The thing about forgetting

The thing about forgetting

“Forgive and forget” a cultural slogan or idiom meaning to pardon and to hold no resentment concerning a past event. The past cannot be changed, so let it go. At first I thought I did this with ease with my prior relationships, only to realize down the road it looked more closely like what Carl Jung and his analytical psychology would classify as one of our greatest defense mechanisms… repression. According to Jung, repression is described to be the unconscious suppression of psychic contents that are incompatible with the attitude of consciousness. After a few months of leaving an unhealthy relationship, picking up my life in a foreign country and replanting myself in what seems like the middle of nowhere comparatively to a place like Cape Town (Cleveland, Ohio), it was much more convenient to take on an attitude of “forgive and forget.”  After all, I was in survival mode, and that meant to focus my energy on making a plan for me and my son who was rapidly growing in my uterus at the time. The thing is that our unconscious mind simply cannot forget in the same way that our consciousness can, and the longer we repress our true feelings about the situation, the more dysfunctional those feelings can become. They manifest themselves in the form of new unhealthy relationships, addictions, nightmares, headaches. In one way or another, if we pretend to forgive and forget, without actually forgiving and without actually being able to unconsciously forget, it catches up.

This theory does not just apply to relationships, it applies to events which occur everyday, some of which are more convenient to avoid than to bring to awareness because of our emotions associated with the event.  Although these events may not be in our conscious awareness they cannot be so easily eliminated. In fact I could very easily take the unhealthy relationship with my ex one step further, that it didn’t start there, that it was actually a traumatic event from the past, an event without justice, which I desperately attempted to forget. This led to a history of abusive and unhealthy choices. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and John Bowlby’s attachment theory would take it back even further, that my adult relationships are all related to my early childhood experiences, which in my case may have been insecure, anxious and pre-occupied. Experiences that I was too young to remember, yet cannot seem to forget.

Before pathologizing the mind even further, the bigger question is where do we go from here? What is the next step, when it has come to our awareness that we have not actually forgotten or forgiven events from the past that we thought we had let go of long before? Maybe John Bowlby and Sigmund Freud were right, that my childhood experiences were insecure, and the neuroscientists were right too, that the trauma from being assaulted created a chemical reaction in my brain which explains its subsequent impulsive behavior. I’ll give them some merit for their discoveries, however, I feel like my fate is more positive than that. Carl Jung explains this phenomenon called “self-actualization.” It happens when we integrate the conscious and the unconscious. It allows us to be our true authentic selves. A self that is no longer anxious, depressed or avoidant. A self that hasn’t forgotten the past, or even forgiven it.  Rather it has a stronger awareness of the past and can therefore move forward towards a healthier way of being, a type of being one chooses rather than allowing past events destine it to be.

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Balance

Balance

Balance, a state of equilibrium, is an essential factor for our mental and physical well-being. Anxiety, depression, and other challenges related to our mental health are often the manifestation of an imbalance.  I anticipated by six months into single motherhood a nervous break-down of sorts would be inevitable, but to my surprise, it never came. Instead I feel calmer and more content than I have ever felt in my life. As I was reflecting on this strange sensation, I realized I was finally experiencing balance. The journey towards my equilibrium was not an easy one. It stemmed from many years of anxiety and depression as I strove towards a doctorate degree while holding a full-time job.

Once Jayden was born I decided I wanted to do things differently. I didn’t want to live my life working constantly towards some future goal, because the best thing in life was happening in the moment; I was watching my son thrive.  At first I pushed myself into my usual way of being. Two weeks after Jayden’s birth I was sitting in on several interviews along with meetings to promote my consulting business. I applied to over twenty full-time positions in Cleveland, while feeling the gut-twisting sensation of anxiety growing within me. In the past, I had always pushed myself towards a successful career and I felt that with a child, finding this success was essential. After receiving a job offer, I had a melt-down. I just couldn’t get myself to take the position and risk losing that time with Jayden. I called up the employer with the intention of declining the position, but they negotiated a 24-hour week and an increase in pay which would allow me to spend more time with my new born baby. After this negotiation, the anxious build-up had almost completely ceased, but the struggle to maintain balance did not end there.

A week later several potential consulting jobs opened up, and with them the anxious flood-gates came too. I pushed myself through a couple of weeks of meetings with my prospective clients during the hours that I had been spared by accepting a part-time, rather than full-time job. Although in my head I wanted to push myself into having a successful business, my body was telling me to do the opposite. This discontent feeling grew within me until I had no choice but to take action, I needed to find my equilibrium. I decided to put the consulting on hold and focus on my part-time job and most importantly taking care of my son.

Now my weeks seem to flow steadily along. I have a job where I can apply myself and my passion while still feeling like I have sufficient time to spend with my son. I even manage to sneak in a weekly date night and a Saturday morning Zumba class! Although money may be tight, and the temptation of a full-time salary dangles in my mind, I realize that Jayden and I have everything we need. The time I have with him is more valuable than his own nursery (we share a room) or the newest baby toys (he prefers spoons and boxes anyway.) My career can wait for now, it’ll be there in a few years, but in a few years Jayden will be three and I would’ve missed out on all of those walks in the park and other beautiful moments that we share together today.

How to be an 80’s movie heroine (a post for single moms and anyone in a potentially pathetic life situation)

How to be an 80’s movie heroine (a post for single moms and anyone in a potentially pathetic life situation)

A roommate of mine in California once referred to me as an 80s movie heroine, commenting on my relentless determination for survival in Los Angeles. He only caught me in the apartment between midnight and 6am, the rest of the time I was on a hustle. When I didn’t have any cash, I worked, when I wanted to go to school, I worked even harder, and when I didn’t have transportation to get to work or school, I rode my bike through the insanity of traffic that took me from Santa Monica to Beverly Hills to Culver City. I must admit I never fully understood his reference (I was born in the late 80s) but I found comfort in it, if somehow this chaos made me some kind of hero, well then this concept made life a bit more exciting.

 

Two more years in LA and three in South Africa later, I find myself back in Cleveland, Ohio living life parallel to my chaotic existence in Los Angeles, this time as a single mom on the fine border between what could be considered heroic or pathetic. This time around I clumsily (or perhaps gracefully) juggle life between my parents house, my sister’s apartment, my job downtown, and the ongoing task of being a mother. Getting ready for work is now a 3 hour routine of breast feeding, changing diapers, changing clothes, getting spit up or peed on, changing clothes again and somehow making it out the door in time to get to the babysitter and my office. When he has a morning melt-down I at times have one too,  and almost, almost, want to give up. But then I remember the 80s heroine persona that my roommate saw in me. If you’ve ever seen an 80s movie or maybe at least a Marvel movie, you will know that the heroine never gives up. So once again I’m faced with the opportunity to apply the wisdom of Victor Frankl (among my favorite psychologists), to choose a new disposition. If Victor Frankl could keep a positive and hopeful disposition in a concentration camp I sure as hell can as a single mom in Cleveland. It may look like winter for the bulk of the year, but rent can get paid on a part-time salary, food is easily accessible, the lake somewhat resembles the ocean, and Public health care still has my back (for now).  In most stressful situations with my son, that disposition is usually laughter, and on those days where life could feel pathetic, I like to take on the persona of mommy heroine.

Where two worlds meet

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I’ve been wanting to write for months but my thoughts have been trapped at a self-made road block, too painful to move past in my mind. At times what feels like an unhealthy love affair with a place of my past prevents me from experiencing life here in the present. As I try to navigate through life in Cleveland, I feel like a foreigner. It’s strange to be a foreigner in a place which was home for 18 years. I only knew the safety of the suburbs as a child. My friends and I could run around outside past dark with our biggest threat being our own stupidity (which seems to come naturally with childhood curiosity). My windows never had burglar bars, our house door was always open, and our bikes were usually left unlocked on the front lawn, only to still be there in the morning. I had access to a good education, a family full of love, more cousins and siblings to play with then I could count, and every evening, without fail, there was dinner in my home.

I suppose after a while the chaos of life in Cape Town became so normalized to the point of being comfortable.  You make sure to hang the bars on your windows and if you’re smart to invest in several forms of a front door.  Your car may or may not be there in the morning, so invest in several gear locks and decent insurance if you can afford it. Never walk with an ipod or anywhere too quiet, and even if its busy around you make sure to always be aware of your surroundings.  Nature isn’t necessarily a place of peace, it’s also one of violence. Some days you just get robbed and sometimes, especially if you are a woman, it’s worse but you have to move on because life will keep moving anyway without you.  Get used to strikes on the University campus, it’s the inevitable result of structural inequality. When you work with the children in the schools, know that their hyper and at times violent behavior is a result of chronic stress.  They’ve most likely lost several loved ones and experienced several more traumatic events. Which also explains the children on the street who many may treat more like animals than people, know that it’s not their fault. They are simply acting accordingly with our failure as adults to protect them.

Also know that in Cape Town people are connected to something more real than most Americans can imagine. Your community, your neighbors, your neighbors’ children, they are your family. Staring up at the mountains and out at the ocean will bring you peace and laughter can be experienced in the little things every day. You’ll stop chasing materialism and chase things that really matter.  A roof and a meal is something to be grateful for, no matter how big or small it may be.  In spite of the challenges with poverty and violence, every day is full of hope and beauty.  Although diversity in certain areas is feared, in others it is valued, transcending a history of systemic divisions.

Now 40 weeks pregnant waiting for the inevitable birth of my first child, I couldn’t be more proud to know that as much as he is American, he is also South African.  Together our lives will always be somewhat in the middle of the two worlds, or perhaps they are where the two worlds meet.

A product or a person?

A product or a person?

“So do you have any questions?”

I shrugged my shoulders. My mind was blank, my body felt numb. “Is there anything I should know?” I timidly responded.

“Not unless you feel like you’re having a problem. Otherwise we will see you back here in a month.” I left the office in a daze. It was my third day back from South Africa and I was 12 weeks pregnant. The local OBGYN was able to fit me in for an appointment to make sure everything was going well with the baby. I hadn’t been to a doctor since I found out two months before while I was living in Cape Town. In fact, in the six years I lived in South Africa, I hadn’t been to a doctor (with the exception of one visit to the clinic after breaking my foot, where I was told it wasn’t broken).

They started with the ultrasound. I wondered if the baby was still alive or was even there at all. The three home pregnancy tests plus the nausea and exhaustion all seemed to add up to a baby, but what if? The nurse covered my skin with a cold gel and pressed the sonogram against my stomach. Before long I could see the vivid outline of a profile; the nose, lips, belly, fingers, and toes. A tiny hand moved in such a way as if to wave hello. A life was there, and I was responsible for keeping it safe.

Next came the blood work, the urine test, then the pap smear. I didn’t even ask what it all was for, my mind was too clouded to think for myself so I let the strangers at the obstetrician’s office think for me instead.  Everything was moving so fast. A week before my entire existence was rooted in Cape Town, where I passionately took on a PhD and a therapeutic non-profit organization. I had an apartment, a dog, a fiancé, a career I cared about, with the beach and the mountains down my street. It all crumbled so fast and in a such a traumatic way that it left me totally numb.

The next couple of months went in a similar way. I walked through life like a zombie. I’d show up for my routine check-ups, without any questions of my own, without ever questioning the interventions which were being done to me and my baby. Then one day I woke up. I had experienced unexpected bleeding and felt absolutely terrified. I called the doctor in tears and she advised me to go immediately to labour and delivery at the hospital. It was just me now, responsible for this life on my own, and I thought I had already messed it up. I had never felt so alone.  I called my mom and asked if she could go with me, I was fortunate to have her support. At the hospital they immediately hooked me up to a machine where they could monitor for contractions and listen to the baby’s heartbeat. It was still there! After that I waited patiently for 2 hours to find out that everything was fine with the baby. Although I was relieved by the news, my tornado mind was spinning fast. I realized I hadn’t made a single choice regarding my pregnancy up until that point, except for my initial choice to keep my child. I wanted to be treated like a woman going through a beautiful natural experience of pregnancy, not someone who had a life threatening disease. What were all of these interventions for? I hadn’t even bothered to ask before, and the doctor hadn’t bothered to provide me with  the information.

In a state of panic I headed over to the obstetrician’s office. I politely asked for my medical records and for an explanation of what they meant. The woman at the desk told me that I needed an appointment. I broke down into tears in the waiting room. “I just came here from the hospital. You don’t understand, I’ve been through so much,” I explained through the sobs. “This pregnancy wasn’t a peaceful start and its just me now, I want to know that my baby and I are going to be okay. Could you please show me my records so I know that we are okay.” She told me to take a seat and a few minutes later she came out with my records.

“See this means that you are healthy, that your tests came back fine.”

“And what about HIV?”

“And this page means that you don’t have HIV.”

“So we are going to be okay?”

“Yes you are going to be fine. Go home and get some rest.”

Mortified by my public meltdown, I left the office.  I decided I would wake up now and start making my own choices about my health and the health of my baby. I needed to find a place which could support the spiritual and physical components of my pregnancy, not one which treated it like a medical intervention. I wanted to be supported as a person, not a number. I started educating myself about my pregnancy and the different options available and was fortunate to find a midwife whose outlook on pregnancy and birth was aligned with my own.  At our first appointment together she spent over two hours at my home talking to me about my pregnancy, health, and nutrition. We created a birth plan that felt comfortable for me which supports a natural birth process.  When I asked my Obstetrician if he would be a co-carer and deliver the baby at the hospital in case of an emergency, he immediately refused. He told me it wasn’t in his business model. Of course, I had forgotten that I was a business commodity in the healthcare system which had somehow lost sight of the person, one which values the patient who decides not to think.

Every day I envision a healthy pregnancy, a peaceful birth, and a beautifully healthy baby. At 32 weeks his constant movements remind me that together we are safe and healthy, and that I am no longer alone.

24 weeks

24 weeks

I knew I loved you from the beginning. Through the nausea and the fear there was an instinct which pushed me to safety. I could never seem to find this for myself, but without hesitation could find for you.  I no longer had the space in my soul for abuse, we deserved so much more.  So I pushed myself to do what I was too terrified to do before…. I left it for us.

Slowly I’ve gotten to know you while the rest of the world has gently disappeared.  My heart pumps with yours, my lungs breathe for you. No emotion has ever felt so raw. A mother’s love intertwined with the fear that I will never be the woman you deserve me to be.  But I can promise you that I’ll never spend a day without loving you.

Fees Must Fall

Fees Must Fall

The university students throughout South Africa demand “the Fees Must Fall.” What started as a peaceful protest, turned into a violent movement.  Oppression has a way of doing that, of leaving society on edge. It’s only a matter of time before the oppressed stand up and as Malcolm X stated

“ If you want something, you had better make some noise.”

That is exactly what the students in South Africa did and that noise grew louder; Broken windows, smashed in buildings, looted cafeterias, assaulted security guards, police with shields and bats, terrorized students, rubber bullets, gas, and fires.

The University of the Western Cape has always brought comfort to me. I loved everything about the university, including its history in the Apartheid struggle and its continuous mission at providing education for those who have been historically marginalized from its access. An environment of knowledge tied to issues around social justice felt like a perfect fit. But over the course of the past month, this happy space, my space of peace and learning has been transformed into one of utter chaos. Why were they destroying this peaceful space? I just wanted to learn! I worked hard for the opportunity to learn! I paid international fees higher than everyone else so that I could learn! How easy I made it for the students‘ oppression to become  my irritation. What a privileged position I was in.  I had attended private schools my whole life, starting with a primary school where 100% of the students went onto high school, then a high school, where 99% of the students went onto universities. On top of that I had the privilege of attending four universities, receiving a Bachelor’s degree, a Masters, and nearly a PhD. At all of the universities, English, my home language, was the medium of instruction. Computer literacy was not a problem, I grew up with one in my home. Sadly, my initial instinct to the protests was irritation. I felt I had a right to a peaceful university experience, not realizing that for many this perceived right was in reality merely a privilege, and tied to every privilege is oppression. Is this what it’s come to, a place where peace is a privilege rather than a right?

For many of the students at UWC, in their communities you are lucky to make it through primary school. Education which the ANC government promised to be a right for all South Africans, has remained a minority privilege. On top of that, if by chance you are one of the few who make it through high school, you will be attending a University where you are five steps behind and the odds are in your favor that you will fail the first year. Now you must read, write, and learn in English. You must be technologically savvy, even though your former schools didn’t have computers. You must keep up with the pressure of assignments and exams, even if there is not a space to quietly study in your overcrowded home.  You are expected to concentrate in class, even though you’re hungry and tired from a long morning of travelling.  The government and universities have promised not to raise the fees. But the students remain angry. It’s not only the fees which must fall, but the entire system that keeps the majority of the country marginalized while the few reap the privileges.  So what does a person in privilege do? How does one navigate through the oppression? How can one support the students, when it’s just as easy to turn a blind eye? The protests have resorted to violence, perhaps the only way to be heard.  Can I stand behind the violence, when everything I live by is supposed to speak to peace? If I don’t take a stand where oppression is evident , is that not also an act of violence?