Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Genesis of the Affair

I first discovered the name Anthony Robbins while browsing through magazines at my local Barnes & Noble. I don't know about you, but I tend to spend hours and hours at bookstores that I easily lose myself under very unlikely subject headings.
That day I approached the kind of subject which, without my business suit on, I'd look ridiculous attempting to explore (business suit? Get the hint?) Well, it’s business. It was perhaps the first time I looked away from writing magazines and literary journals (and the fatal fetish for Vogue!) It was then that I spotted Success Magazine with Robbins on the cover.
My first thought was "Wow, that guy is hot!" Never underestimate the first impression an attractive man makes on an unsuspecting woman. Ask your wife!
The truth is that it was not only the soft smile, the angelic whiteness of Robbins' shirt, or the brutally expensive watch on his wrist. It was all these plus the alluring title Success. A word like that can easily grab hordes of ambitious but clueless hearts with one burning question, "how do others get so good at squeezing the juice out of their lives and feasting on it? Why doesn't it happen to me?" In this regard, it is fair to say that the creators of Success Magazine were very savvy to call it Success: What Achievers Read. The whole world, or at least a large part of it, is your readership. It is the ultimate marketing plan. I am a young Iraqi woman with an existential crisis, a weird case of cultural dislocation, a manic-depressive disorder, no job and no money despite a Master's degree, a Fulbright Scholarship, and not-so-bad resume, would I think twice about snatching a magazine called Success? With a handsome dude on the cover?
So I slowly plucked the magazine away from the tangled web of business periodicals radiating with romantic optimism and promises of a brighter day. The cover line for Robbins was Tony Robbins: Creating Your Extraordinary Life. As if that wasn't tantalizing enough other invitations included Cultivating Greatness, Getting Healthy in 2009, and, Big Hairy Audacious Goals. (Ewe, what were you guys thinking?! But, after all, success has always been more of a testosterone attribute.)
I took the magazine to one of those backless Barnes & Noble benches and began to turn the pages. The table of contents summarized "Tony Robbins has helped millions remove mental barriers to live extraordinary lives."
"Very interesting," I murmured.
At this point I was eager to learn more. I could spend years wailing my past and present circumstances and blame them for how life goes, but a rather shrewd self-knowledge testifies that there are just so many things that could go right if only I can demolish mental barriers and purge myself of self-doubt. For a long time, toxic thoughts have collaborated with a turbulent past of wars, loss, and depression to perpetuate a certain negative image of myself. So if Robbins, or anyone else, claims to know how to break those barriers I am bound to listen.
He had me at "mental barriers!"
Unleashing the Power was the title of the eight-page feature on Robbins. The opening lines stated that he had helped "U.S. presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs, sports and entertainment superstars" reach their potentials. My first thought was why would the presidents of the world's top superpower, Fortune CEOs, and mega-millionaire sports and Hollywood celebrities need any coaching whatsoever. Isn't that section of the bookstore called Self-Help exclusively reserved for us anonymous mortals, people of no connections and no means? Obviously I was in for some new information, and it was rather comforting. All of a sudden we were all humans susceptible to all human vulnerabilities...We were all, somehow, created equal. It was as if Robbins has stripped some of the world’s luckiest few of the cloaks of wealth and power and threw them back into a primitive state of innocence and helplessness. The premise that we all need help at some point made me feel strangely empowered.
There was no way I could wait until I go home and finish reading. I was too impatient for that. I had to finish Unleashing the Power right there at the bookstore. I felt as if I was gliding breezily from one sentence to another, from one piece of advice to another. I felt as if someone was stripping me naked in public, exposing a version of myself which I not only strive to conceal, but with which I've come to terribly complacent terms. I was being peeled like an orange with a very sharp knife...
I have heard the language of self-help before, of motivational speakers and other inspirational specialists. I often stop by the Self-Help section at the bookstore just before I am about to leave for a quick pick-me-up. It is like taking home a little treat from the party! But Unleashing the Power was not your average self-help prescription. The sentences were designed in a way so that they hit at very sensitive, even vulnerable, places in the reader's psyche. Every idea, every suggestion, every warning was so constructed that it fulfils its preconceived destiny. It was a time of rare isolation from the world and involuntary movement inwards...
This was back in January 2009, and it was the January 2009 issue of Success Magazine. Since then I'd read both of Robbins' national Bestsellers Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within. The sad truth is that the sheer force of his words is just too frightening to secure my commitment. I am always aware of the many things that I'll have to change, dismiss, or modify if I were to live by Robbins' strategies. The idea of change paralyzes me.
So, instead, I’ve developed the habit of just reaching for one of Robbins' bulky volumes whenever I need a quick fix, at night before bed or in the morning when rising seems like an impossible feat...Each sentence a capsule of uplifting words the effect is addictive... But how I wanted to enjoy the effect minus the addiction! That changed only a few weeks ago.
Ever since I can remember one thing has always been such a constant in my life that it stalks the good as well as the bad times. I call it Permanent Depression Syndrome, or PDS (which if combined with my periodical PMS can result in very ugly stuff!) A deep sense of despair, of existential futility, has always lingered somewhere with a hideous grin drawn all over its face.
Theories abound. There is the chemical imbalance theory which seems to be quite popular here in the U.S. (understandable - considering the country's fascination with medications!) Then there is the luxury-leads-to-depression theory which has its advocates in my native Iraq. My fellow countrymen (and women) believed that a TV in the bedroom, a large stereo, and a dad who drives me to and from school instead of a bus are all serious triggers of depression. They believed it is the result of too much spoiling - a weird theory considering the atrocities which govern the lives of women, and indeed all human beings in Iraq.
Finally, there is the most comforting theory which links depression to the artistic temperament. All my books of inspiration for writers reassure that it is perfectly normal, and in fact necessary, for writers to live with fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. It is when they fail to experience these seemingly negative emotions that they need to start worrying. My personal experiences with writing support this theory. But what about those times when neither positive nor negative emotions let writing, or life, flow smoothly?
Well, that's when more drastic measures are introduced - antidepressants. When I was in intermediate and high school my teachers used to get so fed up with my sobbing and my inability to account for it. When a brief invitation to the principal's room failed to make me feel better I was sent home in the middle of the day, and told to have my parents do something about the situation. My mother received me with sheer panic, fearing that I might have done something awful at school. But as soon as she began to recognize the nature of the problem she turned to the same approach she takes to every problem. She does it now and always has. Her method is to paint a more dismal picture of a situation so that that the current one automatically becomes easy to handle. It is the calculated technique of going for the lesser evil. By God, she is terribly good at this! She uses vivid words and images to induce such fear far greater than the one I am already grappling with.
She explained to me that the kind of help my teachers were talking about means horrible experiences of electroconvulsive therapy, isolation in loud, unhygienic wards, and a constant feeling of being drugged by sedatives, narcotics, and antidepressants, on which I'd be a life-long addict. She talked about how it would be impossible for me to feel or enjoy anything, how it would be impossible for the family to see me - let alone bring me home. She said I'd always look like I am sleepwalking, frightening everyone unfortunate enough to gaze at me.
So I learned to live with agony as silently as possible. I learned the fine art of forced restraint, the ability to switch to a mute mode in the face of danger. In 1997 I lost my father and my two younger siblings in a massive fire accident, but I could never cry next to their charred, disintegrated bodies, or among visiting family and friends. In the process, I earned such titles ranging from the very flattering "tough" and "courageous" to the very painful "insensitive" and "cold-hearted". Eleven years later two therapists on the other side of the world offered the post-traumatic stress diagnosis.
Anthony Robbins does not believe in such a diagnosis. He does not think that the remedy for a broken heart and a shattered image of one's worth and prospects consists in antidepressants and sleep aids. But I took them anyway. With his books on my night stand I felt such a hypocrite every night swallowing my pills first then reaching for Unlimited Power or Awaken the Giant Within. As I read every word all I could hear in my head is someone repeating, "You are a fraud. You are a fraud."
The fear of the pill had to subside at one point, even with mother's petrifying images of doom. With each depressive bout more strenuous than its antecedent my sense of myself as a burden on my husband, his family, and especially myself escalated. If there was any kind of pressurized magic squeezed into a small pill then it was definitely worth swallowing.
One week into antidepressants, therapy, and frequent visits to emergency rooms for no apparent physical ailment except the emotional manifestations of chronic existentialism, I began to re-read Unlimited Power. You are a fraud. You are a fraud. It was as if I am doomed, trapped inside a small, stinky box from which I do not know how to escape...
In this book (as somewhere else) Robbins denounces the conventional methods of psychotherapy where patients are invited to recall their traumas as vividly as possible and encouraged to elaborate on negative experiences of shock, pain, and failure. I, like everyone else, had an unfounded respect for this time-honored technique even though I never benefitted from it. "Let it out. Let it all out," my therapist would say, "in a journal if you can't do it in speech," she would add.
"Well, duh, journaling is just about the only writing I am doing these days. What do you think?!"
Even so, I remained skeptical about Robbins' criticism of the let-it-out method. After all, how can one man be right and legions of doctors, psychotherapists, and social workers nationwide (if not worldwide) are wrong? Inherited common sense teaches us to distrust the opinions of the few and put our complete, unconditional faith in the doctrines established by the many. Nothing disproves a universal rule but a personal epiphany. When this happens we can begin to challenge the status quo one individual at a time...
Speaking of personal epiphanies here is mine and how it resulted in Living with Anthony Robbins. When I walked out of my therapist's office one afternoon after a long session of calculated recollection of everything that went bad in my life (and a careful consideration of what might go worse) I thought I've done an excellent job. I thought it was probably even better than journaling - at least I was sharing thoughts with somebody. I even surprised myself at how much I had to say, and how easy it was dwell on painful details rather than brainstorm for good ones. It was like I almost relished in my own misery! I told myself now that I let it all out I can finally be free. I convinced myself, or somebody else has convinced me, that I was given an opportunity to take the emotional clutter that I accumulated over the years and just dump it at somebody else's place. I thought I was given the gift of resurrection.
A couple of hours later I was transforming mysteriously from a positive, lively person to sobbing mess. I was convulsing with pain, with tears, as if I was undergoing torture by visible hands. I never quite understood what triggered the breakdown but I knew that, somehow, it originated in my therapist's office. I slowly and reluctantly realized that dwelling on painful details was hardly the way to destroy them.
The frenzied fit lasted for about thirty minutes. Then, I was beginning to emerge from chaos with only one thought in mind. What if I was wrong about my distrust of Mr. Robbins' criticism of conventional psychotherapy? What if I was blindly, dangerously, self-destructively wrong?
Gradually, the range of possibilities began to widen. I suddenly realized that despite my intense admiration for Robbins' philosophies I do, and always have, harbored many doubts about their viability. I often thought many of them are either too ambitious or oversimplifications of life's realities. But then I remembered what Robbins' said in Success Magazine, "Too many people want to avoid any hint of a problem." (P. 53) Well, that's me. I am one of those people. There I was, I read the books, felt the power of the words, but never could do anything to apply any of them to my life. I continued to be a fraud.
But, seriously, what if every word, every claim, every piece of advice, was true? If one belief proved itself susceptible to questioning chances are all others will. Anthony Robbins confirms that the "science of personal achievement" he teaches in his books and seminars will make anyone who's courageous enough to embrace it healthy, wealthy, happy, and successful. I am setting out to test every word.
This is what Living with Anthony Robbins is all about. It is a compendium of experiments, discussions, and thoughts about art, life, and everything in between guided by Mr. Robbins' inspirational writings. It represents my attempt to resolve the conflict between where I am now and where I want to be. You can imagine the kind of risks I am exposing myself to by undertaking this project. It is the risk of failure, of embarrassment should I, for whatever reason, bungle the job. But I'd rather fail than remain a fraud.
Finally, I also want it to be something of a mirror which everyone who comes to look at sees something of herself or himself in it. You could be just like me; someone with an unsettled identity crisis, someone unsure what to make of life but, at the same time, wants so much out of it, someone with geographical or spiritual alienation, someone with a dream...You could be anyone. I guarantee you will always find a piece of yourself here - hopefully it is the missing piece!