On the deck, there are a small group of sparrows eating the birdseed that has scattered everywhere from the feeder above. It is a fairly peaceful day after a weeklong visit from relatives. The sun is shining. The ocean is blue. This moment is beautiful. And yet as I look back at the previous week, it was a time of tumultuous ups and downs – the little ship of me had rocked and bucked through a violent internal storm. The moments of peace that I feel as I walk under the trees reaching deep into the sky had evaporated. Now I am back to a place of calmness and centeredness – out of the storm and back on the solid ground.
A number of events had converged: my mother’s recent cancer diagnosis, a sense of both shame and despair triggered by my own chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms, as well as strong emotions triggered in my own relationship by my own sense of vulnerability and heightened need. It has been a summer very different from what I imagined.
It is as if a great fire came through and leveled some part of me. Perhaps it was a part that needed to be leveled. I alternated between moments of great clarity and calmness and other moments of an emotional intensity that shook me to the core.
The emotions themselves – feelings of abandonment, grief, disappointment, blazed through and cleared out all of the underbrush. The intensity I experienced gave me something to look at. What had gotten triggered? Why?
It is difficult to share about illness. It is difficult to share about struggle and the darker emotions – shame, grief, fear, and judgment. It is difficult to show our vulnerability and need. After all, aren’t we supposed to be joyous, happy, attractive, successful, and abundant? What happens when someone important in our lives gets sick, or is dying? What happens when we lose something valuable to us, or our health departs? What happens when we get rocked and need support or feel let down? What do we do?
Rather than hide, I have decided to show this part of myself: my grief, my confusion, my sense of loss – even my embarrassment and shame.
Which piece of the emotional eruption that pulled me under do I look at and examine first; the ground altering event of the inevitable death of my mother with all the soul searching these primary relationships bring up; the part of myself that has wondered if my illness is my own fault; my need for my partner to truly ‘get’ me and be there for me in a way that I need and my intensified sensitivity to my partner’s lapses in attunement due to my heightened vulnerability?
Life exists in complexities and layers. My mother’s recently discovered cancerous and inoperable melanoma tumor 1 mm from her brain brings up everything unfinished in this part of my psyche – and in this particular relationship. What is love? What do we do when connection is impaired? What do I do about the parts of her I could never reach, and the parts of me she could never see? The difficulty I have had with bridging our otherness?
I’ve moved out of frustration and to a place of empathy, for her life, for her pain, for her own way of being here on this planet. She said to me the other day, ‘I love picking blueberries, I don’t know how many more times I will get to do that’ referring to a state park lands nearby her home where the blueberry bushes grow wild and she goes every year to be under the sky and in the brush. We use to pick blueberries as kids, putting belts around our necks with old plastic ice cream or peanut butter containers strapped thru, so both of our hands were free to pick. Of course, we were there for far more hours than any kid would find enjoyable. Coming home, we would then have to sort out all the hard little green berries and the many little spiders that lived in the bushes and fell into the containers of blueberries. I could feel her longing to continue to enjoy this earthy pleasure of hers. I could feel her anticipation of loss. My heart goes out to her, even as I grapple with everything that can be difficult between us.
I received a piece of advice recently. Well intentioned, and yet the undertone was that I was responsible for what has happened to my health – for my physical illness. That it is my fault. The message I came away with, was that this other person was ‘above’ this kind of illness – they are healthier because of a greater capacity, or perhaps they are more evolved. I felt my own conflict of ‘why me’ get activated. But I know the ‘why me’ backstory. I know my own contribution to my situation. I also know I am doing my best. I do my best to release my emotions. I am doing my best to understand. I am doing my best to share my deepest self. I am doing my best to find the right help, to hold the right attitude, to be loving to myself (and others) rather than judging myself. I am doing my best to make loving myself more important than what is happening on the outside.
This piece of advice left me feeling so unseen, and alone. It was so clear this person does not really know who I am. It took me back to my history and roots, to that place where my emotional needs were not comprehended in a complete or honoring enough way. It took me back to how unseen I felt while my husband was traveling and having fun, and I felt myself alone struggling in a whirlwind of grief. It took me back to my sense of confusion about why this is what was occurring in my life.
My husband is learning more deeply who I am, what my limitations are. And I am learning more deeply about his limitations. As I go through this period of loss and grief, I am not the fun person he imagined. And he does not fully understand the occasional sharpness coming out of my need to be held more fully, my heightened sense of aloneness. He has his feelings of grief around loss, past and present. Yet, as we hash through this, we both grow and connect through the very misunderstandings that occur. We descend together into a deeper underworld of love, connection and complexity. This is the place where real love matures, in the land of intense need and the places where we struggle to meet each other.
I have used Emotional Freedom Technique recently. This is a form of emotional release that involves saying an emotionally laden phrase, while tapping various points of the body. When I say to myself, ‘despite my physical illness, I completely love and accept myself, I feel grief rise up in me. I feel my confusion that this is my reality. I feel my loss of the vitality I’ve had for years, and my love of the physical, of movement, dance, exercise and play. I feel the questions arise, ‘am I responsible for my own illness? Why did this happen?’
I know the answer to this question. As I look back on my life, I can see my ‘responsibility’ for what has occurred. It was in part due to the fear that emerged when I was getting divorced and how that drove me to push myself into exhaustion. Yet that fear was intrinsic to whom I had been. It was part of my path. I couldn’t just ‘think’ my way out of it. It was also due to guilt I felt for leaving that marriage, and the anger directed at me for doing so.
What I can say is that my fear led me on a path of knowing what that fear creates, and in that process, my fear transformed itself into an understanding and a NO fear. That fear is no more. My path came organically out of whom I was. I have walked through my own brokenness to a more whole place. Although this path taught me, there has been a physical cost, and I have not yet healed from that.
Blame does not help here, (or the judgment I felt, whether real or imagined) for though we may be the authors of our lives, the authoring often comes out of a larger place than we have control of.
If the person I am now (without that fear) were to live through that time again, I would do it differently – I would have a different path. But I did not – it was only by walking that path, that I have become somebody who could do it differently next time. I no longer need to live through what I have already lived.
I live in constant awareness of new vulnerabilities and weaknesses in my physical self, of knowing that I cannot push myself. I have always been able to motivate myself, make things happen, step outside of the statistics. Not here. I cannot hold onto the person I was. I can choose to embrace the person I am – and feel the feelings of grief and yes, shame that are a part of this letting go. Because of my own vulnerability around both my own and my mother’s illness, I feel it acutely when the support I need gets missed or in some way is misunderstood. This has brought into focus and intensified my relational needs, which has impacted my relationship with my husband. It forces new communication, and the development of new skills in order for our relationship to grow.
My mother is 78. Whether she dies sooner or later, I will have to grapple with this loss. I will have to grapple with the feelings that age and decline or illness, create in our youth oriented culture. I will have to grapple with the places my husband and I misunderstand each other. Deep down, we all need each other. We need support and love. We need to tend each other as we step down into the deep waters of transformation.
May we not judge each other for our difficulties. May we not blame others or ourselves. May we remember – all of us have hard times, moments of darkness, disconnection with those we love, illness and eventually death. All of us experience difficult feelings – which we tend not to share. Yet we are all in this together and much of what we have is each other.