On Seeking

February 04, 2019

I just finished reading “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” and aside from being a very entertaining, eye-opening, and all-around worthwhile read, it also reminded me of a life I once lived, that sometimes feels like the life of an entirely different person. In some ways that’s very true — except in the legal sense and in basically all the ways that make day to day living possible. It’s difficult to identify with that version of me from those years ago. He had such different struggles and ways of thinking. In a similar way, it’s difficult to identify with, say the 9 year old version of myself. Those were of course “me”, but they are also no longer “me”. It’s funny like that.

I spent about 6 years working in mental health. 2 years of my undergrad in internships at a local non-profit that ran group homes for adults, followed by 4 years working full-time for a homeless outreach program that specialized in the chronically ill and forgotten.

Whether or not my time in mental health made me “better” is a question I have asked myself and one I haven’t a clear answer. I certainly learned a lot about humanity, for better or worse. There were times when I saw horrific scenes play out and other times when I was part of beautiful moments of growth and transitioning. A few of Sheldon Kopp’s stories resonated with me as similar to experiences I had while working with, as he calls them, “Pilgrims”. I want to share a story of my own from my very first case at mental health and talk a little about my experience of being a Pilgrim myself.

That I should experience my old life, one so different from the one I now lead, as belonging to someone different ends up being kind of appropriate — in a cosmic/dark sense of humor way.

Three weeks after I graduated from college, I was now three weeks into my first post-college “real” job. My first case working in the homeless outreach program was a young woman of 19 years old. She had been picked up by police following a call about a woman sleeping on the sidewalk with most of her clothing missing. All she had in her possession was a backpack full of magazines, drawings, and drawing supplies. At first she refused to say who she was, but was later identified by her driver’s license in the backpack. She was from another city and it was unclear how she came to be in San Luis Obispo. Her family was contacted and confirmed that she had went missing a couple days earlier and was diagnosed as schizoaffective by a doctor in her town just a few weeks prior. After a night of evaluation at the inpatient unit, she was deemed not a threat to herself or others and was released to the organization I worked for.

It was my assignment to be her caretaker until her family could come to pick her up in a few days time. The organization I was a part of helped many people in her situation by assigning them someone like myself and providing temporary housing in either a group home setting or for special cases, a few nights worth of hotel vouchers. Her situation was the latter and I was to take her to the hotel and try to build a rapport with her along the way and over the next few days to try and understand what had happened to her. She chose to not speak, but would nod to yes and no questions and shrug to open-ended ones. She avoided any eye contact, but didn’t seem like she was afraid of me, just cautious and a little confused about what was happening.

After I had checked her into the hotel, I walked her to the room and was leaving her with my card and information about when I would return. She seemed more relaxed and even made the briefest glance up to meet my eyes before looking down again. She said, “thanks” as I was leaving. I was encouraged.

The next day I returned to the motel to find she had “decorated” the room with cutouts from her magazines. I also saw several drawings laid out, some of which seemed to be made by her (the skill level was higher, more mature) and some that seemed to be made by a child. I noted that the child drawings were signed “Michael” and I assumed it to be perhaps a younger sibling. I inquired about Michael and received a shrug in response. Later that day, when recounting my meeting to my superior, I mentioned the drawings and asked if there was a little brother or someone in her family that she might be missing. Maybe, I thought, we could use that as a way to talk to her about her family and get her to open up about what happened. I was told there was no mention in her chart about anyone named Michael and that as far as the police knew, she was an only child.

I continued to visit her and take her out for meetings with doctors and to the park to sit and try and talk about what happened. It was on the third day when I went to the hotel to pick her up that I noticed additional drawings that hadn’t been there before. These were in the style of the child named Michael. I asked her again about Michael and though she had been more talkative the past couple of days, this question made her once again look away and shrug. I noticed that the drawing supplies were out, a few pencils were scattered on the ground. She had also drawn on the walls in a few places (in a similar child-like manner) and most of the surfaces were now covered in pages from her magazines.

This didn’t sit well with the manager of the hotel who understandably told us we couldn’t keep her there any longer. We had no choice but to take her to the inpatient unit until her parents arrived the following day.

Thus far in my time at mental health, I had only been to the inpatient unit 2 other times so it still felt like unfamiliar territory and I didn’t know any of the staff there. This would be my first taste, and perhaps a warning of things to come, of the callousness that can develop in those confronting these kinds of cases each day. One of the staff members that day was a man in his late 30s that greeted us as we pulled around the back of the unit to bring our client in. I remember the visible stress on her face as she realized where we were. The man greeting us didn’t help as he mocked her situation, “Hey it’s you again! I thought you’d be back. Heard you tagged up your hotel room. Well you can’t do that here.” His smirk made me want to punch him. I later reported him to the county department of mental health and was informed he would receive disciplinary action.

Side note: I sometimes think about that man and with time and experience, have a softer feeling towards him on that day. I had no idea how long he had been working at the inpatient unit (over a decade, it turned out), nor about what kinds of horrible things he had witnessed in that time. It doesn’t make his behavior OK, but I can understand from where such feelings arise.

Once inside, we were greeted by the staff psychiatrist who first sat with the client and then with myself and my boss. I realized I should say something about the drawings. I showed them to the psychiatrist and at first he didn’t know what to make of it. Her diagnosis had been schizoaffective so perhaps these were drawings of delusions she was having. He said he would investigate these in another session with her.

I would later hear from that psychiatrist that my hunch about the drawings signifying something greater was a good one. The doctor decided to notify the parents he was going to initiate a 72 hours hold to reevaluate her case. The additional days of evaluation proved fruitful. The doctor discovered further evidence of an additional identity within this young woman and diagnosed her as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Michael was one that presented himself sometimes when she was alone. It was a separate identity she developed to, presumably, deal with some past trauma. I never learned what caused it, but I did hear a few years later that she was living a fairly normal life now, attending therapy, managing symptoms with medication and even attending community college.

It’s an amazing fact that the mind can splinter in such ways to protect itself. My hunch is that most “disorders” are on a continuum of sorts and D.I.D. is simply at the far end opposite the same trick that “normal” people pull off everyday. One type of person at work, another with high school friends, another with college friends, and another with family…

In the ensuing years, I would see much more of the various terrible ways in which minds can turn against their owners. I also saw how it affected the people charged with tending these people. Myself included. I saw several burnouts with one coworker nearly needing to be admitted at inpatient himself after working on a particularly devastating case. After a couple years, I began to self destruct in other ways. I drank heavily, partied near constantly and was in a toxic personal relationship that each took me to ever darkening places of my soul. I woke one day and realized how sick I was and how far I had fallen from who I wanted to be.

I have long viewed myself as a “seeker” or sometimes I might say “explorer”. Someone who, with an open mind, explored reality and sought a greater understanding of both the physical and psychic realms. My entire reason for moving into psychology in college was in support of that endeavor. And choosing my first job out of college to be within one of the most difficult environments available was also the act of a seeker. But somewhere along the way I found my path had changed beneath me. My lack of attention and care to myself led me down treacherous terrain where I was alone and far from home.

It was then that I knew I couldn’t stay and had to make some changes. I had done something like this before, I reminded myself. There was a time in my youth when I was part of groups that, at the time, I believed in and felt deeply connected to. But as change inevitably came,  I knew then that I would have to make choices to grow and survive. I felt confident that I could once again pull off such a magic trick. I was successful and my life today barely resembles even a glimmer of that period in my life. That’s not to say that there was no cost and that I reached some golden hill. First, any golden hill is just a temporary perch in the trail. There will be more troughs to come, just as there will be more perches. The first time I had to cut elements out of my life, I had to also cut elements out of myself. That time it was some of my hardness. The exoskeleton I built up around me to survive in the environment of my youth. I had to shed some of that to be able to approach others at a closer distance.

This time, however, the price was some of my softness. Some of my openness. The years of my self exploration and work with others had honed both. I had willingly gone on so many journeys to dark places with strangers, I took on their burdens and let it weigh me down. I was an exposed nerve most of the time. Raw from what I saw and heard most days. I was depressed and angry. With no hint of irony, I did all of this alone and without seeking help. There are times when seeking help is the best way — or maybe the only way — out of a situation. I eventually did see a therapist who was of great help to me in recovering some of what I lost. But that is my neuroses. I was never good enough, so I needed to be so good that some day someone might see how good I was and tell me so. I needed to be so strong so that people could rely on me and tell me how strong I was. I always felt stronger for other people than for myself, despite what I now consider heroic acts of self-preservation in my first and second acts of extreme life rearranging. In order to pull myself out of that situation I had to close up a bit, had to harden to the issues of others. I felt I had seen and done enough for a while. I “earned” a break from actively dealing with the troubles of my fellow humans. The task over the past couple of years has been to earn some of that softness and openness back through self work, to strike a better balance.

Some of the other ways in which this price manifested itself was that I forgot that one need not have it all “figured out” in order to be of help to another person, as if my own existence and previous work were not example enough. While I still think it’s fair that charlatans and snake oil salespeople should be derided and admonished at every opportunity for the genuine harm they inflict, I have begun to reevaluate my opinion of others that have placed themselves in the role of teacher or guru. This book helped me realize that I have been unfair in the past couple of years with my evaluation of some people and organizations that have attempted to be of assistance to others. They’re just trying to figure this out too, and have decided to try and help others along the way. These are often not the people doing harm from their place of power, though I still think it’s only wise that each person be aware of their limitations when choosing to go on a journey with another. And for the seeker seeking help, to choose wisely what partner (either individual or organization) you are to venture out with.

A long time ago, I turned away from religion precisely for the same reason I avoid deifying other humans in the role of savior or guru. I realized that they’re just people, too. Some of them might have discovered something true and shared it, but they didn’t “invent” these things. The ideas were there, always there as truisms. Recently, in my current state of deep self exploration, I felt inadequate to be able to help myself out of this current situation and so I turned to “masters”. I even said so much in a recent exchange with someone, that part of the reason I don’t feel completely alone is that I have “masters” to learn from. While it’s true books like this one and others I’ve read recently are full of wisdom and insight that can help guide a seeker on their journey, they don’t contain anything that any person couldn’t discover on their own if they were so inclined to put in the effort. In that same exchange, however, I also acknowledged my previous understanding that there would still be lessons I would have to learn that even the “masters” couldn’t teach me. This book really brought that idea back around again and reminded me that there are no masters. Our reaching for one is a giving up of our own power. Ultimately, we are all alone and much of what we do is an attempt to not be alone. But if one is willing to walk directly into loneliness to explore its depths, there are things to discover within oneself:

There is no inherent meaning to any of this.

Any meaning that you accept from outside yourself, is meaningless.

Only meaning that we create is the meaning that can withstand the pressures of this life.

If you don’t care about the outcome, you need only take an action — or none at all. But, if you wish to have predictable outcomes, you must establish a process. Predictable outcome is the result of process and process is the sum of routine. If you cannot abide routine, you cannot expect predictable outcomes.

Predictable outcomes are not guaranteed.

Knowledge and wisdom are separate things, and both worthy of pursuit.  But while knowledge, information, and data can give us answers, they may not necessarily provide peace. That is the fruit of wisdom and wisdom is born of us realizing that which does not need to be learned. i.e., realizing what has been true the entire time.

My life motto for the past decade has been that the secret to living the life I want, to accomplishing what I set out to do, is that there is no secret. It’s one of the reasons I love Kung Fu Panda so much ;It’s simply a function of effort multiplied by time. That’s all there is to it, in my current view. So, I was delighted to see this phrase repeated throughout this book: “The secret is that there is no secret.” It was a reminder that we must all be reminded from time to time, of the things we already know. In that way, others — either in the form of books, or real-live humans — are helpful partners on our journey (but never our masters).

Another repeated saying in the book that I will take with me is that as adults, we are expected to take responsibility for our lives, which is really the sum of our choices, and that every choice we make, we must do so with imperfect and incomplete knowledge. Part of being enlightened is coming to terms with such a sour deal and being willing to do so time after time.

I’ve been on a great big journey. My entire life, of course, but recently much less metaphorically. I’ve become geographically and socially distant from all that I know best to be alone and explore what it means to me and to understand it. However, I was also reminded that while a change of scenery can be helpful, it’s never required. Everything is within consciousness and it’s within that space that we do battle. Physical presence in some temple in a far off land or at the feet of a top yelp-rated guru are all unnecessary and can be avoided without risk of missing what needs to be seen.

But don’t take it from me.

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© 2021 Jesse Gortarez