I came out of my early childhood numb, emotionally and physically shutdown, functioning well in school and at other “stuff”, but never with much of a sense of being alive, of wanting to be alive, of passionate connection with anybody or anything.
I have no memories of loving my parents. They were good people, they provided well for the seven of us, but I was not able to grieve when they died. What probably happened when I was a toddler was simply a moment of convergence of my own emotional fragility and my mother’s. She threatened to leave the family, I was barely as tall as the kitchen table; my natural love and connection to her was suddenly too dangerous for the toddler, I went numb and I have never fully recovered. Friendships, of which I have been always blessed, have always been cerebral. Intimate relationships were miserable failures as I always had to go physically and emotionally numb, possibly and probably to protect myself from any partner, any friend inevitably leaving me. Various forms of therapy, meditation, Al-Anon, teaching young children, friendships, the piano, favourite authors, travels, an innate movement towards health, have been among the “stuff” that have kept me relatively sane.
I began to make significant progress about 20 years ago when I discovered Stephen Levine’s grief meditation.
Levine and his wife have written many books based on their practice working with people with serious illness and those facing impending death. Their ‘Healing into Life and Death’ changed my life.
They describe their practice and experiences and include the text of various meditations. The reader was encouraged to use them, to record them for private use. I did.
Regularly, sometimes 2 or 3 times a week, over a period of a couple of years, I lay on my bed and listened to their grief meditation. I was asked to press my thumb into the sternum, the traditional grief point, and to let the grief in, to feel whatever came up, no matter how specific or non-specific, to feel this grief flow through me, to not be afraid, and, then after ten minutes of quiet directions in the narrative of the meditation, to let my grief flow from me into the universe, to feel wholeness and safety being restored.
My body naturally found itself curling into a fetal position and I learned to scream silently; if you had had the opportunity to see me in the midst of one of these sessions, you would have presumed that the volume had been turned off. Every muscle in my face, every muscle and bone in my body, was screaming, was releasing grief.
I grieved many things, but primarily it was the loss of relationship with others, with my parents, siblings, friends, partners, with being alive; I grieved the loss of joy and fulfillment that I was experiencing virtually at every moment of my life, with all the people and the other “stuff”. I grieved my relationship with myself most of all. I lived daily a bone-numbing loneliness.
I no longer do this meditation. My practice has evolved in an interesting, more accessible way. I watch videos, by myself. I lie on the floor in front of my television, with headphones. I watch movies and BBC television dramas, historical, classics and detective, great movie and corny favourites, but always films with good stories. I let myself open up to the human dramas, whatever the specifics of the narratives. I let the tears flow, the compassion, the identification with the characters’ traumas,dilemmas, breakthroughs, joys; at times and sometimes often, I scream silently in a shared grief with them. I do not hold back.
I am changing my brain patterns; I know that every experience does. I am replacing the messages carved deeply into me in early childhood – “stay numb, do not feel, protect yourself, shut down, feelings, particularly reciprocated feelings are very dangerous and will destroy me, I cannot trust, I cannot risk, other people are alive, I cannot be, I am not allowed.”
A couple of years ago, my dearest friend of 31 years was dying. I was part of a care team and spent long hours every day with him. We had been wonderful, supportive friends, we had laughed a lot together and listened when the other needed to be heard. For me, typically, my “feelings” for this friend were in my head, they were cerebral, I would not have been able to locate them anywhere in my body, I could not say that I felt them. With him one morning about a month before he died, I was suddenly overwhelmed with my love for him, a feeling that I know that he had felt for me through all those years. I was feeling it in every cell. I finally knew what it felt like to love simply a friend.
One Sunday evening when I was a teenager, Ed Sullivan had closed off his programme by saying , “Don’t forget to tell your mother that you love her.” I remember so clearly looking down the length of my very tall body and being totally mystified as to where such feelings might be, would be located if I did feel them. I was now able to experience this feeling.
Finally in my mid 60s, I have experienced this kind of loving. When I go to visit an older brother who has been hospitalized after a serious stroke, I find it so easy to tell him that I love him. I feel it so simply, so naturally, so surprisingly after a lifetime of numbness, of being lost in my head, of ‘appreciating’ him as a brother.
I have played the piano all my life; it has been one of my lifelines. I am finally feeling the Chopin in every cell of my body, rather than just in the head. I am also much more connected, passionate about the things that have always interested me in cool, detached ways.
My friends know of my passion for all things Spanish, the medieval architecture, Francisco Goya (I weep in front of his works in the Prado in Madrid), the language, history, landscape, food and friends in Spain.
Every relationship in my life was affected by that moment of going numb with my mother; with family, friends, with myself and “the stuff of my life”, I had to stay distant, cool, cerebral, so often detaching myself from involvement, playing the dilettante, at times angrily let them go.
My career teaching young children was definitely affected. So often I found myself aware that what happened in my childhood was causing me to stay distant from the children themselves and also from what I knew I was fully capable of accomplishing with them. I would be aware that at times for a few weeks I would be totally alive and creatively involved with them and the curriculum. I would suddenly stop short and pull away and spend the subsequent weeks being a boring, methodical teacher. I wasn’t allowed to be the other kind of teacher.
With the help of the grief meditation and the stories in film and television in which I fully wrap myself up in, I know that I have achieved a surprising level of emotional health. Emotional stability had been always a struggle, stable, happier periods interrupted by crippling self-doubt and constant, insistent negative chatter. I have rarely been as stable as I have been during the last four or five months and the negative chatter has virtually disappeared.
My physical health is also improving in one significant way; I have had weak lungs, inherited probably from my father. In the eastern systems, the lungs are where we hold onto grief. Learning to release my own grief, learning to do this without fear and I am coughing much less that I used to. My lungs clearly do feel stronger. I am more and more confident that this part of my body will not be as significant a problem as I continue to get older. I even see them getting stronger as I get older.
Spending time with my stories most evenings seems to be holding the key to my continuing recovery. And since I love stories, I am confident that I will continue to do this throughout the years to come. I am a senior, I have come through a lot, a profoundly deep loneliness will always be there for the intimate relationships I ran from, but I live surrounded by all the other “stuff” which enriches my life, with which I am now more and more intimately connected.
- Grief and Anxiety are not Mental Disorders https://recoverynetworktoronto.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/grief-and-anxiety-are-not-mental-illnesses/