Friday, October 24, 2014

When Remembering Becomes Reliving

I was listening to a radio program recently about PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder.
I talk a lot about PTSD on this site because it was the paradigm that felt the most right to me after D-Day. After a friend of mine, who counsels those with PTSD from childhood sex abuse, suggested I was experiencing post-trauma, my response to my husband's infidelity began to make sense. Well, as much sense as PTSD ever makes.
It was a tough sell at first. As I've noted on this site before, PTSD seemed so...dramatic. As if I was exaggerating my experience. PTSD was for veterans and rape victims, domestic abuse survivors and people who fled the Twin Towers.
There's increasing research, however, that PTSD is more common than that. That those of us who experience a sudden, shocking event (infidelity anyone?) can come away with PTSD. Not all of us, of course. But some of us. Too many of us.
PTSD is created, explained the doctor on the radio program, when the feeling we experience during trauma (fear, grief, shame, for instance) becomes linked with certain stimuli (a sight, a smell, a sound).
As the doctor on the radio program put it, the neurons that "fire together, wire together."
It explains why a certain song can suddenly transport us back to that moment of finding out and suddenly our heart is racing, our blood pressure is skyrocketing, our hands are tingling. We're not just remembering the trauma, we're re-living it.
Maybe it's the sight of a certain model car. The voicemail message on a husband's cell phone (which I'd listened to roughly 30 times as I tried to reach him, knowing he was with her). A certain time of year. A snowstorm.
At first, it's normal for the entire experience to feel like a nightmare from which you can't awake. For some of us, however, that feeling lingers...and sometimes gets worse.
While we might become more functional in some ways, we have periods of the day when we're immobilized. When we're flashing back. When we're not remembering what we know but reliving it.
The most important thing to know is that this, under the circumstances is normal. Know also, that it's surmountable. Life will not always feel like a war-zone in which you're unsafe and insecure.
But it's important to get treated so that you can begin to heal. To have memories, including bad ones, without trauma.
Infidelity is so much more devastating than most of us could have imagined. Far more devastating than our culture understands. Unless, of course, you've lived through it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Healing from Betrayal: Grief is Part of the Process

"My custom has always been to ponder grief; that is, to follow it through ventricle and aorta to find out its lurking places. That old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself..."
~from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Ah grief, that foe. Grief, that makes our bodies rock with deep, deep sadness. Grief, that we'll do almost anything to avoid because it's so consuming, so exhausting, so bottomless.
As John Ames, however, the character in Robinson's novel Gilead points out, grief has secrets and if we sit with it, allow it to illuminate those dark corners of our heart where we "know more than I know and must learn from it myself," then grief can be our teacher.
It runs counter to our instincts, this sitting with grief. Especially in these times of quick fixes, of escape hatches. Why sit with grief when we can lose ourselves in television? Why sit with grief when there's a tub of ice cream or a box of donuts? Why sit with grief when there's Facebook, Twitter, cat videos? When there's an OW to stalk online?
Why? Because grief isn't going anywhere. Grief waits beneath the anger and anxiety. It makes itself known when your friend announces she's pregnant and you burst into tears. It makes itself known when you can barely get out of bed even though you know you need to get outside. It makes itself known when the mere act of making dinner feels like too much. It makes itself known when you move the wedding album to a bottom drawer because you can't bear to be reminded.
But grief is cagey. It can't be experienced on the fly. It requires that we truly sit still with it. That we don't try and "solve" it. We can't think our way out of grief. We need to feel our way through it, like a blind man in an unfamiliar place.
The beauty of grief is that when we allow ourselves to feel such deep pain and loss we open ourselves up to being able, eventually, to feel the highs too.
It's not easy, opening up to grief. It feels huge. We fear being swallowed alive.
But like our character in Gilead, that weight is our cue that it needs our attention. I spent far too long living life with the feeling of an elephant on my chest. Sure I was functional. But I sure as hell wasn't having fun. Perhaps "fun" is too much to expect of anyone going through the pain of infidelity. Perhaps we should lower our expectations to feeling a bit...lighter. Being able to smile sincerely. To hold, for even a moment, the beauty in a child's smile, or the trust in a friend's hug, or the joy in a pet's wagging tail, alongside our pain. To make room for something other than hurt and fear (disguised as anger).
I've been asked how to open up to the pain with the expectation that it also opens us up to life's joy again. The only real answer I have is to sit with it. When it comes – and it will, so be patient – let it wash over you. We're so terrified of our grief that we push it away. We busy ourselves. We shift focus.
But that only pushes grief into the shadows of our heart; it only leaves our hearts restricted.
Sit with your grief and discover that you know more than you know, including where to take your next step. Grief, especially, is wisdom that guides the way toward healing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How Trauma Breaks Open Our Story

People usually only come to this frontier when they have had a terrible loss in their life or they've been fired or some other trauma breaks open their story.  Then they can't tell that story anymore... they hit present reality with such impact that they break apart on contact with the true circumstance."
~David Whyte

They hit present reality with such impact that they break apart on contact. Sound like you? It sure as hell sounds like me.
I hit the reality of my husband's cheating with such impact that I shattered.
And it's hard, when you're shattered, to recognize that this breaking apart might, one day, be exactly what you needed. It's damn near impossible to understand that it's only when trauma has broken open your story that you're able to write a new chapter.
From my stop farther down the road, however, I can see that my husband's cheating – the trauma from that betrayal – meant that I couldn't keep telling myself the story I had been. It meant that, once I was able to pull myself back together, I had to admit that my story wasn't entirely based on fact. It was up to me to begin writing my own rather than let others dictate it to me.
Until then, my story had gone something like this:
I married a wonderful, principled man who adored me. We had three wonderful healthy children. Life was good, better than I expected or, frankly, deserved. The end.
What I tended to ignore because it didn't fit with the storyline I wanted desperately to believe was that it disappointed me when he wasn't able to acknowledge the casual cruelty of his family towards me.
It hurt me when I felt emotionally abandoned after the birth of our first child.
I felt invisible when I would express fairly mundane needs (please walk the dogs in the morning, please have breakfast with me instead of sleeping in...) and he wouldn't. (His modus operandi, which he'd used for years with his own family, was to agree to whatever they wanted and then do what HE wanted. I, a firm believer in taking people at their word, took years to see what he was doing. Which might mean I'm either a) a hopeless optimist or b) kinda stupid.)
And it was confusing to me when, sometimes, I felt like a blow-up doll during sex. As if I – a fully present human me – wasn't supposed to be there, and certainly wasn't supposed to have my own needs.
But by not allowing those truths to be part of my story, I was living a fiction. The fiction of my adoring wonderful husband who would never-not-EVER cheat on me.

Broken Open.

In the wake of that breaking open, we begin writing our new story.
I realized fairly quickly that my marriage hadn't been quite so polished and perfect as I had wanted to believe. I could see just how broken I was even before his betrayal completely shattered me. One of the hugest revelations for me was to recognize just how much I'd already betrayed myself.
I had assumed that my needs were less important than everyone else in the family.
I had accepted that, if his family rejected me on some level, it was because I wasn't deserving of their love.
I had been living my long-held deep conviction that I wasn't enough.
I accepted love that was, frankly, not so great and told myself it was more than I deserved.

As I healed, I began writing my true story.
And in this new story that has emerged, I am learning that I am enough. Have always been. Always will be.
I am learning that, in a healthy relationship, nobody's needs trump another's. That we all matter and can negotiate a family in which that's the guiding principle.
I can now spot the myriad ways in which I betray myself. My clue is a spark of resentment (which, left unexamined, grows to a roaring house fire of anger). When I begin to hear the voice in my head muttering "look how much I do", and "I'm exhausted!", and "why doesn't he...", and "why won't they...", I know it's time to take good look at how I'm NOT taking care of myself. When you hear yourself saying one thing when your heart and soul are screaming another, you're betraying yourself.
But what's clear to me is that all of this stuff, these rich lessons that have shaped my life in wonderful ways and deepened my relationships to friends and family and my children, arose out of my shattered self, my broken story.
It can be hard to see when you're surrounded by wreckage. It can feel like warmed-over platitudes ("out of suffering comes wisdom") that make you want to bash in the face of anyone offering them up.
But it was through my broken story that I gained the control to change the narrative of my own life into something that is far more likely to give me a satisfying ending. An ending, of course, to be determined.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Coming Back to Life After Betrayal

I've lived a lifetime being told that I'm "too sensitive."
As a kid, it seemed to mean I cried too easily.
As a teen, it seemed to mean that I cared too much.
As an adult, I finally cracked the code: Telling me I'm "too sensitive" really means "your emotions make me uncomfortable and I'd like you to stop displaying them."
I am, admittedly, intense. My highs are high and my lows are low. Which is why feeling nothing – roughly eight months post-betrayal – felt so alien to me. And, at first, such a relief.
At first, slipping into numbness felt like progress.
I had learned of my husband's affair. Six months later came news of his sex addiction. Then, three weeks after that, I buried my mother.
Feeling nothing allowed me to function. To go about my life. To mother my children. To act friendly with friends. To stay dry-eyed. To promote my new book on radio and television. To do speaking engagements at crowded consumer shows.
Look at me, folks. I'm fine. 
After about six months of that, however, it dawned on me that this wasn't healing at all.
I felt...dull. Like I was living life wrapped in gauze. Like all my shine and sparkle was gone.
A friend who knew nothing of what was going on put it this way: "The light is gone from your eyes," he said.
Some call it the "dead zone". Others "the plain of lethal flatness".
It's a sort of flattening out of our emotions. No longer the roller coaster of post-betrayal. That ride is freaking exhausting. The constant shift in altitude is unsustainable.
So, yeah, at first, flat feels good.
Whew, we think. Glad that's over.
But the day comes when we realize that though we might be avoiding the deep dark valleys, we're also missing out on the view from the peaks. It might be respite from pain, perhaps. But it's also respite from joy.
We're existing, not living.
I became aware that I felt like an observer of my life, not a participant. My heart felt detached from what was going on around me.
My too-sensitive heart.

I wish I could tell you it was easy to come back to life. I wish I could provide a link to some pill you could take. Or some book you could read. Some magic elixir you could down that would allow your heart to beat again with hope and promise.
But as you know, this site is not about selling snake oil.
As far as I can figure, the only way back to life is the scariest. 
Walk through the fear. Allow yourself the full-body experience of pain. The tingling hands, the pounding heart, the churning stomach.
You might only be able to tolerate a bit at a time. Sometimes, when we've been flooded with pain, our bodies and brains respond by turning off the tap.
Coming back to life means turning that tap back on, even just a drip, drip, drip.
What you'll learn if you allow yourself to feel it is that the pain won't sweep you away. It might feel like it will. It might feel like you'd better start bailing as if your life depended on it.
But pain and fear are just feelings. They're transient. Nobody ever feels one way all the time. If you let them, the feelings will wash over you, leaving you rooted where you are.
You'll discover is that you can feel that deep deep pain and that paralyzing fear, and survive.
And by discovering that, you'll open yourself up to all those other feelings as well: Peace. Joy. Desire. Pride. Disappointment. Love.
You'll come back to life. To all of life. The good bits...and the shitty ones.
Might you get hurt again? Yep. In fact, I can guarantee that you will get hurt again. Not necessarily by your spouse (let's hope he's learned his lesson!). But by someone.
That's okay. You'll have learned that you can feel hurt...and survive.
That you can feel joy, without fearing that it will be snatched from you.
That you can...feel. Which is, after all, so much better than playing dead.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Finding Stillness to Cope with Sadness or Depression

Susan Piver, author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart and guide to the gifts of meditation, has this to say about how meditating can help you navigate sadness and depression (which are not the same thing. As Gloria Steinem famously said, "In depression, nothing matters; in sadness, everything matters.")
To those of you who I know struggle with sadness or depression, and are certainly trying to find the wisdom in your broken heart (which is pretty much all of us), I offer you Susan with The Dharma of Depression.


Related Posts with Thumbnails