Tuesday, July 31, 2012

To Live a Life...

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."
~George Bernard Shaw

In the past two years, I haven't written very much here. I needed a break. I needed to step away from the story that has unfolded here since I left the Jehovah's Witnesses back in 2005. I needed to get perspective on what story I'd like to continue telling, or if I want to continue telling one at all. 

I battled for some time with myself about not writing regularly on this blog. It was a good six months before the voices quelled enough to just let it all be. I have continued writing in my private journals. I am a writer after all, and writers write. 

I spent much of the past couple of years reading and taking notes and reflecting and taking more notes. I buried myself deep in neuroscience, medicine and psychology. I have always had a passion for understanding how the human organism works. Growing up, we had a set of medical encyclopedias that I would read for fun. I'm sure it lead to me being a tad bit of a hypochondriac, but it also gave me an intense appreciation for medicine and human physiology. In my teens, my interest shifted to the mind and I became fascinated with personality tests and pop psychology. But now, with the Internet and the advances in our understanding of the brain, I have access to an abundance of information. I can look up studies. I can read blogs written by neuroscientists and medical specialists. There is a wide world of knowledge at my fingertips. So much has changed since my encyclopedia-reading days. 

I have focused a lot of my research on the brain's cognitive biases and human irrationality. When I realized that the religion I'd been raised with was filled with falsehoods, I felt betrayed by my parents and my elders, those I felt were responsible for imparting correct information to me, a trusting child. But it wasn't long before that sense of betrayal extended to myself. I felt betrayed by my own mind. Why did it take so long for me to realize that I'd been duped? What was it about the human mind that allowed such ridiculous beliefs to take root to begin with? Much of my writing in previous years explored these questions on a very personal level. But over the past few years, I've taken a step back and realized it wasn't just me that had been duped. We're all duped by something. We all carry irrational beliefs that we take for truth. And so, I wanted to understand what it was about the human brain that lent itself to such self-deception. 

I found out more than I bargained for and it made me really depressed for quite a while. I fell into quite an existential stupor in 2010. I could not come to terms with the absurdities of life and human existence.  After everything I'd been through, I didn't think it could get more difficult, but it did. I had reached a whole new level of knowledge. For the first time in my life, I felt completely naked, exposed entirely to my own ignorance and the collective ignorance of the human species. I could finally see all the cognitive errors I'd made through my life. Bad beliefs lead to bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to difficult experiences. It was all quite overwhelming to be faced with the raw truth of reality. Reality really does bite.

And, of course, there eventually came the meaning question and the realization that there is no inherent, overarching meaning to life, the Universe and everything in it. It just is. And the related realization, that if I wanted my life to mean something, I'd have to decide on that meaning for myself. And damn, what did I want my life to mean? Who did I want to be? And I found myself revisiting old versions of myself, and picking and choosing the bits of those mes that I wanted to keep and those that I wanted to discard. This was all percolating in my psyche as I read more and more about the brain. I took every bit of information I'd read and turned it back on my life. What does this teach me about life and my relation to it? What does this teach me about how to make my life better? How can I take this knowledge and make myself into the person I would really like to be?

My main goal in all of my self-exploration has always been to be healthy, sane and high-functioning enough to contribute to the society I live in and to not be a burden on others. I pulled away quite a bit in 2010, partly to heal and partly because I didn't want to infect too many people with my crazy while I was healing. For all of my reading, writing, reflecting, and therapy, I was still hitting the wall with my mental health. My moods were still inconsistent and I still thought of suicide regularly. Anxiety and depression were still my constant companions and no matter how hard I worked on bringing my mind into a rational space, there was still a wall that I couldn't get through. 

At that point, I realized that I needed pharmacological assistance for my brain to set up some kind of baseline. Without that, I knew I would just continue to flounder, no matter how hard I tried. So, I did the trial and error thing once again with my doc and about a year ago, we stumbled on a combination of meds that has changed my life. For the first time in 25 years, my brain is not actively trying to kill me. While I was quite aware of having recurrent suicidal thoughts since I was a teen, I didn't realize how much they had enveloped my daily life until sometime last Fall, when I noticed that they were gone. 

My mental landscape has changed profoundly since then. It was like the meds unlocked a door for me. And behind that door was all of the learning I'd done in the past 7 years; all the therapy I'd done, all the self-reflection and realizations. Suddenly, it was all there. Quiet. Accessible. In its place. 

I also woke up one day about a year ago and started walking regularly. For someone with Fibromyalgia, this is a big deal. It took a few months for my body to stop hating me, but it eventually got the message that this was going to be a regular thing. It still hurts but it's manageable. And starting my day with walking gives me time to listen to science podcasts or music or audiobooks. More knowledge. Yay!

After isolating myself so much in 2010, I knew that I would have to make a concerted effort to get back into life, to get engaged with people again. So, I started a weekly board games night at my apartment. A little wine, a little food and a whole lot of Cards Against Humanity. Nothing helps you come to terms with the absurdities of life like a little off-color humor. Laughter really is good medicine.

I now see my parents fairly often. We do lunch and shopping every couple of weeks. I think we've found a place of mutual respect. We might not share religious beliefs, but we share a love and basic humanistic respect for each other. And that is worth something.

I still grapple with questions of meaning and the absurdity of existence. And more recently, I've become acutely aware of the fact that I won't be here one day. And even more acutely aware that 'everyone I know, someday, will die.'

I try not to think about it all so much anymore. I keep engaged with life, with the people that matter to me and with the present moment. I'm not really sure how I got to where I am. Life is much more random than we realize and we have far less control over it than we think. This used to be depressing; now it's freeing.

Part of being able to move forward this past year was a conscious grieving of all the people I could have been. I easily could have been a doctor or a researcher. I could have been a lot of things. 

I feel like I took a 25 year long detour and am finally getting back on course with the life I want to be living. I know some people will say that I can still be a doctor or a researcher. Perhaps. But it doesn't matter anymore. I'm content with the knowledge that I was capable of being those people, that that potential was in me. If life had unfolded differently for me, a lot of things would be different. But it didn't. You can only play the cards you've been dealt. I only hope to play them well.

The reality is that while the past is the past, it has had its effects. My health will always need to be a consideration in my life decisions and now that I'm entering mid-life, there are age-related considerations to be made. Reality may bite, but I prefer it now to living in fantasyland. Part of growing up is accepting that life is what it is, whether you like it or not. And if you stop arguing with reality, life gets easier. 

There is something very sweet about the mortal life; once you realize the finitude of existence, you stop taking it for granted. And then, you start living. 

tall penguin

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Return of Miss S...

It's been so long since I've written here regularly that I feel as though I've forgotten how to blog. I've been fighting with myself about coming back to regular blogging. After such a long hiatus, I wasn't sure what to talk about first. And then something really great happened. And I thought, hey, this would be a great comeback story. So, here goes.

I wrote back in December of 2009 about a young JW girl, S, who was very dear to me. At that point, we had reconnected briefly, and randomly,  for the first time after my leaving the religion in 2005. She was 11 at that time and although I covertly slipped her my phone number, I didn't expect to hear from her for many years. I figured that once she turned 18, she'd have the right to stop attending the Jehovah's Witness meetings and then she'd come find me. Well, sometimes life takes unexpected turns and three months ago I received a phone message from Miss S, who I will now call by her real name, Sophie:

"Hi, it's me Sophie, K's daughter. I don't know if you remember me but I was thinking about you the other day and I miss you. And I'd like to talk to you. Can you call me?"

I don't think I can adequately describe how I felt when I heard that message, but I'll try. First, I did a little dance around my living room. And then I started crying, overcome with joy. A lot of really shitty stuff has happened across my life, not the least of which was losing contact with this child when I left the JWs and experienced shunning from my whole community. And here was her voice, on my phone, asking me to call her. So, I did.

I was nervous when I dialed her number. I had no idea what her JW status was. Was she and her family still in? Did her parents know she was contacting me? I wouldn't let any of that keep me from contacting her but I was also aware of the penalties and grief that she could suffer from having contact with me, the "apostate". 

When she picked up the phone, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had flashes of all of the beautiful moments we'd shared when she was a young girl. I was happy to hear in her voice that bubbly, talkative and loving girl I once knew.

As soon as we started talking, all the details spilled out. She was almost 14. She was a month away from her Grade 8 graduation. Her family hadn't been to JW meetings in years. She had always hated the religion and was happy to never have to sit through another long, boring JW sermon again. 

There was much to discuss so we made arrangements to meet for dinner. I picked her up at her home and we ended up spending the whole evening together, catching up on seven years of missed moments.  She filled me in on every bit of juicy gossip from my old JW congregation, including what happened in the aftermath of my leaving. She recounted one incident that took place shortly after I'd left. She was out with a bunch of JW adults in the proselytizing work and had seen me from afar on the street. She had wanted to go and say hello, but was told it was forbidden for her to talk to me. She said that had really bothered her. She had thought, 'She's my friend. Why can't I talk to her?'

She told me how much she hated being raised JW, how hypocritical she found everyone to be. She hated the cliques and the backbiting, the dogmatism and the lack of real love for others. When she was in Grade 3, she was so depressed about being stuck in the religion that she tried to kill herself. This made me very sad and also very angry. A lot of people in this religion have much to answer for. I wish there was a way to hold them accountable. The only solace I take from all of this is that Sophie is out now and got out young enough to build the life she wants. And, of course, that I'm now a part of her life again and get to be part of that building and unfolding.

Sophie and I now spend time together regularly. She comes and spends whole weekends with me where we go shopping, discuss life over dinner and stay up late watching movies. Normal stuff. Human stuff. 

Sometimes when I see her, I can't believe it's really her. Her with me. And we're both out of the religion and never going back. It's kind of surreal actually. As much grief as I experienced in losing contact with her, my brain had come to a certain level of acceptance that maybe I'd never be able to have her in my life again. I didn't like it, but I'd stopped crying about it. One thing that has shifted profoundly for me over the past year is that I no longer fight with reality. Reality always wins.

Sophie invited me to her Grade 8 Graduation last month. I was so touched to be there. The last time I'd attended one of her school events was when she was in Kindergarten and I volunteered to help the day her class went to the zoo. She was 4 then. She's 14 now. A decade has changed so much, yet changed so little. Sophie is still the bright-eyed, inquisitive, feeling child I knew then. And also the strong, independent, intelligent young woman I am lucky to know now. 

Here is a photo of us the night we reconnected: 

And one taken the night of her Grade 8 Graduation:

Sophie is the reason I've started blogging again. She's my inspiration. She has many questions about life and love and everything in between and I hope I can explore some of the ideas we discuss, here on my blog. When we reconnected, I showed her the entry I'd written about her over 2 years ago. She said, "You have to write another entry! You have to tell them I'm back!" 

As I write this, Sophie is sleeping on my couch. She will be delighted when she wakes to see that I've written the update to our story. I'm grateful there's an update to write. And even more grateful that our story has really only just begun.

tall penguin