Healing is a trendy topic, a trendy word these days. If you spend time on #mentalhealth social media, you see the terms “healing” and “toxic” thrown around a lot. Words mean different things to different people. To me, healing means letting go of the past and taking action toward one’s vision for a good and fulfilling life.
For example, for me, happiness means being relaxed, being healthy, loving and being loved, and engaging and being engaged with good people and good ideas. For the earlier part of my life, I didn’t know how I defined happiness. I was somewhat unwittingly caught up in the “rat race.”
Definition of the rat race
: the unpleasant life of people who have jobs that require them to work very hard in order to compete with others for money, power, status, etc.
I found myself competing for the attention and approval of people who I didn’t even like very much. And when I found myself around them, I found myself edgy, insecure, drained, exhausted, and often even bored. I could not or would not see that I was sending all of my energy outward, desperately trying to control others’ perceptions of me. In reality, they didn’t even know I was there. Many of them were trying to do the same thing I was – control others’ perceptions of them – just with others more powerful than them. Rampant disconnection.
Millionaires comparing themselves to billionaires.
But back to the topic of healing. Healing is very similar to creativity. It’s basically creativity for life. Like the Arthur Ashe quote: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” Healing is finding ways to get better than we are right now. To let go of past hurts and wounds, and use the support available to us coupled with our own hearts and hard work to alchemize into something and/or someone NEW.
I have lived many lifetimes in my life, each one replete with triumphs and tragedies. I believe all of us can change, and heal. As long as we have our breath and our will, we can change. With each breath we practice, we draw our energy in. And with each exhale we let go. And then a new moment and a new breath arrives.
From all the books I have read and expert talks I have consumed, most people have some level of trauma. There is complex Trauma marked by adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and there is “lower-case t” trauma which can be subtle but can still have a profound influence on how we act and move through the world. Comparing our traumas and disadvantages to those of others is not a constructive exercise because each person is unique.
When I get into compare and despair thinking when I am frustrated by what I perceive to be unfair advantages and privileges enjoyed by others, I am learning to stop myself and to note “thinking” “thinking” and “judging.” Comparison is so basic, so reptilian. I want to explore, expand and evolve. I don’t want more of the same. The same isn’t that great after all.
In the past, wherever I felt inadequate, I would try to find others to feel superior to, and then dwell in pity to give myself a boost. It does not work. It does no good for me or for the supposed objects of my sympathy. Time and time again, people surprise me. The ones I felt “sorry” for were often living happier lives than I did. All that glitters is not gold and all who wander are not lost.
The separateness we see in ourselves and others is an illusion. We are all rivers rolling to the same sea.
Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar,
que es el morir:
allí van los señoríos,
derechos a se acabar
allí los ríos caudales,
allí los otros medianos
y más chicos;
y llegados, son iguales
los que viven por sus manos
y los ricos.
If I had to pinpoint how and when I started healing, it was when I first sought the professional help of a therapist about twenty years ago. I was unhappy at work, and my family was in crisis. My father was addicted to alcohol, suffered from clinical depression, and was diagnosed with stage four malignant melanoma. I was in my twenties, living in New York City, and found myself getting drawn back into my parents’ world at the very moment my own life was supposed to be taking off.
I lived in fear. The dread of phone calls and emails from my mother … not knowing what latest horror or misery awaited me, demanding my attention and energy. Back then, I did not know I had a choice in how I responded to people and situations. I had the compulsion to please, to perform, to serve. I just didn’t know there were alternatives.
By the grace of the universe, I found my way to a therapist who woke me up to the truth that we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to what happens to us. Before Millie (that was her name) I did not entertain the possibility that I was more emotionally mature, aware, and capable than my own parents. They and they alone were supposed to be the reigning authorities on everything. You can imagine my confusion and dismay when they went off the rails.
Honor thy mother and father. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. My Catholic upbringing scarred me. I felt so dissatisfied with the explanations the leaders gave me as to why women could not be priests. And why was it all about the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit … no girls or women like me? What was that all about?
Millie listened and did not judge. She seemed to get the whole Catholic authority hang-up thing and I felt quite relieved to unburden myself to an adult who would not use the information against me. I was discovering so much, changing so much, and feeling so much that my body needed someplace to release the tension so I took up running. Running was a way for me to spend hours in my body, have a structure, have control, and have a goal.
I also liked the side effects: being thin and being able to eat a lot and still look great. Plus it provided me with community. Even when I didn’t know anyone personally, running with the New York Roadrunners helped me feel safe and a part of a group, which felt good. And by the time I completed my third marathon, I felt accomplished to boot.
But the Honeymoon period wore off on running too. My knees could not take all the wear and tear. I needed something simpler, more gentle and that’s when I found Yoga. Previously, I identified as a “tough” athlete. In addition to marathons, I biked, cross-trained, and played soccer. I was always fit, and I thought Yoga was for non-athletes. That is, until I took my first class and found myself struggling to hold a downward-facing dog, the foundational “resting” pose of Yoga.
“WTF?” I thought. “This shit is hard.” The competitive person I was then, it became a challenge – a puzzle to be solved. How can I get “good” at this Yoga thing? Now that I know more about Yoga, I realize that competing in it is just silly and beside the point. Yoga is a gift that has helped me heal and get through a lot of hard times. The difficult experiences we have get stored in our bodies if we don’t know how to express our emotions and release them.
In my case, my tension, fear, frustration, anger, and sadness live between my shoulder blades. All the words I wanted to say growing up and beyond but did not live between my shoulder blades and in my hips. Yoga helps me access these points and slowly, after years of build-up and calcification, release them. What’s wild is how many different layers there are. Every time I think, surely this is it, I’ve gotten to the core of it … BAM! There’s more.
Recently I started a new kind of therapy with a new therapist named Amber. It’s called Somatic Experiencing therapy. It helps me access trapped, stale, unexpressed emotions in my nervous system, and identify, express, and release them. It’s quite different than the old-school talk therapy I once did. It starts in the moment in my body … what is happening today, right now. Through physical movements, sensations and exercises, I have become more aware of my own reactivity and how I can choose to respond to stimuli in my life and the world.
Writing this journal entry is a healing act for me. I am a writer. This is something I have always known about myself, even as a young girl. But I did not write because I was afraid I would not please whatever fictional audience I was focused on. It never dawned on me that I could write for myself, for the fun of it, or for other weirdos like myself.
What is healing? Practice and letting go. Practice, when you are a writer, is sitting your ass in the seat and letting the words pour out. Letting go, for me, is giving up my past identities. The identity of the good daughter. The identity of the business executive Vice President. The identity of the perfect woman … naturally maternal and attentive to her children even if emotional connection was not modeled for me as a child.
Letting go of the idea that whatever I write must be fit for a readership beyond myself. There is dignity in practice. There is value in showing up and trying, even if it doesn’t “go anywhere this time.” A wise Yogi once said, “No effort taken in earnest is ever wasted.” So, here we are 1600+ words and 1.5 hours later and I have almost accomplished my goal of writing 1666 words today.
Just when I think I’ve got nothing left, that this is a fruitless self-cherishing exercise that I’ll abandon eventually, I tell myself to hang in there and proceed with the practice. Writers write and there is no way around it. The only way around is through. So here we go!