By the Throat

From time to time throughout life, things happen that get you by the throat and threaten to squeeze the life out of you. If you don’t find a way to break the stranglehold, you’ll stop breathing and die. The stranglehold can be the care of a disabled child, or that you long for a child and have been trying to get pregnant but can’t, or a protracted and costly legal problem, a disease or aftermath of an accident or the result of someone else’s negligence. What throttles you may come from an ex-spouse, a former friend, a child who turned out badly, an alcoholic parent, someone else’s addiction or your own, a layoff or lost job or a terrible economy that drains your profits and renders your business impotent.

Everyone has these terrible events and circumstances that come through their lives, but not everyone has them regularly or often, and some people seem to live much of their lives without suffering, only to have it suddenly come upon them when they’re in late middle age and have no coping skills. I know some people like that. Still, everyone experiences real suffering at some point (as opposed to neurotic or self-created suffering). What then? What does one do when disasater strikes and the suffering begins?

Breaking the Stranglehold

When disaster first strikes, you go reeling. Eventually, worries, anxiety, and despair can get a person in a stranglehold that can claim your soul. The fact is that what we fear the most is death, and your death and mine are inevitabilities. Being in romantic denial about the limited time we have in this lifetime is the gift of youth. As a commenter to one of my previous blogs wrote, opportunity and wide open horizons are the fantasies of youth. Though the American dream is one of unlimited opportunities and vast horizons, the truth is that this type of Jupiterian expansiveness decimated entire peoples, produced slaves, and has led to the highest depression, anxiety, and addiction rates in the western world. This type of expansiveness isn’t advisable, for we are ever only as large as the health of our bodies and the amount of money available to us. We all tend to forget this every day, which explains why Home Shopping Network and eBay are so wildly popular, for when we can buy stuff we feel powerful and are reminded that the possibilities are endless. This is the power of an addiction: it numbs us and deludes us into thinking that we have control when, in fact, it has us by the throat.

As Jo Coudert writes, “of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.” You will never lose yourself, that is, as long as you hang onto yourself.

Hanging onto Oneself

When facing hardship, loss, or tragedy, we all tend to focus on what has happened to us–what’s in the past, in other words. We can’t change it, but we ruminate on it anyway. What of the things I can change? These things would include my own psychological state, the philosophy I live by, my values, my actions, where I put my body, what I put into my body, the thoughts I cling to and entertain, and the ones I dismiss.

Given the responsibility I have for my own life, I ask myself questions when I’m in crisis, questions such as: What are my psychological survival tools? What will help me maintain my sense of self? What will I need to believe, think, or do that will help me keep hope and joy alive? What will help me live with the sadness I feel all the time, the grief over my lost dreams, my lost life? How must I live if I want to be alive today? These are the questions to grapple with when crisis hits.

13 responses

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you… This way of communicating is new to me and I feared the inadequacy of my words to express what is happening. But I desperately need that hand of friendship, so thank you! I know RG is right too and even if / when ‘what I greatly feared has come upon me’, in this numbness there are flashes of sheer joy. But the screaming will come for me too, though I can’t afford it yet…

  2. Eve, I too have recently been given news that has made me realize how vital it is not to lose myself. My husband had trouble eating but refused to see a doctor until he could barely swallow liquid. He had decided it was just reflux, but I feared cancer (I had breast cancer 4 years ago), and sure enough he has a malignant tumor in his esophagus. They are investigating a ‘hot spot’ in his liver and we wait to hear if it’s chemo before an operation or palliative chemo. I have been watching myself, almost shocked at how practical I seem as I try to plan for the life ahead, a life in which I must earn enough to keep us both and eventually survive with a tiny state pension. We have not led unconscious lives, we have not accumulated a lot of stuff – in fact my lack of interest in money and security is frightening now that I am 64, not that well myself, facing this disease. I suppose the reality is I will not be facing it for 20 years – I do not yet know the prognosis but it looks as if I will be on my own before 5 years, or 3 – or 2… I have seven step-children and 9 grandchildren and I need to be together for them – falling apart isn’t an option.

    • Amber, my heart goes out to you. How are we supposed to struggle along such roads? I know I can’t do it unless I can lean against others and they against me as we look ahead together.

      I understand what you mean by “falling apart isn’t an option.” I fell apart one time and screamed my head off for about four blocks as I took my daughter to the ER, and though it felt good, it didn’t help either of us. She died anyway, and I was bereaved anyway. I only learned that I *can* fall apart, *could* have a nervous breakdown (however temporary), and *can* scream my head off for four blocks!

      Now that I’ve done that, and considered the possibilities that alcoholism or drug addiction offer (none good), I’ve made the rational decision to face life. I admit that there’s a part of me that has some fire in the eye and says, “I always wanted to be a great enough person to bear up under suffering.”

      How will we do this? I think we have to do it together. Allow me to offer you a hand of friendship.

  3. Eve, I had a thousand comments, or nearly a thousand, running through my mind. The most important one is that I care about what you are going through, and I am very sad about it.

    By all means, plan for the future. However, do not waste the present. You are right to think of how to hold on to hope and joy. I am confident that you and your family will experience moments of joy as you walk through this valley. However, some of those moments will need to be of your own making. Others will spring up, and you will have to squeeze as much out of them as you can.

    • RG, this is such good advice! The present can be entirely wasted through worry, anxiety, and dread over circumstances one fears that may never happen. Even if they do, and when like Job “what I greatly feared has come upon me,” then we can also rejoice with Job in the most grim way: “Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him.” This is where we are.

      I appreciate what you wrote. Very true, and I take it all to heart.

  4. Sadly, I can completely relate to what Mona said above about having the gall to think I could be really happy. For a brief time in my life it seemed possible. I look back on that time now and see that I was deluded by magical thinking.

    Eve, the life of your grand-parents sounds wonderful. I never dreamed of riches, or fame, or a huge house. All I ever wanted was the love of my family.

    At 40, it is sometimes sobering to realize that I truly will never have that. Who finds great love after 40?

    I count my friends as family these days, and for that I am blessed. When I lay near death in the hospital last year, my friends were by my bedside. No mother, no father, no husband, no children.

    Sorry to go on, but what you said about your relationship with yourself, and how you are the only person who will always be in your life no matter what, those were my exact thoughts yesterday while taking my daily walk. I tell myself that no matter what, no matter if I never see my “parents” again, I musn’t abandon myself. I will never lose myself. Sort of like, where ever I go, there I am 🙂

    Thank you for sharing all that you do. I often feel a lump in my throat, or a gasp in my breath when I read your posts.

    • Elizabeth, your comments so touched me. I’m sorry for your suffering and loneliness. You’re worthy of love.

      I do know many people who found great love after 40, just as I know many who have had to build families for themselves because their parents and siblings were not supportive or available as real family members. Though life can be terribly difficult and sad, the load can be lightened with others, as you have seen when you were in the hospital. I am so glad that there were people who were there for you.

      In spite of the bad hand dealt you by circumstances, you’ve become a person who has enough heart to choose awareness rather than to escape or numb your pain through addiction or psychological unconsciousness. In spite of the circumstances of having family members who are selfish people, you’ve become a person who is loved by friends. Here’s a quote from the Dalai Lama that seems appropriate:

      “If you think only of yourself, if you forget the rights and well-being of others, or, worse still, if you exploit others, ultimately you will lose. You will have no friends who will show concern for your well-being. Moreover, if a tragedy befalls you, instead of feeling concerned, others might even secretly rejoice. By contrast, if an individual is compassionate and altruistic, and has the interests of others in mind, then irrespective of whether that person knows a lot of people, wherever that person moves, he or she will immediately make friends. And when that person faces a tragedy, there will be plenty of people who will come to help.”

      I know a woman who wasn’t loved by either of her parents and who has gone through life replacing her longed-for mother with one mother figure after another–a serial waif, as it were. If she chose loneliness consciously and suffered through that pain, she would find her own inner mother and become a nurturing, loving human being. If she chose and stuck with only one replacement mother in her life, she would find her own inner child and grow into a mother. Sadly, as the result of choosing fixes over relationships, she remains a constant waif in spite of the relational bounty God has given her.

      By choosing awareness, you’ve chosen love. I do think there’s enough love in the universe for all of us and that what you need will come to you.

  5. Anything I try to write just sounds trite. I know that life is filled with suffering and I’ve had my share but it all seems too much sometimes.

  6. Yes…it certainly isn’t what you envisioned for your husband, for yourself…for your family.. and if you knew, when you were young, it would have come to this eventually…the prospect of it would have been overwhelmingly depressing and yet there was never a way of avoiding it….it was destined by something so simple as genetics….and never had a possibility of being any other way…then the way it is.

    It makes our dreams, plans, goals…and visions all seem rather silly now that we know the eventual outcome. Our dreams were almost a joke of a delusion…dreamed up by mad women…perhaps magical thinking. I don’t know about you…but I wonder at my gall…to think I could ever be that happy. To envision that my life could ever be like those I see around me….and I wonder what it would be like to have that peace of mind…however, when I know that not only will I never know….I never stood a chance….it leaves me in near panic.

    My god…..the myths of the world…if it was not so tragic that we believed these myths…it would be hysterically funny.

    • Mona, your response almost made me weep because of your shocking honesty, the sadness of it, and the hubris you identified: “I wonder at my gall…to think that I could ever be that happy.”

      I was blessed to spend many wonderful days and weeks with grandparents whose lives were peaceful, simple, slow, and lovely. They were in good health until the year they died. They puttered around, read books, went on walks, fished, ate ice cream in front of the television, and most of all, talked and listened to one another. From them I got the idea and dream that my life could some day be as peaceful, simple, slow and lovely.

      The problem is that I had no idea that in order to arrive at that life, one has to plan for it and go after it consciously. The way of everyday western life is too active, too over-scheduled, too busy, and involves having and maintaining too much stuff.

      When I look back, I see that, just as you suggested, the faultiness of my visions were due to magical thinking: I thought I could arrive at a happy, peaceful life in America by living an American lifestyle. This was my first of several errors in thinking.

      Your comments suggest the question, “Had you known then what you know now, what would you have done differently?” Some immediate answers spring to my mind, and I think I’ll write about those soon.

      I’ll also tell you a thought that I have had for awhile, based on my work with many different people over the years: those other people whose lives seem so happy aren’t usually better off than you. I’d hazard a guess that there are few we would trade places with. I would not trade my consciousness for dumb contentment, no matter how attractive the stupid life seems. I know too many people who spend the last third of their lives on stupid, frivolous pursuits and I would not trade my painful awareness or unhappy circumstance for a content but unconscious life. Everyone who is alive and aware suffers, and resurrection comes only after the tomb. Anyone can have peace of mind when the bank account is full, the belly is full, and every day is sunshine and ponies. A transcendent human being worth knowing is one who wades through shit every day with a smile on her face.

      I am putting my boots on, Mona. At least there are no myths down here in the cesspool. ;o)

  7. “But what of the things I can change? These things would include my own psychological state, the philosophy I live by, my values, my actions, where I put my body, what I put into my body, the thoughts I cling to and entertain, and the ones I dismiss.”

    This is what I think it’s most important to focus on. I am doing this in my own life. I wonder sometimes if I compartmentalize too much, but I cannot live in a state of crisis for years… I need to be able to sleep and eat and take care of my kids and function, which I cannot do when I focus too much on the “woe is me” and the “what will happen” and the “this totally sucks” aspects of my life.

    So I have my little zen gardens. My places of repose. My Shakespeare blog is one of these… it’s a place where I feel nothing but happy. I need that in my life right now. A place of peace, that’s compelling and meaningful for me, and completely apart from the things in my life that bring me down.

    I read a book recently called Stumbling on Happiness that I found very interesting. http://www.randomhouse.com/kvpa/gilbert/index.html Maybe your understanding of how the mind works would make this book too simplistic to be useful, but I found it interesting to think about. Our perception of our experience is so malleable. It is, in many ways, a personal choice to find happiness in whatever life hands to us. I think of the movie Life is Beautiful http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/

    I think the serenity prayer is very wise and helpful to keep in mind.

    I think you are doing very well, by the way. Grieve the loss of your dreams. Come to terms with the reality. Make positive and meaningful changes where you can. Find joy in the reality of your life. It can be done, I think!

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