A double bind

There’s hardly any time to write these days. There is not even much time to think. Someone talks to us for 3-6 hours a day depending on the day. Then there are social activities. The suspicion is that they are deliberately keeping us busy and that that is the main purpose behind what we’re doing, although why they think we need to be busy, I can’t work out. Do North Americans need to be busy all the time?

Perhaps. But it’s driving me crazy.

I am bored out of my mind and it worries me also. How will I be prepared if there is no time to think?

It’s driving me crazy that there is no time to write.

In between, I have had two thoughts. One of them is a discomfort at being different. Now, I don’t know that I mean much by different. I assume we are all different and that I am as different from the others as they from one another. This is not the dominant view. The dominant view is that it takes a certain kind of person to want to live in a place like Country X and we are all that kind of person. But I look around and still see diversity.

So that is one thought. The other thought that comes out of this is that I am not afraid of difference for the reasons I have been told I would be afraid of it. I am not worried about rejection or social disapproval. The group is my link to my home culture and it will be an important source of support, so I will need them. But most people don’t like you or dislike you based on who you are. Their opinion of you comes from how you treat them. Mostly.

The worry is about rejection by God or something else nebulous and abstract. I must “fit in” the way I was raised to. And yet I can’t fit in with these people. They are “outsiders.” From them, I have to be separate. It’s a double bind. I must fit in. I can’t fit in.

And what I feel most commonly is an uncomfortable sense of contempt for the group, although I like the others in the group, or at least I like most of them. I think they’re good people. But I was raised to view all other groups of people aside from the Two by Twos with contempt.

You stop believing in all these things, and yet the familiar responses don’t disappear. We believe that thoughts and feelings are linked and yet they aren’t with feelings and thoughts triggering one another. We are more like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating before our meals. The thought and the feeling and the action are all part of a response. You can take out one piece of the response–the thought–but the feeling remains.

There are some theories of psychology that see us as immensely complex and our problems as very “deep.” As time goes on, I see myself as less and less complex. I am merely an extremely intelligent primate. What I can do better than a chimpanzee is think about the future. I can also remember the past better. And I can better control my impulsiveness. But in other regards I am much the same.

Change is difficult not because we are so complex, but because we are so simple. Very often, we are not behaving or thinking purposefully–and by purposefully, I mean in a way that is directed towards a goal. So we are not attempting to defend ourselves against pain or because we want to maintain a positive self-view. In many cases, we are behaving more like biological machines.

So there isn’t any deep meaning behind my sense of contempt. It’s conditioned and no more meaningful than saliva.

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Staying home from the movies: culture shock and the 2x2s

Today, everyone went off to a movie. I wanted to go. I even bought a ticket, but then I sort of hit a wall and I couldn’t. I was just really too tired. I know that watching a movie only involves sitting in a chair for a while–in this case, for four hours–but even that was too much.

I’ve had a cold, so I blamed it on that, but it’s really not that. Because after an unsuccessful attempt at a tub bath (there is a beautiful, deep tub in my hotel room, but only lukewarm water at the moment) and a cup of tea, I burst into tears.

There is really very little down town in the schedule here. When there is unscheduled time, I feel like I need to be doing something. I still have a cell phone with no SIM card and a laptop with no dongle. I have a bedframe in my house, but I don’t know what size it is, so I don’t know what size mattress to order. I don’t know what kind of heater to buy and I haven’t bought anything for the kitchen, although we’ve seen plenty of dishes and cookware.

The money scares me too. Everyone else is busily converting to dollars–whatever kind of dollars they have in their country, Canadian or Australian. But we’ll be making less than 300 dollars a month. You can’t really do it that way. We’re earning in local currency, not dollars, and so we’ll need to be spending in local currency also.

So I’m anxious about all this, but more than that I’m anxious that I don’t feel clear in my own mind. And gradually it begins to dawn on me: I’m not like everyone else. Among other things, I’m dissociated. I need more time to process new information. It doesn’t just go tumbling nicely into my head. On top of that, I feel anxious when my mind is disorganized. First, because if it’s not organized, I don’t really know if I can function very well. Second, because I feel that old pressure to always make the right decisions as if choosing wisely is still life or death.

That’s why, instead of watching a movie this afternoon, I’m sitting in bed drinking tea and crying over nothing in particular.

This is, in fact, what culture shock is like for me. Culture shock is that point when I’m overwhelmed by too much newness that I don’t have time to work out and I crash in some way, like I did today–just hitting a wall of exhaustion. It’s not shock at Bhutanese culture: we are hardly a part of that. It’s the shock of experiencing our Western culture bubble in the midst of Bhutan.

For lunch, we went out for pizza. Who goes to Bhutan to eat pizza? But it was the first place I’d seen other white people. We aren’t alone in our choice. But I don’t understand it. For various kinds of supplies, we visit a Western-style supermarket–there are several of these–and a few items other people buy you can’t get other places, but mostly they are common items available at any store and in some cases sold elsewhere for lower prices. So why here? Because it’s designed in a way that’s familiar for most people. It’s large, clean, organized, well-lit and has nearly everything you could want.

While TJ says to me at lunch time that he feels calmer and calmer here, I am more and more stressed and anxious. And it’s partly this. They look like me, more or less, but I don’t understand them. I am not like them. I’d rather have a cramped Indian supermarket where the shopkeeper would gather up my items for me. Bhutanese shops here are somewhat in-between: small and cramped, but laid out so that you can pick out your own items. For me, they don’t really take any getting used to for that reason.

At night, I watch English-language television before bed. I need to acclimate to Bhutan soon: At the moment, I need to understand the Western bubble I’m in. I watch them in hopes that I’ll come to understand.

At the same time, it seems I’ve always lived in my own bubble. Two by twos are a collectivist group: they don’t value or appreciate autonomy and independence in the same way that the mainstream culture does. Some of this is in support of a grinding uniformity that prevents independent thought and reasoning. But some of it is to fill the gaping need that wounded people have for connection. In other words, collectivism isn’t all bad.

What makes my head explode is the parts: I don’t believe that collectivism is more comfortable for me although it is. I was told too many times that I stand out to believe that I can carry it off. So I see myself as highly independent, a free-thinker, almost a loner. Consequently, I also behave that way. But I’m not sure how authentic that is.

At the same time, I do feel like an outsider in the group to some extent: I don’t know that that’s accurate or not, but I don’t think that really matters. What’s stressful is feeling, on the one hand, that being an outsider is not allowed. One must always fit in. One must preserve the unity at all costs. And on the other hand, I am not allowed to be a member of this group. They are, themselves, Outsiders. They aren’t the faithful. I should not engage.

Those are the pieces. Maybe I can start putting them together now.

Disturbing the unity: leaving the Borg

sevenLast night at dinner, at the long table they’ve set especially for us–the “Canadian teachers” although most of us are not Canadian–I felt different in a pricking, intermittent kind of way.

I pieced something together just then, eating my noodles and vegetable kofta. I know I am different. I am, perhaps, even more different than average. We’re all different. That’s nothing new, but what I understand is that they see themselves as different too.

The uncomfortable feeling I had was that of being an individual.

In the 2×2 church, and probably other controlling religious groups as well as many dysfunctional families, you are not an individual. Behaviour that speaks to your individuality “disturbs the unity of the church.” Your job is to “fit in.”

What I hadn’t put together is that those around me also see themselves as individuals. In the West, we are proud of our uniqueness. We want to be special. Whenever you are anxious about something, someone will tell you, “Just be yourself.” But I didn’t grow up in the same culture as those around me did. I grew up in the Borg. I was assimilated. Resistance was useless.

On the blank page

blank pageI sat down to write this evening without any particular idea in mind. I often have a backlog of ideas I’ve been meaning to post about, and so starting out with no direction or focus is unusual for me. Typically, I have in mind four or five possibilities and all I do is choose one and begin.

Which means there is never really a blank page. I have already begun to fill it, even before starting, because I’ve been playing with that idea for a while.

But today I began with a blank page.

And I’m telling you it was like Christmas. I said to myself (inside my head—I haven’t started speaking aloud to the voices just yet), “I can write about absolutely anything.”

I think this whole process of recovery or healing or whatever you want to call it has been like this—it’s been a process of stripping away layer after layer of stricture and confinement. That’s not been the whole of the process, but it’s been one part of it.

Because I grew up in a cage: between the Two by Twos and their rules and the rules I came up with for myself in a rather futile attempt to make life predictable, there wasn’t much freedom.

christmas presentsI pushed the envelope a lot growing up. I wasn’t a rebellious kid. I wore skirts (as prescribed), I kept my hair long (as required), I wore no make-up (as suggested). I didn’t fight with my parents or the ministers over any of those things and I didn’t experiment with anything I wasn’t supposed to.

Instead, I became a vegetarian. I refused to go to church. I came out to my parents as a lesbian. You know, just the big things. So I’ve always seen myself as a free-thinker.

This isn’t just my own imagination. I have been told again and again I think “outside the box.” I keep trying to explain I live outside the box or even simply that my box is different. I am just outside your box. But no one gets that.

Still, the question I’ve found myself facing repeatedly in my own mind is, “Can I think that?”

Can I think, first of all, that thoughts aren’t magic and, in themselves, don’t cause anything to happen? Can I just admit on certain days that I am having thoughts about suicide or thoughts that suggest I don’t like myself very much and just allow that to be?

Can I let go of the need to be positive as well as the need to try not to be too optimistic (since that might jinx what I’m hoping for), because whether my thoughts are negative or positive they remain nothing more than thoughts and life will proceed in the same way regardless of what I think?

Can I relinquish my sense that I am obligated to worry? Can I stop believing I should be afraid to think something through—that if I do, I might begin to ruminate and that will make everything worse?

Can I stop thinking I am so damned important that it even matters what I think? Because I’m not. And the mind is the best playground ever invented. And should be taken just as seriously. Which is to say not very.

Can I cease the search inside myself for that underlying badness, the ulterior motives, the suppressed desires, the passive-aggressiveness? Can I toy instead with the idea that I’m basically good and doing the best I can with life? Can I just try that out?

And the answers to all of these questions has been yes. I can think what I feel like thinking. I can say what I feel like saying. And I can write what I feel like writing. Nothing will happen.

Waiting on the Lord

Somehow, this never seemed to come through for us. We just kept waiting.
Somehow, this never seemed to come through for us. We just kept waiting.

There is this expression in Christian circles that we used a lot when I was growing up: “waiting on the Lord.” We also expected God to “call us” to do things. We didn’t show a lot of initiative. We waited to be told what to do.

For most of us, this led to one of two results: we stuck to “safe” decisions that others had made before us, or we began to confuse our own inner voice with God Himself.

Because God was silent. He wasn’t going to tell us what brand of toothpaste to buy and he wasn’t going to call us to be an accountant if that’s what we felt like being when we grew up.

In other words, for a lot of us, “waiting on the Lord” meant we settled for very little in life. We didn’t pursue our dreams. We tried not to have them, in fact. As a case in point, the guilt I feel currently for pursuing the Dream Job in the Faraway country when I haven’t been called by anyone but myself to pursue it is enormous. I fully expect to be punished for it, in fact. Most likely by not getting the job. But possibly through grievous bodily harm, like a car accident that cripples me for life.

Even this was not okay.
Even this was not okay.

A lot of my work right now for me personally is just managing the anxiety I have around making my own choices.

In the absence of specific instructions, we did what we knew would be allowed. We married someone we had grown up with, whether they were exciting to us or not. At the very least someone, we married someone we met at “convention” (an old style tent-revival, but a lot quieter). That had been done before. It was safe.

We had children, whether we were likely to be good parents or not.

We stuck with the same kind of working-class jobs our parents had done, even though the economy was clearly changing: nursing seemed to be an exception. You could be a nurse if you wanted. It might have even been okay to be a vet. That was good and solid and useful. At least if you specialized in farm animals.

There might have been a few others.

I am not sure why nursing was okay, but being a doctor wasn't.
I am not sure why nursing was okay, but being a doctor wasn’t.

But we didn’t dream of being doctors and lawyers, let alone college professors or scientific researchers. Because to do anything different, God had to call you. And, like I said, if you were honest with yourself, you had to admit that he hadn’t.

But if you weren’t so honest, and started to tell everyone that God had called you to discover a cure for cancer (or even just plan a volunteer vacation in South America, where you would help build a hospital) then you also had to machinate some small miracles to prove this really was a calling. Like meeting your future wife (who had grown up in the same church on the other side of the country) or having your eldest decide to join the ministry as a result. You had to make something great happen. And the something great had to pertain to your spiritual life, or the spiritual lives of others.

It wasn’t enough just to cure cancer.

A lot of bright young minds were wasted as a result, waiting like that. A lot of good that might have been done didn’t get done. Because of that, because of the waste of the talents God gave us, I think we let Him down.

Boredom

What I am not doing right now.
What I am not doing right now.

I told you feelings were on my mind.

Today’s theme? Boredom.

I have some documents to gather for the Dream Job in the Faraway Country. And the regular chores somehow never got done this week. (Who didn’t do them? Who was it? Oh, me…) And I have some “projects” in mind like filing papers I have avoided doing anything with for six months now. You know, things that should probably done before moving to the Faraway Country.

Boring.

And it’s hard for me to do them, because it’s boring. I’m sure everyone puts off things like that for the same reason. But I’ve been thinking that boredom has a particular meaning for me.

Because one aspect of growing up in a cult that is rarely discussed is how very, very boring it is. Boredom feels to me like a kind of torture. It makes me feel powerless, a captive. And it makes me really, really angry.

All of which make it hard to quietly go about filing papers.

And I think it’s because of how I grew up, and not just because I dislike filing that much. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Let me explain why cult-life is boring, in case you aren’t familiar with it, or maybe you just haven’t thought of it that way before.

What we all wanted to do and couldn't.
What we all wanted to do and couldn’t.

Reason # 1: “Meeting”

I spent approximately four hours a week sitting quietly in church, carefully not wiggling, not fidgeting, and not looking at the kid who always made faces at us to make us laugh and get us in trouble. Like certain other cults, our leaders were not fiery, passionate demagogues. That would not be “seemly.” We were supposed to be God’s meek lambs. Instead, they spoke quietly, repetitively, and at length. On Sunday mornings, so did everyone else. They usually told us a variation of the same four things. For years.

Try to imagine chemistry (if you didn’t like it) with the worst, most droningly dull teacher you ever had in all of your school career. Also, imagine not being able to doodle in your chemistry notebook while he talked. Imagine not even being allowed to scratch. At least not more than once in an hour.

Reason #2 After “Meeting”

Following services, the adults hung around and talked to each other, which sometimes led to social invitations, and more hanging around and talking. Since we attended services three times a week, and the socializing lasted perhaps an hour after every service, add another six hours (including a post-service social call once a week).

We kids could go off and play. All well and good. Except, as a “professing” girl, there is very little you can do. There is very little you can even talk about.

This was just not happening.
This was just not happening.

You are, first of all, in your Sunday-go-to-meeting dress, which you can’t get dirty. And you are expected to be ladylike. Sometimes, our playmates could be persuaded to play tag. But sometimes not. And tag does get a little old after a few years.

More than that, the acceptable topics of conversation–and talking is really the best thing to do if you don’t want to dirty your clothes–were limited. Because we were not supposed to be “of the world,” popular culture was out. So was politics, for the most part. We didn’t know what was going on anyway. Since we weren’t supposed to be fashionable and we weren’t supposed to be wearing any makeup, so were those topics. Not that that would have held much fascination for me. But it could have added a little variety.

And we were girls in a conservative cult, so academics was frowned upon too.

We couldn’t discuss the deep meaning of life or what happens when you die, as teenagers and older children do, because we were supposed to already know. We could discuss the sermon we had just heard. But we had already suffered through that for an hour. Sometimes the adults did. But, as kids, we’d kind of had enough.

What was left was gossip about other cult members. And cautionary tales of what might happen if you left the cult. That’s pretty much all the adults talked about as well. That and rehashes of the same four sermons we had been hearing all our lives.

And we played board games sometimes. Quietly. And without arguing.

It was really and truly awful.

The Dialectic

Hegelian dialectic.
Hegelian dialectic.

A dialectic is a conversation between people holding radically different–even opposing–points of view about a topic for the purpose of establishing the truth. It is not a debate. It is an exchange.

I have, nearly always, a dialectic in my head. At its most extreme, the dialectic goes like this:

Thought A: “Life is unbearable. There is no point to all of this suffering. I will fail anyway. I want to die.”

Thought B: “I fought very long and very hard for this life. I very badly want to live.”

Both thoughts are true. It is not a matter of choosing a correct set of thoughts. Life is sometimes unbearably painful. I do want it all to end sometimes. And I also want to continue with this business of living at any cost.

Truth, in my mind, accommodates all of the facts, not just the facts that accord with the point of view I prefer. It doesn’t make sense, on the one hand, to ignore the fact of my intense suffering at some times simply because it makes me think things I don’t really want to think. Nor does it make sense to me to ignore my desire to live simply because it would be a lot easier on me and less painful if I did away with myself.

One consequence, at least for me, of having grown up in a religious cult that told me what to think is that I have a great respect for the truth. And, by truth, I don’t mean the truth according to someone else based on their own biases or preconceived notions, dreams or psychotic delusions. That is the kind of “truth” I grew up with. And it is not any kind of truth. That kind of truth is a lie.

Jesus may be the same, but what we know about nearly everything isn't.
Jesus may be the same, but what we know about nearly everything isn’t.

I mean truth as based on the evidence. Truth that accommodates all of the facts. Truth that shifts when we know more or different facts.

Not a truth that is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” as we used to say when I was growing up and as they probably still say. A responsive truth. An evidence-based truth.

I think that’s at the core of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and while this isn’t a plug for it exactly, it is probably the closest to what I actually do with myself.

In cognitive-behavior therapy, the main idea is to change how you think.

In psychoanalytic therapy, the goal is to change the self.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) begins with acceptance, rather than an immediate focus on change. It accepts the dialectic and assumes that sometimes contradictory and opposing views are both true. We do not need to choose between them, although we do need to choose our actions and our choices about our actions will come out of both of these contradictory truths.

Consequently, I can both want to live and want to die. I do not have to deny some part of myself or my experience in order to maintain my sanity. But choices based on all of the facts might involve taking steps to diminish my suffering so that it feels less unbearable when it is at its worst, while continuing to persist in this business of living.

Rather than trying to adopt a new viewpoint, a central idea in DBT is to try to expand one’s viewpoint, and to look for facts that might have been missed. I like that.

I like that because I generally think we make the best choices when we make decisions based on all of the facts, or at least as many as it is possible to know rather than when we make choices based on a rigid belief.

It’s hard to explain exactly why being freed up to make decisions without sacrificing any of my ability to think or feel might be important to me. But I can tell that it’s really the reason I worked so hard to escape from the captivity of my childhood is to have that freedom within my own mind.

There was once a therapist I stopped seeing for a while, because every time I left a session I felt unbearable despair. It wore off after a while, and I would begin to see that life wasn’t as pointless or hopeless as I had initially felt. But I wasn’t in a good place at that point in my life. And I didn’t think more despair was really such a good idea. Despair, after a while, distorts our thinking. Things that really are not a good idea start to make sense.

So I took a break.

I don't agree with Thich Nhat Hanh about everything, but I do agree with him about unconditional acceptance.
I don’t agree with Thich Nhat Hanh about everything, but I do agree with him about unconditional acceptance.

What I think now led to that despair was having the impression that I needed to begin to ignore some of the facts in order to think what she believed I should think. And if I did that, what would be the point of ever having lived?

In the process of trying to heal from extensive childhood trauma, I’ve tried to keep a place in my mind for all of the facts as I know them, and to simply look for more facts that I might have missed. So, one of the facts as I know it is that people do cruel and sadistic things to anyone they can. Another is that life is unpredictable. Unexpected things happen–both of the good and bad sort. And we are also fragile. We die. We hurt. We suffer.

The facts that I might miss would be that not everyone is cruel. Life is sometimes predictable. Sometimes we survive.

I’m not trying to learn how to be more trusting of others, nor am I trying to believe I am safe. I am trying to live with my fragility and with the untrustworthiness of others and of the world. I am trying to see everything that is. And live with that.