A friend recently asked me, ” Hey, when you were healing, did you have moments when it felt like you were in a world that had left you behind, from years of not being well? Feels like being released from prison into a world you can’t relate to.”
I knew in reading this, exactly what stage of healing he was in. I knew he was seeing glimmers of the real world, the window was being opened once in a while and sunshine was entering more often than not, as he retrained out of the fight or flight state he was in. His body had begun to relax and begin the healing process and clarity was starting. Those of us in a fight or flight leading to chronic illness and/or psychiatric have been traumatized, either shock or developmental. For some with chronic illness the stress is a daily one that is not necessarily a “trauma.”
Trauma dysregulates the body. It moves energy levels away from baseline to extremes of hyperarousal (“too much,” panic, overwhelm) and sometimes hypoarousal (“low,” lethargy, emptiness), not only alternating but sometimes getting stuck in either extreme.
When we experience overwhelm in the body, one natural response to this dysregulation (and accompanying confusion or relational struggles) is to just get away—perhaps through drinking, sex, anxiety medication, working out, or power-watching television series online.
Having spent much of my life escaping this overwhelm, when I began to come out, I experienced SHOCK each time I came to clarity, to find out the world had gone on without me for so long, I felt I was coming out of a coma, and as my friend said, no one had waited for me.
The thoughts that went through my mind were often, “You mean there was always a way out and no one told me?”, “Doctors don’t know about this? ” , “No one is really on my side out there?” , “I lost all this time and I could have been better long ago?” , “This is how everyone else experiences the world?” Truth is along the way there were people who would tell me, the power was in my hands, but no one really told me how. How could I get out of such a deep state of fight or flight and often freeze? It was only when I had nothing at all left and desperate that someone gave me a way- brain retraining. These thoughts of being betrayed by all therapists and doctors I had seen crossed my mind each time I came to clarity. Clarity, did not last all day, it was sporadic at first, when I was able to remember to bring myself back to awareness, and became a longer state as I retrained. Clarity took conscious work.
I began to understand that I had the power within me all along, and sometimes I did not want it. I had lost so much. It is during this stage where I could have given into full relapse and giving up. This brings to mind Prochaska’s Cycle of Change. I was constantly fluctuating between action, maintenance and relapse. Realistically, when changing we do not follow this cycle in a linear way, but go in and out of each stage as we progress. I was in action and maintenance, fully committed to change, but the grief was lingering in the background.
Each day provided moments of rebirth, when I would see life as it was again, but then quickly retract into the womb. There was no doctor to force me out of the nest that had been my only knowledge of the world for so long. I was working each day to be ready to give birth fully to myself. And, it took time. While grief did linger in the background of my mind each time I experienced the new, as I relearned the world, I was also overwhelmed with curiosity. Curiosity became my antidote for the fear of the overwhelm of grief .
I became deeply curious. Waking up after living in the “coma”I had found myself in, brought with it an awe of even simple things, like a pen. You can read about that here. I had lost everything, and for some time was running from a perceived threat, but as I came to consciousness, grief and curiosity were the two emotions that emerged. I bought pencils and started to watch videos to learn to draw. I purchased a guitar and began watching youtube videos to learn to play some simple songs. I observed shapes and colors found in nature, sat under trees at the park staring out at the lake. I had dialogues with these objects in nature, internally and externally. I was like a child experiencing the world for the first time. I traveled ( I had always traveled as an escape but this time it was with the intention of awe), I enrolled in courses about neuroscience, yoga instruction and eventually applied positive psychology as well as most recently, TRE (tension and trauma release exercises) . Curiosity has led me to a sense of security and increased self esteem and while grief is a feeling that can linger softly in the background, I focus on exploring and learning.
Sometimes it’s in the shower, cooking a meal, sitting in a garden, or “being” with a therapist. The nervous system drops to a calm hum, the physical containment ceases, and the memories process, unbidden, unstopped. And finally, in stillness, with internal safety and compassion, we observe, feel, accept, and integrate. Sometimes the body shakes—with or without tears. And after all the years of struggle, sometimes a gentle sadness lingers.
Once the overwhelm is past and underlying truths are part of present awareness, only grieving remains. Each new level of awareness brings with it a comparison between what was and what could have been—grieving for the time lost, missed opportunities in life, unmet wishes, past distractions from this centered place of living.
There may be decades of fighting the overwhelm of grieving, and then just the simple, natural, bodily directed process of grieving. No longer does one part of the body expend energy containing the “unwanted” energy of another part. No longer is it “too much” to bear. It just is. We are able to sit with the experience without reaction, without separation, with nonjudgmental presence. It might be less letting go and more letting be.
(McAllister,2015) Find more here