Author: Deborah Weitzman

The Mother

I woke differently today, felt connected to sounds, the wind, the birds, my breath. Didn’t need people. I’d set the alarm to wake in time for my online zoom with dance and Alexander Technique colleagues from a group in the Netherlands. A group I used to be in when I lived there… had been looking forward to reconnecting with them in April, when we’d planned to move back. I was living in Holland when I met my husband, a Dutchmen, who relocated to Norway. I already knew Norway, having gone there on a few singing tours. I knew it was exquisitely beautiful, but hopelessly lonely. I never wanted to move there. When I met my husband, the plan was that he’d be working in Africa. ‘Africa!’ I thought, ‘I can do Africa.’ But the time in Africa was much shorter and we had to return to Oslo. I’ve spent the last 22 years being away from Oslo, only coming back in between to recharge, and reset my travel-insurance – that grants me 3-4 months max. Finally, April 1, 2020, my husband was ready to at long last relocate. All was beautifully arranged. I couldn’t wait.

And then Corona called me back to Norway, where I’ve been stuck ever since. Triggering every cell in my system, unwinding and unthreading all the good and healing work I’ve done my whole life. The deep loneliness of being here in Norway – so not my country on every count – has brought me back to my original triggering point.

I always knew about this, this early trigger. It came up in all therapy sessions at some point. But last spring, after my mother died, going through the photos my sister-in-law had gathered, it cemented deeper in. Pictures I’d never seen: of my mother holding me the first days and months of my life. So many pictures of us, sometimes she even dressed us the same, so special I had been to her. And then, at a year and a few months my first brother came, then another and another boy… the little child of me never knowing what I’d done wrong to lose my mother’s love, except that I wasn’t a boy.

“Not every mother is like that,” Ana, the therapist I started working with again in this triggering time, said last night. “I was the oldest, like you, but my mother was able to keep loving me and my siblings. Your mother sadly couldn’t.”

“She was a boy mother,” I said, speaking in simple English as Ana’s English isn’t great.

“That happens,” Ana said.

I’ve been working deep to come into the room of my sadness. In a circling group a few days ago, the theme was to speak about what we hesitate showing the group. When it was my turn, I said: “I hold back an ocean.”

The group was curious and asked me to expand on what was in that ocean.

“I don’t know any more,” I said. “I hold back so much that I no longer know. Only that I am holding back.”

The group segued on, and then a few clumsy moments happened and before I knew it, I was drowning in that seething ocean.

“What’s happening?” they asked me. I felt so embarrassed by my sudden tears and the closeness of zoom that I zipped my sweater over my face.

“Don’t do that,” they sweetly said. “We want to see you. We won’t reject you for your sadness. In fact,” one of the guys said, “your sadness nourishes me.”

“Huh?” I sighed, sneaking out of the sweater. “How is that possible?”

“Because it is. When you let an authentic feeling out, it touches me, encourages me. I get to know you, and you get to know me.”

“That’s not how it is in Norway.”

“We’re not in Norway,” the others said. “We want to see you. Can you believe us?”

I was embarrassed, but I asked them to say it again. And they did.

I told Ana about this in our skype session last night. “Yeah,” she cheered. “You have to know the world isn’t all like Norway. I want to see you. Remember, you chose your mother, you chose Norway to work this theme through: this deep theme of rejection. To challenge you to STOP REJECTING YOURSELF. Once you work this through, you will get to leave Norway. I promise. Corona won’t last forever. But you must use the opportunity of this time.”

I felt very happy, after our talk. I woke early this morning to join the dance group from Holland. We were dancing this morning to various bird sounds one of the participants had collected from Australia. We danced and then we wrote. This is what I wrote:

‘The bird sounds take me traveling to an exotic location. I am with her, the mother, the full loving mother. Earth, wind, sea and an all-inclusive love.

I thought of what Ana had said: “You don’t have to know why you chose in your last reincarnation for this life, why you chose a rejecting kind of mother. Only that it serves what you need to learn and bring into this life, for your healing and for other’s healing. If you can see this connection to healing than you can stop the endless cycle of rejection.”

The sun was warming on my skin, I could feel this, the opposite of rejection without needing any confirmation from another human. Lying on the damp grass, slowly relaxing my body down to the ground, the recorded bird song so different from here in Western Norway. These were tropical birds, and they sang to me of unconditional love or so I let myself imagine.

Nothing to run away from, nothing to run towards. The slow letting go of the rope across my shoulders, that old vigilant habit that once tried to keep me safe from the sword of rejection, that still wraps me up in sleep, that I spend the first hours of my waking undoing. There was no fear, just then, of being rejected. Ah, peace, sweet undemanding peace that usually frightens me, the thought of letting go of the shield. No shield, no wanting, no stopping. Just being.

Without feeding that old source of pain, in fact removing the fear altogether, I felt such a deep sense of rest, a warm welcoming blanket of rest. No longer striving to get it right or to make sure I didn’t do a wrong thing. Though the birds in their song, they were striving, striving to secure their place. I laughed, thinking of the racket I’d heard on the hike yesterday. Here, by the fjord with the thick winter’s snow melting off the mountain tops, the rush of water so loud, the birds had to screech in the forest to claim their space. Like mother’s yelling to their children in a noisy traffic crossing.

 

Short version:

The bird sounds take me to exotic locations. I am with her, the mother, the full loving mother. Earth, wind, sea and an all-inclusive love.

Ana had said, in our last session: “You don’t have to know why you chose in your last reincarnation for this life, why you chose a rejecting kind of mother. Only that it serves what you need to learn and bring into this life, for your healing and for other’s healing. If you can see this connection to healing than you can stop the endless dance of rejection.”

Lying on the damp grass, the sun warming my skin, slowly baking through, the recorded bird song so different from here in Western Norway. Tropical birds, bathing me in the unconditional love of nature or so I let it seem.

Nothing to run away from, nothing to run towards. The slow letting go of the rope across my shoulders, that old vigilant habit that once tried to keep me safe from the sword of rejection, that still wraps me up in sleep, that I spend the first hours of my waking undoing. There was no fear, just then, of being rejected. Ah, peace, sweet undemanding peace that usually frightens me, the thought of letting go of the shield. No shield, no wanting, no stopping. Just being.

Without feeding that old source of pain, removing the fear of being rejected, gives rest; a welcoming blanket of rest. No longer striving to get it right or make sure I didn’t do a wrong thing. Though the birds in their song, they strive, strive to secure their place. Here, by the fjord with the thick winter’s snow melting off the mountain tops, the rush of water so loud, the birds had to screech in the forest to claim their space. Like mother’s yelling to their children in a noisy traffic crossing.

 

 

Five Tips to Avoid Pitfalls of Depression in Corona Time

My intention with this essay is not to shame or laud over anyone. I have struggled with depression, I know how insidious it can be. Each time I can rise above my default setting of being hard on myself (the foreplay of depression) is a great day. Even a tiny bit! It’s when my idealized version of who I shouldbe glares unforgivingly at my actual current self, that I’m prone to the demon of depression.

I travel for my work, partly because it’s the nature of being a musician and workshop leader, but also to compensate for not really ever finding home in the land where my husband lives. If I want to see him, I must return here sometimes. And that here is Oslo. Hugely grateful on many counts for this green and rather sane county (the details won’t be covered in this essay) still, I’ve been very lonely here and prefer to be anywhere else.

Then the Coronavirus hit the rails, the end of everyone’s plans. Never had John Lennon’s words felt more potent. Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. On March 14, I had to return to Oslo, where I am a resident, have healthcare and a permanent home with my husband. At first, he was happy to see me, that we’d be together during this very unique lockdown time.

If ever I had justification to feel blue, it was now. Never was it part of any plan for me to get stuck in the country where I hardly know anyone. Yet from March 14 – I was stuck. Day one, even day two, I did really well. Stayed positive, thought of all kinds of activities to keep me busy. My job of teaching Alexander Technique, the creative arts and breathing, all using my hands, came to a sudden halt. No paid work, no reason to even get up in the morning. My husband panicked. His mood grew dark and sourly.

“What’s going on?” I ask. My husband is from the north of the Netherlands. He’s a good man but not overtly expressive or communicative. It took some time to prod out an answer.

“I’m worried,” he said, “that you’re going to fall into a dark depression. You won’t be able to leave, as you usually do and might be stuck here for months.”

“But I haven’t fallen into that dark place,” I said, defensively.

“Not yet,” he said. “But I’m afraid you will, and that I won’t be able to manage it.”

I took his concern seriously, and later when we went on a long walk in the forest – an activity we’ve been able to continue during the lockdown – I thought about what usually triggered me, and I realised it was my expectations. The idea of what my life was supposedto be like would take over. When not on the trajectory of what I thinkmy life is meant to be, when I fear lagging behind, I get very blue and miserable.

What is depression? Simply said, it’s anger turned inward. Most of us, including myself, won’t feelthis anger, or even if we do, we can’t stop it. For me, it’s as if all the judgment and disappointment from my parents, teachers, etc. over the years comes together and starts simmering on a hot flame and cooks me through with negativity. Maybe there’s some odd pleasure in it that at least I’m in control of this beating, but it’s a dangerous, destructive habit. And it is a habit.Brain patterns set so long ago too easily follow the same familiar paths, like rain drops down a window. We can’t help it, so it seems, so it feels.

I tell you this, so you don’t beat yourself even more because of how hard it is to avoid these pitfalls. So, I understood my husband’s fears. He knew me; he knew how I get whenever I stay too long in Oslo.

I got stubborn with myself, and I asked him to help me if I slipped up. Any of you out there who might read this blog who are living alone during this time and recognise this pattern – contact someone, a friend who may be going through this as well, or contact me. Make a plan with each other to be kind and compassionate first and foremost.

Here’s my plan:

  1. TO NOT BEAT on myself it I’m not completely be free of negative thoughts.
  2. TO MOVE: and even more so when the dark juices start flowing – those dark juices that feel like ropes that tie me to the bed – I still have to move. ESPECIALLY if I don’t want to. Jumping in place, flailing my arms and legs, not caring what I look like, going for walks in the forest, doing online yoga, gaga classes, 5-rhythms, grieving rituals. Bark like a dog if necessary. ANYTHING. The science of brain chemistry is that once oxygen flows more to the brain, the mood will improve.
  3. TO PUSH MYSELF A TINY BIT and do one thing I resist, and then give myself some nice reward later. For example: vacuuming; writing a blog (like this one) despite my steady stream of critic inside telling me how bad a writer I am; to practice my singing (even if I get angry that I still sing out of tune); to do an online meet-up even if my teeth are old and yellow and my neck looks like a turkey (I sometimes use a scarf). Later, as a present, I can watch some
  4. TO GIVE PERMISSION THAT I CAN BE BAD AT SOMETHING and still do it. There’s many things I love to do, like my writing and music, but have punished myself over the years for not being good enough at it. I’ve gotten better at this – have discovered that the best way to get better at anything is to practice it and challenge ourselves with classes and teachers to improve. The idea that I have to be genius at something or not do it, is just not true. It is possible to enjoy doing something without being perfect at it.
  5. TO GIVE MYSELF A LOVING kick to get started. It’s the hardest with any activity, even the things we like, to get started. The dark voice of depression wants us to stay a blob, is most comfortable doing nothing but beating ourselves. Because then there’s no chance of getting it wrong. We think we can’t mobilize the energy to do anything, but that’s because we’re using the most of our energy (unconsciously) to beat ourselves. It’s a hard pattern to break, but not impossible.

The less we move, the less the breath moves, the more compressed we get, thus creating the perfect setting for depression. The opposite of that – moving, doing some activity with no expectation – is what depression hates.

 

Who is sane?

New York, 1976 Bronx State Mental Hospital

I’m drowning in a sour-soup of disillusion, here at Bronx State Mental Hospital finishing my internship. Distracted by my misery, a good healthy finger gets squeezed in the hospital door. I shriek in pain, fearing the tip has been severed. The aides rush me to another ward and the doctor stitches me up. He drugs me to a stupor and promises I won’t lose my finger. He also treats my other finger cut badly the other day, now hopelessly infected, and re-bandages that. Now I’m wounded on both hands, like a soldier.

My supervisor is not pleased, how can I lead the drumming circle or play the guitar with two bandaged hands? Meanwhile, the young emotionally-challenged boys on the ward seem thrilled with my bandages, like I’ve come straight from a street fight. Usually they’re reluctant and squirrelly to begin but now they’re witch-doctors of importance who want to heal me. Their power brings another world into existence and they pound the drums with purpose. I start to dance and they play even stronger, louder. So strong the supervisor comes rushing in. Startled by the intense focus, she turns all shades of purple but says nothing. She’s threatened by the thing she cannot name. It’s new on the ward, this music therapy, and what’s happening with the boys is therapy at its best. This noise, this thunder, this tribal abandon, seems dangerous to her yet she can’t help see how responsive the boys are and nods a tentative approval. Once she’s gone, the boys squeal like they’ve slayed the dragon. They whoop and holler and slap each other high fives though I quickly get them drumming again so we don’t lose this grace.

Each day I fall more in love with the patients who’ve rejected reality, or rather live in another dimension, and they in turn seem to love me more maybe because I see them and understand their suffering, their courage. Their smiles leap large when I arrive with my bandaged fingers, guitar and sack of instruments. If only the doctors didn’t medicate them so much. The sessions before the round of meds are animated but right after, they’re like zombies. I mention this to the head nurse.

“Better they sleep,” the nurse says,“than have a fit and destroy your instruments.

 Is there no middle ground? It kills me to see the patients like captives during the music sessions, strapped down, tied up, immobilized by medication. Tiny slits for eyes and expressions on their faces that seem to cry for help, though they hardly make a sound.

The supervisor expects me to waltz in like Houdini, unlock these heavily-medicated patients for the half-hour session, get them moving and singing and feeling someemotion – but not too much. Her favorite words: Don’t over-excite them! What is she afraid of; an in-house revolt? The patients are so drugged they can barely hold, let alone play the light percussive instruments I hand them. The more attentive ones (who must trick the nurses and not swallow their medication) grab hold of my hand at the end of the sessions like starved children begging for more. I feel for them, but must be careful to not care too much or I shall cross that tiny line of sanity into their world.

I can’t imagine that in our secret hearts, we’re not all starved for real attention – to be alive and seen and loved. Even my supervisor, who’s always talking of dieting but only gains more weight each week, perhaps she also aches for someone to hold her. Maybe once she had that but that person went away and she’s shoveled down those feelings. Maybe she also takes one of those multi-colored pills. Better not to think – that’s what I mostly learn with the other therapists in the cafeteria, or at our meetings. Just keep it all going, like a machine.

Every morning, half-asleep, I drink my coffee, then rush out the door to join the masses. Everyone on the subway with heads down, crammed like sardines for the harsh rumble and shriek to Pelham Bay Park. We’re all crushed by the non-stop mantra keep moving, keep moving. I can’t help wonder if the mental hospital is worse than prison, for the patients have no idea what crime they’ve committed besides feeling and wanting too much.

 

When I catch a glimpse of sky between buildings, I think of beauty and nature and wonder why we’ve stripped so much of it away. I’m thinking of this as I enter the ward. Maybe the patients feel it, that I’m different, for they rush towards me – the ambulatory ones – to stand beside me, to touch my shoulders, my bandaged fingers. I let them, and gently touch them back. The look in their eyes is like the gorilla’s sad eyes at the zoo. Pleaseunlock the cage and let me run free in the trees and the green. There is no green at the hospital and barely a thread of sky beyond the barred and narrow windows. Their eyes tell me they’re here because they were too slow and the cup fell from their hands and shattered on the ground of the perfect world, the world with no patience for breaking things. They’re here because they refused or could not keep the charade going. Gave themselves away by their confusion. The unprofessional side of me wants to run into the big depressing room where they waddle, or are wheeled in, for the music therapy session and scream: This is a human zoo. Get up from your chairs and dance and sing, loud and strong. Don’t take the medicine they give you. Look at what they do to you, because they’re scared of you, you who are closer to the real nature. They are scared that you know this is wrong, even if you haven’t the strength nor the words to express it.

Which wolf do we feed?

The old Cherokee story goes:

A young man was struggling and ran home to speak with his grandfather. 

            ‘A terrible fight is going on inside me,’ he said. ‘Like two wolves inside me.’

            ‘Tell me,’ the grandfather said, as kindly as he could, encouraging the boy to speak.

            ‘One is evil: he is filled with anger, envy, sorry, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment and all over dark things like my insecurity, and false pride.’

            ‘That’s when you feel superior, is it not?’

            ‘Yes, yes!’ the boy cried. ‘But even if I think I am better, I don’t feel very good.’

            ‘And the other?’ the grandfather asked. ‘What is the other wolf like?’

            ‘Well,’ said the boy, beginning to calm down, even considering this other wolf began to change his mood. ‘The other is good, he is filled with joy, peace, love, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion. When that other wolf fills me, I feel faith and hope.’

            The grandfather swooped the young boy into his arms. ‘This same fight is going on inside of everyone.’ The grandson thought about this for a moment and then asked his grandfather which wolf will win?

            ‘Ah,’ the old Cherokee laughed, ‘the one you feed.’

I love this story, and like most of us, even knowing this story isn’t a guarantee that I will forget and will need reminding. It isn’t always easy to just choose the more loving of these wolves, these sides of us, even if it will ultimately make us happier and healthier. How easy to get stuck in the other loop! Important to remember that negativity shouts seven times louder and stronger than the positive, whether in feeling, action or thought. Or in another’s reaction to us, that in turn can trigger and ‘feed’ the wolf we’d planned to starve. And at times it sure can feel better to be that first wolf, the more aggressive wolf. That side may seem more exciting, more sexy, jazzy and thrilling.

I wonder now, if at times we need to be that other wolf – but maybe away from other people, in nature, in movement, in sound and in dancing. To give voice to the darker sides, to vent our sorrow – a more active form of ‘feeling sorry for ourselves, is to feel our sorrow. To give time to these shadier, gloomier aspects. I love this story and its simple message and yet challenging this further, it does seem in my experience – and in my work with Alexander Technique in combination with therapy in working with trauma and the source of anxiety – that tapping into both of our wolves is crucial. We have both wolves inside us. Indeed, we can learn to ‘feed’ one more than the other, but perhaps a sense of giving time to listen, to be attentive to both sides in us, especially if one is less active or scarier (with the help of a professional to give guidance and support), a lot can be learned. Growth and recovery, healing and learning have many shades in-between black and white.

Maybe I am Okay after all

Yes, I want you to like me. Yes, I wanted my mother to like me, to love me, to be proud of me. And sadly, she obsessed her whole life with not being okay. It worried her terribly, the last days of her life. My brothers called repeatedly saying she’d gotten stuck on the chord of having been a terrible mother, especially towards me. The one who left the US, who saw her far less than the others, the designated black sheep in the family. Though I prefer to think of it as the colorful purple sheep.

We’d worked through so much the last years. More than enough, so I thought. Apparently, she hadn’t felt as relieved. Or perhaps she’d forgotten. One of the last weeks of her life, visiting her in her new apartment in a retirement home in Lennox, we sat in a circle, my brother Peter, my husband and myself. Her face compressed in, her shoulders pressing forward, desperate for love. After she died and we all went through photos, there was one of her as a little girl, maybe five, with the same expression. Please don’t send me away. It shocked me to realise my mother, my great and wonderful mother that everyone loved, carried this her whole life.

            “When you were a little girl,” Peter said, in a caring tone, his body leaning towards her, “your mother told you that if you weren’t good enough, they would give you away.”

            My mother’s eyes filled with tears. She shook her head, her lips turned-down in a disgruntled curl. Soon eighty-nine years old, soon dead, and still that little girl aching inside, the little girl never good enough. Her eyes now turning to my brother, tears falling down her cheeks.

            “Youaregood enough,” Peter said. 

            “But, I…” my mother had lost her voice. It was just a croak that came out. 

            “I know,” my brother said. “You think you have been a terrible mother to Deborah. That’s why we’re doing this. She came back to be with you, to let you know that she is okay and she loves you and forgives you.”

            I didn’t wait for permission from my brother, who was leading this ritual. Instead, turned towards her, taking her hands, saying the same. She was crying more now. “It’s okay,” I kept repeating. “I love you, and you are good enough.” Then my husband and Peter echoed the same, like a Greek Chorus.

My brothers told me how she kept talking about a birthday party she wanted to make for me at the end of May. We knew she’d soon die, but as her first (blood) granddaughter was getting married June 8, we thought she’d live for that. My birthday was the week before and my original flight would be in time for this birthday brunch. 

She died six weeks before that date. Alone in her bed when she passed, not with any of her kids or step-kids. Peter thinking this was her last wish, to not show favourites as there was no chance for me to be there. My brothers and father met anyhow to celebrate my birthday. 

I was able to make it back for the funeral April 12, and stayed for the wedding. The longest period spent in the US since moving away, and the longest time with my family since childhood. At times painful but also liberating to discover how I’ve carried this legacy of my mother – of not feeling good enough. So many choices made due to this need to be confirmed, to assure no one gets rid of me. Though sometimes it happened, because of this, this unquenchable need.

For whom? For what?

This essay could go in another direction now, towards the political decisions currently being made here in the US, based on ignorance, incompetence or even worse – a distortion of facts and scientific knowledge. Our environment is one of the states were such wrong decisions are made, with disastrous consequences. None of them thinking perhaps they’re not good enough. Wish they did. 

Rather I shall continue on the personal note. For my mother, that early-planted need was not so easy to let go. Or she’d not have carried it for most of her life.

In the journey of my life, I’ve gone in many directions. Often judging this as too many directions; if I’d only followed one trajectory and poured all obsessive energy into that, I’d have ‘made’ it. To make it: the most important thing for my mother. In her case, that meant money. In my case, fame and recognition. In my yearning to be loved, to be good enough. To have permission to indulge in activities I love, an indulgence I’ve often felt foolish for.

How sad for my mother, that no matter how much money she earned or how many people phoned her, loved her, it was never enough. Those pits carved out in our early years rarely do get filled without some arduous work (that she seemed to have no time for), and she suffered that aching hole. My brothers and I hope we helped release her in the end, and she died in peace. Yet how much better if she were able to release that earlier?

Mom, I feel you teaching me now, that even if no one tells me so: I can be okay and more than enough.

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