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Archive for December, 2020

Why We Are Sad

Sacred sadness Photograph by Stephanie Johnson

If you love an addict or an alcoholic, you probably struggle with sadness. Maybe your sadness has spiraled into depression, or anxiety, or some combination of emotions that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. If so, I feel your pain. I have an alcoholic in my extended family, and she breaks my heart. She has broken my heart for so long, that I can’t remember what it feels like to be comfortable, happy, and at peace with her.

The people we grow up with–parents, grandparents, close family friends, aunts and uncles, whoever they might be–are tasked with this role: take care of the kids. We all expected this from the people who spent the most time with us, the ones who accepted the responsibility. When you grow up with an alcoholic or an addict, you learn the hard way that those expectations were simply not realistic. The Responsible Ones couldn’t be responsible. The Caretakers could not be caring. The Adults simply could not behave in the world as grown ups. So many of us ended up with big, angry, traumatized children raising us, or helping to raise us. What does that do to the adult child of the alcoholic?

If you’re in Al-Anon, then you’ve memorized the Laundry List. I won’t go over that here. Instead, I want to talk about a particular way I was affected. I was not the kid who acted out and got into trouble; I was the one who tried to be perfect; the high achiever, the ‘beyond-all-reproach’ child who thought that if she was very, very, good, then the Adults would not ignore her, get wasted and terrify her, insult her, or make her feel like deep down, she wasn’t as great as everyone thought she was. Not as smart, not as pretty, not as competent, not as good as she believed herself to be. Of course, children–even adult children–are vulnerable to those messages. Even though we KNOW that the source of all this negativity and criticism, all this neglect and contempt, is a traumatized, addicted adult who cannot manage their emotions, we still feel like we did something wrong, or, that there is something we can do right to change this situation, even if the ‘situation’ has been rolling on for decades.

The Perfect Child dies hard. We engage in twisted thinking on such a deep level that we don’t always see it. For example, the Good Kid decides that she will save everyone she can, as a way to compensate for the fact that nobody saved her. We start Community Service groups, attend churches (in my case, far too many), we donate, recycle, sponsor kids in Venezuela, adopt strays, and most of all, we try to save the alcoholics from themselves and each other. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with selfless acts meant to honestly help others; but, we sacrifice too much of our souls for others’ benefit; we fall prey to magical thinking. We think that our selfless acts, our constant vigilance, our dedication to buffering each other from pain and grief, will somehow save us from our creeping and constant depression. In fact, that depression is created by the belief that we can make the world safe for the suffering; that we can save ourselves from what already happened by falling on our sword for the addicts in our lives.

I used to imagine all the negative consequences of not washing out a bottle of ranch and placing it in the recycle bin. If I simply threw it away, I envisioned poisoning a pile of trash, killing birds, ruining the planet, and being directly responsible for global warming. It doesn’t make sense to write it down. If I didn’t call my addict every day, I saw her falling apart, destroyed by my lack of caring, creating havoc for others in the household, and ultimately falling to her death in an alcoholic stupor because I neglected her. I created rituals around “saving” people, plants, animals, you name it. It was my job to make sure everything was right with the world. It was up to me to keep my pumpkin vine from succumbing to the rabbits (I failed) and to make sure each and every student I worked with was happy, fulfilled, and following their dreams (I really failed). If someone was being hunted by ICE, it was up to me to do something to stop it (I failed).

I failed so often–even in the role as Parent, where I was going to be perfect to make up for my imperfect upbringing–that I spiraled into some pretty intense self loathing. But I learned something. Something important. I can’t save anyone. I can’t save plants, people, the planet, or the most vulnerable. By trying to save everyone and everything else, I was really trying to save myself, because I felt unloved, neglected, and invisible. It did not work, because to save yourself, you have to understand that you CANNOT SAVE OTHERS.

You can help others; you can offer your love, your support, your financial assistance, your spiritual guidance, your affection, and your friendship. But you cannot save anyone; not your parents; not your kids, not your partner; not anyone. And that’s OK. You’re not a bad person when you finally give up on that impossible quest. You can continue to help. THAT IS ENOUGH. And sometimes, your help is not wanted. That is OK. Sometimes, your help will be rejected. That is OK. Keep trying, but don’t think you can save the world.

Jesus came to save the world, and guess what? He left us with the instruction to “work out your own salvation”. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (Philippians 2:12). I’m not a preacher nor a Jesus freak, but hey, if the Man himself tells us to work out our own salvation, then perhaps we should listen.

Adult children of alcoholics and addicts believe that if we could simply change the nature of evil, eradicate the pain and suffering of others, then we will stop hurting so much. We hurt as deeply as we do because we overestimate our powers to change what we have no control over; the truth is, those that hurt us were not thinking about us. They were playing out their particular psycho drama, and we walked into their line of fire. We were innocent victims of damaged people. It was never about us; it was always about them. Knowing that, we can start the process of letting go of our unwitting abusers; they knew not what they were doing. Once we let them go, we can let go of our need to please, impress, and most of all, save. If our mistreatment was never about anything we said or did, then what happened to us was not our fault. They did not, could not, save us from their addiction. The trick is to understand that we were always already saved by a power far greater than our parents, our caretakers, our families. We were not taken care of those tasked with that job; but it’s over. We survived.

We can leave the heavy lifting to the Universe, and allow ourselves to simply live; to be happy; to love each other. Salvation exists; but it doesn’t hurt. Salvation is unchaining ourselves from guilt and sadness and having the courage to embrace all of reality with joy.

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real-life halloween horrors

Dr Neil Dagnall said:  “This study shows there is an association between belief in the paranormal, lack of control and anxiety. We have observed that magical thinking is likely to occur when individuals believe they lack control over external events.

“One reason for this could be that paranormal beliefs represent an attempt to establish control and reduce anxiety – in this context, mental toughness shows a person has control and reduces anxiety and should be associated with lower levels of paranormal belief.” (https://www.mmu.ac.uk/hpsc/news-and-media/rke/story/?id=7559)

Anxiety has followed me for most of my life. As an adult, I have struggled with it mightily, trying everything from medication to therapy to alternative treatments in a futile attempt to banish it. My latest “tactic” is accepting it for what it is: a finely-tuned adaptive trait that sometimes creates psychic pain. My anxiety allows me to notice too much; that can include my own thoughts, which can quickly become distorted by fear. In the wild, I might have survived while the rest of my tribe perished. I don’t eat food that is slightly off, and I spare myself the convulsive illnesses that others fall prey to; I notice a snake in a hole before anyone else has any clue that it’s there; I know when someone is plotting something and might be a danger to me or someone close to me, and I protect myself. I can sense an angry dog before it appears around a corner; I know that a car is racing around a curve moments before it does. The list goes on and on.

In the realm of the paranormal, my acute sensitivities are both a blessing and a curse. The article quoted above is yet another abortive attempt to understand highly sensitive people with a marked tendency towards anxiety. This article and many others in the discipline of psychology attempt to understand me in ways that simply don’t take into account the reality that I experience. The idea that “paranormal beliefs represent an attempt to establish control and reduce anxiety” is exactly misguided.

Paranormal investigations are anxiety producing. They teach you that you have no control over the spirit world, or however you might with to designate the unseen realms where consciousness continues to communicate with those who seek its manifestations. My motivations were not to reduce my anxiety or to gain control, but to understand anomalous experiences that I had experienced my entire life. Perhaps wanting to understand is an attempt to gain control, but in that case, every time we wish to know something can be pathologized as a desire to gain mastery over chaos. To be human is to want to know, to seek to solve mysteries, to figure out reality to the extent that we can.

The first time I captured an EVP on my recorder at an abandoned psychiatric hospital, the last thing I felt was control or mastery over fear. I felt overwhelmed by the bizarre voice that sang childish tunes in a place where no children had been present for decades. Very quickly, it became clear to me the limits of my understanding. Reality became more warped, more unfathomable, and far more complex and multilayered than anything I had previously surmised. In fact, if anxiety is produced by change, the intrusion of the unknown, and a loss of control over and comprehension of reality, then what I had stumbled into was the perfect recipe for anxiety. It was not unusual for me to have panic attacks when the atmosphere thickened, and I sensed a presence–or many of them–without any real idea what or who it was.

Fear turns you into a hyper-attuned radar for frequencies outside of your normal range; you feel energies and sense changes in the environment on an instinctual level. It’s not a snake in a hole, but a sense that something or someone has entered your space. The animal brain kicks into high gear: What is it? Where is it? What does it want? And, most importantly, is it a threat to me or my tribe? Here’s the problem: you simply cannot answer those questions; and because the answers are elusive, your heart rate rises, your breathing becomes shallow, you feel a flood of adrenaline, and you have to force yourself to stay in that area, to not run. There is no control here, no mastery of anything; you want to know what is in your space, but you cannot, because all you can do is catch a voice, see a shadow, get a fleeting glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye or feel the touch of something on your lower back, only to see later that you have received three, distinct scratches. You are attacked without being able to discern the predator. It can be terrifying beyond measure.

This brings me to the “mental toughness” addressed in this study. If the premise is faulty, then so is this conclusion: namely, that the more toughness you develop, the more you will feel in control, the less anxious you will be, and *voila*, you will cease engaging in “magical thinking” and the paranormal. In addition to insulting–equating belief in the paranormal with “magical thinking”–this statement seems like magical thinking to me. We are not in control. Even a minimal incursion into the worlds that open up when you explore consciousness will show you that control is an illusion. I would love to believe that I control my destiny, my reality, my surroundings, my circumstances, and those around me–but that is a far greater delusion than “belief” in the paranormal.

Those who seriously study the paranormal are not doing so due to “belief” in an ideology or philosophy that supports such things as the existence of non-material aspects of reality, but rather we study these phenomena because we have, generally speaking, experiences that are non ordinary in nature and cannot be explained by our dominant epistemology: materialism. If you grow up perceiving aspects of the world that others do not perceive, you want to know what you are experiencing. You want to know if there are others like you. You learn that science can’t explain everything; you learn that psychology has its limits, its biases, and its ideologies that blind it to the breadth and depth of human experiences. Science turns people like me with extraordinary sensitivities into studies in self-delusion and pathology. That does a tremendous disservice to intricate mysteries of the unknown. It’s gaslighting.

So. If I believed, however erroneously, that I am in control (of what?), I would stop all this anxiety-fueled investigation of the unknown. I would be a good materialist, a strong, mentally tough woman without all of the nonsense. Seems to me that our culture has such a good grasp of ultimate reality and everything that inhabits the multiverse that I do not need to explore anymore. I need to stop the search, or risk trivialization of my person. Sounds like ontological fascism, or an epistemology of the dominant culture.

If that is the trade off–feeling “out of control” and anxious when the world reveals itself as utterly strange sometimes–I will take it over a false sense of security and a belief that academia and materialism can save me from myself.

–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD

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