Exploring the need to be seen

(above image by lucreziac on deviantart)

The time between flashbacks and emotional pain is getting longer. It’s a relief to have a break but after a while I begin to feel like something is missing and I go poking around looking for the secret places where trauma dwells. This morning I went on such a journey and I started thinking about this coming afternoon and the week that has preceded it. My oldest son is in 5th grade and like every class before his, he’ll be serving at a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the incoming 5th graders and their Autumn wilderness trip. I’m thankful that he’s grown into a place in which he feels proud to give back to his school and provide others with the opportunity and experience he had. I’m also overwhelmed knowing this dinner will be an extremely challenging event for me.

I’ve spent the last week overdoing it in order to provide my family with a meaningful Passover experience, working extra shifts with my schizophrenic client and tolerating a living room that is filled with the contents of my oldest kid’s room because they got a new bed and are taking the opportunity to sift through everything they own. I’ve already pushed myself to the point that I’m having flashbacks and physical pain. Today I’ll go to therapy and engage in trauma work and then I’ll come home and spend the evening volunteering in a cafeteria filled with a few hundred people.

I don’t know what that would feel like for people who don’t have chronic illness or a history of trauma. I know the parents of my son’s best friend are stressed but I also sense excitement in them. I, on the other hand, am worried about the pain and fatigue I’ll feel in the days to follow, and the very real possibility that I’ll have a flashback or dissociate while I’m supposed to be helping 5th graders serve guests. Two days ago I had a flashback while talking to my youngest son and I was at home and not under the pressure of having to get anything done.

It took less than a minute for my mind to explore everything I’ve written about above. The conclusion I came to was that participating in the spaghetti dinner fundraiser is too much, and yet I’m choosing to do it anyway. I’m doing it because I want to honor my son’s maturity; I want him to know how proud of him I am and I think volunteering will be an act of solidarity. In my moment of reflection what I wanted more than anything was for my husband to see the challenges I face and the choices I make to push myself beyond what’s safe and comfortable. I want him to understand how choosing to do things that others can do without terrifying consequences takes immense courage and will power.

There’s incredible vulnerability in this choice I’ve made and my need to be seen is intense. I’m intentionally entering into a situation in which chances are high that I will be triggered and my fight/flight/freeze response will kick in. An important part of wanting to be recognized for this is that I do it all the time. I go to the grocery store when I’m already on edge. I drive to pick up medication I need or to take one of my kids somewhere they need to be. I go to work. I talk to other parents when I pick up my second grader from school. I do one more chore when I’m already feeling exhausted. I make myself emotionally available to my 19 year old when they’re feeling overwhelmed and I’m already feeling shaky. All the fucking time. Everyday. All these seemingly menial things are very often experiences with the potential to trigger a trauma response. When I hide out in the house, binge watch sci-fi/fantasy and put off my responsibilities, I’m not being lazy or uncaring, I’m trying to preserve enough of myself to face the next onslaught of everyday events. My closest friends recognize how hard it is for me to live this way and they tell me how proud they are of me. I want that from my husband more than anyone else.

So what would happen if my husband truly understood? Well, I would feel seen by him, for one. And maybe he’d be more willing to take me as I am-broken but trying really fucking hard to be the best I can be for him, our kids and myself. This need to be seen is deep rooted and I can see how it played a part in the choices I made to get involved with men who ended up abusing me, especially with the man who locked me up, physically and sexually accosted me, tried to kill me and stalked me until I moved to another state. Joe was a master at reflecting exactly what I needed from an intimate partner. He verbally acknowledged how debilitating my childhood trauma was and seemed to express a lot of empathy. I desperately needed to feel seen and he created the illusion that I was, while using my relief and gratitude to lure me into the trap of further abuse.

My need to be acknowledged is so strong that even after that experience I was still willing to risk intimacy again in order to have that need fulfilled. And here I am, 16 years into a relationship with a kind and gentle man and I feel like he doesn’t fully understand how hard I push myself to be someone who can foster feelings of love and safety in her children and accomplish basic aspects of managing a household. And then there’s the possibility that he does see and while he respects it, what I’m able to give him is not enough. If that’s the case I think I can accept it. I can recognize that he has needs and deserves more emotional and physical intimacy than I can provide.

Where does that leave me? Apparently with a lot of questions. Why do I need so badly to be seen by a partner? Is relationship impossible without that level of awareness and acknowledgment? Can I find a way to give myself the acceptance and empathy I want from a partner and would that be enough? Shouldn’t I be able to feel pride in myself and have that be enough? If I could do that and it were enough, could I then have a relationship in which I don’t need my partner to accept and understand me on such deep levels?

Time for New Ways of Being

Things have gotten busy and chaotic again and when that happens I go into a sort of automatic shutdown mode. I’m taking care of all the things (kids, food, house, appointments) but I’m not caring for myself. I spend my early morning time streaming Game of Thrones or The Expanse instead of doing therapy homework, casting the Tarot or writing. It’s what I’ve always done and my life has always been structured to be full and busy.

It’s funny how I can have so much will power, enough to survive up to this point, but when I need it for self-care and healing it’s as if I’ve already used it all up. Maybe I just need to use my will to create more balance; that is, after all, part of how I can take care of myself. Maybe this is a shift in how I perceive and practice self-care. Actually, when I look back over my life through a less emotional lens I can see how it’s not true that I’ve always done this. Before I had children, even when I just had one, I spent a lot of time in nature, reading books, learning new things and practicing Wicca.

The question then becomes: How do I get back to that?

I’ll have to restructure my life, hold the habit in my awareness, set more boundaries, teach my kids to help out more around the house, and ask my husband for help. This last weekend were the first few days of Passover and the kids were expecting a big Seder. Last week was emotionally charged and my oldest was preparing to get a new bed and in the process took everything out of their room and filled up the living room. I was feeling tired and over stimulated and yet I reassured my kids that we would have a Seder. I went to the grocery store three times in as many days, I spent Saturday wrestling with myself to get to a place in which I could focus on a big meal, and I ignored the voice inside me that was saying: “You can’t do this right now. It’s too much.”

I learned at a young age to push myself beyond what I should be able to do. I was being abused but I was able to put on a pretty convincing act that I was like a healthy kid AND was unusually brilliant and hard working. I realize it was a coping mechanism and probably helped me stay alive and somewhat sane. I also see how it’s not something I need to do now. I am safe and can reconstruct how I live and take care of myself. My inner voice isn’t telling me anymore to keep my head down and stay busy. It’s very clearly telling me to slow down, set limits and spend time every day doing things that nourish me.

Secrets

My instinct has been telling me for a while that there are things my husband isn’t telling me. It’s not a far fetched idea; he’s very private and shares few of his inner thoughts and feelings with anyone. I don’t think it’s an affair (I realize that might sound naive) because he takes commitment and fidelity so seriously. So if it’s not that, then what is it or why does it even matter?

I’m not sure but it’s driving me crazy. Maybe he has feelings about me that he’s not telling me about. Maybe I’m not the only one in this relationship who has a past that impacts everyone around them. I told him how I’ve been feeling and explained how crucial it is that I have as much information as possible so I can make a decision about how to proceed with our relationship. If he loves me but no longer feels a desire to be with me physically or continue trying to be together in emotionally engaged ways then I would choose to end the relationship as it is and move forward with my life. If that were the case, it wouldn’t matter if he wasn’t telling me because he didn’t want to hurt me or because he was didn’t want the relationship to end for the benefit of the kids or some strange benefit of his own. I would rather be alone than live in a marriage that’s a farce. 

I asked him to tell me how he feels about me right now and whether he really wants our relationship to continue if it’s possible for us to learn better ways of relating with one another. He spoke about the many things he appreciates about me and said he likes that we’re as compatible as we are. He said he’d like for things to work out between us. But for some reason, I don’t believe him. It doesn’t feel like that to me and I don’t know if that’s because there really are feelings he’s not telling me about or if it’s my own insecurity eating at me. 

In response to the other question, the one concerning there being something in his past that led him to keep things to himself and not open up, he started asking me questions about what I thought the answer might be and I felt like I was being grilled. “Sounds like you think you know something.” “What are you getting at?” He wouldn’t tell me there was something but he also didn’t say there wasn’t. He said things come up all the time. That left me feeling angry. I’ve been so open with him about how my past experiences affect me and my ability to relate to people intimately. I’ve shared things I didn’t want to share with anyone. I’ve also taken all the responsibility for the biggest challenges in our relationship because I recognize that unresolved trauma makes intimacy of any kind very difficult.

Ultimately, I think I’m upset because I want to be able to say with some certainty that waiting out this separation period and eventually working our relationship again is the right decision. If there’s information I’m missing, especially if it’s feelings he has or doesn’t have, then the decision I make will be doomed. I don’t want to waste time. And I don’t want to go through each day feeling emotionally torn apart by something I can’t even confirm or deny. I want to focus on myself through this separation period but it’s hard to do that if I don’t know if I can trust in the process enough to let go of my worries.

They can love you…and still not join you on the bridge.

image above by ReFiend, found here on DeviantArt

As I sat waiting for my psychiatry appointment, I read the following on a friend’s Facebook post:

“Someone can be madly in love with you and still not be ready. They can love you in a way you have never been loved and still not join you on the bridge. And whatever their reasons you must leave. Because you never ever have to inspire anyone to meet you on the bridge. You never ever have to convince someone to do the work to be ready. There is more extraordinary love, more love that you have never seen, out here in this wide and wild universe. And there is the love that will be ready.” — Nayyirah Waheed (writer & poet)

When I was finally brought into my psychiatrist’s office she asked me how I’ve been doing. I responded by telling her that I think my marriage is ending, that I’m planning to bring the topic up in marriage counseling this weekend. Her response, after offering her condolences, was to ask if it was because my husband has experienced trauma.

“No, it’s not him. I’m the one with the trauma, as well as chronic illnesses”, I said. My voice cracked as I said the words. It hurt my heart to say it but I didn’t feel the guilt I expected.

I went on to explain how all the symptoms of my trauma, and all the work I’ve done on it over the years eventually took their toll on my husband. He fell into a deep depression over a year ago and lately he’s been stonewalling me. We’ve been in marriage counseling for almost a year and a half and things just got steadily worse instead of better. I’m so miserable as a result of being completely emotionally shut out of my husband’s life that everything I do is suffering. Parenting. Work with my schizophrenic client. My trauma therapy. My physical health.

I have come to the point where I’ve been carefully considering whether ending the relationship will be better than continuing on while both of us become more estranged and bitter. If I were superstitious (and I may be to some extent) I would look at the events in our lives and see parallels to events leading up to the ending of my previous marriage, now almost 17 years ago. Just two of those: our housing situation has suddenly become more stable and sustainable and we’ve been spending a lot of time putting our house in better order for the first time since we moved in.

My psychiatrist spent several minutes making sure I understand the difficulties that will come from ending my marriage. The impact it will have on our children, being more financially unstable, having to single parent, and having to grieve the death of a 16 year relationship. I tried to listen because I respect her wisdom, but I was only half present. It was the first time I’ve spoken my intentions out loud and they were suddenly ginormous as they resonated as vibrations in the air.

I have thought about the challenges that will come if we end our marriage. Just as you can’t truly know what being a parent will be like until you become one, there’s no way I can fully anticipate just how hard this journey will be. I don’t want the marriage to end but I’ve become aware that I’ve spent months feeling miserable whenever my husband’s around. My heart rate rises, adrenaline floods my brain and body, and I’m constantly yearning for him to share something of substance with me. And I’m just as constantly disappointed.

I can’t inspire him to meet me on the bridge. I can’t convince him to do something he’s unable to do at this point. I do know it’s beyond my control. What I do have control over is making a choice that will ease my suffering and allow us to both move on in ways that will be more fulfilling.

I’ll take what joy I can get right now

(above picture of our Sage cuddling with our oldest boy)

Every morning around 7:30 our dog, Sage, starts nudging me. It’s her way of asking if she can come with me to drop the boys off at school. She doesn’t get out much, other than the back yard, because of my disability so car rides are a special source of joy. She also feels a strong sense of responsibility for the boys so being a part of seeing them off to school safely eases her heart a little. It’s funny, but her in doggy way, she knows the difference between week days and weekends and I never get nudged on a weekend or holiday morning.

This morning was like every week day morning. It started a few minutes early but I can’t grudge her feeling anticipation a little early; it’s a big part of her day. Sage is a big part of our family. Besides keeping a VERY watchful eye on the street and yard and warning us about bunnies and the mail person, Sage is especially emotionally sensitive and she acts on everything she picks up with what she deems an appropriate response. I won’t deny that sometimes her version of appropriate is not what an individual wants in the moment. Pokes and licking, for instance, are often not appreciated.

When it was time to go to school we all piled into our yellow Volvo stationwagon and began the short drive to the neighborhood elementary school. Beyond her responsibility to the boys, I think Sage also takes the opportunity to patrol the part of the neighborhood we drive through. If dogs, bunnies or cats are spotted then Sage has to bark at them. There are two dogs Sage doesn’t bark at; a pair of malamutes who live on a corner behind a waist high chain link fence. Apparently, she went for a walk one day, met these two and they became fast friends. When we get a block away from the malamutes’ house Sage begins to watch carefully to see if they’re out in the yard.

If they are out, I’ve taken to pulling over on the way home. Sage and I get out of the car and say hello, which mostly involves the dogs running back and forth along the fence line and occasionally lifting up off their front paws in order to better check out each other’s muzzles.

As I was turning the corner to drive down the malamutes’ street, I pictured them in my mind/heart and decided that we would stop and say hello if they were out. Out loud to myself I said “I gotta take what joy I can get right now.” We saw the dogs mulling around the yard and when they spotted us they came running to the fence. When I let Sage out of the car all of the dogs made high pitched joyful greeting sounds as they ran to say hello and begin their back and forth traipsing up and down the fence line. The two dogs behind the fence seemed almost as excited to see me as they were to see Sage; they took turns popping up and resting their giant paws on the fence, huge furry faces just above my own. I was given a few great deep open mouthed snuffles and some rather stinky kisses on my cheeks.

The whole thing only lasted about 4 or 5 minutes and then Sage and I got back in the car and drove home, but for those few moments I felt everything drop away and allowed myself to be immersed in a kind of joy that belongs solely to dogs. I was part of an elated meeting of friends and it filled up my heart to be so unconditionally loved and accepted as one of the pack. In the scheme of things, it was a small decision to make but I recognized it as making a choice to practice self-care and allow myself to be nourished by love I gave and received. Not really a small thing at all.

When I walked back into the house the my stomach returned the boiling sensation I almost always feel when I’m at home these days. I could feel the adrenaline flood my brain and muscles as I returned to a watchful state. These days when I’m home I can’t avoid feeling the weight and strain of the problems between myself and my husband and for my own sanity and well being I have to be vigilant for every possible opportunity to receive and give love. This isn’t just good for me; it helps me be strong enough to maintain communication with my husband and be present with my children. Joy is like a pebble thrown into a pond.

Waning crescent

I live for these moments right now. I’ve learned that my thoughts are quietest when the sky hasn’t fully lit up and the birds begin their morning declarations. This morning I saw the moon, a shy waning crescent just above the horizon. I was looking for Venus, I always look for Venus. And there, just a short jump west, was the moon. I couldn’t take my eyes of her. The southeastern sky was just beginning to lighten and the moon hung in the sky, tinged with orange and looking more like the orb she is than when she’s full.

There’s so much in my life that is hidden from me right now. I know there’s more than I can see but I can’t begin to imagine what that fullness is, will be. All my life I’ve made sure to never go very long without a partner. Now I’m alone and in a partnership at the same time. The house is still full of noise and change and relationships but I’m alone. I have no one to share it with.