This is a “show and tale” story. No, not “show and tell” like we had in grade school, but “show and tale.”
First, the ‘tale’ part. It’s about how my world was turned upside down at a very young age.
Second, the ‘show’ part. I’ll show you how I made it through — for now— and how you can too.
There’s a lot of self-help nonsense out there. But through this story, I hope to show you that the only guru you need to listen to is yourself.
You are the final arbiter of your experience.
On losing a mother
I lost my mom to cancer at 16. Being an introvert, I refused to talk about it or think about it. Looking back, I realized I didn’t even cry when I’d heard the news that she’d passed.
I remember the day perfectly.
When I woke up, I noticed my dad wasn’t home. But peering out into the living room, I saw that my uncle had covered his shift — he was sleeping on our couch. My mom had been sick for years and it was getting worse. These overnight stays were becoming routine.
As I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for school, I heard my dad come in. He told me the news. Mom was gone.
Following her death, every now and then, I’d unexpectedly break down crying, missing her. But outside those moments, for the most part, I remained emotionless. I could talk about it easily. Even when I tried to get myself to feel… something, I couldn’t.
About 10 years later, I realized I was going through these downs more often. They’d paralyze me. It felt great to cry, but I had no control over the episodes.
I started remembering how I’d treated her during her final days. She’d turned to the bottle because she was in so much pain. Being 16, I couldn’t empathize.
Why was she doing this to herself? Why did she have to self-destruct in front of me? Why was my dad still working out of state while my mom and I were under so much distress?
It’s funny what the psyche does to protect itself under distressful situations. It hides memories under tightly-locked steel doors so we don’t hurt ourselves with them.
Recovery, Part I
I’d never gone to therapy. In my family, therapy was for flawed people. And we weren’t flawed (right?).
My dad and I had just watched a Wayne Dyer PBS special when I figured, why not. I bought his book and Dyer quickly became my gateway drug to the self-help world. Over the the following 10 years, I read scores of books. From Ernest Holmes and Eckhart Tolle to Carlos Castaneda and Neale Donald Walsch. They helped me come to grips with my emotions and helped me move through them.
On losing a father (and becoming one)
Fast-forward to when I was 34, my dad had started getting sick, but he blamed it on “normal” stomach issues. He was losing a lot of weight. And yet he was too stubborn to see a doctor.
Finally, I had to intervene. I became the caregiver. My wife and I moved him out of his house into our basement apartment since he became unable to take care of himself.
Turns out, it was bladder cancer. Softball size tumor. He had an emergency surgery to have it removed. This was followed by a second reconstructive surgery so the cancer wouldn’t come back.
It didn’t get better after that. He was home for about a week from his second surgery when I had to take him in again. They kept him in the ICU. About a week later, the day finally came.
I had to make the call: to resuscitate or not to resuscitate.
I chose the latter. He was in tremendous pain. The cancer had spread to his colon and elsewhere.
Six months after his death, my wife and I celebrated the birth of our daughter. He never got to meet his first and only grandchild.
I felt sadness, anger, guilt and frustration because I had lost a father. And simultaneously, overwhelming happiness and elation that I had become one.
I turned to the one thing I’d always been comfortable doing — writing.
Recovery, Part II
Whatever was on my mind, I’d sit down at the keyboard and let it bleed onto the screen.
Soon, my words turned from yelling to talking. From hating and shaming and blaming to loving and understanding. From rage to empathy.
The journaling technique that appealed most to me was ‘dialogue’ (described below).
One of the worst parts of losing my dad was the conversation we never had. The last one.
My father died alone in his hospital room. Without me — his only son — by his side. The guilt was tremendous. If I could just go back in time and finish that one conversation with him — if I could just part ways with him in a better way, I could gain some closure.
Starting the dialogue with my father was terrifying. What would I say? What would he say? What if he yelled at me for letting the doctors take him off life support? What if I yelled back?
What happened shocked me. In the dialogues, my dad took on the persona of the man I’d always loved. He was kind, understanding, and fully empathetic of my decision. He told me he was sorry for making poor decisions about his finances and health. He apologized for being so abrasive. I told him how scared I was. And he comforted me just like he did when I was five years old and I called him at 10pm from my friend’s house. I was supposed to be staying the night but I just wanted to be home. With him and my mom. No questions asked — he came and got me.
I cried while writing the dialogue. So did he. A huge wound had healed. I felt like I was rewiring my consciousness and rewriting my past, present, and future.
Journaling for Personal Growth
My journal followed me into other areas of my life as well — primarily, work and relationships.
I even started journaling for fun. When I’d meet a quirky customer at work, I’d write a ‘dialogue’ between him and me. When I did something stupid, I wrote a ‘captured moment’ describing how ridiculous I must have looked.
Below, you’ll find five journaling techniques that you can use. I used them to write my way out of the darkness, and in doing so, I became my own guru.
The examples below are more whimsical than the stories above. You can use journaling for a variety of reasons — to make the most out of a boring day or to get over the loss of a loved one(s).
A couple things before we start. First, know that there are no rules. Remove that inner censor. Be bold. Be honest.
Which brings us to the second rule. Don’t show your writing to anyone. Not at first, at least, and maybe not ever. This will allow you to be free with it.
Other than that, you have full creative license.
Springboards are used to get started. After all, the hardest part about journaling is that first sentence.
The two best springboards are (1) questions and (2) statements. Questions hit the right brain. Statements hit the left brain.
Make a big list of them. Some will apply to your topic more than others. That’s okay, The key is to keep them short and simple. Don’t expand on them yet. That’s for later.
2. Stream of consciousness
I love this technique. I try my best to start my day with it. The only rule here is to set a timer and write until the timer goes off. I go for 15 minutes, but you can go for more or less. I find that this technique is most effective when you do it as soon as you wake up.
Even if you don’t know what to write, write that (“I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write.”) A lot of this will be complete gibberish. But that’s ok. See what comes out.
3. Character Sketch
A character sketch is a written description of someone else or yourself (or a certain part of yourself). These are great for conflicts, to analyze how you may be coming across to someone else, or when you want to get to know yourself better.
Go into detail. Turn your obnoxious boss into a lonely, ignorant, perverted loser. Turn the insecure part of yourself into a sex god. Whatever you want.
4. Captured Moments
A captured moment is a written snapshot of a particular moment in your life. You want to get very sensory with these. Go into sights, sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts, tastes, etc.
You think a digital photo is colorful? Wait till you see what you can do with writing.
Here’s where you can really have some fun.
You can start a dialogue with your boss, your spouse, your brother, your favorite shade tree, yourself, or a certain part of yourself. Dialogues tend to take on a life of their own. You get one line down and the rest of the conversation just flows. Here are 10 types of dialogues to choose from (feel free to add to this list):
- Dialogue with persons
- Dialogue with events and circumstances
- Dialogue with works
- Dialogue with the body
- Dialogue with societies
- Dialogue with emotions/feelings
- Dialogue with material objects / possessions
- Dialogue with subpersonalities/symbols
- Dialogue with resistance/blockages
- Dialogue with inner wisdom
The following is a dialogue between the little me and big me. “Big Me” (BM) represents the confident, strong and relaxed side of my personality. “Little Me” (LM) represents the insecure, nervous and frightened side of my personality. I wrote it at the end of a rough day. It was a day that had several interactions with people that just didn’t feel right. What transpired was eye-opening for me.
I hope these journaling techniques will help you realize that you have all the answers you need. No self help books necessary.
Go easy on yourself. But try making this a practice. It’s never a waste of time getting to know your life on an intimate level and expanding your self awareness.
The Life Well Lived section is sponsored by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.