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If You Feel Too Much

Jamie Tworkowski, founder of TWLOHA

If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
If this world is too painful, stop and rest.
It’s okay to stop and rest.
If you need a break, it’s okay to say you need a break.
This life – it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win.
It’s okay to slow down.
You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by.
This life is not about status or opinion or appearance.
You don’t have to fake it.
You do not have to fake it.
Other people feel this way too.
If your heart is broken, it’s okay to say your heart is broken.
If you feel stuck, it’s okay to say you feel stuck.
If you can’t let go, it’s okay to say you can’t let go.
You are not alone in these places.
Other people feel how you feel.
You are more than just your pain. You are more than wounds, more than drugs, more than death and silence.
There is still some time to be surprised.
There is still some time to ask for help.
There is still some time to start again.
There is still some time for love to find you.
It’s not too late.
You’re not alone.
It’s okay – whatever you need and however long it takes – it’s okay.
It’s okay.
If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
There is still some time.

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I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

It answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

– Warsan Shire, from “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

Even today, six years after beginning to understand how Borderline Personality Disorder effects the way I feel, think and behave, I still have moments of overwhelming shame. Some of this is internalized stigma. But no one is born believing being ill is equivalent to being bad. We learn it from our culture.

And so to cope, I find myself sometimes splitting – a term used often for people with BPD, but one that I have mixed feelings about. I honestly didn’t believe I did this when it was first introduced to me. Splitting happens when how you currently feel contradicts what you believe to be true. As much as it causes problems, it helps to cope with the dissonance that this type of contradiction brings. Instead of having to face the contradiction, you write it off as an impossibility and deny the existence of one aspect of the split. Referring to splitting as “black and white thinking” has helped me understand how this coping mechanism (however distorted and harmful it may be) plays out in my life. And I can see it happening in small and large ways almost every day.

Here’s an example: this past week I spent time with five other people at a cottage in Muskoka. The honest truth is that these five people happen to be among my favourite in the world – Kathryn (obviously high on my list of great people), her sisters and their husbands. One evening, in the heat of a very competitive board game (and after a long day in the sun which had worn everyone out) my sister-in-law accused me of cheating. I was initially surprised and confused – was she teasing or being serious? I could not tell. As she continued to question my honesty, I was hurt and then quickly very angry, and then even more quickly incredibly embarrassed at what I felt like was an overly intense emotional reaction. I had to leave the table – but thankfully, was able to do so with a commitment to return in five minutes and we were able to carry on with our game.

When I spoke to her about the accusation later, she admitted that she was just very disappointed that her team was losing. She confessed that the intensity of competition which the six of us constantly feed makes her feel tired and sometimes not as smart or skilled or quick as the rest of us. She exposed her own vulnerability in that moment of accusation. After learning this, I felt so much grace toward her, and she accepted my apology for having a very quick angry response.

As I later reflected on this incident with my therapist, I realized that the shame that followed the anger was closely related to this concept of splitting. I love my sister-in-law very deeply, and to feel so much hurt and anger toward her contradicted how I usually feel. I felt I could not tolerate loving her and being angry. And so, I compartmentalized – either I had to deny my own emotion (which led to shame and self-criticism) or reject my love for her.  And of course, in any relationship, this is not healthy.

It’s not just with other people that I do this. I find myself splitting circumstances (I struggle to work every scheduled shift due to anxiety, and so I should just quit); splitting my current emotions from the past or future (I feel sad and even though I remember that I’ve felt happy before, I don’t believe I will ever feel happy again); even splitting aspects of my own identity (“I have hurt others because of my struggle with mental illness” gets split away from “I am a strong mental health advocate”).

The most damage comes when I split aspects of my own self into black and white. At times I feel like I am this creative, caring, intelligent and insightful human, ever searching to live well and love well. But in just a small moment later, I might feel completely useless, unworthy of being loved, a failure in every attempt to learn or grow as a person. Not only am I rotten to the core, I have no hope of being able to change anything about myself. I’m sure you understand where this kind of thinking leads.

I know others experience this too. It might not feel as intense, or be as conscious a process, but we all have these moments where we feel like rejecting the conflicting aspects of our own self. As is often the case, a friend recently shared a quote from author Elizabeth O’Connor on this very subject at just the perfect time.

I share it with you here, in the hope that reflecting on it will help me make peace with and even embrace my whole self while challenging you to do the same.

“If I respect the plurality in myself, and no longer see my jealous self as the whole of me, then I have gained the distance I need to observe it, listen to it, and let it acquaint me with a piece of my own lost history. In this way I come into possession of more of myself and extend my own inner kingdom. Suppose we come to know that every recognition of anger and jealousy and greed and sloth is an opportunity to lift out of the waters of unconsciousness a tiny piece of submerged land. Then, would we not pity the man who is so identified with the good that he denies any intimations from below that this good may not be the whole of him? Unaware that he is cut off from a large part of himself, he does not understand what it means to be on the journey of becoming whole.”

– Elizabeth O’Connor, Our Many Selves

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation… all the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.” 
– David Wyte

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(Photo Credit: Brandon Mitchell)

I got to be near some pigs that were “unutterably themselves” this weekend.

I watched them cool themselves in some pretty nasty mud. I watched them root through fresh straw. I fed them corn cobs and scratched their heads and even grunted a few replies to their curious questions. I marvelled at their long eyelashes and the density of their bodies and how fast they could run in circles. I laughed and turned away disgusted as they shit and pissed right there in front of me.

I loved these pigs a little bit this weekend. I loved them even though we are so different, even though our interaction was so limited. I loved them because they showed me something I didn’t know, or maybe had just forgotten.

Along with these pigs were the dogs and the chickens; the gardens and the grass; the lake and the rain; the ants and the mosquitos; the sun and the sky – all reminding me of the hope and resiliency of creation,

the hope and resiliency of God in creation,

the hope and resiliency of creation in me.

I am, you anxious one. 

Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in stillness?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.

 – Rainer Maria Rilke

“Physicists gain certain insights from understanding energy as a wave, and other insights from understanding it as a particle, and use quantum mechanics to reconcile the information they have gleaned. Similarly, we have to examine illness and identity, understand that observation will usually happen in one domain or the other, and come up with a syncretic mechanics. We need a vocabulary in which the two concepts are not opposites, but compatible aspects of a condition. The problem is to change how we assess the value of individuals and of lives, to reach for a more ecumenical take on healthy.”

Solomon, Andrew. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012), 5.

From Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver (2009).

“At the River Clarion”

1.

I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a
water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices
of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had
something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing
under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me
what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered
the moss beneath the water.

I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through
all the traffic, the ambition.

2.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then
keep on going.

Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God)
would sing to you if it could sing, if
you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?

If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing
their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician,
the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own
constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was
comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.

3.

Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?
And should we not thank the knife also?
We do not live in a simple world.

4.

There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

5.

My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest,
she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows
from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.

6.

Along its shores were, may I say, very intense cardinal flowers.
And trees, and birds that have wings to uphold them,
for heaven’s sakes–
the lucky ones: they have such deep natures,
they are so happily obedient.
While I sit here in a house filled with books,
ideas, doubts, hesitations.

7.

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
singing.

(http://www.amazon.ca/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=9780807068984)

“Unfortunately, in seeing ourselves as we truly are, not all that we see is beautiful and attractive. This is undoubtedly part of the reason we flee silence. We do not want to be confronted with our hypocrisy, our phoniness. We see how false and fragile is the false self we project. We have to go through this painful experience to come to our true self. It is a harrowing journey, a death to self–the false self–and no one wants to die. But it is the only path to life, to freedom, to peace, to true love. And it begins with silence. We cannot give ourselves in love if we do not know and possess ourselves. This is the great value of silence. It is the pathway to all we truly want.” – M. Basil Pennington, A Place Apart

University ruined my ability to read books.  Before university I could plow through any book in a week, maybe two at the most.  Now it takes me months.  Maybe its because I try to read too many different things concurrently, rather than waiting till I finish one to begin another.  Maybe its because my brain is still fried from all that info they pumped into it at school.  Who knows.

A whopping five months ago I began reading The Boy in the Moon, in which Ian Brown reflects on his relationship with his severely disabled son, Walker.   As I ponder my relationships with the core members at L’arche and my role as discover of their gifts, I reflect on these words.

“What is he trying to show me?  All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own” (3).

“This constant questioning, filtered through Walker – does he mean what he’s doing, or not? – was also a model, a frame on which to hang the human world, a way of living” (39).

“The light her children threw on her life, and the darkness that hovered around them and their future, went hand in hand.  One was not possible without the existence of the other.  The most difficult part to accept was how complex life was, how bleak and at the same time how rich.  [Her daughter’s] mere existence was a form of remonstration, a reminder to look deeper, or at least to be alert.  Who’s to say they’re not happier in their world than I am in mine? And here I am feeling sorry for them because I’m trying to judge them by the standards of the world they aren’t part of.” (144).

“The disabled are a challenge to everyone’s established sense of order: they frighten us, if not with their faces, then with their obvious need. They call us to be more than we ever thought we would have to be” (150).

“Genetic tests are a way to eliminate the imperfect, and all the pain and agony that comes with that imperfection.  I am relieved there was no such test [when Walker was born], that I didn’t have to face the ethical dilemma it may soon present.  Because Walker is proof of what the imperfect and the fragile have to offer; a reminder that there are many ways to be human; a concentrator of joy; an insistent nudge to pay attention to every passing mote of daily life that otherwise slips by uncounted.  A test avoids all that, for better or for worse.  But if there were a more adequate system of caring for the disabled, if we were less frightened of them, if the prospect of looking after a disabled child did not threaten to destroy the lives of those doing the caring – if we had such alternatives, would we need a test at all?” (180).

“Walker’s [group] home is run by an organization that offers assisted living at a thoroughly professional level.  But how does one make a professional operation a home as well – a place full of compassion where people are forgiven endlessly?  Walker had a home where he was taken care of, but was it also a family? Would the place he was cared for feel like his home, occupied by a group of friends and measured by the collective inner life created by its residents?” (186).

Quoting Jean Vanier, “We begin in fragility, we grow up, we are fragile and strong at the same time, and then we go into the process of weakening. So the whole question of the human process is how to integrate strength and weakness. You become human by accepting your own vulnerability.  We’re in a society where we have to know what to do all the time. But if we move instead from the place of our weakness, what happens? We say to people, I need your help. And then we create community” (208).

It’s been just about a week since I left Korban House and my life at L’arche. There has certainly been more to think about than I could have anticipated, from practical matters like what I will do next to the emotional aspect of leaving behind close friends and a rhythm of life that only the Maritimes can offer, to the multitude of lessons that my time their offered.  I think about the themes of rootedness and stability, rhythm and rest, solitude, community, the depth of love and forgiveness, simplicity and being observant, living in the moment and with gratitude.

I find my mind keeps wandering back to this thought of the need for periods of transition.  I think I’m like the frog who gets dropped into a pot of water… if the water has time to heat up slowly, I’m less likely to start screaming and attempt an escape.  But the analogy falls apart here, because it’s actually a very good thing, these times of transitions, not something that will lead to me becoming a fancy French dish (I hope).

Looking back I see that L’arche itself was a transition period – a safe place that gave me some warm water to rest in before being torn away from university life (which consisted of community and life in the maritimes and living near my St. Stephen friends).  And L’arche gave me a lot of time to think, despite how busy I was, about who I want to be and where I want to end up and how I plan on getting there.  Though I get the feeling that this won’t be something I ever stop thinking about.

And I’ve enjoyed the much needed small transitions – the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Halifax, reflecting on L’arche and thinking about what’s next without being in either place, and the restful week I’ve had so far in Ontario.   But now it’s time to dive in – into job hunting and essay writing and organizing my life into the neat little boxes I prefer it to be in.

Still, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed.  I recently found this poem… it seems to help me remember to focus on the bigger picture when I get caught up in the sometimes tiny details and the bigger times of chaos.

Life Goes On
By Howard Thurman

During these turbulent times we must
remind ourselves repeatedly
that life goes on.
This we are apt to forget.
The wisdom of life transcends our wisdoms;
the purpose of life outlasts our purposes;
the process of life cushions our processes.

The mass attack of disillusion and despair,
distilled out of the collapse of hope,
has so invaded our thoughts that what we know
to be true and valid
seems unreal and ephemeral.
There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility.

This is the great deception.
By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion
without the will to affirm the great and permanent strength
of the clean and the commonplace. Let us not be deceived.
It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces
by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.

Birds still sing;
the stars continue to cast their gentle gleam
over the desolation of the battlefields,
and the heart is still inspired by the kind word
and the gracious deed.

Love and peace always.

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