Loose Lips: contradiction to despair #5

Despair like the mafia, my father and bullies in general demand silence. “You can’t do anything to stop me and if you do, I’ll kill you. Anyway, it’s your fault.” (See Never Tell, my memoir of childhood joycehowe.com) Convinced of the hopelessness of speaking, we fall silent.

Quite the opposite is true. Loose lips, where depression is concerned, sinks the ship of despair.

Talking is just a riff on union with the divine or connection, assuming a more earthly contact. A phone is a useful tool.

The listener needs no training, except in the art of silence and the odd encouraging remark – how do you feel about that. While it’s hard listening to an hour of weeping and absolute despair, -wine helps, or half an Atavan – it is rewarding because the speaker eventually runs down and may even say she feels better.

The depressed person is only required to voice her conviction that life is totally meaningless, unfair, unbearable and not to be endured, with specific examples drawn from the present at first and then from the dismal past.

There is one essential question: are you suicidal?, followed by what plan have you made? Once this is on the table, strategies can be developed. Such strategies do not involve, “You can’t do that!” They need to be practical and effective. Once a Salvation Army officer sat with me far into the night until I was too tired for self-harm.

In those days, I was too far gone for my immediate family, but suicide hotlines were there 24/7.

In less exigent circumstances, your best friend is your journal. “Dear Constance”, one of my creative writing students began each of her mandatory journal entries. I didn’t actually read these entries, although, as I recorded journal completed, I noted the salutation. I have a 6-ft-high bookcase filled with 159 journals, written between phone calls. After many years, I write less, call less and listen more.

Life’s a bitch. But hang on. Lean on me. Lean on you. Let’s make it through.

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Breathe: contradiction to despair #4

Stop! Stop!

Especially, if you’re famous. Despair’s contagious.

I know – it’s not that easy. But just for today, try breathing. Gently. Let it go.

Tomorrow’s another day.

Three Day Blow: CO or not CO

halfwaybetweenthegutter.wordpress.com

So we had this storm. It was hyped daily as it approached: heavy rain, ice pellets, freezing rain, snow and very high winds – ergo – power outages.

I don’t listen to the news, except about Trump, but everyone told me, even strangers in the elevator. I got in provisions. I checked the lantern’s batteries. Good to go. Or not go really. I’d hunker down inside out of respect for my old bones.

As the storm began, I was woken by a beeping alarm. I stood in little hallway where the CO alarm and the smoke detector were mounted, cheek by jowl, so to speak. No further information was forthcoming.

The next time I woke up,I had a headache or rather something inside my head was trying to get out though the top. Two swords were drilling into the bones there. I sat on the edge of the bed. Dizzy, nauseated. Action!

I opened the bedroom window, the outside right slider, the inside left. Air could get in, but not whatever was falling and hammering at the glass.

I turned on the exhaust fans, opened the other windows, tried to eat toast, drank water and tea, and went back to bed.

A little after noon, I woke up again. Beep. Pause. Long pause. Oh that’s okay. Beep. Long pause. Again I stood in that five foot long hallway, open on the east to the living room, with three other doors and great potential for echoes. Nothing. Except head pain.

I went to the fridge to read that all important magnet. I raised my right arm, then my left. I said, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickles peppers, Peter picked a peck of pickled…” I looked in the hall mirror. No mouth droop. No numbness. Lack of strength? Well, all I wanted to do was lie down. I turned to the stove and hefted the iron fry-pan. Okay, there. Was it the worst headache ever? No, actually, it was the second worst. The worst was over twenty years ago, and just as I was about to call an ambulance, it stopped.

What to do?

At that moment, 1 p.m., the alarm beeped 4 times in a row. I rushed back. Nothing.

I phoned Georgia. If you have a daughter, phone her. Mine was way far away. My sister listened to me as I enumerated the stroke signs.

“Which alarm is it?” she asked.

“I can’t say. It’s like a watched pot. It only sounds when I’m in another room.”

“Remember Daniel,” she said.

Daniel was my son, to whom I had given a carbon monoxide alarm for his birthday, one February. I was apologetic about it. It seemed to show a lack of imagination. A few weeks later, a hornlike noise woke him up. ”

“Stupid thing,” he said, unplugging it and throwing it across the room. He went back to bed, but just as a deep and permanent sleep began to claim him, he leapt back up, threw open every window, and rushed upstairs to wake the other two tenants. By the time, they were at their doors muttering, “What the hell?”, he had turned off the furnace. The furnace had last been cleaned 12 years before, it turned out. It also turned out that the girl on the second floor was the landlord’s step-daughter.

I called the resident manager, the superintendent. He was not pleased. We had had a round about a beeping alarm a few weeks before when I had awoken to smell someone else’s fire place. As did the alarm.

By now, my head was pounding so badly I couldn’t think and I was slurring my words. Super was not best pleased. He reset the CO alarm and turned to go.

“That’s not going to work,” I began as I flopped onto the couch.

“All right, all right, I’ll take it to the office to monitor it. Like I did last time….”

“Not going to work,” I said. “It won’t beep there.”

Things escalated. “I’m really ill,” I kept saying, but he just talked over me.

“And if you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

I found myself weeping head-down at the table. Apparently, this was the desired effect since he was still telling me to leave as he closed the door.

“Phone his boss,” said Georgia.

“He is the boss,” I replied.

“No he isn’t.”

“It’s Saturday, and there’s a new management company…”

“Have you met his wife?” she said. ” She’s the boss.”

I phoned his boss.

The lady super could have been vice-principal in a middle school. Indeed, she could have been the head warden in a maximum security prison, but she arrived the image of our Lady of Mercy. She sat down, took my hands, told me amusing tales of exasperating tenants, there was a hug in there somewhere. Anyway her husband said that to all the tenants. And she laughed, lightly.

“But I’m sick,” I said. “I think I need to go to a walk-in clinic. Maybe I have carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Can you drive?” she wanted to know.

Clearly not. I could barely stand.

“Have you looked outside?” Georgia said. “I can’t go out in that. Open more windows.”

And she had a garage. She didn’t even have to scrape her windshield. Still from the 14th floor, I could see a car in a snowbank and the blue flashers of its rescuers. And no other movement, except whatever evil mixture was lashing diagonally in from the north-east.

As the afternoon wore on and the weather got worse -was this when the ice started building up on my windows? My head pain went down from 10/10 to 6/10. I was able to eat toast and even watch television. The wind was howling in under the door to the corridor and wrenching at the frames of the windows.

At 6 p.m., the beeps started up again. I reported this to Our Lady of Mercy, by phone.  At 9 p.m. beeps erupted from two directions, from the smoke alarm beside the bathroom door and the CO alarm, mine own, I had plugged in, in the kitchen as a stop gap. I unplugged the CO alarm. The Lady Super had put in the 12 Volt battery for me, but had not put on the cover. By now I was able actually to think. I put the cover on. The alarm sat silent.

REplying to my phone call, Mr. Super said he would be up in the morning to take down the smoke alarm, It was now beeping every twenty seconds. I thought I had read this was a ‘nuisance alarm’, but I wasn’t sure. I had spent the evening downloading user manuals. I closed the bedroom door, took a mg of Lorazepam and checked the windows. The outside slider was frozen in place. I turned up the electric base board heater, added a heavy wool blanket and slept like a log.

Next morning, Mr. Super  put back the CO alarm and removed the smoke alarm, all the while saying he had told me from the beginning it was a malfunctioning smoke alarm. Maybe so. It wasn’t the part I remembered.

“We have to order a new one. These are time sensitive.”

“Me too,” I thought.

Monday, the schools were closed, but only snow fell. I could see my iced up red Yaris in the parking lot. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Tuesday, I hauled my dirty clothes down to the laundry and set my iPhone timer. Thirty minutes later, two loads were ready to dry while one sat deep in water. An error message was flashing. Thank God, the assistant supers were on duty. Blissfully unaware of my unsuitability as a tenant, one of them climbed up on top of the washer and reached way down to unplug it. This was supposed to cause the water to drain. It didn’t, but it did unlock the door. I sloshed the soaking wet clothes into another washer, paid again and put newspaper down on the wet floor.

Around dinner time, I caught a bad smell in the bedroom. The carpet felt damp. Using two screw drivers, I reefed up the rug. The under padding squelched when I pressed down. It was clear that somehow water had got in at the floor line.

I lost it. How could I face yet another emergency call to the office. Georgia told me to buck up.

Fifteen minutes later assistant guy super showed up with a shop vac.

“Happened upstairs too,” he said as he got to work.

“Just keep the heat on high,” he added, as he left. Smiling kindly.

I had emailed my distant son who had once been a gas fitter. He did some research and got back to me, telling me how to get in touch with the gas inspector for my building and ruminating about how the 25 separate fire place chimneys that vented on the roof could react to such unusual weather. He talked about glass fronts being available but not effective.

Bad word! Bad word! I said to myself

The fire place damper had been open throughout!

Moral of the story: I may or may not have had a migraine brought on by low pressure. The alarms may or may not have actually been signalling danger. It may or may not be a good idea if you are a resident super to assume an alarm is a malfunction. It is definitely not a good idea to piss off an ex-high school teacher with an ex-middle school teacher for a sister. Next time – the full teacher voice in stereo – way worse than a resident super voice!

 

 

 

Home After Five Months Away

Georgia's idea of homeGeorgia’s idea of home

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/home-after-three-months-away

My title is taken from Robert Lowell’s poem, Home After Three Months Away in which he observes his toddler daughter and himself after his stay in a psychiatric hospital. His central image is one of shrunken dried out toast, hung as bird feed by the tyrannical ex-nurse. I like the title, but my own experience is quite different. I wasn’t in re-hab. I wasn’t even a patient, but I returned after a long absence to find myself much changed and for the better.

I was surprised by change, rather than dried out sameness. Wow, I have a new kitchen tap. I have new phones. True I had bought them, but I had forgotten. I stood for a long time, trying to figure out where I kept my mugs. I knew where they were in both houses in Pine Mountain Club, California. Now, logically, where would they be in my house. I took a chance they were near the glasses and there they were. What did I used to use to carry dirty clothes to the laundry room. Not a basket. I know I used something; otherwise socks escape all the way down stairs. Ahhh, a plastic bin, stored in the closet.

I came into the apartment to be met by heat and the sound of electric fans. It was very hot. “I turned on all your air filters,” Georgia had told me on the phone. That puzzled me. I have only one. She had turned on that and two small heaters that I had been using on cold spring days, once the furnace was turned off.

There were vegetables, bread and cookies in the fridge. I could actually have a chicken sandwich for dinner. All of the clocks except the one on the PVR were an hour out. The audio unit was doing a light show – the power had gone out.

But the place was dust free, it had been aired and the sheets changed. The mail had been sorted and discreetly placed so I could ignore it. The one letter that might cause me angst, opened and summarized for me. An old friend still didn’t want to speak to me, but Revenue Canada had given me back $200. Armed with this information, I ignore it.

True, I also met my terror at receiving the call that led me to leap on a plane to L.A. reassured it that all was well and moved on.

I ran the water filter a few minutes and had a long drink of familiar water to quell the dehydration of the flight home.

I called Georgia to anchor myself in Toronto and then I called Pine Mountain Club because I needed to extend my long-distance love connection and get the latest medical report.

I vowed in early June that I absolutely would not leave until I felt our patient was stable and unlikely to relapse. I vowed it fiercely. I put up with major inconveniences, like living two months in a hotel and two more with Clara. I put up with no car, no internet and no phone of my own. I found ways to cope – a hot wire, Skype and a golf cart. I put up with the occasional hint that now it was time to leave. I was adamant. When I decided to leave, I booked three weeks in advance. Even that three weeks showed significant health improvement.

Phone calls over, I went out to discover my almost new car was full of gas and it started right up. I drove to my favourite restaurant, where the dining room was closed. At 9:30????? (Oh right, I’m back in Kansas.) The bar was open, so I ordered a dark beer and the most expensive item on the menu, lobster jambalaya. I pulled out my iPad, turned on night vision and dived back into the 6th Outlander book, Snow and Ashes.

I was home after five months away, a more solid and whole person, an easier person to be. I knew when I left that our patient was better and so was I. Two heal faster than one.

https://115journals.com/The Crying Cure

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been dealing with a serious family illness, that has left me “stranded” in an exquisitely beautiful mountain village, which I sometimes have called Shangri-la. (see 115Journals.com and enter Shangri-la in the search bar.)

Recently, we have made progress. The illness itself is difficult to diagnose and treat. Factoring in medicare didn’t just double the difficulty. Quite possibly, it quadrupled it. Every time we turned around we had been dropped from MediCal, once because we were signed up on July 30, with an end date of July 31. Yes, both were in 2014. Or MediCal was refusing to fill a prescription because there was no TAR -whatever that is – or the doctor had upped the dosage but MediCal disagreed. Even Kern County Health which we transferred to has a limit of 5 prescriptions a month, so we had to choose the cheapest one and pay cash. At least one life-threatening situation and hospitalization ensued. And let’s be frank, some of our medical practitioners seemed to know less than we did.

After a particularly rocky interview with a “specialist” on Skype, we discovered she was actually a nurse practitioner. Time to call in Blake, the patient’s father who has equity in his home. Time to call on connections. And so we found Dr. B and ponied up the cash.

Let’s be clear, my people have earned over $300,000 a year and paid taxes accordingly – prior to 2008. Thanks to banks that were too big to fail, my people failed, lost two homes, their savings and their retirement investment. Obama bailed out the big banks. The little guy not so much.

Dr.B.came up with a diagnosis in an hour and a half and the chief drug necessary to control it. “Bread and butter”, he said. Then he refused to let Blake spend the patrimony and referred us instead to a resident he supervised who would accept the medicare plan. After a month’s wait, during which time Dr B insisted we call as necessary; otherwise he would be annoyed, we met Dr. P and Dr. Y who listened intelligently and knew how to carry treatment forward. Today, we ran up against a problem and Dr. P. answered our query immediately.

So I fired off upbeat email reports to 5 family members, all of whom are far away and to 4 friends. Then I got really sick.

Has this happened to you? You hold things together at work or at home for a long time, go on vacation and spend two weeks in bed?

Sure I had a good excuse, the temperature dropped suddenly up here at 5,500 feet and the furnace pilot light was out. I don’t actually get a cold at change of season, I get a headache and then a very bad muscle spasm in my lower back. No appointment was available for treatment until Saturday. That’s tomorrow, friends. Exercise quells it briefly, then it comes raging back. Ditto hot Epsom salt baths, heat, positive thinking and long walks. Pain killers don’t seem to touch it. The one thing that works longest is a good hard cry. First I have to find privacy, not so easy when you’re living in other people’s houses. Then just let go.

Just now having cleared the air with copious tears, I went to the general store, ostensibly looking for a mallet and unconsciousness. I found extra strength Tylenol and Newcastle Brown Ale.

The Cure for Fear

Okay, I should be asleep. I need to be. I want to get up early. Things to do. May actually be getting something, (When am I not?) But I have this great opportunity, which I am going to lose tomorrow. I am uncertain and afraid. Tomorrow I will call my oncologist. If my appointment is moved forward to next week instead of the week after, I know the lump that we’ve detected needs further study.

Blake and I were sitting in Starbucks in the lobby of Toronto General, gazing back at the Art Deco facade of Princess Margaret Hospital from which we had just jaywalked.

“Even if I do get an immediate call-back it could still be A or B. That would have to be determined,” I say.

“Or it could be C,” Blake quips.

“Oh, it could very well be C,” and I have to laugh.

Yes, well,  we have just spent two hours waiting to hear Blake’s test results with regard to C. They weren’t bad, but then they weren’t good either. It’s the usual seesaw game of prostrate cancer. Knock down the PSA score and the testosterone with hormones. Ease off. Watch the PSA rise again. Today, it was decided that it was time to go back to the heavy ammunition. Not easy news for the manly Blake, but excellent news in that the drugs have improved since last time and he is line to get this extremely expensive medication for free.

Not many men in the clinic bring along their ex-wives probably, but Blake’s young second wife was carried off by cancer two years ago. So he and I are embarked on this mutual study of mortality.

Much else has been happening this week. My brother Rob underwent knee replacement in Brussels. My daughter and her husband declared bankruptcy and their home is about to be foreclosed on. True this “disaster” has opened up their lives and led them to a prospective mountain home. My grandson, Leo, who has to get his driver’s license or lose his job, has his own test redo to deal with. I had enough fear to go round.

So I kept up my mantra, “I love you and I trust you.” Initially, I just mouthed the words, but gradually I realized what they meant. Driving down to the hospital today, I found it had morphed into, “I love you. I know you are pure love. I trust love.”

Blake and I, out of nothing but pure love, created a home, two children and careers that supported us. An excellent foundation for this present project.

At home, afterward, I read Rumi’s poetry (Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks). One section is called “Tavern Madness” and the poems in it are about the ‘drunkenness’ of the overwhelming contact with the divine. Dinners in our home were full of such non-alcoholic ‘drunken’ conversations, full of revelation and confidence in our vision of life.

Rumi says: I didn’t come here of my own accord
                  And I can’t leave that way.
                  Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

I love the way, poetry lets you work things out for yourself. And I love the idea of surrender to the steady shoulder that is capable of supporting my staggering self.

In another poem, Rumi says, I am the clear consciousness core of your being,                                              The same in ecstasy
                                             As in self-hating fatigue.

And so, I came around to an open heart and fear dissolved.

The Cure For Pain Is in the Pain

In one of  Rumi’s poems, “There’s Nothing Ahead” (Coleman Bark’s translation on p. 205 of The Essential Rumi), the 13th century Sufi poet tells us that “The cure for pain is in the pain”.

This is a very enigmatic poem that begins:
Lovers think they’re looking for each other,
but there’s only one search: wandering this world is wandering that, both inside one
transparent sky. In here
there is no dogma and no heresy.

This idea echoes another poem where he says
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere
They’re in each other all along. (Essential Rumi, p. 106)
By now we are beginning to get the idea that the ‘one search’ is not an outward one or a search for other.

After asserting that
The miracle of Jesus is himself, Rumi goes on to say that “if you can say, There’s nothing ahead, there will be nothing.” Then as though the reader is not confused enough, he adds
Stretch your arms and take hold of your clothes
with both hands. The cure for pain is in the pain.
Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both,
you don’t belong with us.

Faced with excruciating pain, I am more than glad to retreat to the coziness of a morphine drip, but it’s hard to come by. Lesser painkillers don’t impress me. Sure they can keep me quieter, but that’s about all. And over the counter pain remedies mess up my digestion and leave the pain the way they found it. So I am driven every so often to test this hypothesis.

I sat down earlier this week to get acquainted with the pain du jour. I made myself as comfortable as possible. No full lotus posture for me. If I’m going to look into the heart of darkness, I need pillows.

Whoa! It is bad. Really, really bad. Pull out of this dive. Just fear. Letting go never works for me. I have to own it. Hold it. Feel its center. Stay there. Stay there. Don’t fight it. This is not an alien force. This is me.

Forty minutes later, I seem to have sailed onto a clear sea.

The residual pain is bearable. I have no idea if that is what Rumi had in mind, but great poetry works that way. It is suggestive. What we make of it is up to us.

Rumi ends the poem:
When one of us gets lost, is not here, he must be inside us.
There’s no place like that anywhere in the world.

A ‘New’ Way to Cook Rice

Cooking easily digestible rice led me to a struggle with my Lagostina pressure cooker, which I described in an earlier post http://115journals.com. I seem to have found a solution in a ‘new’ method, which turns out to be anything but new and apparently Persian.

A friend sent me a copy of a recipe she found in the Los Angeles Times by Russ Parsons – ‘Back to the basics of rice’http://www.latimes.com. Parsons cites a cookbook by Yotan Ottolenghi as his source. Once I began talking about it to other cooks, I discovered they were already using this method and, indeed, I came across recipes for other grains using the same method.

Basically, there are 4 steps. First, the rice is washed and soaked for at least an hour in salted water. Second, it is cooked in a large amount of water like pasta until it is almost done. Third, it is drained and set on the lowest heat with a tightly fitting lid for 35 minutes. (Note that Parsons recommends sprinkling a few tablespoons of water and/or oil over the drained rice, which he mounds, so that it does not get too dry.) Finally, it is removed from the heat, the lid taken off, the pot covered with a tea towel, the lid replaced and allowed to sit for 10 minutes.

I had to experiment three times before I got what I wanted. The first few times were edible but not as delicious as the 4th batch. I soaked my short grain brown rice 24 hours for easier digestion. The hard part was getting it nearly done in the ‘pasta’ step. It took much longer than white rice or even basmati. It is taking about 20 minutes. The low heat or steaming stage also took some experimentation. At first the lowest setting on my stove proved to be too high. Parsons recommends a heat diffuser but kitchen suppliers just stared blankly when I asked for one. I couldn’t even find one on-line. But hail to Lagostina. My heavy bottomed pressure cooker proved to be just the thing – a built in heat diffuser, especially since its lid sealed nicely. Of course, I didn’t choose the pressure setting.

The goal, according to Pasons, is to produce ta-dig, ‘a crisp crust of browned rice that forms on the bottom of the pan’. I have achieved that once or twice.

What I like about this method is that the individual rice grains retain their integrity so-to-speak. My old method of using a measured amount of water in an Ohsawa pot in the pressure cooker produced a mushy rice that I would not have served guests or taken to a potluck dinner. Yet, with the increased soaking time, it proved to be digestible.

Parsons includes a recipe for a pilaf he calls muceddere which is made with basmati rice, lentils, chick peas, and tomatoes. I made a double batch and took it to one potluck lunch and was only briefly taken aback when an Iranian woman about my age -that is a cook of many years – helped herself to it. She didn’t comment but at least the vegetarians enjoyed it. I also tried the recipe using dates and almonds but preferred the muceddere.

The Meaning of Life -in three phone calls

Sara was inspecting the garbage when she shrieked, “Who put this in here?” She was flourishing a dirty tissue which she had fished out of the black garbage bin and was now flinging into the green compost bin. At lunch she announced to me and our mutual friend Robin that she no longer gave to ‘people’ charities. People were a blight on the planet, she said. She gave to animal charities and  environmental causes only now.

A few days later, I was talking to Robin on the phone. “The world is not going to be saved by recycling,” Robin said. We agreed that it might be saved by empathy, by caring for others and by extension for Earth.

“But if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter because God is already perfect,” said Robin.

“And God is within us?” I asked, just to make sure she wasn’t talking about that remote, supernatural fellow, the church used to tell me about.

“Of course,” she said.

“So, in fact, we are already perfect,” I concluded. And we  changed the subject to family.

But it began to get to me, that February week. I had shingles. Again! Economic recovery still hadn’t kicked in. I had seen one too many shows about terrorism and torture. And I had shingles.

“What the fudge, is it all about?” I asked my sister, Georgia. “Why are we here, working hard like you, hurting hard like me? What does it mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” she replied. “It’s what Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players’. It’s when we go off stage, we find our real life. But then, I’m a simple soul.” She didn’t add, “Unlike you who make everything complicated”. Then she did say, “We just do our best. It’s just practical.”

And that is how she lives. She devotes herself to making life better for others.

But she was right in her unspoken assessment of me. I couldn’t drop it.

My osteopath explained to me that the herpes or chicken pox virus that had been lying dormant in my body for these many years was doing its job and attacking the nerves. That was why I had had what I called the achey flu since mid-January, but now that it had surfaced in the form of a rash, I would begin to recover. The aching had already diminished as the itching increased. Recovery would come through rest and relaxation, not through yet more exercise and effort, he said, thus dismissing my default methods.

More time to think. Just what I wanted.

Maybe I hypothesized, we are trying to perfect the material world, to raise its consciousness. Okay, but the maple tree outside my window seems pretty perfect as it is. And the sheba innu I am going to dog-sit next week, ditto. Hum!

How about this? Out of the One came the many. Are we just trying to get back to the One, trying to remember that we are not isolated, victimized, powerless individuals but part of the powerful Whole?

So I posed the question to Julia in a long, long-distance phone call.

She said, “We are God experiencing Itself.”

“Well, why does it have to be so painful?” I demanded.

“That’s the nature of perception,” she said. “The nerves are part of the mind.”

I had a fleeting thought that as soon as there is mind, there is pain. That brought my mind back to torture.

“Someone like Thomas More,” I mused -I was thinking about how he was portrayed in A Man for All Seasons– “is invulnerable to torture because he is at one with God’s perfection.”

Perhaps during my relaxed and restful recovery, I could take short excursions there.

Isn’t there a liturgical blessing, “May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God…”?

Zero Dark Thirty: lessons in self-love

“If you lie to me, I will hurt you,” so says Dan, the CIA interrogator.

There has been much debate about whether Zero Dark Thirty was right to depict torture as the way that the U.S. got the initial information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Either it wasn’t or the powers that be want us to believe it wasn’t, but that is not what I want to talk about.

The early scenes of the torture of detainee, Ammar, in a black op detention centre got me thinking about the nature of abuse. Jason Clarke portrays Dan, the torturer brilliantly. His Dan is bearded, exudes vitality and, of course, incites terror. The viewer readily understands his determination to uncover bin Laden’s hideout. Then the torture starts. It is, as ever, deeply personal, an intimate experience. Hands on. Ammar is naked, utterly exposed, totally isolated.  He is kept awake for 96 hours. (Is that even possible?) Or he is left in total darkness, his ears bombarded with loud rock and roll. His handlers wear black ski masks – except for Dan. He presents himself as Ammar’s friend. If Ammar tells the truth. If not, he will string him up by his arms, waterboard him, or stuff him into a box much too small and leave him there for hours. It is all up to Ammar. Eventually, Dan moves on to a friendlier phase with a cleaned up Ammar sitting down to a delicious meal and convinces him that he has already given Dan most of the information he asked for, so he might as well fill in the details.

Presumably, Dan learned these techniques in torture class and may well have practised them and been practised on. Others come by them without such training. Growing up with one presents challenges both then and afterwards.

Abusers tell you that they don’t want to hurt you. They have to because you deserve it. It is in your nature. It is punishment for what you have done. It’s because you think bad thoughts. It’s because of what you won’t do. If you stand up to the abuser, if the pain inflicted on you doesn’t bend you to his (could be her, but I’m going with his) will, others may be drawn in, smaller, perhaps, or just more vulnerable. But the abuser insists, he is really your friend, your best friend, your only friend. How could anyone else like you since you are —— (fill in the blank).

While this may be character building in the short run, it has some long term negative results. Your abuser may have fallen silent years ago. It may, in fact, be the 25th anniversary of his death and yet, he has taught you so well that you can now run the script yourself, even though you are not aware of it. So whatever happens, you find that you have not quite measured up. You’re just a bit slimy, not very nice, socially undesirable. You have, in point of fact, failed many times and in important ways.

Not only that, you are permanently pissed off. It was all grossly unfair. It was unjust. Nobody should be treated that way. Years later, you watch a movie called Death of the Maiden and identify deeply with the rage of the torture victim.

What is the answer to this self-perpetuating abuse?

Perhaps it can start simply with the idea that you have always been well-intentioned, no matter how things turned out. Perhaps it can go on to note that you have done your best and that effort needs to be respected. You have respected and even cherished others for these virtues. Why not yourself? Your love has flowed out to others, why not let it flow through you as well? There may be a hiccup of grief at the beginning, but once the furnace of self-love is stoked, it will begin to heat and heal the body so that it lets go of pain, so that it relaxes and unfolds.