Since I last posted, I have started four different blog posts–The Urgency of our Dreams, Slaying the Narcissist, On Turning 50, and On Love and War. In each of them, I have gotten hundreds of words into my thoughts. I was satisfied with the flow of my perspectives and narration. But, in each case, I found myself unable to land the plane, so to speak. Something inside me just hasn’t been able to get the piece across the finish line, until now.
I dropped down into my heart to find the truth of my block and I realized that the issue was about authenticity. I’ve always used my writing as a medium to reflect deeply on issues that would resonate with and encourage more thoughtfulness in others. Often to my detriment, I live in my head and the strength of my mind has been a gift and a crutch in life. It has protected me in trying moments–more on that later–and it has been an unintentional shield against true vulnerability. I realize that my writing is demanding more from me than the ability to compel with words.
My friend, Andrew, likened writing to a relationship, citing all of the dynamics that come with being in one. The analogy landed hard on me for a few reasons. One, it made perfect sense and eased some of my frustration around being so stalled. But it also suggested that writing demands intimacy, presence, and endurance; all of which I have struggled to secure in my own relationships. And writing has to be seen as a safe place to be one’s complete self.
I don’t write much about my romantic relationships. I penned a memoir about the journey that was my relationship with Emmanuel’s father, but that’s just sitting on my computer expiring in its relevance. Having just turned 50, I do feel some shame in still being single. Our society is unkind to women of a certain age who are unattached. There are always the looming questions of “What is wrong with her? Why can’t she keep a man?” As a Black woman, the historical tropes of us being hypersexual-merely good for a f**k, angry, or predestined for single parenthood hang over me like a shadow.
So, in the light of day, I don’t expose the truth of my sadness and the loneliness I feel climbing into bed each night flanked on my right by only a cat. I have spent years focused on healing many parts of myself and my life. Wounds that are not my fault, but my soul’s chosen journey nonetheless. Despite all of the work I have done, I still come up wanting and so I reserve my frustration for my most intimate confidants while sharing the joy and gratitude that I am genuinely reaching for every day with the rest of the world.
I decided to write about this now because some things I have experienced recently have reminded me of how the need for healing lingers on and on and perhaps by writing it down, by bringing into the light, I can transform it and release it because I’ve had enough of getting in my own way and maybe I can help someone else in the process.
So, what is wrong with me?
I asked myself this question in 2009. My whole body felt on edge as I was actively processing a 14-year codependent/narcissistic dance with Emmanuel’s father, who had just had kid with another woman. I felt a persistent pain in my lower back and I was in a constant state of fight or flight. I remember one afternoon laying in the back seat of my parked car crying uncontrollably and asking God or the Universe or whatever was out there, “What is wrong with me?”
What followed was an arduous journey of unraveling the memory of a childhood sexual trauma, followed by confronting years of codependent behaviors, and capped off with understanding how my mother’s own childhood wounding put her on the narcissism spectrum. All of this has been the perfect shitstorm for my relationship challenges. And just when I think I have turned a corner or healed all the stuff, little remnants appear that demand renewed attention.
Healing trauma is tricky business, especially one that is deeply embedded in the brain. Our brains are extraordinary instruments, shutting down in moments when we do not have the cognitive ability to process what is happening to us. This is the physiological protection that occurs in children to help us survive. But, then the brain is forever changed and engages in this dissociative habit well beyond the traumatic event. I learned that only PTSD therapies can begin to unlock the brain and rewire it to release the internalized memory of shame and blame that is born out of trauma. So I immersed myself in EMDR*–eye movement desensitization and reprocessing–to begin the journey back to myself.
Working through codependency is a discipline that never lets up. Throughout the process, I have learned that codependency and narcissism are pathologies that feed one another. The narcissist loves the codependent because of our obsessive people-pleasing and the codependent can’t resist the narcissist as we believe we have to always be “doing” to deserve love. A narcissist is keen on making their target do and do and do until they are satisfied without ever giving back the love in kind. Reaching back into my past, reconnecting with what I perceived were “lost loves”, I discovered those glimmers of narcissism that had been hidden from me. I even began to look at friendships differently, understanding the who and the why of what I had attracted into my life for so long.
And then there’s my mother. Many years ago, after observing me confide in my father about some girl-in-her-twenties stuff, my mother was hurt that I didn’t come to her, admitting her long-held jealousy of my father’s admiration of me growing up. It was a strange confession, but it gave me a clearer lens through which to look at her cruelty and criticism towards me as an adolescent. We’ve come a long way, but sometimes she still can’t fight the urge to diminish me, especially if she’s not getting the attention that she wants. So, I’ve learned to step back and observe her behavior or to simply walk away. Emmanuel, my son, has been my best teacher in this regard as he doesn’t seem to internalize anyone else’s behaviors. The kid has emotional boundaries of steel and is still as loving as can be. Thank God for him.
I have been singularly obsessed with my healing for well over a decade now. The rage** that used to reside in me–the rage of a little girl who had been violated and unprotected–it has been transformed into love and acceptance and joy. I feel and experience so much love from people in my life. Friends, near and far, who just want to be around me in the most authentic and pure way. It is said that trauma changes who you are meant to become. Energetically and intuitively, I feel like I am reclaiming all that was lost.
But, I forgot to tell myself that I was safe.
I made a beautiful connection with someone. It was unexpected for me and a bit of a slow burn. Then something clicked between us and the energy became undeniable. I trusted him. He gave me no reason not to. He was never withholding in his appreciation of me and his gaze was always filled with so much intention. And I was often moved by the little flash of insecurity he would get over my benign interactions with other men–not jealousy, just an vulnerable curiosity.
We finally had a moment where we had the freedom to face this connection, unpack the energy that had been growing between us. But then, almost on autopilot, my dissociative trauma brain kicked in and I completely shut down. I found myself saying things, protective comments that killed the moment. Of course, I didn’t know this was what was happening at the time. It was only the next day that could I look back and see myself in that moment, trying to get him to see that the emotions were triggering a buried fear. I wish I had reminded myself that I was safe.
The sad irony about trauma-related dissociation is that what brings someone back from it is physical touch. Touch grounds us back to the present moment and diffuses the fight-flight-freeze response in the brain. Yet for those witnessing this reaction, it can feel like rejection or indifference and so their instinct is to pull away. Looking back as if watching a movie reel in my head, I recall seeing the veil of disappointment fall over this beautiful man’s face as I seemed to vanish. It was only when we hugged goodbye that I came back, and by then, it was too late. I had hurt someone who meant so much to me. Of course, the recovering codependent in me tried to fix it in the days and weeks to follow because that’s what we do, but I just made more of a mess.
Healing Trauma is Hard
I lost a high school friend of mine recently. She died suddenly from medical issues connected to her lifelong struggle with alcohol addiction. Her name was Tara, too and we were pretty inseparable in high school. She was Big Tara and I was little Tara. Tara was a rock star in our town–her athletics, her academics, her heart. She could have her picture in the local paper pulling off a brilliant lay up and not let it phase her at all. At the same time, I remember her drinking when we were teenagers and my desperate attempt to get her to deal with it, but to no avail. It broke my heart to find out that she struggled until the end. A beautiful life cut short and a loss that has sent shockwaves through my entire high school class.
One can’t help but wonder if Tara was running from her own trauma. It’s something we will never know for sure, but to live a life gripped by the disease of addiction certainly suggests it. We place judgment on those who suffer from addiction without considering what their dependence is masking or empathizing with how difficult it is to confront those haunting wounds in the first place. Facing our traumas-digging in the dirt- might mean realizing we’re in a relationship that doesn’t serve us. Or taking responsibility for pain we have inflicted on others. It could also mean accepting that we’ve spent half our lives in service to work that neither feeds or inspires us. It’s so much easier to drink or smoke our way out of the presence of those things than to sit fully in our pain, alone.
But, we’re here to help each other through it.
I remember when I unearthed the memory of my own trauma. It was not a linear process. It was fragmented and strange and I remember the panic that set in when the clarity came. I called my friend, Sarah, who happened to be a therapist and I met with her to explain what I was going through. My agitation and fear were tangible and she zeroed in on the most important thing about what I was sharing. She said, “You’re afraid that I don’t believe you. I believe you.” She saw me and knew exactly what I needed to survive that moment. It was a stunning gesture of pure grace.
Our society teaches us that our relationships are supposed to be transactional, especially the romantic ones. Men are socialized to earn money and power to provide, to protect, and to get their sexual needs met. The latter creating such complicated, demeaning, and sometimes dangerous sexual dynamics between men and women. Women are expected to twist ourselves into whatever form, persona, and demeanor it takes to get the ring, the house, and the kids, who are then expected to fulfill all of our unmet emotional needs under the guise of motherhood and when they fail to do so, we saddle them with our disappointment and judgment. We buy into these illusions that we belong to and possess one another without any regard for healing or becoming who we are really meant to be in the process.
Perhaps we’re supposed to see each other, not for the fulfillment of our longings or needs, but for the facilitation of our healing, consciously or not. And then when that healing has happened, we can be free together or sometimes apart. I know I never would have healed this trauma from my past had it not been for the painful experiences I had with Emmanuel’s father and also, the best thing for Emmanuel is that his father and I were never together. That was never the purpose of our “love.”
It was a much bigger vision of love than I could have imagined.
Despite all my mess, I am a believer that our souls choose our journeys. The lessons from my healing about love, forgiveness, and vulnerability are helping me to break the generational cycles that have existed in my own family. I have so much hope for Emmanuel. That he will be able to give and receive love and reach for his passions with humility, but without fear. Just talking with him openly about my own struggles, or the often screwed up societal expectations in life and love is a step.
In the meantime, I hope that someday, someone will really see me. See the light and joy in my eyes and the fight in my heart. He will see that I am whole, but always seeking to become more of myself. And in the moments when I get that faraway look in my eyes and I seem to disappear, he will take my hand and tell me that I’m safe. And he will stay.
*To learn more about EMDR, go to https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
**To learn more about rage, how it shows up, and how to heal it, I highly recommend Healing Rage by Ruth King. It’s a brilliant book about the disguises of rage and how we can use them and transform them.