Late last Spring, I read a paragraph that sent me tumbling into despair.
Leaning into that despair was the best thing I’ve ever done,
a fact most profoundly clear this last week.
Late one Spring afternoon, I was curled up in bed reading a book on self acceptance. I reached a chapter on trauma and excitedly dug in: Great! Here’s where the healing will really start happening!
Paragraph by paragraph as I read, I felt something unpleasant building within me, until at last I read one that released a landslide. I felt myself tumbling away from my body,
My body knew that feeling. I’d felt it time and time and time again in the face of violence I alternately witnessed and endured as poverty, abuse, and predation throughout my childhood.
I’d just never had a name for it before. Thanks to the pages before The Paragraph, though, I had a name for it. The fact it had a name meant it was real, and the fact it was both real and named meant I could not simply run from it anymore:
a self-protective response to and consequence of experiences too terrifying to face directly, all by myself, at five or forty.
At first, I tried to read my way to healing.
Luckily, I happened upon a book that made clear written words could not touch the trauma that lived not as words in my brain but in my body’s implicit memory.
Thanks to that book, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, I got crystal clear that words in books alone would not keep me going. I’d need help from a living, breathing human being who could guide me safely through the trauma my body was screaming was still all too alive and well.
I began seeing a therapist specializing in trauma. Ever so slowly, session by session, she helped guide me, compassionately, deeper into building new relationships with the source of wounds I’d for decades tried to pretend did not exist.
Until these sessions, some part of me believed that the fact I didn’t acknowledge them would undo them. With enough looking away, they’d simply cease to be.
Through therapy, and EMDR sessions, and oh so many tears, I came to know in my bones how true it is that
everything you want is on the other side of fear.
For me, the thing I feared most was a tidal wave.
Thanks to therapy, I now know:
i am in the wave,
and the wave is in me.
On Monday, I talked to my therapist.
She asked how things were going. I told her about all the amazing stuff my husband and I are doing with boundaries at home the last few weeks.
I told her how I’d spent a few hours in my husband’s car to give myself the quiet I need to stay okay.
I told her how I’d had my husband pin a tablecloth behind my standing table to create an “office” our kids could see and thus more easily honor. When the cloth’s up, I’m available; when the cloth’s down, Daddy’s their go-to guy.
I told her I know my feelings now, and how knowing my feelings instead of suppressing them has enabled me to (usually) know when I’m fraying well before I reach a fully frayed state.
Thanks to knowing where I’m at, I can communicate it to my kids and husband early.
My kids, I explained, know that Mommy has four levels of snuggle and that she’ll communicate clearly which one works at any given moment:
1. Full-on lap snuggles
2. Side snuggles
3. Holding hands
4. Not right now, sweetheart.
They know, too, that Mommy’s then-current openness to snuggles has nothing whatsoever to do with them.
As I talked through this all with my therapist, I became clearer and clearer about how all these boundaries I now know how to set and affirm for my health, I learned by facing
fear the tidal wave. I didn’t always know how to do boundaries; I’d learned their making and keeping with her, day by day, session by session, walking into the wave and finding that some breathtaking dreams live there along with the nightmares.
I felt a
flood tidal wave of gratitude, seeing how my staying alive while navigating being homebound in a pandemic was not a given.
In other versions of history—what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “invisible histories,” or “alternative sample paths”—I might never have learned how to face my past or my feelings, or how to use what I learned facing these things to improve my daily life no matter the situation.
Last Monday and today,
I’m glad I read that terrible, wonderful paragraph last Spring;
that I found the word for how I’d protected (and hurt) myself for years;
that I then read the right books to know I needed non-book help, urgently;
that I found an amazing trauma specialist to help me do the work;
that I trembled as I walked through fear; and
that, as I did, I learned the trembling wasn’t nearly as important as the fact
that I learned, at long last,
after four decades,
to walk through.