Episode 27: Coming out of my cage and I’m doing just fine

In which our protagonist begins to emerge from the trance and gets ready for the infinite abyss

(Editor’s note: your protagonist has been somewhat distracted by the absolute sh*tness of English society today, so apologies for the episode’s late arrival.)

A strange thing’s been happening to me lately: I’m remembering things. This won’t sound strange to the average Jo out there, I know, but for me it’s… odd. I usually remember nothing. I barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone what happened during my childhood. If someone asks me to do something and I don’t do it right away, I’ll probably forget to do it. It’s just this thing that’s been there most of my adult life, since my brain turned against me and got me stuck in the mud. 

My brother (who has a water-tight memory, down to remembering what people were wearing and what music was playing) will always say things like “do you remember when this happened...” - and I never do. I take his word for it. He could be feeding me tall tales for all I know; I just have to believe him, because I have no idea. I mean, I remember little snippets of life - the most exciting and the most traumatic, and the odd thing here and there, like when when we found the homeless guy asleep behind our fence or how the dog used to steal scrunchies from girls’ ponytails - but for the most part, my brain is like a sieve. 

But lately? Lately I’ve been remembering. Random things, but I’ve been remembering. I remembered that my recent descent into the depths of dark fiction is not actually surprising considering I was obsessed with Point Horror and Stephen King in my early teens. I sat down to watch Fear Street 1994 on Netflix on Friday night, and fell down a Wikipedia black hole of books I now vaguely remember reading from that whole series. 

Think that’s trivial - that what you read as a teenager is but a blip in the ocean? How’s this one: I was discussing my burgeoning coaching career with someone and - boom - oh yes, I remember how I did psychology in my first year of university. I’d totally forgotten, but suddenly this impending career move doesn’t seem like such a bolt from the blue. 

Good luck in the infinite abyss

I’ve been taken aback by the sudden awakenings, which have a habit of arriving out of nowhere, but I shouldn’t be surprised: I am emerging from a cocoon, from almost two decades of depressive numbness and years of burnout. I am the embodiment of the film Garden State: its main character, Large (played by Zach Braff), decides to go off his meds after the death of his mother because he’s sick of not feeling anything. It’s a film I identified with a heck of a lot in the late noughties (my late 20s), but back then it was more in an aspirational way. Today, it’s becoming a reality. I’m staring into the infinite abyss, and feel ready to scream (see clip below).

I’m awakening from something Tara Brach calls “the trance”. I read her Radical Compassion tome this week - after reading Radical Acceptance back in the early days of these missives - and was reminded of how much her concept of “trance” resonates with me. She writes:

“When we are in trance, we become what one of my friends calls ‘blame ready to happen’. Like heat-seeking missiles, we’re easily triggered by a tone of voice, an offhand comment, being kept waiting, a lack of attention. Our reaction is out of proportion to what is occurring, and we habitually assume that others are judging us, taking advantage of us, disrespecting us or pushing us away. Or we may nurse slow-burning resentment… This chronic resentment is insidious; it creates an unseen distance that gets in the way of loving and enjoying others.”

Hello, my previous life. I would privately seethe for months about trivial things, blowing them up into larger-than-life issues. I would snap from what I perceived as a lack of patience when people “didn’t get” things the way I did. I’d assume a gesture, a look, a tone of voice meant that someone “hated” me for some reason, and would ruminate and obsess over what I might’ve done to deserve it - because there was always something I must have done…

This sort of chronic resentment, seething, habitual triggering is downright exhausting, dear reader. It really takes it out of you, and I can’t say I’m sorry to be leaving it behind. But I must be realistic: it’s still there, still waiting in the shadows and ready to pounce. Keeping it in those shadows, moving on from it, that’s hard work. Real hard work. And it’s hard work that I must continue with this time. I must push through to the other side, if only for the memories. Because it’s the numbness, the trance, that stole my memory.

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Enough with the emotional numbness 

Writes Brach: 

“Especially when fear is intense, we’re afraid we’ll drown in it, be annihilated. So, to varying degrees, our primitive survival brain prompts us to cut off the raw emotional energy in our body; we bury or numb our feelings and preoccupy ourselves with thoughts. But when we pull away from fear and other painful emotions, we also pull away from our full presence and vitality. We pull away from our intelligence, creativity, and capacity for love. Sometimes our unwillingness to experience our feelings shows up as depression. Sometimes it takes the form of chronic anxiety or irritation, with our muscles and posture tightening into what I often call ‘Worrier Pose’. It can appear as loneliness, restlessness, boredom, or a sense of operating on autopilot. And it often manifests as addictive behaviour. Whatever the expression, resisting fear puts us in a trance.”

Check, check, check and check: the fear, the trance, manifests for me as emotional numbness, a preoccupation with my inner world, as depression and anxiety and a short fuse, as chronic back pain and tight shoulders leading to headaches. I’ve been lonely, even when surrounded by people; I’ve been restless and I’ve been bored and I’ve been addicted and I’ve been bad to myself. I have no idea where the last 10+ years went; I’ve been living on autopilot, just drifting along, no real direction.

In fact, I found myself losing time so often that my husband and I referred to it (long pre-Tara) as me “trancing” - “whoops, did you go into trance again, dear?”. So the trance is real. I get it, and I’m sick of it. It’s no way to live. 

I’ve had enough. Brach recommends the RAIN practice to help ground ourselves in the present and learn to cut through the trance. RAIN teaches us to Recognise what is happening inside us at that moment; to Allow the thoughts to just be present, and life to be just as it is (she suggests mentalling whispering “yes” or “this belongs”); to Investigate what’s happening with a gentle, curious attention, to think about where the feeling lives in the body and what this part needs from us; and to Nurture what is with a loving presence, to send ourselves a loving message of self-compassion.

This sounds like good medicine, but it is also something I’ll need to work at. I know that. I’ve tried before and I’ve given up too easily. It’s time for me to tackle those limiting beliefs that say I can’t do this, and show myself - and everyone else - that yes I can. That I belong, I am worthy, and this is right.

I’m pushing through that cocoon. I’m coming out of my cage and I’m doing just fine. I can see the light at the end of the trance tunnel - I just might need your help, dear reader, to get me over the line. 

Until next time, fight the trance; stay with us and stay strong. You belong here. Yes, especially you.

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The week ahead 🗓

  • Writing: My only goal with the novel right now is to play around in the world to get to know it: 15 minutes a day is doable, surely?

  • Work: It’s module 2 of my coaching diploma this week, and I really need to figure out what I’m doing with this new side of me! Plan: get a website sorted.

  • Health: I’ve discovered something food-related makes me come out in hives. That’s fun, right?   

  • Routine: I’m still trying to find my rhythm. Plus, join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ.


On the stereo 🎧

Soundtracks of nostalgia

My weekend evenings were spent watching two awesome films on Netflix: the teen horror Fear Street Part 1: 1994, and Moxie, an Amy Poehler-directed film about teenage feminism and riot grrrls. The soundtracks are so frickin’ awesome that I have had them on a loop ever since. 

Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Moxie

Off the shelf 📚

Radical Compassion, by Tara Brach

I’ve already written about this one; suffice it to say, Tara Brach knows what I need to hear. I wish I could be as zen and Buddhist and spiritually compassionate as her, but at least she’s pointing me in the right direction.

“Especially when strong emotions like fear, shame and anger are running the show, we’ll do almost anything rather than be right here feeling our raw and unpleasant feelings. When we’re caught in our reactive trance, it’s as though we were on a bicycle pedaling away from the present moment, and the more stressed we feel, the faster we pedal. Whatever your deepest regrets about your life - ignoring your children, addictive bingeing, causing an accident, staying in an abusive relationship - all arise from being trapped inside a reactive trance. When we’re in trance, we’re unable to swerve, unable to respond to ourselves or to others with kindness.”


Visual confirmation 📷

Like many in Engerland, our household’s mood was mixed this weekend. He was happy as a pig in muck with sport-a-rama (Wimbledon, cricket ODIs, Euros)... and then Sunday evening rolled around. I feel for those poor lads in the England football team. They’ve inspired a nation while having a social conscience, and then so many turned on them in the most horrible of ways. I implore you to call out the racism and nationalism. Let the louts (I can think of another, more appropriate four-letter word for them) know it’s not OK. And to the England fans: those boys are young and hungry and have now announced to the world that they’re a force to be reckoned with. Just wait until the next tournament. (And yes, my Glaswegian dad would be rolling over if he could hear me say that!)

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