What if loving you is not enough? What if I look at you every day but never fully see you? What if the way I view you is distorted by what I wish to see?
What if I am unable to recognize the things I fear the most? What if harm creeps into the spaces between my love and your needs? What if I spend my life trying to keep you from knowing the darkness I know only to lead you straight to its doorstep?
What if my lessons teach you to swallow your pain? What if my methods create a barrier that drives you away from me? What if my efforts lead you to retreat within yourself?
What if I thought I was doing enough? What if I believed that your mask held your truth? What if I never saw your tears…your pain…your need for me? What if I couldn’t even see the ledge you are clinging onto?
Sometimes it feels heavy and huge – like a weight pressing firmly down on my chest. Sometimes I can pinpoint its location deep within me – like a small spinning fireball with enormous energy and strength bound in a very confined space. Sometimes it spreads like thick smoke throughout my chest, down into my stomach, and even up into my throat where it burns and aches. It pauses my breathing, triggering very shallow breaths with inadequate volume to supply my body with this very basic need. After several moments a huge breath is required to repay the debt for what has been withheld. This is what typically draws my awareness inward where I can recognize what is happening and can then begin to carefully focus on each breath – a slow deep inhale followed by a relaxing exhale. Then I tune into the pressure, the ache, the pain…whatever is restricting my breath and I try to slowly and deliberately breathe through it to restore balance to my activated nervous system.
Aside from the fact that these new moments I am experiencing of intense anxiety or panic are frightening, the problem I am noticing is that I have a very cerebral default response to these incidents. I tend to my physical cues by checking my pulse and reminding myself to slow down and breathe deeply. But I am learning that the parts of me that are triggering these anxious and panicky feelings are not calmed by these actions alone. These parts require more than reminders to breathe. These young parts are seeking comfort.
Recently I was tucking my daughter into bed for the night. As she laid on her side and clutched her stuffed puppy in her arms, resting her cheek upon the soft fabric of its head, she looked up at me with a slight smile. The words that flowed from her mouth in that moment have echoed in my brain ever since. “Stuffed animals are like an anchor for my dreams,” she said.
An anchor. This is exactly what I need in moments of panic. I need an anchor to help keep me grounded when parts of me are spinning out of control. So with the help of my therapist and these wise words from my child I have, among other self soothing strategies, taken up sleeping with a stuffed animal. I wrap my arms around a floppy stuffed moose and I can actually feel a momentary release of tension inside of me – just long enough to help me fall asleep.
I have since then been thinking more about this need, trying to resist self judgement that my adult self tries to impose about relying on a stuffed animal for sleep. I can feel the relief that this provides to some very young parts within me – parts that are desperate for comforting and protective care – begging for the embrace that I am giving to this moose each night. The slight relaxation that comes from cuddling this stuffed moose is enough evidence to prove to me that it is helping. Yet I find myself feeling somewhat defeated by this new daily ritual and can’t help but feel the desperate resignation that comes from this type of comfort. If the need to feel safe, comforted, and protected is strong enough for my adult self to feel overwhelmed by it on a daily basis, then how ironic is it that this need that was missed from others long ago is left for me to scramble to meet for myself in solitude today? To me this shouts a very loud and clear message – I was alone in my suffering, and now I’m alone in my healing.
I can’t be what others were not. I cannot fill the enormous void that my inner child parts need. And yet here I try because what other choice do I have? These injured parts live inside of me. Their unmet needs permeate from me with every feeling and interaction I have. They long for something that was absent long ago. They need something I cannot fully provide. I can’t fix what was injured no matter how tightly I cuddle my stuffed moose. All I can do is hope that my anchor holds for now.
There is an image we all have become familiar with lately. A loved one placing their hand on a window to connect with another on the other side. We’ve seen these images on the news and on social media as caring gestures towards elderly or sick family members and neighbors during this pandemic. The simple message of love and connection – of letting our loved ones know that we are there for them in the midst of a time when we must maintain physical distance from them.
I was reminded of this image recently in my own personal connection to it. Through all of my healing work I have learned to slowly open a connection between my current self and the child inside of me that was left to suffer alone in silence for so many years. I have learned that much of the pain I feel today is directly connected to what that child was and is still feeling. Much of my healing has surrounded the idea of creating safety for her – to enable her to open up – to trust, share, and work with me to help heal those deep wounds. As with all aspects of my healing, I find myself intermittently making progress as well as faltering sometimes. Yet my desire to bridge the gap toward our shared needs causes me to seek her – to check in with her – to visit with her quite often.
When this virus quickly changed our daily lives and the manner in which we interact with one another, like most people, I felt overwhelmed. I felt the need to streamline the essential needs in my household and place onto the back burner what I deemed less immediately pressing. In these moments of prioritizing I could feel myself operating at a capacity that would not allow for safe thoughtful intrinsic work. I made a conscious decision to pause my healing work. In the meantime something interesting began to happen. My stressful dreams that are somewhat expected during a stressful time began to worsen. I began to notice an increase in wakeful and fitful moments throughout the night. I noticed an increase in heavy foreboding feelings when I awoke each morning. I was feeling the compounding nature of the physical and emotional impact of inadequate sleep. Then the most alarming thing happened. My stressful dreams involving various representations of pain, panic, and helplessness suddenly infused into them the most powerless details that my mind can conjure. In an instant, my dreams of stress and worry took on a completely different feel when my abuser began to appear in them one night. This sounded all kinds of alarms inside of me, shaking the foundation of every inch of healing progress I have made on this ongoing journey. In a mix of overwhelm and denial, I first tried to shrug these dreams off and categorize them as no different than my other random and sometimes bizarre stressful dreams. But these dreams carried a different weight and stayed with me in a profound way that made dismissing them feel impossible.
When this wave of distress would subside just long enough to make space for other feelings I began to sit with all of the questions that these dreams brought up for me. Why is he here now? It’s been a long time since he’s haunted my dreams. What does this mean? How can I make it stop?
That’s when I was reminded of those images of loved ones placing their hands on the glass to show one another that they are still there for them, however different that may seem right now. Perhaps I need to find a way to place my hand on the window to my inner child right now. I think maybe she is feeling shaken and alone and is needing some reassurance. I think she needs to know that I am still here – that I still care – and that I will not abandon her. It just might feel different for a little while.