I'm lost in a maze

I'm confused; I don't know where I stand or where to turn

By Cary Tennis

Published September 4, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I was born in a beautiful and small South Asian country and moved to the Antipodes in my mid-teens. I was extremely reluctant to leave but had to because of my parents' decision.  It was very difficult for me to make the transition as I am quite shy and somewhat reserved and was perhaps more so when I was younger. I eventually felt myself to be a part of the place where I had gone to live, but had my life torn asunder again as we had to move to a different country. I went to college in this new country but I felt largely anonymous and isolated. I never really became a part of a circle of friends and familiars there and spent my time pining for the life I had and the love I'd lost. Again, by nature, I am not the type to go out of my way to socialize and can sometimes be positively antisocial. I had been in love in the country of my birth when I left and again in the first country I moved to. My parents are very lovable people, but they were not (emotionally as well as materially) in a position to help me much, to adjust and to move on in life, to embrace the new situation I found myself in. They had their own battles to fight as they too were starting life all over again. Their relationship changed quite a bit after these moves as my mother's education was the reason we moved in the first place. She ended up in a desirable and respectable place after attaining advanced degrees. My dad had to satisfy himself with the role of a helper. The roles they had traditionally played as husband and wife (with 11 years between them) in an arranged marriage was completely reversed. Their relationship became tense, to say the least, and it became unbearable for me to watch their behavior toward one another, especially my mother's contempt toward my father. I would try playing mediator between them, and I would say that is a general weakness I have, getting too involved and feeling responsible for everything around me. I began to feel like I was living in a pressure cooker, I began to hate my mother, although I had hated adults since my teenage years for trying to impose their ideas and demands on me and never taking a moment to understand my point of view. But this hatred and anger I felt toward my mother took on such grand proportions that I felt very strongly that I had to move out of home. In the meantime I had met someone on a visit to the States and I obsessively tried to turn my encounter into a long-distance relationship. It gave me a respite from what was going on at home, although it was itself quite toxic. So I moved to the States on the pretext of enrolling into a graduate program. I broke up with my boyfriend soon after and found, after finishing my coursework, that I was stuck and was unable to do the work required to finish my degree. I felt paralyzed. I felt I had lost interest. I found there was nothing inside me that could join the knowledge that I found in the books I read. Instead, I began reading Krishnamurti, and after a year of not working  I decided to leave the program. I went back after a year's break to give it another shot, but found myself in the same position again. I was afraid, but didn't really know why. I felt alone, caged in a narrow world, with very little emotional connection to others. I felt like I had no feelings, that nothing was flowing inside me, that I was as dry as dead wood. Now I am back in the country of my birth. I feel like my years in grad school were a waste. I don't know what kind of a career I should pursue, I am inconsistent in my desires, I feel like I am at the center of a maze and although somewhere I feel like there is a way out, every move I made seems to push me deeper into it. I am afraid of everything now, I feel reluctant to connect to people because I am afraid of not being able to meet their expectations. I have no stand and that makes me feel weak and vulnerable and the advice I am being inundated with from everyone makes me feel more unsure about myself. I should probably mention that I was sexually abused from childhood to my teenage years by two relatives, and I feel that my issues with trusting people almost to the point of paranoia comes from that. It is not so much advice I am seeking as a heartfelt response from a human being that I feel cares genuinely about his fellows. I am very much looking forward to your response, Cary. Thank you so much.

Lonely and Lost

Dear Lonely and Lost,

Yes, I do care about my fellows, don't I? And sometimes I just write letters to people who are in pain, not really offering solutions but just responding. Not that I think I could alleviate the pain but it does help to feel a connection with another person. So I hear you. I can say that much. Your words affect me. I feel your lostness. In fact, I can feel it physically, as a heaviness in my chest. Perhaps by bearing this weight for a time I can lighten your load. Let me bear your weight. Let me bear the heaviness for a bit.

I know this feeling of being lost. You are not really lost in your self. But you are lost in the world and so it feels like you are lost in yourself. In your self you are OK right now. Your thoughts may feel jumbled and you may feel fear about things outside of you but you yourself are safe now. Your mind may be racing but wherever you are right now, in this moment, I'll bey you are physically safe. Me, too. My thoughts are jumbled but I am physically safe. I have basically what I need. I am not in jail. I am free to move about the earth. There are living things and people around me. I am not alone, not really, though I choose not to talk to the people who are around me right now because I am writing to you. I have my concerns, as I'm sure you do, about the future, about my difficulty doing things that I think should be easy but that I resist and find difficult. There are many things I want that I don't have, and there is pain in my past, and I have made some decisions that did not turn out as expected, and I occasionally feel nostalgia for where I grew up, and in my interactions with people I sometimes feel confused and anxious, but at this moment I am safe and relatively comfortable. This is not a complete solution.  But when your thoughts are swirling about and you are full of fear about the future, it can be helpful to just take stock of where you are right now.

It is also helpful to acknowledge to yourself that things have happened to you that affect the way you feel today, and so, when you feel unexpectedly sad or fearful, that doesn't mean you are defective. It means you are still feeling the effect of things that were done to you. It helps to locate these events, and the perpetrators, and make the connection between how you feel now and what was done to you. For instance, beginning where you say, "I am inconsistent in my desires ..." it sounds to me like you are describing what it feels like to be a person who has been violated. I would make a distinction in degree -- that many of us will feel some of these things some of the time but for you it is more like these things are at your core; they are the floor, the foundation, and that can make it difficult to differentiate between these feelings and your "normal, healthy" feelings. Especially when you say, "I have no stand," it brings to mind the way abuse deprives one of a fundamental sense of standing, of being able to plant one's feet and protect oneself against aggression.

But that can change. When one recognizes that one needs to alter or strengthen one's presence in the body, one can change. By learning martial arts, for instance, one can learn to feel safe and strong in the body, like a warrior, someone who can protect herself against aggression, and that can be emotionally healing. Rather than live with the feeling that there is nothing one can do about aggression from older, stronger people, one can change in one's body. This can improve one's overall attitude toward life. This might be what some would call the warrior spirit, or warrior archetype.

I also hear you when you say, "I feel like I am at the cener of a maze." You are in fact at the center of a maze. It is your challenge to find your way out, but it helps to have a map. I can offer you a map of sorts. This is not a detailed map. But it is a map of sorts. It says, when you have tried one way and find you are blocked, pause before retreating. Recount to yourself how you came to this dead end. Mark it so you will recognize it next time. Retreat slowly, watching for each turn. When you have returned to your place of beginning, take a new route. You may be rescued, or suddenly break into sunlight. Sometimes amazing things happen. But most of the time, the way out of the maze is through the maze. You must keep moving and you cannot know exactly where you are. That is your condition. For most of us, that is our condition. But you can know what to do when you come to the next turn. You pause and take stock of where you are and prepare for the next leg of your journey.

The maze is large. But the maze is not infinite. It eventually opens out into the world. It may empty into the sea. It may open out on a mountaintop. It may open out into a subway station in the middle of a large city.

The maze is large and also there are obstacles. But they are not infinite in number. They are relatively few and though they can be fearsome they can be overcome. The maze does have an end. That is true by definition. If you got in, you can get out.

You do not have to be lost. But the direction you have to go is unusual; it is not the same direction others around you will be taking; it is not the traditional route of finding a mate and a job and fulfilling the social roles of family and work. Of course you need to support yourself financially while you are working your way out. But finding a job alone will not get you out of the maze. The maze is internal, and you will have to traverse it no matter how you progress externally.

What does the maze consist of? It consists of pathways that lead to understanding and pathways that lead to fear and trauma. Going down some routes, you will remember things and feel things but they will be indistinct and will not connect to anything. That will be a dead end. You will have to mark that location and then turn back. But other times, you will go down a path and suddenly see a connecting pathway; you will reexperience things consciously enough to make connections between how you feel now and how you were made to feel earlier, and you will experience that as a new direction. Such an event will constitute a continuing pathway, a direction out of the maze. This is basically what happens when people recover from abuse, and when people go through therapy. Certain pathways lead out of the maze, toward the experience of joy and peace.

It is a long process. But you are on the right path.

Cary Tennis

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