Thursday, August 30, 2012

Coming Out

Strawberries in their green hats

If you do not say 'good'
and you do not say 'not-good,'
then what is the nature of reality? 

I think I've written before about this koan, the first one I ever came across, not counting "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" since I didn't seriously see that as a koan until a few years ago.  The above question is in the little classic Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which was the first such book I owned.  Maybe the first I ever saw.  I must have plucked it from a bookstore shelf because the word "Zen" signified to me a life of clean, orderly peace.  (Wrong again.)

You may react to it like I did - WTF?  Seriously, in that age before the internet and its acronyms, I wondered, But how can you not judge things and like things or dislike them?  Obviously, things are good or bad.  I wondered that every time I picked up that book and read it.  Maybe that means I was "carrying the koan," as they say; not trying to decipher it, not puzzling over it; just had it in there, not making sense.

I started to understand it when I began to do loving kindness meditation (metta), which is a structured kind of prayer or intention that includes "a neutral person."  Like many people, I discovered that I either liked or disliked practically everyone.  That slows you down, seeing that.   I was dividing the world as my alcoholic father taught me by example: either "he's okay," or "he's an a------."  I didn't think in those terms.  I just liked or disliked people, an in-law, the mail carrier, the checkout clerk.  I had to use strangers in that space.  That turned out well, but that's a story for another time.

Last Sunday morning, deeply depressed and distraught over the sparsely-attended funeral of a friend, I posted a post called "In Memory of a Wild Flower."  It ranged widely, blaming our minister, Mark, for not saying good things about her, for telling many things she had kept secret during her life; blaming others in the church who had not liked Teena or me or had let me down at one time; blaming her family for, it seemed then, not forgiving her even a little. I was ready never to go back to that church again.  I have taken this post down for now, and will repost it after I revise it in light of what has happened since.

What happened was that I heard first from Mark, and his long post was clearly compassionate.  I answered, he wrote back.  Then I ran into a woman I'd targeted in that post (though not by name), who must have heard about it, and put her arm around me and was so kind and reassuring that I burst into tears.  Meanwhile, I heard from friends who suffer as I do, some of them with serious diagnoses I had not known about, some telling me, "I'm not out of the closet on this," and thanking me for saying what they felt - that the mentally ill are stigmatized everywhere.  Thanking me for being out of the closet.  

At first, I also felt horrible, wished I hadn't posted it, wished I could have addressed the issues privately face to face. I should have known better.  But I was flailing around, drowning in hurt and outrage and, at the same time, the worst moodswings I've ever had.  Before long, though, I realized that the post had led to bonding with people whose stories I had not known, who carried around the same kind of hurt as me.  So it wasn't bad or good to have posted as I did. You can't say.

I don't regret this - displaying the kind of despair and fear we have to deal with, a depth of mental pain most people have never experienced.

I was circumspect about my bipolar disorder for decades, so I don't blame anyone for staying "in the closet."  It is analogous to the situation gays and lesbians faced last century.  But we mentally ill don't have a Stonewall Inn where we can gather, from which we could fight back and hold proud parades.  We are lonely, and we may not deal with aloneness as well as people who have not been broken.  We are paranoid because we were scapegoated or abandoned by our families.  Many of us are not able to work and not able to pass as "normal".  We may be disabled by our moods and the severe side effects of the drugs we have to take just to keep from committing suicide.  

We see stigma where it might not exist - but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  It does, and it is powerful, because we don't meet this society's definition of worthwhile (successful, achieving) people, and we can't always restrain our tears or anger, and we have a harder time than most people finding effective ways to stand up to the stigma.  I wonder whether this will ever be any different.

Below, the first photo of the Stonewall Riots, which were led by homeless youth that slept in a nearbye park. The Mattachine Society newsletter reported that the Inn was their only safe place, so of course they fought for it. Other than that, "they had nothing to lose."
NY Daily News, June 29, 1969 - the Stonewall Riots     


  1. Brava!

    Sara Mandal-Joy
    (published as anonymous because I don't use any of the listed systems).

    PS It would be great if one could subscribe to receive your posts by email.

    1. Thank you. You probably know this is sometimes hard. I've put a box on the top of the right-hand column where you can subscribe by e-mail. Glad to have you.

  2. I had a gentleman tell me after yoga that his bi-polar brother commit suicide that week, leaving behind a wife and kids. He told me solely because I am one of the few people that talk to him. The following day I went to visit a sangha member my age dying of cancer at home, torn between the choice of chemo, a trial or hospice to wrap her life.
    Yes, life is tough....and I was tortured by kids growing up Gay, made it over the hump of suicide solely because I thought it gave them power. So, it all it based on one's own suffering is more difficult than others, but it hard to wear two different shoes and walk.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. It is true that there can be great suffering in a life that's not afflicted by mental or physical disability. That metaphor - it's hard to wear two different shoes and walk - is a good one.

    A kind of defiance can help us get through a lot of things.