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Beth Anstandig

A week ago, I hitched my wagon to the Circle Up Wagon Train. Me, a dozen or so strangers, and a months’ long conversation about personal leadership. What could possibly go wrong? Our first assignment, as I understood it, was to identify one trait in our thinking that was keeping us from moving forward into fuller potential. A great question.

Here is what I wrote in The Wagon Train Online Forum:

My first thought was “I don’t know what to focus on” and that was almost immediately followed by “I know exactly what to focus on” because I have one issue that is so pervasive in my life I forget about its existence. To me, it’s like water to fish:  my navel-gazing introversion. I want to say that it’s non-verbal but that’s only because I don’t talk out loud. It’s actually hyper-verbal in my thinking. I’m constantly making words in my head while I walk around only sort of engaging with the beauty around me: social beauty, relational beauty, physical beauty, spiritual beauty. I miss so much because I’m “thinking” so much. As a result, even those closest to me often feel a world away.

It’s probably not surprising that I love meditation because, done the way I often do it, it’s an insular act and ostensibly a healthy way to spend my mind. What I actually do though, more and more, is sit and spin in the various cycles of my self-making and thinking while a timer runs. I might have a few seconds here and there of actual outward-reaching openness and peace but those do not last long. I used to really be onto my thinking during meditation and would label thoughts as “thoughts” and watch them go by like passing clouds. These days, not so much. What I’ll be focusing on for two weeks, in my daily meditation and in my daily rest-of-life, is noticing the inward pull, the giant sucking sound of my world falling into my brain. And, then, I’ll try to remember that that is a choice. I can pull myself out. I’ll listen for the trees, I’ll speak out loud to the people around me, I’ll make a phone call or send a message, I’ll go for a walk or jog, I’ll do whatever little thing I can manage to get my awareness outside of my brain.

Thank you very much for asking. I’ve never strung this many sentences together on this subject. And it’s a subject that’s followed me my entire life.

Everything I wrote there was entirely true and, as I said, it was the most clear I’ve ever been about this issue, despite the fact that this has probably been my main malfunction for my whole life. So, thank you Wagon Train and thank you other human beings in the world for being present when I decide to show up. I’m all cured now. Good night.

Obviously, I am not cured now and I was not cured even after I wrote this last week.  Instead, I was a little more aware. I was a little more tuned in to the colors of the leaves and the brightness of the sky. And I was a little more uncomfortable with everything else. What I began to sense was that the insularity of my thought addiction was a little bit warm and a little bit fuzzy. It was not tired (even when tired), or terribly irritable (even when irritated), or remotely consequential (even when contemplating consequential things). It was a null, a trance, a lull. And I kind of liked it.

Then, one of the Wagon Train moderators asked me, quite simply, “what are you getting out of it?” And I was knocked out of it. And I had no good answer. And I was exposed. What was I getting out of it? Nothing.

And everything.

And nothing.

So I tabled the debate. I went on about my week. I worked on projects. I took my daughter places. I checked in with my wife. I existed. And gradually, I tranced.  The minutes blurred. The leaves were just leaves, sky just bright, brain warm and fuzzy. Until, it dawned on me in real-time like a rude interruption that my wife — my external mirror — was about to leave town for six days for work trip. Oh crap.

A bit of backstory. At 45 years old, I am about a year into a bipolar disorder diagnosis. I have been out of work for six months on disability after two very closely-timed, major depressions. These are depressions that make it impossible to sleep or stay awake, that make my body hurt, that make me binge eat without an appetite, and possibly worst of all that make me seem like a jerk who could not care less about the people around me. What’s more, I’m of the type that only rarely gets the fun of a manic bender, and, when I do, it looks like staying up all night to sand furniture for a month.

Only two weeks ago, my wife had been forced to step back into the bipolar fray to point out that something was off with me. Again. And, sure enough, something was. Due to an issue with my insurance, one of my medications had become so expensive that my doctor and I decided maybe I didn’t need it. It was a small dose anyway. What could possibly go wrong? What followed was two weeks of insomnia, with anxiety, with depression, with irritability, with forgetfulness, with navel-gazing. Lots of navel-gazing. Lots and lots of depressing, anxious navel-gazing.  Well, we solved that. It was quite simple. I got back on the medication. OK. And my wife and I spent a week rebuilding our connection. And we did.

And then she was about to leave town. Oh crap.

Here’s where this story connects with what I wrote at the Wagon Train. I did not say anything about the fact of my feelings about her leaving for days. I thought and thought and thought about saying something. I watched her beautiful self move around our house and I loved her from where I was standing, but I didn’t say anything. I looked at our calendar and the days she’d be gone and the lists of things I’d try to do but I didn’t say anything.  I worried about mental health and feared a relapse but I didn’t say anything. I obliquely made reference to it with a couple of friends but didn’t really say anything. I just ate it. I didn’t eat it. I chewed on it. I choked on it. For days.

It was not warm and fuzzy. It was cold and scaly.

But I kept thinking about the Wagon Train. I did remember what I’d promised to differently. And I also remembered that I recently promised my wife transparency and honesty and words spoken. So, here comes the big reveal. On the day before she left, when I was feel completely almost removed from her world and torn up about it, I walked into our bedroom where she was folding some clothes and I said this: “There’s something I want to tell you and I’m embarrassed to do it but I’m going to tell you anyway and I don’t want you to change anything that you’re doing. I don’t want you go and I’m shutting down around it.”

I think that, at that point, the leaves outside got exciting again and the sky got a little brighter. I couldn’t see them but I could feel them. My chest relaxed, just a little. And she said something like “Aw” and she thanked me for telling her. And everything was okay. We had a day before she left for things to be okay.

I’m tempted here to wrap this thing up with a catchy ending but that wouldn’t be honest. What I do want to say is actually quite simple. Me, in my head, stewing and stewing:  It’s not healthy and not okay. Me, out of my mouth, sharing: Very much okay. Very much healthy. What if it really is this simple?

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