How I Spent My Xmas Vacation

I was going to title this “Why I Hate Xmas”, but I don’t hate it, really. It’s just an extremely difficult time for me. Let’s look at that:

Emotional State

Xmas Emotion Meter

The above is a graphic representation of my emotional state on Xmas day. It didn’t really matter what the trigger was, I kept getting emotionally triggered—angry, sad, afraid. I was aware that my emotions were seriously out of whack. Deep breath, let it go, relax, move on. Don’t hang on to “I don’t want to feel this way” or “This isn’t fair” or “I’m ruining my family’s christmas”. Come back to the moment.

Some moments were wonderful. A child’s face on Christmas morning, full of wonder at the magic that is Santa Claus. And funny too:

  • “You are just so PRECIOUS!” — Brianna to me on opening her Queen Amidala keychain
  • Booting up her computer for the first time “Who’s that ‘Admin’?—he must be Santa’s elf who set up my computer”

I managed not to miss this in spite of the rollercoaster of emotions going on inside. Yay me!

It was really good that we stayed home. This was the first xmas since my mother’s death without Seroquel, the atypical anti-psychotic that I had been taking for years. I can safely report that Seroquel does suppress emotions effectively, albeit with a host of side-effects.

In spite of my emotional free-fall, Bryan reported that this was the best Xmas in years, in terms of living with me and my moods. At least this year I was aware. Not, not “at least”—this was the year I really saw my emotional rollercoaster without jumping on and going for a ride. In terms of steps forward, this is good. Really really good. Yay me!


So, am I just über hung up on the fact that my mother died on Xmas day? Not so much. Yeah, that sucked, and of course the memories of that day arise with the holiday, but I was not a fan of the holiday for many many years. Why?

  1. My first suicide attempt was when I was 15 years old. About two weeks before Christmas, I took two full bottles of my mother’s prescription Valium then lay down behind the couch in the living room. I didn’t know that Valium alone is extremely unlike to kill a person. I ended up an inmate–er–patient on the Child Psych Ward of Mt. Caramel Mercy Hospital in Detroit, Michigan for six weeks. Through the metal mesh over the window, I could see the smokestack from my high school, only two blocks away. The room I was assigned shared a wall with the padded room. I remember watching two grown men (orderlies) hold down a 6-year-old boy, strap him into a strait-jacket, and put him in the padded room. He screamed and threw himself against the wall for hours. I was allowed to visit my family for Christmas, but Christmas Eve was spent on the ward and Christmas Day ended with my return to the hospital. I was released to go live with my dad in late January.
  2. My dad died of a massive heart-attack at the age of 42. I was 21. It was December 12.
  3. I’m not a Christian, I don’t like Christianity—all my family claimed to be true Christians:
    1. Grandpa George, the sexual molester
    2. Grandpa Margaret, the single-most hate-filled person I’ve ever met. Seriously.
    3. Mommy, the child-beater

    Why would I celebrate this Christ-guy’s birthday? I watched my mother attend church week after week, chatting with the ladies, being all pious, then come home and beat the shit out of me, or berate and belittle me to the point of tears.

    I don’t trust Christianity and don’t wish to celebrate it, although I can say that I don’t hate it the way I used to.

And now here it is New Year’s Eve. The season makes me think about family, and in my extended family everyone is dead or gone. Except for my brother, who phoned me to wish us a merry one (though I noted that he did not call on xmas day, but a day later). Of course, Ron being Ron had to make a comment about how Barack Obama is just like Hitler and he’s not a real black man anyway, you can’t be a real brother growing up in Hawaii. I told him that I wasn’t having this conversation. So, like I said, my family is all dead or gone.

My mother used to tell me that I’m too sensitive. She usually said it in a disparaging way, telling me to shut up and get over whatever hurt I was feeling, often caused by her. Perhaps I am. But when my emotions are peaking, this is what it feels like inside:

Kim Phúc photographed by Nick Ut

No, I’m not exaggerating. Welcome to BPD (borderline personality disorder, a.k.a. emotional regulation disorder). When your emotions feel like that, you scream, you cry, you beg for help. But if anyone tries to touch you, you pull away. It’s painful to be raw and open. It fucking hurts like hell.

Xmas day pretty much guarantees that I’m going to be “too sensitive” and that just how it is. I need to feel safe, secure, and loved as I deal with things. Hey, shouldn’t everyone feel safe, secure, and loved on xmas day? Isn’t that the point?

In any case, obligatory dinners with less-than-sensitive relatives are not on my xmas wish list and won’t be for the forseeable future. One of these relatives actually complained about our absence, whining that she wouldn’t get to see Bri until “next Christmas.” Please note that said relative has not invited us to her Toronto home once in the seven years that I’ve known her. If you were me, is this a person you’d choose to be around when you’re at your most vulnerable? Me neither.

So from now on, we’re staying home for Christmas. Me and my family are reserving this day for ourselves. Everyone will be visited and gifted on other days of the xmas week. And that’s the way it is.

Going Forward

This New Year’s Eve is an opportunity to reaffirm my life. One of my bestest friends is coming for the night and I can think of no other folks I’d rather be with this evening than her and my family. Although it was difficult, this was a good xmas. Our little family is stronger and happier than ever before. For that, and all the other blessings we enjoy, I am deeply grateful.

May you and all beings have peace, health, and happiness in the coming year.

P.S. Kim Phúc, the girl in the photo, now lives in Toronto. It seems that Toronto is a good place for survivors. Blessings to her and her family.

Open Sozan, part II

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
— Frank Herbert, Litany against fear, Dune

As things sink in post-sesshin, I’m realizing a few things—more like articulating what was seen:

  • I am not angry. There is no bubbling well of anger deep inside of me, waiting for a chance to break through and erupt. It’s not there—I looked. I looked long and hard and deep and there is no well of anger.
  • I am capable. Guess what, I can still practice Zen! My mental illness, my BPD, my malfunctioning brain—whatever you want to call it—doesn’t stop me from practicing strongly and deeply. I’m probably the only one who’s surprised by that, but it’s my realization, so there.
  • Marijuana is medicine when used as medicine, a drug when used as a drug. This activity is my responsibility to be aware of and act accordingly.
  • I am afraid. Fear is the undercurrent of my life, the overwhelming presence that pervades everywhere. I’m afraid of sitting, I’m afraid of not sitting. I’m afraid of smoking pot, I’m afraid of not smoking pot. I’m afraid of being a Zen fraud. I’m afraid I’m lying to myself. I’m afraid of being judged unfavourably. I’m afraid of getting it wrong. I’m afraid of fucking up my child. I’m afraid of what I feel. I’m afraid of losing control. I am seriously fucking completely overwhelmed by constantly arising fear.

But wait, this was a spiritual retreat, where’s the spiritual insight? That’s it, right there. Simply seeing the above points via the practice of zazen is it. It’s turning inward and seeing what’s there, and this is what I see.

I see how my fear mutates and is camoflaged as anger when Brianna behaves in a way that challenges her mother. I’m so terrified of getting it wrong and screwing things up that I become angry. Anger I know. I grew up with a very angry mother (and am now pretty clear that she too was utterly terrified and masking it with anger). I’m real good at yelling and screaming. I can throw things and break things and speak viciously and vilely. I can lash out at whatever triggers my fear with a torrent of anger and hatred that literally makes me blush to remember.

And then I get afraid. Afraid of hurting my child because of my anger. Afraid of losing my partner. Afraid of messing it up and losing it all. And thus the feedback loop is closed and I am stuck in a whirling cesspool of fear, anger, and self-loathing for all of the above.

This is it. This is the essence of BPD: out-of-control emotions in a never-ending feedback loop. No wonder I’m exhausted. No wonder so many people with BPD commit suicide—the relentlessness of the negative spiral is extremely hard to break free of.

Frank Herbert knows that to practice fear you have to face it and let it go. So do all the Buddhas and Ancestors.

The Buddhas and Ancestors also knew that you cannot practice this stuff alone—the sangha is the critical support needed to face this level of fear. Sesshin (and monastic living for that matter) provide a structure and framework that supports me as I do this difficult work. It’s safe to go deep in those times and places. I cannot stress how utterly grateful I am to have a sangha to practice with, to have had the opportunity to face my demons within a container of love, gentleness, and strong support. I include all of my teachers in that profound gratitude.

And thank you, gentle reader, for your kind attention. That you took the time to read my words is an honour, truly.

P.S. I’d take out the first and last lines of the litany—I think it works better that way.

Bodhi Day — What’s a Mama to do?

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is not the holiday that I want to build a family tradition around. Oh, sure, Santa Claus will visit on Christmas Day, but I prefer to put my “holiday energies” into Bodhi Day. Last week, I spoke at Brianna’s school about Bodhi Day and why we celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment.

Senior Kindergarten learns about Bodhi Day

So, what are the elements of a family-oriented rohatsu celebration?

  • Bodhi tree — Due to a lack of ficus religiosa at my local garden center, we will substitute an evergreen tree, which are available in abundance
  • Decorations — Coloured lights (like prayer flags, representing the many paths to wisdom); the morning star atop the tree (natch); and ornaments to represent the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
  • Food— Siddartha ate a meal of rice and milk before beginning his vigil under the Bodhi Tree. Rice pudding it is! Rather than a big turkey dinner, I’d like to keep the meal simple (and light!) so as to best appreciate the subtle and amazing goodness that is homemade rice pudding. Have I mentioned that I like rice pudding? A lot?
  • Activities — Bri’s teacher and I chatted a bit about this. Kindergarteners aren’t gonna sit for 10 minutes, let alone all night. The class ended up drawing a picture of the Buddha under the Bodhia Tree with the Morning Star shining in the sky. Because Bodhi Tree leaves are heart-shaped, the kids liked drawing them. Art practice is good.

Somewhere on the interweb, I read that some folks light up the Bodhi Tree on December 8, then keep it lit every night for the next 30 days. We typically get cut trees, so I’m not sure if it’ll last that long, but I think keeping the lights on until the New Year feels like it fits nicely. Keeping a candle lit for that time also feels right.

Of course, there must be zazen, but that’s for me and the night before.

What are you doing for the holidays and why?