My life fell apart! Now I'm a basket case!

Point me to a prophet -- and it had better be a good one.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 6, 2009 11:31AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

2008 was the most difficult year of my life. Among the things that happened were the following (not an exhaustive list):

  1. My parents decided to divorce after 34 years of marriage.
  2. I broke off my own engagement to a man I had been with for seven years and thought I wanted to marry from the moment we met.
  3. My sister -- once my closest confidant -- converted to an extreme and fundamentalist form of Christianity (an action inspired by her precipitous marriage to a South American man who was in the country illegally) and now regularly insinuates that I am living a sinful life.
  4. Because of various chronic injuries from my former life as a ballet dancer, I was forced to stop dancing -- even for fun.
  5. My cat, my buddy of 18 years, died.

Although I never idealized my parents' relationship, I did admire it, and believe in it, for my whole youth. The divorce, which is ongoing, has been extremely venomous and melodramatic. It has revealed painful and ugly truths about both of my parents, about my childhood, and about me. All of the assumptions on which I have based my life -- not my life in some grand sense, but just my daily getting out of bed and going forth life -- are shattered.

... Even that doesn't quite get at it. The disillusionment is more primitive. It's as if all my life I was a giraffe, happily munching on Saharan mimosa, and then one morning I woke up and realized I was a penguin. Forget the identity crisis -- just get me out of the freaking desert.

Anyway, I am not writing to you about any of the particular issues that have arisen for me as a result of my collision with the karmic dump truck. After several months of convulsive grief I am starting to pick my way through the rubble. But I am really, really raw. Having always thought of myself as an emotionally intelligent person, I am shocked and disoriented by my sudden inability to predict my own reactions to daily stimuli. The other day I started crying when someone casually wished me good luck getting home in the snow. And while half of me was crying, the other half was all calm and perplexed, like, "Why are you crying?" It's not just crying at little things, it's also not crying at big things, and realizing I am walking along in a bitter fury and not being able to think of a single thing that happened to instigate it.

My basic cognitive processing time has also plummeted. If someone says something to me, like "I had cucumber sandwiches for lunch," I squint in at the words like they are inexplicable ancient artifacts, and by the time I have remembered what a cucumber is they are already on a whole other food group.

But the worst is what happens when I find myself on the verge of any tiny moment of intimacy with someone, like a friend or a family member. When someone gets too close to me (and I seem to have a very low threshold for what constitutes "too close") I feel violent anxiety and the desperate need to get away. I also feel revulsion toward the other person. This hurts like hell, because at the same time as I am panicking, I am thinking, "I know I love the person and I know I probably actually need them." I have never had anything like this kind of reaction to intimacy before in my life, but I guess it makes sense that when your heart is broken it's also not usable.

In order to deal with all of these symptoms, I have been trying to incorporate some extra spiritual practice into my life. The problem is that I can't find anything that feels right. I was not raised in any religious tradition, and I have searched off and on for a text or a philosophy or a set of teachings or a belief community that might suit me. I even have a master's degree in divinity.

What I am saying is that, although I am basically your run-of-the-mill, overly educated secular humanist, it is not as though I have not been open and curious about faith. I have always practiced prayer, but now that's not enough. I need something more. I tried attending various churches and temples, I tried therapy, I tried meditation, I tried memorizing poems I love and saying them to myself mantra-like, and various other things. I still do some of them occasionally, but none of them really help to anchor me, and I can't bring myself to just choose one and do it rigorously in the hopes that habit will itself be the anchor. Anyway, I think I have enough habit and rigor in my life.

If anyone came to me with this dilemma and asked for advice I would tell them to volunteer in their community. In the past, that has been the main spiritual balm for me. But my current profession is a very hands-on type of public service, and so I more or less do volunteer work for a living. I don't have time to add another commitment. I feel like I need me a fierce Old Testament God, one of those "the Lord is with me as a dread warrior" types. Or else I need a Jesus or a Buddha or a prophet of some sort to surrender all of this to. But Jesus and Buddha don't do it for me, Cary. Can you point me to a prophet?

Not a Dancer Anymore

Dear Former Dancer,

You are not going to die from this. But you are on the fritz.

When a machine goes on the fritz, someone puts a sign on it.

Someone should put a sign on you.

It would say, "I am on the fritz. Please do not bang on me or unplug me or tip me back and forth."

You will be OK. But you are not OK right now. You have never encountered such a powerful mess before. Everything has not gone haywire like this before.

After a certain age we have it mostly wired. We have a basic understanding; we know mostly what people's motives are and how they can be expected to act. We have a repertoire of getting-over-it behaviors and thinking-it-through behaviors and self-care behaviors and refresh-the-soul-and-body behaviors.

But then comes the tsunami. You don't expect it or know how to deal with it.

I get the feeling that you are not used to being on the fritz. I get the feeling you are very good at maintaining. So I suggest you first let go of the expectation that one particular solution is going to work right away. Try instead accepting the possibility that nothing is going to work right away.

Nothing is going to fix it. You're going to be on the fritz for a while.

How to be out of order and still perform our daily activities?

I think that if you acquired an ally, in the form of a guru or a sponsor or a therapist, and just committed to meeting regularly through this period, you could get through this, one painful step at a time. Assume that this will be a long, grueling, taxing, embarrassing, at times humiliating period of less-than-optimal performance and baffling discomfort. Pick someone to go through it with. Pay them if necessary. Make a commitment of a year. Keep a record of how the situation is changing. It may continue to get worse for a while. Eventually it will start to get better. Just keep track of how your condition changes. Pay attention. Observe with interest.

I think the thing about the Old Testament God is an interesting metaphor that we all recognize but I think it is a metaphor for something very real. I think it is a metaphor for something you have inside you. I think it is a spirit you are talking about, the warrior spirit, the survival spirit, which is not graceful but is strong.

I think you can make contact with that spirit that you mention -- that all-powerful, fierce, Old Testament spirit. You can dance it. It is within you. It is the survival instinct. It is your muse and your life force. If you contact this all-powerful force within you, this force that will not be cowed, this force that does not care how it survives but will get through anything, you can awaken it and it will help you power your way through this awful, grief-laden, soul-devouring mess. Address it and see what it says. Dance to it. If because of your injuries you cannot physically dance to it, then dance to it in your head. Use your kinesthetic memory and move to it so it recognizes you; in this way, dance your pain. Write to it. Write to it and let it write back to you. Visualize it. Ask it for help. Make a pact with it. Note the form it takes. It may be a bear. It may even take the form of a bearded prophet. I predict that it will address you and guide you.

Just don't ask it for a quick answer or it may shrug its shoulders and turn away. It's going to need time to work its magic.

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Cary Tennis

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