I wanted to write something germane to your life and process. Something that might speak to you. To anyone. To everyone. Perhaps this might.
I go to therapy every Tuesday. I like to think that I’m ‘getting it done’ whatever ‘it’ is, but, as with all sorts of processes, I stalled. I wasn’t wasting time per se, but I wasn’t hitting it hard. I’ve been at this for two years now which shocks me. I want to finish it…whatever ‘it’ is.
Once again, I was in the Hot Seat, and my therapist was looking at me as he does.
“So, what would you like today to be about?” he asked.
I inwardly groaned. I knew what was on my mind. Fear. I was afraid. I had been feeling dread for a few weeks. A nameless dread. A creeping anxiety that would ooze into me and out of me at the same time until I felt paralyzed in both my body and life. I couldn’t make choices. It’s not that I couldn’t make good choices. I couldn’t seem to make any choices. As much as I’ve learned about cognitive distortions and mindfulness, I still felt caught up in the washing machine of my own inner turmoil. It wasn’t depression exactly. It felt like a flavor of anxiety. A big anxiety. Generalized. A suffocating fog that shrouded every area of my life.
I knew what I was afraid of, and I feared that if I talked about it, then I might empower it. I decided that I didn’t want to talk about it or even give it room; and yet it was taking up all too much room in me. So, I attempted to name it.
I admitted to my therapist that I was very afraid that I would break apart at some point. Now that I’ve written it out it seems rather harmless or silly, but that’s not how it feels. The ‘what if’ questions were dogging me relentlessly. “What if something happens to me that I can’t recover from? What if I can’t endure the pain? What if I am dehumanized to such a degree that I become a dispirited, soulless, desolate woman? What if something happens that I simply can’t bounce back from?” As soon as these questions begin, I freeze. I have no answers for them. I hold my breath. I begin to feel a profound fear that shuts down my thinking brain and activates my limbic system. There is no longer any reason. Only a warped instinct that seeks to hijack all my rational processes and turns me into a reptile.
For months, I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge it, then it might stop. It did not. It festered. I cried trying to describe it. I thought that perhaps just engaging in the act of sharing my turmoil might lessen the burden. It did not.
After I had revealed my fears to my therapist, he looked at me quizzically.
“So, you are afraid of breaking? That something might happen to you that is so terrible you will not be able to recover? That you will become a shell of a woman?” he asked.
“Hasn’t that already happened to you?” he asked looking somewhat confused.
“Has it?” I asked beginning to feel confused as well.
“Well, how desolate were you after you returned from being abducted?” he asked.
“Oh my gosh, I was definitely shattered after that,” I said.
“And how empty and in despair were you when you came to see me two years ago?” he asked.
“I was about as low as I’ve ever been,” I admitted.
“How low were you when you cut your father out of your life? And your mother? How much anguish have you known all in all? How existentially destroyed have you felt?”
I had no answer. I just sat there crying.
“So, it’s pretty clear that you have what it takes to heal, isn’t it?” he asked.
I didn’t consider that. I didn’t want to consider that. I felt exhausted.
“There is a limit to how much a person can actually experience in terms of pain. In terms of physical pain, a person will pass out once that limit is reached. In terms of emotional pain, you’ve probably reached that. There isn’t another level to your pain. You’ve been there. You’ve done that. You already know what it’s like, and you’ve already recovered from it,” he explained.
Honestly, I did not know that. I kept anticipating an exponential increase in emotional pain.
“So, I have what it takes? I don’t need to be fearful that something will break me? I’ve already been faced with the worst and survived it?” I asked feeling suspicious.
“Yes. Your fear is not based in truth although your past experiences certainly legitimize your anxiety.” he said.
“I’m afraid that I’ll have to do it again. That something so profoundly terrible will happen to me that I’ll have to rebuild myself yet again, and I’m so afraid of paying the price again. It is so hard. It is excruciatingly painful. I can’t begin to adequately describe how hard it was to come back and try to live again after being abducted and everything that entailed. After my marriage. After everything that happened within that relationship,” I cried.
“Do you know that you have what it takes to come back though? Should your worst fears come true? Do you have what it takes?” he asked leaning towards me.
And that’s when I was still. I sat with the very things that had been paralyzing me. I went back into the memories of my lowest, most broken places. The moment when I knew that my captor was going to kill me if I didn’t make a break for it. The moment in my marriage when I knew I was going to die from an autoimmune disease if I didn’t get out. What did those moments have in common? How exactly did I survive and make it to where I am now?
Clarity. In those moments, everything became crystal clear for me. I felt little to nothing in those moments. Suddenly, a much deeper instinct came online, and everything came into focus. I heard a clear voice: “Run. Get out. Do whatever it takes. It’s time.” And, I did. Worries about the future fell away. It was very much like standing in the eye of a storm. I grew up in East Texas, the land of hurricanes. When I was a child, I once went outside when the eye of a hurricane was passing over our neighborhood. The winds had been powerful and violent, and debris, pine needles and branches covered everything within walking distance. The calm that descended upon us as the eye passed over was chilling. My mother yelled at me to come inside, but I wanted to experience the ephemeral peace of these legendary storms. This is comparable to what happened to me when I realized that I had to make big decisions about my own survival be it in life and death circumstances or in abusive relationships.
My therapist called those experiences finding “my essence”. And, that is what I would leave you with.
I am convinced that humans can survive anything, but I have never been interested in survival. I have always wanted to live a meaningful life, and my definition of a “meaningful life” has evolved over time. Nonetheless, the idea that we have an essence that is unique to us and cannot be obliterated or annihilated by trauma encourages me. It is fear of annihilation that was at the root of my profound anxiety. How much betrayal could I tolerate? How much suffering could I overcome? What if I reach a point when I finally succumb to suffering and am left in desolation for the rest of my life?
I have to ask those questions as I venture into the darkness in therapy because, at times in therapy, we will stand eye to eye with the monsters. Only you know who your monsters are, but I suspect that we all have at least one. And, our monsters know our names and our softest spots. They know how to kill us be it metaphorically or in real life. Your courage and bravery don’t emerge when you’re on top of the world embracing the joy. Your courage, your essence, is forged when you’re blinded by the utter darkness of your fear, pain, and suffering, and yet you choose to get up and act even if you are guaranteed nothing but more fear, pain, and suffering. In my experience, that’s when your essential self lights up, and you can actually start to see again.
I am still wrestling with my anxiety, but it’s getting better. No one said that the road to building a better life would be easy or even a fair process, but I can state this with certainty. You will know what you’re made of as you engage in this.
Your essence will come forward, and you’ll find that you were capable of a lot more than you ever thought.