Mental Health Monday: Living With Holes

Augusten Burroughs pouring over memories from his past

About three years ago I did a post about Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Dry: “Why Does Sobriety Have to Come With Feelings?” And then about a month ago I introduced Burroughs’ new book, This is How: Help for the Self: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decreptitude & More, in my post, “Permission to NOT Be Happy?”

If you’re new to my blog, here’s the schedule: Mental Health on Mondays, Writing on Wednesdays, and Faith or Family on Fridays. To catch you up on this recent thread, you might want to read:

“Swimming Towards Hope” and “Better Than Bourbon and Key Lime Pie.”

So, last Monday I promised more from Burroughs. I finished reading his book yesterday afternoon. There’s so much good stuff in there, but I’ll try to tease you with a few highlights and then encourage you to get the book and read it yourself.

The gist behind Burroughs’ book is that you don’t have to heal to be whole. He presents this concept over and over throughout the book, blending it into various topics as smoothly as a chef blends ingredients together in a bowl. Of all the painful things that happen to people—many of which Burroughs addresses in his book—the biggest one that I haven’t experienced is the loss of a child. The closest I came to this was in 1998 when my 20-year-old Goddaughter was killed by a drunk driver. She had been living with our family for eight months when she died. Her mother was my best friend at the time. I remember a therapist telling me that her mother would probably never heal from this loss. Not exactly encouraging words, but maybe true. Burroughs says:

“Parents who have lost a child should be told that they will never heal from their loss. They will always have a terrible, wide hole within them. And other holes, smaller ones…. The holes will never leave or be filled with anything at all. But holes are interesting things. As it happens, we human beings are able to live just fine with many holes of many sizes and shapes. And pleasure, love compassion, fulfillment—these things do not leak out of holes of any size.”

Burroughs continues this thread as he explores each “How To” chapter . . . How to Remain Unhealed, How to Get Over Your Addiction to the Past, How to Make Yourself Uncomfortable, and How to Live Unhappily Ever After. If this is sounding droll to you, I’m not doing a good job of communicating how freeing this line of thinking is. It builds on what I was learning and sharing back in July, “Living With Ambiguity.” (If you read that post, be sure and read the comment by another “Susan” at the end.) But it goes beyond ambiguity. It’s about living with loss, pain, and sorrow ALONG SIDE joy and contentment. Burroughs continues:

“Deep sorrow and deep joy can exist within you, side by side. At every moment. And it’s not confusing. And it’s not a conflict…. This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief.”

In his chapter on getting over your addiction to the past, Burroughs hits on something I’ve been struggling with for decades—how to get over painful things that happened in my past. He pretty much says you don’t “get over” those things. He shoots down traditional therapeutic methods and  talks instead about  how we need a “larger life. Something that can compete with your past.” This is resonating with me as I read his words in this chapter:

“Recycling the past into a new business, a not-for-profit to help others, a workshop, a painting, a book, a song—these are ways to explore the past in the context of the present. These are things people who are actively alive do.”

I can relate to Burroughs’ choice of recycling:

“I know now how to get over the past. It has worked for me in a deeper, more enduring way than any therapy I have eve had. Writing six autobiographical books is what freed me from my past.”

I’ve been recycling my past by writing for about six years now. I wrote two memoirs about the painful things in my past. But unlike Burroughs, I didn’t publish them. There were some things I wasn’t ready to go public with. But reading his words helps me embrace the fact that I DID WRITE THOSE MEMOIRS and maybe I can come to see the writing as freeing. Even my novel, which is currently being shopped out to literary agents, has these themes from my past woven through the fictional story. Like Cassandra King (Conroy) said of her novel, The Sunday Wife, maybe “The writing of it was my salvation.”

12 thoughts on “Mental Health Monday: Living With Holes”

    1. Hi, Chery. Did you read Diane Blair’s comment? She bought the book after my last post about it and loved it. Can’t wait to hear what you think!

  1. Susan, you pack so very much Good Stuff into every blog. I love and we all need to remember this quote: “Deep sorrow and deep joy can exist within you, side by side. At every moment.” On a very personal level, I continue to experience deep sorrow for the loss of my perfect mate but also anticipate reconnecting with a long-ago love. We just have to acknowledge that Spirit was, is, and ever shall be bigger than we can imagine; and we are made in that mold. Thank you.

    1. NancyKay, your comments are always encouraging to me. I know you get this. And I love what you say about Spirit being bigger than we can imagine. Thank you.

  2. I love that idea, and premise. I also find it, as I get older, to be absolutely true. Thank you for this.

  3. Susan, thank you so much for following up on the initial post about Burroughs’ book. I got it, I raced through it, I got the “freedom” you mention. I think my soul has known about living with holes and I would get glimpses of affirmation from here or there, but Burroughs hits the heart of the head on the soul of the nail. I felt like crowing, receiving this permission to be who I am, the sum of all parts gained. Woooo-hoooooooooo and thank you to YOU!

  4. “You don’t have to heal to be whole…” I like this….
    It explains how I feel right now….
    Good writing, as usual, Susan…I look forward to them…

    1. I guess I’m both glad and sad that my writing explains how you feel, Mary. The good news is that some of these truths are universal, and the sooner we recognize them, the sooner we can move on with our lives, letting the sorrow and the joy dwell together in peace. Always great to hear from you. Thanks.

  5. Hoo yeah. I just stumbled across your blog (via Lee Martin via Brevity via a friend of mine) and into this post. Hoo yeah. I keep saying this as i read. Thank you.

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