February 26, 2014

A Positive Attitude…can make us Miserable. ~ Adrienne Totino


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I was lucky to be raised by a mother ahead of her time.

In the 1980s, as a single mother, she opened a holistic health business and taught clients how to reverse disease with healthy eating and New Age philosophies. Mom let my little sister and me fill bags of quinoa from the bulk section bin before anyone knew how to pronounce the now-super-popular whole grain. We were meditating on mantras before Oprah teamed up with Deepak Chopra.

There I was in 10th grade, visualizing myself nailing the audition for our high school production of Guys and Dolls. Affirm it in the positive, Mom would say. So I did, repeating the words in my head over and over, “I will get into the musical.” I also wrote it down 100 times.

I did get cast in the musical.

And I aced my next English paper. I was on an unimaginable sophomore high, sans the pot (that came later). My positive attitude was working for me. I thought I could avoid any problems in life, any bad feelings, if I could just stay positive. So what if I had just one horrible memory that, despite my best efforts to ignore, wouldn’t leave me. The hiss of the beer can opening and the sour taste on my tongue. The pulse of loud rock music. The raucous laughter of older girls at the party. I was confident I could mantra my way right through it.

But then I didn’t make varsity soccer. And that guy I liked didn’t become my boyfriend, despite extravagant visualizations. Mom said it wasn’t meant to be. She was probably right, so I pushed the hurt and disappointment down into my flat fifteen-year-old belly and smiled, asserting nothing was wrong and life was great. Inside, my stomach churned.

Some nights I woke up sweating in fear, imagining a strange man looming in my bedroom poised to attack me. I pushed those thoughts away harder, breathing deeply until my grip on the pillow loosened and I fell back to sleep. In the mornings I told myself life was pretty okay; normal people had dark thoughts. Not making varsity and not having a boyfriend were not tragedies after all.

I shoved every small sadness into my core over and over again while flashing a smile and thinking happy thoughts.

There were starving kids in Africa, but I had tofu and broccoli. My parents were divorced, but John’s parents were dead. We weren’t rich enough to afford that fancy trip to Europe like Erin’s family, but some teenagers had never seen the ocean, and I’d dipped my toes into the Jersey shore, and buried my feet into the sands of Daytona Beach. I was fine. Just fine. I should feel lucky, thankful to the Universe. Expressing gratitude and giving back to the world were ways of gaining happiness for ourselves.

A nagging feeling persisted, the freshman year party I didn’t want to acknowledge. I felt awful.

My fingers squeezed into fists when I went to math class because I just didn’t get it. My chest burned when my best friend ditched me for a cooler crowd. Tears sprung when the popular guys laughed at me as I passed through the lunchroom. I wouldn’t let myself think about what was truly plaguing me. The smell of his cologne. The dizzy feeing in my head despite only a few sips of the beer he’d given me. Instead I chewed off every fingernail and replaced each cuticle with red welts and scabs. I cried in the shower. I had violent nightmares. I pushed through it with determination—inhaling peace and exhaling negativity.

Senior year, I finally got the boyfriend I’d wanted, but not without cost. A girl I knew also liked him, and when I started dating Matt (I’ll call him that), her sister went ballistic. The slut-shaming began, despite the fact that I hadn’t messed around much.

My fear amplified and the memories of that fateful night bore down on me the same way his beady eyes had fixated on my flat 13-year-old chest. I talked to myself behind closed doors. Relax. Be calm. Breathe. My pulse quickened anyway. I thought I could stuff my feelings down to my toes and leave them there, kick them into the clean concrete floors at school.

Walking through the halls, I was ridiculed. Slut. Whore. Bitch. I did what I thought would work. I visualized Monica (I’ll call her that) leaving me alone. I visualized her surrounded in light, sending her “loving kindness” as Mom’s Buddhist books suggested.

I repeated my mantra: I am happy, I am calm.

I pretended not to care, and acknowledged that others had it worse. Another girl in my class had actually been punched on the bus after school.

When Monica shoved me hard into my locker one day, Mom found me in bed before dinner that night, face down on the pillow. I told her about Monica through thick tears. She called the school. We had a meeting. Monica left me alone. I was fine. No need to talk about it, to tell Mom anything more, just remain positive. I got into next year’s musical. I quit soccer, became a cheerleader. I was almost done with high school. I’d create a new story for myself, one that didn’t include the boy who’d hurt me.

After a messy two years in college, I hadn’t learned. I still thought I could will myself to be happy. I faked positive while my self-loathing reached a new low. I ended up with a degree, but not without moods that sunk as low as the depression commercials on TV.

Fast forward 10 years, through more of the same self-suppression. I’d been married for two years, living in a nice home, and working at a job I really enjoyed. Like most couples, my husband and I had arguments. I did some of my best stuffing and shoving at those moments. I bottled heavy sadness through tears (I’m not upset!), and frightening rage through sarcasm (Whatever, I’m not mad!).

Finally, I began exploding.

Little firecrackers turned into fully detonated bombs. I unloaded 30 years of buried negativity until there was nothing left to unload. Except there was more. And more. And there’s likely still more.

It was the early 2000’s by then. Meditation was popularized. New Age philosophies were everywhere. Oprah discovered Eckhart, and then Deepak. Yoga studios opened on every corner.

Mom was proud I’d adopted her healthy eating, and even taught yoga. In theory, I should have been at peace, but I was the angriest yogi anyone had ever met. What seemed to be changing my students’ lives wasn’t helping me.

Tired of the rage that strangled my throat and tore at my chest, I sought out the therapist’s couch. I’d been there before, but this time I dug deeper.

Five minutes before the end of one session I blurted out, “I think I was taken advantage of when I lost my virginity.”

Peggy leaned in closer, gazed at me with empathetic eyes, asked me to tell her what happened. We talked about it for weeks, the confusion and shame. The trauma. I unleashed my wrath, which felt like a demon leaving my body. We role-played with my therapist acting the part of high school bully and rapist.

I read literature about women and anger, educating myself on the “good girl” syndrome that plagued women just like me. Education and similar stories gave me confidence. The nightmares stopped immediately. The pain took longer. The fear still lingers. But, I vowed to never fake happy again. I’d be positive when I felt positive, sad when I felt sad, mad when I felt mad.

I picked up an old meditation book a year or so later, and flipped to a chapter about traumatic experiences. The advice had me curious, but skeptical. I read the chapter numerous times before I sat on a meditation cushion and focused on my breathing. Slowly I let myself remember that night, now twenty years later. No fear or anger came, just a low level of sadness that hadn’t escaped me.

I sat with it instead of ignoring it.

Birds sang outside the window. My chest grew warm without heaviness. I imagined wrapping the experience in a blanket, still and quiet in my thoughts. A car horn sounded, an alarm to push me forward. I twitched. It was difficult to visualize the next step—to throw my blanket full of shame into the ocean. I struggled to see it in my mind, but eventually watched as the fabric slipped from my hands forever.

I waited, feeling grounded and unable to move. Minutes later I opened my eyes and looked out the window at full red leaves falling from a maple tree. When I stood up, I felt lighter, clearheaded.

I kept reading the book, and others with the same Buddhist approach that seemed so practical. Peggy thought it might be healthy to try meditation again. Instead of devoting time to sitting cross-legged, I simply noticed my emotions when they arose, sat with them, worked to understand them, and then expressed them healthily, if sometimes awkwardly. I re-adopted the tools Mom had given me.

As a young woman hiding behind trauma, humiliation and crippling depression, I’d misunderstood what she and others were trying to teach me. Visualizing the positive didn’t mean ignoring pain or denying reality. Only after years on the couch, clutching a pillow to my belly and talking through my own grief, it all began to make sense. I’d be present, feel my feelings fully. To my surprise it worked.

And it continues to work.

Do I still push some feelings aside? Sure. It’s difficult to undo a lifetime of burying. For the most part, I can now listen to my emotions, name them, and either move on or choose the best method for addressing them. Sometimes I feel positive, sometimes neutral, and sometimes negative.

But guess what? I’m no longer miserable.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman, Waylon Lewis

Photo: Media Library.

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Adrienne Totino