Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Acceptance Speech

“Just tell me what it is I should be doing and I will do it!” my mother exclaimed as we sat folding laundry. She looked at me pleadingly and through her tears said “whatever it is, just tell me what to do and I will do it! Just tell me what I need to do to make it stop.” Her pain was so raw. She was utterly defeated. I would do anything to stop that pain. I found myself saying “Yes, I will too! Whatever it is, please God, just help us!”

My father had deepened again. Like so many times over so many years, he’d gone from being medicated and somewhat normal to going off his meds and running amok on a manic high. Like so many times before, he was now being held in the psychiatric ward at Eastern Washington University for observation and treatment.

This time however, had been particularly gruesome. My dad had a tendency to run away. As his mania escalated, his grandiosity would transform into a plan that included walking to Zion and concluded with his stripping off all his worldly belongings (read: clothes) and getting picked up by local law enforcement. On most of these instances his strip tease was kept within the confines of the city and he was apprehended fairly quickly. But on this occasion he’d gone off grid and ended up wandering for three days barefoot in the farmlands outside of Spokane. He’d walked all the skin off the bottom of his feet and on the third night he sat, bleeding and naked on a hillside communing with “the light of God”. When the sun rose, he realized his holy light was a floodlight on the side of a barn and decided he probably needed to get help.

These scenarios were devastating for my mother. She desperately wanted to believe there was a cure for my dad’s illness. She wanted to get him back on his feet and back to his virile self. That the funny, quick-witted, athletic, handsome alpha male she fell in love with would one day return through the determination and devotion of her love. She felt that all she needed to do was the “rights”: the right job, the right medication, the right balance of hearth and home and my dad would become a functioning, supportive member of society again. She desperately clung to the faith that her love would concur his illness and that there would be an end to his disease.

I loved the promise of this simple solution for two reasons. One it meant that there would be an end to my dad’s illness and two that I could make it happen. In a house of chaos, I spent most of my time feeling tense and sad and confused. The fantasy of love, faith and devotion trumping all was sweet tonic that soothed the chaffing of weirdness, offered respite from the constant uncertainty and built protective walls against my confusion and discomfort. So I eagerly invested in my own form of wish fulfillment believing that if I my prayers were earnest enough, God would save me. Everything that made me uncomfortable was responded to with a stream of prayers and promises that I would remain good, dedicated and devoted if only God would protect me.

Because my truce with the Cosmos was founded on the inevitable not happening, it was a doomed and fragile thing. Anything could derail my absolution. Routines and order became my salvation. If I got through one day without chaos, I needed to replicate that day. Get up every day at the same time. Eat the same foods at the same time every day. Wear Monday’s clothes on Monday, Tuesday’s on Tuesdays, etc. Walk the same route to school. Walk the same way home. All transgressions, from fighting with my sisters to wanting my best friend’s doll, were potential grounds for nullification of the treaty. It was imperative that I not ask for things. When you do ask for something, apologize and don’t take it. Do not covet. When you do covet, thank God for all you have and apologize for being selfish. Be nice. When you are not nice, apologize, then be nice and pray for forgiveness. Do not think bad thoughts. When you do think bad thoughts, say you are sorry and pray for forgiveness. When chaos ensued I assumed I didn’t pray hard enough, I neglected some crucial part of the routine, wasn’t grateful enough or I wanted too much.

This constant vigilance and self condemnation became a pressure cooker for absolutism. Right and wrong became my only anchor. Everything was either black or white. I started to see myself as an arbiter of morality. I became hawkish, harsh and judgmental. Everyone was either good or bad. I developed a sharp tongue, gossiped freely and offered my opinion and advice whether asked for or not. I also developed a belief that I was working towards personal perfection. As if one day I would get everything right and would stop needing or wanting anything. I felt that each day I was working towards a more perfect physical existence in which I would need less sleep, less food, less stimulus and that at some point my physical body would just reach this zenith where it would hover in perfection for all time. It wasn’t until I was much, much, oh so much older, that it actually occurred to me that the physical body goes through cycles every day. I literally had not made the connection that the body’s need for nourishment, activity and rest is an every day occurrence. The simple realization that the sleep I collected the night before gets used up the next day was mind-blowing.

But that was after college. College actually made me worse. Through various twists of fate I’d landed a full scholarship at a small college in New York City. It was the chance of a lifetime for me. I’d always wanted to get away, to break free, spread my wings and explore the wider world. In my attempt to mask my understandable fears and insecurities, I became more outspoken, sanctimonious and hard. I joined “purpose” clubs and became an outspoken feminist, environmentalist, basically any -ist that allowed me to be proud and loud and generally obnoxious. My principles were both bitter and biting, laced with sarcasm and contempt for anyone who did not conform to my ideals. I never held back an opinion or a judgment on other people’s lives, believing that my clear vision and purposefulness surely trumped all their small mindedness. I also developed a “non-specific eating disorder”. I didn’t purge or starve (those things would be far too attention grabbing and weak-minded for me of course), but instead maintained a strict daily fat grams and caloric intake diet that would keep me thin, but never too skinny. When I could maintain this diet I felt victorious and happy. When I could not, I was devastated. Control was the name of the game. Keep my hunger under control, keep my desires in check, maintain my integrity, maintain my composure and above all, be principled. Be sanctimonious. Be above reproach.

It would take years before I realized how little my principled rigidity was not serving me. I started to lose friends. People started to avoid me and hide things from me. They stopped confiding in me. When I found out that my best friend was cheating on her boyfriend, her reason for not confiding in me was “because I knew you’d be mad at me.”

And she was right. I was mad. I was hopping mad! I was incensed that she couldn’t be more principled and make better choices and that she was wrong, wrong, wrong! But, I was also embarrassed. It was humiliating to me that someone I loved was choosing to withhold information from me because she was afraid I would be mean to her.

It finally occurred to me. I had a choice. I could either choose my principles or choose people. I couldn’t have both. If I wanted people in my life I had to accept them for what they were, not what I wanted them to be. We are flawed. We will never live up to the principles we aspire to. But, when we accept each other, warts and all, that’s when friendships, understanding and healing begins.

Likewise, it would take a near death experience before my dad accepted that he could not be cured of his bi-polar disorder. It was a part of him. In order for him to be a functioning individual, he needed to accept the fact that there was no end to his illness. He needed to work with his disease rather than against it. If he wanted a life worth living, he had to accept its limitations. When he finally accepted this he was able to open up to its possibilities, find peace, be truly forgiving and offer genuine loving care.

This is one of the fist tenants of a yoga practice. When you step onto the mat, you are asked to be where you are, to accept the moment as it is. No judgment, no expectation, no projection into what it is going to be like when you finally “nail” that handstand. This simple, yet so difficult, practice is the building block to a more advanced asana practice, but even greater, it is the building block for healing and love. By accepting the moments as they are for what they are, we become interested. And when we’re interested in something we become compassionate. When we’re compassionate we feel love. Acceptance brings love.

I wish I could say that I am just a mellow fellow these days, that that I am open and receptive to all beings everywhere. But, I’m no where near that. I get crabby with my kids on a daily basis, have no patience for bad drivers, and am prone to bouts of guilt, disappointment, anger and bitterness. I am painfully human.

And that is just something I’m going to have to accept.