I am struggling as I live between two opposing forces – the desire to build community with my son and his adoptive parents, and the desire to run as far as possible from the birth mother bruising of mine-and-not-mine every day. My heart is being pushed and pulled between conflicting needs, a daily wrestling match that leaves me emotionally exhausted and withdrawn.
I crave this family, the belonging, and the sense of purpose I have found here. And my heart aches daily as our son simultaneously cements his preference for Mommy and shifts toward the independence of toddlerhood.
Despite the perception in popular books and movies, the Heroine’s Journey looks different than the Hero’s. Women undergo journeys of awakening and self definition, but it is often an internal process that happens through our emotions and our intimate relationships rather than through confrontation with forces in the world. Heather Plett says that feminine rites follow a pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence (vs the masculine rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation). I am currently between containment and transformation, waiting for emergence to occur.
I have come to understand that I am an emotional athlete of sorts, an emotional mountain climber. Much like people who train to endure, and even enjoy, the growing pains and discomfort of intense physical adventures (marathons, surfing, skiing, etc.), I am trained to endure and enjoy the growing pains of seemingly unbearable emotional circumstances. The traumas that often damage and break other people are just added weight to the barbell my powerful heart can bench-press.
I experienced life as deeply emotional and profoundly painful from an early age. I score at least a 7 on the ACES test regarding childhood trauma, although there are many more traumas that aren’t listed. I also have an unusually deep capacity for empathy, meaning I feel other people’s emotions in addition to my own. Imagine what that is like when everyone you are a developing child/adolescent and everyone you love is suffering in a significant way. And I’ve worked to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder, also known as Emotional Intensity Disorder. I am running a lifelong marathon to maintain my sanity, emotional regulation, and the chance to thrive in a healthy family dynamic.
My Heroine’s Journey is a map of how to navigate the world with a raw and open heart. I don’t wear emotional armor to protect myself. I don’t know how. Instead, when I am too raw for exposure I hide in my bedroom, my sanctuary, away from people. I am not interested in fighting – not other people, not my own demons, nor the world’s evils. I am passionate about creating and nurturing justice, reconciliation, and belonging through acts of love and generosity. As part of my training, I strive not to turn words into weapons against others when I’m hurt and angry, whether beloveds or strangers. I’ve spent my entire adult life disarming the triggers that can transform my typical gentleness to verbal violence.
One of the primary challenges for people with Borderline is that we have difficulty living with opposing truths, called dialectics. The term’s dialectical means a synthesis or integration of opposites. This is why Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) is vital to recovery. Through my research I’ve learned that I consistently provide my own DBT by confronting opposing truths over and over, often on purpose, in order to learn how to regulate my thinking, feelings, and behavior in relationship. For instance, my experiences of polyamory required embracing the opposing truths of my desire for big open love and my abnormally strong fear of abandonment (another BPD trait). I could simultaneously feel compersion and jealousy. I could be deeply frightened and keep choosing love anyway.
Physical masochism is also a dialectic. I surrender my body to experiences of pain from someone who cares for me. Pain, pleasure, love, and fear usually weave together to carry me into ecstasy. But sometimes the physical pain gets wrapped up with my heart pain and I have an emotional release, where something that causes me deep heartache becomes more bearable as the pain is pushed through me with a flogger or a cane. This happened over the weekend when my fiance and I played a relatively mild BDSM scene, the day after I read a memoir excerpt from a birth mother in an open adoption. Seeing myself in the mirror of her particular words and phrases brought my pain to the surface so that the slightest stimulus rubbed me raw and left me sobbing.
The emotional strength training I put myself through the last 20+ years gave me the ability to make an impossible choice – to give mommyhood to a beloved friend and retain my place as a different sort of mother in my child’s life. I live the dialectic of mine-and-not-mine with my son every minute of every day. I feel the biological and emotional pull to be his mommy and I keep my distance to allow another woman to be the foundation of his safety and belonging. I ache because he favors her now and I am immensely grateful that I don’t often have to endure all of the hard parts (irregular sleeping patterns, tantrums, etc.).
I try to nurture connection and distance at the same time, both with my son and his adoptive parents. I truly crave the intimacy of chosen family and intentional community. I also choose to live with them because I desire to lighten the burden of full time parenting and help them afford a nice home in a good neighborhood with all of the related benefits. After so many years as a single mom, I don’t want our son’s parents to ever feel alone in their care and responsibility of him. Yet as my relationship with our son shifts I become more withdrawn, spending less time with the family. I focus my attention on the parts of my life that aren’t so painful and complicated, like my relationship with my fiance and my book creation (and a good dose of television).
I am living in this family dialectic, navigating it mostly with grace, and yet I worry that I am not doing enough. I worry that I am not present enough, connected enough, or co-parenting enough. Because my work in the world is now focused on belonging, I am learning about the psychology of community and the practices that are required to keep community functioning in vibrant ways. Yet I refuse to act on these knowings with those closest to me because I am frightened of my own vulnerability. I don’t know how to be this raw with other people. In my journey to find emotional stability I have always lived in my own head – and bedroom – when in pain. It is how I contain myself, keep my emotions from overwhelming others. I have no idea how to be in this strange place I now live between love and pain in a home and intimate relationship with other adults.
Some days I feel like a fraud. Who am I to write about courage, connection, and community when I can’t yet find the strength to bring my own vulnerability to the table with those closest to me? I was able give a child from my body, I can give my work to support my family, and yet these past few months I can rarely share myself with them.
The focus of my self work these days is to hold myself in the same compassion and acceptance that I give others. I am working to stop beating myself up for falling short of my own high standards for conscious living and relationship. The truth is that to evolve from suffering a mental illness that will not allow opposing truths to living peacefully in a situation that is built of opposing truths is a significant accomplishment. It is in recognizing how far I have come these past 20 years that I see I need to give myself patience. I am in the endurance race of my life. I will be living in some form of this dialectic with my son and his adoptive parents forever, whether or not I continue to live in the same home with them. I have plenty of time and safe space in which to build my emotional muscles with people who love me no matter what I bring to the table on any given day. I am already enough simply by choosing to be here and contributing in this home with this family.
Image by Flickr Artist Christian Thompson
Heather Plett asked an important question this week, What does courage look like for you?
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’” Brene Brown
When I tell people about our special family they often respond by telling me how brave I am for living with my son and his adoptive parents. They find it difficult to imagine how I can let go and hold on simultaneously, how I can face the heartache I feel a little bit every day, how I can trust that the heartache is not unbearable.
I don’t feel brave. I just feel like I’m being me.
I don’t feel brave because certain forms of vulnerability come as natural to me as breathing. I have to work to not be emotionally vulnerable with people! When it comes to who I am and my experiences, I easily and literally bare all. I have no shame about where I come from, what I’ve overcome in my life, or who I am. In fact, I think I’m awesome for all I’ve achieved when the odds were stacked sky high against me by both nature and nurture.
Another reason I don’t feel brave is that I am not afraid of emotional pain so it isn’t hard for me to make bold choices. I’ve already experienced enough trauma to know that I can’t be broken. And I know that something beautiful can always be created from the ugly. Every trauma in my life has eventually led me to profound love and connection.
The last reason I don’t feel brave is that I have immense trust in the Universe and other humans. This is how I am wired. Some people say I am naive and too trusting, but I don’t know how to be any other way. I don’t live in fear of much of anything in the world. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of catastrophes. I’m not afraid of people taking advantage of me. I don’t think about locking my doors or cultivating privacy or insuring my belongings or anything that comes from a fear of something bad happening. I spend little time or energy protecting myself. I just don’t think about it. I’m too busy being present to what’s happening now, paying attention to the incredibly beautiful humans and world around me, and wondering about all the magical possibilities for the future.
Considering this question – what courage looks like for me – took a few days to unravel. Eventually I came to an important insight relevant to my journey at this moment in time: my courage looks like asking. For anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s asking for help in a bookstore or asking a dear friend for a favor or asking a donor for money or asking my employer for a well-deserved raise. Every single ask is a reach beyond my comfort zone.
I’ll face the challenge when it means I might experience a profound movement towards my dreams (like proposing to speak at Life is a Verb Camp), but it’s terrifying and doesn’t feel good. The anxiety makes me sick to my stomach. Then it feels downright shitty when I’m rejected, which I experienced many times this past year as I searched for work, only to find myself in a position where my requests to bring more value to the table are denied.
I recently read The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer because I resonate strongly with her message and because I knew it would have something to teach me. Intellectually I know that asking is a powerful act of vulnerability and trust, both qualities we’ve established I have in abundance. But emotionally there is some sort of block, a deep down fear of being told no, or worse, ignored in my asking. And now I see that is where I need to look, to my Invisible Girl archetype, the little girl in me who is used to being neglected and ignored. I recognize this old fear of being unseen and that asking for what I need and want is the scariest position I believe I could put myself in.
I’ve reached a place in my creative life where I have to ask to get where I desire to go as a writer and community builder. I have to ask for attention to my words and my work. I have to ask for social network promotion. I have to ask to be trusted as an expert. I have to ask to be published by other websites. I have to ask for an agent and a publishing deal. I have to ask for collaborators. I have to ask for support in a myriad of ways, eventually from thousands of people, for this to lead me to the possibility of doing the work of my heart full-time and on my own terms.
There is so much asking to be done that I’m shaking in my rose embroidered doc marten boots.
So this is what my courage looks like today – I created a Facebook page for Radical Mystic and asked most of my friends to like it. I am sharing with you that I have this fear of asking and making myself accountable to face it down. Next I’ll start working on my ask for stories about belonging, because I believe sharing our stories will emphasize it’s importance to our quality of life.
I have been immersing myself in information about gift economy and inspired to experiment with the possibilities. Yet I’ve been hiding in this fear of asking since I moved to Portland, consciously leaning on the excuses of adjusting to change, looking for work, nurturing a relationship with my son and chosen family, and and and…the excuses I could call justifiable are endless.
I’m done hiding.
I’m done letting fear rule me.
And this is just the beginning.
Soon there will be more asks, bigger asks, and I’ll meet each one with courage until I am no longer afraid.
What does courage look like for you?
“That we go numb along the way is to be expected. Even the bravest among us, who give their lives to care for others, go numb with fatigue, when the heart can take in no more, when we need time to digest all we meet. Overloaded and overwhelmed, we start to pull back from the world, so we can internalize what the world keeps giving us.
Perhaps the noblest private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our hearts once they’ve closed, to open our souls once they’ve shied away, to soften our minds once they’ve been hardened by the storms of our day.” ―Mark Nepo
A friend of mine posted this quote to my wall on Facebook a few weeks ago because it made her think of me. I imagine she thought of me because I went numb with fatigue, pulling back from nearly every thing and everyone in my world two years ago. And I hope because shenow sees how I am opening my heart again.
Fall 2012. The D/s relationship ended that took me on a dangerous trip with demons and addictions in the driver’s seat. I saw Daddy’s addiction to taboo sex early, one of the red flags I chose to ignore,but I didn’t realize I was addicted to the havoc his sadism wreaked in my heart. It wasn’t until I found myself on my knees on my living room floor in the middle of the night, sobbing because he only gave me 5 minutes of his attention that night and I was desperate for more. I would have done nearly anything for more. It was a few days after that night that he ended it and something in me broke.
I stopped writing. I stopped talking. I stopped spending time with people, or when I did spend time I wasn’t as intimate, affectionate and open as I had been. Friendships suffered. My relationship with Chris suffered.
I suffered from too much pain, both emotionally and physically. The Fibro was flaring up for the first time, taking away my sleep andmy physical and mental capacities. More significantly, my heart was battered and bruised from a series of challenging relationships that ended badly, the one with Daddy being the final straw. I hit bottom in my addiction to masochism and playing the martyr. I was giving myself to people who used me, neglected me, and treated me carelessly. I used a quest for spiritual evolution through vulnerability as justification to put myself in harm’s way. While I can’t accuse anyone else of outright abuse during that time, I abused myself by making myself vulnerable to people who took advantage of the gifts I offered and treated me badly.
The withdrawal started just before the news of my pregnancy. Then I withdrew further into myself in order to give our baby the optimal conditions for life. The combination of Fibro and pregnancy wasn’t aschallenging as I feared it would be, but it was far from easy. And the emotional roller coaster of giving our baby for legal adoption (not yet knowing how beautifully we would become co-parents) took allof my emotional resources to process. It took everything in me – my strength, my grace, my patience, my love for the baby – to care for myself both physically and emotionally so as to keep the baby from experiencing too much stress. I could only allow bits of feeling at a time in fear that my heart would be crushed if I let it all in at once.
It took 5 months after Lake was born for me to stop feeling the heaviness of grief. There were many ways I felt numb and hardened, unsure that I could be, or even wanted to be, vulnerable to anyone again. But that time was also a time of deep healing. In the months I had off from work I processed everything. I found the gifts and meaning in my experiences. I recognized my addiction to masochism and decidedto make different choices for myself. I also experienced tremendous gifts of love and friendship during the pregnancy, birth and after. Ilearned that I don’t have to suffer or hurt to grow. That I don’t have to work or serve to earn love. That relationships don’t have to be boxing matches between each other’s wounded places.
The biggest surprise in my unheralded effort to return is falling so deeply in love with Chris. Our relationship changed and deepened withthe birth of our baby and the process of orienting to this new familywe’ve co-created. Somehow our time apart the last few months has brought us even closer, deepening our desire and commitment. With his love as a foundation, I am opening my heart.
Now I am here, making myself vulnerable again. The walls are coming down as time goes on. I am practicing how to reach out with affection. I am letting the right people back into my heart and learning how to set boundaries. I am learning to manage my energy instead of giving my power away and moving at everyone else’s whims. And I am writing.
I feel strong and brave and rooted in love. It’s a grand place to be.