This week was not the happiest one I have experienced. This week was not easy, in fact it was sad, difficult, and there was a lot of resistance from my part. Some of the beliefs I hold were questioned, in depth. My mom has Alzheimer’s and cancer. In the last week or so, my mom’s condition started to deteriorate and she started to suffer from pain. I came to the realization that, while logically I understood this was the next stage, my feelings were not at all up to speed with this reality. The rational logical mind and heart were not aligned. However, there is one element of my week that I think has some benefit; I became comfortable with feeling sadness and anger. There is no way out of sadness and anger, but to go through them. And that is the road not taken? (Robert Frost – pun totally intended)
The Dos and Don’ts lists
As children, we are taught, by our parents, or in school that we can manage sadness and anger. There are several wonderful articles out there and they basically all come down to a checklist of things adults can do to help their children. There are articles for adults on how to manage and cope with anger. Beautiful. Having read them myself, I cannot say that any of the suggestions are inadequate. The implied message is that sadness and anger are to be fixed, managed into exile, to be happy again. What we are taught as children and adults is to go through situations and manage the “negative” feelings with the goal of fixing them or making them go away.
As children we are allowed to pretend, it is even suggested as a form of managing feelings. As adults, we are no longer allowed to play make believe, unless it is to pretend we are happy. At work, it is unprofessional to be anything but happy, focused, driven individuals. At work it is perfectly fine to pretend to be happy, and perfectly fine to schedule any feeling considered negative to be felt outside of work hours. Horseshit. Is this really healthy? Is this really how life works? Can feelings be managed? In my experience at work this week, I could sense people were surprised that I was sad, because according to the timeline, my mom’s condition was to be expected, therefore not a surprise, could not be changed, so why was I sad?
There is one thing that none of these lists state in black and white – regardless of all these healthy ways of acknowledging, empathising, expressing and processing these feelings, these feelings are not a company that you can manage according to a schedule and there is no guarantee the feelings will go away, even if you breathe, make a gratitude list, and talk to someone who genuinely cares about you. Thank you to my aunt, bothers, daughter, friends and my dads (yes, one biological and the other by marriage) for those talks this week. I am thankful for your various forms of wisdom and your ears, which allowed me to express and vent my feelings.
I will add one to the list of DOs – Accept sadness and anger, as I would any of the other feelings on that feeling chart they show children. Do we have lists on how to manage happiness, contentment, hope, optimism, and joy? No, these are the “goal feelings” and anything else must be managed. I have come to realize that we are humans and we are born having this range of feelings to guide us.
“Stay positive, all other choices are pointless punishments to your psyche.”
― Joe Peterson, Help Me Live… As I Die, Cancer vs. the Power of Love That’s right. If it’s not positive, it’s entirely useless. In the grand scheme of things, it is nothing. It does not do you any good. It shouldn’t even exist.
Whoa – this is dangerous now. I used to believe this. This is one belief I have questioned all week. This is not to say I no longer believe in being positive. No. I still believe Life happens for me not to me. I do. However that blanket quote above is very dangerous without context. Again, what we are teaching adults, and many self-help books to this – with loving intent, is to be positive at all costs. There is a consequence to this, without added context – denial. I should know, I have been an expert in denial. Some spiritual teachers even say it out loud “If it does not make you feel good – ignore it – focus on something else”. Wow. I see how crazy that can be today. There is no way you can be taught how to manage your “negative” feelings as a child, then hit the real world as an adult, look for help, read the above quote and be healthy. No way.
In my personal experience, what brought me to this conclusion, is my mom’s health. You see three years ago, we learned she had bone cancer. In order to keep her quality of life, she refused chemo, having gone through that twice before in her life, and witnessed her own mother go through the same treatment for bone cancer. We respected that decision and she was given an alternative treatment. It appeared to be working. We all focused on love and the present moment. We had a beautiful Christmas that year. Her spirits were high, she was so strong, my mom.
Then Alzheimer’s came along. That was a double whammy. I did not appreciate that for my mother at all. She had been afraid of being called crazy, and now, this condition had taken over.
In order to process my feelings, I did exactly what the spiritual teachers said – stayed positive, focused on the positive. I even found a way to accept Alzheimer’s as a positive thing. To me, Alzheimer’s was better for her than cancer because you lose your memory and you are basically checking out of reality. Ignorance is bliss right? No suffering, right? WRONG!
My beliefs betrayed me. I was very much in the present when I would visit my mother, and was very appreciative of any smile, wink or recognition. I did not focus on the future, or losing her. She was there. I managed the reaction when she did not recognize me because I know very much who she is. Her husband, my step-dad, was exactly the same. The whole family was in that frame of mind. Love was the dominant feeling. It still is. But now, she IS suffering and cancer has decided to progress. No Alzheimer’s can help that. That, to me is unfair to her. She does not deserve both, or any of these conditions at all. That is what hit me this week. I was not happy and I was not feeling positive, I was pretty fucking angry. I think it is insane to tell someone to stay positive in the face of suffering of any kind. To say that Staying positive, all other choices are pointless punishments to your psyche – is not what human psyche is about. I am not a doctor, or psychologist or psychiatrist but I know we came here to face a variety of contrast. We are given a variety of feelings and as a result, not everything will be positive at all times. There are many choices in life and not all of them are positive. Maybe there is nothing positive about watching a loved love suffer. And it is perfectly sane to be angry or sad or a cocktail of feelings about it. Maybe it is positive to the human psyche NOT TO FEAR anger or sadness?
Perhaps a suggestion would be – in the face of a situation, where the human response is to feel angry or sad, accept your feelings before trying to manage them. There it is again – Acceptance.
All the people that helped me this week, what helped the most was that nobody told me how to manage my feelings so I would feel better. The people that helped me did not ask why I felt how I felt. And you know what happened? I felt better as a result. Happy? No, but more comfortable with sadness and anger – to the point that smashing a plate is no longer a reaction, but a healthy release that will turn into an art collage. There is value to anger, in the past it has driven me to get off my ass and achieve something. In this case, there is nothing I can do to change the situation. There is value in crying, it is a release, a healthy one. I release get up and keep going. I was also reminded, I can think of what my mom would do. In that instant, I use my sadness and anger to be a driving force of strength, willing to face anything and get through it with grace. My mom has such grace. I can honour her in that way.
Thoughts create your reality
So here we are, humans that think trillions of thoughts and not all of them positive. We are led to believe in the power of positivity, to the point that we are afraid to feel anything but happy or fine all the time. To do anything else is apparently a punishment to our psyche. Then I was introduced to “thoughts create our reality”. Oh shit! I have had a pretty “not positive” week, with sad and angry thoughts. That means I am creating a sad and angry reality. I do not want to do this.
The Past – Again, an expert at denying my feelings that should be managed into oblivion, I used to numb them. I felt uncomfortable feeling them. I tried every which way possible not to feel anything at all, especially those pesky angry and sad feelings. In the past I used substances. I became reliant on substances to feel better. In the last 5 years or so, I learned new ways to live from a 12 step group. I will be forever grateful to the people I met there. There, I learned about how to live life without using substances to deal with life. I learned about spiritual principals which I apply to the best of my ability in my daily life. However, I also was told I was an addict and I had a disease because I had chosen to use substances in order not to feel. Every day, I would go and say “I am addict”, I am sick, I have a “disease with no cure”. If thoughts create reality, this is not very good for the mind. It keeps me in sick mode.
The Present – I stopped using substances and my life has improve dramatically. However, ironically, I started to feel much better when I stopped saying those things above. This is another belief I questioned this week – I had doubted that I had a disease and that I was born with it. Today, I no longer believe addiction is a disease and I know that I was not born with any such thing. I created my addiction, I am fully responsible for it, and hence, my reality, through patterns of thought and behaviour. I cannot speak for everyone and nobody fits into a box. This is my personal experience and point of view. Disease? Cancer is a disease, Alzheimer’s is a disease. I would like to see people with Alzheimer’s go to a 12 step group for it and try and change that condition. Nope, it will not change a goddamn thing. However, CHOICES can, will and do change someone with an addition. The cure? Well for one, find another way to cope and stop using substances to make you feel better or escape reality. That is the difference between choices, conditions and dis-ease. If thoughts create reality, and in some sense they do, I think it is ill-advised for me to repeat daily, I have a dis-ease when I do not. What am I telling my mind if I say these things over and over again?
Today, in the face of my mom’s conditions, I am able to cope with the anger and sadness without needing to numb anything at all. I am grateful that I can be there for her, fully present and look in her eyes and tell her I love her. I believe she hears me and knows. Her eyes let me know. What I still have difficulty with is feeling sadness and anger and being ok with that.
The idea that thoughts create your reality is valid – if you complain all the time, you will indeed find more things to complain about. If you think everything is wrong and unfair, you will indeed find more wrong and unfair things. If you keep thinking you are sick- you will indeed feel sick and can even make yourself sick. However, blanket statements such as the one above, require a bit more context – if you THINK feeling anger and sadness is something to avoid, at all costs, in order to stay positive or create a preferred reality – THAT will also impact your reality. The Universe, in all its infinite wisdom, is inclusive – meaning you cannot protest, resist, deny or manage anything into oblivion, includinf feelings. If you do, these things will persist in your reality – ironic I know.
This week, I faced that little bit of reality. In trying to be accepting of my mom’s state of health, and staying positive, focused on the now, present moments with her, not thinking of the inevitable future, because we were not there yet, and being a happy professional at work, being strong, thankful for my wonderful family, friends and all that I have and finding the positive aspects in all of that, I forgot one little tiny detail – I forgot to accept how I felt. Accepting the situation as something you cannot change is one thing. Accepting the inevitable death of a loved one is also logical and rational, and something that cannot be changed. However accepting how you feel about it, is not mentioned anywhere in any of the 12 step books, do and don’t lists or in the blanket statement Thoughts create your reality. I would propose that perhaps, feelings affect reality as well. But in order to understand how that works – I need to accept how I feel in addition to accepting the situation before I can manage anything in a healthy way. I did not lash out at the world, or anybody else for that matter, in my anger. I did not try to change how I felt by thinking of something else or something positive. I sat in some discomfort, until the acceptance of my feelings set in. Ironically, in doing so, I felt better, and that was not even the goal. In giving up trying to change, manage, schedule or control my anger and sadness, I ended up feeling better. There is no going around our feelings. We can try to manage them, and schedule them, however, the reality is, that these feelings are there for a reason and my “job” is simply to feel and let them be. There is some comfort in that. Perhaps, just feeling it, without trying to change how I feel is the best way through it all. Perhaps there is no way out, there is only through. I do enjoy Robert Frost.
Here I am out on the other side, wishing everyone a weekend full of happiness, but if you are angry or sad, sit with yourself for a while and just accept how that feels for a moment. The world will not end, and this too shall pass, I promise you. Your smile will feel more real to you as a result. Cheers!