Thursday, August 10, 2017

Loss, Letting Go, and...Laughter?

Let me set this one up a bit. I'll do so with a few bullets you can skim through:
  • Last year, I was somewhat unhappy and unfilled in my career. Because massage is something I've always wanted to do, I decided to make a career change and enrolled full-time at the Utah College of Massage Therapy.
  • Eight months later, I graduated with a 4.0 and 100% attendance. Don't worry, my dark perfectionist tendencies only resurfaced because I had something to prove to myself after all these years. The program was a very healing experience for me for a number of reasons that I might share another time.
  • At age 40, it felt so great to just reset and do something for myself. Plus, I knew this change would set me up to help others in a very rewarding way.
  • Perfect! I was all set to take the massage world by storm and then attack my next goal toward achieving a better all-around balance. Well, scratch that.
  • I'll spare you the details except to say that for 85% of June, July, and August so far, I've either been unable to walk or I've had to painfully hobble my way around.
  • I've experienced unprecedented amounts of soreness, inflammation, depression, loneliness, isolation, self-doubt, worthlessness, and physical pain during this 10-week period.
  • In my darkest moments, I questioned my belief in God. Some dark thoughts from my past resurfaced a bit and it got so low, I asked a few people to keep an eye on me for a few days.
  • I'm coming out of the dark again and, in hindsight, I can see that chronic physical pain really does a number on your mental state and emotional well-being. Spiritually, it can crush you.
  • Thanks to some standout members of my support system, I'm almost out of the woods and life is starting to look beautiful again. 
  • I wanted to write about the gift of laughter after exploring some tougher topics.
  • I hope that this gives others who are going through their own personal hell some comfort and hope. And levity.

Throughout this ordeal, I've been thinking about loss quite a bit. Not in a sulking or useless way, a way where I tried to make sense of what was happening to me. We gain things and experiences and relationships, and then sometimes we lose them. How we deal with such loss can ultimately be what sets us up to gain something else that helps us along our path.

I recently lost two people in my "gay tribe" amidst this summer of doom. Normally, it wouldn't have hurt so bad, but the timing just sucked. Neither of them live in the same state as I do, but we'd developed a significant amount of trust and closeness in recent years. As I reflect on the two guys, I think I can be blamed for one, but not for the other. And even on the one where I'm somewhat culpable, I look back in confusion because I did so much more good than bad. It made me feel unappreciated, rejected, and a little insecure. I'd like to suggest something that I think is helpful in this instance: Sometimes, people come and go, and it has nothing to do with whether or not you are good enough. Sometimes, our paths are the same for a while, and then sometimes, our lives diverge in different directions.

Most people I know have experienced some form of significant loss, or they will face major loss in the future. Losing car keys and hidden cash is one thing, but what about when you start losing your possessions, loved ones, sanity, physical ability, mind, soul, and spirit? As painful as loss has been in my own life, I've concluded that experiencing loss serves three purposes:

1. Loss helps us better appreciate what we have in life. We win some and we lose some, but what if the two extremes didn't have to hold equal weight because of how we've conditioned ourselves to be more present and more grateful for what we DO have, even in times of major loneliness? (wow, long sentence)

2. Loss reminds us that life (and all of its accessories) is fleeting. It reminds us to seize the day with appreciation and live our lives to the fullest because you never know when something will be lost or taken away from you.

3. Loss brings out the best human characteristics we possess. Whether we are dealing with loss ourselves or coming to the rescue of someone in need, we get to experience humility, patience, grace, service, trust, gratitude, and overall coming together as people in a heightened way that seems to be reserved for the more heartbreaking, shocking, and devastating effects of the human condition.

While I do my best to avoid living in the past, and I can feel really good (most of the time) about the progress I've made over the last 4-5 years, I'll readily admit: I clutch on to things. And places. And people. So, yeah...I'm really into nouns (person, place or thing!). I'm sentimental, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I love too hard sometimes. My heart is strong, but it's tender. One of my best qualities is that I'm sensitive to the needs of others. One of my worst qualities is that I'm sensitive to the needs of others. Strengths can become weaknesses, we know this. At times, I've misdirected or misapplied this disposition to situations or relationships in a negative way.

We all want to matter. To belong. To be loved and understood. To be validated and built up. To be cherished. Some of us thrive on knowing where we stand while others prefer to coast without a map or specific endgame. We also make conditions for ourselves:

"I'll be happier when I lose 30 pounds, but I couldn't possibly be happy until that happens."

"I'll forgive, but I won't forget."

"Maybe if I were better in this way, I'd be good enough for him to love."

We have these internal traffic signals and stoplights that we obey more than our own longings and yearnings. Don't get me wrong, having a clear course in life can be so helpful. But it can also become debilitating if we adhere too strongly to stay open and present to other people and new possibilities.

Sometimes, we need to detach. We need to turn off our phones, let go of expectations, and allow ourselves to heal on a regular basis. And sometimes, we need to put our own shit aside and come through for others. Knowing that I haven't been able to come through for others over the past 10 weeks has been one of the biggest challenges. The flip side is when others don't come through for us in the ways we expect. In moments of alarm and crisis, we wonder how someone else's world can continue to turn so whimsically when our world is crashing down.

In this area, the best reminder that came to mind is that there are limits to the ways that I can be available to others at times. And, there are limits to the ways that I can expect people to be available to me. Sometimes, we're just not able to help. Sometimes, we're just not willing to help. We get busy, other things take priority. Or sometimes, we even tell ourselves that we are positive people and that our lives are going well and that we don't have time for "negative people". Compassion is reserved for those who really deserve it. I'm learning to let go of expectations.

Sometimes, people fail us. Sometimes, people let us down. Most of the time, I'm prepared to be understanding. Life is hectic, for ALL of us. But when you are at your lowest, and you specifically ask someone to show up and they don't, it's almost impossible to not feel wounded and take it personally. Still, I'm working on letting go of that. I disappoint people. People disappoint me. And guess what? There's usually a pretty good reason for it.

As I mentioned above, things got pretty bleak. Not only was I very conscious of my own physical descent and emotional turmoil, I was almost more conscious of how my ordeal was affecting other people. On top of that, my mind often reasoned that I worked my ass off to accomplish my goals with the career change, and that others made sacrifices to help me realize this goal. The guilt of not coming through in the time frame I'd set in my mind weighed heavily on me. Throw in a little heartbreak of a personal nature, and voila! You've got a basket-case version of Nate. Ta-dum!

Although somewhat embarrassing, I'll share that over the course of the summer, I’d cry at the slightest or most random questions or thoughts posed to me by people who loved me. My body didn't work as it did before, the medical counsel and direction I sought led to disappointment and further confusion, I was getting further behind financially by not working in my new career field, and even now, I'm not sure when it will end.

While I feel significantly better and think I'm just about done with this mess, I had several "good days" where I thought the madness had come to an end, only to return a day or two later. Recently, I sobbed to three different close friends and a couple family members. It's a very vulnerable thing to let people see you that way. We tend to hide or shut off that side of ourselves. We want to appear mentally strong and emotionally stable, so it's a very raw thing when you crumble in front of someone. In a way, you're exposing yourself with an approach that is more uncomfortable than being naked. You worry about how hitting a rock bottom of sorts will affect the perception that others have of you. But it's only when you're willing to let others in that your own point of view begins to shift.

Sincere thanks goes to the people in my life who held me accountable and refused to join my pity party. In particular, my twin kept me grounded, level-headed, and sane. More importantly, Neil kept me laughing my head off. The thing is, I've been much more irritable than I usually am as of late. Intense, prolonged pain does that to you. So I wasn't the most pleasant person to be around. There were even a few arguments. But somehow, Neil helped me push through the pain and see that light at the end of the tunnel.

At times, we laughed uncontrollably, to the point where I had to beg Neil to let me catch my breath before he said anything else. My other brother, Ryan, recently came over for a weekend and the three of us used Neil's cell phone to make a movie that would make Spielberg and Scorsese jealous. We. Laughed. So. Hard.

Laughter truly IS the best medicine. It really saved my life recently, I truly believe that. The ability (and willingness) to look at the bright side of life and see the silver lining can be impossible at times. I remember laughing with Neil one day and then I stopped and sighed suddenly. When he pressed for an explanation, I remember feeling how unnatural it felt to laugh after having gone through some heavy things. In that moment, I had to give myself permission to laugh again, to be happy, to let go and put the unfortunate crap aside long enough to have a beautifully authentic moment. Sometimes, we must remind ourselves that it's okay to move on, that we're ready to let go of the trauma we've experienced, that things always get better, especially when we allow ourselves to feel the light and the laughter that life provides so abundantly.

The past 10 weeks are among the worst of my life, just because of the physical pain alone. The loneliness was overwhelming at times. The will to live and be productive that I felt upon my recent graduation was absent. The stress of disappointing people or being a burden was a constant insecurity. Even the way I talked to my twin every day was off, and he noticed and asked why I wasn't more assured that he was happy to help. The awareness of bills coming in while my income took a hit didn't help matters. The appreciation for people who showed up, the disappointment for people who didn't, the self-criticism for not coming through for others, making sense of it all even when I wasn't in my right mind. Suffice it to say: I'll never forget the Summer of 2017.

All of us experience pain and disappointment in various ways and to varying degrees. My hope in sharing this piece is that some of my readers feel a little less alone as they face their own private hell. And more than that, I want my readers to be reminded that being open to love and laughter during the lowest of lows is absolutely crucial. For my physical body, I'm getting the medical help I need. For my troubled mind, I'm getting the mental help I need. For the aching that is still ever-present in my heart, I'm getting the emotional support I need. But most importantly, for my overall sense of healing and well-being, I'm getting the human support I need through the willingness to just have a laugh and see how comical (and unpredictable) life can be at times.

I'll close with three favorite quotes about laughter:

"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death."

-Robert Fulgum

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

-Erma Bombeck

"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."

-Mark Twain

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