Monday, June 13, 2011

On Being Messy

I wouldn't exactly call myself a neat freak, because my apartment can be a disaster zone sometimes, but I can't stand if things are messy. By messy, I mean if things aren't in their place, or aren't organized, or if I can't easily locate where they are, then things are messy. I can have piles…lord knows I have piles. But if the piles are where they're supposed to be, are organized, and I can easily locate the thing I need in the pile, then that's fine. That's not messy. But if I can't find something? If things aren't where they're supposed to be? That's not okay. Mess = chaos, and that just doesn't fly with me. I can always tell when I am super stressed when I take a step back, look at my apartment, and realize it's a mess.

We all have different ways of coping with messiness, and different levels of mess we can tolerate. I had a roommate my first year of grad school who would get stressed out and walk around the apartment, tripping over her clothes, shoes, books, mattresses, and dishes on the floor (usually in only her bra and underwear), announcing loudly, "MY LIFE IS IN SHAMBLES AND MY HAIR AIN'T RIGHT." Any sort of question or conversation only provoked her further, and the answer was always, "I TOLD YOU! MY LIFE IS IN SHAMBLES. MY LIFE IS IN SHAMBLES AND MY HAIR JUST AIN'T RIGHT." (It's pretty catchy, actually, and effective. You should try it sometime if you're looking for attention, pity, or assistance. You get bonus points if you do it in your bra and underwear).

My preferred method of dealing with messes is generally NOT to exclaim about the disaster while wearing minimal clothing. Instead, I quickly and quietly attempt to organize, pick up, reorganize, reconceptualize, and take care of the mess. It's a control thing. I hate when things feel like they are out of control. And messes are definitely out of control.

So right now, the apartment is a big stinking mess. Moving makes some of the biggest messes I know. Some things are packed, some things aren't. Things aren't where they're supposed to be. There are boxes in random places. I'm not really sure where I'm going. I have no idea what the getting there process is going to be like. Things here aren't necessarily wrapping up as neatly as one would hope. There are a lot of messes, and everything feels very messy.

If I hate being physically messy, I hate being psychologically messy even more. I like to be able to name what I'm feeling, tie it up, put a little bow on it, and stick it on the shelf with the appropriate label, date, and time. I'll reflect on it later, when I look back at all the little boxes on the shelf in my mind: "Ah, I DO remember feeling frustrated on June 10th, 2011 at 5:45 pm!" I like to be in control of that. Yes, I may be angry or sad or frustrated, but as long as I can box it up and tie the bow and stick it on the shelf with the name, time, and date, I'm okay with it.

I like to think of myself as a pretty mindful person. I like to believe that I am aware of what I am thinking and feeling, and that I am non-judgmental in confronting those thoughts and feelings. I have used mindfulness-based interventions with my clients, and extolled the virtues of mindfulness to them. Recently, though, life happened and grad school happened and dissertation happened and stress happened, and in the midst of all those happenings, my own mindfulness definitely stopped happening. There's no judgment there, of course, because, you know, I'm never hard on myself,* but the mindfulness just kind of fell away. I think I forgot meditation existed. And non-judgment and all that awesome stuff I told my clients? Yeah, well, Hypocrites Anonymous called the other day. They want me to be their president.

So, on Friday, I decided to go to a labyrinth organized by a friend at church. "A little walking meditation, a little time in the quiet…it'll do you good," I thought. So I went. I spent some time talking to people, spent a little time writing in the journal I brought, and tried to open my mind and slow down the thoughts. I wrote some things out, just to get them out of my head, and then continued to sit. I could feel my mind pulling me in places I didn't want to go, and I fought it. I knew I was wrestling with some real stuff, some big stuff, but I could only ask myself over and over, "how do I let it go? How do I move forward from it? How do I just release it?" (aka "how do I get rid of this?). Finding that I couldn't write my way into an answer to those questions, and finding my anxiety sufficiently amplified, I decided I was just going to go walk the labyrinth, and hopefully walk my way into an answer, or at least into a place of peace.

The sanctuary was dark, cool, comforting, and familiar. It was silent. Completely silent. And there was no one in there but me. I stood for a moment, breathing, and imagining myself grounded and centered. I felt things start to quiet in my body, and felt more grounded. I started walking. I wasn't thinking, per se, and I wasn't chasing the thoughts, but I definitely also wasn't in the place of not thinking. I moved slowly. Mindfully. Just, honestly, letting myself be.

Ellen DeGeneres does a funny sketch about how things come up in the quiet moments (you can watch a piece of it here:**.

Fortunately or unfortunately, what came up for me was not the Clorox song.

I walked the labyrinth twice, and the emotions became stronger and stronger, even as the thoughts were fading. The emotions have been there, but this time, there was no research paper to distract me. No thought about needing to read that article on hypothyroidism and depression, or needing to go fix the formatting on page 191 of my dissertation, and how DID the margin get to be 1 inch on the left on just that page rather than the 1.5 inches it was on every other page? Turns out, it's pretty scary when you need to meet yourself for the first time in a while. Turns out, it's not exactly a walk in the park when you realize that all those things you've been brushing off, everything you've been saying is "fine," all that "stuff" you thought was over or a non-issue is actually a big issue and not fine at all, as a matter of fact. It's not so much fun when all that stuff is, suddenly, staring you in the face, and all of a sudden life feels very, very messy.

Have I mentioned that I don't do messy?

When I finished walking, I sat down on the floor with my journal. I started writing and tears started falling. My thing about messy extends to a thing about crying. Crying is messy. Other people crying is fine. That's not messy. Crying is natural. Crying is healthy and cleansing. But me crying? That's messy, so…I don't do it. I will, if I have to, if I'm alone in my apartment when not even the dog can see me, but other than that, I don't. And yet, Friday evening, there I was, sitting on the floor in the sanctuary, with people right outside the door, and I was crying. I considered packing it all up and going home. But I didn't. Something about the space, about the stillness and the quiet and the solitude, something about it felt okay. Plus, I was messy. I couldn't walk out of the sanctuary if I was crying. So I wrote. I wrote until the tears dried, and then I took a breath and dug deeper. And I cried again, wrote until the tears stopped, and then stopped to reflect. I repeated it a third time, digging deeper and deeper and deeper, being completely honest with myself. My hand just kept moving, and even my inner critic knew she better shut the hell up and hide. I contradicted myself. I wrote the same sentence 3, 4, 5 times in a row, until I no longer felt my heart tighten when I wrote it. I wrote the same word 4, 5, 6 times down the page, until my stomach no longer clenched when I thought about writing it. I said the same thing, in 4 different ways, in 8 different places. When I started to move into "fix it" mode, and started telling myself what I "should" do, I stopped and closed the book without reading what I had written. I collected myself, went to the bathroom and washed my face, collected my belongings, and then stood and talked for a few moments. Things went swimmingly, and I was nearly out the door…and then my friend asked the question:

    "How was the labyrinth?"

    "It was wonderful," I said. In my head, I swear I said, "thank you so much for creating that space. That's exactly what I needed tonight." But that's not what I said. Instead, before I could stop myself, I said, "I cried."

    "Oh!" she exclaimed. "Do you want to talk about it?"

    In my head, I struck a pose of being completely together and cool. "Psh," I said in my mind, "I'm totally fine. Super-fantastic, as a matter of fact." But instead, my eyes filled with tears and I shrugged my shoulders and looked at my shoes. Damn this stupid disconnect between my mind and my body! I thought. I've had enough people do the shrug with the tears and looking down at their shoes thing that I know what that means. That means they're going to say "no," and they're going to tell you they don't want to talk about it, and that means you're going to get their butt into the chair, and they're going to cry and talk and you're going to listen.

So I said "no," because crying is messy, and the fact that my brain and my words were not cooperating was messy, and I had a big mess in my head and my heart and my apartment… But she said "sit down." I shrugged again and blinked to pretend I wasn't crying. So she said "sit down" and she shut the door to give us privacy and I shrugged and looked at my shoes…and sat down and pretended I had it all together.

And then I fell apart and I cried. Not just a little teary. Not just a couple tears. I mean that I cried the snot-filling-your-nose, can't breathe, tears rolling down your face, messy sort of cry. And that's why the meteor hit the Earth and split it all into little pieces, killing everything but the bedbugs and cockroaches, 'cause those suckers are indestructible. Sorry guys. I really do apologize. I always knew my messiness would lead to the end of the world. Be grateful I held out for 25 years.***

I came home and was confused, tired, very drained, and also very much okay. Peaceful, even. I couldn't fall asleep, so I plotzed around for a bit, and then opened up my daily meditation book for the meditation for the following day:

    "June 11: Be Honest with Yourself.

What are you feeling deep down inside? Under the anger. Under the rage. Under the numb I don't care, it doesn't matter. Are you really feeling scared? Hurt? Abandoned? Go more deeply into yourself and your emotions than you have ever gone before. Be more honest with yourself than you have ever been before. The way to joy, the way to the heart is tender, soft, gentle, and honest. The way to the heart is to be vulnerable.

You don't have to be so brave. You don't have to be so strong. You don't always have to walk away with your head held high saying, "I can handle this. I've been through worse before."

Become angry if you must. Feel your rage if it's there. Go numb once in a while, if you must. Then take a chance, and go a little deeper. Go way down deep inside. See what's there. Take a look. Risk being vulnerable."****

If I'm honest, right now things feel pretty messy. Perhaps the universe is telling me to try being messy. To turn down the membership to Hypocrites Anonymous and try being honest with myself, try not judging my thoughts, feelings, and actions, to try to return to mindfulness. Perhaps it's telling me that I can learn to sit with the mess. Or maybe it's telling me it's okay that I was messy, and it's also okay to go numb now for a bit, in the midst of all the mess. Maybe, it's just saying that it all is, actually, okay.


*Or sarcastic, for that matter.

**Also known as, this piece is something I really want to write, but am having a difficult time writing, so go watch Ellen and come back while I think about what to say and how to say it.

***Have I ever mentioned that sarcasm is a coping mechanism?

****From Journey to the Heart: Daily Meditations on the Path to Freeing Your Soul by Melody Beattie


  1. What a great post, you have a great way of describing and sharing your emotions because I felt like I could feel them along with you... I am so glad you were able to be alone with yourself enough to feel your emotions and feel ok again, and I am glad your friend was there for you....Good luck moving.