Years ago, when high up in the Himalayan mountains during a spiritual yoga retreat, I adopted a behaviour as a strategy for surviving marital separation. It’s called the Laughing Dying Cockroach.
One lies flat on her back, kicking her arms and legs in the air while busting a most shameless gut-splitting laugh, using her anger, sadness, grief, shame, and emotional baggage as fuel to kickstart the engine.
It sounds rather contradictory, doesn’t it? I mean, why would a cockroach, if it could laugh in the first place (assuming it doesn’t, of course, but how do we really know?) laugh whilst dying? Unless it was nervous laughter? And why would I be shamelessly laughing and allowing waves of joy to shake my limbs like an apple tree during one of the most confusing and heartbreaking times of my life?
Well, grief has a way of making one a little crazy. You don’t really know what you’ll do next, so you just kind of sit back and let it all roll on. If you don’t laugh about it, that jovial craziness could easily pivot on a sharp heel and morph into utter insanity.
The honest answer is I had no choice but to laugh. Laughter was vital for my survival. The days would’ve otherwise swallowed me into black holes of shame and grief. I didn’t care how ridiculous I looked, or how much my thighs jiggled (the benefit of well-made yoga pants), or who bothered to join me. Sometimes it takes the worst phases of our lives to get past ourselves to a point where we can touch base with the raw self that wants to let go of all the crap. The Laughing Dying Cockroach is good for that.
In present day, almost 10 years later, I realize that I’ve somewhat programmed this ability within myself, like a sort of bomb shelter-type tool to save myself from emotional blackouts. Not the laughing dying cockroach, though that persists, but the ability to make myself laugh. To keep my thoughts reigned in from running rampant, barefooted and naked, wild-eyed and strong-willed into that crippling period of time called The Past, where nothing changes. The ability to make myself laugh now happens so serendipitously I can actually surprise myself with it, like I never knew it was coming, like the punch line to a good joke told by a good friend.
This came to my attention the other day when I read a Facebook post written by my friend for her nut-butter business. Reading the caption, I laughed out loud in a restaurant. I commented on her post and, giggling, sent her a text message to tell her how much I enjoyed it. “But you wrote that,” she explained. “I just copied a small section of the text you wrote in the blog.” (I write her business blog). I didn’t know I was so witty, I thought to myself, silently amused now, and digging around for my humility. I don’t like tooting my own horn after all, even in private (unless it’s absolutely necessary on a lonely Sunday morning, ahem). But I love that my own writing can make me laugh, in a good way, as much as it can make me cringe. I suppose that’s also a benefit of having a poor memory.
And on that same day, in that moment, I also realized something else: Quite some time has passed since I last felt like a total piece of shit, a feeling that headlined the latter half of 2020. In fact it’s been months since my face was mere centimetres from my kitchen floor.
But here’s where I get a bit caught up, and maybe you’ve experienced this too, if your life has been only minimally affected by the pandemic:
Is it okay to feel happy in these times? When there’s a shit storm still going on? When people are starving, and dying, and desperately staving off total economic collapse? Some might think it’s a bit inappropriate. Others might say it’s essential. I guess it depends on who you ask. I’ve been admonished in the past for airing personal grievances (i.e. sharing my struggles). Will the same occur now voicing my inherent joy? I’ll take the risk.
The honest truth, from where I stand and what I’ve temporarily coined the Land Of The Free, is that I don’t think I’ve ever felt this good, like over the moon good, at any other time in my life. Except for once perhaps, for a snippet of time back in 2017, which is to say I don’t think I’ve ever felt consistently this good in my life (and for totally different reasons than 2017 held). Now that doesn’t equate to life being better than it’s ever been, mind you, it’s just that I’m enduringly more joyful than I believe I’ve ever been.
One day after another I wake up to the sound of birds chirping outside my urban apartment. Early morning light streams in through that slice between wall and curtain like lemon cream pie, and I think, wow––again! Amazing! I woke up again, and I have this whole marvelous day ahead of me! Whatever shall I do with it? Putting aside the have-tos momentarily, like work and exercise and errands, I realize that even they aren’t burdens on my day. They’re privileges, and I welcome them all. The entire day’s plan sings along to the Sound of Music.
The beautiful thing about all of this is the realization that I haven’t made my happiness anyone else’s responsibility, or burden, for that matter. I don’t wake up and look at the person not sleeping next to me and silently admonish him for still being asleep and not sharing in my sacred morning space or offering up nothing from beneath the rumble of his snores.
I don’t blame him (whomever he is anyway) for not bringing me coffee in bed (I have a sense of what that feels like by the way, but no evidence to support it!). I just get up, make my own cuppa joe, and bring it back to bed like I’d never left the place and some fairy angel just made it magically appear. In the same vein, I’m not blaming anyone else for my feeling bad either. Only myself sometimes, but those days are numbered.
Now one could argue that’s because no one is sharing my bed or my days with me, so it’s easy not to slap blame on a nonexistent person!
Shamefully, I am prone to handing over my happiness to someone else. Aren’t most of us, at least at some point in our lives, consciously or not, before we learn how completely ineffective that is? Expect that the object of our affection should also be the primary prop (or pill-pop) in our lives, existing merely to make us happy (as if our own personal happiness is in fact a mere task)? And if they don’t, they are somehow to blame? How easily we allow ourselves to be swallowed by the idea that our most intimate relationship should also be the thing that ensures our optimal survival. And when it doesn’t? Oh dear Lord, hang on for dear life because Personal Failure is going to hit hard, knock us down, and we may pull others down with us.
How easily we burden the person we love with the responsibility of upholding our sense of self. Well, I did anyway, I can’t speak for anyone else. And not just other people either we assign that task to. We shackle our sense of self to almost every aspect of our lives, and our personal happiness bumpity-bump-bumps along in the back of the ride.
Sometimes, it takes coming out the other side of hell to realize these shortcomings of human nature, which is to say that it takes going through hell as a form of humility training that gifts us greater clarity about ourselves and others.
That latter half of 2020? I went through a trainwreck of a breakup and then submitted myself to what ended up being a rather traumatic psychedelic trip. That mind-fuck of a trip was supposed to help me recover from the heart-crushing ramifications of the months-long breakup, which is a bit like jamming a needle in your one good eye and then ramming an especially pointy chopstick up one nostril to distract yourself from the needle in the eye.
The whole personal catastrophe stole months of my sanity and shook my entire identity to the core. If that sounds a bit trivial to some, compared to what’s happening to people all over the world (as it does to me summarizing it here), I urge you to take my word for it because I would never wish that ram-jam cocktail of horror on anyone. While breakups themselves are not relative, one’s experience with them is, and I seem to have a remarkable ability to turn a mildly tragic moment into months of irrevocable misery. What I can now rationally see was just a breakup, probably no better or worse than the average one, was akin to being six feet underground for several weeks, alive.
The only way out of it was to go through it and hope I’d come out the other side. Thankfully, I did, and good gut-wrenching laughter has returned. It’s not a strategy for recovery, or a nervous pitch toward hell again, or relief for having survived what I feared I wouldn’t. I’m laughing because there’s joy inside me again. Real, raw, top-of-the-mountain Joy, from origins unknown. Unrelated to other people. Unrelated to location (well maybe I’ll give Chiang Mai a little credit). Unrelated to the luxuries I enjoy every day. But certainly owed to the gratitude I have for all those things and that I work on cultivating every day.
I’m laughing in my apartment, alone, at myself, at the silly lizards and birds that visit my balcony with their shenanigans. At the hilarious memories that spring up from time to time. At my girlfriends’ banter. At the daily Thai-isms that decorate my life. At the accidental barefooted step in city street juice. At the ridiculous, soul-sacrificing nature of everyday current events. At the heaviness I dumped onto love, the burden I made it bear, the trickery inside grief that made me feel like I can’t handle everything that comes my way. Because I can handle it. Sloppy and desperate sometimes, but managed nonetheless. Amen.
So here’s to 555–the Thai-ism for hahaha because the numeral 5 in Thai is pronounced HA. I’m 555-ing all over the place these days, mostly unapologetically. The other side of heartbreak is a happy place, even in the time of COVID.