It’s a week since my latest birthday. The count is now up to 61, which puts me firmly in my sixties, not just skirting the issue, as I was last year. Or, as one friend put it, “My, we are getting on.”
There’s an impulse to be all contemplative about aging, but really, when I think about it, I’ve as good a chance as anyone to live another twenty, thirty, or even forty years, no way to know. Even if it’s only twenty, that’s a lot of time to get stuff done, when you consider what people manage in their first couple of decades, and I don’t have to worry about learning to walk and talk either… And really, no one has any actual guarantee about how long they will live, whatever point we’re starting from.
I have to remind myself about this, when occasionally I feel twinges that remind me my body’s not quite as good at some things as it once was. On that score, I signed up for a yoga class, and have had a couple months of classes. It makes clear that I need to do some work here, before joints seize up on me completely, but it’s not hopeless. I am going to try setting up my own routine, mostly because I can’t afford to pay to go to a class every day, which would be optimal, really. And while it’s certainly easier to maintain a program when you have an appointment, one that other people will notice you’ve missed, I know that I’m the one who is responsible for what I do.
Which leads me to what I’ve been working on. Being in charge of my own life, in a way I haven’t managed to do before, not to my own satisfaction. I’ve figured out that my problems have roots in my early years, no surprise there, but still, I’m surprised in a way. Thinking can stiffen up just as muscles and joints (the brain is a muscle after all). I think I’ve begun a rather important shift in my thinking, one I hope to keep going, as I don’t think we ever figure everything out. (It’s nice to note, that at this age you can still have a shift in thinking.)
The cliche about the journey being the point, not the destination, is also a truism. And we all come to things when we come to them, something else I’m getting to understand. (My kindergarten teacher told my mother I might have trouble in grade one, because I was ‘slow.’ She was wrong in one sense — I did fine in grade one — but in one she was right because I do take my time to get where I’m going.)
Throughout my life I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression, in a low-on-the-scale way perhaps, but debilitating enough that I’d say my life stalled in many ways; I’ve often lived in a kind of torpor. There was movement — when there’s no wind, sometimes there’s a current — but definitely not movement in a way that I felt in control of. So what has happened to change that? Finally figured out there was an engine on the boat, basically, and that I could run it. I’ve had a change in attitude, in thinking, that has been helped along by two seemingly disparate schools of thought.
About a year and a half ago, when I finally surrendered to the idea that I didn’t have all the answers to a problem I was dealing with, I went to an Al-Anon meeting. (Al Anon is a fellowship of people who have problem drinkers in their lives, what I think of as a fellowship of the collaterally damaged.) What I learned (because I listened) was that this was a key to my problems going a long way back. That my (not very effective) coping behaviours dated from my childhood growing up in what, from this perspective, looks like chaos (this is a stating of what was, not a blaming). And that while my coping strategies may have kept me safe(ish) when I was a child (keeping quiet, hiding, a feeling of not mattering, fear) they don’t work very well for me now, as an adult, you know, in my sixties.
It’s really quite a radical change for me. I’ve spent most of my life resisting the idea of becoming a member of anything, but I can now say I am a grateful member of Al-Anon. (The program is based on anonymity, so I’m only sharing how it has worked for me.) I went to my first few meetings, because of particular issues I was having (yes, co-dependency factors in) but what I found was that it’s me that needs help. That it’s not my responsibility (or my place) to look after another person’s business, only to attend to my own. I have learned new and positive meaning to the suggestion: Mind Your Own Business.
At the same time, while it’s up to me to look after my own life, there is support, community and understanding right there for the asking. And interestingly, there is also room to be helpful (of service) to others, but done with respect, rather than the assumption that my way is the right way. Humility is entering my vocabulary.
I also figured out that I could have used the insights of Al-Anon about forty years ago (not that I was ready to listen then). Point is, I was ready to get it now, and have been soaking up the ideas, both in hearing individual stories, and in the reading I’ve been doing (you’ll never stop me from reading!).
And I find that I am not unique. Imagine that! What a relief. I keep hearing other people’s experience (strength, and hope) and it sets off reverberations inside me. Echoes of my own story, my growing up amid family chaos, which did include alcoholism, though that wasn’t the only problem kicking around. But illness of any kind affects the whole family, even if family members don’t all have the same illness.
Interestingly, I’d already had this understanding of the whole family being sick; the idea that families might project their dis-ease onto the member who is obviously most disturbed, and not acknowledge their own part in it. My older brother had what I believe was schizophrenia, though any exact diagnosis is guesswork on my part (because he killed himself thirty-six years ago, which is why I can’t just ask him). But his illness certainly affected the rest of us. My parents didn’t talk about it, and as far as I could tell, didn’t even accept the idea that he had an illness. When he died it tore them up, each in their own way. I think they both beat themselves up with guilt, thinking that it was somehow their fault, if they’d just done something different.
The book I read, back when I was about 18, was given to me by my step-mother, who I guess did recognize/admit that we were dealing with mental illness. The book was called Pathways to Madness, by Jules Henry, and I remember it talked a lot about family of origin, and that the whole family carried the illness, with this idea I carried away, that it was projected onto the one chosen to be the sick one.
I think now that it’s a matter of degree, because there was no denying the delusions and distress my brother lived with/died with. And that it’s not so much that we projected onto him all our illness but that the illness set off a chain of reactions in us, and though it was no fiction that my brother was also dangerous, this became a form of sickness in us as well. This is a point that I read in the Al-Anon literature too, that reacting rather than acting becomes part of the problem. Not that I know what I might have done differently, had I been in my parents’ shoes.
While I was googling around, trying to remember the title of Henry’s book, I came across R.D. Laing and Aaron Esterson’s book, Sanity, Madness and the Family, which explores schizophrenia in the context of family. I think I might track down a copy to read, because while my brother is long gone, I still wonder about his illness — and am certainly cognizant of the damaging effects it had on me.
But also (reading that Laing approached psychiatry from an existential perspective) because of the existential angle. I first heard the word existential back in first year at UBC. I was in a program called Arts One, an interdisciplinary program, which means I was introduced to a lot of thinking that I didn’t understand, wasn’t ready to understand. (Actually, I think I was quite disturbed, unrecognized or ignored in my family, but what could they have done anyway, while they were thrashing around for solutions as my brother was sliding off into the deep end? No torpor where he lived.)
In the last few years I’ve come across this idea of existentialism again (also picked up a book How to Be an Existentialist by Gary Cox) and it’s starting to take on a less foggy shape in my mind. It helps, because while the (twelve step) program in Al-Anon is described as a spiritual one, I have some difficulty wrapping my mind around some of the language. Spiritual, as in pertaining to the spirit, fine, but the talk about a Higher Power (and God) always jars me. I find I approach life from a more existential angle myself, have trouble with what I think of as magical thinking; I don’t believe in God. Metaphor helps in navigating the twelve step ideas though (nature as higher power, that kind of idea) just as wrapping things in stories makes things understandable.
An important part of my reading this year has been in the direction of understanding what I mean when I say I don’t believe. Earlier this year I read Christopher Hitchen’s book God is Not Great. The book was great, staggering to me in its scholarship. (I’m so sorry he died, boom, gone. I’d like to write him a thank you note.) I will read it again; some books require it.
Where I’m also engrossed is in reading books by Eric Maisel, who quite openly discusses existential living, in his book, The Atheist’s Way, but also in his book Rethinking Depression, and I expect in others on creativity and writing (books piled up and waiting for me to get to). What I’m finding is a very different way of looking at what I’ve always considered to be depression. Maisel calls for a(nother) different language, naming depression as among other things, unhappiness, de-medicalizing the language, which is not to diminish the degree of distress one might feel. But language is not always subtle, and how we deploy it can affect our thinking, and our choices.
All this is part of what’s leading me on a path towards taking responsibility for myself (echo of the twelve step program in different language) in a clearer-thinking way, by making my own meaning. This is the only choice that Maisel sees, for the atheist, is for me to make my own meaning. He admits to the irony of being conscious beings, creatures that seek meaning in what appears (he would say is) a meaningless (or if you like it better, unknowable) universe.
It’s a distinction worth noting, that I’m trying to make meaning, not find it, an idea I found articulated in Maisel’s books, but which resonates in me as true; that we make our own meaning in our life, and that we make it every day. (And that it is subjective; my meaning may not be yours, likely isn’t.) This is different in essence, of course, from the idea that a higher power is out there taking care of things for us, which is a step in the Al-Anon program that I have to view as a metaphor, though my progress there is still a bit imprecise (but give me time). I see the program as a guide toward living, signposts on the journey, if you like, and one that doesn’t end until I do. In fact, there’s no hurry, as long as I’m on my way. The fact that people before me viewed things in a different light from me, doesn’t make either of us more right. We all find or make our own meaning.
All the same, Maisel combines for me, in a very serendipitous way (it’s subjective, remember) with the thinking in Al-Anon; that we are responsible for our own business, that we need to look after ourselves, and that we need to let others look after themselves (give them some respect). Whether you believe in some form of God or not, doesn’t really matter. There’s a line in the opening of meetings, “take what you need and leave the rest,” that I take to heart, as a clear directive to be responsible for myself, not just give over my own agency to someone else to decide for me.
Maisel talks about us being the sole arbiter of meaning in our life, and that idea goes deep into me, and feels true. It’s not met by an iota of anxiety, which is what comes up in me whenever I try to adapt myself to a viewpoint that doesn’t match what’s in my core. This puts me on a path that I want to follow, see where it takes me. Not drifting at sea at all, but back on land (if I can contort a couple of metaphors).