Are you stealing your own joy by mislabeling your life experiences?
I think this is the most important article I’ve shared yet.
Imagine if you only labeled who you saw each day using the most basic labeling system you had available to you. Suppose you could only label by race, what would your average day be like as you ran errands and passed people on the street, “black”, “white”, etc. Imagine if you could only label people by what you saw immediately on the surface, you would miss out on the important and meaningful nuances of that unique individual. Now imagine that your mind is labeling your life experiences and relationships just as shallowly all the time without you even knowing it. The impact on your perception of reality would be enormous working with over simplified labeling.
Labels are used to simplify and expedite a sorting process. We label things on our shelves and on our devices to quickly find items that have value to us and just as quickly dismiss the things that don’t. Labels also play a very big role in how we sort our memories. Often we label events or people very generically for simplicity’s sake, for example we have “good memories” and “bad memories” and in those categories we have lots of different subcategories that often go unsorted. But recently I had a chance to explore my own personal labeling process and how it was affecting my perception of the world. What I learned has changed me at my core. And so I’ll share it with you now in hopes you might see some similarities and want to explore your use of labels further and understand how to the make necessary changes to fully experience joy, live present-mindedly and move through traumas.
The first example I will use is the label “sister”. Many people have siblings and this might seem like a really innocuous term to use as a label. In my mind I see the term sister and I think of my two sisters, one older and one younger than me. The issue for me is that my older sister is alive and my younger sister is dead. This is an obvious difference and one that significantly impacts how I interact with each of them. I have had a strained and at times estranged relationship with my older sister for the past 19 years since my younger sister died. We are fundamentally different but that alone should not be a reason to have such limited engagement with a sibling, especially when you have only one remaining alive with you. My relationship with my deceased sister is still one that I hold close to me. I notice her in different ways throughout my days and in the personalities of my children. I talk to her out loud in my car or in the shower and I think of her at night before I go to sleep. When the concept of labels was brought to me and I chose to dissect the label “sister” I saw right away the issue: the one blanket label “sister” my mind used was not flexible or broad enough to address the very different relationships I needed to have with my living and dead sister. Once I became aware of this shortcoming it was as easy as flicking a switch in my brain. New labels were added – “living sister” and “dead sister” were now in the mix. I no longer subconsciously treated my living sister the way I treated my dead sister. I could more comfortably reach out to her, share and engage with her here and now among the living without feeling like I was somehow slighting my deceased sister. This may sound strange to you, but that’s okay. This was my personal label in my mind, my “mind bucket” I like to call it.
Once I began to think of my mind in this way I knew immediately that I had oversimplified my “mind buckets” to handle trauma and losses that I did not want to face. By avoiding adjectives and employing vague umbrella categories I could avoid my sister’s death all together but I was also missing out on the joyful experience that a living sister can bring. By lumping together good and bad experiences in one bucket they acted as counterbalances to one another and the result was a self-made numbness that prevented me from having to deal with my reality. So I began to think, “What other events or experiences might I have held under a broad or vague label in an effort to spare me the pain of an adjective?” The answer came quickly to me: Date. Newly divorced in the last few years dating was something I enjoyed and the bucket “date” held quite a few memories for me. Yes we’ve all had good dates and bad dates but overlooking that subtle distinction doesn’t necessarily cause a denial of joy. My “date bucket” was harboring an experience that was so painfully mislabeled the realization of it shook me deeply.
My first date with my current boyfriend of the past 18 months or so was really unexpected. I met him for a work meeting and we ended up talking for 8 hours. I remember telling my friend it was “the best accidental date” I’d ever had. A few weeks later he asked me out on a real date. That official first date was just plain sweet. He had made reservations at two very nice restaurants in a town I had never even heard of and when we arrived in the area for the evening I got to choose from the menus of each establishment and decide which reservation to keep. I ended up choosing a French restaurant and I ordered the skate wing on a whim and it was really very good. On the way home we got in a small car accident on the highway and ended up sitting in a commuter parking lot talking and making out a bit while we waited for the State Police to arrive. It was a perfect, unpredictable night. And it belonged in my date bucket as one of the best dates ever.
But in that bucket was another date. A second date from 2014. I often referred to this as “the worst date ever”. I had met a man on an online dating site and after a few messages agreed to meet him out during the day for a few drinks. We had a nice time, turns out a bartender friend of mine knew the guy so I let my guard down a bit more. I remember I was wearing a little black sundress. When he had to leave to go to work I walked him to his car and we kissed goodbye. Nothing major. A small hug and an “I’ll call you later” was exchanged.
We texted a bit and I think even a few phone calls over the next week or so when he asked me on a second date, this time out for dinner. I would meet him at his house before we went. So, I drove to his house and let myself in the side door as instructed. He was just getting dressed so he came out with wet hair from the shower and jeans and t-shirt but no socks or shoes. I was wearing a one-piece shorts romper that went straight across my shoulders with my favorite summer wedges. I remember thinking I looked cute, casual, not trying too hard, I could go to any type of restaurant in this – good choice, yay me. Anyway he made himself a drink and offered me one and I said no and got a glass of water and we sat in the living room and he began to talk to me. (I’ll leave out much of the conversation because to include it would identify him). He knew I had been to a firing range and asked me if I wanted to see his guns. I said no, he said yes, I said no, he laughed and got up, filled his drink and popped a prescription bottle. I ask what it is and he told me Ambien because he can’t relax ever.
I begin to eye my exits: behind him front door with deadbolt and chain/slide lock thing, too much of a risk to walk past him and get all of that open quickly. Behind me around the half wall is the backdoor I came in through and it’s still open. My purse is also on the kitchen table. So I stand up and say we need to get going to dinner, I’ll drive and as I walk towards the doorway to the kitchen he gets up in front of me and blocks the way to the open kitchen door. “Funny”, I say, “Now let’s go”. “First let me show my guns,” he says and is walking up against me now leading me down the hall to his bedroom. I am calm on the surface but inside I am in full blown survival mode. I am noticing every detail. I keenly aware of where he is placing his body – always between me and an exit. I walk with him. He shows me so many guns, rifles and handguns in the closet, nightstand and under the bed. Then he points a shotgun at me and asks me if I am scared. I say no. He tells me, “You said you liked guns, right?” and I say yes but not pointed at me and we stand there staring at each other. He is still holding is drink. It seemed like forever. “If he’s going to kill me,” I think, “it’s gonna have to be now – loud and messy and no getting away with it.” I think of my kids. Then he laughs and puts the gun down on his bed. He walks out of the room in front of me and picks up the handgun from his dresser and begins to walk down the hall, “let me show the basement” he says. “Nope” I reply. “I’m a Realtor, I’ve seen hundreds of basements I don’t need to see yours.” “Come on” he says “you’ll really like it I promise” “Not gonna happen” I say and begin to walk past him when he grabs me and pushes me against a small section of the kitchen wall right before the cabinets begin. He has his left arm across my neck, gun in his hand and he holds me there. “So you’re not gonna see the basement?” “No.” My heart is pounding and I am like ice and yet I feel like I have trained my whole life for this moment. Just breathe and be calm. I see the door over his shoulder open just 20 feet away. I am acutely aware that whatever happens to me next will depend on how well I can keep him calm. He puts his drink on the counter and with his right hand he pulls down the top of my outfit (remember it was strapless) I am not wearing a bra and he begins to suck on my breast. I am perfectly still, silent, staring at the door. With his right hand he tugs at the crotch of my shorts and he steps back and looks at me at says, “What the hell is this? What are you thinking wearing this? Where’s the little black dress from last time?” and with that his mouth is back on my breast, he moves my underwear to the side and slips his fingers inside me. He holds his arm firmly across my neck. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” I say to myself. Mixed images of my kids’ faces burst in my mind and with that I see my own funeral, I see my rape, I see my fears alive in my mind. “Bring it back,” I think to myself and concentrate on the door frame. I must stay present. He adjusts the arm on my neck and eventually he is gets comfortable with the gun pressed the long way on my face and the full weight of his body is on me. “You like it? Is this how you like it?” he mumbles with my breast in his mouth. I am quiet, I am acutely aware of the location of the gun to my head. I stare at the backdoor. I shift to the left a little and say, “This will be better if we both have a drink” and he stops and looks at me. Fingers still inside me. It’s a stare down. I smile. I do not blink. He removes himself from my body and steps back. I grab the glass next to me and walk two steps towards the sink. He looks for a second down the bedroom hallway and in an instant I run out, grabbing my purse off the kitchen table and I run to the car. I lock myself in and text my friend Mark, I am shaking, I am crying. He writes back – “You’re ok now – go!! Go!! Now!!” and I drive off. I sit outside my apartment on the curb and I cry. I shake. I text some friends. They want me to call the police. But I am a single mother and this guy doesn’t know where I live or my last name and I’d like to keep it that way. I walk to the bar and tell the bartender I was just held at gunpoint and I get a Titos and cranberry and lean against the wall of the bar under the awning and drink it with two hands shaking.
I go home. I cry in my bed. I fall asleep with a wet face. I am painfully aware of how alone I am in the world. I put myself in a situation that I felt disappointed my daughters. In the morning I receive a text that says “you’re no fun. Lose my number”. I never respond. I wash my outfit and it sits in my closet for weeks. Do I throw it away? It mocks me. Every time I see it I can feel his hand tug at my crotch and here him say, “what’s this?” I am full of regret. I am embarrassed. I decide it was not my outfit’s fault and so I wear it again. It feels oddly heavy now. It has lost its joyful summer vibe. It takes me weeks to shake the feeling of nausea and the shame. My friend asks me, “what were you thinking going to his house?” and for a long time this is all I can think of it. My mind translates it into “well what did you expect, idiot.”
And so this memory, this “bad date” lived in the same “mind bucket” as my beautiful, wonderful first date with my current boyfriend. And the two experiences, because they were labeled the same, were forced to coexist together. Whenever someone would ask me how me and my boyfriend met and I would tell this cute story, all the while this “bad date” played in detail in the back of my mind. Two parallel and distinct tracks playing at once. A cacophony of sorts that I could never escape. I thought about how this bad date worked to undermine and steal the joy of a great first date that was the beginning of happy and healthy relationship. I knew I had to face the label and make the change. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. A new bucket was made: sexual assault. It’s a bucket that makes me tremble with sadness and foolishness and fear and stupidity and anger and good fortune all at once. And it’s a bucket that I’ve had to painfully accept holds more than one instance. But by properly labeling this event, bravely albeit painfully, I can give proper honor and joy to all the good men and good dates I have been on, and I can see my world more clearly.
Do you think you need to make some more buckets to honor your experiences? What adjectives are you avoiding? Let me know if this article helped you see your life more clearly. I hope it did.
Note: I never did press charges. I know that by not I am leaving other women at risk. I am aware I will be judged harshly by some for this decision because I’ve heard it before. This is something I have turned over and over in my mind for years since it happened. Where does civic responsibility and the right to privacy, healing, etc come in to play? I don’t know. I just know at the time and in the months afterward I lived in a very heightened sense of fear and paranoia with a legitimate fear for the safety of my children. I have never seen this man again, and I would like to keep it that way.