I ruminate. A sort of self-imprisonment, made up of “what ifs”, “I shoulds” and “maybe I should haves”. The problem with such introspection is not really the questions we ask ourselves, but rather where we think the answers can be found. My emotional state, like a pendulum, swings between feeling good, and feeling not so good. I don’t hang out for long in the middle, but rather spend most of my time on either side of neutral. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to maximize the time spent feeling good, and to minimize the intensity and length of time I spend feeling bad. Despite these strides, it’s a two steps forward one step back kind of thing. For me, sometimes the one step back is a pretty big one. Rather, it feels big when I’m not feeling my best. A younger version of myself eclipses the self-assured woman I’ve grown to be. This younger me rarely knows what she wants or how she feels. Her sense of self-worth determined by the opinions and affections of others. Confident, even sassy, 40 year old me, gets so swallowed up by the whys and the whats of my unhappiness, that I forget the how of feeling good.
About a month ago, I was feeling pretty low. It was as though my pendulum had become securely latched to some imaginary wall behind me, cemented in my hopelessness. It felt as though things were not going to change…. Unless of course someone, or something changed it for me. In a funk, instead of reaching out, I turned inwards, stuck in that loop of rumination. I decathected, pulling away from the people and things that matter most. I’d get it together, and feel ok while I was busying myself with work, or the kids, but the second I stopped, or slowed the pace, my despair would seep back in. My fuse was short, and my words were curt. I began to see concern in my children’s eyes. “Are you happy Mama?” Argh that question… It killed me that my unhappiness had become obvious to the two little people who I most wanted to protect from it, but children see what others don’t. They feel what we do not say. The more we try and hide some part of ourselves, the more energy we end up lending to it, making it impossible for our children not to pick up on. They read energy. Kids understand anger, sadness, and tension in ways that adults don’t. They may not have words for these complicated emotions. But they know the texture, rhythm, and vibration of our pain. They are our mirrors. In their faces, I saw how ugly my impatience was. I saw the dread of my mounting irritability. I knew, that they might blame themselves for my unhappiness (because that’s what kids do), or worse yet, see it as their job to fix me. Despite knowing all of this, I remained stuck, as though paralyzed by the noise in my head, and the ache in my heart.
Until one night, I sat long-faced on the couch, staring blankly at my phone, desperate for their bedtime so that I could be alone with my misery. “Mama, I want to tell you a story. I’ve been waiting for the right time, and I think you need to hear it”, Maya said gingerly as though testing to see whether I was ready to listen. This is how her story went: “One day I was walking down a road, and there was a hole, and I fell in, and I said to myself, “Its not my fault”. The next day I walked down the same road, and there was a hole, and I fell in, and I said, “Its not my fault”. On the third day, I walked down the road, and there was a hole, and I fell in, and I said, “Its not my fault”. She went on to tell me about days 4-9, same road, and same result. “On the 10th day I walked down the road, there was a hole, but this time, I did NOT fall in. It WAS my fault!” she said emphatically, looking at me as though checking for understanding. Her gaze made me catch my breath. “On the 11th day, I went down a different road. There was no hole.” She stood there in silence, as the words of the last bit of her story hung in the air. “I learned this in my Mindfulness class Mama. It made me think of you”. After weeks of feeling as though I was breathing under water, I took a long deep breath. I waited for her to go on. “You see Mama, we decide. It’s the choices we make.” Marisol, who’d stilled to listen to her sister’s story, watched us both so intently, as though understanding that more was being said between Maya’s words. There was a buzz in the room. An energy that I’d not felt in weeks rippled through me. I was broken open… The thick, and crusty shell that had encased me turned to dust. It all shifted into laser focus. As long as I thought the answer to my feeling better could be found outside of myself, I would stay locked in my unhappiness. I needed to be accountable for how far back my pendulum had swung, and how long I’d sat in the dark. I needed to acknowledge the darkness, I’d let cast a shadow in my home, and on my children. I knew what I needed to do to start feeling better. I knew. I just needed reminding, that it really was up to me. I’d been waiting for someone or something to fix me. Waiting for all of the holes that lined my road to be filled. Furthermore, I’d focused on the wrong thing. I’d examined and re-examined the problems in my life as though the answers would come from such careful study, despite having learned and re-learned that they rarely do. What I know: My mood improves when my how changes. When I move to action, vs. reaction. When I start doing the things that make me feel better, vs. focusing on the very things that don’t. In my case this means, getting out of my head, and getting back into my life, by doing what brings me joy, like spending time with loved ones, having a little fun, making space for me, and writing this blog. But like most of the big lessons that have helped shape me, I know all of this when I’m feeling good, yet seem to forget when I’m feeling bad. Its like my logical brain gets overridden by my emotional brain in periods of vulnerability. The thing is, the how of feeling good is far less complicated than the what. I complicate it! I lose sight of the fact that all of the issues that need tackling, or decisions that need making, are so much easier to make when you’re feeling better. We all think we’ll feel better when things get sorted out. The truth is we have it backwards.
Before I said a word, I could read the satisfaction on Maya’s face. She knew she’d made her point. She knew her story had unlocked something in me. I mouthed the words, “thank you”, and motioned for her to come in for a hug. Marisol matched her step, and the three of us enveloped one another. Our long embrace soothed my swollen heart. This moment, these two souls, untangled me. Little mirrors, not responsible for making me happy, but rather are happy, because I am responsible.