Tuesday, June 16, 2015
My Healing Manifesto: Transforming Trauma
All of which, I hoped, would inoculate me from tragedy.
Having grown up with alcoholic parents, I needed that sense of safety. I needed to believe that the chaos was over and that the rest of my life would be smooth sailing.
I kept score in my head: bad life events on one side, good life events on the other. If ever the "good" side seemed to tip too far, which it did often, I started to worry. The karmic balance, I figured, was out of whack. I'd better keep my head down because something bad was coming my way.
Of course, I was only mildly aware of my mental scorekeeping. And I was bothered by evidence of people who clearly had experienced a far greater hell than I ever had. Those who'd suffered genocide, debilitating disabilities, the loss of a child. I could barely imagine such grief.
Nonetheless, I felt I'd had my share. And I believed that my pain during childhood had been mine alone. There was nothing to "learn" from it, beyond some pretty unhealthy coping skills and the knowledge that I was a helluva an actress, able to convince the world that everything was absolutely fine...when it most definitely was not.
If there was any lesson I brought from my childhood it was that good things happened for other people, not for me.
The best I could hope for was to avoid more pain.
And so I tread softly into adulthood. Hoping fate wouldn't find me. That I could simply live my life out quietly with no more pain.
So when, after a disastrous seven-year relationship that ended badly, I met my husband and he was so kind, so smart, so fun so...safe, I let myself imagine that maybe I wasn't destined to misery. Maybe I could expect good things to happen for me too.
I dodged a few bullets. Scary results from a pregnancy test result turned out to be false and I gave birth to a healthy girl, followed by two more healthy babies. A cancer diagnosis for my long-sober mom that turned out to be a mistake.
But mostly, life was more than I'd allowed myself to dream. Career success. Financial security. Good friends.
I started feeling bolder, like perhaps I wasn't doomed. Like, just maybe, I was as entitled to live a happy life as anyone else.
I finally exhaled. I even confided in a friend that I'd been afraid to enjoy my life for fear that I'd get blindsided.
She, the survivor of childhood sex abuse and a scorekeeper herself, assured me that I'd had my share of pain. You're due some happiness, she told me.
I believed her.
And that's when it happened. My "perfect" marriage was revealed to be...not.
Deep down, of course, I had been expecting it. It confirmed my belief that I simply wasn't worthy of good things. That no matter how much I'd tried to earn my way into karmic peace by being kind and donating money to good causes and voluteering to help AIDS orphans (really!), it just wasn't enough to keep me safe.
I wallowed in that state for a good year or so. Paralyzed by despair. Desperately wanting my life to be just over – I couldn't imagine coping with anything more and I was sure more was on its way.
But in my moments of clarity, I had to admit that, though this really, really sucked, it wasn't a Holocaust, literally or figuratively. I still had my wonderful kids. My recovered-alcoholic parents. Good friends. Work I loved.
And a question started forming.
What if, instead of spending my life dodging pain, which clearly I seemed incapable of doing, I accepted some of it as inevitable.
I began to ask myself: How can I use this experience to value life more deeply – the good and the bad? To become a better person? Not a more dutiful person, or a more selfless person but someone who transformed her pain into greater compassion for self and others, less judgement for self and others.
What if I stopped viewing myself as a victim and started seeing myself as having a fully human experience, which includes the full range of experiences?
Questioning my long-held view of myself as a victim of circumstance changed everything for me. It shifted my self-perception as powerless to powerful. It gave me agency. A belief that though I couldn't change what happened to me, I could absolutely determine how I responded to it. It was my life. It was my choice.
No matter that our husbands cheated on us, we are not victims. We are hurt by it, absolutely. Our lives are wracked by it for sure. We need to allow ourselves time to process the grief, feel the pain and let healing begin. But that simply makes us human.
We are not victims, which means we can respond to trauma in our lives with a grace and integrity and a seemingly endless well of strength. We will collapse in tears. We will have dark days and darker nights. But we will survive this and we will come to a place where we can recognize that it was through our wounds that growth took place.
My life will undoubtedly hold more pain. At 51, I have (hopefully) many years left. My kids will experience disappointment and, at times, feel their own hearts break.
And when they do, I will hold them while they weep and rage at life's cruelty. And then, I will watch the transformation that takes place as they recognize their own strength, as they find it within themselves to open their hearts again. As they remember that in every life there will be pleasure and there will be pain. And that they can handle it all.