In my first “how” post (read here), I shared the revelation that numbing is not, cannot, and will not ever equate to self-care. This bummed me out. Some of my favorite and most entrenched habits involve spending money, drinking wine, and eating beef. There’s nothing wrong of course with a lovely Cabernet and juicy patty except when you convince yourself they will equate to happiness, joy, peace, love, and healing.
My friend Sue, whose husband died 2 years ago, left a touching comment that I want to share.
In these last 2 years, after losing my husband to complications from cancer, I have worked just about every day (sometimes only by the minute or hour) to build a life I don't want to escape from. Of course, at first, it was hard to accept the reality of what my life was. It often felt like a bad dream that I kept waking "in to" instead of "out of". As the shock gradually wore off, I realized that numbing my psyche with TV and a pretty constant flow of friends at my side, while helping a great deal for the time being, was not sustainable for the long run. I had to "move forward".
I had to figure out what I could do to bring joy and balance into my life. It wasn't spending money on clothes & spa treatments. It was a combination of two things. First, I had to find solo activities that uplifted my spirit. Thank goodness for art & creativity! Second, I had to be kind to myself. I had to act like I was my own best friend. No more berating myself for not having my act together all the time. No more scolding myself for tuning into Netflix "too much". No more telling myself I wasn't "productive enough." Be gentle. Be understanding. Be patient. Be forgiving. Be encouraging – encourage yourself to carry on!
Sue's comment and my response raised an important point, one I glossed over by saying simply that numbing behaviors had once served me. That point requires some space of its own.
Back when my girl was sick and in residential treatment, there were days—many days—when the best I could do was to get out of bed. I awoke enraged at the sun. How dare it shine? I shuffled down the hall past my girl’s empty bedroom and planted my butt on the couch. I didn’t shower or get dressed. I didn’t contribute to my welfare in any meaningful way, succumbing instead to my despair and feelings of responsibility. You see, I had done everything in my power, everything I knew how to do and everything the professionals had told me to do, to help her get well, and nothing had worked. In fact, she got sicker.
From the vantage point of today, I see how tough I was on myself then. The magical thinking around my ability to cure her was extreme, and my failure ignited a flame under my simmering negative self-talk. Before long the simmer heated to a boil. There was no compassion. There was no understanding. There was no forgiveness. In their place were demands. Work harder. Be smarter. But I already had worked harder, tried to be smarter. Without the ability to make good on these demands, numbing the intensity of each day’s pain was what allowed me to make it through to the next one. This negative cycle repeated.
I finally understand a pattern that established itself long before my daughter's illness struck: I obsessed about fixing a problem, refused to accept my powerlessness to control the outcome related to said problem, which in turn fed my obsession, and coped by dousing the scalding water with stand-in ice cubes.
Here’s the problem with ice cubes: they melt.
The day I colored in a pie-shaped chart (read here) I knew I needed to make changes. Ice cubes weren’t the solution; and one small step at a time I made them. Like Sue, I kept my gaze forward. I changed the way I spoke to myself. I experienced the power of connection. I laid off excessive amounts of vino. My girl and I, we survived and in many ways we now thrive. We wouldn’t have made it here, where we are, without our there. And yet.
Repercussions from that time remain. Trauma lives in the body, and Sue’s comment was the catalyst I needed to understand a crucial element that’s been missing from my healing self-care journey. That element is acknowledgment. Those many moments, moments when I made less than stellar choices or no choices at all or even detrimental ones are alive still inside me. In the past, I ignored my behavior. Pretended it never happened. Explained or excused it away. I’ve denied my actions and tried to force myself to get over it. So today what I mean by acknowledge is honor. We can’t heal what we we’ve suppressed. To repeat any of these actions would be to repeat old mistakes. Those moments are what lead me here, and for that reason they are sacred.
The next step is to honor the past without wallowing in it. How is a work in progress, but I’m excited to figure it out.