightly out of context. They are often the ones who stop and sit in the fake sitting room, take a breath to ground themselves, to remember who they are amidst a sea of rushing workers.
There’s the woman with her stone-washed jeans pulled up above her belly-button, who sits next to her rolling suitcase and talks just a little too loud and a little too much to anyone who will take the time to listen (she is the kindest person I’ve encountered yet). There are kids being dragged along by harried parents, reluctantly attending family therapy sessions or getting ADD medicine refilled. There are students, and salesmen, and teachers, all unified by the noun patient, and a destination: floor E.
I’m brazenly labeling all of these people because, as I said before, I am one of them. I’m a patient on G, and have been a patient for years, and I’m fairly certain that I betray this every time I walk into that building with my wide-eyed determination to look like I belong. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve also begun to work on floor J, at a company that is part of the very same system that provides my behavioral health services.
When I take the elevator up, it is a smaller sub-set of that larger melting-pot. And when I get off on E, it feels less intense, less chaotic. It’s even more obvious who is who here: patients are in the waiting room, or checking in at the front desk, providers have IDs and calm, reassuring voices. I know my role here. I am A Patient. I’ve actually been told many times, verbatim, that I am a “good” one.
Because I know my role, I also know what I could get away with. That sounds terrible, but it’s true. If I were to scream and throw things, sob in the hallway, allow myself to break down in the bathroom, it would be okay. People would notice, people would react-some with fear, some with annoyance, some with amazement or embarrassment. I would certainly be approached by a provider, who would use some kind of step-by-step protocol to calm me down (I say this with compassion and the beginnings of a new understanding after working on J; I have never been a mental health provider and have no doubt it is incredibly hard, and that no one goes into that profession some kind of care and drive to help people), but it would not be outside the realm of normal. On the floor E, acting crazy is normal.
That’s extreme, the throwing things; it’s not likely I would ever do that, despite my Intense Intensity. But I did find myself in tears last week, and the only place I knew to go was the bathroom on E. Because crying on J, were I work, would be unacceptable. I’m already out of place there; I come to the office on time, I dress according to the company code, I can sit in meetings and listen and understand much of what is said. My badge grants me access to all that, opens that door to that world of research and education and people who have power. It doesn’t fool anyone, though, especially me. I can wear my badge on J, in the elevator, even in the lobby or on the bus. And people look at me differently; sometimes I even feel more capable, more in control. But wearing it or not, it’s hard to shake the label of patient. It’s what I’ve known for so long, feel like it’s in my blood, my bones, my brain chemistry. I think I’m learning that broken is one of the hardest things to let go. Who am I when I’m on floor E? And who am I on floor J? It’s the same person, at least I’m trying to be. And still, I go to E to cry…
And so this week I look to the quote above my writing desk from Ghandi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” If crying on the floor where I work because of stigma and insensitivity in a meeting results in people continuing to see me as only a patient, listen to my ideas as only a consumer, that isn’t the kind of world I want to live in. I want to shake the norm that allowing space for emotions is crazy, weak, patient-like. Because it’s human. Yesterday I cried on floor E and floor J, tried to push aside the shame that has held my feelings back, tried to show up in the truth of my Intense Intensity, my Sarahness.
It’s a decision (is crying a decision?) that has me shaking, literally, with fear each day I buzz myself into the office, every time the elevator doors open and I don’t know if a co-worker will enter, or a fellow member of my DBT group, or the psychiatrist who read me my diagnoses one after the other until I felt like a lab-rat. I hope that, some day, all of those people might feel it is okay to cry, or dance, or admit to feeling afraid, whether it’s on in a workplace, a clinic, an elevator, a lobby. Because it isn’t us or them, it’s we. I live the we every day. And the more we all practice showing up as human, the more understanding we might have of each other, the more normal crazy might become, the more our tears and our joys will overlay our hard hearts.