The Healing Journey: Game Changers, Integration and Daily Practice
Diane (a pseudonym) called to ask, “Are we okay?”
A question I wasn’t expecting from 10 feet below the usual surface talk. I was at the day job. Even if skilled at such conversations, did I want to have them at work? Easier to indulge a long-held reflex: avoidance.
“We’re okay,” I assured her. The truth. Not the whole truth, only the part involving her.
“Are you sure? You seem distant.”
“By distant you mean…?”
“Like you’re avoiding me.”
Go there or move on? In seconds, I scrambled along a decision tree. I do have a private office. I can close the door. I am being given an opportunity to practice:
1. Experiencing emotions as opposed to being triggered – anxious and unsettled – with no conscious access as to why (disassociating).
2. Being in the moment with feelings as they arise (instead of stuffing them and then acting out, usually to self-detriment in the form of addictions).
3. Naming them.
4. Responsibility for those feelings (not blaming or projecting).
5. Clear, clean communications with others.
6. Honest, compassionate response to a direct question rather than deflection.
A Return on Investment
In December of this year I will turn 60 years old. The reason I felt barely equipped to engage Diane at the level outlined above is because for the first 22 years of life my childhood home exposed me to two forms of communication: silence and rage. Ten more years would pass before I sought help. I was drowning: one Friday at age 32 I started crying. When Monday rolled around I hadn’t stopped.
Another decade has passed since concluding a 20-year investment in long-term psychotherapy. I didn’t just talk. I took action. I cultivated a more constructive life. Self-awareness levels one through four above? A way of being for me now. Levels five and six – communicating that awareness to others? That brings me back to Diane’s question, “Are you avoiding me?” and my decision: practice or run?
“This isn’t about you, it’s about me.”
That’s how I started. I didn’t rush. I couldn’t. I was hyperventilating. The little girl in me felt unsafe while at the same time, my adult self knew I had nothing literal to fear. Diane was not a parent or caregiver. She couldn’t abandon me to the street. She didn’t pay my rent. We were not in the same location but on the phone. My quick breath, rapid heartbeat and intestinal distress were signposts that I was leaving my comfort zone. I kept going.
“I’m not avoiding you, I’m just not pursuing you.” Again, I paused, left space for…whatever needed to enter. Silence. “I’ve initiated all the times we’ve spent together: downtown, comedy club, dancing, nature stroll and swim. Not once have you reciprocated. I grew up in an abusive, neglectful household and spent my early life attempting to be relevant to my parents. As a child I didn’t have language for what I intuitively understood: my parents had already abandoned me emotionally. And to mitigate the risk of literal abandonment I adapted to their needs and sacrificed who I might have become for survival sake.
Diane was still listening. And crying softly. She whispered, “We have very similar backgrounds.”
With full voice and compassion for both of us I continued. “My entire adult life I’ve overfunctioned in relationships – ignoring my wants and needs and violating my own boundaries. The last six years in particular, I’ve been practicing how not to give myself away. When I say that I’ve made all of the overtures in our engagement, you’ve made none, does that sound accurate?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
What Happens When I Do Nothing?
This is the question I experimented with when I last engaged Diane. “And you know what happened?” I asked her rhetorically. “Nothing.”
Muffled crying on the other end of the phone. Still, she listened. “I was enjoying getting to know you. I thought we might be friends. But if I do all the work, then I’m repeating a self-defeating pattern of pursuing people who have little interest in getting to know me. At almost 60 years old, I won’t do that anymore.”
The Body Keeps the Score
“Every trauma survivor I’ve met is resilient in his or her own way, and every one of their stories inspires awe at how people cope,” writes Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. “Knowing how much energy the sheer act of survival requires keeps me from being surprised at the price they often pay: the absence of a loving relationship with their own bodies, minds and souls.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, when I walked into my psychotherapist’s office 28 years ago I had begun the journey of fully entering into a loving relationship with my body, mind and spirit. I didn’t plan for long-term psychotherapy but whenever I considered concluding, the work felt incomplete. I challenged myself: Was I hanging on? Afraid to test my wings? No. Even with all the progress reflected in healthier choices and external changes, I still felt host to an infested wound.
I had relocated to Florida (my dream climate) after living 15 years in Connecticut where, essentially, I’d been re-parented by two wonderful psychotherapists. At age 48, it was like leaving a loving home for the first time. That abrupt separation (even with twice-monthly, long-distance phone sessions) coupled with a new lifestyle in a town where I had yet to establish community, spiraled me into the abyss I’d spent decades trying to avoid: a life-threatening episode of clinical depression.
Finally, I had reached the Mother Wound.
During the next two years I allowed myself to “be silently drawn by the strange pull of what I really love,” to quote the poet Rumi. To do everything I couldn’t do in childhood. When it wasn’t safe.
I indulged every art-making whim my imagination allowed. I conducted productivity experiments. I walked, swam, and rode my motorcycle in the shine of Florida’s sun. I trusted the voices inside my head, told my story and showed up for myself.
These coalescing fragments organically surfaced a daily nurturing practice:
Learn/try something new.
Laugh (local comedy club but since COVID-19, YouTube).
Drink lots of water.
Eat closer to the earth.
Get the sleep I need.
20 mg Prozac.
Read nutritious books.
Give and receive healthy, safe, non-sexual touch.
Honor my boundaries.
And each day, what emerges is more of who I am meant to be.