Thursday, May 5, 2011

MY DARK CLOUD – Clearing My Dread

I had a fairly normal childhood. I went to school. I played with my friends. I fought with my brother. My parents, while far from doting, were always there for me. They expected the best from me and I think, for the most part, I met those expectations.
Illustration: Katy Farina

But sometime during my adolescence, that carefree little boy developed a dark side. Nothing sinister, just some negative thoughts, self doubts, perhaps a tinge of fatalism. Part of the problem was simply being a teenager. I was experiencing feelings typical of this difficult stage: worries about fitting in, embarrassment over everything my parents did, or didn’t do, frustration that I was neither a child any more nor quite yet an adult. But somewhere in the mix there was also something a bit more sinister, an element of dread—of what, I wasn't sure.

               It seemed everyone I knew 
               was perfectly sure of what they 
               wanted and how they felt.

Those vague, menacing thoughts lurked in a corner of my disposition well into my adult life. I was troubled by a sense of not knowing myself and, whenever I felt I might have an inkling, not trusting even that. It seemed everyone I knew was perfectly sure of what they wanted and how they felt. And, because I wasn’t, I often ended up letting others make decisions that deeply affected my life, and then wondered, “Why's this happening to me?” Sometimes I felt imprisoned by my situation, shackled by a gloomy defeatism.

I wasn’t really even conscious of most of these feelings at a level I could have described, much less that I felt anyone else could possibly have noticed. Still, I knew that, somehow, it stood between me and the full happiness I imagined was possible.

In 1979 I and three of my friends formed a men’s group. We met every other week at a different member’s home to share our feelings, brainstorm personal problems, support each other and encourage one another’s personal, professional and spiritual growth.

    I realized that, despite my efforts to minimize 
    it, everyone else could see my affliction.

Over the next few years membership grew to six. We were lucky to have members who not only were unusually sensitive, articulate men, but also had professional experience with group dynamics. A few had gone through personal or relationship counseling. As a result, there was no shortage of activities we could call on to help us better understand and support each other. We even took the iconic Myers Briggs Personality Inventory together.

One exercise we tried was simply called “feedback.” Each of us got a handful of three-by-five cards. We were to write down, for each of the other men, an observation we’d made about him. No judgments, no criticisms, just an observation. We could either sign our cards or remain anonymous.
One of the cards handed to me—signed by Peter, a man I admired very much for his courage and insight—said, “Jeff, why do you always have that dark cloud over your head?”

   I’d managed to keep it stuffed into that uneasy 
   little corner of my psyche, rationalizing 
   that that’s just the way life is.

The consequences of that question have proven life-changing for me. The immediate impact was a sense of relief, perhaps like that felt by a patient finally getting clarity after suffering for years with an undiagnosed illness. Finding out that it has a name, that it’s not all in your head, finally lets you address the problem and begin treating it. The difference here, though, was that I hadn’t even known I was “sick.” All this time, I’d managed to keep it stuffed into that uneasy little corner of my psyche, rationalizing that that’s just the way life is.

Even more significant than my relief was the realization that, despite my efforts to minimize it, everyone else could see my affliction.

Our men’s group continues to this day (now 33 years old). Peter left the group many years ago, but I see him now and then. I always thank him for having been a mirror to me, for that telling reflection of a burden I’d not fully realized I was bearing. Knowing it was real has allowed me to all but vanquish that self-victimization, that heaviness of heart. Every so often, the dark cloud tries to revisit me, but I’m eventually able to clear the skies by summoning and shining the inner light I’ve come to trust as my one true spirit.

"The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity."


Anonymous said...

Wow - the apple sure doesn't fall far from the tree. I'd love to hear more about what you did to change. I realize that I've got some of this "sickness" but am not sure yet how to figure out who I am and what I want, when those concepts are so muddied by what others want, what's expected of me, etc.

Jeffrey Willius said...

THanks for the comment, Anonymous. A big part of my finding relief was learning to step out of myself, see what I'd just learned others see in me, and consciously decide not to look like that any more. (kind of like when someone tells you you've got something hanging out of your nose -- aren't you then extra careful to check your nose before you go out?) Hope this helps. I'd love to have you as a follower!

meg said...

Terrific post Jeff! One I identified with a lot. I only relatively recently discovered how often I can see myself as a victim...and how liberating it can be to recognize that I have choices! I also found the juxtaposition of your contemplation of the swallows alongside this post rather serendipitous-when we start paying attention, its amazing what we can see--externally or internally! And then be able to "fly like an eagle" (or a swallow as the case may be!) to quote a musician of my youth! I had some good advice lately from a friend when I was bemoaning a certain set of circumstances--she said "How can you look at this differently?" never would have occured to me there WAS another way to view the situation...I need reminders to look at things from a variety of angles...whaddya know, the world is not black and white, but multi-hued! I also think it remarkable your group has been together for so many years--wow!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thank you, my friend! Indeed the world is multi-hued -- and the wonderful thing is that we can paint it our own colors! You do this so well in your reflections on travel and wonder!
Yes, my men's group is a great blessing! Do you have a trusted circle of friends?

Craig said...

This post inspired me to be more honest with people. We all need that but it's not so easy to find. I once read about a study where 100 people were asked "If there was something about you that bothered your friends, would you want your friends to tell you?" The majority by a long shot said, "Yes". The second question was, "If there were something about a friend that bothered you, would you tell them?" Again, there was a majority consensus, but this time the answer was "No".

We humans are strange creatures.

Anyway, thanks for the inspiration and for sharing your inner world with us.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Craig -- Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found the post helpful. I guess we need to be more creative about the context into which we put ourselves with friends, since, in normal, everyday interactions, it seems that kind of honesty is off limits. In my case, it was my men's group, but maybe it could be set as a retreat, or maybe even as a game...something to think about. By the way, I like your site very much!

Craig said...

Hi Jeffrey, One night several friends and I went around and we each gave a kind of honest summary of how we experienced each other. it was a wonderful exchange each of us found helpful, and it brought us all closer together. But yeah you're right, in everyday relating being so honest is not part of the plan. I'm glad you like my site, which has been a wonderful journey in the creation.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Craig -- It sometimes helps to limit the feedback, at least the first go-round, as positive only. This way, people are put at ease and may come to trust the process more. (We call it the "Car Wash" -- just showering and massaging everyone with positive feedback.)

Anonymous said...

Hey. I've been struggling with those same issues, and my situation roughly parallels your own. A dark, brooding youth starting in my later teen years that never really went away. I spend a lot of time in my own head, and being called a pessimist and a cynic when I was never those things before. The wheels finally fell off last year, over a relationship with a girl who I thought would make life worth living, but it didn't pan out and I fell into a dark depression. I'm only now coming out of it, with a shiny, brand new borderline PD diagnosis for my troubles and no real sense of where to go from here. I'm glad you found your way; hopefully, I'll find mine.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey, Anonymous -- Sorry to hear of your struggles. While I never felt I was anywhere near serious depression, I know that's an awful place to be. It's good that you've gotten help, and I hope you can focus on the fact that you're coming out of it. As far as where to go from here, I sincerely hope you find your way -- often, I've found peace and centering in two places: volunteering to help others, and getting out in Nature. My personal experience, as well as much I've read, suggest these activities have the power to heal.
Thanks for checking my blog. I wish you all the best!

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