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Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

Return of the Sun Artist- Robin Webb-Bransky

Return of the Sun
Artist- Robin Webb-Bransky

Ever since some point this spring, I have been struggling in my relationship with Mama Bear. I have had 4, maybe 5 crises with her since this started, which is completely unusual for me. I need for things to feel stable and it always causes me significant distress when I experience a rupture with Mama Bear. So, this has been a very uncomfortable summer from me, and for awhile I felt bewildered and started to worry that something was really wrong. Now that things have calmed down again, I think that my problems with Mama Bear actually were signs that things were going mostly right, rather than signs that there was something terribly wrong.

One of the things that seems to have been going on is that I feel more comfortable with getting upset with her. Dare I say it? I have even been getting mad at her when I think that she mishandled something and I was hurt in the process. In the past, I would have made myself swallow my hurt and anger and proceed as if nothing had gone wrong. This summer, we stumbled our way through my going back and forth between aiming my anger at myself and expressing it to her in bits and pieces. Thankfully, she has the knack of remaining completely non-defensive and even being able to welcome my anger. She would point out that I was taking it out on myself again because that felt safer than being angry with her and then she would gently point out my angry body language, the anger in my voice, the anger in my look, and question me to bring out the anger in my thoughts.

I had crisis after crisis with her, but I also was engaging with her more intensely and intimately. I was “letting her in.” Six months previously, I couldn’t make eye contact for more than a second or two, but now there were times when I would seek out and sustain that contact, so that I did not feel alone with whatever I was struggling with. I felt as though I was sitting in the same room with her almost all of the time, bumping up against her. You are much more likely to feel in conflict with someone if they are right next to you than if they are in the next room.

At some point, Mama Bear pointed out to me that in my family, no one talked about conflict. What was happening with her was my chance to experience talking with her about whatever was upsetting me and working through it in a safe way. As she said, “In your family you used smoke signals at best, but here you get to use words with me. It’s a part of what we do; we talk through an issue and come up with a solution that works for both of us.” As I had to find the courage to talk with her about issues that I didn’t want to broach, I kept on thinking back to this idea. It’s my chance to learn how to work through conflict using words and she will welcome what I bring up.

However, perhaps the most important factor was that I had started to share with Mama Bear some of the ways in which I believe that my dad abused me and memories of some of the worst of the abuse by my grandfather. Deep down inside, I expected that there wouldn’t be anyone in the world who would actually deeply believe me. I believed that anyone that I told would respond in one of two ways 1) they would be overwhelmed and turn away and abandon me or 2) they would say, “It is impossible that your grandfather did X to you. He didn’t torture you. Nothing that bad could have happened; you are exaggerating and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

After this latest crisis, Mama Bear had been talking to me and said something that drove everything else out of my head. She said that it made sense that I had dissociated so extensively and developed so many parts because the situations that I had to deal with as a child were so overwhelming and painful. She then said something about how I had experienced my of my grandfather’s abuse as torture.

I will admit that I stopped listening at that point. I was completely caught up in dealing with the implications of her statement. I had used the word “torture” a couple of times early in the summer, and while Mama Bear had agreed with my use of the word at the time, she had never before used it herself. I was stunned to hear it come out of her mouth so matter of factly. Maybe she really believed when I had told her what my experience was like with my grandfather? Maybe she actually understood just how horrific it was?

I went home and thought a good deal about it all. I thought some more about what I wrote about in “Is it safe to help myself?” Eventually I decided to take a huge chance and talk with Mama Bear about the issues in that post, because this was a dynamic that was keeping me stuck and unable to move forward.

When I talked with her in the next session, she clearly understood what I was saying and further realized how what she was doing in an attempt to help me was instead pushing me to entrench myself in a helpless position. If I hadn’t told her, in spite of my shame, who knows how long we would have remained trapped in the same pattern.

I went on to explain that what had enabled me to feel brave enough to tell her was what she had said in the previous session.

She glanced at her notes, “I don’t remember what I said. Do you remember?”

I sat there, struggling to get the words out.

She reassured me, “It’s OK if you don’t remember. It might just be the over all conversation.”

“Oh, no. I remember exactly what you said.”

That got her attention, because my memory often is so bad from session to session. “Really? What did I say?”

“You acknowledged that I experienced my grandfather’s abuse as torture and I realized that you really believed me. Someone really, really believes me.”

She looked at me gently, “Yes, I believe that you experienced your grandfather’s abuse as torture. I have heard you and I believe you.”

I stared into her eyes for awhile, taking in that she really meant what she was saying, and then I burst out with, “Thank you so much!” and I started to sob from the very center of my being. I curled up in a ball on the love seat and cried and cried. After a moment or two, Mama Bear got up and came over to kneel on the floor by me and hold my hand. Her gentle presence helped me to feel as though I was being held and that it was safe to let out all of the fear and despair that no one would ever believe me.

I looked up at her, “I can’t tell you what a huge relief it is to feel believed about this. I didn’t think that I would ever have anyone really believe me.”

“I am so glad that you can fully take in my support and caring and belief in you.”

I looked at her for while in a bit of a state of shock and then I laid my head down on our hands and just felt contained.

She said to me, “I feel like something awe inspiring has happened here and I am grateful that I was able to share it with you.”

I nodded my head and we sat there together for another moment or two.

This interaction seems to have changed everything between us, from my perspective. It feels safe to deeply trust her again. Deep inside I had previously feared that she would hurt me for telling her the worst that I had to share. I think that I believed that she wouldn’t be able to help herself because everyone had to eventually reject either me or my experience, once I had told/showed them just how bad it was. But she didn’t reject either me or what happened to me. Instead she came closer to me and she helped me to hold and take care of those parts that were so terribly traumatized by my grandfather.

I do hope that the crises of this summer are over, but this was a reminder that just because things feel awful and chaotic, it doesn’t always mean that I am really in trouble. Several times this summer, Mama Bear would take me by the shoulders and look me straight in the eye and say, “We are OK, C. We really are, even though it doesn’t feel like it. We will talk about what is going on and work through it, but things actually are more OK between the two of us than it feels like right now.” I wish that I had been able to believe her at the time, because it turns out that she was right.

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Artist: Grace Wever Path to the Light

Artist: Grace Wever
Path to the Light

I recently discovered that I have told Mama Bear far less about the abuse than I think that I have. I have talked around what happened and hinted at it, but not given her many details. In some ways, that is OK; we have talked about how I can heal without going into the details. Unfortunately, it can also cause some pretty significant problems, though.

A couple of weeks ago, Mama Bear and I had a significant disruption because of misunderstandings caused by my thinking that I had been more clear to her than I actually had. She does the good therapist thing (actually it’s healthy communication, period) and doesn’t make assumptions based on what I hint at, however, in my mind, I have told her that I remember X happening. What I have been doing is referring to a lot of fuzzy “memory-type things” (my phrase) with my father (and maybe hinting broadly at what happened) and my struggles with believing myself, and so in her mind the whole story was vague and anything but clear. In my mind, I had been telling her about the types of memories, if not the details, and while I am experiencing a lot of conflict and somethings a fuzzy, what is clear, is clear.

When she came back from her trip a few weeks ago, after receiving my e-mails about the memories that I was dealing with, she asked me what I actually remembered about the abuse with my dad. In her mind, she was just trying to get a clearer picture of what was clear to me, if anything, and she wasn’t asking about specific abuse memories. She has no doubt that I was badly abused; whether I remember specifics or not only matters in terms of how treatment needs to proceed. In my mind, she was questioning whether I actually remembered anything and was asking me to prove that I did. That was not a session that went at all well. I felt attacked, bewildered, betrayed, like I had lost the person I could talk about the abuse with, angry, and more. My trust in her was severely shaken. I did not believe that she had hurt me on purpose, but what I experienced in the session and over the several days after the session was painful and frightening, so she had in effect hurt me. I took all of the anger that I felt towards her and aimed it squarely at myself, because I couldn’t tolerate being angry with her when things already felt so unstable. I was an exceedingly mixed up person who couldn’t fully get out of child states for most of the week between the disaster session and when I saw her next. Even now, there are parts of me that are wary about trusting her, now that I have experienced how badly things can go, without her trying to harm me. She made a mistake. She, herself, said that she had very poor timing and that she messed up how she asked me the question, even though it was something that she did need to clarify with me, because the lack of information was getting in the way of her helping me. However, the one thing that I gained was the certainty that something bad could happen between the two of us and while it might mess me up for awhile, I could eventually pull myself back together. If she fails me again, I can survive it. Unfortunately, the only way for me to really be certain of that was to experience it.

This experience got me thinking about how much I have kept from her, even after all of this time. I understand some of the reasons why I hide things, but I think that they are old reasons and don’t have much to do with today. I had a loving mother, but I believed that I had to keep things from her. There were lots of reasons why I believed that it wasn’t safe to tell her, both because of external threats and because I didn’t think that she could handle knowing; the end result was that I was trained to hide what happened, even from someone who was caring. I have heard other people say that if you don’t feel like you can tell your therapist anything, then there is something wrong with the relationship with the therapist (with the implication that the therapist needs to do more to enable your feeling able to share), but with Mama Bear, she has done everything possible to create a safe place to share. The problem is that I have to fight against very early survival training and then decades of following the same rules.

So I am trying to push myself to hide less. I need to act judiciously, so I don’t overwhelm myself, but I think that the very act of hiding/ not being able to speak about what happened gives it more power than it otherwise would have. I need to take that power for myself, so I can free the parts of me that still feel bound to the abuse memories.

Yesterday, I told her about a part that I have come to understand and be able to work with since the beginning of the year, but I had been afraid to tell her about because I was afraid that she would tell me that I was doing something wrong or that this part couldn’t exist the way that I was experiencing it. I had not felt confident enough in myself and my ability to support this part to say, “This is what is going on. Period. If your theories don’t work with it, then too bad.” But I pushed past that fear yesterday and discovered that 1) it was vitally important for me to openly bring this part into a session and work with it, 2) Mama Bear is interested in my experience first and then uses the theories to help inform how she organizes treatment (I knew this, but needed to be reminded of it), and 3) the way that I experience this part actually fits well with the theory after all.

Huh, I pushed past the fear that has bound me up to now, I shared with Mama Bear, and not only did nothing bad come of it, but good came out of it. Maybe I don’t have to hide as much as I have in the past. I’m starting to feel as though maybe I have the freedom to move a bit and not worry so much about making a single false step. I think that it’s safe enough to take some chances. I’m strong enough to deal with things going wrong, even if I may react badly at first. No one here is judging me. There is no “test” to make sure that I get things just right. Once again, I remember that it’s safe to be “me”, as I slowly discover who all of me is.

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Sierra Water Merle Axelrad

Sierra Water
Merle Axelrad

(Disclaimer: I mostly wrote this and the preceeding post to to have a record for myself of what the process was like, but I decided to post it, in case someone happened to look for information on drawing a system map or the struggles of revealing your parts. Anyways, it is written less with an eye towards presentation and more to satisfy my personal needs and may not be of much interest.)

In Drawing a System Map, I wrote about my process of drawing the map and deciding to show the map to Mama Bear.

This morning, I panicked. I started to imagine how Mama Bear might respond, I felt sick to my stomach at the idea of exposing myself so much, I really wanted to cancel the appointment all together (which I simply do not do), and in general I felt like a frightened child. But I managed to talk myself into bringing the map into the office, so I would have the option of showing it, if I decided that I wanted to, even though I expected not to, at that point.

I was about a minute late and Mama Bear was already seated, so she got a good look at me as I settled.

“You are looking…” she paused, “agitated. Is it because of what you brought in?”

I took a deep breath, nodded, and said, “I both want to show you and am frightened to.”

“What are you afraid would happen if you show me?”

“I figured that out right before I came here. I am afraid that if I really reveal myself to you, you will say, ‘That’s too much.’ And then you would push me out the door.”

“You know where that comes from, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And it makes sense when you are so afraid of how your own mother will respond. After all, who am I? Yes, I say that I care very much about you, yes, I keep on showing up and acting in ways that are caring, but if you can’t trust your mother, how do you know that you can trust me?”

I just sat there and stared at her. I couldn’t believe that she had just voiced my fears and I didn’t know how to react.

“How are you responding to what I just said?”

And then there is a big blank that I wasn’t even aware was there until I started to write this out. The next thing that I remember is being partially curled up on the arm of the love seat, like I often am, but my position was different. Rather than being curled up into the back of the love seat, hiding, I was doubled over, because I felt the need to protect myself, but my body was perched on the edge, as if I was reaching out towards Mama Bear. I have no idea what I said, but I know that my body was trying to communicate, “I want to be connected.” I was stressed, I was self protective, but my response was not, ‘go away, I don’t trust you’, instead it was, ‘I need you. I need to connect. I want to be close to you.’

I then found it possible to start to talk about what the process of drawing the map had been like for me and some of what I had learned from it. I shared with her how surprised I had been that the process had been so helpful to me and we talked about my being better able to tolerate seeing myself.

After over 40 minutes of processing what it meant to me to reveal myself, my fears of what might happen if I did, and what my hopes are for showing her more of myself, I finally felt ready to show her the system map. In fact, I could feel that some of me felt excited and eager to show it to her. I sat there and hesitated, because I knew that showing it that late in the session was a significant risk, if it turned out to be triggering. On the other hand, I was at a fragile point and if I didn’t show her the map in that session, it might be several weeks or even a couple of months before I felt able to bring it back. (To clarify, Mama Bear is one of the few therapists who does full 60 minute sessions, minus a couple of minute bathroom break. What I didn’t know at the time, but was I grateful to discover was that there was no client after me today.)

So I looked her and said, “I know the time, but I want to show you want I drew and I’m afraid that I won’t bring it back for awhile, if I don’t do it now. I know that we can’t really go into it, but can I just show it to you.”

“Of course you can. Do you want for me to move over there, or do you want to come over here?”

I pulled a chair over to her chair, in hopes that it would help prevent me from going into one of the parts. I sat down with the drawing pad on my lap, looked at her and said, “It really is safe to show this to you, right? Nothing bad is going to happen.”

“Yes, it is safe. I am not going to reject you. You know, I may actually recognize a lot of what I see there, since I have been observing you for some time.”

I smiled at her and said, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you did!”

“C., I am interested in what you have drawn and I want to see it, but I do not have to see it now, if it is not the right time for you to show it. It is up to you. Do you understand? I want to see it, but the timing is completely up to you.”

I looked at her, taking that in and nodded. Then I repeated to myself, “It is safe to show this,” took a deep breath and started to open the pad. But when I caught a glimpse of what I had drawn, I closed it again, took another deep breath, focused inward and reminded myself that I was in a safe place and I could be brave and share myself and fully opened the pad.

Mama Bear was clearly interested in and thinking about what she saw, but the only comment that she made at first was, “There are a lot of parts here.” I had already talked about how it wasn’t complete and I know about other parts that aren’t on the map. I think that she had been a bit surprised by the number (13 or 14, including the central me); I know that I had been a bit dismayed to actually see that many shapes drawn out, but I also know that I experience each of these parts differently, so what is, is.

She asked me a couple of questions and I started to tell her about some of the shapes, what parts they corresponded to, what the forms of the shapes meant, and how one of the smallest shapes that is snuggled up against the central me probably is a shape that is larger than that size would account for, but I think that most her is hiding behind the shape that represents “me.” I felt comfortable talking about the map with her! I wasn’t triggered into a part and I didn’t feel threatened in any way.

I could have gone on talking for some time, but we were nearing the end of the session, so she asked me a couple of questions. First she asked, “How are you experiencing me as we talk about and look at this?” I thought about it a bit and said, “You feel calm, but interested to me.” “That’s a pretty accurate description of how I feel.” Then the question that she asks at the end of every session, “What was it like for you to share this with me, today?” I felt inward for a response, “I feel a bit nervous about it, but over all I feel good.”

“Do you have that good feeling in your body?” I nodded my head. “Can you describe to me were you feel it and how it feels?”

“It’s over my whole front of my torso and it feels like a warmth/energy of hope and freedom.”

“Warmth, hope, and freedom. That’s wonderful.” She paused for a moment, then said, “Is there anything else that you want to say or do as we near the end of the session?”

I looked at her and reached out my hands and she took my hands in hers and we just sat there, looking at each other, being with each other for a minute or two, until I felt obligated to get up and move to my seat. She put my tea together, handed it to me, and sat down across from me. “So much for not doing the most intense work in the last 10 minutes of the session, huh?”

I smiled at her. “That’s one of the good things about being experienced; you develop a sense of when you can break the rules.”

“When you said that you were willing to show me what you drew, there was no way that I was sending you out of here without letting you show it. It was too important

She took a deep breath, as if savoring the moment. “This feels precious to me. I don’t really want to end it, but… Is there something that we need to do, or do we just need to take a breath, give each other a hug, and say, ‘See you next week’?”

I ruefully looked at her, “I think that is what we need to do.”

So we hugged and I walked out the door by myself, but not feeling alone in the slightest. I had allowed more of me to be seen and understood than ever before and that sharing had been welcomed and cherished. It felt as though the door to a prison that I had lived in my whole life had been cast open and now it was up to me to figure out what to do with that freedom.

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Taking Flight Krista Withers

Taking Flight
Krista Withers

In my last post, I wrote about a new me that I am growing inside who is learning how to experience and function in relationships differently from anything that I have been capable of before. Developing this me has been an intense experience over the several weeks/couple of months.

At the center of all of it, I have been working with two parts who were hurt very, very badly by my dad. One who is quite young and who I believe represents the beginning of the abuse with him and the one who is 12 and who I believe experienced the most relationally confusing abuse. (I wrote about it a few posts back.) It seems to me that the healing work that I am doing with these parts and the relational work with Mama Bear involved in developing this new me are inextricably connected. For instance, I take a metaphorical step towards Mama Bear and tell her that I feel closer when I sit closer to her and she agrees with me that it is easier to connect emotionally when there are only a few feet between us, rather than half a room. Then the next session I move from my comfortable chair to a portable chair that I put close to hers and I share difficult feelings and bits of memories with her. To my amazement, I discover that I am better able to stay connected to her and it’s almost like I can physically feel her supporting me, not just in the session, but for the rest of the day. For the first time, this part feels really heard and I start to understand at a deep level that I am no longer alone with what happened to me. I no longer need to protect myself by hiding the abuse and holding it close to myself; in fact, in my current reality, the safest thing is for me to share it with a person I am certain can deal with what I am saying and showing to her. And so with this experience of closeness and support, I find myself wanting to share more with Mama Bear, and on and on it goes in an upward spiral, one healing experience building upon another.

I have to admit that I when I look at the work that I have done over the last few weeks, I am astonished. On February 14th, I wrote an e-mail to Mama Bear and said, “But what is it about this particular situation that creates a knee jerk reaction of, ‘none of the bad stuff will ever come out in session. It will only come out when I am alone.’ I think that a lot of it is so I can figure out how much it hurts and whether I can survive it while I’m safe and alone. Sigh. There it is- the belief that I am only truly safe when I am alone.” In our session earlier that day, Mama Bear had encouraged me for the 2,000th time to bring the memories to her in session and work on them with her, rather than struggling through them alone, at home, as I always did. I was too polite to baldly come out and say to her, “There is no way that you will ever see me experiencing the really bad memories. I don’t trust you enough and I won’t ever trust you enough. I will only ever be safe when I am alone.” However, I know that I thought it very loudly at her and she heard that message. But now, two months later, these same parts have had a complete reversal, and I find myself wanting to share with her their experiences. Before, I believed that sharing what happened to me would open me to more pain and somehow having someone there would make it feel as though shards of glass were being dragged across my flesh. Instead, the experience of telling has been very difficult, but having her right there helps to keep me from being overwhelmed by the emotions and sucked into re-experiencing what happened. It has been nothing short of a revelation that the part of the session that comes after telling feels so very healing, even calming and soothing. I see in her eyes that even though I have shared something terrible with her, she still sees me as me. She still treats me kindly and she helps me work with the young parts so they can understand that they are not dirty or terrible or disgusting or ruined. We work together to help all of me learn that it really wasn’t my fault, that my father was fully responsible for what happened. I am learning that those memories really are in the past, although there is a lot of me that still is very unclear about that point.

I feel like the therapeutic relationship has become more of a partnership than it was before. It never was the case that Mama Bear tried to control what happened in therapy- anything that hinted of her trying to take control put my hackles up and made me completely uncooperative anyways. It was more that I came in and did my best to follow the direction that my internal compass sent me in. She then went with me, supporting me, guiding me as best she could when she thought that I was really going astray, reining me in when I moved too quickly and overwhelmed myself, suggesting options that she thought might be helpful, etc.. Mama Bear definitely worked with me, but I’m not so sure how much I actually worked with her. I tried to be cooperative and trusting, but a substantial part of me looked at everything that she did and suggested with suspicion and mistrust.

Somehow, it was partly through taking the chance to trust Mama Bear a step more that I was able to accept that my father abused me and begin to really do the work that is needed in regards to that abuse. I also believe that it is through accepting that my father abused me and giving myself permission to see him as he was, rather than as he portrayed himself, that I was able to really take steps in trusting Mama Bear to be the person who I perceive her to be. When I couldn’t let myself trust what I know about who my dad was, how could I have confidence in the way that I saw anyone? But when I decided that I could trust my perceptions of my dad, then the world became a safer place for me to be in, because I had the ability to watch out for myself. Yes, I confirmed that my dad was unsafe, but if I knew when someone was clearly unsafe, then surely I could also trust my judgement based on years of observing someone’s safe behavior.

Having decided to more fully trust that Mama Bear is a safe person, even if human and so prone to making occasional mistakes, it’s like there is a whole new world in the therapy room. I find myself better able to see her, the person. Looking back, I realize that to some extent, over the last 2 1/2 years, I have put her into a box. I needed for her to be as predictable as possible, so I didn’t want her reactions to anything. I’ve even gone through a period of not wanting to hear much about her life outside of the office, although in the past I appreciated the humanizing aspect of knowing a bit about her. She was who she was and she didn’t really let me fully box her in, but she seems to have been sensitive to my needs and tried to respect them as much as possible. It’s been like I needed for her to stay as stationary as possible, while to try to figure out some of the chaos inside of me. She always was a warm human being, and over the last several months I have been slowly trying to connect more and more, but I while I wanted to connect, I also couldn’t really let myself to connect in more than glimpses. I wasn’t ready for the messy and unpredictable part of a relationship, yet.

Over the last couple of weeks, that has changed. I have come to realize that I now need to experience her as a real person that I am having these close interactions with. I need to experience myself being experienced by a caring other. After my last session, I wrote to her, explaining that even though I am afraid to ask how she experiences me and what she feels in response to what I share, I hoped that it would be OK for me to ask sometimes.

This was her response: “You can always ask me questions about my responses to you and what you are saying/feeling. If I do not answer right away, I will try to remember to explain why. I do not have problems with your wanting to know how I am experiencing you, nor do I have a problem with you telling me how you are experiencing me if you should want to do so.”

This is completely antithetical to my family life while growing up. Even though my current family is much healthier, it still is something that is barely done now- my daughter does the best job with it! I’m going into this challenging all of my ingrained, unwritten rules about how to interact with other people. It’s scary, but it’s also exciting. What will it be like to tell Mama Bear about some of the abuse, process it with her some, and then ask her about her response to what I told her? I can imagine her saying that it brings up her anger at my father or protective feelings toward the child that I was or any manner of other things. What will it be like for me to finally share with someone what happened and get someone’s emotional response that it was wrong? I think that what I am hoping for is to experience someone being angry along with me or empathizing with my grief or also wanting to comfort the hurting child inside of me. I am looking for a shared experience. It isn’t that I am looking for her to validate my feelings, it’s that a part of having a relationship is having shared emotional experiences. I just realized that I feel that I know Mama Bear well enough to be able to predict that her reactions should be appropriate and it will be safe for me to ask for them. However, there always is the risk that something will come out wrong and there will be a misunderstanding. So what this requires of me is to trust in Mama Bear to remain the same person I believe her to be, and to trust in my ability to not freak out and instead work things out with her, if she happens to make a mistake and say something that comes out wrong.

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Life and Fire Goddess Artist: Leah Day

Life and Fire Goddess
Artist: Leah Day

Do I have your attention? No, of course the title isn’t what it suggests. ­čśë

I have been experiencing something a bit odd lately. There are times when I feel pregnant. Not really, truly pregnant, with all of the physical realities (thank goodness for no morning sickness), but I feel as if I am protecting new life that is growing within me.

This isn’t the first time that I have had this experience. I can remember at least two other occasions. One was many years ago, when I realized that the process that I was going through was every bit as painful as giving birth. In fact, I was giving birth to a new me. My childhood abuse and neglect had affected me so profoundly, that in order to proceed towards the type of life that I wanted to have, I couldn’t just tinker around the edges of who I was. I had to get in and over a period of years slowly make the fundamental changes that eventually coalesced into a transformation. I was recognizable from the outside as me, but the way that I experienced myself and the world around me was totally different. At the same time, it wasn’t as though I developed something completely foreign to who I fundamentally had been before. My values and priorities were the same. I still was me, but as Mama Bear said, it was like I was more me. I had developed a me that was closer to who I might have been, if I had grown up in a healthy family.

The thing is that this isn’t a one time process. A person can only take so much personality change at one time. After I had this happen for the first time, I then needed to go off and live life for awhile. I needed to experience and live with the new self that I had developed. I had a natural breaking point around that time, when we left town so that my husband could attend seminary. I stopped therapy, other than during a brief period when I was going through a difficult pregnancy and I was a new mother. Who I was continued to grow and develop- being a parent challenged me to learn to stretch beyond myself in ways that were often painful, frequently joyful, and amazingly healing.

So, over a period of years, life pushed me to grow, and when I found my way back to working with Mama Bear again, I was ready for another transformation, even though I had no idea of what was about to happen at that time. Over the years I had developed enough strength and stability to begin to fully deal with my internal world, even though I had it almost completely walled off until I walked back into Mama Bear’s office. I remember walking (slowly) through the woods a few months into therapy, after my sessions with Mama Bear, feeling like a woman who was 8 months pregnant. I knew that there was a new me that needed to emerge, but I also knew that I was frightened of it and I fought it. While a small part of me welcomed this emergence, most of me didn’t want anything to do with it, because this was not a me that I felt comfortable with. This new me encompassed an increased awareness of my parts and a grudging acceptance that I needed to work with all of me. In many ways it really was like I gave birth to many of my parts that had been buried inside- I finally allowed them to start to emerge into the light of day.

And today, what is the experience like for me today? Emotionally, this is the closest to the hopeful but nervous anticipation that I actually experienced while I was pregnant with my daughter. I can feel myself being pulled apart, rearranged and put back together again, which is a disorienting, but not always painful process. Over the last couple of weeks, I have expected for myself to have certain reactions and was surprised when I had other, healthier reactions. There is real change going on inside in regards to how I relate to others. I find myself very protective of these fragile changes, the same way that I had the instinct to protect my daughter when she was growing inside of me. After all, this new me represents hope and my future. She is learning to be fully real with others, even when there are difficult feelings. She is learning how to turn to others to ask for comfort and then actually accept the comfort. She is learning that it isn’t only OK to need others, it is good to need others. She is learning how much she likes and wants to be in relationship with others. She is impacting my life already, but she isn’t yet fully formed or sturdy enough to take the knocks and bruises of daily life. This me needs some more time to develop, strengthen and grow, before I can “give birth” to her and have her settle into the greater me. I have to say that I like this new me; I like the way that I feel when I am connected to her and I love being able to finally, really connect with another, when I most need to connect.

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Sky Gazer Kelly Hendrickson

Sky Gazer
Kelly Hendrickson

Relationship, connection, and needing other people have been on going themes for me that have cropped up several times over the last few months. Actually, they are themes that have been a focus of a lot of my therapy work since I started to work with Mama Bear again. This time around, I have become very aware of the walls that I put up between myself and others, in particular the walls that I put up with Mama Bear in the therapy room.

I can understand how those walls were necessary for me as a child. I used them to help buffer myself from painful relationships and to try to control how much I “needed” other people. They were a part of my attempt to be the child that I thought would be most acceptable to my parents- pleasant, non demanding, and able to take care of myself. However, as is the case with so many coping mechanisms for an abused and neglected child, over the years they became rigidly relied upon until I wasn’t able to make a choice of whether I wanted to let someone in or not. Everyone was kept out.

I always knew that I wanted love and connection, though. Fortunately, that led me to choose a husband who was loving and respectful, even though when I made that choice I had no understanding that I was dealing with demons inside, much less what the demons were. Something in me said, “I need love. I deserve love. I will not accept anything less than real love and I experience it with this man.” My mom failed me in many, many ways, but she also loved me. She really loved me. I think that having that experience of being loved gave me something to hold onto at my core, despite all of the abuse from my father and grandfather and her failing to protect me. So much happened that made love feel dangerous and unreliable, but I still had that experience of what being loved was like and so I have always yearned for it, even while I have been to frightened to open myself to it.

What a confusing situation for a child… I remember that one of my mom’s favorite phrases was, “All that really matters is love.” Yes, love is so central to my well being, but is it all that really matters? No! Or at least the emotion of love just isn’t enough by itself. I needed for her to be able to find enough strength to move past her own fears and limitations and find a way to protect me, not just love me! Love involves action, not just feelings. Those warm and fuzzy feelings may have felt great for her and, to be fair, it’s likely that her aiming them at me may be what gave me the resilience to keep on going, but I needed for her to deal with the rot in our family, as well as giving me kisses and hugs.

So I have been experiencing this push/pull all my life: a profound mistrust of others and the expectation that they will fail me when I most need them and yet also a deep yearning for love and intimacy. Over the last 25 years, I have slowly, bit by bit made progress by at first allowing myself to even start to see how much I mistrusted other people and then slowly testing and building on experience after experience of people being trustworthy in normal, everyday situations. Then I learned to trust myself to have the strength to deal with those times when others would let me down, not out of malice, but because they were human. And now I am at a point where I feel enough safety with Mama Bear that I can begin to fully reveal the traumatized parts and allow them to connect with her.

It’s a process that is scary and at the same time such a relief. It certainly isn’t something that comes naturally at this point! Many times when I am talking about something difficult, I find myself starting to fuzz out and looking anywhere but at Mama Bear, and I realize that I’m doing it again- I’m sitting in the same room as her, talking to her, but I’ve removed myself from connecting with her. She could just as well be a video recording, because I’ve isolated myself, and I feel all alone, even though she didn’t go anywhere. Over these last few months, when I catch what I am doing and I am able to resist it, I then try to breathe to ground myself and make myself look into her eyes and take in how she is looking at me. I open myself to the fact that here is a person who cares about me and is sitting there with me, having her own responses to what I say and do. She is real. I am real. What I am saying and experiencing is real. I have an impact on her. It is safe for me to allow her to have an impact on me. She wants for me to heal and would do everything that she could to avoid knowingly harming the fragile, hurt parts of me.

What a concept. Actually, what a constellation of concepts. And what a sense of hope.

I wish that I could say that this fixes all of my difficulties with allowing others in, but it was one of my deeply ingrained ways of being and it will take my having many, many “aha” moments in order to finally begin to come from a place where I fully believe that it is safe to be in relationship. But those changes are starting and more and more of me sees that they can happen. Even the parts of me that were hurt the worst can learn how to dare to take the chance to love and be loved again. I can’t say that all that I need is love, but all of me very much needs love.

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My vacation reminded me that not only is going out and living good for its own sake, but it can even help with healing. On the drive to the airport for the trip back home, I realized something that astonished me and made me start to cry in gratitude, because unexpectedly I had been given exactly what I need right now.

You see, before I left, I was one stressed out puppy. I was experiencing a “perfect storm” of dealing with very distressing material in regards to my dad, being convinced that I am on the brink of losing my mother, the pressures of the holiday season, the stress of needing to travel when I really didn’t want to travel, the fact that I was traveling to about 20 miles away from where I lived between the ages of 6 months and 6 years, alarming migraine symptoms that resulted in my having an MRI, and finally I was experiencing brief periods of loss of time, which is very unusual for me and no one knew if they were neurological or dissociative due to all of the stress.

As a result, I was in a bit of a mess when I flew out to the West Coast to visit with my husband’s family. One of the things that I was really worried about was my mother in law asking awkward questions that I just didn’t have the resources to deal with, but right before we left, my husband let her know what topics were out of bounds on this trip. That made all of the difference. I was able to relax and we did eventually talk about about some of those same topics, but it was on my terms, so it was my choice to share. As a result, I experienced her attention as caring, rather than being intrusive. While I have always known that it was meant as caring, her questions in the past have only made me want to run, so this shift was a relief for me.

In fact, given the proper boundaries, being with my husband’s family turned out to be a healing experience, rather than the stressful experience that I had anticipated. What a delightful surprise! One of the things that we did differently this time was to break up the time that we spent with people, and we traveled up the coast, staying with different family members. We spent a lot of time hanging out, doing low key activities, like going to the beach, taking walks, and tide pooling together. New Years Day was spent entirely outdoors with my sister in law, enjoying her company, my husband and daughter, the fantastic weather, and the amazing sea life. Days like that help to heal my soul and they provide a calming, wholesome memory for me to come back to in times of distress.

I loved watching my daughter play with her cousins and aunts and make those connections that I so dearly wish that I had with my own family. It was healing for me to watch her settle into feeling secure and loved in the arms of her extended family. Families don’t have to be like the family that I grew up in. My husband’s family is not perfect, but it is loving and supportive and several family members have made an effort to improve upon what they were raised with, so it isn’t stagnant and stuck in dysfunction. It’s reality. My little family with my husband and daughter isn’t perfect, but hopefully we can provide a good enough environment for my daughter to take what we give to her and improve upon it for the next generation.

We spent a couple of days with the other young family in his extended family- their children are 7, 4, and 4 months. That time probably was the highlight of the trip for me. I saw another family where both of the parents came from backgrounds where they had been badly hurt at some point, and yet they have worked hard to heal that hurt, grow, overcome their limitations, and continually strive to learn to be better partners for each other, parents, and fuller people. Once again, they aren’t perfect, but they are kindred spirits in understanding what it means to struggle over and over, fail, pick yourself up and keep on going. They also manage to have faith that while things are hard, they will find a way to make everything work in the end and they remember to have joy in each day. Such a good reminder to find the joy, no matter how small, even in the midst of the struggle.

Unfortunately, the trip wasn’t without bumps. I received a call on New Years Day from my Dad’s phone and even though I didn’t answer it, I was triggered and ended up in a very bad state the next day. I tried my hardest to get myself out of it, but finally conceded that I couldn’t do it on my own and called on Mama Bear for help. At another point, I had to deal with something intrusive in regards to my dad, but at least I was able to put that away by myself. On the other hand, I learned that the trip didn’t have to be problem free in order to be a good thing for me.

The time that I spent connecting with the various people in my husband’s family was far more important to me than I realized while I was doing it. Reflecting on it, I think that I may have let them in more than I have dared to in the past. Somewhere along the way over the last couple of years, I really have learned how to start to open my heart more.

So what was this realization that I had in that predawn car ride to the airport? That I was leaving feeling like I had been loved by my husband’s family. Really feeling that there are people out there who love me, beyond just the few that I have regular contact with here was profound for me. I am someone who is worth loving. Someone who naturally loves and is loved in return. I don’t have to hide behind walls. It is safe for me to exist. I am not going to be rejected for being me. No matter what happens with my parents, I still have people around me who will love me. I’m not going to end up all alone, if I find and tell my truth.

This current realization doesn’t solve everything, of course, but some greater chunk of me is shifting. Tiny bits of me had been taking it in before, but now this larger part of me has experienced being loved, even in the face of starting to deal with what I most don’t want to deal with. I’m interested to see how it plays out both in my everyday relationships and in therapy.

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