my space tracker

Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: September 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pain Box

Some people have Gd boxes. Literally a box that they keep somewhere private. They write down all their problems, hopes, dreams, angers, prayers, and they put them in their Gd box. An exercise in letting go, having faith and feeling less alone. Some say this helps ease the heavy of burden of too many wishes and frustrations. And the straining to control what cannot be controlled.

Then there is what I call the pain box. That's a private place inside the heart where pain is kept. Although I suppose that you could actually have a box in your closet as well. But the one I am thinking of is that place where bad feelings, memories of bad feelings, painful memories, live inside you. Its where you send the thoughts and feelings, events and ideas, that hurt.

I recently had a long chat with a dear old aunt of mine, who turned 85 this week. She has more energy than most people half her age, and is one of those annoyingly, (though really so sincere) chipper people who are slogan happy and say things like, "don't worry, be happy," and then do a little cha cha with their hips. My Auntie did not have a hard life. She did not have an easy one either. Somewhere in the middle, I suppose. So I asked her what her secret to staying so chipper, so unburdened, so alive at 85 was. A question that many seniors get asked many times. So Auntie tells me about keeping things in their place, perspective, and not having the difficult stuff take over. She talks, in essense, about the pain box.

It's like this. All the bad stuff is always there. But it does not have to be up and walking around all the time, front and center. It can go into the pain box. And you can close the lid and go about your day. Sometimes, when the time is right, you can open the box and look around. You can cry and pace and wring your hands. And then you can close lid again and go back to your business. And sometimes you can open the box and pull out the things inside and show them to someone who you trust. You can tell that person all about your pain, for as long as they can listen and you can stand it, or until it does not feel quite so painful anymore.

I know it's not as easy as just closing the imaginary lid, but it's an idea that can help in getting through the day, and not letting the pain take over all the time. In fact, some folks look forward to opening the box at a certain time of the day. Just knowing that they can keep their pain close, visit it, feel it, and then put it away a bit helps get them throught the day.

So Auntie has a pain box. And its contents are private. Not secret. But private. She shares them at the right times, with the right people. Otherwise, the lid is closed. She also told me that when the box is closed, she looks for laughter. She thinks that laughing is a necessary part of the day. She says she lives one day at a time, and focuses on the good things in life. And she tries to be kind to strangers.

I tell her that I know all that already. Isn't there something more? She says yes, but I will have to wait for her 90th birthday to find out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I recently came across the speech that JK Rowling gave to the Harvard Graduates of 2008, titled "The Benefits of Failure." So many times we are in the dark, lost and not sure which road to take. Tempting to just stay in pajamas and wait for another day. We somehow think we are suppose to know what we want. And how to get it. And even if we do know, we are not sure we can risk screwing up, being disappointed, disappointing someone else. Sometimes we are scared of success as well.

Especially when your mood is in the gutter. When things are looking really dark. Seems like it's really not worth whatever collosal effort it would take to say, get out of bed. But sometimes it pays to push yourself. Even if it's just, well, especiallly if it's just, to do the next right small thing. Like go to class, or go to work, or take a long walk, or get to your 12 step meeting. Whatever it is that you are dreading having to do. A lot of the time, it's the dread that's the most dreadful. Once you are up and out, things are a little less awful.

So what does this have to do with failure? I am not sure exactly. I've just been hearing a lot lately about desire. And about frustration. And about not being able to be where you want to be, or be with who you want to be with, or have things you want to have. Or get rid of things you want to get rid of. And I am really understanding that it is all very painful to bear. So painful, in fact, that attempting to take a step out of the comfort zone and into action, and risk failure, is just not worth the effort. Except that it is. I know that sometimes you have to be in the right mood to do something. I also know that sometimes the right mood may come in about twenty to thirty years, so you need to push yourself a bit. Gently. But push. Small things count. Hot showers, long walks, writing, reasearching options, writing graditude lists. Every effort counts. Even when you really have your doubts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


"Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color."
W.S. Merwin, "Separation"

If you have lost someone or something you loved, needed, depended on, or were attached to in some significant fashion, then you know that grief shapes you in the most profound ways. We suffer small losses all the time. We lose control, we lose our dignity, we lose our common sense sometimes. When we fight with a parent, a friend, a boyfriend, we can lose our way. When we change locations, schools, job, there is sense of loss as well.

There are big losses, little losses and old griefs that get ripped open when new ones hit. And then there is impending loss. If we think we might lose someone we love. If they are sick. If the relationship is bumpy. If we have to move away or move on for some reason. One of the hardest parts of loss is trying not to lose ourselves in the process. Grief can make you feel crazy. It can fill up all the cracks in your day with foggy hurt and longing. You can begin to think that you are losing your self, in all that pain.

Sometimes the pain seems so unbearable that you need to escape. Part of you wants to hold on to it because its a way of being close and connected to what you lost, who you lost. And part of you needs some relief. The truth, as I see it, is this: There is no escaping. You will move in and out of the pain, the anger, the fear, the shock, the regret, the longing, the tugging in your gut. And you will eventually move closer to peace. To life on life's terms. To some form of acceptance that what ever is lost is lost, and that you can and will have to create some sort of way of hobbling forward with your broken heart, on to better days.

I don't think that you ever really forget, or "let go," as people say. I think the missing parts just become part of your new self in some way. And you somehow let new things into old empty spaces. Time does shape things. It passes and passes and passes and you one day realize that the ache has dulled a bit and you can tilt your head toward the warm sun and breath somewhat better.

In the meantime, I was reminded by someone recently, that you can and most certainly should. decide to take good loving care of yourself. Especially when you least feel like it, or most feel like hurting yourself for relief. You can take long walks, have long talks with someone who will just listen. Warm baths, hot showers. Some quiet time in a garden somewhere. Lots of water, may seem silly, but agreeing to hydrate yourself is very loving. Tears are fine, and is laughter. Lots of rest, too. Sunshine. Fresh air. Deep breaths. Time alone. But. Not too much time all alone. Write. Write. Write. Poems, journals, lists, memories. Pray. Whatever words you can find, tell them to a Higher Power. And read. Anything that helps you to know that you are not alone in the universe and that if you can get through each day still in tact, then you are doing great.

Sometimes, when we have lost someone particularly close to us, we can think that they are such a major source of our happiness that we will never feel good again. We can think that without them as a source, we will be forever empty. I think this is both true and untrue. We have to be careful not to idealize what we lost, as we mourn it. And we have to know that what was good and unique is a tribute to that person or relationship. And it always will be, but that other sources of joy will creep back into our lives and we must let them.

There are so many other feelings that can complicate grief, like guilt and fear and regret, so I say, easy easy easy does it when you are going through. Be gentle to yourself. Go a day at a time, and you will, when the time is right, see a lift in the fog.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great Gaping Holes

Sometimes the hole is just oh so big. In 12 step programs, they call it a G-d shaped void. That vast emptiness inside. That feeling of being all alone. And hungry. Not physically. Maybe its a grief. I hear so much about this feeling when a relationship ends, or when someone close is gone. I hear about it when it seems like everyone is moving forward to great things, and it feels as if you are the only one who is spinning in circles with no end in sight. Or when you feel like just about everything and anything you do is a big waste. Or you are thinking that there is really no point. That the bigness of the ache could really be deadly.

Many times, it seems as if no one in the universe can understand that kind of pain. And certainly no one can get you out of it. The idea that "this too shall pass," is of little help. It's like trying to imagine not having a headache when you have a migraine. It feels like what is at any given moment is what will always be.

I think that one of the things that can trigger the vast empty feeling is when we think we have screwed up royally. Many people have such a loud demanding inner critic that they do not permit themselves any mistakes. They don't know how to forgive themselves. One of my pals always tells me that we are allowed five mistakes a day. Ten if its raining. She reminds me that "easy does it" is a much better mantra than " you f-ing idiot."

And some of us have leaky psyches. Even when we hear good things about ourselves, or have a good encounter, experience, or get a compliment, we are suspect. We hold it in for a short time, maybe, but then we forget. Oh, but a mistake, a criticism, a bad word...that we remember. That sticks.

What to do? Well, there is always analysis. Learning about how it came to be that your default setting is emptiness. But in the mean time, I think there are few good tricks. Keeping up on your gratitudes, giving yourself permission to acknowledge the things you do right, the character traits that you have that are good. (Small things count, like getting through the day, showing up at work, class, or for a friend. Eating. Driving safely. Brushing your teeth.) Pray. Breathe. Walk. Smile at yourself and one other person at least once a day. Random acts of kindness to others is a good way to go, too.

Great gaping holes don't get filled quickly usually. Especially if you are coping with addiction, eating issues, emotional pain, or grief. But you can fill up. I really do think so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jelly On Your Toast (Civilian Comments)

Do you ever find yourself marveling at how clueless some people are when it comes to your hurt? Or your eating disorder or addiction? I am not, for the moment, talking about mean people, bullies, or the general population. Or your family. Though certainly there is a lot to talk about there alone. I am talking about friends, mostly, who are maybe well meaning at best, clueless at worst. And they make accidental comments that can nick you right in the heart, or feel like a gong in the chest.

Words so light, that fall so heavy. Like asking someone who is the throws of her eating disorder what kind of cereal she likes, or if she wants jelly on her toast. Or telling someone who gets hit by a parent to just hit them back. Or asking out loud in front of a group of people, "hey, what's that gauze wrap on your arm for?"

Words can hurt. Words can heal. Depends on how and where they are said. And by who. Absorbing the blow of hurtful statements (in these cases) can take a bit of resiliency training. I think there are a few ways to go: first you can allow yourself the full on recognition that what was said hurt you. That you were impacted. You can give yourself a few moments (or more) to reflect on why it hurt and what thoughts it triggered. Did it launch a really bad negative thought parade in your brain? (Like: "see you would like cereal but you can't cuz you are fat, and you won't stop and you better not go out anymore and everyone is staring at you and no one understands, they all know you are sick, they don't get it, they don't care and this is awful and you know you want to eat and you are pig anyway). This may sound harsh, but I am all too familiar with negative self attacking thought parades that lead to more bad feelings, and that usually lead to more self attacking behavior.

Relief seeking, but self attacking too. For a lot of people, brain default mode is to have a reaction and then have a reaction to the reaction. Like feeling hurt, and then feeling guilty for feeling hurt. Or feeling angry and then feeling guilty or frightened of feeling angry. Maybe we get it on a brain level, that people say dumb things. Everyone can be clueless at times. But we get disappointed that they don't know better, or seem so well when we feel so crazy. Our expectations are often out of whack, and usually our hopes are too.

Point is, that somewhere between honoring our experience, recognizing and validating our own feelings, and giving the clueless some slack for being clueless, relief can be found. They are not terrible. You are not terrible. And someday you will be able to have jelly on your toast.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Safe Places

"In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina. Can't you see the sunshine? Can't you just feel the moonshine? Ain't it just like a friend of mine? It hit me from behind. Yes I'm gone to Carolina in my mind" James Taylor

It's that time of year. For many of you, it's back to somewhere. For some of you, it's into "no-man's land," that after college, before job, grad school, new kind of life space that is not where you were and not where you are going to be. It's a time full of transitions and translations. Taking stock of your memories and experiences and making sure to hold onto them and carry them with you back to, or forward to where you are going.

Transitions can highlight overwhelming feelings. Even when the transition is a seemingly good one, like finishing school or going on a long trip. Sometimes transitions can be overstimulating, meaning that we get flooded with a ton of feelings all at once and the whole body, brain included, psyche and soul just go into rev.

Rev is one of those states where eating disorder or self injury stuff can fly. Rev often means a call for a sedative or mode of escape. Rev can lead to hurt and hurting.

I am thinking about where else to go when you are in rev mode. And I was thinking about the loveliest of places that I was very recently visiting. I was thinking how great it would be if I could bottle that feeling of tranquility and safety, of calm and faith, of total peace and ease and comfort that I had when staying in this lovely oasis of green trees and blue skies. And of a billion stars at night.

I was thinking too of how many times in my office I hear people express the need to send their mind on vacation. Without a substance or a self hurting act. And then I was thinking about going to Carolina in my mind.

There are real safe places. Quiet places. There are places that you can go to just sit and be, to calm the rev, think about the transitions, cool your self off, or get away from a bad situation or difficult person. Some of my favorites: parks, libraries, museums, book stores, a quiet tree lined street off the beaten path. I like quiet places that I can go to just sit, or wander gently.

And then there are the places you can create in your mind. If you can't actually take off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or find an empty corner in your local library, you can create a safe place in your mind. You can decorate it, and stock it full of comfy furniture, or babbling brooks. And you can go there anytime without going anywhere.

It is a way to keep the spaces that you have visited where you have felt well and whole present and accessible and usable. Make them your safe place. Keep the idea that you can take yourself somewhere whenever you need to.

A lot of the time, when I hear about emotional pain, confusion and rev, I hear how hesitant some of you are to create a place for yourself. And to try it out, before you try out other avenues for escape. I am not saying its a magic solution, but it can help. To go to Carolina in your mind.