the screaming man

Recently, my mother was discharged from a rehabilitation facility in Spokane, WA after a metal plate and eleven screws were installed in her ankle. While I could make the case that one can most certainly travel two hundred miles with weird insurance restrictions – it would fit the theme of the blog, right? – that’s not the point of this post.

First of all, a little background on my mother: rape survivor, former addict, former sufferer from severe depression, now a powerhouse of optimism and hellfire despite having very weak knees and fibromyalgia. I like to think of her as the kind of woman who, if encountered by the devil, would pinch his cheeks and say something like, “aww, look at you, thinking you’re all bad.” Naturally, when she found out that our uneven backyard would send her so far away from her family for two months, she was upset – determined to right the situation at all costs, but upset. Nevertheless, she went to the rehabilitation joint with the thought in mind that she was going to make the best out of it.

And she did. She made quite an impression. I’ve met some of the residents (and aides) who were mercilessly exposed to my mother’s “chin up, you sissy” demeanor, and the general consensus is that she did make the place brighter just by being herself. Though important, this is also not the point of the post. I’m getting there.

When she came back, she told me a story about one of the residents who lived there – I’ll call him George. He and his wife were in the same motorcycle accident, receiving similar injuries to their spinal cords as a result. His wife – with intense physical therapy, patience, and a mind-boggling amount of willpower – recovered. George, meanwhile, resigned himself to his condition – he refused to do therapy, as he didn’t see the point in it. His wife visited him constantly – but he resented her for her recovery in the face of his total disability. She left him; she couldn’t stomach the vitriol.

Every night, George would scream. “God, why can’t you just take me? Please let me die! Please! I want to die, God, can’t you do that for me?” Left alone to his thoughts, he was inconsolable. He was broken both in body and in spirit, and he refused to see the tiniest spark of life left in him as a beacon of hope. He was dying, he wanted to be dead, and he couldn’t fathom the cruelty of a world that would try to keep him alive. Bottom line.

George was taken to hospital one evening, and after a few days had passed, my mother noticed that someone else was moving into his room. When she inquired after him, the nurse bit her lip. “I’m not supposed to tell you,” she began, but thought better of it after a moment. “George died.”

He’d finally gotten his wish.

What a wish.

My mother would go on to work at her own therapy even harder. She reduced her predicted recovery time by a month, and even after, she refused to slow down. The residents and staff asked her, “Why are you pushing yourself so hard? You don’t have to keep moving all the time.” Or, “there are people to help you with things like that if you can’t do it.”

Her response was simple. “If you don’t keep moving, you die.”

So, yeah. If you don’t keep moving, you die. Pretty straightforward.

(Dedicated to every George, ever.)

cut yourself a break

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sometimes, it’s really easy for me to look at all the mistakes I’ve made in my life that held me back from being a better person today and go, “Oh, man. I really screwed up. I should’ve done [blank] instead of [blank].” Some mistakes are small, like staying up late when I know I have to get up early. Some of them are a little weightier, like drinking too much and making a fool out of myself. And then some of them are huge, like borrowing way more student loan money than I knew I could pay back. It’s true that living with the consequences of your actions is par for the course when you do anything, but how much punishment, exactly, are you supposed to meter out for yourself when you do something stupid? How do you know if you’re being too lenient or too harsh?

We live in a culture where perfection is not only a goal, but it’s a goal that everyone seems to have reached but us. It feels natural to self-deprecate on one or more character flaws, because if we don’t give ourselves a psychological twenty lashes, then who’s going to? And really, if that’s where it stops – then that’s fine. If you need to give yourself a stern talking-to in order to avoid making the same mistake twice, then by all means. Some people, however – myself included – have a habit of drawing out the punishment until it counteracts what they’re trying to accomplish.

For instance, I used to have a huge problem with emotional eating. My self-image wasn’t so great (understatement), and I was pretty overweight on top of it. So, I’d look at myself in the mirror, hate myself for a little while, then open the refrigerator and find the most comforting food I could (usually something sugary, with lots of chocolate) to stuff into the gap between my perception of myself and who I really was. Unsurprisingly, not only did that practice exacerbate the problem, but I was also getting more and more depressed with each repetition of the cycle.

(Image courtesy of Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

No human being on this planet is born perfect. To have a perfect person, the paragon of perfection would have to corporeally exist for a comparison, and it doesn’t. Each and every one of us has some kind of genetic mutation or psychological tendency due to our (or our ancestors’) adaptation to the environment around them, and we adapt in order to survive. There’s a reason you made whatever mistake you made: to help you become a better person. To help you evolve and adapt. If you’re an emotional eater, then the urge to eat when you’re depressed exists so you have a chance to exercise your willpower. When you exercise your willpower, you strengthen your sense of self. Just because you aren’t the person you want to be right now doesn’t mean that you’ll never get there. What’ll get you there is not beating yourself up about what you aren’t, though – it’s working, at your own pace, toward who you believe you should be.

Wading in a pool of self-hatred (or even hatred of others – sometimes, highlighting others’ character flaws puts less pressure on us to change ours) does absolutely nothing to change what you did in the past to put you at this point in your life. It doesn’t change you, it just makes you feel worse about yourself in the long run. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer is so important in Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings to Christians and non-Christians alike: it’s constant recognition of the fact that you’re only in control of what you do at this moment. An hour from now, we could get hit by a giant asteroid. We could be taken over by lawn gnomes. You could find a winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk. You could meet someone claiming to be the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, who makes collages out of old shoelaces in order to atone for his past atrocities. Each individual second that passes, each tiny interaction between us and the molecules jammed together in front of our faces, influences how we perceive the world. And we have absolutely no control over what happens to us. We do, however, have complete control over how we react to what happens.

If you grab a pan out of the oven without a mitt, you’re probably not going to spend the rest of your life wallowing in depression because you burned your hand. You may avoid baking for a while until the burn heals, but there’s only a real problem if you never bake again. Most people, I think, would just remember the oven mitt next time. Personality flaws are no different. If you lose a friend because you lost your temper and punched them in the face, then you may not have friends for a while. But you’ll have an opportunity, later in life, to not punch someone in the face. And the more you avoid punching someone in the face, the easier it will be to not punch someone in the face.

So, like the title says, cut yourself a break. If we’re alive for any reason at all, it’s to figure out what we’re supposed to do with this “life” thing in the first place. Usually, that’s as simple as making sure it goes on.