A difficulty a day…
Do you find you often feel like life is a struggle? Despite my best efforts at mindful acceptance and letting go of that which I cannot control, I sure do. I don’t think I was born with struggle on my mind. In fact, when I reflect on some of my profound childhood disappointments – disappointments that range in intensity from my failure to win the Tiger Beat contest and meet Ralph Macchio to my parents’ first split – I remember bouncing back from these heartbreaks rather quickly (albeit with the help of a lot of ice cream and Ding Dongs). Perhaps “bouncing back” is another way to say “denial,” but I was the kid who ran barefoot through the grass, who marveled for hours on end at the stars, and who joyfully chased and caught fireflies only to let them go so they could fly free. To this day, I still consider myself an optimist, although in between then and now something inside me changed. I don’t ascribe this change to my daughter’s illness, but her illness and my ensuing education woke me up to the realization that struggle had become my way of life, my default point of view.
Months ago, I began to think in earnest about my notions surrounding struggle. Actually, what happened was that I asked myself why everything has to be so fucking hard. Why, with as much gratitude as I have for the changes in my life and my daughter’s life, was I finding it so hard, still, to be a wife and a mother and a friend and a writer and, well, just about everything.
I’m a fan of using mindfulness to solve questions like these because mindfulness is the tool that makes the unconscious conscious. So using mindfulness practice in its simplest form – which means I simply thought a lot – I reflected on my struggles and wondered what I could do to change them. While I cogitated, I did the other thing I do best: I studied. I read Ram Dass articles and watched more of Pema Chödrön’s “Making Friends With Yourself” e-course. I reviewed the notes I took. I pulled my Brené Brown books off the shelf and Buddhism For Beginners and thumbed through the well-worn pages, and then I watched three weeks worth of educational videos from Mrs. Mindfulness’s free on-line mindfulness summit. I could study mindfulness for a lifetime and not learn all it has to teach me, but I did figure one important thing out about struggle.
My basic understanding of suffering is this: We suffer because life is in a constant state of flux, called impermanence, and we cling to or grasp for that which we cannot have, which is for life to stay the same. Pain cannot be avoided and is an inherent part of life. We struggle against the pain. We struggle to avoid the pain. Here’s the rub: the struggle begets more pain and more struggle and more pain and so on in an endless vicious cycle. This was an unhappy realization. Of course I try to avoid pain. Who doesn’t? What I went on to figure out, though, is that there is a profound difference between living in a constant state of struggle and facing life’s difficulties. I didn’t have to change my life; I needed to change my thinking about my life.
This is hard to explain because I can’t quantify struggle and difficulty in measurements that make sense, like having six inches of difficulty is much better and less painful than having twelve inches of struggle. The difference between the two is as easy and as hard as understanding that it’s all in how we think about them. Energy that inhabits our body relative to struggle is much different than the energy relative to difficulty, like the difference between a feather landing on your heart and a boulder. When we face a difficulty, we accept the situation as it is, without judgment, and we don’t fight against it. We can regard the situation from a more detached place, and decide how to act in response accordingly. We feel lighter and more clear-headed. At least, that’s the ultimate goal. Sounds good, in theory. I decided to try it first in small doses.
When I dropped the container of blueberries and they rolled all over the kitchen floor and under the fridge, instead of screaming out curse words and shaking my fist at the sky, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, that sucked,” and I dropped to my knees to clean it up. I even tried to laugh a little. One day when I was trying to write, I stared at my blank computer screen and blinking cursor and nothing entered my mind. I mean not a single word or phrase or image entered my mind. Instead of slamming the computer’s cover down and declaring myself a shit-ass writer, I took a deep breath and said, “No big. Come back to it later.” I grabbed my coloring book and walked away. I considered these changes real progress and was excited about them. I was excited because I could feel the difference inside me. Eventually, I practiced trying to view more intense struggles as mere difficulties until a couple of weeks ago when what I’d learned was put to a big test.
A few things happened to me and to my daughter that were painful and ignited intense struggle in both of us. Now, writing about the specific events would require the telling of stories that would “out” certain people – people whose words and deeds were hurtful and cruel and who have not volunteered to make appearances here. I would have thought most of these people would have known better, but I also understand that some of them, for reasons beyond their control, simply can’t know better. Telling these stories would undoubtedly cause hurt feelings in return and would, in the long run, change nothing. Since my intention for this site is not to use it for harm or revenge, I’m going to by-pass the details of what happened because the details aren’t the point. The aftermath is the point, and the aftermath’s ability to teach me important lessons about a change in thinking.
Truth be told, over these last few weeks, I desired more than once to punch someone in the face. Sweet little Tracey? you may wonder. Shocking, I know. I even imagined punching this person repeatedly, until the nose bled and a tooth came loose – a good example of my lack of acceptance and struggle. The good news, aside from the fact that I would never act on these thoughts, is that in the midst of imagining twelve rounds in the ring I noticed a big change in myself. My tendency to want to hurt people who hurt me has reduced in frequency, duration, and severity. Yay me! Practice paid off. I wasn’t so sure, however, that the same reduction in frequency, duration, and severity could be said of my feelings toward those who hurt my daughter.
People who hurt my daughter and impede her precious progress piss me off – majorly – mostly because I’m her mom and that’s my job, but also because handling adversity is not her strongest suit. She’s a teenager, for god’s sake. Of course her emotions are going to be more incendiary than an adult’s. Also, one of the primary parts of the brain affected by depression is the amygdala, the integrative center for emotions. In layman’s terms, teen-hood coupled with a malfunctioning emotion center is what is called a “double whammy.” And though we’re working on it, she hasn’t had enough time to develop an understanding that she is more than the sum of her thoughts or that she can gain control over those thoughts and her reactions to them. In other words, as well-versed as she is in positive coping skills and therapy speak, when I talk about mindfulness, struggle, and the like, she thinks I’m full of crap. My best intentions often fall on deaf ears. I have a lot of work left to do, and for better or worse, get plenty of opportunities to do it, like the other night.
My daughter lay on her bed full of rage and despair over certain of the aforementioned events. I sat down beside her to provide support and maybe a little comfort. She looked at me and said, “I just don’t understand the point of all of this. I’m suffering all the time. Everything’s a struggle. I don’t think there’s anything to look forward to.”
Oddly excited by this teachable moment, I thought, Here’s my chance! It’s taken me forty-seven years to start figuring this shit out. If I could impart some of my hard-earned wisdom to my daughter, I figured, maybe I’ll see her reap the benefits before I’m bedridden and wearing diapers. And I know for a fact that she’s come far enough in her recovery to experience moments of happiness and joy and does not feel all the time like life is a struggle. All I had to do was clarify it for her. I jumped right in.
“I know life feels that way sometimes, Babe, like such a struggle,” I said, hoping to sound like I was validating her feelings. “But I can tell you for sure that there are ways you can learn how to address those feelings and change them. Not by ignoring them, that only makes them worse, but with techniques that can change your point of view.” That’s when I had an epiphany. I realized that I’d made more progress shifting my own point of view than I’d originally thought. Sitting on the edge of her bed, I was sad and disappointed and angry at what had happened, yes, but I hadn’t sunk into a quagmire of my emotions and I wasn’t stuck there. My negative and downright violent thoughts had equilibrated, even toward those people that had hurt my daughter. The change was not instantaneous by any stretch, more like the slow descent off a high peak, but it was change nonetheless. New thinking made my progress possible. My brain’s wheels started spinning, preparing a speech for my daughter about how to accept life’s difficulties.
“Life doesn’t have to be so hard all the time,” I continued, and took a breath. I opened my mouth to speak again when she interrupted me.
“Mom,” she said.
“I’d like to be alone. Would you please leave?”
“Oh,” I said, deflated. “Um. Okay. I guess we can talk later.” I rose from her bed and headed toward the door. At the threshold I turned and hoped to have the final say, to sneak in a few educational tidbits. The stink-eye look she shot in my direction told me all I needed to know about what would happen if I opened my mouth. I turned on my heel and walked out the door, forced to remember again that my daughter has her own lessons to learn in her own way and in her own time. If she needs forty-seven years to do it, well, that’s my difficulty to accept. I walked down the hall and let my hurt feelings go. Optimistically, I have zero doubt that life will serve us plenty more difficulties to navigate.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours: What’s your point of view regarding difficulty and struggle? Do you see a difference between the two? How does one or the other manifest in your life?
When I read this post, I felt like we had been living parallel lives this past week! I went through a very similar revelation and had someone supposedly close to me give me one of the hardest blows in my life. She attacked my spirit, my purpose..basically my entire life, because I wasn't living it the way she thought was best. With all the work I have been doing, I realized that instead of letting her vicious words eat away at me, I had the choice to take a different perspective. I saw her words coming from a place of pain within her and realized that I did not have to participate in the fight she was trying to start. It took all I had not to come back with a vengeance. After a few days giving myself space from all of that, I realized I came out in one piece without having to lose a part of myself by hurting someone else back. I feel I managed the situation with integrity and heart, which is putting into practice everything I've been working towards.
On another note, I have also realized that while I want to give everyone this same incredible feeling by telling them to use the tools I have learned, it isn't always going to happen. I can't believe where I am today compared to just two years ago and even though others had been trying to teach me these things for many years, I really had to go through my own experiences in my own time in order to really get it. Thank you for this great post!!!
I loved this and related. I remember going through times like this with my daughter. I wondered if we would ever be close again. She's in college now and called me today to tell me about parties she is going to, boys she is dating, and that she is happy. I'm so grateful. The dark days are gone, at least for now. I'm going to allow myself to enjoy this state of happy and being happy for her. xoxo
So glad to be on this writing, parenting, life journey with a fellow mindfulness junkie, Tracey. Your experiences in this post resonate strongly with me. It's like you're in my brain! We've had similar challenges with how people have treated my daughter around sensitive issues lately. And, I've had similar challenges with how I respond. It's incredible how the tools of mindfulness offer more skillful ways for navigating these events.
I recently came across something I wrote in my journal a few years ago: "Noticing a radical shift in how I relate to unpleasant emotions, thoughts, and sensations. I hope to find ways to share these tools with Piper. She's rather resistant these days but that might change." It made me smile to read Olivia's response when you were all ready to impart your wisdom, along with your inner monologue as you reacted to that. So familiar. It took a friend inviting Piper to a local 'mindfulness for teens' class for her to be open to it.
Thanks once again for sharing your experiences with such wisdom, humor, and compassion.
thank you for this post. I don't have kids,but can so relate to your struggles. Especially the struggle of wanting to share the wisdom and benefits of the practice, and people are only ready the moment they are ready-they are on THEIR journey. Also, I am a therapist, and my first thought about your kid asking for "alone time" was: GO MOM! you have raised a kid who is comfortable, in her misery, to ask for solitude. and a mama who respects that!
That is something that took me most of MY 48 years to learn was not only okay, it can be healthy. I can only infer how painful that was to you as a mom-so I wanted to say that, from the outside, it looks like you are rocking it, struggles and all.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful and lovely comment Crystal. It's so dang hard, life, isn't it? Ugh. As much as I wish mean people would go away, or that I could hurry up and fully embrace my new learning, the fact of the matter is that mean people will always be here (at least for the foreseeable future), and I'm learning at the pace I'm supposed to be learning. You absolutely did manage the situation with integrity and heart. You didn't hurt back. You controlled the one thing you could: yourself. Thanks again for your wonderful insight.
Thank you so much Stephanie. I'm glad you and your daughter are reconnecting. The hard part for me isn't so much my daughter's separation process, but I SO MUCH want to lessen her pain. I forget sometimes (most of the time) it's not within my power to do that. Ugh. Motherhood: We should all be knighted! LOL..thanks for reading and for sharing.
Thanks so much Jessica! Yes, there seem to be more of us mindfulness junkies around than I realized. I invited my daughter to attend a class with me and got the same response as I did in this post! Time to start asking her friends of they "do it." Thank you so much for reading and for sharing.
Wow. Thank you so much Betsy, for reading and for sharing. I can confirm, as a mom, that stepping back and watching your kid go through this "shit" called life, is, sometimes, a real bummer. Thank you so much for your kid words and comments. I really appreciate it.
What resonated with me in this post was the idea of life feeling like a struggle all the time. I've lived that, but those days are thankfully in my past.
This is what I've figured out: For a long time, I had a low grade depression that colored everything. Fleeting joys were colored over by daily struggles. Many days I woke up and thought to myself, "All you have to do is get through the day. You don't have to accomplish anything significant. Just go through the motions of what must be done until it's time to go to bed and sleep through the pain." Of course, some days were better than others, but I surely didn't wake up every day excited about life.
After seeing a therapist over time, getting on an antidepressant, and getting more therapy, I learned how to take better care of myself emotionally. My feelings about life being a constant struggle began to fade. A huge push to living a joyful life was when I figured out what my passions were, and then spending time on a very consistent basis having fun for myself. That was a big change from focusing mostly on my family's needs.
So many problems, even simple things, used to feel like struggles. Now, most of those things don't phase me anymore. They are just issues that need attention and action to deal with. So I agree, Tracey, that frame of mind is crucial to seeing life as a constant struggle verses dealing with difficulties when they come up.
I didn't have the kind of emotional support as a child that you are giving to your daughter… what a lucky girl she is to have you!
Thank you so much Susan for sharing part of your journey with us here. I, too, feel like I've made so much progress over the last few years. I guess that's why, when really tough times rear their heads again, it feels like double the blow. But that's also the gain, the lessons learned over time and having the ability to use then when I need them the most. Thanks again for your comment and your kind words of support.
I'm adding a comment here, for posterity sake. For the day when I look back on this post so I remember all it has to teach me. I didn't write this comment though I wish I had and it was not written with me or my website or my situation in mind. This is from Glennon Doyle Melton. Better known as Momastery.
This appeared on Facebook on Wed. January 27, 2016:
Sitting in a reception area- waiting for one of my babies to come out of therapy. Feeling grateful and a little guilty that my family can afford therapy- promising myself I'll write everything down that we learn and send it out to you – so we can all get the wisdom and help that we and our babies need and deserve.
I just wanted to stop in and say that raising big kids is kind of scary and lonely, isn't it? Scary because their challenges feel bigger and less in our control to fix. Scary because it has become clear that it doesn't matter what we know – we can't REALLY pass it on to our kids. They have to learn it all themselves. They have to LIVE and feel and risk and grieve and love and lose – which is just a terrible, terrible system
And it's lonely, right? Lonely because we can't talk about them anymore. Because their stories are suddenly so personal, so fraught, so holy and real and fragile. It's like the moment we really need each other – we can't use each other anymore. I was talking to Craig about this recently and he said, "well maybe we can't talk to the internet anymore – so maybe it's time to make some real friends."
"Why are you being so mean???" I said. "Those ARE MY REAL FRIENDS. What are you even talking about??"
Anyway. I just wanted to say- I'm here. Waiting for my baby. Just here to say that big kid parenting is a little lonely and scary. And beautiful. Because- if you're lucky enough to have someone worrying in the waiting room – you're lucky enough.