Chapter 2 of Birthquake
"Some things that happen to you never stop happening to you."
There are all too many ways to suffer. Some of us are plagued from childhood, while others are struck in adulthood by some unpredicted crisis that descends without warning. The pain of yet another may evolve more slowly, like a forest fire that begins with the tiniest trail of smoke smoldering for a time before bursting into flame.
The behaviors and characteristics of the traumatized child don't necessarily disappear when the child reaches adulthood. Instead, it has been my experience that the adult continues to carry the pain of the child, and in one way or another, continues to act out the old pain. An example of this tendency can be found in Tonya's story, which she has generously agreed to tell in the following paragraphs.
THE HIDDEN PAIN OF TONYA
"In order for this to make sense, I need to start as far back as I can remember. I only remember bits and pieces, but as I write, maybe more will come back to me. My childhood was very scary. My father, a very angry man, scared me tremendously. When there were problems and anything was done wrong, his belt would come off, and he'd beat me with it.
My mother, who seemed to be afraid of my father, threatened me all the time with telling my father when I did anything wrong. It seemed to me like she didn't want his ugly moods taken out on her.
continue story below
My father would come home from work every night between five and five-thirty. The air would always be tense until everyone knew what kind of mood he was in. I was scared of him, so I'd wait in my room until it was time to sit down for supper, which was as soon as he got home, and it had to be meat and potatoes or casseroles.
One night when I was between eight and ten years old, my brother and I had gone to bed. We had watched something on TV about shooting, and when we got upstairs, I said to him, 'Be quiet or I'll take a gun and shoot you.' I was playing around with him. My father heard what I said and told me to repeat it. I was petrified and told him 'nothing' He came upstairs and asked again, and I gave him the same reply. He took off his belt and asked again. I then told him what I had said. He told me to pull up my nightgown and lay over his lap. I wouldn't, so he got angrier and pulled it up and started hitting me. He didn't stop at a couple of hits; he continued until he had left welts all over my body. I cried and cried -- I didn't understand. My mother came home later from being out, and my father told her what he did to me. She came upstairs and told me my father had been crying downstairs and asked her to check on me. She told me I never should have said that, and I needed to apologize to my father.
Another time when I was really young, camping with my family, I was playing darts with one of my friends. I threw one and it hit her in the ankle. I felt bad and she started to cry. My father heard the crying, came out, saw what had happened and took his belt off and started beating me with it in front of everyone. My friend's mother came and got me and took me into their tent for the night.
My father used to degrade me in front of my friends, yanking me by my hair, taking off his belt, saying things about my wetting the bed (which I did until I was thirteen years old).
My whole entire life I have been terrified of him. I was never good enough. Many nights I cried myself to sleep, pounding my head into the wall, pulling my hair out, screaming, 'I hate you,' into the pillow. It seemed all he had time to say to me growing up was, 'wipe that smirk/smile off your face or I'll wipe it off for you,' 'Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about' etc. If my father had a kind word for me, I honestly do not remember it. My birthdays and the holidays were always ruined by his ugly moods. I never remember him saying that he loved me or holding me.
When I would wet the bed, I was so scared, I'd get up and hide the sheets in the washer and remake it and go back to sleep.
As I got older, I started smoking cigarettes, then pot/hash and taking speed and drinking. I hid it all really well, only doing it when my family went out somewhere or when I was working on a farm doing summer work. I hated myself and my life and I didn't care if I lived or died.
My mother and my father destroyed every ounce of my self-esteem. Between hitting me with a belt, slapping my face, pulling my hair, throwing me into walls, hitting me with yardsticks, belts, or whatever else was handy; humiliating me in front of people and telling others I was no good; I become a rock on the outside. I still craved attention I was never able to get, but I .also believed I was not good enough for anyone or anything.
When I was seventeen, I was raped by a man. I had no-one to turn to. Through the help of a teacher/friend, I was able to talk about it, but it was still a secret that I had to hold inside and it hurt . . .
After graduation, I wanted to move out. My father threw me on his bed and shook me and told me I wasn't moving. Thank God for college (which my mother didn't think I was smart enough for); it got me away from them finally.
I quit college, began drinking and sleeping with many men. I was scared that if I didn't, they would rape me. I also felt I wasn't good enough for anything else and it was the only kind of affection I deserved.
I moved around a lot, ended up getting pregnant by a man who was married (which I didn't know at the time) and had an abortion. I was nineteen years old at this time and still didn't care about living. I drank, did drugs, especially speed which helped me to drop seventy pounds at one point in my life. I ended up moving around many times - continuing to sleep with men because I felt like I was nothing inside and out. I felt more and more suicidal. I became involved in relationships that were physically and emotionally abusive, one relationship lasted six years. During those six years I drank like there was no tomorrow, smoked pot and discovered cocaine. Cocaine was my drug of choice, mixed with alcohol. After using it for about six months or so, I dropped the drugs due to my finances and stayed with alcohol because that's all I could still afford.
I wanted to die all of the time and tried to drink away problems, fears and avoid reality, I eventually hit rock bottom. I was blacking out when drinking, getting beat up, getting in fights and getting more and more dependent on drinking to get through each day.
Two years later I put a loaded rifle in my mouth and cried and cried. I had blacked out the night before and the police had come to the trailer I was living in. I don't remember how, but I had totally demolished the whole inside of the trailer. The policeman told me to get counseling. A co-worker had suggested the same thing the day before, and so I did."
Tonya's one of my favorite people. She's loving, funny, creative, generous, intelligent and so very much more. When I first met her, she could barely maintain eye contact and remained perched on the edge of the couch. It was as if she needed to be ready to make a quick escape should the need arise. I suspect that she's spent much of her life searching out the emergency exits. Building trust with her was not easy. She was willing, but needed to find a way.
continue story below
Her story was one filled with anguish and hurt. As she recounted one abusive experience after another, my eyes filled with tears, while she refused to cry. So often, I have been struck by the lack of compassion that survivors of childhood trauma demonstrate towards the little children they once were. Instead, it's disgust, shame, or simply indifference that is commonly expressed when the survivor is asked to empathize with the feelings of the little ghost inside of the grown-up. Tonya was no exception. She didn't want to acknowledge the pain of her little girl self. It was too frightening. While I don't believe that it's always necessary for one to confront repressed pain, it's often critical to do so. Assisting an adult to connect with and nurture the vulnerable parts of themselves is generally a major challenge. However, when the process begins to evolve, the rewards are significant. One young woman wrote me the following after a particularly difficult session:
"She is real isn't she? The child that I was, complete with memories and so many feelings. I never really understood all this inner child stuff, but after Monday night's session and the struggles I have had since, I am beginning to believe in that child.
You said Monday night that you've waited for a long time to talk to that little girl. I am afraid because I've never experienced this kind of pain . . . ¦never felt safe enough to acknowledge her myself, much less let anyone else talk to her. I know though in my gut, that she's getting ready to share her pain with you.
It amazes me to feel so young and vulnerable, to suddenly be aware of her likes and dislikes, to catch a glimpse of what I was like then. "She" likes to be snuggled and held. Monday night I came in trying to shut down, be this rational, tough adult, but when you held me, her presence was very real. "We" felt safe and loved and I recognized how important that was both for little girls and for grown-ups."
Yes, feeling safe is extremely important for all of us. If we can't feel safe, then much of our energy is directed towards survival, with very little available remaining for growth. Yet, often it's the child who is terrified, even at times when the adult may believe there is nothing to fear. You can't reason away the fear of a child as you might an adult. Thus, when it's the child inside of the grown-up who is fearful, it becomes the child who must be reached and made to feel secure.
No. The story doesn't end once the child grows up. There is no fresh chapter with the old chapters mercifully discarded. For Tonya and Sharon, as well as for so many victims of childhood trauma, the pain lingers on.
Each of us who has endured prolonged suffering in childhood leaves behind our own unique trail of tears. Some of us still have nightmares. Others no longer remember; we simply experience a sense of emptiness and a vague and disturbing suspicion that something was, and perhaps still is, terribly wrong. And while our symptoms and behaviors may vary, we are all aware that at some level we have been deeply wounded. For most of us, there's a secret shame imbedded in this knowledge. In spite of the fact that we might intellectually understand that we were vulnerable children when the deepest wounds were inflicted, there is still a part of us that perceives ourselves as failing. Ultimately, it often becomes ourselves whom we cannot trust.
The child who blamed him or herself for the abuse becomes the self-condemning adult. The losses and betrayals he or she endured become promises that more hurt will be forthcoming. The child who was powerless grows into a frightened and vulnerable adult. The little girl whose body was abused remains disconnected from her grown-up body. The shame of the small boy lives on in the man who lets no one close enough to potentially harm (or heal) him. Another compensates for his or her shame by devoting a lifetime to achievement, but the struggle never ends. There is no accomplishment great enough to annihilate the shame and self-doubt. The child who acts out pain in destructive ways might continue the pattern into adulthood until he or she eventually self-destructs. And the various cycles go on and on and sometimes are broken.
THE TRAUMAS OF ADULTHOOD
"A wounded deer leaps highest" Emily Dickinson
By the time we reach middle age we recognize all too well that we'll never grow big enough, strong enough, or old enough to be protected from trauma. A crisis can occur at any time. It may build gradually or strike swiftly and unexpectedly.
Thirty-nine-year-old James shares his experience with acute trauma, following the death of his twin brother:
"When I first was told that my brother had died, I was numb. I didn't really believe it. My wife was telling me what happened, and I could hear her voice, but I wasn't really hearing her words. I caught a phrase here and there but it was mostly gibberish to me. I just kept thinking, "No! No! No!"
I couldn't sleep that night. I just kept seeing John's face. My heart started pounding, I was sweaty and shaking. I got up to watch TV but I couldn't concentrate. For two days I couldn't eat, sleep, or cry.
I helped my sister-in-law with the funeral arrangements and with the kids. I fixed things around his house and started working a lot of overtime. I wasn't really there though. I was like a remote control racecar. I was speeding around with no one behind the wheel. I was getting smashed almost every night.
I was having chest pains and thinking, "Great, I'm gonna die of a heart attack too, just like Johnny." One weekend, it was rainy, I was sick and couldn't work, and so I just stayed in bed and cried. God, I missed my brother so much! It kind of went down hill from there. I got really depressed. I started getting warnings at work, I was screaming at my wife and kids for nothing, I wanted to smash things.
I ended up in the emergency room one afternoon. I thought for sure it was all over for me, that my heart was giving out too. My wife held my hand and kept telling me over and over that she loved me and that she was there for me. I looked at her and realized that I had put her through hell. It was like she had been a widow too since John's death. The doctor told me that my heart was fine and that my body was reacting to stress. He warned me that if I didn't make some changes though, I probably would be joining my brother at some point. I decided, 'That's it. John and I did everything together but dying is where I draw the line.' Little by little, I started making changes in my life. I have never stopped missing John, it still hurts, but I started noticing what he left behind, and what I would leave behind if I kept the smoking and drinking up. I saw how beautiful my wife and kids are, I started seeing a lot of things, and I appreciate my life in a way I never did before. I haven't drank a drop of alcohol in three years. I gave up smoking. I exercise. I play more with my kids, and now I flirt with my wife."
continue story below
For James, it took the loss of his brother's life to prompt him to truly recognize the wonder of his own. For others, it may be an illness, a financial crisis, a divorce or some other event that forces us to re-evaluate our present life style-- the choices we've have made, and our current needs. A Birthquake is an ordinary process yielding extraordinary results. It occurs in the life of an ordinary individual like yourself who is one day confronted with the fact that your life isn't working. Not only does it offer far less then you had hoped for, it hurts!
I wept when I first read about Jason, and the pain intensified after making contact with his extraordinary mother, Judy Fuller Harper. I would like to share with you now an excerpt from our correspondence.
Tammie: Will you tell me about Jason? What was he like?
Judy: Jason was almost 10 pounds at birth, a big happy baby. When he was three months old, we discovered he had serious asthma. His health was frail for years, but Jason was a typical little boy, bright, kind and very inquisitive. He had big, blue, piercing eyes, he always drew people to him. He could look at you as if he understood everything and accepted everyone. He had a wonderful contagious laugh. He loved people and had a warm accepting way about him. Jason was a joyful child even when he was sick, he often continued to play and laugh. He learned to read at age three and was fascinated by Science fiction. He loved robots and those transformer toys, and he had hundreds of them. He was almost 5' 9" when he died, and he was going to be a big man. He had just surpassed his older brother who is only 5' 7" at 18, and he got a real kick out of that. He always hugged me hard as though he might not get to again; that part still rips my heart out when I realize that he had hugged me so hard the last time I saw him.
Tammie:Can you share with me what happened the day Jason died?
Judy: February 12, 1987, a Thursday. Jason died around 7:00 p.m. that day. Jason was at his father's house (we were divorced). His Dad and his stepmother had gone to have her hair done. Jason was left alone at home until they returned around 7:30 p.m. My ex-husband found him. All of the details of the actual incident are what I've been told or what the coroner's investigation indicated happened.
Jason was found sitting in a recliner just inside the door of the house, in the living room. He had a gunshot wound to his right temple. The weapon was found in his lap, butt up. No fingerprints were distinguishable on the weapon. Jason did have powder burns on one of his hands. The police found that several of the weapons in the house had been fired recently and/or handled by Jason. At the coroner's inquest Jason's death was ruled an "accident", self-inflicted. The conjecture was that he was playing with the gun and the cat jumped in his lap and it must have caused the weapon to be discharged. The weapon in question was a 38-special, with chrome plating and scrolling. All the guns in the house (there were many types, handguns, rifles, a shotgun, etc.) were loaded. I have asked my ex-husband and his wife several times if I could have the gun to destroy it, but they could not do that. My ex-husband gave no explanation, he just said, "they could not do that."
How I found out--I got a call from my son Eddie around 10:30 p.m. that night. My ex-husband had called him at work around 8:00 p.m. telling him that his brother was dead, and Eddie went immediately to his Dad's home. It took hours for the police and the GBI to investigate. When Eddie called, he sounded funny and asked to speak to my boyfriend first, which seemed odd. He apparently told him that Jason had died. Then I was handed the phone. All he said was, "Mom, Jason is dead." That's all I remember. I think I screamed out of control for some time. They told me later that I went into shock. I must have because the next several days are a blank or a blur, almost dream like. I remember the funeral, February 15th, but not much more. I even had to ask where he was buried, because I was so out of it. My doctor put me on a sedative, which I remained on for almost a year.
It took six weeks for the coroner to tell me my son did not commit suicide. I never imagined that he had, but the circumstances of his death were so confusing: the gun upside down in his lap, the lights were off in the house, the television was on, and they found no evidence that he was upset or depressed about anything, no note. So my son died because a gun owner didn't realize that a 13-year-old boy (left alone) would play with guns even though he was told not to.
continue story below
Tammie: What happened to your world when Jason physically was no longer a part of it?
Judy: My world shattered into ten million pieces. When I reached the point where I realized Jason was dead it was like someone blasted me into fragments. It still does sometimes. You never get over a child's death, especially a senseless and preventable death, you learn to cope. In some ways I was a zombie for two years, functioning, going to work, eating, but no one was home. Every time I would see a child that reminded me of Jason I would fall apart. Why my child, why not some one else's? I felt anger, frustration, and chaos had taken over my life. I called my other child twice a day for over a year, I had to know where he was, when he would be back. If I could not reach him, I would panic. I got some psychiatric help and joined a group called Compassionate Friends, it helped to be with people who really understood what it was like. To see that they went on with their lives, even though I could not see how, at the time, that I would ever be able to do this. I still go out behind my house here in Athens and scream sometimes, just to relieve the ache in my heart, especially on his birthday. Holidays and special events have never been the same. You see Jason never got his first kiss, he never had a date or a girlfriend. It's all the little things that he never got to do that haunt me.
Tammie: Will you share your message with me, as well as the process that led up to your delivering your message?
Judy: My Message: Gun ownership is a responsibility! If you own a gun, secure it. Use a trigger lock, a pad lock, or a gun box. Never leave a weapon accessible to children, the next person to die because of your unsecured gun could be your own child!
My message came out of frustration. First I joined Handgun Control, Inc. as Sarah Brady offered me a way to help. Then there was the shooting at Perimeter Park in Atlanta. I was called on to speak before the legislature along with the survivors. In October of 1991, I began my crusade to educate the public, I did a Public Service Announcement via Handgun Control for North Carolina, this is when I began to accept Jason's death, but only after I found something that made me feel I could "do" something about it. One question that rings in my mind that I have been asked over and over, "what would I do to prevent such a thing?" "Anything, I'd give my life it that would help get gun owners to acknowledge the problem, not to mention accept their responsibility," is my response. I made speeches, written newsletters, and joined Georgian's Against Gun Violence. I still make speeches to civic groups, schools, etc. and I still put my two cents in when I hear the NRA raging about their rights, and shout that, "Guns don't kill people...People kill people!" If that is a truth, then gun owners are responsible even in the eyes of the NRA!
In 1995 I found Tom Golden on the Internet and he published a page honoring my darling Jason. This has helped me to cope and offers me contact with world to warn/educate people about guns and the responsibility.
Tammie: How has Jason's death impacted how you think about and experience your life?
Judy: I've become much more vocal. Less of a victim and more of an advocate of victims. You see, Jason has no voice, I have to be that for him. I NEED to tell people his story to give me a sense that his life has had some impact on this world. It seemed so strange for the world to continue just as it had before he died, as it still does. I almost want to say, "his life was more important than his death, but that is not the case." Jason's 13 years, 7 months 15 days of life did little to impact the world outside of his family. His death impacted his brother, his father, his aunts, uncles, friends at school, their parents, and me. Since his death, as part of my therapy, I began to sculpt. I dedicate all my finished work to his memory and attach a little card explaining and asking people to be aware and take responsibility for their gun ownership. I sign my art work with "JGF" Jason's initials, and mine before I remarried in 1992. I create dragons and such things, Jason adored dragons. It's not much, but as I see it, the art will exist on long after I'm gone and a part of him will remain to remind people. Each life I touch gives meaning to his life, at least to me it does.
They say what does not destroy you makes you stronger, this was a horrible way to learn that truth."
I was so profoundly touched by Jason's death, Judy's pain, and the enormous strength of this amazing woman, that I was in a daze after our contact. I couldn't think. I could only feel. I felt the agony of what it must be like for a mother to lose her child to such a senseless death, and eventually I felt the awe of coming into contact with a spirit that could be shattered, but not destroyed.
"Someplace along the path we stopped being born, and now we are busy dying." Michael Albert
And what of the traumas which befall each and every one of us in the United States? In our information age we're bombarded with news of crimes, political corruption and dishonesty, starving children, the homeless, violence in our schools, racism, global warming, the whole in the ozone, the contamination of our food, water, and air, and so much more . . . Most of us are already so overwhelmed by the details of our own lives that we tune out as much as possible, shifting responsibility and often blame to government and the "experts," while we rapidly lose faith in their ability to effectively intervene. We don't escape, we simply deny, and as a result of our denial we pay a significant psychic price. The emotional costs of repression and denial are high - resulting in low levels of depression, exhaustion, feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness, compulsions, addictions, and a myriad of other symptoms which plague those of us who are haunted.
Regardless of how it begins, once the process that might eventually lead to a Birthquake commences, much energy is initially directed toward survival. When life becomes frightening and confusing, when the old rules disappear or dramatically change, there is no time at first for philosophy or introspection. Instead, one is required to simply endure - to hold on no matter how unsteady, to be there - whether screaming in rage and agony or suffering in silence. There is nowhere else to run in the beginning. To fight or to flee -- those choices aren't always available. Sometimes there's no where to run.
The discomfort may be slight at first, tapping so quietly that for the most part it's ignored. It may even fade away eventually, unable to compete with the numerous distractions that make up everyday life.
continue story below
When it returns, it does so with greater force. It's not as easy to disregard this time. Soon all that you possess is not enough to send it back from whence it came. And while you may have scrupulously charted your course and carefully laid your plans, you find that somehow you've been led to a dark and empty country. You're confused; you're anxious; and finally you become disillusioned and depressed.
You may struggle to fight your way out of this unwelcome and painful place. You work frantically to find a solution. You try this and that, and you run and you plan; you shift direction; look for a guide; change guides; follow someone who looks like they know where their going; and ultimately find yourself back at the same place. You might panic then and go around and around in circles, or perhaps you surrender in despair. Either way-- for the time being -- you're not going anywhere. You might even spend the rest of your life feeling trapped. Or on the other hand, once you have regained your equilibrium, you may eventually make your way out of the darkness. In order to do so, however, you'll need to follow an unfamiliar path.
Some time ago, I watched a PBS special with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. Campbell, a brilliant and insightful man, spent years studying the mythologies of different cultures of the world. He shared with Moyers that he'd discovered that in each culture he examined, there existed the story of the Hero. The Hero in every tale leaves home on a quest that almost always involves some degree of suffering, and then returns home significantly altered by his journey. Moyers questioned Campbell as to why he believed the story of the Hero emerges again and again all over the globe. Cambell responded that it's because the theme is as universal as the myth.
Mark McGwire, first baseman for the Cardinals, recently beat the world record for the most home runs in the history of baseball. Rick Stengel, Senior Editor at Time Magazine, examines in an article for MSNBC why McGwire's "getting more press coverage than the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Stengel points out that McGwire represents the archetypal hero that exists within our collective unconscious, and follows Campbell's pattern of departure, initiation, and return. First, McGwire suffers through a devastating divorce and confronts a batting slump that threatens to ruin his career. Next, McGwire enters psychotherapy to face his inner demons. Finally, McGwire works through the pain of his divorce, establishes an even greater level of intimacy with his son, and becomes the greatest single season home-run hitter in history. His story of loss and redemption resonates within the wounded soul of an America whose national leader bears a public shame. We have desperately needed and found a new hero.
Every day in every place imaginable there are countless individuals striking out into unfamiliar regions. The territory may be a geographic location, a spiritual quest, a dramatic lifestyle change, or perhaps an emotional or physical illness. Whatever the terrain, the traveler must leave behind the safety of the familiar and will be confronted with difficult experiences he or she is often unprepared for, and encounters that will ultimately strengthen or diminish and perhaps destroy. All that's certain is that when the journey is completed (if it's completed), the individual will be undoubtedly transformed.
The everyday heroes are usually significantly different than those who exist in the Epics. They aren't always courageous, big and strong. Some are tiny and fragile. They may even wish or try to turn back (and some of them do). I've witnessed the heroic journey of many during my time as a therapist. I have seen the pain, the fear, the uncertainty, and I've also been touched by their triumph again and again. Now it is my turn to embark upon a journey, and I'm grateful as I set out, that I have been blessed with the finest of teachers.
"When your in the middle of an earthquake you begin to question, what is it that I really need? What is my real rock?" Jacob Needleman
In a small coastal village in eastern Maine, there lives a woman who is as at peace with her life as anyone I have ever met. She is slender and delicately boned with innocent eyes and long gray hair. Her home is a small, weathered, gray cottage with big windows that look out over the Atlantic Ocean. I see her now in my mind's eye, standing in her sunlit kitchen. She has just taken molasses muffins out of the oven, and the water is warming on the old stove for tea. Music is playing softly in the background. There are wild flowers on her table and potted herbs on the sideboard beside the tomatoes she's picked from her garden. From the kitchen, I can see the book- lined walls of her sitting room and her old dog snoozing on the faded Oriental rug. There are sculptures scattered here and there of whales and dolphins; of the wolf and coyote; of the eagle and the crow. Hanging plants grace the corners of the room, and a huge yucca tree stretches up towards the skylight. It is a home that contains one human being and a multitude of other living things. It's a place that once entered, becomes difficult to leave.
She came to coastal Maine in her early forties, when her hair was deep brown and her shoulders stooped. She's remained here walking straight and tall for the past 22 years. She felt defeated when she first arrived. She'd lost her only child to a fatal automobile accident, her breasts to cancer, and her husband four years later to another woman. She confided that she had come here to die and had learned, instead, how to live.
When she first arrived, she hadn't slept a whole night through since the death of her daughter. She'd pace the floors, watch television, and read until two or three in the morning when her sleeping pills finally took effect. Then she would rest at last until lunchtime. Her life felt meaningless, each day and night just another test of her endurance. "I felt like a worthless lump of cells and blood and bone, just wasting space," she remembers. Her only promise of deliverance was the stash of pills that she kept tucked away in her top drawer. She planned to swallow them at summer's end. With all of the violence of her life, she would at least die in a gentle season.
continue story below
"I would walk on the beach every day. I'd stand in the frigid ocean water and concentrate on the pain in my feet; eventually, they'd go numb and wouldn't hurt anymore. I wondered why there was nothing in the world that would numb my heart. I put on a lot of miles that summer, and I saw how beautiful the world still was. That just made me more bitter at first. How dare it be so beautiful, when life could be so ugly. I thought it was a cruel joke -- that it could be so beautiful and yet so terrible here at the same time. I hated a great deal then. Just about everybody and everything was abhorrent to me.
I remember sitting on the rocks one day and along came a mother with a small child. The little girl was so precious; she reminded me of my daughter. She was dancing around and around and talking a mile a minute. Her mother seemed to be distracted and wasn't really paying attention. There it was - the bitterness again. I resented this woman who had this beautiful child and had the indecency to ignore her. (I was very quick to judge back then.) Anyway, I watched the little girl playing and I began to cry and cry. My eyes were running, and my nose was running, and there I sat. I was a little surprised. I had thought I'd used up all of my tears years ago. I hadn't wept in years. Thought I was all dried up and out. Here they were though, and they began to feel good. I just let them come and they came and came.
I started meeting people. I didn't really want to because I still hated everybody. These villagers are an interesting lot though, awfully hard to hate. They're plain and simple- talking people and they just sort of reel you in without even seeming to pull at your line. I started to receive invitations to this and that, and finally I accepted one to attend a potluck supper. I found myself laughing for the first time in years at a man who seemed to love to make fun of himself. Maybe it was the mean streak I still had, laughing at him, but I don't think so. I think I was charmed by his attitude. He made so many of his trials seem humorous.
I went to church the following Sunday. I sat there and waited to get angry as I heard this fat man with soft hands talking about God. What did he know of heaven or of hell? And yet, I didn't get mad. I started to feel kind of peaceful as I listened to him. He spoke of Ruth. Now I knew very little about the Bible, and this was the first time I had heard about Ruth. Ruth had suffered greatly. She had lost her husband and left behind her homeland. She was poor and worked very hard gathering fallen grain in the fields of Bethlehem to feed herself and her mother-in-law. She was a young woman with a very strong faith for which she was rewarded. I had no faith and no rewards. I longed to believe in the goodness and existence of God, but how could I? What kind of a God would allow such terrible things to happen? It seemed simpler to accept that there was no God. Still, I kept going to church. Not because I believed, I just liked to listen to the stories that were told in such a gentle voice by the minister. I liked the singing, too. Most of all, I appreciated the peacefulness I felt there. I began to read the Bible and other spiritual works. I found so many of them to be filled with wisdom. I didn't like the Old Testament; I still don't. Too much violence and punishment for my taste, but I loved the Psalms and the Songs of Solomon. I found great comfort in the teachings of the Buddha, too. I began to meditate and to chant. Summer had led to fall, and I was still here, my pills safely hidden away. I still planned to use them, but I wasn't in such a hurry.
I had lived most of my life in the southwest where the changing of seasons is a very subtle thing compared to the transformations that take place in the northeast. I told myself that I would live to watch the seasons unfold before departing from this earth. Knowing I would die soon enough (and when I chose) brought me some comfort. It also inspired me to look very closely at things I had been oblivious to for so long. I watched the heavy snowfalls for the first time, believing that this would also be my last, as I would not be here to see them the next winter. I had always had such beautiful and elegant clothes (I had been raised in an upper middle-class family where appearances were of the utmost importance). I cast them off in exchange for the comfort and warmth of wool, flannel and cotton. I began to move about in the snow more easily now and found my blood invigorated by the cold. My body grew stronger as I shoveled snow. I began sleeping deeply and well at night and was able to throw my sleeping pills away (not my deadly stash though).
I met a very bossy woman who insisted that I help her with her various humanitarian projects. She taught me to knit for the poor children as we sat in her delicious smelling kitchen surrounded often by her own 'grandbabies'. She scolded me into accompanying her to the nursing home where she read and ran errands for the elderly. She arrived one day at my home armed with a mountain of wrapping paper and demanded that I help her wrap gifts for the needy. I usually felt angry and invaded by her. Whenever I could, I pretended at first not to be at home when she came calling. One day I lost my temper and called her a busybody and stormed out of the house. A few days later she was back in my door- yard. When I opened my door, she plopped down at the table, told me to make her a cup of coffee, and behaved as if nothing had happened. We never did speak of my temper tantrum in all of our years together.
We became the best of friends, and it was during that first year that she rooted herself into my heart, that I began to come alive. I absorbed the blessings that came from serving others, just as my skin had gratefully absorbed the healing bag of balm I had been given by my friend. I began to rise early in the morning. All of the sudden, I had much to do in this life. I watched the sunrise, feeling privileged and imagining myself to the one of the first to see it appear as a resident now in this northern land of the rising sun.
continue story below
I found God here. I don't know what his or her name is, and I don't really care. I only know that there is a magnificent presence in our universe and in the next one and the next after that. My life has a purpose now. It is to serve and to experience pleasure - it is to grow, and to learn and to rest and to work and to play. Each day is a gift to me, and I enjoy them all (some certainly less than others) in the company of people whom I have come to love at times, and at other times in solitude. I recall a verse I read somewhere. It says, 'Two men look out through the same bars: one sees mud, and one the stars.' I choose to gaze at the stars now, and I see them everywhere, not only in the darkness but in the daylight too. I threw out the pills that I was going to use to do myself in long ago. They had turned all powdery anyway. I will live as long and as well as I am permitted to, and I will be thankful for every moment I am on this earth."
I carry this woman in my heart wherever I go now. She offers me great comfort and hope. I would dearly love to possess the wisdom, strength, and peace that she's acquired during her lifetime. We walked on the beach three summers ago. I felt such wonder and contentment at her side. When it was time for me to return home, I glanced down and noticed how our footprints had converged in the sand. I hold that image within me still; of our two separate sets of footprints united for all time in my memory.
I got out of bed late last night, troubled by my inability for weeks to put anything on paper that was meaningful. Oh, I wrote, some days page after page, and then I would read what I'd written. Disheartened, I would throw it all away. It kept looking like pages from a "How to" book, and not a very good one at that. I have never found healing in a book, no matter what its cover may have promised. If this was to be my unconscious attempt to offer what I believed in my heart to be the impossible (healing via the written word), then I would surely fail. For a time I stopped writing. I attempted to ignore the sense of loss I felt as I abandoned my dream and turned my attention to other tasks that required my energy. But some dreams are noisier than others. I suspect you might understand me when I share with you that this dream of mine screamed. Have you ever experienced some part of yourself that demands that you allow it expression? I've known and loved many people in my life who've locked up certain aspects of themselves, and yet while deeply buried, some small voice is still shrieking. No matter how bright, how beautiful, how desperate the dream, there it stayed -- safe and sound, but never truly silenced.
I hear voices. Not evil, threatening phantoms but haunting nevertheless. They are snatches of stories; other peoples stories. They've been revealed to me in confidence within the confines of my office, and the pain contained within them adds strength and volume to the clamoring voice inside of me.
"A man's dream is his personal myth, an imagined drama in which he is the central character, a would-be hero engaged in a noble quest" Daniel J. Levinson
Many of the stories shared with me by those in the early stages of mid-life involve lost or broken dreams. The hopeful and often grandiose visions of what we will do and be (that excited and sustained us in our youth) frequently come back to haunt us in middle age. What might have (should have?) been, and what we come to recognize will never be, can stir up significant feelings of loss, regret, disappointment and sorrow. While allowing ourselves to explore and experience these feelings is important; of greater or equal value is a close examination of the old dreams and the new you. Why didn't you pursue plan A? Is it possible in retrospect that the cost might have been too high? Or how about pursuing plan A now? After all, you may very well be better equipped to handle the challenge today than you were then. If you're regretting what you've missed, how about also contemplating the gifts that came your way while you were pursuing plan B. And maybe at this point in your life it's time to consider a new plan.
THE SHADOW KNOWS
"Only when the lion and the lamb have come together in some area does one begin to glimpse the kingdom within." Janice Brewi and Anne Brennan
The process of individuation (of becoming oneself) which begins the day we're born takes on a greater depth and intensity at midlife. It's from this place of accumulated wisdom, illumination, and experience that we're most likely to come face to face with our shadow. Our shadows' consist of those parts of ourselves that we've repressed, rejected, lost, or abandoned. The person I might have/could have been, and the one I chose not (dared not) to be. Jung called the shadow the "negative side" of the individual, I choose to think of it as the "disowned self." It's the dark side, the silent witness who steps forward from time to time into the light to have its say. Its appearance, while unsettling, brings with it a creative force that offers tremendous opportunities for personal development. If we move toward our shadow, rather then turn away, we can discover tremendous strengths from within our depths. Reclaiming lost and buried parts of ourselves will most likely require some excavation, however the buried treasures available to those willing to dig deep are well worth the dark journey into the unknown.
According to Janice Brewi and Anne Brennan, authors of, "Celebrate Midlife: Jungian Archetypes and Mid-Life Spirituality,"there are two possible catastrophes at midlife. One is to deny the presence of the shadow and hold on firmly to one's life style and identity, refusing to surrender old, or acknowledge new aspects of one's personality. This fear to risk, and determination to maintain the status quo -- freezes one's personal development, and deprives the individual of valuable opportunities for growth. "One can die at forty and not get buried until ninety. This would surely be a catastrophe."
continue story below
The other catastrophe according to Brewi and Brennan, would be to acknowledge one's shadow, and declare everything about one's current self and life style as a lie. Individuals who respond to their shadow by throwing out all of the now rejected old, in order to be completely free to experiment with the more titillating new, often sabotage their development and risk catastrophic losses.
"You always become the thing you fight the most." Carl Jung
James Dolan suggests that one of the most obvious ways that we can detect the presence of the shadow is in the sense of depression that so many of us feel. This depression, from his perspective, is connected to our sorrow, our rage, our lost dreams, our creativity, and so many other facets of ourselves that we've denied.
Finding oneself is not purely about embracing the desired, or rejecting the unpleasant. Instead, it's about examination and integration -- exploring what fits, letting go of what doesn't, embracing the gifts that we've lost or abandoned, and weaving the various strands of the self together to create a whole and unified tapestry.
The years following young adulthood offer as many if not more prospects than our often-romanticized youth promised. Opening ourselves up to these possibilities by reclaiming or modifying old visions or by creating new dreams, fosters hope, excitement, discovery and renewal. Focusing on the "did have/might have/could have/should have been's" only leads to prolonged and unnecessary suffering.
It's impossible to arrive at midlife without being scarred. As Mark Gerzon points out in his book, "Listening to Midlife, "None of us reaches the second half whole...Our health depends on beginning to heal these wounds and finding greater wholeness - and holiness in the second half of our lives."
According to Djohariah Toor, a spiritual crisis can be described as "an intense interior shift that involves the whole person. Generally it's the result of some major imbalance that occurs when our personal and relational problems have gone unchecked for too long." From my perspective, it's clearly a crisis of spirit that brings the first rumblings of the quake. Regardless of what specifically initiates a Birthquake, the process will involve a significant degree of suffering. For those who are traumatized, the road to recovery can be a long and difficult journey. There are lessons we learn along the way however, if we chooses to embrace them. And significant gifts await the traveler brave enough to keep on moving forward. Many seek the wisdom of a guide when life becomes uncertain. For some lucky individuals, such a wise and supportive person is ready and willing to offer assistance. Others, however, can spend a lifetime waiting for the right teacher to arrive who will lead them directly to the answers. All too often, the rescuer never shows. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of "Women Who Run with the Wolves" points out that life itself is the finest of teachers saying:
"Life is the teacher that shows up when the student is ready... Life is often the only teacher we are given that is perfect in every way."
Estes reminds us that our own lives are a source of tremendous wisdom. Our memories, our experiences, our mistakes, our disappointments, our struggles, our pain - everything that makes up a life offers valuable lessons to those who choose to acknowledge them.
REWRITING OUR STORIES
" I came to the middle point of my life, and I realized I didn't know what myth I was living." Carl Jung
As Frank Baird points out, we're all born into a particular culture and point in history, and each of us makes sense of our lives by situating them in stories. We're introduced to our cultural story almost immediately. We're provided with information from our families, our teachers, and most of all - at least in the case of Americans - we're taught our culture's dominant story by the media. This all pervasive story, maintains Baird, comes to dictate what we pay attention to, what we value, how we perceive ourselves and others, and even shapes our experiences.
By the time American children graduate from high school, it's been estimated that they've been exposed to a minimum of 360,000 advertisements, and on average, by the time we die, we Americans will have spent an entire year of our lives watching television commercials.
George Gerbner cautions that the people who tell the stories are the ones who control how children grow up. Not so long ago considering the vast history of human kind, we received most of our cultural story from wise elders. Do we truly fathom the significance that today profit driven television has become our primary storyteller? When you consider what the message of this incredibly powerful story teller has been, it's not too difficult to appreciate how much soul our cultural story has lost, and how much of our individual spirit has been silenced by a story heard hundreds of times every day in America. What's the title of this story? It's "buy me."
Recently, I've begun to wonder how much of my own story has been lost to my culture's dominant story. I think about so many aspects of my life where my own wisdom has been sacrificed to the story that I was born into, one in which I've had no authorship rights to.
continue story below
And then there's the story I was introduced to as a psychotherapist. A story that stressed that the 'patient' is sick or broken and needs to be fixed, rather than that the person is in process and responding to the world in which he or she lives. It's also been a story that identified the therapist as the 'expert,' instead of a companion and ally - one with wounds of his or her own.
James Hillman in, "We've Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy," bravely (and outrageously according to many psychotherapists) declared that most psychotherapy models do something vicious to the people whom they are meant to serve. They internalize emotion. How? By so often turning the rage and pain brought on by the injustice, chaos, poverty, pollution, agony, aggression, and so much more which surrounds us, into personal demons and inadequacies. For instance, offers Hillman imagine that a client has arrived at his therapist's office shaken and outraged. While driving his compact car, he's just come very close to being run off the road by a speeding truck.
The outcome of this scenario, asserts Hillman, all too often leads to an exploration of how the truck reminds the client of being pushed around by his father, or that he's always felt vulnerable and fragile, or maybe is furious that he isn't as powerful as 'the other guy.' The therapist ends up converting the client's fear (in response to an external experience) into anxiety - an inner state. He or she also transmutes the present into the past (the experience is really about unresolved issues from childhood); and transforms the client's outrage about (the chaos, the craziness, the dangers, etc of the client's outer world) into rage and hostility. Thus, the client's pain regarding the external world has once again been turned inward. It's become pathology.
Hillman explains, "Emotions are mainly social. The word comes from the Latin ex movere, to move out. Emotions connect to the world. Therapy introverts the emotions, calls fear 'anxiety.' You take it back, and you work on it inside yourself. You don't work psychologically on what that outrage is telling you about potholes, about trucks, about Florida strawberries in Vermont in March, about burning up oil, about energy policies, nuclear waste, that homeless woman over there with the sores on her feet - the whole thing."
After closing my psychotherapy practice, and having an opportunity to step back and think about the process of psychotherapy in general, I've come to appreciate Hillman's wisdom. He maintains that a significant amount of what therapists have been trained to view as individual pathology, is often an indication of the sickness that exists within our culture. In doing this, says Hillman, "We continue to locate all symptoms universally within the patient rather than also within the soul of the world. Maybe the system has to be brought into line with the symptoms so that the system no longer functions as a repression of the soul, forcing the soul to rebel in order to be noticed."
Narrative therapists while they may not all agree with Hillman, may very well call Hillman's perspective an 'alternative' story. When we begin to explore and acknowledge our preferred or alternative stories, we're embracing a creative process in which we possess authorship rights to. The alternative story is based upon our own experiences and values, rather than those which we've been expected to accept without question. We're no longer simply 'readers' of our story, but writers too. We start to deconstruct the data we've been instructed to notice and buy into, and begin to create new and more personally relevant meanings.
According to Baird, when we accept the challenge to dismantle our dominant stories, we're then free to explore what story we'd prefer to live.
Writing this book has initiated this process for me. I'm slowly examining the various components of my life, and reviewing my stories - both those pre-written and those I've experienced. In doing so, I'm composing a new story, one that's uniquely my own, and yet intimately connected to the stories of all of my brothers and sisters.
Chapter One - The Quake
Chapter Two - The Haunted
Chapter Three - Myth and Meaning
Chapter Four - Embracing the Spirit
Chapter Eight - The Journey
Staff, H. (2008, December 17). The Haunted, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, November 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/alternative-mental-health/sageplace/the-haunted