Tonight I found out that Ram Dass passed away. I only knew his name from stumbling across his book, Be Here Now, a few months back wandering at Barnes & Noble while taking a break from work. I flipped through the book, was struck by the wildness of the imagery and text, but ultimately put it back. I thought to myself, “That’s something I might buy later.”
But I never went back and bought it. I haven’t done it yet. And coming up to the end of this year, there’s a lot of things that I haven’t done yet. Yet yet yet yet yet. Always this word in between what you want and where you are.
The space in my life between that moment in the bookstore and right now is worlds apart. Almost everything in my life has completely changed, some things, irrevocably. I am still struggling to comprehend the changes that have happened since then, complicated by the haze of a concussion and physical pain.
I was in a car accident in October, where someone on the freeway rear ended my car after I stopped to avoid hitting someone else who suddenly stopped. The force of the crash pushed me into the other car. I just found out last week Monday that my car, just barely over a year old, is not able to be fixed because the reinforced steel frame is irreparably damaged. This still has not completely sunk in.
I know that I am lucky, I know things could have been much worse, and I am thankful that despite everything else, I am alive. While I am thankful for my life (no one wants my life more than me), I know I am also mostly only saying these things in the context of this accident because of societal expectation.
For whatever reason, whenever you’re injured, the default response we are expected to have is “it could have been worse,” which is certainly true. But this downward social comparison reaction often comes at the expense of minimizing what injuries are there in actual reality. I’ve found this is greatly magnified when those injuries aren’t disfiguring or physically apparent to someone who is either not in my body or continuously observing me.
The truth is, I am feeling absolutely terrified about my injuries, especially to my head and neck. My body hurts from head to toe, every joint and muscle aches, particularly both of my arms and hands, making it painful to do normal, everyday movements; the left half of my body is partially numb while my left eye twitches after every yawn and sneeze; normal sounds and lights are too loud and bright, and too much of them in a day gets overwhelming; old hip and knee injuries that were occasionally annoying at best are now like constantly aggravating knives stabbing into my every step and movement; my hand-eye coordination is off, memory is sluggish and unsteady, my movements are slowed, my emotions feel like distant shells of themselves, making things like playing piano feel like a foreign experience happening in a body that isn’t controlled by me — this is probably the single most scary thing.
All of this is more frightening than it realistically should be because I have had very little medical guidance or assurance since the accident, not for my lack of trying, but because of a continual dismissal on the part of multiple providers to take me and my meticulously logged concerns seriously. Why this could be is an open question — the literature in health policy would suggest that it’s partially because I’m an unmarried woman less likely to receive serious treatment (even for things like cancer), and that the medical profession psychologizes the pain of women leading to misdiagnoses and other disparities in treatment versus men. Even with gender notwithstanding, preventable medical errors in diagnosis caused by inappropriate and incorrect use of heuristics and cognitive biases in clinicians lead to avoidable deaths in an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 people per year in the U.S. alone. Research by Harvard on autopsies over a span of 40 years found missed diagnoses in 9% of deceased patients. All of this evidence indicates that I am not being “anxious” about my symptoms when I don’t feel heard or listened to by doctors — I am being legitimately concerned for my life.
Knowing all of this has not helped me feel a single bit better or more confident in any treatment I have received as of this writing, and instead, has caused a severe amount of distress as I stare into the gap of what I have been and continue experiencing, and the medical treatment (or lack thereof) I have been receiving. I have never encountered so many dehumanizing, apathetic healthcare professionals since this car accident, especially in the emergency room, and this terrifies me. It makes me wonder to what extent some of them might hate their jobs, their lives, or themselves so much that they seem to have completely lost all compassion for other human beings. Considering that what I feel as inadequate or even substandard care has all come from one particular hospital system makes me question if the management of that particular system is what is majorly contributing to my patient experience.
I get very frustrated because this is happening to me, especially because this concussion has made it very difficult to speak what I am thinking in conversation, like all my vocabulary and ability to articulate clearly in spoken word is on the other side of a wall I can’t immediately access, and hours or days after the encounter, I finally find the words I was trying to say. I worry in their haste and lack of either listening to what I am saying or taking it seriously or my being able to adequately express my full and specific concerns that they are missing something important in properly treating me. I get very upset when I think how many other people may be getting treated this way. I struggle with retaining my own sense of compassion in this situation, and plunge into despair when I later consider that any apathy on their part could also simply be due to their own personal challenges having nothing to do with their work. Yet, I have less tolerance for this in the medical profession because their work literally holds the lives of other human beings in their hands. Medical professionals must be held to a higher standard in clinical practice as much as they are in their educational and licensing requirements, and I have to withhold a certain amount of understanding for error when it comes to my treatment.
Despite all of this, I am thankful and relieved that as of three weeks ago, I’ve finally found a more compassionate, human doctor who seems to actually care about what I am saying and how I am actually feeling in reality, and not how they assume I must be feeling of some predetermined heuristic. It is not lost on me that this doctor is part of a different hospital system, and that the overall experience at this hospital is greatly improved over the other. Only because of a combination of good luck and my own self-advocacy for my healthcare have I managed to even find this doctor. In a week from now, I will finally get to the right doctors who specialize in treating concussions — almost three months after the accident. I am just hanging on until then.
As I’ve been swimming these dark waters clinging to a makeshift raft I’ve crafted out of the wreckage of what was my previous life, it’s crossed my mind how just a few months ago, I was telling myself “things could always be worse.” I was attempting to maintain perspective, to motivate myself to be thankful for what I did have, even if it was not where I wanted to be or what I had worked to accomplish.
Back then in the bookstore, I was working hard to pull myself out of a depression while struggling to imagine a new path for my life after a number of unexpected events in 2017 altered my entire life’s plans. Since then, life has felt like a waking nightmare, and I’ve felt increasingly dissociated from my own life as I watched everything I believed I could trust fall down around me.
One minute I was about to start graduate school studying health policy & law, a subject I felt deeply and passionately about, living in a comfortable, modest flat in Delhi filled with support from family and friends, ready to start the next phase of my life, feeling like the educational goals I had worked so hard and so long to attain were finally coming true; the next minute I’m back on Oʻahu, family support a faded mirage, friends I thought I had nowhere to be found, withdrawn from graduate school even after managing a perfect A quarter amidst the storm because my head was reeling so hard from the force of the sudden changes in my life that I lost my bearings and purpose for living.
The people that were supposed to lift me up were the very ones pushing me down, and the weight of this reality crushed me to my core. It was nearly too much to bear. It was my heart breaking that got to me, coming face to face with things as they actually were and realizing they were not as I was led to believe, seeing that choices I made were based on false information from people I loved who were closest to me, and the devastation of seeing how those choices could not be unmade while those people seemed not to even grasp or care about how any of their actions made me feel or had affected my life in tangible, real ways.
I have historically been very quick to blame myself for things that are not my fault — namely the poor/unhealthy/damaging/irresponsible choices of other people — and I’ve slowly been realizing that this is not a good coping mechanism to have as an adult. This is a childish defense mechanism born out of challenging familial situations while growing up that internalizes intense stress and pressure and really doesn’t accurately hold the right people responsible for their actions.
I’m slowly learning how to hold a new gentleness for myself around all of this, coming to see that I grew this coping mechanism out of necessity because I was surrounded by people who erroneously kept handing me their responsibilities instead of just letting me be a child. There doesn’t need to be a huge thing about it — it’s just what it was. There are many reasons why, but analyzing all of these reasons doesn’t necessarily translate into useful and practical actions now.
I’ve now come to the conclusion that it is far too heavy to carry all my responsibility plus the responsibility of other people. I am not able to handle all of that weight, and that is okay. It’s not about assignment of blame or angrily pointing fingers, but simply accepting that what’s mine is mine, and what belongs to others is theirs.
My whole life, I believed that it was actually my responsibility to fix problems that were just handed to me, even if they didn’t belong to me, even if I had no real idea of how to fix them (e.g., being a child and getting evicted). The past two years, I have learned that this really isn’t a sustainable model for living any kind of authentic life. I am really not supposed to responsible for anyone but myself, seeing as I don’t presently have any children. Unfortunately, this has not been the dynamic in most every relationship I have had. That’s been very problematic, as I’ve also learned that there are apparently quite a lot of people who would rather hand off responsibility for themselves to others.
I also have been slowly realizing that I was taught to be ashamed of who I am, what I stand for, what I look like, where I was from, how I grew up, and why I exist. This shame was handed to me by family, people, and deeply ingrained messages within society, but this is something else I picked up and felt I had to carry as my own. This is another childish coping mechanism to make sense of a world that seemed to have no place for me in it. Perhaps I have just been trying to be the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time — no one should keep being a person they are ashamed of. Writing this, I realize I don’t even know what a sense of healthy pride is supposed to feel like — echoes of school spirit and personal pride! slogans from childhood ring in my mind’s ears — because I repeatedly learned that my accomplishments or contributions are inferior to the emotions and whims of others. I can see how I’ve been rather naïve in some ways of thinking, and how this has resulted in my misunderstanding or inadequately assessing the intentions or motivations of others.
I have a lot to learn.
Seeing Ram Dass’ quotes and random bits of information about his life flood Twitter tonight — he lived on Maui where he passed away, he was a psychologist who researched psychedelics and consciousness with Timothy Leary at Harvard, he was 88 years old, he passed away the day after the Winter Solstice — I was struck by the wisdom in some of his words like I was on that day at the bookstore.
One particular quote caught me, reminding me of truth I had known but lost sight of in the fray of trying to cling to some remnant of my life the past two years.
It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.Ram Dass
I sat there reading this over and over, realizing that this is at least part of what I have been missing. I grew up in a lot of adversity, and before, I would always just keep going, stay positive, view everything as a lesson, and just keep moving. But somewhere along the way of too many heavy things at once, I got stuck.
While reading this quote and reflecting on my life, I envisioned the quote on a photo with a forested path and thought of creating that.
Then… I realized I needed to just do it now, and not keep it as some thought to do later that never actually happens.
Like going back and buying that book. Like expressing my feelings honestly and openly without fear of being shamed into silence. Like so many things that I’ve pushed aside in my life this year and every other year because of prioritizing other things which may not really have been in my best interest, or my interest at all.
I’ve noticed a pattern in myself where I get very enthusiastic about helping other people to the point where I completely ignore and dismiss myself and my needs — and I mean basic needs for food, sleep, health, and financial security. None of this is okay, for me or anyone else. These are things I learned to do, and none of this is being responsible for me.
I am still unfolding how much of this has to do with what I’ve been taught around what it means to be a woman, and how much of it is specific to the way I was raised in particular. It has been a very hard lesson for me that sometimes people that say “I love you” the most actually love you the least, and you will only find this out when you need their love the most and find it isn’t there to hold you up. It is much harder to accept that this only happens because of their own unresolved pain around expressing love, and like most instances of conflict between people, has little to nothing to do with you at all. But it is much harder to face where I have done the same things in my life to others because of my own unresolved pain around expressing love, and admit I don’t yet know quite how to fix these things.
I am still learning to find the balance of where I can retain my enthusiasm for life, helping other people, and self-respect for my own basic needs and boundaries. I do not have this figured out yet, but as a wise friend pointed out to me, “I think that’s just part of figuring out life.”
Some time ago, I came to realize that there is only now, an ever-present now extending in all directions simultaneously, and that “future” and “past” are all constructs of the mind describing difference instances of now. However, I’ve also come to learn that this realization doesn’t stop the mind from thinking in terms of the past or the future, and dragging you and your attention along with it. I naïvely believed somehow that realization alone would be enough to actualize the deepest intentions of my heart and soul. But of course, realization without action just leads to more thinking, the endless trap of the mind.
It’s become apparent to me that the mind doesn’t care at all for the realizations of your heart and soul. The mind is a fickle fairweather friend who will leave you standing in the rain if someone it deems more interesting comes along, walking off with your umbrella in its hand.
The mind is kind of a ridiculous thing, really. It’s like a very intelligent, strong-willed dog that needs to be trained otherwise it will run wild, rip up, and knock over everything. Without training, it will become chaotic. Neglect it, and it will become vicious and attack out of fear and disorientation. Like a dog, the mind wants to be consistently trained and rewarded, but more than anything, maybe it just really wants our attention and love.
This view is not something I have taken before. I viewed the mind more as a tool to be appropriately used, but now I see that maybe I don’t want to “use” parts of myself at all. Maybe I want to train and reward all the parts of myself for healthy behavior, and show all the parts of myself love that need it. Maybe my mind has been throwing a tantrum called “depression” because it needs and wants more love, and not the punishment I’ve been giving it for “misbehaving.” Maybe it has become vicious and attacking me and others with defensive anger and shame because I have been neglecting its core needs.
How do I show love to my mind? By letting it express itself. Through writing, creating, music, photography, learning, and doing all the things it was meant to do and naturally wants to do, regardless of whether or not my body hurts or if my coordination is off — I will regain it with more practice. I have been stopping myself even before this concussion from healthily expressing my mind because of the shame I carried of who I am and the pain I felt over what has been happening in my life. But no more. My mind is going to do what it does regardless, but if I give it something to focus on that it will enjoy, then it will do something healthy with itself instead of spinning around circles chasing its tail.
When I look back at the past two years, I realize I have been grieving my lost life, flailing about, unable to find my footing, feeling at times like the ones I loved and my own mind had turned against me, and that I would never find a way out. Now, I see I don’t need to find my way out; I need to feel my way out. I know myself well enough to recognize depression, my nearly lifelong familiar companion, but I also have learned enough about life by now to recognize the depth of this particular depression as the growing pains of the soul. I’ve also come to notice how depression seems to parallel the stages of grief over losing someone to death. In a way, depression seems to be a state of internal grief over losing a part of yourself to a type of internally or personally experienced death. You are still alive, but some meaningful part of you or your life has metaphorically died, whether it be important circumstances or relationships or abilities or a way of being that has been fundamentally and permanently altered. Perhaps depression is our internal experience of grief for something meaningful we have lost and cannot change.
I am frustrated because right before this concussion, I was actually starting to feel much better, exercising more regularly and vigorously, extracting myself out of depression, feeling a certain lightness returning to my life. Throughout this particular instance of depression, I was choosing to experience it consciously as a window into what is normally hidden from view, aware of it, seeing what lessons and insights it had to offer to free myself of unconscious patterns that ran counter to a healthy life. It’s long been my perspective than the greatest difficulties are the greatest teachers, and to me, depression is no different. This view is probably a coping mechanism I’ve formed through growing up facing many challenges totally outside my control, and has proven to be a useful way of approaching life.
But this concussion and the accident that caused it completely derailed everything in my life, my plans, and my ability to do the things I would normally do to feel like myself or feel better. It’s challenged me in ways that I have to face, ready or not, whether I wanted to or not.
It’s like I was almost done building a sandcastle on a beach when a sudden gust of wind knocked down a nearby palm tree that flung a coconut free from its boughs that flew into my sandcastle, demolishing it, as I dived narrowly out of the way to avoid getting hit. On a beach, you expect the ocean to threaten my sandcastle, and never a flying coconut. The sandcastle is the life I was rebuilding out of my depression, and even though I avoided getting hit by a flying coconut which is way more dangerous, I still have to start over again building this sandcastle, but now I have to ask, do I even want to build the sandcastle on this beach now? Do I even want to build another sandcastle at all?
All of this forces me to admit that even if I was choosing to consciously experience my depression, I did not choose to become depressed anymore than I chose to be in an accident or get a concussion. It also severely worsened the experience of depression, and added a whole other layer of physical pain and neurological complication that wasn’t there before. I can laugh when I consider that by choosing to experience depression as a teacher, that somehow, this is all part of the lesson. Whether or not taking this view this is just me wresting the circumstances outside my control into something I can control is debatable, but having the sense of an internal locus of control is key to stabilizing what feels like a completely unstable situation. Doing this, I have to accept what I do and do not need right now, based on what will and won’t help me get better.
Right now, I don’t need some elaborate long-range plan meticulously crafted by my mind that falls to pieces if anything doesn’t go how it’s planned; I need gentle, loving patience with myself as I create space to heal and recover fully from my painful bodily injuries. If there’s one message I keep running into, it’s that concussions take time to heal, and there isn’t much that can be done about that but having patience — not my strong suit, and a definite indicator that this is part of my lesson. I need to be surrounded with the loving kindness of myself and others who understand how to practice and embody compassion. I don’t need to be around people who practice toxic positivity in denial of the difficult parts of reality, denying their own shadows, who make me feel ashamed to be who I am, or who only appear in my life when it seems to benefit them without reciprocity. Fulfilling my essential human needs first will give me something to build everything else onto.
This is not an easy concept for me to accept, and I feel resistance around this. No matter how much the idealistic part of me hates this concession and wants to continue believing that attending to everyone else’s needs before my own is the “right action,” I must accept that if I don’t attend to myself first, I will have nothing to serve or give anyone. And when I look around at my reality now, it’s true — what can I possibly do or give to anyone in my current state of near total depletion? Why must I feel it is morally wrong to take care of myself? The hard truth is I need to learn how to do these most basic functions, and I need to spend time unpacking all the facets of why I feel attending to my basic human needs gives rise to feelings of inexcusable moral transgression.
Yet, tonight, I acted. I made the header image of this post that was inspired by reading the quote of a man who has left his body and left behind a work of compassion waiting to be discovered by me still here on Earth, but also who sadly didn’t prepare himself financially for his older age. Another lesson — that is not the life I want to have for myself. I have to act to create what I want.
After making the image, I realized, why did I even create this if not to share it? What is creation if it isn’t shared? And where to share it? And why?
And that’s how I ended up here, realizing that giving form to this quote as I envisioned it was just a gateway into me writing what I needed to express and create tonight. I’ve had this space for over three years now, with a huge backlog of photographs and experiences to share, but it’s only been me who’s been afraid and ashamed to create and share what I wanted to. In reality, I’ve felt this way for eighteen years, going all the way back to when I first registered this domain with the same intent at age sixteen. I created a site, had it all planned out, and just never executed those plans out of a great fear and anxiety of creatively expressing myself.
I picked up the fear and shame that was handed to me, so I can put it down, too. Since “fear” and “shame” are not tangible, perhaps the only way to “put them down” is to express and create things that directly defy their experiences. Certainly, the only way out is through.
Now, slowly, somehow things are starting to make sense again. ॐ