Posts Tagged ‘disappointment’

“To Be or Not To Be”

At some point, perhaps years before the night of my book party, alcohol and drinking began to occupy an increasing amount of my mental real estate. During the workday I eagerly anticipated cocktail hour. Or I perseverated over where to purchase a bottle of wine on my way home from work. Among my shopping criteria were selection, price range, and distance from my condo. But most importantly, how frequently or recently I had purchased from a certain place. I feared becoming recognized as a “regular” so I rotated my patronage accordingly.

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I first saw you in the movie Happiness. Your raw-ugly-beautiful performance cut through to my heart in a way I had never experienced before. “This guy isn’t afraid of anything,” I thought. “He’s fearless.” And you did it again and again: in Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Capote, Synecdoche, Jack Goes Boating, A Late Quartet. Balls out, I would call it now, with great admiration.

More recently I saw you at one of the Happy Talks at the Rubin Museum of Art. You sat with philosopher Simon Critchley and were as real and thoughtful and imperfect as I imagined you. The way you dropped your head into your hand to fully consider whatever probing question your co-host had posed. As if you needed to remove yourself from the presence of all our eager eyes in order to touch something deep inside, to find an uncompromising truth.

At one point he asked you “How do you know when you feel happy?” And after a long, silent pause, you shared that watching your kids enjoying one another – how they allowed you to enjoy them – that was the definition of happiness for you. I wished my boyfriend was with me to hear that. To hear a father’s description of the unexpected joys of children, the sheer gorgeousness of life’s messy spontaneous moments.

But then you questioned your own answer. You wondered whether this sort of experience felt like happiness because it spurred reflection on your own past and sort of filled in the holes you imagined existed as a child, or if it was a feeling of true unconditional love for your children. “What is real happiness?” we were all left wondering.

I also wondered about those holes. I have them too. I often feel like a problem that’s impossible to solve. Simultaneously too much and not enough. And like there’s something rotten inside me, something that I might be able to exorcise if I could just find its exact location. I usually feel that no one else can see or understand it. I walk around the city feeling like everyone has figured out something that continues to elude me.

Drinking helped. It numbed me to my experience and allowed me to get away from myself and my pain, if only temporarily. But after a while I realized it didn’t really help. And worse than that, it added to my pain by convincing me that I was weak, incapable of dealing with reality, altering my experience in a way that was wasting my life. Eventually even the slightest discomfort led me to the bottle, creating a vicious cycle. When I stopped drinking 6 years ago, those feelings got worse. Without my predictable anesthesia, I felt overwhelmed by suffering, my own and that of others. When I found the practice of meditation, though, I started to build up my tolerance to such discomfort. Like exercising a muscle that had wasted away, I am gradually becoming more resilient, more loving and gentle to myself.

When I learned that you left rehab a few months ago, I wanted to reach out to you. I started writing a letter, telling you that even though we have never met, in a very real way I know you and feel your pain. I wanted to remind you how strong and beautiful you are, that you are deeply loved and appreciated for your imperfect self. Even if you didn’t believe it at first, I wanted you to take my word for it and eventually you’d see. I wanted to invite you to meditate, to have the experience of sitting with that seemingly solid and immovable discomfort without reacting with drinking or shooting up or even going down the rabbit hole of habitual thoughts. To watch how the pain changes, even if only minutely, from moment to moment. I wanted to tell you that it doesn’t get easier, but it does get better.

But I put the letter away. I lost my nerve when I realized you might think my lightweight addiction couldn’t measure up to yours, that my suffering was nothing in comparison. I couldn’t see past my own insecurities, couldn’t be fearless like you were in Happiness, and chose not to put those thoughts of love and support out there, even if you never read them. Now I wish I had.

You will be missed.

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The rest of that saying goes “plus c’est la même chose,” which means essentially that “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” Every language seems to have some version of this expression, a resignation of sorts to the fact that people and situations can seem virtually immovable in many cases.

I have thought of this expression a lot lately, about how little I seem to have changed since I was a young girl. And how many of us also see familiar glimpses of ourselves as children as we go about our adult lives? The other night I was leaving an Italian class with a classmate, a successful lawyer and mother of grown children. She told me that she probably would not be returning because she found it too frustrating and intimidating to be among people she perceived as much more advanced. “I haven’t changed a bit since I was a kid,” she said. “I’m still so hard on myself.”

Like my classmate, my self-judgment doesn’t seem to have budged since I was a girl. I have a clear memory of sitting at our backyard picnic table the summer following 2nd grade. My father, a math teacher, was teaching me 3rd grade math that summer to prepare me to skip a grade in September. Each morning we sat at that picnic table and he taught me one lesson after another. And through clenched teeth and a protruding bottom lip, I pouted and struggled and fought my way through, not because I didn’t like what I was learning, but because I thought I should be “getting it” quicker. My dad told me, “It’s only easy if you already know how to do it,” the implication being that one must tolerate a certain amount of discomfort to make the mistakes necessary to learn.

Flash forward 30 years and it might seem that not much has changed. As I go about starting a business, I am facing a lot of new things, things that will allow me to conduct my business effectively. Things about which I would much rather remain ignorant. Things that elicit extreme emotions and mental choruses of “You’re stupid,” “You’ll never get it,” “This is beyond you,” “Everyone else got this on the first try.” Financial software, manipulating social media to be more efficient, iOS7. Hell, setting up our new printer had me stomping my feet such that the felines went a-scattering. We call these my “technology tantrums” and can usually laugh about them, but each one brings me back to that picnic table, to my vicious self-judgment and relentless self-criticism.

One thing that has changed, however, is the ability to notice myself taking a technology tantrum, to step back long enough to say “Hey, that thing is happening again where I feel uncomfortable because I don’t understand something yet. I should be gentle with myself and allow myself the space to learn something new.” In a way, flashing back to my 7-year-old self allows me to soften a little, to bring her some comfort, and to remind her to go easy on herself.

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I have almost always had a complicated relationship with my sister. Whether this is due to sibling rivalry, our closeness in age (she is 18 months my junior), or because we are the same sex, I am not sure. What I do know is that our relationship often feels tense and restrained. There is no doubt that we love each other fiercely, but when it comes to showing one another that love, we fall short. To the outside observer, we may appear a couple of compatible 30-somethings, but each of us feels the divide between us, like an invisible brick wall.

We have tried to explain away this separation – we’re just too different, we don’t look at things the same way. Much like I’ve tried to live as if my job doesn’t need to be personally rewarding and based on passion, I’ve tried to live as if I don’t need to have a close relationship with my sister. But this has never been satisfying for me. And, I suspect, for her. As much as we try to make it appear otherwise, we both yearn for a more fulfilling sisterly bond.

When the tension peaks between us, it’s usually because of something supremely silly. The source of our latest conflict was a jeans jacket. She liked mine, I ordered it for her in what I deduced was the right size, and she ended up returning it for a different size. Not a big deal, right? But when she told me she was returning it, I felt as though she was rejecting me and my love! I took offense and told her it was “annoying.” In response, she “stepped back” from the situation, and didn’t respond to my text messages or emails. This went on for a couple of weeks until I wrote her a long email explaining that underneath my snippy response were hurt feelings. What’s more, I told her that I felt rejected, unseen, and unappreciated.

The day after I sent the email, I was at my parents’ house on Long Island, getting ready for a baby shower for my cousin’s wife. While changing clothes in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a picture sitting on my chest of drawers for the one-thousandth time: A 3×3 inch square photo of my sister and me smiling at the camera. She is about 3 years old and I’m about 5. We are standing near the front door of our grandparents’ house in upstate New York; we are in our bathing suits, probably getting ready to go swimming in the old watering hole. My sister has on some kind of cape, and I’m tying it in a bow at her neck. The picture is in a small plastic frame that my sister decorated with our names and the words “Sisters are forever.” She gave it to me as a gift years ago; I don’t remember the occasion but she probably does. In the picture, we both look so carefree and happy (and are approximately the current age of her two daughters). There isn’t a trace of our current conflict on either of our faces. Looking at it again, I realized how we were wasting time being so unkind to one another. That in addition to feeling love for one another, we needed to practice showing it.

When my sister read my email, it hit her like a ton of bricks. There is no one that I know who tries harder to be a good person, friend, neighbor, wife, and mother. No one who thinks of others more, or spends more time caring for others instead of herself. The suggestion that she had hurt me flew in the face of everything she tries to be and do. When she called me to talk, it was with guns blazing because she felt as if she needed to defend herself.

At first our conversation was adversarial. She was fixated on the fact that there wasn’t anything else she could have done about the jeans jacket to make me not feel rejected. I insisted her “stepping back” made matters worse. She reminded me how different we are, that we have different lives and different priorities, and that we’ve had this type of conversation before and yet here we were again. I suggested that we could try to put the past behind us and focus on what we wanted from our relationship now.

And then something shifted. The bottom fell out of whatever short-term satisfaction we got from pointing out how we had been hurt or wronged more than the other. Suddenly we were able to hear one another. I asked her “Would you like our relationship to be different?” She responded “Yes.” I asked her “How would that look and feel?” She responded “I would call you to talk about my day or to discuss something I’m going through.”

I asked her if she ever felt the same things I wrote about in my email – hurt, unappreciated, unseen. She said she did. We talked about how we love one another differently than we love anyone else in the world and how, given this fact and the knowledge of our respective sensitivities, wishes, and needs, we are in a unique position to give one another exactly what we yearn for – to recognize one another, to cherish one another, to make the other feel special and loved.

Since our conversation, my relationship with my sister has changed; the confusion and hardness we felt before has softened. The brick wall has come down a bit and with it the barriers to reach out to one another via phone, email, or text. We seem to reveal ourselves more fearlessly, show one another our vulnerabilities and to invite the other in. It feels as if we are appreciating each other more, and in doing so, we are appreciating the moment more, giving it the respect and gratitude it’s due. By dropping our stories about how we have been wronged, we are able to touch that soft spot we both have in spades. And (at the risk of sounding like Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy) to recognize that we deserve to love and to be loved in return.

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Did you ever ride the go-karts at Disney World? Each car is situated on individual, parallel tracks that prevent crossover and collisions, so that everyone basically drives around without incident. At the starting line, the track beneath the car is wide, encompassing the full width between the tires, and as a result the drive is quite smooth; but soon the track narrows to a thin rail and the driver must find the proper steering wheel position that will prevent the car from zig zagging the entire way, slamming into the track on the inside of the right tires, then the left, over and over again. I could never do this. Every time I tried to drive the Disney go-karts, I gave myself whiplash (physical and emotional) because I could not find the middle ground.

This is not unlike other parts of my life. If I were to whittle down my life’s narrative to a single story line, it might be about my search for the middle ground. My natural tendency, however, seems to be vacillating between extremes. At a recent weekend meditation retreat, I spent the entire first day on the cushion ping-ponging between sleepy and speedy. Although I was a little tired, my sleepiness was about more than that. It was an avoidance technique, a way to literally shut down my body so that I didn’t have to deal with the difficult emotions that arose. When not doing the old college head-bob, I was feeling speedy, zooming through mental to-do lists, and wishing away the minutes on the clock so that we could get to the next thing, and then the next, and the next. And when we did get to the next thing, I wanted to just get through that. Sleepy, speedy, sleepy, speedy. That was my Saturday.

Another area where I vacillate between extremes is in expressing myself. As I have mentioned before, I have a tendency to bottle up my emotions and then explode. This feels like a balloon taking on air, little by little. Because I’m elastic, adaptable, I rationalize that it’s easier for me to take on whatever it is than to verbalize my true emotions. But eventually I lose my elasticity. I get to a point where I can’t take on any more, even though I still wish I could. And then Pop Boom Bang! One of the many problems with this approach is that no one on the outside can see it coming. Another is that I might explode at something relatively innocuous, or at least something that would be considered incongruent with the level of my reaction.

But nowhere do I vacillate between extremes more than in romantic relationships. While I feel like a fairly effective communicator in other parts of my life, all of that seems to go out the window when love is involved and I switch between extremes of hope and fear suddenly and often without warning. Being so vulnerable with someone – placing my heart in his hands and trusting that he won’t squish it – sends my rational brain on an extended vacation. When things are going smoothly, I am full of hope, struck by how easily it flows, and wonder why all the fuss about how difficult relationships can be. And then, all of a sudden, it stops being easy. When this happens, I feel disoriented, unable to express myself. And I quickly switch from a sense of hopeful beginnings to one of fearful endings. I automatically go to that extreme. When trying to communicate, I run out of skills and feel utterly hope-less.

Eventually I do reach a point of exhaustion with these extremes. On the second day of my meditation program, for example, my practice was very different from the sleepy-speedy day before. It was as if I had worn down my avoidance of the present moment, fatigued my muscles of resistance, and could finally rest in awareness. So too has this happened with expressing difficult emotions with others. Rather than always filling the balloon to bursting and then exploding, I release tension gradually, mindfully, by trying to take a gentle approach, by giving myself permission to risk disappointing the other person. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes not. And in my relationship, often directly following the point at which I reach utter despair, I find myself softening and opening and developing curiosity about what is going on in the moment, less so about the outcome – good or bad.

On the topic of hope and fear, Chogyam Trungpa writes in Ocean of Dharma:

The experience of our day-to-day living situation consists of dissatisfaction, questioning, pain, depression, aggression, passion. All these are real, and we have to relate with them. Having a relationship with this may be extremely difficult. It’s an organic operation without any anesthetics. If we really want to get into it, we should be completely prepared to take a chance and get nothing back but tremendous disappointment, tremendous hopelessness.

Hope is the source of pain, and hope operates on the level of something other than what there is. We hope, dwelling in the future, that things might turn out right. We do not experience the present, do not face the pain or neurosis as it is. So the only way that is feasible is developing an attitude of hopelessness, something other than future orientation. The present is worth looking at.

Faith is a more realistic attitude than hope is. Hope is a sense of lacking something in the present situation. We are hopeful about getting better as we go along. Faith is that it’s okay in the present situation, and we have some sense of trust in that.

I have no reason to believe I would be any better at driving one of the go-karts at Disney but I am working on finding the middle ground in other (arguably more important) parts of my life. My faith in the process of meditation has only grown since I began practicing three years ago. I don’t think it would be extreme to say that sitting with myself, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, practicing letting go of hope and fear, and cultivating space, acceptance, and kindness is the most important thing I can do with my life.


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Last week, my boyfriend brought home a bottle of 10-year-old single-malt scotch. We keep alcohol in the house – wine, gin, beer, and Italian liqueurs – and so far it hasn’t been a problem. Scotch never appealed to me. But for some reason, this lone bottle had a different effect than all the others that have come and gone without issue (or relapse).

The night he brought it home, my boyfriend poured a meager amount into an ice-filled glass, and sipped at it leisurely. When I caught a whiff, it turned my stomach, and transported me. The smoky-oakiness of the scotch reminded me of my last night in Oaxaca about 10 years ago, a night when I drank far too much mezcal and ate nothing but the accompanying orange wedges and a handful of cayenne-fried crickets (yes, crickets). On the overnight bus ride back to Mexico City, I threw up into a bag of souvenirs I’d purchased from Oaxacan artisans, surrounded by what I’d imagine were several native Mexicans rolling their eyes: Dumb drunk gringa.

Like a lot of my darkest drinking moments, this happened while I was alone, or at least not surrounded by people I knew and who could hold me accountable. This is partially what allowed me to convince myself that I didn’t have a problem and to continue drinking for so many years.

A few days after my mental Mexican journey, my boyfriend left for the second-to-last of several work-related trips. He packed his things and got on yet another airplane, obviously leaving the nearly full bottle of scotch sitting on our kitchen counter.

Alone on the couch that night, I felt bored and lonely and in desperate need of distraction. I ate an unsatisfying meal purchased from the market and watched end-to-end episodes of Wallander, Project Runway, and Hannibal. Still, a feeling of dissatisfaction and emptiness persisted and I craved something to fill the void.

I was very aware of the bottle of scotch on the kitchen counter. Even though the smell and taste bordered on nauseating, I was acutely aware of the potential to be found in that bottle.

The concept of satisfaction has been on my mind lately. Having reread the new edition of Intuitive Eating, I was reminded of my own tendency to make consumption-related decisions in response to external stimuli. For example, eating foods I consider “good” as opposed to “bad,” eating at conventional mealtimes regardless of physical hunger, and the tendency to disregard my desire for certain foods in favor of what I “should” be eating.

In some ways, drinking alcohol was very satisfying to me. Without it, I recognize that I often feel deprived. What I choose to eat and drink is thereby often in response to this feeling of deprivation. Whereas I could make up for an unsatisfying meal by having an extra glass of wine in the past, that same unsatisfying meal now feels more troubling, and there is a greater sense of urgency to find something that satisfies me. I now have a tendency to purchase expensive indulgences like imported artichoke hearts, Marcona almonds, macadamia nuts, and fine dark chocolate in an attempt to substitute them for the missing indulgence (and satisfaction) of drinking.

If someone so much as suggests that I stop drinking coffee for some reason, I hear myself vehemently scoffing, I’ve given up enough! I’ve certainly emptied more breadbaskets and consumed more desserts since I stopped drinking, not to mimic the physiologic effects of alcohol’s sugar content but as a psychological substitute, a reward for teetotaling.

Some friends of mine gave up drinking for a year or more and now are able to drink moderately. I envy them but don’t dare try it for myself because I fear nothing has changed in my relationship with alcohol except for the choice not to drink it. While I miss drinking a glass of wine while cooking or having a cocktail with friends and family, I also miss drinking alone, on lonely, bored nights like the one I described above. I miss nursing my feelings of dejection, like wrapping myself in a warm blanket to ward off the cold. I miss the privacy of it and the indulgence of finishing a bottle of wine without any judgmental onlookers.

If I were to start drinking again, I’m fairly certain I would rely on external stimuli to determine how much I drank, for example, controlling the amount of alcohol I have in the house, something that becomes more difficult when you live with someone who can drink moderately and does not have to limit available quantities.

This is all to say that for all my thinking and writing about Buddhism, impermanence, and learning to become comfortable with discomfort, I still miss booze. It is true that if I sit with the discomfort and the desire, the moment eventually passes. But by no means have I meditated away my desire to drink. It is something I think about regularly and for good reason: by keeping it front of mind, by noticing the different drinking behaviors that distinguish my boyfriend’s healthy relationship with alcohol and my abusive one, perhaps I reduce the risk of being blind-sighted by a relapse.

I should say that I resisted the bottle of scotch that night and every night since. It’s still sitting there, the level dropping by a half-inch or so every couple of nights as my boyfriend enjoys it moderately. I, on the other hand, am still learning to sit with the knowledge that I’m different and the awareness that not drinking is one of the tradeoffs that comes as a result of being honest with myself.


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You’re sure
There’s a cure
And you have finally found it
You think
One drink
Will shrink you ’til you’re underground
And living down
But it’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
‘Til you wise up

~from Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”

Before meditating the other day, I read the following from Chogyam Trungpa’s Ocean of Dharma entitled “The Truth of Suffering”:

We must work with our fears, frustrations, disappointments, and irritations, the painful aspects of life. People complain that Buddhism is an extremely gloomy religion because it emphasizes suffering and misery. Usually religions speak of beauty, song, ecstasy, bliss. But according to Buddha, we must begin by seeing the experience of life as it is. We must see the truth of suffering, the reality of dissatisfaction. We cannot ignore it and attempt to examine only the glorious, pleasurable aspects of life. If one searches for a promised land, a Treasure Island, then the search only leads to more pain. So all sects and schools of Buddhism agree that we must begin by facing the reality of our living situations. We cannot begin by dreaming.

Facing the reality of my living situation is something that has been on my mind a lot lately (possibly since birth). I tend to bristle at Pollyannas, am wary of always “looking on the bright side,” and have cautioned friends and family members not to blow sunshine up my *ss. I am drawn to examine life’s painful, messy, and uncomfortable aspects. Though some consider me a pessimist, I have always thought myself a realist.

I don’t mean to be a downer. The negative side of things just seems truer to me; putting a positive spin on everything smacks of delusion and denial. Like everyone else, I yearn to be happy but I struggle with what this means. What is happiness? Can one be happy and still acknowledge the difficulties in life, the sense of chronic ickiness, the presence of suffering, disaster, and death?

Recently I attended one of the Rubin Museum’s Happy Talks with Aimee Mann and Neil Labute, two artists and individuals I have admired and followed for years. Neither is known for his or her happiness per se: her lyrics are raw observations of conflict, disappointments, depression, and anxiety; his plays portray some of our least savory characteristics and personal struggles. At the talk, however, both reported they are generally happy.

This has me thinking that perhaps it is the acknowledgement of difficulty that allows happiness to exist. One cannot exist without the other, yet it is incredibly difficult to hold both the positive and the negative aspects of life in one’s mind simultaneously. By acknowledging the existence of life’s unsavory bits, however, perhaps we are freed up to enjoy the beauty, joy, and softness that is also present.

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