Book Review: The Five Things We Cannot Change by David Richo

One of my absolute favorite shows is Fringe. There is a scene in the episode ‘Conentrate and Ask Again’ in which Dr. Walter Bishop comes face-to-face with one of his child experimental cortexiphan subjects—now an adult—Simon Phillips. Simon has the ability to read people’s minds so-much-so he has removed himself from society and sequestered himself in an isolated cabin in the woods so as to not be continuously bombarded with the intrusive thoughts of others. Peter, Olivia and Walter search him out to help them with a case. When confronted with Walter’s thoughts, Simon repeats them back to him: “Bacon, unicorns… Peter’s birthday, dash of cinnamon, Z-two equals z-one squared plus c, Reiden Lake. What does that mean, huh? What are you trying to do to me?” Walter replies: “Nothing. It’s just my mind does that sometimes.” Woah. I felt so seen—and, I pushed pause and took a breath from the scorch of memories.

For the longest time, I had a severe case of monkey mind along with, I’m positive, was ADHD. I cannot say for certain because we did not have health insurance—I rarely saw any doctors when I was a kid, other then when I was five and accidentally chopped off my finger with a hatchet my dad left laying around; the small town quack of a doctor put it back together without stitches, wrapped it up with a bandage, and lectured my mom about being a better mother. I wasn’t even aware I needed glasses until I was in high school. When I finally put them on, it was such an emotional revelation I have never quite forgotten and recall each and every time I take them off and put them on again. My life had been an absolute blur before then—every detail clouded in obscurity until someone finally took the care and time to notice that one of the reasons that I was such a below-average student was because I couldn’t see. It’s a shame they didn’t check for ADHD, but, of course, that is what happens when you’re poor and inconsequential. It was also, however, during the seventies and eighties and in the early stages of becoming widely known for us commoners, so there was that—I suppose.

I suffered through this monkey mind and ADHD for all of my childhood, teens, twenties and it wasn’t until my thirties when I became clinically depressed that I started realizing and diagnosing all that was wrong with me. I didn’t even recognize I was clinically depressed until I went to the person I called my doctor—she was a physician’s assistant who did my annual pap smears, pelvic exams and prescribed my birth control—and broke down crying telling her something was wrong with me. When she asked why, I told her I didn’t wanna be here anymore.

I was thirty-two years old.

I dropped a significant amount of weight over the prior year to 105 pounds (I’m five foot seven) and laid on the floor in front of the television for three days straight, not moving, without food and water. I would like to say the catalyst was a breakup, but it culminated long before and wasn’t the only part of my life that had gone painfully astray. Although, I’ve never really had the kind of life that went on course, so to say.

I can empathize with Peter in the Fringe episode ‘White Tulip’ in the following scene discussing destiny and deja vu, unaware of the extent of why and how exact his philosophical take was given he was yanked from another universe as a child from a father that wasn’t his own. All this while Walter and Olivia look on knowingly mindful, laden with guilt of what they’re keeping from him:

Peter: Yeah, I read that deja vu is Fate’s way of telling you that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. That’s why you feel like you’ve been there before. You are right in line with your own destiny.
Olivia: Well, do you believe that?
Peter: Mm… no. It’s a bit mystical for my taste. I never get them, myself. Maybe that’s because I’m not on track with my own destiny.

I’ve always felt like someone yanked me from my own universe and kept dropping me in different universes amongst the many in the multiverse—never my own.

The PA prescribed me Zoloft and that was the beginning of that climb. It’s been an arduous one ever since, but I’ve, at least, learned to enjoy the view while doing so—most of the time. I don’t think I would’ve succeeded if it wasn’t for Zoloft as it seem to have allowed me to gain control over my thoughts I was incapable of before taking it. In addition to the Zoloft, I searched for a therapist and started eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts, big cans of peanuts and blocks of pepperjack cheese with Wheat Thins to gain back some of the weight I lost. If anyone deigns to tell you that five-foot-seven one-hundred-six pounds sounds positively gorgeous and glamorous, it was not—not on me it didn’t; I was anorexic; I went way passed hangry and became numb to the hunger as the depression overwhelmed my mind and body. The sharp edges of my hips and chin and elbows would’ve cut steel.

In addition to stuffing my face constantly with pasta, peanuts, cheese and doughnuts, I also did some volunteer work at homeless and women’s shelters, and got a part-time gig at a bookstore. My job situation, rarely stable then, represented one of my many problems and not only because of my issues, but circumstances beyond my control, like 9/11 and the real estate, telecom and dot com busts. The ordeals coalesced as the wounds multiplied. This framed by an already traumatic childhood.

For exercise, I worked out at my local gym where I purchased a cheap annual membership, and walked for two miles every day to and from my local coffee shop. I carried a backpack weighted down with as many books as would fit, including a rhyming, mini-dictionary and thesaurus, and a notebook. I sat outside on the patio reading and writing for long periods while drinking lots of hot tea and eating baked cheese and tomato sandwiches with tortilla chips. I, unfortunately though, neglected to boot some toxic people from my life and set up boundaries for myself. There are serious costs to one’s self at being much too nice to other people and not so much to yourself—I found that out the hard way and have come to realize that nice and kind do not mean the same thing. Very few of the people I surrounded myself with recognized my pain and if they did, they didn’t bother to help—even so, I’ve always had a hard time asking for any so laying the blame totally at their feet would be unfair, or would it? My employers, some of the biggest employers in the various modern industries in the Triangle that espoused their so-called modern day employee care, failed to recognize my struggles and considered me a burden turning their backs on me, dismissing me like any other—some so aggressively cold, I still feel the bite; nearly all by women leaders I entrusted and held in the highest of respect. I can hear the excuses even now: She was a self-sabotaging mess—she needed to hit bottom blah blah blah. I understand—people can hardly take care of themselves and their own family; it hardly seemed fair to bother them with my problems. I had to once again pick myself off the floor, onto my knees, kneeling, crawling, dragging slowly to my feet by myself because no one else was gonna help me.

And I did. Again and again.

After two years of searching, the therapists were a bust—I gave up. During that time, I started buying books on mindfulness, meditation and CBT therapy or self-help books in general at the suggestion of the PA. Over the course of my thirties, I wrote three books and lots of poetry—mostly awful and nearly all deleted and purged, as in good riddance they were so bad. I started painting and drawing and have about 50 finished works of art that I love and probably wouldn’t sell no matter the price as they represent more than just aesthetically pleasing artworks decorating my walls, but specific eras of my crawl.

Without a combination of all the above, I likely wouldn’t be here. Difficult and never-ending, the work requires commitment and effort and a constant struggle to balance and adult accordingly. During times of great adversity and bad choices, the struggle begins anew; oftentimes you don’t realize it till your eyeball deep in it.

Could the right therapist have made it easier? Possibly, but I didn’t have that option so I had to make do on my own. Growing up poor and female, you learn to adapt accordingly.

After writing the Wild review, I came across Emily Temple’s essay called Meditation on Sale where she laments the state of mindfulness being proffered as entertainment. I choked on air. Like Temple, I agree that if mindfulness is being proposed as entertainment, something has gone horribly awry. It is not recreation or relaxation or merriment in any way. It is such an excruciatingly difficult chore that even now I compare it to the hard laboring workout of the sweat and grind kind, like the painstaking process of weeding a garden for hours upon end of the tiniest of weeds one weed at a time in 100 degree heat as the sun beats down on you and your body drips of perspiration leaching every ounce of fluid from all your pores and orifices. Or, what she said:

In fact, contrary to popular Western belief, meditation is not even supposed to be relaxing. It is not, I am sorry to tell you, a stress relief tool. In a certain sense, we could say that meditation is actually about heightening neurosis, at least temporarily, because it requires you to look directly at your neurotic thoughts, in order to become more aware of them. Meditation teaches you that the story of you that you’ve been telling yourself your entire life is a fiction. Ultimately, it should lead to more clarity, but in the meantime, it’s not exactly a chill experience.

I’m not saying this to deter you because it certainly is worth it, but please, go into it with your eyes wide open and be prepared for a longlasting war—some battles lost and some won; the fight neverending. And unlike the people and organizations I was surrounded by, I want to help and give you hope.

On those long walks to the coffee shop, I listened to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now many, many times. This was before iPhones and at the beginning of MP3 players where an Audible membership came with a small, inexpensive player that fit in the palm of your hand and could hold one audio book. Tolle’s voice and those little bells are deceptively soothing. While some of you would just as likely as laugh him and the entire self-help industry off as the western appropriation and commodification of an east Asian religion into capitalist exploitation and propaganda, I do not. A lot of us are not afforded that idealistic privilege and take what we can get at the time and adapt accordingly. When you’re drowning, you make do with whatever drifts by to keep yourself afloat.

These are the books that helped me. There are probably more boxed away in my thirty boxes of books I have hidden in my closet. If I go through and find more, I’ll certainly update. Any Thich Nhat Hanh book and his most popular The Miracle of Mindfulness. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a good read. Eckhart Tolle, especially his audio books. The genre has exploded in the last twenty years and there is an entire category I have not revisited till now. With CBT and psychology, I started with Epictetus and stoicism and worked my way through philosophy towards the modern day likes of Ellis, Beck, Skinner, James and Adler. I probably need to revisit and update my knowledge on the latest books and education. I have always had a lifelong pursuit of philosophy and my self-education gradually gravitates towards such, balancing the scientific with the philosophical and pragmatic—not so much mystical as practical and logical with the hint of a coexist spirituality.

To broaden, heighten and sustain my creativity, I love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as those daily pages became an outlet for all the guck flying around in my psyche. Julia Cameron has several books that are good including The Right to Write. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are great spiritually and creatively for writing. One of the first books on creativity I picked up was Michael Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci—you laugh, but I’m notorious for finding inspiration in the oddest of places and I enjoyed that book twenty years ago; whether I would today is another story since that was two lifetime’s ago. And to be honest, I have no clue if any of these people are now problematic; I haven’t kept up with it all. I read People Skills by Roger Bolton annually because people are damned difficult. To refresh my critical thinking skills, I read The Art of Thinking: A Guide to Critical and Creative Thinking by Vincent Ruggiero that I lifted from an ex. One of the more modern day creative books I love is Hamilton: Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda—a fantastic book as well as audio book.

David Richo‘s The Five Things We Cannot Change and How to be an Adult in Relationships are the books and author that changed how I saw myself and the world around me. Merging the spiritual with the philosophical and psychological transformed my perspective into a compassionate and pragmatic one to myself and others.

If you’re privileged enough to afford therapy, by all means, go for it, if you can find a therapist that fits; it is not the easy, simple process they make it out to be; none of this is easy and simple, and it is definitely not entertainment; if it is, you are maybe doing it wrong and will likely get nothing longstanding from it all? Far be it for me to be an arbiter of all this though as each perspective and narrative is different and I’m ultimately still working on my own issues. These books are not an end all, be all, and I likely need to update my knowledge on the issues in question as I’m woefully behind on…all of it.

Update: I only took the Zoloft for about a year. It was expensive without health insurance and I couldn’t afford it.


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