Friday, June 4, 2010

Losing it

Ever notice how many songs say things like “I think I’m losing my mind”? Seems like songwriters are familiar with walking off the edges of this square earth and dropping down into the regions where dragons dwell.

Maybe I’m just listening to more country and blues music than usual but dealing with the craziness of romance and the loss of it and the process of letting go, crying through the rug-pulled-out grieving, and beginning again – sure seems to be what fills the poet’s page.

Personally I have hard time feeling what I feel. One morning last week I sat on the couch in the home that I’m in the process of losing to a lost romance and tried to feel the emotions that I was sure were boiling away inside me. (I was living there for the first time since I left before Christmas – now looking after son David while Carol took a week off)

But there was no steam coming from the boil. I could feel a ball of emotion rise from my gut and travel up my throat – but before it could reach the voicebox and find expression - the Logic Guard in my cerebral cortex stabbed it with a pitchfork and shoved it back down again. The three pronged fork went something like this…
“what have you got to complain about – so many have it so much worse.”
“don’t complain”
“don’t cry”.
I responded like a well trained dog obeying orders it’s learned to get the treats it wants. I don’t cry. I don’t emote. I don’t even feel it until it breaks out in a fever, or stomach ache, or what I call the “emotional flu”.

I hear myself telling thirteen year old son David “don’t cry – everything’s okay”. I might as well tell the wind not to blow.

David has a daily spiritual practice. After a day of heroic efforts in Grade Seven, he comes home and has a cry. At first when I heard his cries, I would run out to the back porch where he’s playing catch with his dog and excitedly ask “what’s wrong?”. He’d just look at me. What a stupid question. Nothing is wrong – as in he is fed and dressed and clean and safe – but there is just so much that just ain’t right isn’t there Dad?

David faces the world with a bundle of mental and physical challenges that as best I can figure would be like trying to climb a steep rocky slope with a backpack full of rocks while really drunk. He communicates like a drunk too – using monosyllabic phrases and gestures that are short and often hard to understand. But like most drunks his few words come straight from the heart. No social defenses mask what he’s got to say – happy or sad or joyous or bodily-function-wise.

So David just works up a good cry each day. He starts off with a few cries, moves into shouting phrases he’s heard that day “don’t throw”, “no hitting”, “don’t”, “stop it”, “think” before letting it go into a full blown wail. Sometimes his dog howls along with him. I gave it a try too. Felt pretty good.

Then he’s good. Ready for some supper and his evening of tutored programming. Ready for the next challenge. Even heroes cry - is what David’s teaching me.


His tutor came last Saturday which meant I was able to attend a funeral. A young man had succumbed to the effects of poor mental health and the physical, mental and spiritual stresses of living with the social and medical side effects. His mother is not only a member of the congregation where I work but also the mother of one of my oldest friends married to a guy I went to high school with in Scarbro.

So I found myself sitting at the back of the chapel between two old highschool drinking buddies. It was challenging to engage in a service that I should have been leading. If I wasn’t suffering myself from the effects of poor mental health – I would have been honoured to lead this beloved family through their public sorrow and celebrations of a lost son and brother. It was hard to be there and not be able to fulfill my role.

Part of that role is to be the strong one. As a professional I am able to keep my emotions in check and bottle them so that I can lead others through the rituals of mourning and letting go. It just so happens that as a male in this Western culture – I have no trouble doing this at all. In fact, every other male in the room was doing the same thing.

One of the ways I knew that I needed to take a medical leave from work was the fact that at another funeral just after Easter – I found that my emotions were so high that the tears were flowing out of control. I could barely keep it together.

As members of the congregation where I serve know, I am not afraid to cry in public. My sermons make me cry. I can seldom express the powerful effect on me of GOD’s freely offered grace without the tears flowing.

Sharing a few freely shed tears and “losing it” are two different things. Isn’t that what we are all so afraid of? If we open up the window of our hearts to the sadness we feel – the floodgates will surely burst and we’ll be out of control, embarrassed, a mess, a public disgrace?

After the service I had to rush off to go relieve David’s tutor. The family invited me back to the house afterwards saying “bring David along for a swim”. Since David and I often swim Saturday afternoons I thought I’d give it a try.

We arrived and – walking into a crowded backyard – I experienced my usual dose of social anxiety looking for a familiar face and place to land. David however just made a bee line for the water. Whatever anxiety he was feeling was put into a goal that had him charging like a horse for the barn.

David’s a good swimmer. He floats. So I got to chat with a few friends on the dock while David plunged in. Concerned parents were ping-ponging their heads between David’s thrashing about and his Dad’s nonchalance. But Dad’s calm was about to be put to the test.

David headed for the beach where a crowd sat watching toddlers play. Heading over to join him I was two steps too slow as David grabbed a beach bag full of towels and diapers and heaved it into the lake. As I went to retrieve the bag, David grabbed an empty plastic lawn chair and heaved it in after the bag. By now I was ignoring the thrown items and heading for the source of trouble. Bystanders were giving a play by play “there’s goes your drink – there goes your towel” as my son was doing his best to be the life of the party with no lampshades at hand.

Upon capturing the culprit and having him sit beside me on the dock my comment was “hanging around with these drunks” nodding towards a few of the old high school buddies “prepared me for this”.

This is closer to the truth than I care to realize. In my blurred memories of high school parties I was often able to maintain a certain self-control which came in handy when an animal-keeper was required to tame, corner, or redirect the drunken adolescent expressions of teenage anger set loose by alcohol. (I later parlayed these skills into jobs working first as a cabbie and then a churchworker caring for challenging individuals among Toronto’s homeless community.)

David is a teenager now. Along with his daily cries, he is looking for a way to express the anger a young man feels. Anger is a man’s way of dealing with fear. All the fears of whether or not I’ll be able to cope with the challenges, the expectations, the money, the girls, the rules and consequences of the choices I make. The fears of entering into a new stage of life where the old rules are no longer working. The fears of knowing it’s all up to me now – and friends and family can only help so much.

David doesn’t need alcohol to let those fears out for a run. His Logic Guard is often so stoned on the psychedelic effects of Autism – caused by too much stimulus (a crowd of strangers for example) - on the senses that logic is way down the list of priorities – well behind the physically powerful adrenaline-testosterone fueled rush and fun of a good rampage.

Leading David out to the car with the assistance of a Scarbro bouncer - before he does any real damage – or his Dad loses it too (just as likely), David says “I’m afraid”.
“Everyone’s afraid David.” I tell him.
“I’m afraid of everything” my old friend confesses.

From the heart we speak. Led by a child.

David and I retreat back home to the soothing effects of some really loud rock music. The kind of music my adolescent friends and I found expressed what our parent’s culture didn’t allow for. The driving beat and energy carries our minds to that place where we can let the fear flow. The wailing guitars scream out our pain. The words are all about “losing it in order to find it”.

David and I have together created this moment to mark the transitions we’re facing – death-defying, soul-wrenching, fear-facing, open-hearted bleeding passions of Father and Son. Male cultures through the centuries and around the world have created and cherished such rituals - marking the male path from fear, through anger, to power discovered when each one of us finds that place to share our unique gift with the world. But this culture has lost that art. It has no such ritual to offer us. So we’re making it up as we go along. ROCK ON BABY!

There is a river that washes you clean
There is a tree that marks the places you’ve been
Blood that was spilled
Though not your own

Through all of your tears
Through the wages of those things you’ve done
All of those nights spent in the darkness of your mind

Give it up
Let go
These are things you were never meant to shoulder

There is a river that washes you clean
There is a tree that marks the places you’ve been
Blood that was spilled
Though not your own
Through all of those tears
Love will it’s own

So give up the right to control the waves that empty at your life
Above Wild skies are the rays that break the shadows we design

Give it up
Let it go
These are things you are never meant to shoulder

I know the world can turn in different ways
Most of the time we’re simply hanging on
And under the sighs of how we all behave
We might find the place where we belong

Song “there is a River” by Jars of Clay from their album “Scary Monsters”