Groundhog Day and Embracing Your Humanity: Part I

Remember that old Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day?

Of course, you do. Everyone knows that movie. I only ask because I was probably the only person in the entire world who hadn’t seen it until last year, and so never appreciated its full relevance. I’m hoping maybe there is one other person out there who falls into my camp of not having seen all the “wait, you’ve never seen that movie?” movies.

In case that one person does in fact exist, the story is about a weatherman from Pittsburg who goes to a small town to forecast about the “weather rat”, which he is really not thrilled about. And lo and behold, he wakes up day after day in that small town, reliving the same day over and over, watching people do the same things again and again. He comes to believe he is doomed to live an eternity of that repeated Groundhog Day in that same little town. While watching the movie I almost had a panic attack on his behalf…..because….honestly, that movie portrayed pretty much what I used to think heaven was going to be like. Dreadful stuckness in the same thing over and over and over and over.

Anyway, this post is not about heaven or any of my waxing on about theology. In fact, it’s not about looking at all into what happens after we die, but squarely on what is going on with us right here and right now as we struggle in this existence called “being human.”

The last few weeks have sucked, to say the least. The kind of suckiness where stuff on the outside looks good enough, but my internal state was a mess. Where you have those occasional fleeting moments of wondering if absolutely anything is worth it. Is any progress being made? And thinking that maybe the whole state of being alive is just absolutely absurd, and to quote the book of Ecclesiastes, “Everything is meaningless, a chasing after of the wind.”

My life frequently feels just like the proverbial Groundhog Day. The details may be different, but damn it, sometimes it just feels like I”m repeating the same scenarios with the same kinds of people and the same kinds of situations with the same kinds of outcomes….over and over and over and over. It feels SO exhausting. Can I get an amen? Nothing can make me want to go crawl back under a rock more than this doomed feeling that I will never conquer my demons, that the wounds that have plagued me from childhood will never be healed, that I’m destined to keep repeating the same mistakes until who knows when. That is the feeling that will drive you to drink or never want to get out of bed or consider rummaging around in your old prescription pill stash.

I have this one little problem, though, that gets in my way alot. It’s called hope. I’m not entirely sure where I get it from, but it might be from my good friends who encourage me to try one more time, who remind me of things I’ve forgotten about myself, and who I’ve seen valiantly fight their own internal wars without throwing up the white flag. Hope makes me want to try something new, one more time. It makes me want to read one more self-help book, one more time. It makes me want to basically just get up and do the next thing, one more time.

I lost sight of hope for a while lately. All I could see were my Groundhog Day screwups, all I could hear were the thoughts in my head churned out by self-loathing rumination, telling me I’m exactly the same person I was decades ago and I hadn’t made any improvements or gotten anywhere. But then, kind of out of nowhere, I (assuming my truer self) asked myself if these thoughts were really true. Is it really true that over the last many years I have made no real progress in my life? People sometimes point to these things I’ve accomplished externally, but honestly, most of the time I just feel like I’ve gotten really lucky or been in the right place at the right time, so that kind of encouragement hasn’t always helped me feel OK about myself.

Anyway, in this moment of clarity where I decided to remember that my thoughts about my Groundhog Day doomed-ness might be wrong, I decided to actually sit down and see if I could think of any ways that I had tangibly grown as a person over the last couple of decades. To my surprise, a few things came to mind that I hadn’t considered before. After writing a Top 10 list, I realized I have in fact grown alot as a person. I’m spiraling upwards instead of downwards, and maybe my journey hasn’t been nearly as absurd as it sometimes seems to be.

Below is my Top 10 list…it’s me getting real and transparent, so that maybe it will somehow give you permission to be able to look at and one day talk, without fear, of your own dark places.

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  1. I no longer have horrible sleep attacks.

Since I was a child, until about 6 or 7 years ago, I used to have horrible sleep attacks whenever I got in trouble, or was yelled at by an adult, or generally felt strong, overwhelming emotions. Looking back now, it was a coping mechanism that I developed to protect myself, but it really incapacitated me over the years. There is nothing worse than feeling like you absolutely have to go to sleep when you’re in an environemnt where it is unacceptable to do so, or going to sleep will only bring on another onslaught of getting yelled at.

As an adult I was initially diagnosed by a sleep pulmonologist as having a form of narcolepsy. He prescirbed me meds that would keep me from being able to doze off, but did nothing to relieve those horrible attacks of sleepiness. Later, a sleep neurologist said she didn’t think I had narcolepsy, but I had an idiopathic sleep disorder. Meaning, there was something amiss, they just didn’t know what was causing it.

At some point about 6 years ago, as I mentioned, these attacks just went away. I can now sit in a day long conference or workshop and not doze off. I no longer feel like i need to take daily two hour naps. I don’t feel like I’m going to konk out when someone screams at me or otherwise voices their displeasure at something I did or said. I’m not exactly sure what caused the change….maybe it was finally the culmination of years of therapy, maybe it was going vegetarian, maybe it was relinquishing the limiting theology of my youth….I don’t know…I’m just so glad that this torturous part of my life has left.

2. I don’t stutter around strangers, or when I feel uncomfortable, anymore.

My grandpa had a stutter most of his life. The only time it went away was when he sang. When I was little, I never really thought anything about it; it was just how he was. My dad took forever to tell a story or finish a thought, and my grandpa struggled to get some of his words out.

When I got to be in high school, I guess it was, I started developing some sort of weird speech impediment when talking to strangers or people that I didn’t know well. It wasn’t a “true” stutter, but I would fumble and trip over words and end up just looking and sounding like a real idiot. It was so incredibly embarassing, and I never knew exactly when it would happen or how many sentences I had to force out for it to resolve. Honestly, I don’t know how many people even really noticed it, but it was so painful for me. Looking back, I think it stemmed out of uncertainty about what I wanted to say, and never feeling like I knew if what I wanted to say was competent or worthwhile, and whether it would be appreciated or rejected.

I’ve pushed and pushed through my fears of talking to people I don’t know, and talking in front of people. I’ve practiced really hard at learning to do small talk, dive into deep things, and generally be a good conversationalist. And it occurred to me a while back that I only have speech hiccups every once in a while, and I”m no longer terrified of looking like a moron when I open my mouth to say something. This feels huge for me.

3. I don’t self-mutilate anymore.

Y’all, this is something that only one, maybe two people, in the world have known about me. Because self mutilation, in whatever form it takes, carries so much freaking shame. Shame for hurting your body, shame of what people will think when/if they discover it, shame that you’re not even sure why you’re doing it, and shame that somehow physical pain makes your emotional pain lessen for just a little while.

My brand of self mutilation was easier to conceal than some forms others take, but the physical pain that came from it was brutal and would last for days. I started when I was in junior high and kept at it until right about 7 years ago (seems to line up with my sleep attacks a bit, huh?). I don’t even really understand how I was able to stop hurting myself, other than to realize that the urge has pretty much disappeared. All I can say is that this was a Groundhog Day nightmare that I am so very grateful has finally resolved itself. And side note: if you encounter someone who cuts or self mutilates in some way, show them some compassion. You have no idea how much pain and shame they are already carrrying around.

4. I no longer binge eat myself into food comas.

I don’t really want to delve into this topic all that deeply, other than to say that most of my life I’ve had a very disordered relationship with food. People often don’t believe this, telling me that I’ve never been all that heavy, even when I was about 20 pounds overweight. People will also tend to mnimize my excitement over losing 5 pounds, too. Not cool, especially when they’re just assuming I’m phishing for vanity compliments. One can be struggling in a raging battle against food all the time even when they’re at a healthy weight, so be kind. Also, stop offering snark to people who become vegetarian or vegan, and stop with all the damn meat jokes. Sometimes it’s changing to a different style of eating that saves yoyur life and helps you drop some of the shame load.

5. I no longer feel like I’m going to die, or literally want to die, any time that someone gets angry with me.

I have always really, really struggled with people being angry at me. It can undo me, even if I know they are completely in the wrong and really have no grounds for being angry at me. In the past, I just couldn’t handle it and would really have preferred to just to die and be done with it than having someone upset with me in any way. I think this is probably where my sleep attacks came in…I couldn’t actually die to escape the anger, so maybe escaping into sleep and unconscioiusness was the next best thing.

I still hate it alot when people are angry with me, but it feels survivable now. It feels more doable to apologize and move on if I was in the wrong, and also to not automatically assume that just because someone is angry at me, that I actually did anything wrong. I can now understand, and actually believe it, that dying is probably a very disproportionate response to being on the receiving end of someone’s anger. It’s really nice to believe that anger is temporary and not sure-fire evidence that I am inherently a horrible person.

6. I now have a level of body security I never had in my early 30s and before.

I’ve written about this some in past blog posts, so am not going to hash it out all again, other than to say that I now know I am just an average person. It is SO GOOD to just be average. The first three decades of my life consisted of me believing that somehow my body was jacked up (in what way I had no clue) and needed to be hidden away from the world. There is nothing worse than carrying around shame and you have no clue what you’re supposed to be ashamed of, and yet there it is anyway.

Take away from working in healthcare, doing sexual assault nurse examiner training, therapy, etc: We NEED to do a way better job of teaching our children that there are so very many different permutations of NORMAL in the human body….because we could save so many people years of shame and trauma if we did so.

7. I no longer panic when I have to speak in front of people.

This point is really ironic, because I’ve performed or spoken in front of people my entire life. I was on the debate team in high school and college and played piano in church and all of that. But I pretty much hated it the entire time. Everytime I had to get up in front of people I would have to plan on not eating for hours ahead of time, keep a box of immodium handy and be in eyesight of a bathroom, and be ready to bear the embarrassment of my chest and neck flushing bright red when it was my turn to “be on”. It’s weird, because sometimes I chose these activities, and other times I was forced into them by adults in my life. I think ultimately, I knew I wanted to be a good speaker, and I didn’t want to be afraid to get in front of people. And I’ve pretty much gotten there….but man, was it a painful road to travel in order to arrive.

8. I’m no longer terrified of doing things by myself.

For so much of my life, I avoided doing things that I really wanted to do because there was no one to do it with. It always feels like there’s safety when doing things with a partner or group, because if you end up looking like an idiot, at least you have people with you to help offload the burden of carrying the entire amount of idiiot-ness by yourself. But, I’ve learned that if you wait around for someone to do the stuff with you, you might wait forever and then end up missing out on some amazing experiences. I’ve also learned that sometimes doing things by yourself is just WAY better than doing it with other people. But even better than that is knowing you have the choice: you can do something cool or have an adventure by yourself….or you can do it with people….and both could end up being unique, amazing experiences.

9. I am now aware of most of my trauma responses in the moment, instead of recognizing what happened down the road.

I feel like the first three decades of my life were basically on autopilot. Things happened and then I reacted to them. Most of the time I don’t think I knew why I did have the things I did….the actions just seemed to be good ideas at the time and made sense in my head.

Now days I feel like there has been a major shift in how I approach life and what comes my way. In general, I have a pretty solid grasp on the things that hurt or trigger me, and why they hurt or trigger me. As I’ve alluded to in this post, not every trigger undoes my like it would in the past. And for the things that do undo me? While in the moment of being absolutely undone, I am able to observe what is going on and name it. I might not be able to do a damn thing about it in the moment, and I may feel powerless to respond in a different way, but at least I can see what is happening instead of identifying completely with the situation and my feelings and thoughts. Out of any of the ways I’ve grown over the last couple of decades, I think this has been the most important. Because….if I can recognize what is happening in the moment, I have more agency to be able to stop reacting to stimuli and start altering my responses.

I honestly hate alot of this. I hate how people and things can intentionally or unintentionally stab me in the most vulnerable places and still bring me to my knees. But, I’m so grateful that it’s no longer a battle that I have to fight completely blind. I know what my real enemies are, and I’m gaining a pretty decent arsenal of weapons to use in various situations to overcome these trauma beasts.

10. I am learning to let what brings me joy, bring me joy.

I’m a nerd. It’s just a fact. I also get super excited and giddy about some things that appear to have no effect on others. This used to really bother me. I felt like if something was really important to me, but didn’t do much for others, then maybe it was actually meaningless after all and I was dumb for allowing it to make me happy. Maybe I was just being juvenile and childish.

Now…I say, to hell with that. If something makes me happy and I want to get excited about it, then I am going to allow myself that joy even if everyone else thinks I’m a nut job. I am wired to find joy in things that other people might not be wired for, and that’s OK. And as I talked about in my last blog post, it could be argued that what is important is not so much the inherent meaning that something carries it, but rather meaning that is ascribed to it.

I spent a huge chunk of my life trying to be interested in the things that I thought I was supposed to be interested in, based on others around me. Nothing is worse for the creative soul than trying to force yourself to be interested in something that feels like cardboard to you, or stifling interest in things that make you want to get out of bed every morning…just because they aren’t interesting to the world around you. I’m finally learning to follow the words of Joseph Campbell, as recorded in a interview with Bill Moyers:

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time – namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

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So there you have it, my Top 10 list significant ways I really have grown, changed, and healed as a person. Making this list was really cathartic for me, and reminded me that it is really dumb to believe the negative thoughts coming down the pipeline, or to fall into an all or nothing mindspace when something goes wrong in life.

This post has been part of this idea that I want to talk about on embracing our humanity….to lay a foundation for what I plan to expand on in the next post…..1 degree changes, future grace, why hedonism has it’s place, and totally stealing and then repurposing (hopefully in a healthier way) ideas that I picked up years ago from John Piper. (Just hang with me , peeps….I’m not endorsing his theology). 😉