What I learned from Tom Hanks and his typewriters

I read a really wonderful profile on Tom Hanks recently (I highly recommend checking it out) and, not surprisingly, learned a lot of really sweet things about Tom Hanks. More unexpected was what I learned about myself.

In the piece, Hanks discusses how he amassed a large collection of typewriters, starting when he was 19 — hundreds of them — and eventually attributing the need to continue building the collection to the fact that for the first time in his life he truly had control of his belongings. As a child Hanks’ family moved pretty regularly and he often lost things in those moves. Being able to purchase the typewriters and hold on to them finally gave him some control in his life. Each time he bought a new typewriter the idea that he could bring it with him wherever he went and keep it for as long as he wanted, provided him with a sense of comfort he hadn’t experienced growing up.

As a kid my family also moved a lot. When they married and started having children, my parents lived in San Francisco. After a few years, we all moved across the Bay Bridge to the East Bay suburbs. Not long after that, my parents split up and my mom, sister and I packed up our things and moved back to the City. We were there for less than a year before returning to our house in the suburbs. The very next year, when I was six, I packed up and went to live with my father and stepmother about 2 hours south of San Francisco. That move felt more permanent than the previous moves and it seemed like I might stay put for a while.

Instead, in just over 3 years, my father, stepmother, sister and new baby brother moved to a small somewhat remote coastal town in Northern California. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories but I do have a vivid memory of a family meeting in the dining room and being given a brand new address book to collect the phone numbers and addresses of my 4th grade classmates because we would be moving in just a few weeks. I would be leaving before the end of the school year and I was devastated. Four years after that, I left my friends and family behind again when I moved back to the Bay Area to live with my mother and stepfather. I stayed there for the next 5 years, until I went away to college — an eternity compared to all my other homes.

As I criss crossed my way up and down California it’s hard to keep an accurate account of all that I left behind in each location: family members, friends, family pets, toys, books and items that my parents likely saw as junk, but to me were treasures. I left a little piece of me in each of the homes and towns I moved away from. And being a kid, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The people and things I left behind were gone forever. Like Tom Hanks, I found myself as an adult with almost no physical objects leftover from my childhood. Not a single thing that went along with me to each of my homes.

My parents and step-parents continued to move several more times throughout the years and more and more of my things were either discarded or left behind. My father and stepmother cut off contact with me when I was in high school so the connections to that part of my life completely disappeared. I have no idea what ever became of my old bedroom set or my books or my bicycle….did they keep my school photos? My report cards? The cutting board I made in my middle school woodshop class? I’ll never know.

During my marriage, my husband and I would often argue over my need to hold onto things. I never made it to “hoarder status” but I had a very difficult time getting rid of books, furniture, clothes, appliances or anything that I might someday wish I had kept. When we had no room in the house, I would move these things out to the garage. For the first time in my life I was able to hang on to my belongings and I’d be damned if I was going to suffer the loss of my life’s treasures ever again.

All the moving and all the loss I experienced growing up made me fiercely protective of my childrens’ histories. I wanted them to grow up and be able to see and read their favorite books, touch their beloved stuffed animals, see their sports’ trophies and art projects on the shelves. It was also important that they be able to hold on to friends from kindergarten all the way to high school graduation, and beyond. I hoped they’d have a sense of history with people who have known them their whole lives — something I longed for but never had. Well, at least not until I met my husband and spent the next 25 years with him.

And that brings up another important thing I missed out on during my transient childhood: feeling like I belong somewhere and with someone. I didn’t get to have friends that lasted for more than a few years. With no social media back then, it was hard to keep track of my friends when I moved away. I didn’t even have a family I felt I belonged to. My stepmother made it well known that I was her stepdaughter and very clearly not her daughter. My father likely suffered from pretty severe and undiagnosed mental illness and wasn’t able to express his emotions in a healthy way. So I never knew where I stood with him or if he even cared about me. My stepfather had three of his own kids that he didn’t have a relationship with, so having one with me was not of any interest to him. And since I moved back and forth between my parents’ homes I often felt like I was a guest in both places.

With my husband, I was finally able to feel secure and loved and like I belonged somewhere for the first time. I wasn’t just visiting, I wasn’t going to be forced to pack up my belongings and move away from a home I loved. No it wasn’t always perfect, but during those years we truly felt like a family, we cared about each other and our kids knew they were loved and safe and cared for. It’s hard to put into words the sense of safety and security I felt during time in my life and it’s even harder to articulate just how devastating it was lose it.

It’s coming up on an astonishing 3 years since my husband left me and I wish I could say that I’ve settled into being alone. I wish I could say that I’ve found that sense of safety and security and belonging that I had in my marriage. I do hope to get there again someday. And I do hope that I can get to a place where I feel loved and cared for. But in the meanwhile, I’ll be holding on to my “typewriters” and feeling some sense of comfort and control, however small.

Practicing what I preach

This morning as I was driving to my job of teaching yoga to elementary school students, I had a panic attack. I had to pull my car onto the shoulder and, while trying to control my hyperventilating, I texted my colleagues to apologize and to let them know that I wouldn’t be making in to teach today.

I’m not entirely sure what brought on the panic attack, but likely it’s the stress of working two jobs and trying to juggle all the duties those jobs entail, while also raising my youngest son, who is still at home with me half the time.

Recently, I took a job as an admin for a busy architecture firm for a few important reasons: the main one being health insurance. When my divorce becomes final I will be without health insurance, as my job as a yoga teacher is as an independent contractor. Without going into politics and how I feel about the limited access to health care in the US, I will just say that the situation has caused me a great deal of stress and worry. I also took the second job so that I can earn enough to support myself as a single woman living in the increasingly unaffordable Bay Area, where I have spent my entire life.

I thought I was managing. I thought I was getting it all done and doing a decent job of taking care of everything on my plate. Today the realization that I might actually be doing a crappy job at all of them hit me like a ton of bricks after I dropped my son at school, checked in to the office for an hour, then headed to my teaching gig. The irony in all of this is that the theme I’m teaching my yoga students this week is aparigraha — the practice of non-grasping.

I have been talking to my students about learning how to let go of feelings and thoughts — and even tangible things — that aren’t serving us. We’ve talked about the importance of releasing the negative feelings, the grudges and the stress of living in the past and the future – rather than in the present moment. It all makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Truly, it’s great lesson for my students, but it’s also a lesson that I need right now, maybe even more than my students. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop talking about these things and start living them. Sure, that’s easier said than done, but I suppose realizing what I need to do is the first step.

And taking stock of what I have been grasping at and holding on to is the most important thing on my to-do list right now. So in the spirit of practicing what I preach, here is what I need to learn to let go of:

  • the shame of my husband leaving me
  • the worry that I’m not doing a good enough job at everything in my life
  • the constant monkey mind thoughts that I am not: moving on fast enough from my divorce, making enough money to support myself and my kids, able to access to health insurance, being a good parent to my children
  • the idea that something I did caused my husband to cheat on me and become a “sugar daddy” to multiple “sugar babies” right under my nose
  • the shame that I am not making the right or most rational decisions in my divorce
  • the belief that I am a fraud
  • the belief that I am not good enough
  • living everywhere but the present moment

 

The panic attack has subsided, my breathing has returned to normal and I’m not feeling as terrified. It’s probably time to start checking things off that list.

 

 

 

What do you do when you’re not okay?

It’s almost as if “how are you?” has become a rhetorical question. We ask, but do we really want to know the answer? Unless, that is, the answer is, “great, everything is going great,” no, we don’t really want to hear the answer.

What are we supposed to do when we have the wrong answer to that question? What you do is, you lie. You say, “I’m fine. Everything is good, kids are good, work is good, I’m good. Great, in fact!”

I’ve become a liar. I don’t consider myself a dishonest person, but I lie every single day. I lie to everyone. I lie to those closest to me and I lie to the clerk at the grocery store.  I spend all day lying about being ok. “I’m good, how are you?”

I am not good and I’m not even okay. But I have no choice but to keep lying. Why? Because nobody wants to know that I’m not okay. They don’t know what to do any more than I do. And people don’t like to be faced with situations where they don’t know what to do. So I keep lying.

I tried not lying last summer. I told the truth. I told my estranged husband, my mom, my sister, my kids, my friends that I wasn’t ok. And I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for 8 days where the first order of business was to remove the underwire from my bra for fear that I might harm myself with it.

I don’t blame anyone for the fact that I ended up in the hospital. Before I was a patient, I had no idea that when you get sent to a psychiatric hospital (or at least the one I ended up in) you don’t get the help you need. You get sharp objects confiscated, you have to remove the drawstrings from your clothing, you are given coloring pages to pass the time, you get woken up every two hours during the night with a flashlight in your face, you live in a room with the windows covered and are only let outside when the nurses feel like letting you outside and the highlight of the day is ‘activity time’ when you get to make bracelets out of large plastic beads that are often found in preschools. But the one thing I needed the most, I didn’t get. I needed help and I needed it desperately. I begged for it. I asked every day to talk to a therapist. You’d think the place would be filled with them, and you’d be wrong. There is one psychiatrist who sees every patient in the entire hospital for about 5 minutes each day. He doesn’t offer therapy, he doesn’t ask you how you are or tell you how to get better. He looks at your chart and sees that when you got spit on by another patient that morning you asked at the nurses’ desk for anxiety meds and that means that you are not yet stable enough to be released. File closed, see you tomorrow, maybe. If he gets tied up with too many intakes you might not see him until the day after.

With so many high profile suicides in recent years, we have all become “suicide aware,” and we know what to look for in our friends and family. We know that we need to check in with our friends and family members who are struggling. And we know that when they say that they aren’t okay, we need to do something. It’s just that there is no good “something” available.

My doctor, my therapist and every other single person I have walked with on this path through the world of mental illness tells me to immediately go to the ER if I feel like hurting myself. Seems like solid advice. But I tried that. And after two stints in the psychiatric hospital, three rounds of IOP (intensive outpatient program) and six months of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy where each week I had 2 hours of skills training and 1 hour with my individual therapist) I am still not okay. The only difference is that now I know not to tell anyone I’m not okay. And as an added bonus, I can no longer legally purchase a firearm (upon my discharge from the hospital I had to sign the paperwork informing me of the law that anyone who has been involuntarily held on a 5150 cannot purchase firearms). Doesn’t matter that I have never ever threatened to hurt anyone but myself, I am considered too dangerous to own a gun. Oh, and besides the whole gun thing, I also have a case of PTSD and have regular nightmares about being locked in a mental institution without any options for getting out.

When I bowed out of one of the celebrations for my daughter’s upcoming college graduation —  because my former in-laws told me that, even though they never called or sent me a note while I was there, I caused their family a great deal of pain when I ended up in the hospital. They have since refused to speak to me and won’t answer my calls — my husband (who is only still my husband because the divorce is not yet final after nearly two years) accused me of ruining the event. When I explained to him that since it was completely ok with my daughter to miss this ONE event, I had decided to do what was in the best interest of my mental health by not being there. He then accused me of making the whole weekend about me and refuses to speak to me.

What can I possibly do that respects this milestone in my daughter’s life and also takes into account that being around people who have told me they want nothing to do with me is extremely triggering? I suspect that is another rhetorical question. But I do so wish there was a good answer. And I wish I knew what to do when I’m not okay. And I wish there was another viable option for making me feel better. Because now I know all too well what doesn’t help when I say that I’m not okay.

Trapped in a Talking Heads song

Until my marriage starting falling apart, I didn’t know what gaslighting meant. Unfortunately, I know too well what it means now.

Gaslight
/ˈɡaslīt/
verb
gerund or present participle: gaslighting
  1. manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
    “in the first episode, Karen Valentine is being gaslighted by her husband”

 

The cruelest thing gaslighting  does is it takes away your truth. Gaslighting makes you doubt your own reality and, if you are unfortunate enough to suffer with depression and/or anxiety, it takes away almost everything.

During the final few months of my marriage, my husband accused me of cheating. I knew it was untrue, but he wouldn’t listen to me. Refused to discuss it. Told me that was why our marriage was ending. Accused me of lying. It mattered not one bit when I discovered that it was actually HIM who was cheating. I was still one who could not be trusted to tell the truth.

More than two years later, I am questioning everything in my life.

I have always believed myself to be an honest person, quite often to my detriment. As a kid I wished that I could lie to my parents about my misdeeds without the dead giveaways of my bright red face and my stumbling speech. Over the years, I learned to take pride in my ability to speak up for myself, and in my trustworthiness and honestly. But after being accused so many times of being a liar, have I gotten it wrong all my life? Am I really a person who can’t be trusted to tell the truth, as I’ve been told? Do I really twist reality to my benefit, as I’ve been told? I honestly don’t know.

I had been the primary caregiver of my children for most of their lives. I took great pride in my children and was proud to have raised three people with whom I enjoy spending time. But did I get that all wrong, too? Was I a bad parent? Have I really done such horrible things that I deserved to have my legal guardianship of my youngest son stripped from me? I honestly don’t know that either.

Did the fact that for a few months this past summer I thought my life was no longer worth living and my actions caused me to be involuntarily confined to a psychiatric hospital really cause my former in-laws “a great deal of pain?”  So much pain, apparently, that not one of them reached out to me while I was in the hospital or when I returned home?

These days I feel like I’m living that song by the Talking Heads:

“and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? And you may ask yourself, am I right? Or am I wrong. You may ask yourself, my God, what have I done?”

My God, how did I get here? And, how the hell do I get out of here?

I want to be able to trust my instincts again. I want to be able to trust that my truth is reality. I want to know that I count. I want to know that I am a good person. I want to know that I did the best I could in my marriage and that its demise wasn’t all my fault. I want to know that I’m not perfect, but I’m learning and growing and trying to be a better human being.

How do I undo years of gaslighting? How do I stop needing to constantly plead to deaf ears that I am telling the truth? How do I convince people who have been my family for more than 25 years to pick up a phone call from me, or to just listen to what I have to say? How do I stop being invisible to people who were such a large part of my life for more than half my years on this planet? How do I get them to treat me like a person? How do I convince myself that I’m okay? How do I convince myself that I’m enough? How do I convince myself that I am worthy of being loved?

Because I want out of this Talking Heads song now. I want a new song. I want to trust myself again. I want my power back.

 

The ups and downs of being alone

I haven’t spent much of my almost 51 years of life alone. Growing up, I mostly shared a room with my sister and also had a younger brother barging into our room on a regular basis. When I went off to college, I had a roommate — both in the dorms and later in apartments off campus. When I graduated from college, I moved back home for 6 months before my parents insisted it was time to head out on my own. I ended up renting a crappy apartment in an equally crappy neighborhood, because it was all that I could afford at the time. The months spent in that dreary apartment were noteworthy for being the first time I had ever been truly and absolutely alone in my own home. I’m not sure if it was the apartment, living alone, the not-so-great neighborhood or all of the above, but I was miserable and hated the entire experience. As soon as I could, I moved out of the apartment and into a house with three other people.

Not long before I moved into that house (that bears an uncanny resemblance to the house featured in the HBO show Silicon Valley — I suspect the neighborhood is the same), and immediately after breaking up with my college boyfriend of three years, I met my soon-to-be husband. Things moved quickly and in fairly rapid succession, we moved into an apartment together, bought a house, got married, had kids and collected a few dogs along the way. As anyone who has ever lived with roommates, been married, or raised children knows, there wasn’t much alone time for me. That was until the day my husband moved out. He had been my longest lasting roommate and we had lived together for almost 25 years.

With two of my children now in college on the East Coast (while I live on the West Coast) and one child spending only a few days a week with me, I’ve had a steep learning curve in managing this new solo lifestyle. After years of imagining something terrible happening to my children, my nightmares these days tend to be related to something catastrophic happening to me and nobody discovering my body for days or weeks. I even imagine the headlines that will appear when someone breaks down my door and discovers my dog sitting shiva beside my decomposing body.

Yes, I have relatives and lots of close and dear friends. But we all have busy lives and don’t keep in constant touch. Of course, many would notice if I was incommunicado for a week or so. But a few days would not set off any warning bells for anyone. And while I do have a job, my schedule isn’t entirely regular and, again, it wouldn’t be unusual for me to not be there for a few days, or perhaps a week. After having a husband for almost all of my adult life and being a full-time mom for 20 years, it’s strange to not have someone who knows where I am every minute of the day. Strange and somewhat scary.

When I first moved into my current home, I was constantly amazed at the joy I experienced in taking up every inch of closet space for myself. And being able to hang anything I wanted on any wall anywhere I pleased. I experienced great pleasure in doing what my heart desired whenever I desired it. Nobody to judge, or even notice, if I spent an entire Saturday in my pajamas, eating ice cream straight from the carton while binge watching The Great British Baking Show. (Purely a hypothetical scenario, I assure you) I don’t have to make lunch or dinner for any other person, except myself — and if some days dinner consists of toast then so be it.

But while I have enjoyed some of the freedom that being on my own affords, I’ve struggled with much of it.  When unexpected things happen, I don’t have that partner to prop me back up and tell me things will be ok. When the bougainvillea that the previous owner strapped to the side of the house with zip ties collapsed and landed with a crash across the entire width of my driveway, I had to figure out how to free my car and saw through the almost 100 year old thickly gnarled branches and haul them away.  It took me a few weeks to get it all done and when I finally did, I felt good. But the moment it happened, I was beside myself. Who would help me? Who could tell me what to do?

This morning when I looked out the window and discovered that my car had been ransacked in the night, I immediately burst into tears. Someone opened up and emptied every single compartment in the entire car and dumped everything in piles on the floor. A few things were taken: a favorite winter coat I left in there because my hands were full when I got home last night, a couple dollars in change I kept in the ashtray for feeding parking meters, and a few things I bought at Target recently but hadn’t gotten around to bringing in the house. So, thankfully, I lost nothing of major value. But my sense of security took a very big hit. I reached out to my not-yet-ex husband hoping for….what? I really don’t know what I was hoping for. But whatever it was that I wanted from him, I certainly didn’t get it.

What happened with my car wasn’t catastrophic by any stretch of the imagination. But in the moments after I discovered it, it absolutely seemed like it. I felt frightened and violated and, more than anything, alone.