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How to be human: finding new ways to cope

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is a Senior User Researcher for Slack, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

I'm in my late twenties and feeling stuck with not being able to come to terms with my childhood trauma of growing up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother.

I worry about conflating the good moments with the manic, sometimes violent episodes. All I can remember is the yelling and the fighting. It's hard to remember the nurturing moments. I feel bad for imagining her now in the present as a toddler, both in emotional intelligence and in how careful I'd have to be with my words — careful not to set off a paranoid rant. I haven't seen her in years. We have a restraining order against her, which I also feel guilty about.

My younger sister is better at pushing it down and focusing on her stuff; she has started a career in a field she wants to be in. I feel resentful because, as the older sister, I took the brunt of the trauma and the mom-handling. I still feel guilty about just abandoning our mom. Every Mother's Day week, I'm an angry jerk no matter how much my therapist and I prep beforehand. Every day I dread the news that she's committed suicide or is in prison or has just died before I got the courage to go see her in person.

I've written about it online, and it's a double-edged sword. Family and friends know how angry I am about it, but all they can do is sympathize. I've gone to NAMI (National Association for Mental Illness) classes with my father and my sister, and we've gone to lots of therapy (both as a group and individually), but I still feel alone. Most of the attendees at NAMI meetings are parents of children who are mentally ill or spouses. Those who have commented on my YouTube video about it fill me with so much happiness from being truly seen from people who were in my shoes, but I fear that I'll never find deeper friendships or ever have a deep romantic relationship because I'm so focused on getting strong enough to see her one day. I feel my personal life suffering.

I don't know what to do. I don't have any specific conundrum to ask you about. I'm gonna stay in therapy and keep trying to be social and keeping trying to make more money and keep hugging my dog every day. I just wanted to write my story down (again) and have someone empathetic read it.

Thank you, Leah

M.

Hey M.,

I don’t get many letters like yours. I don’t simply mean letters written by children who grew up with paranoid schizophrenic mothers, but letters that I want to answer with all my heart even as I know there’s not much I can say to really help you. Yours is the kind of situation that is far beyond the purview of an advice columnist. You and I both know this. But even so, I want to respond with some thoughts I have that I hope will help in some way, even if just in the knowledge that I really am out here reading what you send me.

M., I want you to think about the person you are right now. Right this minute, regardless of whether it’s a good day or a bad one, whether you’re feeling okay about things or incredibly angry or a combination of both. Think about yourself as objectively as you can. It’s hard, isn’t it? Maybe you immediately started in on yourself in a negative way — second guessing your feelings, or chiding yourself for feeling something you wish you didn’t feel, or trying to change your feelings as soon as you recognize what they are. That kind of pushing, trying to force yourself into a state of being, is pretty common. I think a lot of us do it, even those of us who haven’t experienced anything like the trauma you grew up with and are trying to come to terms with every single day. It’s hard to simply be in any given moment. When you’re having fun, you think, "oh god, but there’s so much I should do." When you’re upset, you think, "oh god, but I should be more positive." How do you give yourself a break? I’m asking this of you, but also of all of us. How the hell does a human being give themselves a goddamn break, just for a minute?

One of the things that’s special about the yoga practice I do is that my teachers encourage us to do each practice based on where we are, right then, right at the moment we’re practicing. It’s tempting for all of us to think, "My body could do this pose yesterday, what the hell is wrong that I can’t do it today?" or "I’ve been at this for three and a half years! Why can’t I do this pose yet?!" or "I want to do that pose but I’m afraid I won’t be able to, and I don’t know why, and I shouldn’t feel afraid." Thinking that way makes the practice more of a struggle. It might even end up with you hurting yourself, pushing your body or your mind farther than it’s able to go. I’ve hurt myself before doing yoga, not listening to where my body is right now but instead listening to where I think it should be.

So in class, I started thinking about this practice more and more. A teacher would encourage us to use props, and I would resist that — I don’t need help! I don’t need support! I can do this! — until it became clear to me how wrong I was. Leaning on a block actually made me do the pose better, and it allowed me to breathe the entire time, which certainly made things easier. Plus, the more I allowed myself to use props and the more I recognized when I needed them and when I didn’t, the more quickly I advanced. It was that recognizing-when-I-needed-them part that made as much of a difference as being okay with using props in the first place. Because some days I am strong and pretty bendy, while other days I can’t find my balance and my hip flexors feel like they’re completely frozen and will never, ever unlock, no matter what I do.

Part of the benefit of focusing on where you are right now, in the moment of practice, is that it helps you keep you from comparing yourself to others. Because you know, it’s hard to not look around at everyone else, thinking about how good they are at handstands or how easily they do splits. But a yoga practice, like your life, is not a competition. It’s not zero sum. Whether or not someone else can do a pose, or shove their feelings down and compartmentalize, doesn’t mean a whole lot about what you can do. It doesn’t respect the fact that you are different from other people and have had different experiences that might affect how you do things and what you need to work through.

(Also, for the record, shoving your feelings down and compartmentalizing is a method that has plenty of its own issues in the long term. I send your sister a lot of love and support, too.)

This is my way of telling you that where you are right now, in this moment, is okay. I don’t mean okay as in it’s good you’re experiencing this stuff, or that it’s easy. You have every right to be angry and frustrated, to wish you were much farther along, to feel like life is passing you by and you will forever be broken by this trauma. Everything you wrote to me sounds so reasonable. But I think in your struggle, it’s hard for you to see yourself more broadly "right now," at any given moment. Because when I read your letter, I don’t see an angry jerk. I see someone pretty great. I see a mental yogi who shows up to practice every fucking day, whether he wants to or not. You don’t throw your hands up after a couple minutes and bail, you keep going. M., I sometimes have a hard time not glancing up at the clock in classes that only last an hour and a half! Not all day! Not my entire life!

I think, if you can occasionally see yourself as you are right now rather than where you think you should be or where you wish you were — you will start to recognize your strengths more easily. One of them you mention in your letter, and I don’t think you give it the credit it or you deserve. Specifically, I’m talking about the comments on your YouTube video. See, another thing about life, and also about yoga, is that it’s easy to make it all about yourself. Plenty of people do this! But there’s another way to do it. Learning about yourself can strengthen your ability to carefully and thoughtfully exist in and move through the world with the other people in it. Those people can be so important, community, kinship, connecting with and helping others. Sometimes a good way to feel better and less alone is to focus on someone else’s problems for a minute. Those comments make you feel seen, which is hugely important, but I think you also feel better because you make those commenters feel seen too. Maybe they feel as isolated as you do. What kind of community can you build? How can you connect with and support others in a way that you want to be supported? Relationships with people who see you and who you see in return can help you feel less alone. Filling the need to see and be seen can help you build trust. And maybe it might allow you to slowly establish relationships with other people who aren’t as able to "get" you but who want to be close just the same.

One other thing I want you to know is that nearly everyone feels like they’re not where they should be or where they want to be. We’re all on our little yoga mats thinking about how we’ll never do tree pose without falling over. We feel that way even if we haven’t experienced nearly the level of trauma that you have. Give yourself credit, M. Where you are right now might not be where you want to be or where you’ll be tomorrow. But you’re able and willing to use props and to lean on them as much as necessary. You’re working through all sorts of injuries and not giving up. You’re so much more advanced than you realize. Be with that self when you can. Honor it. Hug your dog but hug yourself, too.

Lx