I have a secret for getting through life.
Deep inside the corner recesses of my heart, there is a box. I call it Pandora’s Box. Whenever something comes along that creates sadness, stress or tension that I can’t, or don’t want to, deal with, I put it in Pandora’s Box. I “compartmentalize” exceptionally well. So if there was an unpleasant conversation or action during the day that hurts me too much, I simply crack the lid on the box open, cram the conversation or action inside, and shut the lid again. Someone hurt my feelings? No problem, it goes in the box and I don’t have to cry or drown in pain all day long. Indeed, once something is put in the box, I’m able to go about my day, pretending that the problem, or the pain, doesn’t exist. I will smile, laugh and go on crazy escapades until night falls and all the normal, sane people go to sleep. There’s a part of me that “knows” what’s in the box and that part of me also knows that, until I deal with it, it isn’t going to really go away. It’ll catch me off-guard every once in awhile. When I’m taking a bath, for instance, tears might show up without me really knowing why. When I’m driving, that time when I’m forced to be still and concentrate on something other than laughter and creating idyllic childhood memories, my heart might feel heavy. When the earth is dark and I’m the only one in my neighborhood still staring at the ceiling, I might get a little melancholy wondering how many ceilings I’ve stared at in my life and why I was staring at them. But then, I shake myself off, sit on top of the Pandora’s Box and redirect my attention onto something positive–writing, scrapbooking, photography, Facebook even, anything to distract me from remembering that my life is not and never has been pain-free. I go back to being the carefree, happy-go-lucky leader, mother, teacher I’ve always been and cherising the abundant beauty of realizing how beautiful life really is.
Eventually, though, a shift takes place. There’s usually a catalyst for this, a straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back—a conversation, a boost of confidence or a catastrophe I can’t stuff into the box. The shift makes me decide, consciously, to open Pandora’s box, remove whichever demon is currently haunting me, and deal with it. I take it out, relive it, cry and then decide what, if anything, I need to do about it to make it better. Sometimes this involves a conversation, sometimes it just means I have to cry for awhile, sometimes it means I have to meet someone I’m not sure I want or should see—as so happened when I had lunch with a woman I haven’t seen in ten years a few months ago. Whatever it is, I bring it into the light. I don’t put it back in the box, instead, I let it go. Then I go back to the being the carefree, happy-g0-lucky teacher, mother, writer I’ve always been. Life goes on. Until another shift takes place, another catalyst bursts the dam, and I go back, pull out the next bit of sadness or disappointment and repeat the process.
There are advantages to my way of surviving life.
For one, I almost never get overwhelmed. No matter what comes my way, I take it in stride. Illness, heartbreak, terror, whatever, I continually hear from others how calm and collected I am, how in control, how strong. Unlike some folks who combat the less pleasant side of adulthood by plowing immediately through whatever happens when it happens, I control what I deal with and when. So if a traffic jam annoys me, it’s still not going to make me feel claustrophobic or panicked because it’s the only thing I’m dealing with at the time—I don’t allow myself to think about “what if” I’m late or “what if” this or that. Instead, I just take a deep breath and remind myself I want to get wherever I’m going safely, I want my girls to get there safely, so I might as well relax and take the unexpected time on my hands to have another Chatter Chat or turn on some Tanya Tucker tunes. If I had to deal with traffic on top of what’s in my Pandora’s Box at the same time, I’d probably be a lot more frazzled, irritable and sad. Traffic jams are minor things that can be overlooked….as long as I’m not already stressed to the max by more important losses or crisis. When the storm turns to a thunderstorm, I plow through it by placing all aspects of the thunderstorm into the box except what must be immediately dealt with— I must go to the doctor, I must get through the traffic jam, I must cook dinner. Since I’m only dealing with one thing at a time, I rarely feel as though I can’t handle something. This is a major advantage to this system and probably why I’ve kept it around so long.
For two, it gives me control when I don’t really have any. You can break my heart, you can scare me, but you can’t force me to change the way I’m going to handle your behavior. I can ignore whatever you do to me until I’ve got the emotional and psychological health to face it. I’m most vulnerable when I feel like I don’t have any control, when it is taken away from me, either by circumstance or another person. I feel scared and alone—feelings I can’t bear to confront regularly. Therefore, having the ability to build whatever necessary walls I need to face those feelings before I actually do face them makes me feel empowered and safe.
The disavantage to this way of coping is that it means I walk through life, on a daily basis, with a heart at least somewhat encumbered because, even when the lid on Pandora’s Box is closed, a part of me knows that there are important things, real pain, that hasn’t been dealt with. I’m rather an expert at pretending. I can imagine things way more vividly than most the people. I survived a traumatic childhood by pretending that my fictional characters were in the room with me, talking to me as I went through painful things. My imagination is nearly palpable to my everyday life. I see a tree and I instantly imagine what my daughters and I could do with that tree to make us happy: we could climb it, we could pick apples from it…. when they were little, we would look out the bedroom window, pick a tree and pretend to see Winnie-the-Pooh or some of his friends high up in a branch. They would almost inevitably fall and we would hold our arms out in front of the window and pretend to catch them. I give my pills secret code names that make me smile so that when I have to take them every day I’m not saddened by the fact that, even though I’m only 33 years old, there are medications I have to take for the rest of my life. I harness my imagination and use it to redefine any aspect of life I find less than perfect. This doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge evil exists in the world—quite the contrary, I often find myself consumed with the types of indescriable pain people face on a daily basis. I’m aware of the negative aspects — but, if I’m not careful, those negative aspects of life all but paralyze me. Imagination allows me to build a bridge through the pain to the light on the other side, it gives me a choice to look for the beauty in the unfathomable, to see the grace in the tragic. It’s how I cope, it’s how I live. But beneath the grace, beneath the beauy, beneath the smiles and the Disney-like escapades, my heart bears the pain I can’t face. Every once in awhile, I manage to almost empty the box. I manage to confront and deal with and let go of almost all the pain–but not everything.
Pandora’s Box has demons in the bottom of it I haven’t the courage to face. These demons have been in the box for decades. And because I can’t pull them out and deal with them, they continually weigh my heart down. Not unbearably so, but I have only three or four memories in which my heart felt unencumbered, light, free. Two were the days my daughters were born—their births outweighed every negative event I have ever known, their births were the catalysts for healing, they lifted the fog so that I could finally see how bright the world really is. I was too awed by the power of a tiny baby to totally transform a life, mine, and by the privilege I’d been given to care for them, that I couldn’t even remember, let alone feel, the burdens in Pandora’s Box. With the exeception of those three or four memories, I’ve never been free from pain. I’ve hidden from it, sometimes exceptionally well, but it follows me everywhere I go. They’ve been there so long, and have weighed my heart down for so long, that parts of those demons have seeped through the cracks in my old box to permeate my life, my thoughts and my behaviors.
Shame, for instance.
It’s a coat those demons shackled onto my shoulders years ago. It would take too long to analyze shame, to break it down and even if I took that time, I’m not sure that shame is really something that can be understood. But it makes me walk with my eyes downcast, even though I tell myself to look up again and again. Shame makes my flaws weigh more than my attributes. It does other things, too. Shame is the reason I can’t buy nice, frilly things by whispering things like, “what? You? pretty? Why even bother?” I’ve battled these thoughts, battled this shame, for years by wearing a mask of confidence, by pretending I feel like I belong. The problem is that, because I know it is a mask, when people give me compliments, I often shrug them off, saying, “Okay, so I’m good at writing or teaching or whatever but that doesn’t mean I’m a good person. They don’t even really know me.” When I see pretty things, I admire them, sometimes I might even try them on, but it’s an act of courage to actually buy them. There’s other reasons for that—reasons that are too complicated to possibly explain, like the idea that if I’m pretty, I might in some way, accidentally, lead others to think I want something more than I actually do. Of course I’d never actually want anything remotely intimate—if I did, wouldn’t that be a betrayal of the little girl who was once hurt by the same thing? Shame leads to crazy thoughts but, no matter how crazy they are, they’re powerful enough to restrict me from embracing the person I might have been if….
I read this story the other day. A woman in Brooklyn slept and ate next to her mother’s corpse for three years. The title of the article uses the word “psycho” to describe the daughter. Instead of seeing crazy, my heart fell to the floor. I saw sad. It brought forth memories of what I’d felt when I read Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily” (you can read the story at the link) for the first time. It is a heartbreaking story. Unquestionably, the real life daughter and Emily Grierson had some sort of mental illness going on… if not at the time of the incident, definitely later. But what strikes me the most about both of these stories, the real life one and Faulkner’s version, is the permeating sense of debilitating loneliness. Every day the sun rises, the rooster wakes the farmer, the kids go out to play and life moves on in a hustling, bustling sort of way. We talk, we laugh, we love, we fight, we eat, we think. And then the sun starts to set. Here in Nashville, sunset is supposed to happen at 8:04 pm tonight. By 11:00, most of the kids in Nashville will be tucked in. By midnight, most of the adults will have given way to sleep too. But I will likely still be awake, writing if my brain is still making any sense at all or playing Letterpress on my phone or posting the day’s hundred pictures to Facebook. By four in the morning, the late night bars have closed and even the college kids have zonked out. But I was still awake the other night… staring at the ceiling, willing my mind to turn off the switch, making a light-hearted post on Facebook about how Insomnia needed to go to sleep already, all while trying to convince myself that no terrors awaited me if I but closed my eyes for a little while. In the end, even I was asleep by 5 a.m., only to wake again by 7, thankful both that the house hadn’t burned to the ground or been invaded by robbers and that I couldn’t remember my dreams. While I waited for sleep, I wondered what it would be like to have someone beside me, who might hold me. I chastied myself, reminding myself how silly. After all, I’ve got more baggage than anyone I have ever personally known, more than I can count. And even if I didn’t…. realistically, frankly, I just don’t think I’m cut out to share this life with anyone else. Watching wedding videos hurts my heart and every now and then, I re-read sappy, pointless romantic books. Every Monday I’ve been watching “The Bachelorette” even though every time I turn it on, I think how stupid it is. All because I like to dream and, baggage aside, I like to pretend the lies shame whispers that keep me from really trying aren’t true. I like to pretend that somewhere out there, even if it’s not for me personally, real love can exist. It’s like there’s a little girl inside who follows me around asking, “are fairy tales really true? Are there really happily ever afters?” and I want to tell her yes, so sometimes, when the demon Loneliness comes knocking kind of insistently, I lock him in Pandora’s Box and then I cling to idealistic, romantic, frivolous things like the so-called “reality” show or romantic books that showcases only perfect men and women that still somehow prevent me from losing all semblance of hope.
The show, “The Bachelorette” was the catalyst for the shift that prompted me to peek into Pandora’s Box to put a name to the beast that’s been driving me crazy the last little while, loneliness, and to write this emotional, pity-laden post. Specifically, the scene in which Nick gave Andi a book he’d written and illustrated that detailed their “journey” thus far. He used terms like “knight” and “princess.” I don’t even really like Nick. I think he’s really arrogant and I’m not one hundred percent certain I believe he’s even really trying, much less that he actually feels anything at all for this woman (I doubt it’s love on any of their parts but it could theorectically be infatuation which, if indugled long enough, might turn into love eventually). But that storybook was something I might have done, something to commeroate a connection I might believe in, something to celebrate a connection that gave me hope in an idyllic connection with someone else. And having created lots of creative gifts in the past for those I love, I know firsthand the time it requires to complete something like that and the fact that he gave that time to creating it… that time was more of a gift than the book. I haven’t been granted that sort of time—time and space to learn to trust, to believe in myself and in such a powerful and meaningful connection. It made me feel really alone, so much so that it took the ability to pretend I’m not away, which convinced me I had to open Pandora’s box long enough to deal with this beast once again.
Emily in Faulkner’s story and the real life daughter were both lonely. They had lost the belief that other people might believe in them, might want to be around them. They had lost the confidence to put themselves out in the real world and meet new friends. Instead, the shame and fear led to loneliness which led to desperation which made them do things ordinary people like you and I can’t fathom. But only because you and I know that loneliness is a choice—I could actually try to meet people. I could actually go to small group classes or parties. I could go to the literary club that meets frequently with fantastic people and “broaden my horizons.” I just don’t; I choose not to confront those fears, to instead keep them locked into Pandora’s Box and focus on my children and trying to make a small difference in their lives and in the lives of my readers and of my students. Since it is a choice, I can control it and that knowledge prevents me from losing my sometimes tenuous grip on reality. But I understand it. I understand how pretending is easier than living and how, when you’re overcome with any one aspect of pain, be it shame or loneliness or anger, your sense of perception is altered in ways that allow you to do things you couldn’t have seen yourself doing. Looking back on my own life, I cannot believe, for instance, that there was a time I ate only 2 days out of 7. But there was. I can’t hardly believe there was a time when I was afraid to get out of the house. But there was. I can’t hardly believe there was ever a time when I wrote out last wills and testaments almost nightly. But there was. Years from now, I’ll probably look back, roll my eyes and find it hard to believe that out of the 3 TV shows I currently watch, “The Bachelorette” was one of them. But it is.
But I am not Emily Grierson. My life has too many blessings, more than she ever allowed herself to know. Like my two little girls, a mother and sister who truly love me, renewed physcial strength, a strong faith in a fair and merciful God and at least one or two others who have broken through the layers, pushed aside the baggage and made me believe they see something worthwhile in me. Who knows? Maybe even something sparkly. I have a Summer’s been filled with trips to the strawberry farm, Chatter Chats, snuggle bunnies, the amusement park, the pool, the park, multiple museums, lemonade stands, renewed energy and a good book or two. Sunrise comes after the darkness of midnight. So now that I’ve written about the beast, loneliness is set free from within these walls. If it sneaks back in, I’ll put it into Pandora’s Box, close the lid and remind myself that this, too, shall pass.