27 October 2012

Thank you, Mr. Ebert

Written 4 October 2012 while in treatment in Salt Lake City. Some names have been adjusted (or omitted) to respect the privacy of those with whom I have spent my life, my deployment, or my time in treatment

Paging my Inner Critic. Maybe that's all I've done (or even all I've known) for ages. Ages sounds vague. It's all I've known for the past 25 years, give or take. It was originally some type of covenant I entered into with myself..."good enough", "smart enough", skinny enough." None of them had definite solutions to solve the equation...and perhaps that was on purpose. It was never "all 'As' plus valedictorian of my high school equals smart enough." It, I, was all about leaving enough room to deem myself a complete failure due to lack of proper goal-setting (without knowing that was in fact what I was doing). My definite "valedictorian" thought would fit too nicely into a box where it was possible to either succeed or fail. Black or white. But quickly I discovered I would fail repeatedly if I agreed to live in the grey...where there were no feelings of failure or inadequacy...just a tiny bit of sadness for not being "perfect." Tiny. That even looks funny. I was (and maybe partially still am) too strong to have emotions. And I still live in the grey, judging myself in the black and white...my own personal prison.

That's the critic. If I show emotions, I'm a failure. It's my fault if people get annoyed with me, and I'll take it personally every single time. The critic is also the person who points out the problems (the obvious problems) in ugly situations...and then points them out again and again until I think someone is getting the message. They (the "people") never seem to get "it," whatever "it" is. Then I become critical of myself for not communicating "it" properly. "Is it just me who thinks 14 mental health patients wandering a zoo full of people and animals under the supervision of one, single (inexperienced) therapist is unsafe?"

The answer is no, it's not just me. That is actually unsafe. Stupidly unsafe and scary, when I was one of those patients, prone to an anxiety attack at any time with no access to either a therapist or proper medication. And when I have a thought like that ("This is irresponsible"), I won't let it go (whatever the thought is) go unless someone else (who I trust...which leaves the list unbearably short) validates it. I am my own worst critic. I made decisions in Afghanistan for which I still punish myself. Every day. Even though I know the decisions were made with honest intentions and led to positive outcomes that were impossible through any other means (or anyone else's decision making). I thought I would die in combat. Some days I wished for that. So I figured doing what felt like the right thing was worth the risk 100% of the time. I see now that was a bit extreme, though quite suiting.

That Inner Critic is a strong, willful son-of-a-bitch. And taming that thing will take...is taking...significant effort (and will also, perhaps, require some type of miracle).

Only 1% of the United States population has served in our nation's Armed Forces. Of those, far fewer have ever seen combat up-close-and-personal (on the ground, looking into the eyes of family members whose families and friends have been killed by NATO bombs dropping from fighter aircraft in the sky). Not many people, particularly those of a female persuasion, have been outside-the-wire regularly, hanging out around landmines and human bombs. Of those significantly limiting factors, so many fewer are in the United States Air Force. Now that we're down to a tiny, almost impossible to capture under any circumstances, kind of number, it's time for me to admit that not a single anyone lived in my exact same circumstances in either training or Afghanistan itself, had an identical past and could possibly understand why I chose to make (m)any of the decisions I did while I was there. Forming the closest team on the camp. Running humanitarian missions on our days off. Hosting Hell's Kitchen nights. Creating team dinners. Working with Julia, my interpreter (and her family). Meeting with local families, especially the widowed women managing households of up to 30 young children where running water, electricity and even furniture didn't exist.

I'm the only (or perhaps my worst) critic over the implosion of my (second) marriage. Those who know and love me best understand (somewhat) how I got to this place (admittedly not entirely through "good" and "traditional" decisions) and understand that I'm here because that's what I needed to do for myself...not because I wanted to hurt someone who cared for me deeply. There are some people (okay, many people) to whom I have not told the full story (and perhaps I never will), because I fear their criticism (or rejection) when in fact the truth is that if those people chose to leave me based on my decision (or my recent string of decisions) to make myself happy, they probably should not have been an intimate part of my life in the first place. And I need to be able to say that and mean it. With absolute certainty. Full confidence, as Julia called it. I'm not there yet. I'm hiding behind a protective veil of silence. And that may continue for some time.

It still feels like I always need to be the smartest. Like that's the only way I will "matter." Or maybe it's that I need to be the most clever...that's a bit more likely. I found the funniest book about a guy who tried to read the Encyclopedia Britannica page-to-page from volumes A - Z. While I commend him for making the choice to read the written, verified version (vice relying on Wikipedia) it was through that book I could recognize that being a "know it all" is a show without a star. I know a little bit about a lot of things. I wish I knew more about a few things. There are tons of people who are less intelligent than I...and likewise there are plenty of people whose intelligence I could never dream to match. I know that. My brain knows that. But when I find myself in a bad situation, feeling powerless and helpless, I suddenly define myself as the stupidest ("why don't I know what to do here?"), fattest ("I look terrible in this outfit and no one is saying anything because they don't want to hurt me") and meanest ("I bet her life is worse than mine.") I hate those natural reactions.

I have plenty of flaws, and it's easy for me to overlook the reality that other people have flaws (and are allowed and expected to have flaws), too. I criticize myself for my "imperfections" rather than embracing them. ("What's to embrace about imperfection?") I think any personal failure is marked with big red and white target so that everyone can see the ugly flaw just as clear as day. It's not like that for real (is it?) But to me, it's as real as real can be. I need to get over that. I want to get over that.

I also need (and want) my Inner Critic to learn how to see (and to embrace) the good things in other people and situations. Before I came to Salt Lake City, I could see the good in people for a fleeting moment. During my stay, I've learned to see the good for a few minutes at a time. In the future, I hope to be able to find the good before I find (and get stuck on) the bad. Or to hold on to the good for more than a fleeting moment.

So that's the Inner Critic. The one who sees the fleeting moment and lets it go. And what I want more than most things in the world is to turn the volume down on the Inner Critic and to embrace the positive, fleeting moments so that they're a little less fleeting. Okay, so they're a lot less fleeting.

I want to understand that it's okay to accept things (any kind of things) the way they are in the moment. To accept that my unrelenting standards need not apply to every (or really any) situation or person in my life. Actually, I should probably also stop applying then to myself. I really love a line I came across at some point during my treatment: "What if I accepted that the 80% solution provided me with more time to pursue the things I love?" It just never occurred to me that such imperfection was possible, acceptable, and (God forbid) productive.

It also never occurred to me that my truest, closest friends don't need to know every single detail about me or my life. Even if I think they're my closest friends in the universe. I don't need their affirmation that pursuing a second divorce was the right (albeit painful) decision to make for myself. I love him. I will always love him for his determination to give me the life he wanted to give me (and that I thought I wanted). A life full of beautiful things. Beautiful experiences and marvelous adventures. I love him for trying to figure out how to make me happy (when I refused to tell him what would truly make me happy because I didn't know how to express such "normal" feelings). How to buy me the happiness I couldn't seem to find on my own. I love him for trying as hard as he knew how to be a good companion. He's a good person who married and lived with a partner he could and would not ever be able to understand (in retrospect, because I wasn't able or willing to be understood by him). The critic in me wants to blame the whole collapse on him. But it's not just him. It might not be any bit his fault. It's not fair for me, the ultimate critic, to assign blame and fault here or ever.

The critic in me calls that a failed marriage. The critic in me assumes that everyone, any stranger on the street, will judge me for failing. And sure, maybe it was failure. But it's only failure if I let it be, and if I let the feeling of failure define me. The details will only be known (and potentially criticized) if I talk about them. And really, there's no reason to judge my past decisions unless I want to keep paying for them forever. Yes, I've made bad decisions. I'm human. And I don't want (or deserve) to keep paying for them. I say that now, after being  on the outside of reality for six weeks, isolated from the "regular" critical traps of Facebook, email, work, and separated from those critics in my life who tend to make me feel like my life is a movie written and produced for their enjoyment.

I have held onto the Inner (and outer) Critic since that dinner around age, maybe, seven. Then I felt powerless, hurt and weak. Feelings I didn't know how to explain at the time. Someone who was suppose to love me and take care of me didn't know how to show or feel emotion, and had no idea what a huge impact criticism had on me. I look like me father. I think like my father. And to my father, I was an invisible child. I feel hints of the same now. The Inner Critic developed to protect me from feeling even more hurt. To fill a void that no one would ever be able to fill because I would never allow such a thing to happen.

That critic constantly reminds me that I am not good enough. Encourages me to point out the gaps in my knowledge about the world. Reminds me of how, even though I have disliked Air Force culture since the first year I joined, I've still never worked hard enough. Never achieved enough. Scolds me for being 33, twice divorced and childless...all by choice. Punishes me for not knowing how to express emotion. Blocks out feelings of longing, sadness, frustration and disappointment for the things I haven't done as well as I should have. As I could have. As other people have done.

I've held onto the critic for 30 something conscious years to give myself an excuse to avoid pursuing my dreams. For giving up my dream of photographing the world. For giving up my dream of writing. For giving up my dream of practicing yoga regularly or going to cooking school. For surrendering my dream to empower women who live in situations I could never fathom...at least before Afghanistan. Hard to imagine that in about eight months, I may be able ("allowed") to do all those things...and more...in my post-Air Force life.

I've criticized myself for years. Decades. For trying to please other people. For giving up on my own hopes and dreams and relying instead on others...most of whom I've never met...to draw the road map to my future. For making my decisions. For monitoring me as I toe the line.

For years, I've handed my power over to whoever wanted to take it. To my parents. To my friends. Or "friends." To the Air Force. Sometimes to perfect strangers. Those aren't toasts...they're lamentations. When I didn't want to commit to making my own decisions, plenty of others were standing by ready to pounce like lions, roaring in my face (though maybe just in my head) about how every decision I made (or was making)  was "wrong"...and I let them be correct. I couldn't defend my decisions because I'd never consciously made them. So I took the criticism. And I gave it back to the world through anger.

I can't wait to leave here. To leave Salt Lake City. I can't wait to drive through the streets, up the mountains, sprinkling the ashes of the cremated inner critic and trying to learn how to live past that person. That negative energy. That overwhelming, heartbreakingly heavy sadness. And to abandon it here, so that I can hope to fill that empty, lonely space with the happiness and worthiness I had always imagined but could never really comprehend.

It won't appear tomorrow...that happiness. But not there's an empty space (available, even). A framework. Into which happiness has a place (and the permission) to grow.

I don't miss (or I should say I won't miss) the Inner Critic. I won't miss the feeling of my heart being ripped out of my chest over each "wrong" decision. Instead, I look forward to the warmth, the passion, the contentment I can feel when I make decisions that feel "right." At least right by me. And in the end, now that I'm 33 and finally ready, my own "right" decisions are what are most important to me.