By Creator:Giulio Bonasone – http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392735This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

It is just so tempting, and it’s also something many of us are conditioned to do from the time we’re little: set aside strong emotions or difficult thoughts until later.

I can’t deal with that right now.
I can’t think about that right now.
Let me just get through this.


Compartmentalization has its purpose, to be sure. When you’re physically occupied by something else – say, driving – you really need to focus on the task at hand. But all too often, when we seek to tuck something away “for later,” what we are really doing is hoping it will stay tucked away so that we don’t ever have to see it again. And unfortunately, the kinds of things we generally hope to never have to see again are usually the kinds of things that will end up demanding our attention in one way or another at some point.

I’ve had both extreme examples of this (repressing the memories of childhood sexual assault for decades) and moderate examples (putting aside my fears and grief at the serious illness my husband struggled with so that I could get through the day raising two toddlers), and both times it came back to bite me in the ass.  In the first case, I developed a severe anxiety disorder that made it hard for me to work and live the life I wanted to live for many years until I examined and explored the abuse, and in the second, I spent three years working with a therapist to overcome a depression that nearly drove me to suicide.

What I’ve learned is that while I may not have the luxury of expressing my emotions and really sitting with my grief every time it shows up, if I don’t acknowledge it to some degree in real-time, I will suffer the consequences.  Because here’s the thing: if I just keep tucking it away in some box labeled “Later,” what are the odds that I will ever voluntarily choose to go back and open that box of pain and look at it? Why wouldn’t I just keep it in the corner, always finding some other thing to keep me busy. Who in their right mind would want to set aside time and energy to reopen a container of sadness and grief?

So these days, when I’m confronted with a particularly difficult situation, I do my best to fold it into my life. I cry while I’m walking the dogs or doing dishes. I call a friend during lunch and ask for support. I give myself permission to honor the struggle, even if it means I sob a little every day, because hoarding the feelings I don’t want to feel in some back room might be the thing that ultimately brings down the whole house. I know. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to do that again. Big piles of junk attract rats and disease. Dealing with the trash one day at a time means that I don’t have to dread what might jump out at me from that heap someday.

It feels surreal.

I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.

The fact that my mom doesn’t know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I’m there, it is as though I’ve been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.

The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I’m old enough for that? That she is?  Even though it feels like I’ve been a mother forever – it almost feels like I’ve never NOT been a mother –  it couldn’t possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.

I haven’t imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is. I haven’t sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can’t picture myself here, because I haven’t turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they’re real?

I don’t ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don’t really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn’t begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works – that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe “imagination” is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations – especially when what I’m presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn’t have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.

The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn’t beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don’t truly want to be there, so perhaps it’s a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.

There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the good fortune to do and I’m thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.

Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I’m out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.

Are you a person who sees the glass as half full or half empty? I like this exercise in perspective, because it’s an easy way to remind ourselves that we always have a choice. But I’ve recently begun to evolve my thoughts on this common allegory.

It started when I saw a meme (I know, memes. Ugh. But sometimes…) that said: It doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full or half empty. Remember, the glass is refillable. 

I was struck by how easy it is to get trapped into the idea that there are only two ways to see that glass. So often, we convince ourselves that there are only opposing ideas – black or white, right or wrong. We are all familiar with the sayings that begin with “there are two kinds of people: those who….” I liked the notion that the glass was refillable. I adopted it. I wrote it down. I told my kids about it.

To be certain, there are times when we want to fill that glass up higher, and when it makes sense to do so. When one of my daughters does poorly on an exam or school project, I want to remind her that there is always time to do better, that she can move beyond this difficult moment and learn from it and grow. She can be sad that the glass seems half empty, acknowledge it, and then make an effort to create a different scenario next time.

But yesterday, while my mind was wandering, I bumped up against the limitations of that metaphor. I am someone who struggles with control-freakishness but I have learned to use mindfulness to  lower my anxiety levels and my need to fix things. I realized that thinking about the glass as refillable moves me away from acceptance and creates the often false assumption that whatever situation I find myself in has to be changed in order to be tenable. I don’t want to lose the power of being in the moment with the glass as it is because I really believe that, often, this is where the magic of growth and learning come from. When we quickly try to move beyond our disappointment or discomfort with the current situation we find ourselves in (ie. racing to fill up that glass), we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to practice acceptance and really honor our experience in the present moment. Beyond that, there are unfortunately some things that can’t be altered or ‘fixed,’ and then what do we do with the glass?

My mom has Alzheimer’s and, as these things go, she is in need of constant care taking. That glass isn’t refillable. There is no way to reverse or fix what is happening. But, that doesn’t mean that I have to choose between seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Truthfully, it is both at the same time. It is half full and half empty. Yes, she unable to be independent and take care of her daily needs. AND, she has an incredibly loving husband who cares for her with love and affection and works hard to make sure that she is safe and comfortable. For now, that is the metaphor I want to embrace – the simultaneous existence of lack and abundance and their very reliance on each other in order to exist.

To say that things have been tension-filled in my life lately would be a gross understatement. I won’t go in to details – partially because I don’t really want to see it all sitting together in one, organized list of things that I’m challenged with, and partially because I don’t want to give the struggles too much power. I’m maintaining a balance by remembering to start every day with a list of things for which I’m grateful and by playing with my new puppies a lot (side note: I don’t truly understand why snuggling something fluffy and soft is so soothing, but I do fully appreciate it). When I remember to, I carve out time to exercise and check in with friends and run a hot bath.

But last Wednesday I had one of those days. Despite all my (herculean) efforts to craft a workable plan for the day, things went awry. I had known for months that this particular day was going to be logistically challenging on many different levels and I did my best to cross all of my t’s and dot all of my i’s, but I still couldn’t plan for every contingency. And I couldn’t have known what other emotional things would be lurking in the background, so despite the fact that the day was supposed to be filled with activities that were generative and collaborative and working toward something I am passionate about, I was a bit anxious and split-minded.

And then, during the first morning break, I saw I had a voice mail from an unknown number and when I listened to it, my anxiety ratcheted up four levels.

By lunch time, my chest was tight, my shoulders were hunched up near my earlobes, my heart was racing, palms sweaty, jaw clenched – all the hallmarks of a near panic attack. I left to grab some takeout and came close to bursting in to tears as I placed my order. I sucked air, swallowed hard, and sat on the cushioned bench to wait for my food. And then I remembered that while my mind can only be in the past or the future, my body can only be in the present moment. What my body was trying to tell me by freaking out was that I was hating this present reality. I didn’t want to be in this emotional place I was in. I was feeling overwhelmed.

That might sound like a “Duh” moment as opposed to a revelation, but let me tell you what happened next.

I articulated that very thing in my mind. I said to myself:
I do not want to be feeling this way right now.
I am really uncomfortable with all of this anxiety and the things going on in my life right now that are leading me to feel unhappy and stressed.
And there’s nowhere else I can be in this moment.


In that moment, the stress response left my body and the words floated in my head. It was as if, by giving myself permission to feel what I was feeling and acknowledging that it really sucked, the response moved from my body into my head and suddenly it wasn’t so unbearable. I had figured out how to soothe myself by recognizing that what I was going through was really hard, and that’s all it took to shift things. I finished the afternoon in a much clearer, calmer state. While none of the stressors had disappeared, it seems that they had agreed to move to the side once they were recognized and let me do what I had to do.

Since that moment, I’ve had a few other experiences where I was able to simply notice in my head that I was in a less than ideal situation without feeling it in my gut or my chest or my jaw. It is a pretty cool thing to be able to do and I’m under no illusion that I’ll be able to do this every time I feel anxious or stressed, but for now, it is a reminder that mindfulness works.

I know, another “Duh” moment. But even as someone who has practiced mindfulness for years, I am realizing that there are breakthrough moments where I can continue to learn more about my own responses to different scenarios just by going through the motions of things I’ve done a million times before. Even if I “know” something works, it is altogether different to feel it working in my own experience and I’m truly grateful for the progressive leaps like this because they help me remember that there is always more to learn.

I had thought that, since I lost one parent already, there would be a sense of familiarity, of deja vu, of “been there, done that” when I lost the next one. Not in a dismissive way, just an “ok, I’ve got this, I know what to expect” kind of way.

Nope.

Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me early on, I was there to listen, I went down when he had surgery to remove part of his left lung and some lymph nodes, I let him bounce ideas off of me for future treatments. We weren’t certain of the timeline, but we knew he was sick and he was absolutely honest with me about how sick he was. It was excoriatingly, skin-flayingly, teeth-grindingly painful in the last week to watch him suffer. He knew me until the minute he died in my arms.

But Alzheimer’s or dementia or whatever the hell this is that Mom has is a completely different animal. She isn’t having some diseased cells cut away. She isn’t calling me to tell me about the latest drugs or therapies her doctor has offered. She might live for six months or six years. She has no idea who I am.

This one-sided relationship is teeth-grindingly painful in a completely different way. When Dad took a turn for the worse, it was obvious. Over a period of several days, he began having pain in his legs and hips and when they took x-rays it was clear that the cancer had spread to his bones. An MRI showed it was in his brain, too – the cancer cells lit up like the night sky I once saw in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. From that point forward, we knew there was no rallying, no bouncing back.

Mom’s slide has been gradual except when it seems to leap forward, and there have been many times over the last year when she was almost able to snap out of it and recognize me and have a conversation. The cruelest part of that is that it gave me hope. It made me wonder how we could capture those lucid moments and prolong them, whether there was some magical drug that she could take that would clear the way for a return to herself. Those moments, when they are gone, are all I can hope for and envision, but they are much fewer and farther between and I know I won’t get a signal that tells me I’ve seen the last one. I didn’t get a sign the last time I spoke to Mom on the phone that said it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t get a warning the last time she called me by name and knew I was her daughter so that I could savor it.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am a little bit narcissistic in my grief. A part that thinks maybe it shouldn’t matter so much whether she knows who I am, that tells me to just get on with caring for her the best way I know how without worrying whether she remembers I’m hers. Because somehow, I want to be special. I don’t want to be just one of another cast of characters who comes through to visit and smile at her. I want to be her daughter, not for any sort of recognition of my efforts, but because I mean something more. There is something about the reciprocity of a loving relationship that makes it feel whole. When I sat with Dad during his last days, holding his hand and telling him stories, even though he couldn’t speak, there was a familiarity. He squeezed my hand and his eyes danced during the funny parts, and his rough, calloused thumb rubbed back and forth against mine when I was being serious. We had a history that was fully intact until the moment he took his last breath and when I grieved for him, I grieved for all of it simultaneously, the loss of his body, his Self, and our relationship.

This time, I am grieving in stages. While there are parts of Mom’s Self that are still fully intact – her sarcasm and playfulness comes out sometimes with her husband – I have lost the history of our relationship as mother and daughter. She knows I am familiar, but she doesn’t know why. Our inside jokes now belong to me, even though she is physically still here. When we sit together, I can’t tell her stories about my kids or my husband because it confuses her – she doesn’t know these people, why am I talking about them? We can’t reminisce or look forward to sharing family holidays together or significant moments in the future because she isn’t coming to my girls’ high school graduations or weddings. There is a quality of suspended animation to it all, a sense that I am walking without a foundation beneath me.

I wish I had a succinct ending to this post. I usually am able to close the loop with some sort of insight, but maybe the fact that I can’t this time is an apt metaphor for how all of this feels right now – loose and unfinished.

Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here. 

There are days when I find it really hard to just be a person making my way through the world, this world of instant opinions and shouting and clickbait and judgment. But, not coincidentally, I’ve learned that those days are the ones where I’ve narrowed my “world” to digital interaction – be it social media or watching the news.  It is on those days when I forget that what makes me breathe more deeply, lets my shoulders crawl back down my spine from the place they often perch up near my earlobes, helps me relax into my own skin is actual human contact. Face to face encounters. Speaking with other human beings while I look them in the eye.

As a writer and an introvert, I spend a great deal of my time alone, but with the internet at my fingertips, it doesn’t always feel that way, and I sometimes forget that those experiences are not true human relations. I absolutely appreciate the web for purposes of research and connection – especially to those who live far away but about whom I care deeply. But they are no substitute for being in the physical presence of another person.

As I watch how quickly arguments get out of control and how easily it is to throw insults around, I am reminded of what it means to be human.

Last week when a person I love dearly was struggling with something, I felt sad for her. Half of my brain was scrambling to find a solution so that she wouldn’t have to endure this discomfort any longer than absolutely necessary, and the other half was listing the reasons this particular situation wasn’t really all that horrible (no doubt in some effort to both distance my self and to pretend that she wasn’t in as much pain as she was demonstrating).

Fortunately, I was able to let my brain fire off thoughts like buckshot without ever opening my mouth. Instead, I sat with her until my feelings of discomfort with her pain subsided. And when I had sufficiently recognized my visceral response for what it was, I said this:

I don’t get to decide what is hard for you and what isn’t. And, I think mostly, you don’t either. If I love you, my job is to trust you when you say something hurts. My experience or judgment of the situation has no place in the equation. It may be that you’re walking barefoot over a bed of hot coals and, while my first thought might be to tell you to put some shoes on or find another path, that’s not helpful. For whatever reason, you’ve found yourself here right now and if I want to show my love and support for you, I will acknowledge your pain and struggle and hold your hand while you feel it. I don’t get to co-opt your feelings or your story. It is not my place to show you my own personal bed of hot coals in order to distract you from yours or prove that mine is longer or hotter. I will simply believe you when you say you are hurting and offer my strength as you make your way through this difficult time.

So much of the content I see online and on TV on a daily basis consists of people fighting over whose trauma is the worst. We are competing for clicks and likes and bragging rights and forgetting to recognize that without connection to each other, none of us can survive our individual traumas. And while there are some incredibly positive things that happen online, too (I love seeing news of babies being born and people falling in love and hard problems being solved), there is no substitute for a hug or a high five from a warm-blooded person standing next to you sharing that news.  And so the next time I find myself neck-deep in frustration or sadness after checking my Facebook feed and the local news, hopefully I will remember to go find someone to look in the eye. Because being human is so much more satisfying than being “right” or being righteous.

I was listening to a story on NPR the other day about
wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and one person who was being interviewed was
part of what they call a “mop-up” crew. These are the people who come in after
the fire is out and look for dead wood that might fall, trench areas that need
it, and look for parts that still might be smoldering.  In large forests, it’s fairly common for roots to be on fire quietly beneath the forest floor and spontaneously
erupt into new fires if the area isn’t checked thoroughly. It is these folks’ job to be hyper vigilant, to scan the terrain for danger. 
I feel like that’s my nervous system in a nutshell. The
original traumas were the raging wildfires that I worked to control and
extinguish, but there are still hotspots in places I haven’t looked and when
someone says or does something that triggers my original abandonment issues, I
am suddenly right back in the middle of that forest with a raging flare-up. Hello, PTSD. 
Despite all the work I’ve done in therapy and on my own,
learning to uncover my deepest insecurities and face them, sitting patiently
with my demons and learning to embrace them, combating the mean voice in my
head that says I’m worthless, there are still pockets of mess that I am occasionally
surprised to find. Somehow, I thought I took care of this, but there was one more tree with
smoldering roots just waiting for some oxygen to feed it. And oxygen feels like such a benign thing, right? Who is afraid of oxygen? Often, it is
as much a surprise to me as it is to the person who said or did whatever they
did, and as much as I’d like to be able to apologize for my massive response,
the fact remains that now I have a new
fucking fire to put out
. I wish I had the time to explain or assure you that it’s all going to be fine, but I don’t. I have to put on my helmet and boots and fireproof jacket and wade in because ignoring these small flares isn’t an option. 

There’s no way I have the time or resources to
send out a mop up crew to look for every possible spot that might flare up some
day. The most I can do is clear out the old dead undergrowth, set boundaries to
help me feel safe, and look those damn flames in the eye when they rise up. The
good news is that because I did the hard work to put out the original fires, it doesn’t take as much time or effort to quiet these smaller ones, and as long as I am completely honest and upfront with people about feeling triggered, I have done my part. 
Honestly, most of the time I go through life just admiring this forest of mine – wandering through its lush greenery and feeling blessed at the variety of things that grow there. I am so grateful to have come through those fires of my youth and be where I am today, and frankly, happy that I am in such a good place that I do get surprised when a flare-up happens. [That doesn’t mean that I’m not annoyed as hell when it does. My inner monologue goes a little like this: Really? What the hell? Didn’t we deal with this already? Who is the one in there that keeps flipping the switch? I told you, we’re not in danger anymore. This is different.]
But these days, I can quickly move from frustration to compassion. Obviously, there’s someone in there who is still afraid, who remembers all too well what it meant to be engulfed in flames, and she is hollering for help. And that’s when I go into mop up mode. 

It has been a challenging few weeks around here and I feel like I’m learning a lot about grief and emotional overwhelm. The first thing I’ve noticed is that they both feel very different to me as an adult than they did when I was a kid, but maybe that’s because I have a much stronger bedrock beneath my feet these days. Maybe knowing that the bills will get paid and there is someone to share the load of parenting and managing everyday things leaves me more space to just feel what I’m feeling. Or maybe being an adult means that I don’t have anyone telling me that my strong emotions make them uncomfortable or that I’m over-reacting, or if they do say that, I don’t give a shit.

My brother-in-law died quite suddenly at the beginning of July and even though I hadn’t seen him in several months, I was acutely aware of the loss. Like me, he married into Bubba’s family – a close-knit, fairly traditional clan – as someone who came from a very different background and family dynamic. We bonded over our “black-sheep-ness” and became allies early on. He was someone who always, always had my back, someone who was as sensitive and stubborn as I am, someone who always went to bat for the underdog. He was fiercely protective of me and my kids and Bubba’s sister and we had great fun together – often in the kitchen during family gatherings. Even in my grief, I marvel at the fact that our paths ever crossed, given the difference in our ages and the fact that he was Croatian, and I am grateful for the two decades I got to share with him on the planet.

A week or so later, I lost my beloved CB, my “mostly companion,” my shadow, my furry boyfriend. For more than a decade, he followed me through the house, prompted me to go for walks to clear my head, slept next to my side of the bed, scared strangers at the door, and cracked me up with his ridiculous dog antics. He was loyal and loving and when it came time to let him go, he sat with his head in my lap and trusted me implicitly. I still hear phantom toenail clicking along the hardwood floors and expect to see his smiling face at the door when I come home from the grocery store. Taking walks in the neighborhood without him is strange and disconcerting and I can’t bring myself to move his bed from its spot in the family room quite yet. I feel his presence in every room of my house and my grief is tempered by the absolute joy he brought to my life each and every day, by the years he was there to wake me up with positive energy.

Two days ago, my grandfather had a stroke and reminded everyone when he got to the hospital that he doesn’t want any lifesaving measures. He has lived a good, long life, outlived one of his children (my dad), two wives, and has struggled for a while to really feel as though he was thriving. He is my last remaining grandparent and my childhood memories of him are strong and clear. He is a gentle, funny man who was always ready to teach us something, whether it was a magic trick or how to use a belt sander. In my father’s last months, he was such a comfort and source of love for my dad and watching the two of them interact was incredibly healing for me.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. He leaves behind two teenage children and my lovely friend who has been a rock for me more than once. I am overwhelmed. And I am thankful that I have learned a thing or two about grieving – at least my process for grieving.

I have learned that while it is often incredibly helpful to have friends and family around, ultimately I have to grieve in my own time in my own way. I have learned that grief – like life – is not a linear process, but one that requires me to circle back around to what feels like the same spot over and over again, but that each time I come back around, I have a slightly different perspective, an ever-so-advanced understanding of what I’m feeling and how it fits into the larger picture.

When CB died, I was home alone for a few days. Someone advised me to “go do something – don’t stay in the quiet house – distraction is good,” and while I know they meant well, I know from experience that distraction only leads to protracted grief. I came up with a sort of formula that consisted of deep, unapologetic dives into sadness followed by a period of mindless activity like laundry or cleaning out the fridge followed by social interaction. By allowing myself to really feel what I was feeling without descending into it so far that I couldn’t get out, I was able to feel the edges of my sadness and honor them without letting them define me. I follow this pattern over and over again without placing any sort of expectation on how long it will take me to “finish,” and the simple act of accepting my own feelings, whatever they might be, is an exercise in trusting myself.

I have also learned that it is important to surround myself with people who understand that grief is not a quick and dirty, check off the boxes kind of process. I need to surround myself with people who don’t find my strong emotions uncomfortable or unpleasant because that means I either have to stifle my true feelings or I end up emotionally taking care of them. I actively seek those who are willing to sit with me during those deep dives without trying to fix or abbreviate or deny my feelings. These are often people who have really grieved themselves, and they ‘get it.’

While there is a tendency to throw my hands up in the air and ask Why? as the tragedies pile on, I have learned that that is simply a distraction tactic that doesn’t serve me in the end. It doesn’t matter why. I am in the midst of sadness and overwhelm and the only way out is through. There was a time in my life when I would have wished for a magic wand or a time machine to transport me through these days quickly and efficiently, but these days I am content to take the feelings as they come and do my best to find the revelations that often accompany them. It can be painful and often overwhelming, but it is all part of this glorious, messy, beautiful, painful, honest life I choose to live.

When the girls were little, I signed them up for a program at the local park where they could learn to ride ponies. They sat in a barn and learned about safety, donned bike helmets and boots, and climbed atop plastic step-stools to hoist themselves up into the saddle. Over a period of weeks, they learned to groom, feed, saddle, and ride these gentle creatures while I stood and snapped pictures on the other side of the fence. After each lesson, they were excited to tell me about the ponies’ names and temperaments and the things they had learned about how to interact with them. When brushing the ponies, they knew to pat their way around the hind end so that the animals always knew where they were, and if they were walking near the ponies but in a blindspot, they were taught to do an “elephant circle” so as to be out of reach of a well-placed kick should the pony get spooked.

One thing you should know about me is that I prefer patting my way around to making elephant circles. If there is an elephant in the vicinity, I am the person who will point it out. I will tell you about it, indicate exactly where it is, tug on your sleeve to alert you, and describe it in great detail. Even if you indicate that you are not interested in anything having to do with this great beast in your midst, it is unlikely that I will stop trying to talk about it. In fact, if I am particularly affected by the sight of this elephant and you actively try to turn my attention elsewhere, I am likely to take you by the hand and lead you to it, make you stroke its leathery flesh, lean in for a sniff and ask you to look it in the eye.

It is not a characteristic of mine that all people appreciate.
I understand.

The other thing you should know about me is that this characteristic is necessary for my survival.

Most of my childhood was spent hearing that crying was an unnecessary activity. That sadness and fear were altogether useless. That the preferred emotions were happiness or anger and anything else was “wallowing” or “self-pity.” From time to time there were entire herds of elephants living in my house that went unacknowledged. The adults perfected elephant circles as they went through their days, picking their way carefully through and around and underneath so as not to discuss any subject that might be uncomfortable. Living like this makes a person feel a little crazy. As a kid, I tried in vain to point out the elephants and was either ignored or reprimanded. I began to believe that I was the only one who saw them, that there was something wrong with me. Or that my ability to see them – my “sensitivity” (spoken with a sneer of derision) – was a fatal character flaw. I alternated between jumping up and down and pointing and cowering in my room wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Eventually, I learned to avoid the rooms where they lived altogether and take cues from other people regarding which things were ok to speak of and which ones were not.

My tactics as an adult are quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, for me, ignoring the elephants is an exercise in self-destruction. To deny my feelings about any particular situation is to pretend that they don’t matter. So while I won’t ask you to see the elephant in the room the same way I do, or to experience the same emotions in response to it, don’t be surprised if I lead you to it and describe it in great detail so that you are forced to acknowledge that it exists. So that you might begin to understand why it is something that is important to me. So that at least we can agree on one thing – that I am not crazy. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that leaning into discomfort is the best way to define its edges and begin to loosen its hold on me.