I set out this morning for an early drive through the hill country. Coffee, music, time with the sunrise, God, and organizing plans for the day; this time helps me keep a sense of autonomy, if even for an hour, before I become so many other things to so many other people for the rest of the day. It also serves, sometimes, as therapy. Something about the act of driving, especially when I know the roads by heart and it almost feels like autopilot – I can work through, sort out, and understand a lot about what I am feeling when I wander these streets alone. Today, I faced down a great deal of anxiety as I drove – after having woken up with anxiety from the moment I opened my eyes – its intensity rising and falling in an unpredictable manner since then. I resolved to inspect it, investigate it, simply by allowing it to be, heavy in my chest. The sensations remained for the duration of my drive, and even as I sit here now, back safely at home in my bed, I feel it still.
Often when I feel this kind of sensation, what we call “anxiety”, I sit in it, surrender to it, and unearth what it is trying to show me. It was not always this way. For years, I rejected how it felt to experience this intense energy in my body. I fought it, blamed it for my behavior and reactions, and felt trapped in this diagnosis of “anxiety disorder”. What I have learned, through changing my language and experience with it, is that there is always something underneath it, and there is great power in respecting that, slowing down as you ease into the uncomfortable nature of it, and you simply say, “I see you, and I am listening”. I say that, to the sensations themselves, instead of immediately labeling it as bad simply because it feels bad. Honing this perspective has taken a lot of hard work, intention, and I still sometimes struggle with how intense it can become, but in stepping back, in being curious about it instead of afraid of how it might affect me, often there is much to discover. I have experienced the difference between holding it in and fighting it, and what it feels like when that tension surrenders and you know you’ve done good work to let it go. There is so much your body holds onto that is trying to work its way out, but we are taught to reject that process because the work is painful. You have to allow it to go, and that means surrender even when it “hurts”. When you step into a place of observation, and really see how these “afflictions” behave, absent judgment of “this is bad”, it really is fucking fascinating to witness.
For about 45 minutes, about halfway through my drive, all I did was sing. I sang through the buzzing in my chest. I sang through the tightening in my throat. I sang through the rapid heartrate and racing thoughts. I allowed it to work its way through my body and simply observed it while I sang my favorite songs. Memories often come up for me during this process. I think, for me, “anxiety” is a means to process and work through old pain, and today was no exception. “It” came, the moment I understood the meaning of these sensations, as it often does, in an instant. It clicks, pieces fall into place, and I smile, “Ohh, there you are, Peter!” (Like that adorable scene in Hook when the Lost Boy recognizes Peter Pan). I welcome the understanding, “seeing into my pain” is one way to look at it. My body churns and buzzes, my chest tightens, my throat swells, my tongue feels expanded 37 times its normal size, and my mind races through everything you can imagine, often worst-case scenarios, often painful memories I suppressed or tried in vain to rationalize for so long.
Today, my pain-body was showing me how far back the onion has been peeled; it showed me where I am in the process of healing through deep trauma, and I got a solid understanding of where I stand and how far there is yet to go. The work that has been done in me, thus far, is – there are no words I can find, not enough, to express how it feels to know I’ve let go, something I carried for so long that I once believed would always be my struggle. In doing that, in clearing that space – in forgiveness and finally laying it to rest – now I am ready. Now I can see, so clearly, what I am facing, and surprising to me it is a rather large mountain. I knew I kept a lot of this deep inside, and I always had the sense that once I let go of Tim I would need to stare this thing in the face, but I too understood it would be a great burden to bear. I guess I had to hone my strength to arrive here, The Hero’s Journey, so to speak (thank you, Aya).
I have to write about her. Gather her story. Seems impossible because she is gone, but I have this strong sense I can take from accounts of those who knew her, really knew her, and piece together something meaningful. All these years, I carried the pain of losing my mother like a scar I wore across my chest. It stung to the touch, don’t even mention it, or else I might just tell you all the ways she broke my heart. The pain was my reference point, because that is the thing she passed onto me before she died; the pain was all I carried of my mother, for years, fighting in vain to see past it and remember the woman I knew when I was a child. I can nevermore ask her and am left with a void; half of my history is, well, history. Furthermore, because I was young, only 21, when she died, (that seems so young to me now) I never got to know my mother as an adult.
Who was this woman, really? What dreams did she have for herself? What were her fears and desires and politics? How did she experience her childhood and what pain did she carry? What made her truly laugh and what kinds of things did she stay up until 2am talking about? What was her favorite memory and how did it feel to watch me in a hospital bed for 3 months? I wish I could ask her what she loved about parenting, and what she hated about it. I wish I could ask her what her biggest regrets were and how she would have changed things in different stages of her life. I wish I knew what she thought of my life, my brothers and sister, and I wish I knew what it felt like to have her be Grandma Roberta to all of her grandchildren. I wish I could truly know her… More than all of this, I wish she had wanted to truly know herself; the person I am today would come alongside her and help her see the beauty that is inside her. I would run my fingers along her cheek and stare into her eyes and show her, from my love as her daughter, how much worth and value and light she held within, and I would show her what more there is to offer beyond the struggle – I wish I could tell her she could have made it through.
I know a lot of adults, my peers, whose parents both still live, would probably not inquire these types of questions to their folks even now – at first blush it might seem strange, but I have always desired to truly know people. I never get to know my mother intimately, and it has left so much undone in me. It just occurred to me as I wrote that, my mom never got to know her mother, either. She died when my mom was 13 so she got substantially less time than even I did. (BTW that early mother death thing because of tragedy stops at my mother, thank you).
I’ve thought about this fact, that the work to tell her story should fall on me, for a long time, I just haven’t had the emotional strength to endure it, until now, I guess. I have arrived at that moment when the truth is undeniable and my heart is wide open; I need to get this going and I need to dive headlong into the uncomfortable feeling of experiencing this ghost without allowing it to consume me. I need to stare it in the face, and it will hurt, but I can do the work anyway. I have to.
Details don’t matter right now as to what exactly I am doing going forward, but I am just thankful that today I gave my attention to something that appeared to be a “shitty start to the day” (who wants to legitimately wake up with anxiety, I mean come on!) and allowed it to show me something valuable. A project, a new motivating factor – I am grateful for how far I have traveled to the present time, where I am safe to investigate and be in the now with however I am feeling, and blaze forward with a renewed hope that beauty comes from darkness. From her death came so much pain, but even in simply realizing now I can write about that, remember her, and not fall apart – that is a victory. I can feel the sensations and learn from them, I can bear witness to the experience instead of allowing the experience to define me. It is not me; it is just stored information. Energy. Sometimes it is intense, and sometimes it needs to be painful to get your attention. Stop and observe it. Listen, and wait. It is not bad, it is just intense, and it ALWAYS passes. I love when I get to learn from it, and I get to see another magnificent facet that is this human experience. How amazing that our bodies store our history? I have learned how to slow down and watch, breath, and see where it leads. For all these years it led straight to Tim… Alas, the onion is peeled, and it is time to face the greatest challenge of them all.
Today, these sensations have a name, a purpose bigger than satisfying my own curiosity about the person she was: The story of a woman, and how I can be the one to write it – that in itself is a big part of the adventure to come. Healing, indeed.
Had I fought the anxiety, had I judged it, would I have arrived here? Experience tells me, no, I would have arrived on the bathroom floor sobbing. Not today. A long drive and surrender. Allowing. There is something to be uncovered, something unseen, something to address. Allow it, observe it. So much better than fighting it. Sometimes, beautiful things are just waiting to be discovered amidst the pain, just stop and allow it to hurt – it feels so much better than resistance.
So many more words left to come…