Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Human Experience

Dear Reader: I write with frank honesty as a way to work through ideas I am wrestling with. I invite you to look for things in my sharing that resonate with you. Our stories may differ but all elements of the human experience, of suffering and of struggling, are universal. I write about mine to better understand my experience; I share it in the hopes that it will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with joy and sorrow, love and loss, hope and hopelessness, faith and uncertainty.

This morning I feel really cranky.

I’ve been feeling unsteady these past weeks, which I can in part tie to the missing plane from Malaysia and the mudslide in Oso, Washington. Human tragedies consume me, and it’s like a part of me is holding vigil 24 hours a day. It is exhausting and heart-breaking and upsetting. I know this happens to me; I know that to protect myself I should not read about these tragedies, and in the early days when the news is breaking I should even stay away from Facebook where I’m likely to see reminders and get triggered.

Sometimes it is a burden to have this struggle going on inside, virtually invisible to those around me. What is it about our modern society, that we feel the need to be private and secretive about our burdens, our wounds?

For several few weeks I’ve had a return of some unwelcome PTSD symptoms – my hands shake, and I feel dizzy and have brain fog. These symptoms were constant companions for a couple years before recognizing my troubles and starting treatment, but they haven’t been a regular part of my life in a long time. Yes they crop up if I’m particularly anxious about something. But a few weeks ago they roared back into my life: a noticeable tremor in my hands; the dizziness and brain fog make me feel sloppy and very self-conscious.

I told my therapist that having these symptoms makes me feel especially broken. She seemed struck by my use of that word. I thought about it, and shared that I have felt broken pretty much through this whole journey. I’m not whole. I don’t do the things that normal, healthy people do. I don’t do the things I used to do. She reminded me that it is a part of the human experience to endure tragedy and trauma. That I do know. During times that I have faced hardship and reached out, others have revealed that they too have quietly suffered life’s hardships. When my son was diagnosed with cancer I got a glimpse into how many people I know who have also struggled with this diagnosis. I know that heartache is a part of being human. I know that pain comes to all of us. And the longer we live, the greater the likelihood that we will endure some awful losses. I know that, I get that.

But somehow I perceive that most others are able to live more normal lives; that their lives haven’t been reduced to basic coping as I feel mine has.

My therapist said just because something feels true does not necessarily mean it is true. That in fact I am not broken, nor will I be fixed, becoming like everyone else or like I was before. Trauma and suffering are human. Yes I am wounded. Yes I hate it how limited my life feels. Yes I want far more in my life than I can now manage. That does not mean I am broken. She held a slinky by both ends, the middle wiggling until it came finally to rest as a metaphor for the human need to rebalance, come back to center, after being unsettled (Peter Levine). We need time to integrate things that have deeply hurt us.

She suggested that this feeling broken is not an aspect of the trauma so much as an aspect of my childhood. That’s where she thinks me feeling broken may have started.

And I’ve read recently that those who develop PTSD, when others exposed to similar things do not, are those who have not learned how to find a safe and nurturing place inside them. And that is something that ideally is developed during childhood when the child is made to feel safe, protected and nurtured.

(How do I navigate healing myself by exploring the missing pieces in my upbringing, while not hurting my parents? How do I reconcile who they were with who I wish they’d been, and who they are now?)

“…trauma takes a big foothold into body and mind… because there wasn’t an attachment relationship to hold and process and integrate the trauma. Two elements were missing: having a relationship which provided a “safe haven” and a “secure base.” … Every child should have had the world come to meet its needs in exactly the right way.

“… Yet time has passed and it’s now time for a different model. As adults our developmental task is different. As adults we need to grow from the inside out.”
– Deirdre Fay
My therapist said that for as long as it takes, for as long as I need to walk through this, she will be here for me; she isn’t going anywhere. I started crying, that was such a monumental thing for her to say. And just as quickly I felt horribly uncomfortable feeling that vulnerable. That moment there, her saying she’s there for me, me aware of my need, was too uncomfortable for me to sit with for long. After a few minutes I requested that she help me pack up all those feelings, pack them away. I had a sense that we had stumbled upon something really big, but I didn’t say anything.

Tonight the crankiness has given way to sadness and tears: for the suffering in the world; for the suffering of each of us as we try to keep our hearts open to love and goodness and joy, while being battered by human tragedy and loss; for the loss of innocence.

I try to believe that the only way to the other side is straight through – only if we walk through the pain and loss and grief can we truly get to the other side. Or perhaps there isn’t an “other side;” perhaps we learn to integrate the pain and loss in such a way that we are open to all of life simultaneously, all of the human experience as a complete package. I would not say that I have faith that things will get better. But I can take the next step.

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