Portraits From Social Work – Part 1: David

Even since I lost my last job doing social work with high risk, low income adults out in the community, I have missed the clients I used to see everyday. While I’m not sure if these people ever knew it themselves, the time I spent with them was much more meaningful to me than just trying to get a paycheck. This was the first time in my life that I was really able to get to know some interesting characters and bond with people older than me, with totally different and unique life experiences. Even though I was supposed to keep a professional distance, I simply couldn’t help holding a space for each of my clients in my heart. I believe these people are interesting to learn about in general, but I am also writing about them today to ensure that I can keep them with me even if they eventually fade from my memory. (I obviously won’t use their real names for confidentiality reasons.)

Part 1: David

David was my all time favorite client. I still dream of him often, and I wonder how he is doing on nearly a daily basis. I liked to describe him as my schizophrenic, satanist client. Usually people are shocked to discover that this was the client I became closest to. However, schizophrenia has fascinated me since youth and although I was afraid at first, I was eager to finally get to know a real person with this disorder.

Far from being the violent psychopath that most people picture when I say he’s a satanist suffering from schizophrenia, David was one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve met. Even though he was in his early 50s, he still had an almost childlike quality about him. He inspired in me a motherly instinct. I recall once even looking up if you are allowed to adopt someone older than you on a whim with him in mind. I also recall discussing with David what kind of pet he might like if he got one. I was expecting a snake or tarantula or something along those lines. I wish I could have hugged him when instead he said he’d always wanted a rabbit. If David had a spirit animal it would definitely have been a rabbit.

One of the many things I learned from David is that Satanists do not believe in a literal Satan. It’s more of a reactionary stance taken against Christianity. It is spitting in the face of these churches, while acknowledging the community that comes with religion is valuable and worthwhile. Satanists are just atheists, and David was so happy that I was an atheist too. Unfortunately most of the people he had encountered in life (including his therapist) were religious nut jobs. His adoptive mother had been Catholic I believe and seemed to have hated him for abandoning his faith. He told me about a few occasions in his youth when she had discovered his Satanic stockpile and threw it all away. (Jokes on her. The house is his now and the walls are covered with pentagrams painted in red.)

David lived all alone in his house. He had no family left to speak of besides a brother that lived in another state and rarely communicated with him. He had no transportation either, besides me. So with nothing to fill his days, David lost himself in books. He loved to read. He lent me lots of his Satanist books along with a few of his favorites by Stephen King. It made me so happy to be able to discuss the contents with him after I was finished.

It truly breaks my heart to know that I will most likely never see or speak to this man again. I never even got to tell him goodbye. Part of me still wished I could write him a letter and at least explain the circumstances of my leaving. However, I have no right to do so. It would be unethical of me to reach out to any of my past clients now that I am not their case worker anymore, no matter how much I may want to do so. I just hope that somehow he knows that the bond we shared was real and it meant a lot to me.

I am happy about all I was able to do for David, primarily being a genuine friend to a lonely, isolated man, but also getting him a laptop and internet access to make him a little less isolated. I also know that I could have done much more. I wish that I had made more of an effort to address his hoarding behaviors. His house was an absolute mess, filled with bits of paper, receipts, scattered DVDs and books, and random garbage. I also wish that I would have fought to get him a different therapist at my work. The one he has been seeing for years was not doing him any favors. In fact, I would go so far as to say he was exacerbating his mental illness, by acting as though his schizophrenic hallucinations may have actually been revelations from God. No joke, he was that bad. Nothing they discussed in his sessions could be considered therapy by even the loosest of definitions. It bordered on criminal.

David had a lot of issues that he struggled with every day. He would tell me about his hallucinations of vengeful angels and violent demons. How the fear of a Hell he didn’t even believe in would sometimes make him try to get back into religion. He was sexually and physically abused as a young child. He was also abandoned and excluded by his peers and eventually even his family growing up. He was so terribly bullied at his school that he once brought a knife to protect himself and was subsequently expelled for it. David also seems to believe that he is a terrible, evil, irredeemable person even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unlike a lot of my clients, David never tried to take advantage of me. He was always extremely polite and considerate. He once got bedbugs and would put his clothes in the dryer on high right before I came to get him to ensure that he wouldn’t transfer any to me. Even though I always said yes, he would still ask me every time before using snuff in my car. He would prefer to suffer in silence rather than inconvenience anyone. Despite all that he had to deal with, he never complained or made himself out to be a victim. He is a truly beautiful, gentle soul. I miss him so much, and I hope that he is doing alright and that he knows I cherish the times we spent together.

Satanism - Founders, Philosophies & Branches - HISTORY

When Self-Love Turns Toxic

Self Love with Sigrid Tasies — Jodi Plumbley - Bespoke Boudoir + Portrait  Photographer

Ever since I began my “self-improvement journey” I’ve struggled with toxic self-love. I’ve heard this term used to describe a few different things, and it seems counterintuitive at first, so let me just start by defining what I mean. For me, toxic self-love is when my best intentions become new ways for me to criticize and cut myself down.

Here is an example: I’ve been practicing yoga for years now. I started with just seven minutes a day and for a while I was doing 30-60 minutes. However, recently I’ve found myself being too busy to do more than 15 minutes of yoga on my lunch break at work. Yoga is about self care, self love, self exploration, mindfulness. It’s not about a rigorous, unbending routine. Nevertheless, I’ve been super hard on myself about doing less than I once did. It’s ironic, actually. In the end, what’s worse for my mental health, missing 15 minutes of yoga or berating myself for it for the rest of the day?

Often the very routines I cultivated to manage my anxiety become sources of stress instead. I’ve always had a hard time avoiding that “all or nothing” mentality. If I don’t do an hour of yoga and meditation every day, than I might as well have done nothing. If I don’t eat with perfect mindfulness, then I might as well scarf down my food as fast as I can. This kind of black and white thinking has the potential to be more detrimental than if you had never started the practice at all. It seems like when I do manage to find time for a 60 minute yoga flow, I don’t give myself any credit. I think, “Well of course, I don’t get a pat on the back for doing what I’m supposed to do.” However, if I only have time for 5 minutes one day, I agonize over what I failure I am.

This is toxic self-love. It isn’t loving at all. Self-love doesn’t mean I’ll love myself when I’m perfect. Self-love means I’ll love myself where I am right now. I’ll love my flaws and imperfections. I’ll love myself when I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning. I’ll love myself when I gain 5 pounds. I’ll love myself when I’ve made a big mistake. Self-love is unconditional. Toxic self-love says: meet these standards first.

This pressure we put on ourselves to perform and keep up with all our positive habits every single day without exception, ends up making us forget why we began these habits in the first place. Was my goal to check a box, to be unwaveringly consistent? Or was my goal to be happy and to take better care of myself? Regularly reminding ourselves of our intention is so important, so that we don’t become sidetracked while going through the motions.

It’s also important for us to pay attention to the way we talk to ourselves. What kind of language are you using inside your own head? One of my worst mental habits is saying “I have to.” This is probably one of my most repeated phrases each day. I have to workout. I have to do yoga. I have to meditate. I have to eat healthy, mindfully. I have to go to work. Honestly this phrase probably comes before most of my thoughts. It’s no wonder I always feel so stressed and exhausted.

My entire life might be completely transformed by gently correcting myself when I notice this phrase coming up. I don’t have to, I get to. It’s even a more accurate and truthful statement. I genuinely don’t have to do any of the things I do. I choose to do them, because I enjoy doing them. It’s only after months and years of repeating to myself that I have to that I lose sight of the fact that I want to. When I give myself permission to not do the thing, that’s when I finally allow my natural desire to bubble to the surface.

Sometimes I even catch myself thinking that I don’t deserve to feel calm and content, because I didn’t do a certain thing. I feel my anxiety welling up and think, “Good. That’s what you get for fucking up today.” How sick is that? I am purposefully withholding happiness from myself as a punishment. It’s wild to realize the “self-love” I practice is so harsh and domineering. Often I’ll even beat myself up for beating myself up! It’s madness!

True self-love is gentle, kind, forgiving. It’s recognizing how far you’ve come. It’s acknowledging the things you’re still struggling with and being okay with that. Even though I still have things to work on, I am proud of myself for all the progress I’ve made. Before I wouldn’t have even had the mental clarity to recognize the ways I’m being too hard on myself. Instead of perpetuating that cycle with more self-criticism, I am excited to use all of the tools I’ve gathered over the years to show myself more loving kindness. When I notice a negative thought arise, instead of seeing it as a cue to become upset with myself, I can see it as a cue to be proud of myself for even noticing it at all. It’s a beautiful opportunity to practice softening, to practice opening my heart even wider. I am so grateful for the chance to keep growing in my journey toward peace, happiness, forgiveness, and love. I sincerely hope you will try to offer yourself that same grace on your own journey.

8 key signs that you are lacking in self-love - Life Coach Directory

Finding the Feeling

For years now, I have practiced yoga, meditation, and gratitude daily. While I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental health since implementing these practices, it still feels like the changes I’ve experienced have been underwhelming. I thought that after such diligent effort over so many years, that I would be further along in my spiritual journey by this point. I still struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, etc.

In the beginning, these daily practices were done very intentionally. It was easy to remain mindful because everything was so new to me. However, after solidifying these routines, they became just that, routines. Many days I find myself just going through the motions. That is the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy more of the benefits ever after so many years. I also think this may be a reason some people find themselves giving up on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness all together.

We must always be careful not to allow these things to become just words, just routines. Going through the motions may be better than doing nothing at all, but it isn’t going to result in the profound changes we’re seeking in ourselves. Yoga isn’t about the shapes the body takes, it’s about where the mind goes, learning to watch our own thoughts, learning to let go, to make peace with our perceived flaws or shortcomings, and so much more. In the same way, a daily gratitude practice isn’t about how fast you can list things off, or being able to fill up a whole page. It’s about the energy, the emotion behind the things your listing.

It’s almost funny when I think about it. I don’t know why I would expect writing a list of things I’m grateful for to be any different than writing a grocery list considering the way I normally feel while doing so. I usually don’t feel anything at all. If anything, I feel annoyed. “Ugh, I don’t have time for this. I can’t think of anything to write. Why am I such an ungrateful person? Why is this so hard for me?” That’s usually the kinds of thoughts occupying my mind as I struggle to think of enough bullet points to fill the page in my gratitude journal. Saying the words, “I am grateful,” isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel it too.

Now for some people this may just be something that blossoms naturally from doing the practice. That’s how it is for all of us at the beginning I think. But for an emotionally blunted person like myself, after the initial novelty of the practices begins to wear off, it takes a bit more effort to uncover that emotional energy. Words and actions may help to illicit certain feelings, but we can’t allow ourselves to become to distracted by the words and actions alone. It’s the energy, the emotion, the sensation, that really matters. Having the emotion without the words, will still work wonders. Having the words without the feeling behind it, does nothing.

So the next time you embark on any mindfulness practice, try to focus on the energy behind your intention. What is your goal in doing this practice? What types of feelings and emotions are you trying to invite into your life? Are you trying to train your brain to quickly list things? Or are you trying to train your brain to actually experience a certain kind of energetic state? If you want to be able to more easily experience gratitude, you’ve got to actually practice feeling grateful, not just telling yourself you are.

This may be a lot more difficult of a practice, if you’re like me. I really struggle to get in touch with my emotions. If someone told me to imagine what love feels like, I’d feel confusion and maybe anxiety rather than love. If that sounds like you, try this short exercise:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out.
  3. Now, imagine someone or something that you love. At first, you might still struggle to feel anything. If that’s the case, keep concentrating on more and more details. You might try to remember and recreate in your mind a memory with this person/animal/object.
  4. Once you’ve got a clear image in your head, move back into your body. What types of sensations are you experiencing? What do you feel and where are you feeling it? Maybe you feel an opening in your heart space or a lightness in your stomach.
  5. Whatever you’re feeling, focus on those bodily sensations. That is love. Not the words, not the thoughts, but this, right here, this feeling.
  6. Stay with that feeling for awhile, breathe into it, explore it, try to savor the subtleties of it so that you may more easily call yourself back to this energetic state in the future. Try to memorize every aspect.
  7. When you’re ready, you may release the practice and open your eyes. You can come back to this practice as many times as you need to. Eventually it will become easier and easier to cultivate this feeling whenever you want to.

If you’ve been practicing for a long time like I have and are just now coming to this realization, no worries. Obviously it took me this long to realize too. No need to be harsh on yourself about it or feel like you’ve just been wasting time up until now. The foundation you laid by “going through the motions” has led you to a place where you’re now able to delve more deeply into your practice, to add a new layer to your daily routine. We all move through our spiritual practice at our own pace, with our own unique obstacles along the way. Honor where you are now and keep moving forward.

If you have a daily gratitude practice, maybe today try to list only 1-3 things. Rather than quantity, focus on the quality of emotion behind each listed item. Let me know how it goes! I’d also love to know: What does love feel like in your body? What does gratitude feel like to you?

Gratitude Journal for a positive mindset - The Happi Empire

Forgiveness

Yesterday I mentioned that I was kinda peeved about my sister’s boyfriend drinking all my vodka. Given the hangover I have today from drinking at Christmas dinner, I’m actually glad he did. Otherwise I would have probably gotten even more drunk last night. Either way, I had decided not to hold it against him. He is a pretty cool guy overall. I even ended up supplying him with cigarettes. All of our local shops were closed for the holiday, and he couldn’t buy his own.

Now normally, this would have only soured me to him even more. But it actually felt good to let all that petty nonsense go. It was nice to just enjoy helping someone else out. It feels much better than getting salty about every little thing. So I was able to forgive him for all of his minor transgressions and enjoy sharing my family holiday with him.

However, this morning as I groggily rolled myself out of bed, I was filled with shame and regret. For probably the hundredth time I got WAY too drunk and practically blacked out while spending a holiday with my family, who by the way, don’t really drink. I genuinely don’t even remember getting home or going to bed last night. I feel like shit this morning, though. Physically and mentally. I can’t believe I made the same humiliating mistake once again.

I’ve started thinking about how good it feels to forgive other people though. I really wish it was as easy to be able to forgive myself. I’m sure yesterday wasn’t even a big deal to anyone besides me. I think I’ve always just been afraid to forgive myself. Somewhere along the line that idea of operant conditioning, of punishment and reward, really stuck in my brain. I am always trying to train other people to behave in the ways I want them to. I am always trying to train myself in this way. If I forgive myself, how will I learn?

I can remember implementing this technique far before I ever learned about it in any academic setting. It seems like common sense. If you are punished for doing something you will avoid doing it. If you are rewarded in some way you will try to repeat the behavior in the future. Yet everyday life is not often so straightforward. Real life behaviors are not isolated in a scientific setting.

My relationship with myself cannot be that black and white either. I don’t have to keep punishing myself for my mistakes. I recognize my flaws, and forgiving myself for them is not the same as encouraging them. Besides I’m not really even following the laws of operant conditioning correctly. When was the last time I gave myself a reward for doing something well? Maybe never. The only thing I’ve been “training” myself to do is to be unhappy, to never believe in myself, to think I am not good enough.

Rather than make this cold, hungover Saturday even harder by beating myself up, I am going to be kind to myself today. I deserve kindness. I deserve forgiveness, especially from myself. I don’t have to forbid myself from the happiness and comfort I may find today because of what happened yesterday. That isn’t going to make me a better person. Love and forgiveness isn’t going to make me a worse person. Today I am going to be gentle with myself. I am going to rest and make myself comfortable. I am going to forgive myself.

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

Why So Anxious?

I find it quite humorous at this point how many times I have been asked why I’m so anxious or what exactly I’m anxious about. Especially because those are usually the immediate follow up questions when I explain that I have an anxiety disorder. Even other mental health professionals that I work with ask me these things. Maybe it is just a reflexive question asked to be polite or seem interested. But once you’ve been asked so many times it becomes frustrating and eventually funny. It is like asking someone with clinical depression, “why are you so sad?”

My latest response when asked what I’m anxious about has been: Nothing. That’s why it’s a disorder. That can at least get a laugh sometimes. And I don’t really blame people for not getting it. I struggle to understand it myself a lot of the time. I am constantly having to step back from my racing thoughts and tell myself, “You are OK.” It also helps sometimes to go through a mental list of all the things that are going well in my life.

One of the most bizarre aspects of my anxiety is that I often feel anxious about “being rushed.” Yet I’m the one rushing myself. I have to stop and remember that I am allowed to take as long as I want. I’m not on anyone’s schedule but my own. It is quite a strange and often frustrating feeling.

For some reason when my anxiety used to be mainly focused on social situations, it made more sense to me. At least then there was a fear I could pinpoint. This vague fog of anxiety that surrounds me now is just unsettling. I never really know when it is going to appear. Which creates its own mist of anxiety. I become anxious about getting anxious. It’s all just so ridiculous. I’ve got to laugh at myself sometimes.

Over the years I’ve come to learn that I am able to take a lot of the power away from my anxiety if I can just remind myself not to take life so seriously. Because life doesn’t have to be so serious. In the end I think we are all here to take pleasure in the little moments we share together. When you look at anything in the grand scheme of things it seems small and insignificant. Then it feels silly to be so upset.

Just as with most things in life, a lot of our suffering is self-induced. I’ve noticed that when I allow myself to feel anxious, allow those feelings to exist, just accept them instead of resisting them and desperately trying to push them away, they dissipate on their own. I am prolonging my own pain by refusing to make space for all of my experiences and emotions. Even the difficult ones.

So maybe in the end, “why are you so anxious” isn’t that bad of a question after all. Maybe I should start asking myself that more often. Rather than denying myself the right to feel those anxious feelings, I can react in a more gentle, inquisitive manner. Instead of getting angry and frustrated with myself, cursing my defective brain, I can surrender to those feelings. Cradle them softly, be there for myself like I would a good friend, and just listen.

Let Yourself Blossom

tumblr_nbe9f9BbEL1s2qfr9o1_1280

It is so easy for us to get caught up in endlessly critiquing and criticizing who we are. Many grow to hate or resent themselves from constant comparison and obsession over past failures. We tell ourselves that we are not good enough and hide ourselves away because of it. But each of us has limitless potential. It seems that really the only key to unlocking that potential is realizing that you have it. We are each the god of a universe all our own, ourselves.

The human brain is one of the most complex systems in existence. Don’t allow yours to focus so much energy on negative or wasteful thoughts. The neural pathways in our brains that are most often used become stronger over time, as the disused ones weaken. If you want to be more compassionate, for instance, all you need to do is focus on doing so. Make an active decision to strengthen those pathways in your brain and as time goes on it will become easier and easier for you to think and behave compassionately. However, the same rule applies for the time you spend exercising less beneficial pathways. Never forget that you are in control of who you are. Stop waiting for fate. Stop saying “if only I was smarter,” “if only I was more artistic.” You can be anything that you wish to be. Never be afraid to try to improve. That is really all that we can do in this life. Thanks to the world wide web, a large portion of the world now has vast amounts of information and opportunity, literally at the tips of their fingers. Use this to your advantage. Be your own teacher. A greater understanding of yourself and the world around you can only lead to a happier and more satisfying existence.

There is no reason for so many young people today to have such low self-esteem and for so many children and adolescents to genuinely not like themselves. It is important that we all understand that we our in control of the people we become to a significant degree. Never give up hope on becoming the best version of yourself. But we must also remember to be kind and gentle with ourselves along the way.

I seem to have forgotten this lesson in the past few months. I felt hopeless and trapped in my own life. But now I remember that I am all that I will ever have and although my mind and heart may be tired, my body needs me. It needs me to live and to live as fully as I am able during my time here. Even if I do not achieve my dreams I don’t ever want to be an old woman looking back on her life wondering how it could have been different if she had only tired and given herself the chance she wanted to receive from others.

I’m sorry I have been gone so long, my dears. ❤