Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Making a Stake in Reclamation

The raindrops pelted me with snappy wetness; wind was gusty and chilled just right. Ah, an early autumn downpour, crispy leaves scuttering about, the earth emitting its scent of greenness devolving into decay and fallowness in the weeks ahead. Not yet winter and not fully fall, this transition period will display fickleness–one week a bright balminess again, the next, an earlier darkening horizon with clouds gathering water to disperse.

My upturned face ran with raindrops, my jeans grew soggy, my breath was taxed by steep paths, then I found my pace along the terrain. And every step brought to mind singular words or phrases, as is so often the case. This time: cure, curative, restoration, claimant, clearing, rejuvenation, reclamation. Act of reclamation. Then only the quietness of woods and steady beats of my feet.

By the time I got home I asked myself: claimant of what, exactly? A cure, of what kind, for which sort of malady? Clearing… of smoke, land, people’s minds, clearing away of debris? Rejuvenation of our fire-hollowed million acres? Reclamation: that has been the urgent word for a few days. It first conjured up a picture of people standing up tall, a solid force and laboring to make right what is wrong. Our people in Oregon. The American people.

Still, my brain scanned examples of reclamation and came up with a mediocre plot of land that lies in sad shape. Someone passes by and sees it is disused, or poorly used or even overused. He/she is challenged by the task of rehabbing it, considering something better, different. An insignificant spot altered so that people may come to enjoy. That person asks for help. Flowers or vegetables are planted, a bench or two installed, an old wooden table set in the shade of a revived apple tree whose white blossoms glow in the sunlight, and the fruit ripens, is picked and well enjoyed. Soon others gather to swap ideas, share food, play dominoes or chess or cards.

I consider the art of mosaics, how often they are created by jagged pieces and slivers of glass or ceramic or rock that have been broken and then salvaged to construct a work of art, utilitarian or an object of beauty to gaze upon appreciatively. The useless pieces were reclaimed, refashioned into something of value to the maker–and maybe others. Something that might have gone to waste since deemed useless has been reclaimed.

I consider these images that unfurl like stories, and then people I know. How do we restore our lives in response to the stresses and worries of these days and nights? Or is a basic restoration the wisest goal, with so many influences intent on determining otherwise? Restore to just what, now?

I keep hearing from friends and some family that they are beyond weary of it all. The novel coronavirus’ demands and restrictions and continued loss of life; the historic wildfires of the West/Northwest; the ever increasing political turmoil; loss of jobs and homes–that they have begun to feel more impotent each day. I hear the telltale flatness of their sentences, a symptom of depression, and worry. I call them, text them. Daily there are articles about people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being so long ill from COVID-19 or working brutal hours helping the critically ill; from losing all to the fires out West or to hurricanes; from worry over, or participation in protests to address racism that can turn ugly and get way off track. And reported erroneously–as so much seems to be, more and more– in the media, as well.

How do we manage, then, monumental stress and uncertainty? It is no longer just one thing or another, but a number subsequent events–depending partly on where one lives– that have us tied up in knots. We know to try to stay better connected to one another even if virtually (who could have imagined this–like sci fi come to the fore–main mode of connection just 7 months ago?) and getting enough rest, exercise and eating decently despite lessening appetites; and taking time to enjoy whatever we each may find. Taking time to be together, even if six feet apart-but even that seems harder, at times. We are just tired.

Recently some friends and I had conversation about how people can reckon with painful, sometimes sudden, alterations in their lives. After the initial shock of a negative life-changing event lessens–which may take weeks, months or longer–individuals embark on various courses. They may do nothing, unable to find motivation enough other than to survive. They may engage in more group activities (even online) to help stay the profound sense of loneliness that can accompany the sadness. Or they may take up a project that fully engages, whether building something or repainting or repairing the house (hardware stores are doing well). Or some may lessen tension by enrolling in a Zumba class, running a few miles a day, doing yoga. Therapy is an option and if it is good, people can learn how to cope with stress and fear, and with PTSD triggers to then minimize overwhelming feelings of helplessness, deal better with nightmares and intrusive thoughts or images of the trauma. Or sessions can help one learn how to grieve more fully, then finally begin to live without the loved one who was lost, or the job that was taken away or the health that is undone–and finally, one hopes, go on, day by day.

Others might retreat into solitude and prayer or other meditative activity. The person seeking relief may choose to work longer and become the last one out of the office–or be very late turning off the computer if working at home, one’s partner calling out to “come to bed, please.” They also could engage in addictive behaviors that may temporarily induce a numbed disconnection from unhappiness they push away. This can occur even if they were not originally given to problematic drinking/gambling/sex/shopping/falling into love affairs– to name but a few.

It all comes down to rooting out some relief from realities that plague people. But a foundation of healthier ways needs to be built somehow if life is to be improved beyond a short tie. When there is psychic or physical damage, repair is needed. To reclaim something can mean to save from the refuse, to gather remnants left and make anew from ruined bits. It might mean the person needs to move away from haunting errors made with a change in locale or leave a toxic person. And it requires getting perspective and some control of conflicting parts to remake a life so that it works better. This, rather than you being worked over by it. Because unless a life is essentially habitable, it becomes a kind of prison or worse. And little can feel worse than to feel caught in the same bad place, helpless.

I have actual experience with all this, both as a counselor working decades at mental health and addiction treatment agencies, and in my personal life. Client after client came to see me with complex, weighty issues. They were at wits’ end and worn out and often on the brink of giving up entirely. Some had arrived after being near death for a few reasons— or had met death and then returned unhappily to the living. And the circumstances were far more varied than one might think.

One person was desperate to meet, with bad injuries still healing after a private plane trip that resulted in a crash. Yet this person continued to see the pilot, the love interest, who was untrustworthy, abusively dangerous. My client had developed an addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs in part due to the availability from the wealthy partner. The client’s well bred family had given up and from the hospital sent the person right to treatment.

Another person who was homeless with addiction and mental health diagnoses was finally getting substance free, yet still had the problem of where to live safely with a mangy but beloved dog. Housing was severely limited; there was no income until disability was applied for and gotten, which took a long while to obtain. There was no care for the dog without money. So we had to cut corners to secure pet help and temporary housing,

An adult was the only one left alive after her family was murdered by nephew in alcoholic black out. A teen grew up in a home with “routine” domestic violence; she had became a runaway and a dealer, lost in every way and angry. Another client was raped but no one believed the truth; he started to drink 7 days a week and dropped out of college-he was hoping to become a doctor.

I listened to human tragedies every day. How could I help them recover? Show how to rebuild their lives for the short and long term? Because the reality is, I could have used every therapeutic tool in the book, shown compassion and patience for months, but if the individual was not prepared to do the tough work of changing his or her state of mind or circumstances, I was not going make the difference I desired. Being ready to change was equally a key, perhaps even more than gaining new choices and life skills. This sounds harsh but consider what happens when one does not want to heal, to change: more of the same, or nothing.

It might surprise some how not ready people can be when you get down to the bottom line, despite their pain. But I understood this. The more life errors or trauma experienced, the less able a person feels to hang on for the long run, to start to recover and move forward. It takes exhausting and mind boggling efforts when already feeling on empty. So when there was any spark noticed in a client–that they realized life could still be worth living and there was hope despite the rawness and bleak view, I was holding out my hand, carefully but surely. I felt that when someone at last took it, he/she was willing to give a different way of living the barest chance. And we all know one spark can make a fire, and a small, well tended fire can do much needed good, especially when you are not truly alone.

From an early age, I was given some challenges. Those who have followed this blog know I experienced childhood sexual abuse. My mother, who suspected it, did not protect me nor tell my father or anyone of her fears. I was cautioned to stay away from the perpetrator at 9 years old. So it continued 2-3 years until my beloved oldest sister divorced the man she’d so hastily married wasn’t right for marriage (and she learned afterwards was a pedophile–and heard of my abuse when I was 35, she was 48.). It was like being caught in a corner with no way out and no one to call for help. Everything boiled down to survival and I knew so little about that then.

But that was just the start. If someone is abused and no one acknowledges it or helps, more trauma arises from that terrible error. In fact, it may be the worst of it. The secret was kept; the adept pretending that all was fine increased; feelings of worthlessness, failure and loneliness increased year by year. And behaviors tried out to lessen the relentless discouragement, confusion, and fear were increasingly unhealthy. Abandonment in dire crises is a hard one. I just had to learn how to swim in a vast stormy sea.

And then what came happens when life is lived as if stumbling through the dark with clumsy bruised feet. More victimization from various assaults; drug use both legitimate (our family doctor prescribed my first tranquilizers at age 12 due to not being able to sleep) and later illegitimate to dull the pain; the drug-fueled, PTSD-laden breakdowns at 15 and 19; and much later, alcoholism and treatment centers. Retreats from death.

Less positive choices for a life path was made harder by being a magnet for a dangerous boyfriend and later unstable/abusive/neglectful husbands (and, occasionally, “friends”). Including a criminal who took whatever dignity I had somehow redeveloped, as well as what money I had. And for most of that relationship I was sober; I had naively thought he was different deep down… Clearly, I hadn’t righted my life yet. I did not have the corrected map or enough wherewithal to traverse the right roads. There was no sure reclamation going on until the two teen children still at home left secretly with me. This was, for me, about the worst it could get. I was devastated that the work I had put in was still not my salvation. But I would not give up.

After all of that and with more therapy, I had enough. I sometimes wondered if I was one who might not recover, never make my life whole. It was either create a different life or get off the planet. i abstained from relationships for years. When I was out of money awhile between low paying jobs, out of nowhere came the gift of work I then believed was not for me. I could pay the rent and buy food (my19 yo son helped out); that was enough.

But there was rapid skill development and a surprising passion for the work even as I resisted the encouragement to become a fully certified counselor. The work was with addicted, emotionally ill, gang-affiliated, and homeless youth. Even as I said no, I returned to college. My work got better. I healed faster with more help. Still, for six years, I was one of those who worked every hour I could–to pay the bills but also to keep well occupied–and attended classes and studied. But when home I withdrew from the world. I prayed, wrote, walked daily, danced–took care of my self, tended to my children the best I could. Parenting demanded I be involved and responsive, enabled me to yet love deeply. In time, success seemed more reachable in the ways that mattered. After that, another marriage and there came decades more working with vulnerable adults and youth.

I found more and more happiness, despite difficulty. I stopped feeling terminally unique, too. A deep relief that was.

The point is, reclamation of life can take awhile. It can demand you give more, to make good on tentative promises to yourself and others. But it does come to pass.

I found it a long journey; I remain on the lifelong path to greater understanding and well being. It is alright; I enjoy learning immensely. But I had to build up endurance. Had to keep searching for the light through shadows, sketchy twists, off-road forays. I transformed the old feeling of being a maimed person with mostly deficits into being changed but not ruined. To being able to regenerate were injuries had slowed it or stopped it before. To having a capacity for problem solving and adaptability. I kept giving the pain to God, and it works. I gave my more tender self to creative work that improved. It happened in bits and pieces but each time there were clearer insight or better choices made, there was progress. And I was grateful for any small step forward.

Reclamation of life: we can do this for ourselves. Likely you, too, have already done it many times but perhaps didn’t know how potent a thing it was. Then hindsight showed you how much it was you undertook and overcame. A fighter for good, a creative force, a change agent–yes, you.

I came back to the core of who I am–as valuable as others, a capable person. Someone worth respecting and caring for. It was first hard to believe. And strong, as I found I can endure many harsh surprises, losses. I have, with encouragement and care from many, retained a heart for life and for others. An “optimistic realist”, I will hold up hope, but give me the full facts. No excuses or white lies or fudged numbers. Give me the truth, first and last, as it is best known. I am not good in the dark even if I can manage it. Turn on a spotlight– or at least a homely candle burning orange and yellow in the maze of life.

So, back to the conversations I have had lately about how one deals with all these crises that millions are trying to cope with these days. I can only think that we can do it, because it has been done before. We do have what it takes. We all suffer; we learn how to persist. People have the remarkable characteristic of resilience and when it is coupled with concern for others as I have seen in Oregon since the wildfires devastation, this is true power being witnessed.

I know at any time conditions can change in a flash. Meantime, I am going on despite trials making my own sort of reclamations as follows:

*Remember we are each part of the infinite and eternal design of the universe. –I had to get this one out of the way, because it informs all I do and believe. It helps me keep things in a more reasonable perspective. Maintaining my spiritual life just makes the difference. (Others may not agree–I try to always respect this.)

*Assess the situation based on facts as they are known. Do not close a blind eye when both clear eyes open is what is needed.

*Develop a plan for longer range goals (even a day, week or month beyond this current moment) by brainstorming options; be open to thinking outside the box and hearing others’ ideas.

*Proceed with caution but take even a small action– with expectancy of a some good progress to be made within one’s own life and potentially within a community.

*Use common sense. Sometimes humans overthink a problem or situation to the point of dead-end idiocy. Trust the gut; we were all born with instinct and intuition. (I should have done so long ago…)

*Exercise compassion, even when–maybe especially when– angry or confounded. Pause to pray or meditate, and that one’s perceived enemy to be truly blessed, not cursed.

*Stand up. Be heard. Claim your space and change one little thing. Make right what can be made right in your sphere, and work to support others who endeavor to reform what is unjust–that is, whatever stymies human flourishing. And may we keep out planet alive with more people fully caretaking of–not wasting–its vast gifts.

*Hold on. Some things cannot be rushed or altered at the moment. Timing makes a difference. Patience can mean everything. But then go boldly.

*Find worthwhile meaning in small moments, too; praise them all. What we have after we lose something or someone is ourselves, and some faith in what we cannot yet see but hope for, and anything we can salvage to begin again.

*Remember: no matter your pain, it has been felt before. No matter your grief, it has been mourned by another. No matter your aloneness, you are still part of humanity and someone cares. Ask for help; be found. Then help others who seek aid.

*If you can laugh despite the tears, give that to yourself and others. It shakes free some heaviness, lets more light in, brings relief.

*Create something. Anything you like. Give it away if the spirit moves you.

*Go and sit under dancing trees or move through fields or mountains or walk by water or rest among cacti and watch for coyotes. Open a window to the sky and listen, smell, touch, see. This is much of the wonder of life, given to you.

We can be well enough restored–as long as we have breath and our hearts beat–even in these times. It is not so likely it will be the reality we have known before…but nothing is static. Living can still be embraced and improved upon. It has been done before. The world has suffered in some terrible way, always. We being an adaptable species have managed to go on thus far amid devastations. We fail at times, but we also are compelled to try once more. We will wake up each day to see what is going on, and we will participate in the unfolding by being present and accounted for. I have gotten to 70; so also can you carry on the best you can.

I believe we are meant to be like angels for one another while we walk this earth. We are meant to illuminate the pathway together. We are meant to see goodness in one another, make compassion the rule. May we, then, comfort and help one another as we navigate rough waters and no matter what lies ahead.

(Note: those referred to as clients are composites of people I have known over many years of counselling positions.)