Nicky's Blog

Hugging The Cactus

I recently came across an old speech Robert Downey Jr gave at an awards ceremony sometime back. The reason for it was to ask Hollywood to forgive Mel Gibson, fresh off the back of his 'raped by a pack of [black people]' call to his then partner and the domestic violence charges that then followed. Gibson had helped Downey Jr through his own very public drug and alcohol controversies, and he was paying it forward.

It was one of those time where I just happened to come across a piece of content or a story that happened to be resonant with some feelings I'd bee struggling with, or a situation I was in the thick off. An outside lense to refocus my perceptions, past the fog of my bias.

In the speech, he said:

When I couldn’t get sober, he told me not to give up hope, and he urged me to find my faith. It didn’t have to be his faith or anyone else’s, as long as it was rooted in forgiveness. And I couldn’t get hired, so he cast me as the lead in a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table. And most importantly, he said if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoings and if I  embraced that part of my soul that was ugly — “hugging the cactus,” he calls it — he said that if I “hugged the cactus” long enough, I’d become a man of some humility and that my life would take on a new meaning. And I did, and it worked.

Although I was never as bad as Gibson, or Downey Jr for that matter, I went through something similar in therapy, although my ugly side wasn't so much of a cactus as a room, partioned off by a Dark Door. See, I'd learned early on to compartmentalise my bad stuff - the guilt I grew up with, the shame, the anger, the selfishness. Put it in a box, ignore it, move on, do better and give myself a fresh start.

The problem is the box grew with time, until it became a room, foreboding, ever present. And still, the room grew, the thoughts feeding on themselves.

Sometimes it would be in my dreams. In one particularly vivid one, I was literally being tortured by myself, although it wasn't revealed that it was me until the end. If it were a movie, it would have been a little on the nose, but still I managed to ignore any messages my mind might have been screaming at the time.

Naturally enough, the Dark Door came up in therapy. We never went into too much detail on the specifics, but focused on it's effect on me. She then asked me what I thought about humility, to which I laughed and said 'I understand it's a virtue, it's just not one I'm often accused of having.'

Humility has been pushed to the side for most of my life in order to make space for a self-image built on imagined perfectionism, all in order to cope with my 'deficiencies'. Grand plans, hopes and dreams, a self-image base on being smart and capable of next to anything. How else was I to escape my poverty or my feeling of powerlessness over myself and my life, if not to big myself up to take it?

It is far, far easier to live in a fantasy world of your own design, than to accept humility and limitations into your life and self-image and live on the same plane as everybody else. It is also more damaging, but it's hard to see the damage through all the clouds beneath your feet.

A change was clearly needed.

The exercise we came up with to try and lessen its power over me was to transform it. Instead of a dark room, it became a library. The door changed from pitch black to a dark red, almost magenta. Two brown studden leather sofas facing each other in the centre of the room, with tall bookshelves spaced out behind them going back as far as the eye could see. A mirror hung opposite the door; a reminder that I am simply human, despite illusions to the contrary.

It worked for a while, but like Downey Jr said, you have to do it often enough for it to really take effect, and I've been neglecting it for a while. And so, the lights dim and the door got dark again. It's been a while since I entered, fearing being overwhelmed by the negativity and the pain, and if I'm totally honest, the humility.

I like the superiority. More than that, I need it. It's addictive. An easy way to boost the ego whilst serving as a handy stick to beat myself with. It's the only way I've know to be for most of my life.

But it causes continual pain. Relapsing depression. Probably a good chunk of my nightmares. A disconnect with those around me. And it only ever grows.

So I need to hug my cactus. Spend time in my library. Face up to my short comings and come to terms with reality. Not only is that reality good, it's great, and has one significant advantage over this idealised perfectionist version of myself that I haul around.

It's real.

This isn't a new concept. I've talked about it a lot, offline and on here. But life is full of lessons that need refreshing over time. It's something that feels like a failing, but is just simply the inescapable truth of life. Best to get used to it.

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