There is this buttoned up and composed version of myself that I let the world see. It is the part of me that protectively works to keep my outward self appearing calm, safe, and secure. Underneath this facade lives a multitude of other parts, some healthier than others, that come together to make me who I am today. This buttoned up part of myself that I present to the world could not exist without a self imposed part designed as a pressure release valve. Both parts exist as a means of self protection. Both have been a critically necessary part of my survival. And both are creating a barrier to feeling, creating, and connecting to a whole-hearted approach to healing in my life. I wish to shed these parts through my healing process. Yet the desire to shed these internal parts of myself is perhaps a misguided goal. I cannot circumvent the very parts of me that were put in place to keep me safe. I need to instead somehow connect to these parts and learn to work collaboratively with them.
When I was seven years old my grandfather (Pop-Pop) died. I remember with such clarity several moments of the day of his funeral. I recall standing in line in a room that smelled of flowers. I remember watching his wife, my Mom-Mom, walk into the room quietly crying with two adult family members clutching her arms to keep her steady as she walked. I remember feeling uncomfortable and nervous because I had never before seen Mom-Mom cry, and this room full of quiet sad looking people dressed in dark clothes felt unsettling to me. I understood that my Pop-Pop died – as best as a seven year old can understand death. But I didn’t understand what we were doing there. What was this building we were in? What was this line of people we were standing in?
When the line inched forward I was suddenly scooped up off of the ground and found myself face to face with Pop-Pop’s lifeless body positioned in a casket. I wasn’t held in a comforting closely held manner with caring guidance to help me comprehend what I was experiencing. Instead I was perched up facing outward and away from my dad, who held me extended out in front of himself by my underarms. I dangled there and experienced my first view of death all alone. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand why I was being held up and instructed to look at him in there. It didn’t even look like Pop-Pop. My Pop-Pop’s skin didn’t look like that. My Pop-Pop’s lips never rested tightly together quite like that. My Pop-Pop always had a crease across the bridge of his nose from his glasses. There were no glasses on his face and no crease marking where they normally rested. This didn’t look like my Pop-Pop. I looked directly at his face and immediately turned away. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for being disrespectful so although I wanted to jerk my head, squirm out of my dad’s hands and run away from this room in sadness and fear, I instead simply diverted my eyes away from Pop-Pop’s face. I focused on the edges of the casket and the flowers surrounding it – anywhere I could discretely look to help subside the fear, sadness, and confusion that swirled inside of me until at last my feet were brought back down to the ground.
I learned that day not to look directly into a casket. I learned in that moment that I needed to pretend to look. This would prove to become a lasting strategy, as my last living grandmother died nearly twenty years later. When faced with her funeral as an adult, I respectfully moved my way towards her body during the viewing, but I chose not to look directly at her face. Part of me didn’t want my last memory of her face to include a distorted image of what she looked like among all of my countless memories with her. But the stronger feeling inside of me was a need for self protection from the feelings rising inside of me. I didn’t feel confident to test the limits of my self composure in that moment. Instead, much like I did when I was seven years old, I looked at the edges of the casket and the pattern on the dress she wore and breathed slowly and deliberately, continuously swallowing down my feelings of grief until an acceptable amount of time passed and I could turn in a calmly composed manner and walk away.
I remember sitting with my family in our church during Pop-Pop’s funeral service. The same church that was typically full of people during our regular Sunday visits was eerily quiet and empty with just the front several pews filled with family and loved ones. Various people walked up to the alter and read words that I didn’t understand. A priest well known by my family spoke about heaven. All while that same box I saw Pop-Pop laying in earlier was positioned in front of the alter. I saw more tears that day than I had ever seen – from cousins, from aunts and uncles, and even strangers. But not one tear was spotted on my siblings or my parents faces.
At one point during the church service I went to the restroom with my mom. The restroom was near the front of the church behind several doors off to the side of the alter. I don’t remember the walk to the restroom, but what occurred both in the restroom as well as the walk back to our church pew left a lasting mark in my mind. While in the restroom I asked my mom why people have to die. I don’t remember how she answered, but I remember something about that brief conversation led to an overflowing of tears, sadness, and confusion pouring out of me. I missed my Pop-Pop, and I wept in that restroom over the loss of him. I’m sure my mom hugged me and comforted me. I don’t remember that part. Instead the lasting memory in my mind was standing before a mirror and desperately washing my face. With all of the emotions coursing through my young body at Pop-Pop’s funeral, my greatest concern in that moment was to wash away any evidence of my tears. I didn’t leave that restroom until I felt that I could walk back out into the church, facing all of the people in the church pews in front of me, feeling completely composed. At seven years old I had very carefully displayed an unspoken family rule that I must have learned long before that day. At seven years old I already knew that it was not okay to cry.
This buttoned up version of myself is exhausted from containing all that I experience. It needs healthy healing relief. It became a strong part of me at such a young age that simple expressions of feelings are often lost or muted by this ever present part. In my entire upbringing I never learned how to express my feelings. Instead I was taught that feelings were not welcome. I don’t want that for myself anymore, and I certainly don’t want that for my children. But I am scared and unsure of how to attempt to change something that is so deeply and fiercely a part of me. I feel myself often wishing and even envisioning a moment of releasing everything that feels bottled up inside of me – wishing to just let go and crumble in the comforting arms and safety of a loved one – wishing to fully release and express the depth of my feelings – to stop holding myself so desperately clenched together in my therapist’s office and just let go – to cry and unravel and release the overwhelming weight that I feel trapped in. But this buttoned up part is so strong and automatic inside of me that it prevents me from getting there. I don’t know how to turn it down. When I experience moments of being asked a question by my therapist that even remotely invokes a feeling of rising tears, this part reacts so quickly to either jump in with distracting sarcasm or worse, it creates an internal anger at my therapist for what feels like an attempt to make me cry. In an instant the flood of rising feelings subsides and composure remains in control.
The recent self realization and connection between this buttoned up part of myself and a release valve part that also exists within me is what draws my focus in very clearly on how important it is for me to carefully tend to and address these intertwined parts. Self harm is my release valve. These tendencies and urges have been a part of me since I was in the midst of abuse as a teenager. I am just realizing now how much my buttoned up self relies on self harm to maintain composure. Self harming for me is a means to release some of the overwhelm that exists within me. I can’t maintain a composed buttoned up facade without a place for my overwhelm to escape. The self harming part was created to help maintain the buttoned up part.
If I can learn to tend to and release the weight of responsibility that the buttoned up part feels, then perhaps my self harming urges will no longer feel necessary. But what does that look like and how do I even begin to try? This is where my mind resides at the moment – sensing an important need and struggling to determine just how to reach it.