Gabe, my Native American massage therapist, worked on my hip for 8 months. This required exposing my middle-aged right butt cheek for lengthy periods of time to a young guy who could easily land a role in Hollywood. He is that handsome.
I hadn’t quite been sure what to do when the well-muscled man with the sculpted face, cool leather boots and long ponytail — all nicely counterpointed by horn rims — walked down the hall, looked at his clipboard and called my name. It seemed too late to get out of this situation. Had he not turned out to be smart, sensitive, interesting and impartially attuned to the flesh and bone underneath his hands; and had we not quickly connected on the plane of health and well-being, spirituality and art; and had I not immediately valued our conversations so much, I might not have been able to carry on with it. I might have sought out someone in a lesser physical position to be offended by my flaws.
During one session, I finally just came out with it and asked Gabe what it’s like to work with so many types of bodies, young and old, fat and thin. It is such a weird transaction I said, us handing our naked selves over under the inadequate protection of a thin sheet, you having to put your hands on whatever it is we bring to the table.
He laughed and said he just sees bodies as structures — vessels we embody to convey our experience. He went on to tell me about the time he and his mom, also a massage therapist and healer, saw a woman walk past their table in the restaurant. They both looked at each other and simultaneously said L4 and L5, as in she’s got something going on with her L4 and 5 vertebrae.
I like matter of factly seeing bodies as the earthly vessels we inhabit and the structures that hold us up, but still, they are highly provocative earthly vessels and so on a different occasion, I asked about Gabe’s workout routine, curious about those muscles and whether he prized them. I couldn’t see him in a gym.
He said he didn’t have a lot of time to work out being the father of two small kids under 5, but as often as he could, he did some tai chi in the yard. It sounded very casual and inconsistent. And it didn’t add up.
“You get those muscles from occasional tai chi?” I said, not about to let this go. “How does that work?”
He gave me a quizzical look. “No, not from tai chi,” he said, looking at me like you know this. “From making baskets.”
Of course I knew he was a basket maker. I knew he’d spent several years as an apprentice to his grandfather, one of the few remaining Passamaquoddy basket makers in the ancient tradition. It was an intense training. Gabe spent those years living with his grandfather in isolation to fully embody the craft behind these functional pieces of beautiful art.
“I chop down black ash trees, bring them home by canoe, strip the trees and shave them into strips,” he reminded me. “It pretty much takes care of exercise,” he laughed.
“That would do it,” I agreed, as the full-body endeavor of basket making finally sunk in. I knew he went out and took down trees but, inscrutably, hadn’t made the obvious and direct connection between muscles and basket making. Basket making just didn’t immediately sound very physical.
And there is also the berry picking and the rock pounding to make the dyes for these vessels, Gabe’s ranging from traditional backpack-style fishing baskets to intricately woven purses trimmed in leather and finished with metal fasteners. The whole thing was quite a slow-going process, and the orders were difficult to keep up with. He said at the moment he was spending every spare minute preparing for a Native American art festival the Smithsonian’s Abbe Museum was putting on in Bar Harbor.
Oh my gosh, when is that, I asked! I was going to get to have a look at those baskets in person and was so excited. I’d seen them online and was blown away.
When the weekend rolled around, Gary and I found Gabe under his canopy in back of a table displaying baskets more stunning than I could get my mind around. I’d never seen anything like them. There was one I couldn’t take my eye off — one of those purses. As we talked, my eye would wander back to check in with that glorious vessel.
Hmmm. On our way to Bar Harbor, I figured I’d be picking up a basket. Maybe dropping even as much as a hundred bucks. But when I saw this purse, I knew it would be more than a hundred. I did some quick math in my mind, weighing the beauty of this purse, my budget, how much I valued Gabe’s and my connection, and how after my hip was better I would look back on this time as one of the lucky intersections in my life. That was it. In the scheme of things, 300 or so dollars was nothing.
With that calculation, I busted into the conversation. “I love this one. I’m getting it,” I said, my hand resting on the lid.
They just looked at me. Gary finally spoke up.
“You might want to find out how much it costs.”
Oh. I looked at Gabe. He had a sympathetic look on his face.
“That one goes for $1,600.”
My mortification was instant.
“Well, maybe not,” I laughed. We all laughed. Ha ha. Shit.
What was I thinking? To make a purse, he went out and chopped down a tree, shaved it into strips, picked berries, pounded stones, tooled leather. Of course this purse would be more than a couple hundred dollars.
And, of course, for weeks after, the mocking voice in my head would mimic me. “I love it. I’m getting it.” The mockery would randomly drop in, instantly followed by a jaw-clenching, full-body clamping to shut that painful business right down. That is the instinctive response. But by the second beat, the clamping always brought me right back to Gabe and a story he’d once told me. We’d been talking about our processes for dealing with bad shit — both the everyday kind and the crisis-level, occasional kind — which reminded Gabe of a time he and his wife were at his mother-in-law’s. She was fretting about her overly sensitive son who wasn’t coping well with a string of problems that had cropped up.
“He just hasn’t learned how to stuff it down,” she said, exasperated.
My mouth dropped open. “Oh, no,” I said. Gabe and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. He nodded his head. This was so bad. Stuff it down. There it was, laid naked on the table, Gabe’s mother-in-law just saying it flat out, in full belief that our instincts are right.
But it never works. It is never ultimately the way. Potentially adaptive in the short term if there isn’t much power to do anything else, in the long run, that stuffed shit — often stretching all the way back to childhood — runs the show from underground, coming out in all kinds of disruptive ways. Except now, at this remove, we often can’t even trace this disturbed behavior back to its source, whether it’s 5 minutes ago or 50 years.
The disruption comes out in the usual dysfunctional ways. Eating too much. Drinking too much. Spending too much. Hiding. Lashing out. Missing work. Binging on Netflix. Replacing real life with a virtual one. Breaking down. Coming out of our skin with anxiety. Panic attacks. Getting depressed. Getting sick. Losing hair or sleep. Criticizing other people but feeling worthless ourselves. Inexplicable anger. Insecurity. Twitchiness. Shame. Or my personal favorite: the wild impulse to scrape my keys alongside cars while walking across the grocery store parking lot. (Not that I’ve ever done it.) So many variants of maladaptive misery, all in violent denial of what we were feeling to begin with.
Emotion may go deep but they are always expressed. They will out in some way or another. This I have found this out. Though all kinds of maladaptive behaviors of the standard kind still manage to get away from me — behaviors I frantically chase down and try to wrestle to the ground — my pain primarily has gone wild inside. I’m one of those who, over the years, has literally embodied the stress and fear and hurt and shame and anguish and dread and heartbreak and bewilderment and confusion we are all subject to, my pain manifesting in numb arms and legs, vertigo, Renaud’s Syndrome, psoriasis, IBS, candidiasis, complicated migraines — a particular collection of afflictions that in sum are as good as a flag announcing “Head case coming in” to primary care docs and specialists, as if the anxiety, depression, breakdowns and possible bipolar haven’t already made that exceptionally clear.
I always wonder how far will it go. In the past 7 years, the presence of pain potentially embodied has gotten downright scary. Are the Parkinson’s or MS-like symptoms rising up in me possibly an expression of some unknown inner turmoil? Fine motor skills some mornings too off-kilter to jab the silverware into the little slots in the dishwasher…a sadness of some kind? A weak and imbalanced left side with a foot that keeps wanting to drift outward…a deep unease? The way I sometimes crash into people or the things I walk by as if I’m missing a sense of myself in space…a form of psychic disorientation? The strange fatigue making the weight of my long winter coat too heavy to move my legs…a paralysis of will to live? And then other days I’m strong as an ox and wired as a rabbit.
Maybe these things will never out as Parkinson’s or MS. Nevertheless, what it feels like in my body is that all this emotion is wearing out my nervous system. In the end, what does it matter what you call it if I can’t move? And so I’m motivated. I have to figure this out because my body can’t take it.
And yet it’s not just my body that motivates me. It’s my mind. And my soul. There is nothing like coming apart to make you long to be whole. And so I have been compelled — called, in fact — to find a way to work with everything that comes at us in life, which is exactly what I have been trying to do since 2008, the year of my big breakdown. While it’s utterly horrifying to come apart, on some level it’s also utterly fascinating, so that was the year I became fascinated with the mind and how we work and when we don’t. And as I began to see how our minds work, I developed an absolute conviction that there had to be a way to see that would immediately make clear what we’re supposed to do with all these feelings. I had absolute conviction a roadmap of sorts could be designed to show us where to go.
I spent the next 11 years constructing that map. I read books and articles, listened to podcasts, took classes and workshops, went on retreats, joined groups, got thoroughly therapy-ed, and studied my behavior and everyone else’s. Four years in, to the horror of most everyone in my life, I put everything on the line and changed my career and the entire trajectory of my life by quitting my job, taking time off, and training to become a health and wellness coach, all at my financial peril. I took all of my learning from science and psychology and philosophy and spirituality — and anything else I came across offering potential insight — to the laboratory of my mind to test the structures I was developing. I pieced them together and tore them down. I re-imagined and rebuilt a million times over.
And then 11 years later I had it. I had my structure — a context I could visualize myself in which made imminently clear what I’m supposed to do with a passing or enduring distress or feeling of any kind. It had finally come together. It worked and for the first time it kept working. My structure was stable. Until that Saturday morning walking back down Philip Henderson’s driveway.
Something about that particular mortification-of-the-day did me in. My embarrassment was so profound it set my entire, longstanding cast of internal characters into a total spin. It was mayhem. All the way home I worked the script and worked the script and worked the script, but these characters were out of control. I couldn’t get them to shut up. Thalictrum! Wellness Wednesday! Half-Egyptian grandchildren!
All of them were in mortal uproar. It was like the rebellion scene in the production of Les Mis. I started to panic — panic that I couldn’t get them to settle, panic that my structure wasn’t sound, panic that I couldn’t bear how excruciating it felt to host this inner turmoil. I wanted to shut them down so bad. Then Gabriel’s mother-in-law would chime. “He just hasn’t learned how to stuff it down.”
While stuffing it was off limits, thoughts of taking a lorazepam when I got home to soften it all flitted through my head. And yet throughout this turmoil, another part of my brain was turning this situation over and over, analyzing the structure. Something isn’t working. What is it…what is it….
As I walked, I scrutinized what was happening on stage, looking for a clue. It was mayhem. They were wild and worked up, all shrieking at once. They had the run of the stage, tearing around every square inch. The entire cast was absolutely un-contained.
Un-contained. That word. It captured something, opened something up in my mind. Being stuffed down is one thing. But being safely contained is another. I thought of Temple Grandin’s cows, and how they could go peacefully to slaughter as long as they had a nice, secure-feeling chute to walk through on their way. I thought about the 30-pound blanket Gary and I just got and how it makes me feel so perfectly anchored to be held. Boundaries are sometimes beautiful. What is a haiku without rules? How would its singular voice be heard in a lawless riot of words?
Safely containing my crew. That’s what I would do. It made so much sense. While I walked, I was already getting a picture of how this containment would work. It was good, I could see it. It aligned with my structural metaphor: I had the stage. I had the cast. I just needed some better blocking. My cast needed to know where they were supposed to pass across the stage. They just needed some more clearly laid out stage direction to help them feel safe. I can do that.
That’s how this structure has come to be. In these past 11 years of work, the metaphor has come together one misery at a time, every new misery and challenge a requirement to show me where that particular metaphoric structure was breaking down. I just needed one really good last humiliation to bring it home. So thank you Philip Henderson. You tripped something crucial in me.
The stage is now set. Pull back the curtains. We are ready to roll.
Coming up: the actual structure, rolled out in stages, of course.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.