Originally posted on the blog "Yoga, for the Moment" (RIP) on 2/4/2011.
This week, guys. Damn. So, I was reading this lousy in-flight magazine while idling on the runway in Charlotte. I don't fly in planes if I can avoid it, because I don't enjoy the experience that accompanies flying. I don't like the ticketing process, nor do I like traveling to the airport. I do not appreciate the 3 oz rule, the shoe thing, or how wild people get if you say, "somebody give me a drink before I blow something up" (which, by the way, you can say on the Amtrak and be met with both a drink and an, "I hear that"). Airports are stressy, is my point. So to chill, I decided to read the literature in the seat pocket.
I scoured SkyMall, memorized the drink menu, and was rolling my eyes at grinning vacationers when I noticed a quote, enlarged and boldfaced in order to do exactly what it had just done, and was reeled in by a reference to "God's grace in my life" or the like, not because I like reading inspirational non-fiction (shut up, you do too) but because it seemed out of place. Like, do we talk about our walk with the Lord on in-flight magazines now? I thought we don't do that. Who can keep up.
The story was about a guy who became a non-denominational minister. Pretty safe content, if you are not a devout anything-other-than-Christian, which USAirways hopes you are not. His life changing circumstance was that, as a young adult, he'd been in an accident, a bad one, and broken nearbout all his bones. I read about how he thought he was dead, and then laid in a hospital bed for months before he could even sit upright, more months before he could move on his own, then years of casts, braces, crutches. And still, after decades, his bones are healed a bit crooked, and the nerve damage makes regular tasks hard and painful, so he needs help with everything. If you are like most everyone else, you just read that and thought, "damn, cheers to that dude for pulling through, I would absolutely hold a door for him if I saw his crippled ass coming through the Macy's." But if you are like me, that story made you jealous.
When I read that thing, I wished so much that I could explain myself so easily, that my story could be told so matter-of-factly, and responded to so clearly. But all the bones I've broken are invisible, and the thing that broke them is rated NC-17. I, too, had a life changing circumstance that left me barely alive and in dire need of intense care for years and years. I, too, feel acute pain doing regular chores and have a crooked inner posture and wicked scarring. I, too, need a little help all the time. But I don't often get it, which I say not to beg your pity, but to ask you to consider emotional injury in a new light for a moment. Imagine what that man's life would have been like if no one believed his bones were broken. What if he was told not to speak about the accident because it made people uncomfortable? What would that man's life be like if he had to set all his own fractures with cardboard and masking tape, pretend not to have been hurt, and go on working like a regular person? What if, when he broke down in pain, he was criticized for being obsessed with himself?
I don't want to tell you what it was that happened in my life, and I can't, because it is the kind of thing that you will never read about on an in-flight magazine. It is violent and disturbing and sexually explicit, and happened again and again, from the time I was 3 until I was 15, leaving me with a load of diagnoses that, even if I listed them, would not give an unspecialized person any idea what to do with me. This is probably why I have so many friends with psychology degrees. (Broken bones dude marries his physical therapist, by the way. Raise your hand if you're surprised.) I, unfortunately, was not believed nor was I treated for so many years that my invisible bones are crooked as hell, people. I have emo nerve damage that is so for real, I can be incapacitated by a regular difficulty. Like going to a funeral. Which is what I was on the plane to do.
My grandfather died last week. I liked him. He was hilarious and hardheaded about all the right things. He was the only registered Democrat in a family of Baptist Republicans, and judged a man solely on how clean he kept his shoes. He cursed in front of us kids for what he said was our own good, and remedied his young adult drinking problem not by teetotaling, but by respectably confining his booze to an annual binge with his buds out of town. When I was growing up, I ate dinner at Grandpa Ellis' house every Friday and Sunday. He took the only pictures of my childhood that exist, and provided me with the only stability that I've known, if I've known any.
I hadn't seen the people from that part of my life in almost 20 years, and it was exactly like a haunted house would be if haunted houses were real. The teachers I had when I was young, the cousins I never talked to again, the family and church leaders who all told me my bones were not broken, that there was no accident and that I had better start walking straight - they were all there. One of them well-meaningly friended me on Facebook and then wrote some shit about burying the hatchet, and I felt like saying, "hey you know what, it's not that I'm holding a grudge, it's that the thing you all said wasn't real turned out to be really real, so while you've all been praying for me to get over my imaginary wounds, I've been trying learn how to deal in the actually real world, which wouldn't be so fucking difficult if any of you would have been vaguely in touch with it back then." But I didn't say that. I just accepted her friend request, and then used my privacy settings to make it so that we never ever see each other again.
Of course there is more, but for the purposes of discussing spiritual practice, my point is that our mental and emotional bodies are real bodies. Furthermore, most people are walking around with a ton of injuries, some nearly fatal injuries, and very few of us have had the treatment and support to recover from them in any reasonable way. Most of what we do to recover is akin to sword-fighting dudes in bloody movies mending wounds mid-battle: they just tear off a piece of some gal's filthy dress, tie off the gash, and keep swinging. And in the same way I feel alarmed and distracted by how bad an idea it is to, say, use whiskey as a disinfectant/pain reliever for an outdoor amputation, I think one day we will look back on this as a time when we were very, very brutish about emotional well being.
We are not without knowledge of mental illness, by the way. Plenty of fine work has been done by the pioneers of brainstuffs. The problem, as I see it, is that we, as a society, do not know our own inner landscapes well enough to recognize when we are lost. We take better care of physical injuries, because the knowledge of how to do it is more or less widespread now. Mind and heart problems are not like that at all, as almost no one has any idea how to help, outside the use of alcohol and platitudes. And the problem has escalated, perhaps because most people erroneously believe that they are their thoughts and feelings - not that they have them, that they are them. This makes a mental problem seem like a problem with one's actual "real" or "true" self, and therefore, shameful to have, in a way that physical injuries aren't. If someone says at a dinner party, "The reason I need to sit in this special chair is that I fell off a horse and broke my back," no one says, "Keep your personal issues to yourself. Besides, I twisted my ankle last week - where's my special chair?" But with trauma, they often do. And there are good reasons not to share trauma at the dinner table. What I mean to say is that mental illness is just a problem in a different location of the self, guys. It doesn't mean there is anything wrong with me-me, the real me.
You may have noticed that I have not referred to "spiritual illness." This is because, while I believe the spirit has preferences, as far as how it would like us to arrange our physical/mental/emotional selves for optimum beingness, I do not believe the spirit has needs, or can be damaged or sick or deformed in any way. The most essential part of a person, the truest personhood of a person, is unharmable. I mean, I think. This is an operating theory. I don't know if it's "true" any more than I know whether the spirit is a real thing, but it helps me to believe this, and some other people in history, some really high functioning people, have believed this, too. I hold on to that, at times like this excruciating week, in order to stay ok. When I feel like nothing more than a collage of damages doing damage to those around me, I try to remember think of us all as medieval knights wrapped in ladies' skirt rags, bleeding and crooked and still swinging our ridiculous swords, perfect inside, healing imperfectly.