The Beginning of Freedom is to Call Things by their Right Names

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Cill Rialaig, photograph by Bill Miles

When I was still too young to have learned words to express what was happening within my inner life, there were times I felt myself to be absolutely trapped in a sense of utter terror, seemingly without warning or understanding and without the ability to ask for help. It took until I was almost 20 years old to finally learn that there was a name for experiences like these: panic attacks. They were debilitating and confusing and scary. As a child, these experiences made me feel as if my whole world were off kilter and the ground might open up and swallow me whole. Most times there was no specific fear that triggered them. They would simply sneak up on me unexpectedly and felt scarier than any monster hiding under my bed because (a) I could not see them coming and (b) I could not escape them. I remember one of the things I would do to try to lessen the sense of impending doom was to draw near to my parents. I would search for them in the house and stay close. This was the only semi-remedy that I recall could sustain me until the terror passed.

In early adolescence, I slowly began to figure out a repeating pattern as to when I could most definitely expect panic to pay me an unsolicited visit. It seemed to always coincide with overnight visits or vacations. Being in a new environment where everything looked unfamiliar made me feel as if I had entered a sort of twilight zone. It was as if I was no longer on the same plane as everyone else, but rather in a space in between. Nothing felt normal, nothing looked right, I didn’t feel as if I was inhabiting my usual body and soul and again, I lacked the words to describe the experience to anyone around me. Panic would crash upon my shores like an unexpected tsunami. I can only imagine this made me an entirely unpleasant travel companion.

In high school, my frequent encounters with panic were joined by other unpleasant emotions, including depression. Between the frequent attacks of anxiety and the depression that would follow, it was getting increasingly hard to live life. Finally in a moment of desperation, I reached out and asked for help. My parents responded lovingly and within the week I was sitting in the office of a man who still, to this day, serves as my trusty psychologist when he is most needed. For years, not once did he give me a label as to what was this thing that imprisoned me. He listened and indirectly taught me how to better cope with my symptoms and slowly helped me to feel better and stronger. But there was this one day, when I decided to the look at the receipt he handed me after every session to pass on to my parents. On it I found a code for my diagnosis and I decided to look it up.

There is an old Chinese Proverb which reads, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names”, but in my case, I would like to apologize to the wise Chinese and put a wee little Irish spin on this proverb (simply because I’m most proudly of Irish descent) and rephrase it to read, “The beginning of freedom is to call things by their right names.”

309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. 

Finally; my disconcerting experience of life as I knew it had a name. 309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. Kinda like a title, a first name, a middle name and a last name. Having a name meant it could be known and maybe even understood. It meant it didn’t only exist in my head, but it was real. It meant it was so real that it was identified with a list of common symptoms in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Practitioners of Mental Health.

In an article entitled,  The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming, Rabbi Andrew Davids brings clarity to this experience when he writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, the biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming.”

Humans may seek to bring order to our chaotic world…through the process of naming. Though throughout my life, I’ve met many people who would rather not “be labeled” by their specific diagnosis, the day I learned the name of my nemesis is the day it lost a whole lot of power and my journey of freedom began.

In the years that followed, I made it my life’s mission to rid myself from my role as the unsuspecting victim of an unknown maleficenceIn the pre-internet days I devoured every possible book I could get my hands on that would help me to learn the ins and outs of adjustment disorder and anxiety. In the early days of the internet I read of others’ experiences which sounded just like mine. Misery does love company because it teaches us there are others as miserable as us. We are not alone. We are not without understanding. Most importantly, it teaches us we are not without hope. Knowledge didn’t completely stop waves of panic from lapping upon the shores of my life. However, I learned to see it for what it was. I figured out some good ways to anchor myself in the sand, so that even though its cold and crashing waves might leave me worn out and tattered, they would not be able to carry me off into the sea where I could drown.

It has been nearly 30 years since my nemesis was named. Though I wouldn’t say we are on a first name basis, 309.28 and I have learned to co-exist, and on most days ours is a peaceful co-existence. The paradox is I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for its presence in my life. I will even go so far as to admit it prepared me well to be able to better respond to my own child who began experiencing her own panic attacks at an early age. By the time she was 10 years old she already knew its name and was well on her way on the path of liberation.

Definition of freedom (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

1the quality or state of being free: such as 

athe absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action 

bliberation from restraint or from the power of another 

cthe quality or state of being released usually from something onerous”

When I consider the definition of freedom I must admit that although I am so much more liberated than I was before I learned the name of my nemesis, it still constrains me in two particular ways: (1) I have allowed it to hold be back from the desire to travel and experience new places, lands and cultures. (2) I have also allowed it to steal from me the experience of being comfortable being by myself, let alone traveling by myself, for fear that without loved ones near to save me, I might surely be swallowed into the earth or carried off into the sea–and that would be a terrible thing, especially while in a foreign country!

My admiration remains strong for my friends and family members who have collectively seen most of the world and are better and more interesting people for having done so. Some of them even ventured out on their own and they lived to tell about it! Traveling vicariously through their stories is as good as it gets for a girl who prefers to stay in one place for fear of re-entering the twilight zone. Yet I am happy to report that in recent years, a dream has been born in my heart to take back the reins and to face the greatest anxiety- provoking travel experiences of my childhood. The name of my dream is Cill Rialaig.

On the southwest coast of Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project rescued and restored a small pre-famine village, thus creating an artists retreat that has attracted artists from all over the world. It is a retreat for professional visual artists, writers, poets and composers who apply for a residency to live for a short time at the Cill Rialaig Retreat and work on their craft. Ireland is calling to me and to Cill Rialiag I desire to go, by myself, to work for a week on writing. Remembering from my youthful experience that good things can begin to happen when we reach out and ask for help, I contacted my friend Carlos, an editor of a locally published magazine. Within a short period of time, he had published my writing and continues to do so in hopes that I might meet the requirements to apply for the residency. Even now he remains one of my fiercest co-freedom fighters.

Although freedom is most certainly a process, one that takes at least an entire lifetime to attain and for all I know, probably some of eternity too, what I am certain about is that mine began the day I was emboldened to call things by their right name. Thank you 309.28!

2019: Goodbye Melancholy; Hello Lovely!

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I have to admit I’ve never been a person who was captivated by systems of government or put much faith in politics. While I believe it is a legit calling for many a brave soul, it has never interested me. Long ago, during the early years of marriage, I found myself in exasperation over my husband’s obsession with politics. Though I had never seen this side of him previously, for whatever reason, his life became centered around the daily success of the party to which he was affiliated and the demise of the one with which he wasn’t.  It seemed as if his mood rose and fell with the news story of the day. I remembering challenging him frequently as to whether or not this obsession was helping him live his vocation as a husband, a father, a social worker. Was it helping him to be a vessel of God’s grace to the world? I reminded him that Judas Iscariot also thought that salvation would come through politics–if only Jesus could rise in political rankings, Israel would be saved. Look at how things worked out for him, I would say.

One of the gift of life’s journey is the time and experiences it gives us to grow and change. I am happy to report that after some time, my husband got off the obsessive political train and found a better balance. His focus shifted more to how he could make a difference in the lives of those God had entrusted to his care–us, his family and the combat veterans who suffer from PTSD whom he treats in his work as a psychotherapist. Each day when he goes to work, he lives his life performing what we Catholics refer to as “The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy”, kind acts by which we live out the teachings of Christ by helping our neighbors with their material, physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

But in some kind of weird role reversal, here we are about 20 years later and over the past two years I’ve found myself slowly but steadily becoming the obsessive one. On too regular of a basis, I’ve been drawn like a moth to a flame to the chaos and negativity and sadness and injustice and plain ol’ ugliness playing out in American politics. Ugh. It’s not fun, but some days I just can’t even stop myself.

Back in my college days, as a double major in Theology and Mental Health/Human Services, I was introduced to the ancient Theory of Temperament. Different fields of the sciences have since re-framed it in many ways, but simply it proposes there are four basic types of temperaments found in human beings. Most suggest we are primarily comprised of one type, but others present the idea we are more likely a mix of two or more. Our professor had us take some kind of assessment to determine what our temperament was–Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Sanguine or Choleric. (If interested, you can take a similar quiz here.) Truly, it was no surprise to me when after adding up the numbers, I was deemed as having a melancholic temperament.

I found myself as a Melancholic described perfectly at this site, “Their generally dour demeanor comes from their inner struggle between an imperfect world and a desire for perfection.” BINGO. This is the truth at the core of my everyday experience, for as long as I can remember! One of my earliest memories was watching Jesus Christ Superstar and bitterly weeping over the injustice of Jesus being killed. For days this sadness hung over me like a big, black cloud. Heck, I was only like five years old, people! These tendencies go WAY deep and I have a long and too comfortable relationship with approaching everything I experience as not measuring up to how it should be. God have mercy on the people in my life (y’all know who you are). Thank you for not giving up on me, at least not yet!!

When I take a deep introspective look inside, I still don’t think I am a political person, but I do believe I have a deep commitment to Gospel values. As a teen, one of the qualities about Jesus Christ that made me want to follow Him and know Him and live a life trying to emulate Him was that He was a rebel with a cause. He bucked a system in which the poor and the misunderstood and the disabled and the women and the down-on-their-luck folks were written off. He championed the cause of the marginalized and He dined with sinners. And even more captivating to me was that some of His loudest critics and fiercest opponents were those from His own religious background, even from His own family. WHOA. This was unprecedented rebellion in the name of LOVE.

So fast forward to now and from my melancholic viewpoint, I see the way Jesus lived in the world and the way He loved people as the way the world should be. But as a wise teacher once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”.  These past two years have been filled with encounters in which various groups of friends and acquaintances, with whom I formerly shared a vast amount of common ground on this vision of the world, are lining up in accusation against each other, fighting voraciously with words and insults. I find myself in this weird place where some of the loudest critics and fiercest opponents to my vision of a perfect world are those with whom I share a religious background and a shared history of life. Herein lies the dilemma, the drama, the trigger which I allow to dive me into a sea of melancholy for days on end. And I’ve finally decided it needs to stop.

In an unexpected and wonderfully surprising turn of events, last spring quite an extraordinary person entered my life through a common loved one. After a few blessed opportunities to encounter her over a period of nine months or so, I have decided that simply, she is the embodiment of the word lovely. If we still relied upon printed dictionaries to learn the meaning of words, it would be entirely appropriate for her picture to appear next to the word lovely. And this isn’t just because she is outwardly beautiful, which she is. But it goes so much deeper than that. There are a few different definitions of lovely found in the Free Dictionary, which aptly apply to my new friend. They are as follows:

  1. loving and attentive
  2. inspiring love
  3. having a beauty that appeals to the heart or mind as well as to the eye 
  4. highly pleasing; delightful
  5. of a great moral or spiritual beauty: lovely character.”

Lovely is who she is and what she is about. No one can fake this. In a world filled with reasons to be melancholic, her simple presence in a room lifts up and illuminates all that is beautiful. Even before she speaks a word, her heart is open and welcoming, her eyes communicate love and attentiveness and are always looking for beauty. She finds the good in people, in the world of nature, in the world of great thinkers, writers and poets and she searches and finds the good in ugly situations and difficult experiences. Spending time in her company is delightful, pleasing and it makes me want to be a better version of myself.

What I’ve come to learn from my friend’s example is that becoming lovely takes a lot of work. It takes years of mindfully choosing to find the lovely over and over and over again in people, in places, in things, and in situations and then to respond in kind with loveliness over and over again to people, to places, to things and to situations. For her, the journey to lovely started from the darkest and lowest place of her life and recovery was the road she took to get there.

With the commencement of a new year, I have been inwardly searching for a single word to guide me forward in 2019.  The reason I really like the idea of choosing a word, rather than a specific resolution for a new year is because one word can inspire a multitude of positive actions as I unpack it and embrace it and live it over the months ahead. It has been brewing within me for weeks, but was crystallized yesterday when I caught sight of the photo above from the Instagram account of MagnoliaLovely.

Cooperating with God to focus on all that is lovely will most definitely require hard work and choices and mindfulness. I will need to find balance and stop giving power to politics and pundits and the online arguments between my friends. When I am tempted to turn back, I will need to ask myself if such an obsession helps me live my vocation as a wife, a mother, a vessel of God’s grace in the world. I will need to remind myself that the salvation of the world will most definitely not come through politics, but through Love incarnate.

Like my new friend, I can use the tools of recovery to strengthen me on the way to becoming lovely. Arguably the best prayer ever written in the 20th century is The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is the antithesis to my melancholic way of seeing. May it become my new daily anthem…

God grant me the serenity 

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

 

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

As it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make things right

If I surrender to His Will;

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with Him

Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

Without further adieu, let the adventure begin…

“Goodbye Melancholy”; “Hello Lovely!”