Most of my life was choosing to survive. I was not given many options otherwise. My youth, even after my father was removed from the picture, was very troubled. My mom struggled with a worsening mental illness daily, becoming less and less able to “parent” and by the time I was 10 I was the single parent of a 30-something woman and an 8 year old boy. Thriving, healing, getting to know myself, playing and loving were luxuries I could not afford regularly.
So I chose to survive.
It wasn’t until I was 27 that I had the ability to actually choose whether I would survive for the rest of my life or thrive.
For the first time ever I was experiencing stability. I’d been done school and practicing in my field for a couple of years. Financially I was knowing some security, by which I mean I no longer needed to rely on credit in order to pay my bills. I had a stable relationship with a wonderful man and had been living in the same apartment for longer than a year. The stage was set for a healing journey but I was still so ensconced in my ability to cope that I didn’t understand what the stability and safety meant. I didn’t know how to respond to it. It seems crazy but I was much more comfortable with chaos, fear, anxiety and muscle than I was with comfort, predictability, security and surrender.
*Ted and I had been together for 2 years. Our relationship had started out well; I was sweet and fiesty, he was kind and funny. And then… 6 months in I began to feel things. Not just the happy squishy feelings but other feelings. My body seemed to have a memory of it’s own and certain things it would feel triggered a cascade of dissociated emotional content that was terribly overwhelming. In order to deal with this content… I completely shut down and started to mask up. I crawled under the bed and set the Auto Pilots on. The following year and a half was really difficult; I grew more and more distant, he grew more and more confused and concerned. I was barely present in the relationship, was often rude and extremely inconsiderate of him. It was like he didn’t really exist to me except in the most basic functions; outings together, family events, grocery shopping and the inevitable emotional support when I would break and be unable to contain everything I was stuffing down. Of course he knew my history, but neither of us was really aware of how deeply The Wound affected my day to day functioning.
It’s strange how I didn’t even realize I was an emotional bottle rocket. I thought I had a full spectrum of emotional experience. I mean, I felt happy, sad and angry, and then sometimes utter despondence, all consuming rage and a near manic ecstasy. That’s it, right?
Before I had what I guess was my
breakdown emotional awakening, I started to “do things,” things I was intensely hungry for. Isolation was a big problem, had been for my entire life and I knew that being exposed, being seen, being with people was medicine. So I became a ‘joiner.’ First I created a local, circus flow group and then joined a local performance group and became their hula hoop person. It was a lot of fun to practice with these people but it was also really intimidating to be seen by them. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were all gonna see something (The Thing) in me that I desperately needed to keep hidden. I was afraid that if they saw the real me, they wouldn’t like me or would judge me or worse… pity me.
At the same time, my relationship with Ted was deteriorating and my grasp on myself was slipping. In good old “Survivor girl survives EVERYTHING” fashion, I soldiered on, kept my chin up, did my best to seem like I was all put together. He and I were arguing a lot more, which looked more like him telling me something was wrong and me going into an icy (panic stricken) silence.
While things with Ted gradually got worse my dance practice was getting stronger and I was asked to participate in a performance. These two parts of my life were moving at the same speed both building towards great crashing crescendos of terrifying noise and colour and somewhere along the way I started giving over to panic. I was so lost, I could hardly see into the next few moments never mind weeks. I was just barely functional at work, pouring so much of my free energy into creating choreographies, showing up at practices, “looking busy,” holding my relationship together while it frayed into threads that I could really only get through one hour at a time. I was becoming aware that the relationship was unfair to him, that I was not being a good girlfriend and I didn’t seem to know how to be one of those. I didn’t have an Auto Pilot for strong, stable, emotionally intelligent and resilient partner. I was so lost in trying to keep up an appearance in all these different arenas that even the Auto Pilots were trying to crawl under the bed with me.
And then I just couldn’t do it all anymore and I didn’t know what to do. The clearest thing, it seemed, the one action I felt I could take was to break up with Ted. Upon reflection of this now, after seeing a similar (albeit less dramatic and intense) episode recently, I realize that my decision to leave Ted had more to do with running away from the thing that wouldn’t leave, that wouldn’t disappear. No matter how hard I pushed Ted away, I was really only pushing myself away from him. So of course when I broke up with him and he expressed how shocked and heart broken he was, I tried to smooth it over. I really didn’t know what to do and it was the one, clear thing I felt like I could do. It felt like, at the center of all this pain and anguish and turmoil was him. If I removed him from it, everything would go back to normal. I tried to explain to him why I wanted to leave him but I didn’t really know why I did, I didn’t really know what was between us that was making it all so difficult. I loved him, yes. I relied on him for support, yes. He was my closest ally and in all truth, I did not want to lose him at all. But I was not happy in our relationship and all this yucky stuff was rising to the surface and I was drowning in it.
We talked. We argued. We fought. I said I wanted to end the relationship and he said he wanted to try. He said, “I know you love me and I know this relationship is important to you and that it’s worth saving.” I said “well I don’t want to have sex with you so there.” Those words were hurled out of me like some sort of verbal grenade, as if that ended the discussion. It was said as a way to push him out. A way to build a moat around me and say you stay over there and I stay over here. He said “ok… Do you want to have sex with other people?” Which wriggled a little opening in my armour and I realized… no, I didn’t want to have sex with anyone. I didn’t even want to have sex with myself. Finally he said, “This isn’t you. This isn’t the woman I know, have known for the last 2 years. This is something else. I’m not talking to you, right now. I’m talking to a dysfunction.”
That landed somewhere inside me and it was like my mind went into infection management mode; the area was sequestered with ice and all of me withdrew from that statement and just kinda… held it’s breath and looked at it and couldn’t deny that… yup ok this is pretty dysfunctional. Like suddenly a mirror, or some other obvious truth was put in front of me where I couldn’t look away, I couldn’t deny it, I couldn’t disagree with it. We talked more… slowly, but we talked more. I loved him, I knew that to be true. I needed his support, I knew that to be true. I was completely lost and his hand was the only hand I had to hold. I accepted that ok, something is wrong.
To his credit, and my never ending gratitude, he was amazing. For a long time it felt like he was this warm, safe, dark cave with a sweet smelling nest of grasses for me to lay in. And under his watchful eyes, within his protective presence, I could perform the open heart surgery required to get to the root of The Wound and pull the infected parts out. He was the safest person in my whole world, the most supportive and loving person I had, the most stable and put together person I had likely ever known. I would have come through it on my own, of that I am sure, but he helped me do it with so much more grace and with so much less terror. I can’t imagine what the next three years would have been like had he not held me through it.
Realizing that I needed help, that I was in over my head, that I was emotionally drowning was really difficult. Taking off the protective masks I had worn, letting people in on the secret that I was not ok, that I was terrified daily, was something that made me feel sick to my stomach. Yet, keeping the masks on had become much harder than taking them off. I couldn’t breathe anymore. I had to back out of some performances. The terror of being seen as something less than everyone else, less than a person, was a daily struggle. At a practice, I wound up sitting in the bathroom overwhelmed with panic, sobbing not sure what to do. Do I push through? Do I just fake it? Everyone will know! They will see that I AM NOT OK! What if they want to know? Or worse… What if they want to HELP ME?! Thankfully a woman in that group talked to me, let me talk to her a little and I started to feel ok enough to tell the Group Leader I would not be performing. Everyone understood to a degree, and were very kind and offered their support but somehow also knew that… too much support offering was enough to topple me over… I needed my wall to lean on. (Golly just remembering this one instance where one of the women in the group just ran up to me and hugged me and whispered “you’re special” makes me cry… ❤ Thanks Pam).
Shortly after all of this I sought counseling. I knew I needed help, I couldn’t do this by myself. It was too big for just me, it was too big for even me and Ted. So I found a woman to work with through one of the help centers in Hamilton and started to peel back the bandages and try to get a good look at The Wound.
Not kidding, it’s hard work and it doesn’t ever really end. At least, it hasn’t ended for me. At some point you just kinda realize, and accept, that you have scars, some big, some small, some remembered some a mystery. Some re-open sometimes and you have a big mess of emotional pus to deal with and you keep wondering does it go on forever like this? You start….. stop….. start again….. stop… take a breather………………………. and hopefully start again. With time, patience, practice and support, you get better at dealing with the yucky. You don’t recoil as strongly at what you find down there… And then you get to the actual wound itself, you see it, you see this part of your self that has been both living and dying and…………….
Well in my story, I begin to find compassion. Compassion for me. I begin to be the loving caretaker I needed then and did not quite have. And as I poured love, compassion and acceptance over the wound the angry, red skin gave way to the new pink skin underneath. With time, I got better at healing. I got better at asking for help, better at loving myself through the hard stuff and I started to discover that I did less coping and more living.
When you choose to heal, you allow yourself the things you wouldn’t before, like… intimacy. Friendship. Vulnerability. Pleasure. Self expression. Your own Truths and the courage to live them fully. You allow yourself trust in yourself. And that right there is what we all have been so hungry for; trust in ourselves. From there… we can begin to find trust in other people.
While my relationship with Ted had to change from romantic to platonic (he is now one of my closest friends and supporters) I learned so much about myself through that process that I wouldn’t change it for anything. I learned how many of the decisions I made were not made for me by me, but for others based on what I thought they wanted and needed of me. For many years I couldn’t answer the questions “what do you want?” because desire had not been a part of my vocabulary, my daily experience. As I got more comfortable with me, I was able to contemplate answers to that question. Choosing to heal has given me that gift; the gift of feeling pleasure and identifying desire. The gift of knowing what makes me feel good and knowing that I have the ability to seek it out.