There’s a foot-sized painted ceramic salamander sitting on a stone next to my neighbor’s garage. He’s so charming to me, with swirls of navy, burnt sienna, and pale green snaking across his white flesh. His tail is broken. His eyes are bewildered and hollow. I come to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk just to marvel at him.
I’ve walked down this exact sidewalk every single day for months. I’ve lived in this neighborhood and paced its side streets for over eight years. How have I never noticed this salamander before?
How much delight have I lost the chance to experience, because I’m always so swept up in dissociation and stress?
The first time a therapist recommended mindfulness to me, I scoffed at her. I couldn’t see how carefully observing water cascading over my spoons while I did the dishes would do anything to mend the misery in my life. In fact, being more present in reality seemed like it would make my suffering worse.
Many autistic people report “blanking out” of reality to cope with sensory overwhelm. Some of us also disappear from the physical world when there are too many faces and bodies around for us to fully process. One autistic person I quoted in my book told me that at large family gatherings and at school, the people around him all become “blurry” and he travels into a mental realm that is entirely his own.
But recently, I opened up The Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder by Sheri Van Dijk. My partner has bipolar, and I thought the exercises in the book might help me understand them better. One of Van Dijk’s first recommendations for people struggling with mania or depression was to practice mindfulness. Not because it would make anything better. Only because it would force a person to accept how things actually were.
“The point of mindfulness isn’t to help you relax or calm yourself,” Van Dijk writes in the DBT Workbook. “The only goal of the exercise is to be in the present moment more often. When looked at from this perspective, mindfulness always works.”
Huh, I thought. My old therapist had never framed mindfulness that way. Whenever I had heard about mindfulness in support groups or in random self-help books, it was always presented as a solution to difficulties like depression, neurosis, and social anxiety.
“Whatever the experience is,” Van Dijk writes, “it’s already there. Just let it come to your awareness.”
I couldn’t argue with her there. The pain that was inside me had never stopped lurking. I’d been trying to outpace it for 34 years. If I couldn’t beat it back, maybe it was time to allow myself to face it. Then I could see what, if anything, my pain had to teach me.
It’s a hot, sunny day in early May and I’m sitting at a table in the park, trying to read.
A woman sits at a table near me, along with her toddler-aged son. She’s snapping her gum and holding a lengthy, full-volume conversation over speakerphone. Her son keeps dashing all around us. I’m so sensitive to movement, unpredictability, and noise. A throbbing emerges in my temple. My jaw tightens.
Normally, this is when I jam earbuds in, blast music, and flip through my phone. There are so many tools to aid in my dissociation. Social media was basically engineered to prevent a person from experiencing the world around them mindfully. But today, I choose to stay in reality. I let the actual experience of being myself in this world crash over me like a wave.
The park is too busy and distracting. I’m in pain. I want to be normal. I don’t want to be so easily hurt and outmanned like this. I don’t want to feel this way. I have been trying to not feel this way for decades. But I feel this way. This is it.
After a few minutes, I stand up and slowly walk home. For once, I’m not angry at the woman, or her toddler, or the world. I’m just resigned. The turmoil I’m experiencing has always been here. I can’t fix it. I can only accept it, and then change how I behave. Today, acceptance means listening to the frightened animal inside me, and changing means lovingly leading it somewhere more safe.
As I walk home, I focus on the sensation of my thin Converse hitting the uneven gravel. I stride through a construction site and notice the gentle give of the mud beneath my feet. A cool breeze kisses my face as I approach my building, which overlooks Lake Michigan.
The more regularly I practice mindfulness, the more attuned I am becoming to my own discomfort. There are many situations that I find myself leaving now quite swiftly, and many hungers that I’m just learning how to satisfy.
The jitteriness fades. I don’t burst out screaming in anger anymore. I’m sad and tired. I’m at peace sometimes. When the lilacs are in bloom, their scent catches my attention, along with the wet loam of the dirt after it rains. I pause to look around, to draw myself close to these features of my environment, to see them, to smell them. When a stranger pauses to compliment my outfit or share some benign non sequitur, I hear them.
I live in the world now, with all its frustrations. I experience myself moving through the world slowly, bathed in light and pleasure, and I am also far more aware of the pain I am often in. Mindfulness means noticing when I’m not doing well, and taking care of my body. It means for how difficult I actually find life, and grieving for the alienation and lack of accessibility I face. But it also means I get to stop running away from the inevitable. It means cool breezes, warm palms, and occasionally, beautifully painted salamanders. And I’m accepting all that pretty well.