Windless and Still

By Mark E. Smith

Life can be brutal – dehumanizing at its worst, where some of us lose so much at points, we feel that all we are is flesh and bones.

Yet, we push through it – most of us, anyway. Not all. We scrape the depths of our souls for whatever is left, and that marrow revitalizes us enough to start a comeback, following some path, yet to be totally revealed, that we hope will lead us out. It’s never linear, though, is it? We still find glimpses of hope veiled by dark patches. But, we reach and claw, and keep finding our way out.

How long does it take, we ask. Each of our journeys is different, in scale and in time. Months for some. Years for others. A lifetime for a few of us.

I think about this in bed on an August morning at the shore. My wife and youngest daughter are still asleep. I guess it’s around 7:30 am based on the last time I rolled over to check the alarm clock. No shower today. I have no desire for one.

Our daughter stirs, chirping, as we call it when she sings herself awake. I both revel in her adorable character and envy her. I often awake happy, with a tune in my head, but we adults are conditioned not to let it out. Kids are the fortunate ones – free of so many smothering social norms that would bring so much joy if we, too, could just let it out.

We all eventually get up and my wife asks me what shirt I want to wear? We banter about my insistence of a white, spread collar button down. She notes that it’s too wrinkled. I explain that it’s fine for my plans. I’m just going to park myself on the beach. Other events may transpire before or after, but I’m not concerned. A wrinkled, white button down will do. I slip it on, buttoned, over my head. As it slides down my torso, it feels crisp, cool, flowing, perfect.

I roll into the bathroom and turn on the sink’s faucet. I wet my hair with my hands, noting the grey. I run a brush through it several times and I’m good to go for the day.

A white shirt and combed hair were my only concerns, and they’re behind me. I roll over and look out our window to the beach, windless and still. And, I, too, am at total peace starting this day.

“Who’s ready for the beach?” I ask my wife and daughter.

The room is silent. We all know it’s a rhetorical question.

Turning Off Autopilot

autop

By Mark E. Smith

I’ve spent a lot of my life around two areas – boats and dysfunction – and what I’ve learned is that in either case, if we’re not careful, “autopilot” will fail us.

See, living in dysfunction is a lot like being aboard a boat running on autopilot – we’re not questioning or changing, but continuing on a haphazardly set course. And, as waters worsen or dangers approach, if we don’t take control, our boats – read that, our lives – will collide with them in the most harrowing ways.

For me, taking life off of autopilot has been a very personal process. As one raised in a dysfunctional family, I only knew what I knew, and my emotions were on autopilot for a long time. Turning off that autopilot proved harder in some ways than others.

Alcoholism, addiction, poverty, and a lack of education were all fairly easy for me to avoid because my awareness was so blatant. When I had welfare Christmases, parents with ninth-grade educations, and an unbroken family lineage of alcoholism and addiction, it was fairly obvious that our family’s autopilot was a disaster in full swing, cruising in the Oblivion Sea.

For me, turning off autopilot started as young as 10, but really by my teens I saw my life set on a course for collision and I took control of the helm. I saw everyone around me literally dying from living on autopilot, and I knew I had to turn that monster off for myself. Once aware and assuming conscious control of my life, I steered around the many dangers my family collided with. However, I was fortunate in that aspect – that I somehow had the understanding to do so – where I empathize with how difficult it becomes for many to turn off autopilot the longer we’ve unwittingly been on it, often from birth. It’s simply not as easy as my words read to break cycles of dysfunction, to turn off autopilot.

And, emotionally, I absolutely remained on autopilot for quite some years. Again, for me, getting off of autopilot has proved harder in some ways than others. I grew up knowing that those who loved me also hurt me, so love and hurt were intertwined. My head was off of autopilot – sober and successful – but my heart was still running its course. And, so I found myself in relationships of all sorts – from marital to sibling to friendship – that hurt, that as the psychobabble calls it, were toxic. It’s what I knew, what I grew up in, and continued living. That’s the sinister beauty of autopilot – once you’re on it, it continues on a course without any effort by you.

Awareness, though, once again proved my switch to turning off autopilot. Once I was aware that my heart was on autopilot, steering me into collision after collision, all my relationships changed. Some I just cut off; some I set healthy boundaries; and some I started anew with healthy individuals.

I’m still not perfect at any of this, and never will be, but every once in a while, when the autopilot that I grew up in intrinsically kicks in, my awareness takes the helm in a reflex type action, where I’m able to quickly correct and stay on a healthy course.

Through what I’ve lived and learned, I see among the greatest gifts that we can give others is the truth that they can break cycles of dysfunction, turning off autopilot. There’s a big difference between preaching from the mouth and speaking from the heart. I believe in speaking from the heart, and when a young person at risk in my circle was recently running on autopilot – it’s what they grew up in, escaped, then were thrust back into it based on a traumatic chain of events – I took the time to remind them of how far they’d come, to be aware that although understandably they’d temporarily returned to autopilot, awareness was what would keep them emotionally safe – that is, regrasping the helm and steering a healthy course.

Now, it’s not possible for everyone to just turn off autopilot and get their lives moving in healthy directions. We know of the medical effects that alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness have on those immersed in those conditions. These aren’t autopilots that just turn off. But, for the rest of us – and especially youth in our families and communities at risk – the ultimate intervention isn’t once there’s no turning off autopilot, but acknowledging our vulnerabilities to it early on, and elevating our awareness to the point that we turn it off and truly take control of our lives in healthy ways before life is spiraling beyond our control.

The fact is, we have no choice in how the dysfunction of autopilot gets turned on in our lives – typically, we’re born into it or trauma ushers it in. However, when we’re aware that it’s been turned on and we are running on it or at risk of running on it, that’s the time to turn it off. See, turning off autopilot removes continuing living the pain of our pasts, and allows taking the healthy helms of our futures. May you and I chart the healthy course our lives are meant for.

Larger Than Our Pasts

elephant

By Mark E. Smith

A friend and I were eating at a fast-food joint when a couple sat at the table beside us.

The woman nicely said, “I forgot napkins.”

The guy burst out in anger, calling her filthy names, noting over and over how “stupid” she was.

Yet, she was unfazed by the verbal abuse.

My friend and I were mortified, noting if he does that in public, can you fathom the abuse at home?

“That’s learned behavior,” my friend said. “I guarantee you they both were raised in abusive homes.”

My friend was undoubtedly right. When you come from a realm of dysfunction – albeit, addiction, abuse, divorce, and so on – as a child, you’re four times as likely to live these as an adult, according to the National Institute on Health.

It’s the nature of the beast that psychologists call classical conditioning – learned ways become innate behaviors that go unquestioned by us. Put simply, if you’re raised by a verbally abusive parent, you’re likely to verbally abuse others or accept being verbally abused.

Interestingly, circus elephants are a perfect (but sad) example of this. Elephants are gigantic creatures led around by tiny tethers. They could break free in an instant, but they don’t? Why?

As babies, circus elephants are restrained, where, as hard as they try, they can’t escape. Although they grow to enormous strength, that early conditioning makes them innately believe that they’re forever restrained, even by a shoe-lace-thick line.

The fact is, we’re not much different than elephants, where extremely unhealthy treatment becomes innate behaviors. Family legacies can be wonderful; yet they can also destroy us when unhealthy. However, we truly don’t have to live unhealthy legacies – we can break free of their torturous tethers. No, we don’t see a lot of people do it because it takes so much, literally being so self-aware and courageously strong that you’re willing to question that which is all you know.

I grew up under extremely unhealthy circumstances, and while I was fortunate enough to question them – and that’s the only way to break free of a toxic legacy – I wasn’t totally successful at breaking free of them. I married an addict in my 20s. By my 30s, I knew my daughter was in deep trouble having a parent along the lines of my own, and I had to do two steps to hopefully pull her as far away as I could from that destructive legacy. Firstly, I had to get my ex-wife out of the home. But, secondly – and more importantly – I had to somehow help my daughter dispose of what she innately knew of addiction and cut that as her legacy. She had to do what many people never want to do – namely because it’s so painful – and question why her mom did what she did.

My daughter is now in college, and beyond all of her amazing accomplishments, the one I’m most inspired by is the courage she’s investing in breaking free of a dysfunctional legacy and creating another of self-awareness and emotional health. As a psychology major, she’s investing not just in her coursework and community, but in herself. The candor and awareness – sometimes the struggle – that I see in her papers is breathtaking:

I hid behind the white bedroom door at around 9 p.m. on that weeknight. I had school the next morning. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling as I stared into Dad’s dark brown eyes, both waiting for the police and my aunt to arrive. Yet, I’d never seen my father’s heart more heavy than in that moment. It was clearly a breaking point of fear and guilt and decision.

On the other side of this – the emotions, the door – was my mother. She was on the other side of that door, kitchen knife in hand, trying to get in, to get us. At that point, I realized that I had lost my mother for good to addiction.

The realities of addiction were imprinted on me – forever. They started when I was three, escalated in my adolescence, and remain chilling today when I have the strength to think about them.

…As for my mother, she’s no longer battling addiction, but in hospice dying from it – a mind and body destroyed. As for me, I’m still battling her addiction as part of my past, but with a better understanding not to make it part of my own future, but to help those where there’s still hope to break the cycle. That’s the best I can do with my legacy of addiction.

See, that’s the key to untethering ourselves from potentially life-destroying legacies: If we question them, it’s impossible to relive them. What happens if a 6,000lb grown elephant questions its tether? It breaks free. There’s a moment where we, too, can break free in realizing we don’t have to live that way – we can be larger than our pasts.