Today is the one year anniversary of officially moving in to my van full time, and it has been quite an experience. In a good way. What have I learned?
Own two towels, insulation works both ways, be careful which bottle of yellow liquid you pour on your salad (that one wasn’t as bad as it sounds), acclimatizing is the best temperature regulation, hummus is better when the garbanzo beans are cooked, and mosquito netting is critical in the summer to be able to leave doors open and not roast in the hot box. Oh, and silence is beautiful.
Wait, did you mean about the stuff I’ve seen? Well, wild turkeys can graze all day long, the ice age in Texas didn’t have ice, George Washington Carver was an artist as well as scientist, cows have distinct personalities, take it slow in museums to really spend time with the art, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in super tiny lettering, and Smokey Bear was a real bear who really was trapped in a forest fire.
Um. Yeah. See, the thing is that people keep asking me what I’ve seen and done and are expecting exciting stories filled with adventure and action, but that’s not what I’ve been doing. Okay, I did learn the hard way not to park on soft dirt in a flood zone in a storm, but, well, I also had enough sense to get myself out before getting completely stuck. Which means: before it became too good of a story.
I haven’t been hiking the tallest mountains, seeing every tourist attraction (or very many at all), and I’m not racking up the miles like a mad woman tearing through the country. I’m taking it slow, spending much of my time alone, in silence, reflecting, journaling, fighting the impulse(s) to play interesting and informative podcasts about topics I am interested in, or to fill the drive time with audiobooks or to watch episodes of Star Trek on my laptop that I practically have memorized or even to pick up books I have been wanting to read.
And I have been struggling, so very hard and not always successfully, to not launch into any number of big projects now that I have plenty of time on my hands. Because starting new projects is exactly what I want—what I feel the need—to do. I think I am pathologically incapable of not having a current project. (In January I didn’t have one for a week and started this blog.) Which is exactly why I think that I need to not have any projects for a good long time. Because projects, goals, accomplishing things, or just plain staying busy, are my go-to methods to reliably distract myself for months or years on end.
Okay, I’ve mentioned this problem of “distractions” several times, but I don’t think I’ve done a good job describing what I mean, so let me take a few minutes and try.
A Story of Distractions
Imagine a scene of a normal family, maybe your family, having dinner. Maybe you’re sitting around the table, at a restaurant, or in the living room in front of the TV, it doesn’t really matter. There is a baby in her high chair and she starts fussing. So you give her another spoonful, but she turns away, fusses more, starts reaching for something she shouldn’t have, maybe the knife at the next place setting. What do you do? You don’t give her the knife, even though she is whining and now crying for it. You probably move the knife out of sight and show her something else she’ll like, and in a few seconds she’s forgotten the knife entirely and is happily waving your bright orange carrot over her head.
Fast forward ten years to when she comes home from school, upset by something the mean girl in her class said that day. You listen to the story of what happened, and maybe you agree that what the other girl said was mean and maybe you problem solve how she could handle it better next time, or make a note to call the school the next day. Maybe you hold her on your lap and rock her and tell her it’ll be okay. Then, because she’s still sulking and you have things to do, you tell her to go do this chore or take care of that before dinner.
Five years later her heart is broken for the first time and you are sympathetic and kind but this is just her first crush and there will be others. Go study, there’s a big test on Friday.
By the time she is an adult, she will have had millions of tiny and major encounters like this, all teaching her, among other things, to move on, to get over it, to do something else in order to stop feeling feelings, especially negative ones. What she doesn’t learn, at least not enough, is how to process the feelings she is having, how to heal those thousands of little wounds as well as the really big ones, and actually move on. Because getting over it is really just pushing the hurt down to where it isn’t as visible, hence uncomfortable, but it doesn’t just go away because we stop paying attention to it.
And she will get this message from so many people, almost all the people in her life in fact, that she will get good at doing this to herself long before she grows up, probably even before she starts elementary school. She will get so good at pushing the hurt down, distracting herself by moving on to something else, that feeling the hurt, really feeling it, will be so uncomfortable to her and those around her that she will do anything not to feel it.
Staying busy, overworking or quitting everything, overeating or under-eating, spending too much, making bad social decisions, drugs and alcohol, anger issues, controlling and manipulating, making everything into a drama, avoiding others, etc. are some classic ways to stop or redirect painful feelings. They are also self-destructive, but somehow in the moment they seem less painful than the pain inside.
Some Forms of Distraction
Television has been another good distractor for a long time, as is the internet, video games, and now cell phones offer the ultimate in distraction technology. Personalized, real-time distraction, available at any instant. They reward you for staying on with “badges,” “days in a row,” and “unlocking levels” and even pester you when you have been away too long. The colors, sounds, even the shapes of icons and placement of things on the screen, are all intentionally designed to get and keep your attention using the same techniques that casinos use to keep people gambling and that magicians use to make you look here while they do something else over there. Plus, they are so darn useful.
Cell phones are the latest, most perfect version of distraction technology, but the goal is not a new one. As a species, we have been successfully distracting ourselves in myriad ways since time immemorial. I present as evidence all the terrible things we have done to each other throughout history. We call these things “inhumane,” but humans are the only species with such a gruesome history.
Part of the problem is that our society values product over process. We want everyone to be fine so that we can get on and do things, but we don’t teach children, or adults for that matter, how to be fine, how to deal with those hurts, and so without any guidance, we just do whatever we need to do to look like we are fine, which usually means pushing down the hurt or pretending it isn’t there or redirecting it at someone else’s expense, but not actually processing it. We put on a show of being fine to those around us, and it is such a convincing act that we even believe it ourselves most of the time. And when those pesky niggling feelings of being not okay crop up, we distract ourselves from them so we can go on believing our own made up story.
I’m Not Writing to Blame Anyone
It isn’t out of ill will or even bad parenting that we don’t teach children how to process feelings. We don’t do it because we never learned ourselves, nor did our parents or all the generations before them. It is a hard thing to learn, and some individuals and groups have figured out how to do this better than others, but as a species, we’re not very good at it.
Before any parents (Mom) start feeling too guilty, I want to emphasize that this is not a matter of bad parenting. Distracting children (and ourselves) is a very effective short-term solution to the problem of the moment, which is why it is so common, but is ultimately counterproductive. Going to the opposite extreme of indulging a child’s every whim for as long as they like is no better, and I would argue is far more damaging, in that it reinforces a wide range of destructive behaviors and identities. So what is the right path? Maybe it is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, but something deep inside of me is tentatively suggesting that it is some third, out of left field option that I don’t have more than a glimmer of yet.
I truly don’t have this “all figured out,” but am becoming more and more convinced, as I slowly and painfully try to begin to finally work through some of my own feelings and hurts, that the root of all our problems now and throughout history is somehow tied to our inability to face our real hurts. The problems are not the issues that look like the problems, but the real hurts down deep that we have been trained to ignore and belittle since we were whiny infants being offered the bright orange carrot.
But we are not used to taking those small hurts seriously. We do not value them or credit them with being real hurts. Our society tells us that if it isn’t outright abuse or neglect, if we aren’t suffering, we should just get over it. Move on. Deal with it. Grow up.
That last one is particularly harmful, as it reinforces the idea that an adult should be past all this stuff, that getting upset at some small slight is childish and petty. If we do feel upset about something, it must have an adult reason, so we invent reasons: the slow driver needs to learn to respect other people’s time and I have places to go and things to do, or the bank teller obviously doesn’t know how to count and shouldn’t have the responsibility of a job that is beyond her, or my boss is incompetent and I am clearly doing my job right so he has no reason to criticize. What we are really feeling, what we don’t let ourselves admit that we are feeling, is hurt: not seen, not accepted, not loved, that it’s unfair. We want to be understood and comforted, but we don’t know how to do that well.
Taking Hurts Seriously
Let me be clear: I have never been the victim of any kind of abuse by anyone in my life. I was raised by loving and supportive parents and have had the blessing of many wonderful mentors over the years who guided me well into adulthood. The hurts I am talking about are the little, everyday traumas of life. I never realized how much those small hurts affected me, and when I did feel some inkling of it, I chalked it up to being whinny or making a big deal out of nothing.
But big or small, hurt is hurt, and people—yes, even autistic people—are keenly sensitive to hurts of all kinds. And a small hurt leads to avoiding the behavior or situation that produced it, or lashing out, or any number of other reactions, and that leads to a backlash for the reaction, and so on. These little hurts build up and influence the shape our personalities develop, so that over time, we think that is just who we are. He’s so negative. She’s always complaining. He has anger issues. She’s so manipulative. He’s such a workaholic. She’s always taking everything personally. Can’t he ever just stick with something? Why is she always doing that?
She’s always doing that because that is the strategy she learned a long time ago to deal with a bad situation. And even though it doesn’t work well in this situation, that is all she knows. Strategies don’t have to appear negative, either. People who go well out of their way to please others, are over the top cheery all the time, who are always trying to fix people, or who can’t not volunteer to help, even to the point that it hurts them, these are also ways to protect the self. The subconscious reasoning goes: If I do this, people will like me and then I won’t get hurt. Helping is good, but it is better when it comes from a place of love and not fear.
Healing the Hurts
If we can open our hearts enough to take those hurts seriously—to admit that we are hurting—and truly heal those old hurts, we can finally, actually, let them go, or integrate them, or however it works, and then we don’t have to carry them around with us all the time, turning me in an instant from a calm, level headed adult into an angry fireball over some small slight. That reaction doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from the same open wound being banged and scratched over and over again, so that the smallest bump produces instant, major pain.
Have you overreacted to seemingly inconsequential things? Know people who do? I’ll bet anything the answer to both is yes. I surely have. A lot. This is where that reaction is coming from.
I’ve begun to make some progress in the last year on healing a few of those old wounds, and have reaped very obvious fruits, but am honestly just scratching the surface. This is what I mean when I say I’m peeling away the layers of hurt to get at the me inside. I want to someday meet this true self, unburdened by the many layers of gunk that have grown up over it all these years. I’m curious to see what is left—but what is left will not be less but more, much more. More beautiful, more authentic, more compassionate, more loving, more humble, more creative, more daring and confident and resourceful and accepting and calm and wise and loving.
Learning New Strategies
To make progress down this road, however, will take learning new strategies. The strategies I have just won’t work anymore. By strategies, I mean the ways I cope with, or manage, my default reactions in dealing with situations I don’t like. If someone invites me to go out, my default reaction is to be scared of not understanding the social dynamics and so make a social mistake that will elicit looks of exasperation or misunderstanding or unwanted humor from other people, and leave me feeling out of place, excluded, and dumb, reinforcing social anxieties. My strategy to avoid this chain of events has been make up some excuse not to go, avoid responding to calls, to agree to go out and then cancel at the last minute, or just plain refuse the invitation and hide at home.
This works great in the short term because it avoids putting me in the undesirable situation, but if I rarely go out, I don’t learn the social dynamics that would make those situations less uncomfortable. But forcing myself into those situations doesn’t work either (I’ve tried), because I have such high anxiety levels that it pretty much guarantees I’ll make a social faux pas and create the exact situation I want to learn to avoid.
What I need is a new strategy. And in my case that means dealing with the many hurts I suffered as a child who was very smart in many ways, but for whatever reason that we didn’t understand (autism), couldn’t figure out the social stuff that all the kids around me seemed to pick up with ease. Why couldn’t I figure this out when all the other kids could, yet I could understand far more of the academics than they did?
I crafted an identity for myself out of being academically gifted, to shield myself from the many hurts growing up, being teased and made fun of by classmates, cousins, girl scouts, strangers, the adults in my life, you name it. And even when it wasn’t actually negative, they frequently pointed out how different I was for things that I didn’t understand, reinforcing my constant failure of the one project I put more energy into than any other: being normal. I often felt excluded and alone, and so made a virtue out of being alone, being a maverick, a loner, not needing others and not wanting them. But I did. Need and want connection. Genuine connection, not the surface niceties, but I couldn’t even learn those reliably, so how was I ever supposed to find more?
You want to know what I’ve learned this year? This is what I’ve learned. And more. I never understood any of this about myself, but am finally figuring it out and beginning to heal those old hurts, and it is incredibly freeing.
My Journey is the One Inside of Me
Here’s what else I’ve learned. I’ve said for years that I don’t want to be around people, but it’s not that I don’t want to be around people, it’s that I want to be comfortable around people, and I’m not.
How could I be, with all those years of bad experiences and the resultant anxiety?
What it will take for me to finally be comfortable around other people, is for me to first be comfortable with myself. To accept myself for who I am, and stop trying to be the person someone else expects me to be, or what I think anyone else expects of me.
This is my grand adventure, by the way, the whole reason I am living in the van now and taking this journey. It is not about seeing or doing things, though those are nice in moderation and sometimes help me put things into perspective. My journey is the one inside of me.
It turned into a physical journey because this was something I was not able to do at home, despite all my good intentions and several years of trying. I was so entrenched in the routines and ruts that I had worn for myself that breaking out of those would have taken more energy than I had to give. So although it may sound strange, it took less energy for me to radically change my entire life around, including the physical energy of converting the van, than it would have taken to face the people I dealt with regularly in new ways.
I don’t at all think that it is impossible to stay at home and make these kinds of radical changes, and plenty of people do, I just wasn’t strong enough.
This is New and Scary
Facing those old wounds is painful. It is uncomfortable, at best, and deeply painful often, but when I wrap those wounds in love, when I allow myself to feel the pain and anger and grief and fear and also feel the comfort of being deeply seen by another with all my faults and shortcomings and be genuinely loved and accepted, the pain begins to turn into something less painful. I’m not sure what to call it, exactly. More peaceful, somehow. It integrates instead of just being shoved down. And then I feel more expansive inside and my capacity for compassion towards others grows.
But this is new and scary and doing it completely alone can be dangerous—there are too many opportunities to turn narcissistic, judgmental, or to get trapped in warped thinking. If you try it, I recommend talking extensively with someone you trust, who will neither make you feel bad for having negative feelings nor offer “solutions” for everything, as that is just another form of distraction from the hurt. Although I spend a lot of time alone, I regularly talk with a few specific people that I feel safe spilling my guts to.
The road will be perilous and long. It will be filled with missteps and setbacks and opening up to the wrong person or the right person at the wrong time and getting hurt again. And it will require cutting back on the distractions that block this process, and that will feel a lot like going through detox, because in many ways it is. But the road will be filled, too, with progress and small victories and being surprised by wonderful opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible before, and feeling good and expansive and free in new and wonderful ways that are impossible to imagine now.
A Little Experiment
Are you willing to try a little experiment? Try this just once; there’s no long term commitment here. At some point today, do one of your normal, physical daily activities without any external inputs to distract you. I mean no TV in the background, no podcasts, audiobooks, music, no talking to someone while your doing it, no multitasking of any kind, and if possible, choose a time when you can reasonably expect not to be interrupted. And choose something physical, because clearing your inbox can be its own rabbit hole of distractions—you know what I mean.
Now this part is critical: pick something that you usually do while you have something else going on. So if you usually do the dishes with nothing on, that doesn’t count, but if you usually play music while doing the dishes, that’s fair game. Or maybe walk the dog, cook dinner, drive somewhere, eat a meal, do hand embroidery, fold the laundry, wait for the bus, something, anything, that you normally do while something else is going on, and without checking on or looking up anything on your phone or any other device the whole time. Preferably, have all such devices out of sight and out of easy reach. You can respond to any messages in a few minutes.
There’s no need to try not to think or to practice special breathing techniques, this isn’t a meditation exercise. Just complete the entire task without any distractions going on around you and notice how you feel during it. Are you antsy, fidgety, anxious or calm, wanting to reach for your phone a dozen times a minute? Notice your self-talk. Is your inner voice complaining that this is pointless, stupid, boring, that you’re not getting things done, you’re not getting anything out of it, Martha’s cracked? Try not to judge any of these thoughts, just notice them. It might be worth reflecting on where they are coming from.
There is a good chance that they are the products of messages you got as a child. I got messages, both verbal and otherwise, that laziness is bad, not doing as much as possible is laziness, and that I need to be doing, preferably accomplishing, at all times. Hence why I have such a problem with not having projects. And projects can be my career, school, my latest interest or my long-term obsessions, even learning new things. I’m debating how much this blog qualifies, and whether I should close it down as therapy, but it also helps me process certain ideas to have to write about them well enough to be readable for others (unlike my journal) and so I justify keeping this going. See how deceptively seductive distractions can be?
Another Little Story
And that is part of the problem. Most distractions aren’t inherently bad. It is how we use them to distract us that is bad. If a cell phone could be used purely as a tool without creating waves of anxiety when it isn’t available, it wouldn’t be such a problem.
Maybe a story will help tie all this together. Forgive me for again referencing Star Trek. In Past Prologue, the second episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, one of the main characters faces a crisis of loyalties.
Kira spent most of her life fighting for Bajor’s independence from the Cardassians, fighting for her and her people’s freedom, so much so that fighting itself had become a habit, a way of life, her form of distraction from her guilt, pain and anger. But now the Cardassians are gone and she is trying to walk a new path, a path of peace and trust, but that is hard. Fighting is such an ingrained habit that she doesn’t know how else to react.
Then someone from her old life shows up and asks for her help, and helping a friend is such a good, honorable thing, right? But it would mean fighting again, and oh, how she thinks fighting again would feel so good and so right. Or at least familiar. And the new path she has set out on feels uncomfortable, strange, disconcerting, even scary, and she wonders if she’s even on the right path or if she’s just making a fool of herself by trying. She’s not sure where she belongs anymore. And here is her friend, asking for her help.
After a lot of soul searching and struggling, she at first tentatively, then firmly chooses the new, uncomfortable, uncertain path of peace. She tries to explain to her friend, “The old ways don’t work anymore. Everything is different now.” He believes she betrayed him, and that, too, is part of the trap, the temptation to go back.
But she is right. The strategies that worked in that old system don’t work in the new. Fighting is necessary sometimes, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Just as the strategies I learned to defend myself when I got hurt when I was little—throwing tantrums, ignoring, sulking, lashing out first—are tempting to use even now when I get hurt, or anticipate getting hurt, they don’t work in the world I want to live in.
Lately I have begun to notice how often I still use those old strategies, just in different ways so that they don’t look like a child’s tantrum: blowing up at someone, saying hurtful things, the silent treatment, avoiding, accusing, not going out, putting up a pretense, blowing things out of proportion, even judging—which is a way to make myself feel better because at least I’m not like “them.” These are just adult versions of the strategies I learned as a child, and they all work very well in the short-term defense of my fragile ego, but fail miserably at letting me find genuine acceptance and grow meaningful relationships. Because they block the very things that are necessary for genuine acceptance and meaningful relationships. They ultimately create anxiety instead of relieving it. They create distance, not connection. Pain, not peace.
I want peace, not pain. To feel comfortable around people and not anxiety. Relationships based on knowing the other and feeling connected and accepted for who I am and accepting the other. Which means I need new strategies, however uncomfortable, strange, disconcerting, even scary they may at first feel.
I don’t have many of these new strategies yet, but I am learning. Okay, fine, I do know some of their names: prayer, meditation, honesty, vulnerability, forgiveness, gratitude, silence. These are deceptively simple words, and to be honest, I’ve tried them all before, with inconsistent and intermittent results, which is exactly how I practiced them. I am trying them again, again with inconsistent and intermittent results, but this time I am committed to persevering until they bear much fruit.
Because I have the witness of many who have gone before me and persevered through the pain to the peace, using these exact strategies, and they all unanimously agree that they do bear wonderful fruit. Do you know who these people are, who have used these strategies both consistently and long-term? We call them saints (some are Saints).
Get back to me in 50+ years to see if I’ve made it that far. We’ll see. But I can follow their path for another 75,000 or so miles and see where that takes me. Hopefully at least far enough that I can live a more inwardly peaceful life wherever I end up.