Discipline is the Way to Freedom

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And yet, it is an evolving truth.

I wrote a piece by the same title two years ago. I believe this whole-heartedly. Disciplineisthe way to freedom. More dark greens. No sugar. Work out at least five times a week. Up early. Work for pay. Write for love. Stay connected with friends. Sing. Try to be kind. Believe that unwanted situations are always happening FOR me, not TO me. Always consider there is some truth I cannot yet see. No matter how dark it gets. No matter how scared, anxious or pointless I feel. Follow the rules. My rules.

It took me four decades to get to this.

I cobbled it together from a diverse landscape of possibilities set amidst a minefield of self-abotage leaving behind a junkyard of failed strategies and scrapped sketches of my self. I have forged this way of being, not because I am so brilliant or resilient or wise, but because it was both a chronic and acute question of staying alive. Many times a day.

I don’t mean literal life and death, but you must see it that way reader because what I am about to try to explain to you is more insidious than you can imagine.

Only metaphor comes close.

It is like an incurable auto-immune disease that eats away at the soul and the central nervous system, eradicating the memory of self and the feeling of safety and connection with loved ones, leaving merely the shell of a body with a primitive brain to act out the part of the person you once were. Meantime, all that can be done is waiting and hoping that the auto-immune flare-up will die down and return you back to yourself.

It has the cumulative effect of making life seem less and less like a worthwhile endeavor.

It is a psychic annihilation that feels permanent despite being temporary.

This is the darkness I experience. It has no name. It is not exactly post-traumatic stress. Nor is it a panic attack. Nor is it anxiety or depression. Metaphysical distress gets closer. It is out-of-body but it is not. It fragments my being, splinters my psyche, violently, but only for a matter of minutes. About the length of an attack.

It feels like I am being abducted by a dark force that pulls me back into its vortex sucking the spirit out of my soul and the soul out of my being, obliterating my core essence and my sense of self until there is virtually nothing left except the bleak courtesy of smiling and nodding.

Sheer terror is too small to describe the way it feels.

I face it still.

I have tried all kinds of strategies over the years.

Throughout my adult life I have been open to it all– psychotherapy, prescription medication, metaphysical theology, astrology, past life regression therapy, EMDR, hypnosis, shamanic healing, Reike, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectic therapy, spirit animal communication, soul retrievals, energy work, neurofeedback– mostly a self-created arsenal of self-sabotage and eventually hospitalization.

Nothing helped. Poetry came closest. And discipline.

Intense unyielding discipline.

But for a couple of years now I have been feeling that I will not be able to move forward with the ambitious creative visions I have unless I am able to shift something deep inside me. It is an intuitive knowing, but so abstract in terms of an actionable objective, that it has become defeating. However, because I trust my intuition over my sense of despair, I have been unwilling to relent.

But it is hard to know what to do. The toll it has taken on my ability to feel genuine joy has begun to scare me. And the obstacle it presented in the way of my creative evolution felt insurmountable.

And then, a brutally gracious event happened.

Our son, Finn, was attacked by a dog. A friend’s dog lurched at him, latched onto his face and would not release. The owner mom, in shock, at first did nothing to help. After my screaming at her to please get the dog off him, she tried but was not able to get the dog to release so she ripped it off of Finn, along with part of the right side of our his face.

There was blood everywhere. Finn screaming holding his hand over his left eye. The mom moved slowly, unsure of what to do. I screamed to call 911. She walked to the phone. Rage filled my body. I wanted to shake her, strike her, beg her. But in two seconds, I shifted. I deactivated the cortisol, de-escalated the adrenaline and kicked into hyperdrive calm.

I switched into my other self.

The calm, crisis-ready, action-oriented, situationally-smart me. I asked a neighbor who had come over from her front yard to call 911. She already had. I got paper towels and ice for Finn to hold on his face. He stopped crying and looked at me. I looked into his right eye and told him we were going to be okay. He was going to be okay. We could fix anything, no matter what.

Soon, there were ambulance sirens and police sirens and fire engine sirens. Flashing lights. Neighbors crowding the street. The friend and his brother crying repeatedly begging their mom to make sure nothing bad happened to their dog.

Rage. Release. Love Finn.

I promised him we would be okay. The ambulance arrived. I put my arm around him, and we walked to the paramedic. He asked Finn to remove his hand from his eye. He did. I stood behind him. The paramedic asked him if he could see. He said yes.

He asked him how many fingers. He answered three. He was right. The paramedic looked at me and asked if I’d seen his eye. I said no. He suggested Finn go into the ambulance and asked to speak with me for a moment.

Fear. Release. Love Finn.

He said, his eye is okay, but it is very deep and wide, quite a bit of cheek is missing. Not ripped but altogether gone. We will need plastic surgery.My body filled with loss, sadness, fear, hopelessness, finality, gratitude it wasn’t worse and then snapped like a well-trained yo-yo back to the immediacy of what was needed in the Now.

Love Finn. Assure him it would all be ok. Because it would. No matter what happened. He, and we, would be okay. Little did I know then, his path to recovery would be largely physical and mine would require months and months (and looking like a year) of intense emotional trauma, during which I’d have to work, parent, wife and appear normal on the social surface of things. Luckily, I had a lifetime of experience executing the life is all goodroutine.

But I couldn’t fake it to myself.

The rage I felt toward the mom for her passive response mirrored the rage I felt toward myself for not being able to save Finn. And the ongoing rage I felt toward her for not reaching back out after the week it happened to check in and see how we were doing, mirrored my rage about not being the kind of person who speaks up about that.

I could not figure out what to do with all the rage, so I attempted to shut it down. But to shut it down, meant to shut me up. This ongoing self-silencing along with the alternating spikes of outrage left me with a deflated sense of hope that I had the power to DO anything to change my situation, or even my perspective of it.

The rage, the fear was, and still often is, unbearable.

The post-traumatic stress from watching the attack was paralyzing. Seeing the bandages on Finn’s face and then the large scar and not knowing if his slightly pulled down eye would be deformed for life, made me come apart within myself. Made me feel like I was breaking into a million irretrievable pieces.

His eye is no longer pulled down. We go monthly for painful rounds for micro-needling, all forms of lasers and steroid injections to soften the rope like texture of the scar, to lessen the outer toughness of the skin, to reduce the dark red color of the very wide scar. The plastic surgeon has said he will most likely need a re-vision.

Finn asked what this meant. She looked at me. I looked at him, paused and said, a much less intrusive surgery that gives you a revised vision of what happened so the scar becomes less visible.

His eyes filled up. I held his hand.

In the car later, I told him two things.

One, I will never lie to you. Re-vision is surgery, but my love, if we have made it this far, we can make it through anything. And two, just because you have been the bravest, most optimistic, most resilient boy in the world about this does not mean there may not come a time when you don’t feel this way. So, please know, there is no expiration date for talking about this, the horror, the fear, sadness– anything.

The helplessness, the hopelessness, the push-pull struggle between victim, fighter and failed savior has been crushing. The places it pulls from my past into the present are overwhelming. Places I abandoned because I could not digest them, could not extract them, could not process them. But here they are, and here I am, and here we are, back at it again – my feelings and I, my soul and I, my history and present collided in this attack.

So, what could possibly offer grace from such a violent event?

For Finn, only his future self can really say. But, as his mom, and a true believer that NOTHING happens to us that is not meant to help us, I have guesses.

A couple weeks after the attack, he came into our sunroom, sat next to me, looked up at me, his eyes full of tears. I asked him what was wrong. He said he didn’t know. I asked him what it felt like, even if it seemed weird or abstract. And he said, I feel like I lost something, but I don’t know if I want if back.

His words crystalized it in my mind.

You have lost something, Finn. Something very big. Beyond a piece of your face, you have lost your childhood innocence. For most kids it happens over time, in small ways over the years. But for you it has happened all at once.

I became very clear, and very calm and tried my best to say what I said next with kindness but also a sort of gentle firmness, as I believed the safety and adventurous spirit of his future self would be greatly helped if he could somehow absorb what I was saying into his awareness.

You said you weren’t sure you wanted back what you had lost.

This is so wise of you Finn, because, although innocence is an incredibly difficult thing to lose, what replaces it is SO MUCH bigger and SO MUCH more useful in life. What replaces innocence is a sense of knowing your true power. All super-heroes have to go through this. And you are most definitely a superhero. Truly, your energy, who you are, is incredibly powerful. You vibrate at a very high frequency. People pick up on it without even knowing it. Dogs too. It will attract many but make others feel nervous or threatened. And it is a great responsibility, never to dull yourself down, but to know how and when and where you need to step back.

He took it in, in the way he does. Not through an intellectual understanding and extended conversation (which is SO much more immediately gratifying for a person like me) but rather through some kind of cellular energetic absorption that seems innocuous until months or years later when he relays it back in some kind of spectacular reinterpretation.

For me, there was an unexpected grace in this attack too.

My old strategies could no longer hold me. I went back into therapy. And over the past nine months, we have worked on creating connection and trust even in the midst of psychic annihilation. It is a relief not to be constantly applying symptomatic band-aids.

I am not there yet. I am grateful for an approach that seeks to forge MY path through MY darkness, not some one-size-fits-all approach wrapped around a best-guess diagnosis. My therapist is able to point with words, to feelings that have none. He is able to speak in metaphor so I can understand what defies understanding. He listens for content over data, for the patterns that will help me better track what is happening.

I am moving through this spiritual crisis, as our son Leo would say, like a boss.

It continues to bring me to my knees– this intersection of forces I do not yet understand. I can feel myself at a threshold. I do not think this therapist will be able to take me to the other side. He has helped me get through the dark woods but as with all epic tales that end in greatness, this next step will be up to me.

And it will require an acceptance of my own loss of innocence.

It was ripped away too early and there was no one there to hold me hand.

It is absurd that that can be said in two sentences.

I have spent a lifetime inside the spaces between those words. I am not free yet, but I can see the bridge. Crossing requires leaving somuch behind. An entire belief system I don’t even fully understand. How do you let go of that?

It is the point in all mythic journeys I have always been drawn to– the turning point where the character begins believing he or she already has the power insideand with that inner knowingis able to shift into the confidence that propels them forward into the bigness of their destiny. Like Luke in Star Wars.

Even my MFA thesis centered around this idea of “Turning Points” – that point in the writing of a novel, poem, essay or short story where the author can feel the invisible magical shift where the writing pivots deep into itself, deep into the heart of what needs to be said and from that place of undeniable power is able to launch into the hearts and minds of readers.

The landscape of this knowing cannot be pointed to or explained.

It is an inside job. It can only happen when we are ready. The desire, frustratingly, is not enough. It is the intersection of fierce surrender, surgical truth, courageous acceptance and spiritual revolution. A perfect storm, wherein the pure wisdom of our child’s soul is able to survive, like a phoenix rising, from the ashes of our childhood innocence.

We cross the bridge, if we do at all, alone.

I believe we are offered these threshold crossings every so often throughout our lifetimes until the final one. Whether we decide to face them is up to us. But, at least for me, I know failure to accept this call will result in a palpable deadening of my soul. And I can sense that my ability to answer it will rely on my ability to evolve my approach to discipline and freedom.

Discipline is the way to freedom.

What I didn’t quite understand when I wrote this piece a couple years ago was the endless dimensions there are inside freedom and the very different approaches there are to exercising discipline. I could not have articulated then, the parenthetical phrases, that shaped the entire world of that statement for me at the time. But if I could have, it would have looked like this.

Discipline (in the service of self-control)is freedom (from self-sabotage and despair).

This is a play not to lose strategy– a strategy that served me very well.

It repeatedly prevented me from returning to self-destructive ways of escaping the terrifying fear and unpredictable reality of the darkness. This approach was and is (as I am very much still working my way out of it) fueled by the power of sheer will. The problem, is that anything not intrinsically motivated by spirit or love, is only sustainable with the ultimate sacrifice of joy.

I have been feeling the joy siphoning out of me like sands in an hourglass. And my search for freedom has felt more like a manic quest of fleedom. There is no more instinctually raw desire than to flee that which is oppressing you. But, it gets complicated when you are trying to flee the prisons you have created– especially the ones that once kept you safe.

But… joy is no longer negotiable. The future… is calling. And the bridge– needs crossing.

There is someone new I need to become.

Like a racehorse locked in a small stall, I need to break free. It is a bold endeavor to pass on what you know to be true in lieu of faith in what you cannot yet see. To release the energetic chokehold of has beenand should beand unleash the wild spirit of possibility.

It still happens. The fear. The abductions. The psychic annihilations in which I disappear.

Here’s the one degree of difference that I am hopeful will begin turning this ship around. I am now more interested in staying connected to myself than I am in trying to appear cool, calm and collected for whoever I’m with. It is a small, but I am hoping monumental shift, that makes way for a powerful new re-vision.

Discipline (in staying spiritually connected to myself) is freedom (to be present).




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1 Response

  1. Laura Burghart

    Kelly, Kelly, Kelly,
    There is so much here I can hardly bear it. Even reading it, I had to tread carefully not to open up to my own rage for you, for Finn, for your family.

    “It was ripped away too early and there was no one there to hold my hand.”

    I can’t fathom the deep dive you have had to take this year.

    So much love to you and your sweet family.

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