content warning: suicidal ideation, self-harm
I hear the voice of my therapist saying, “Can you honor your anger? You’ve described a man who gave every indication of skillfulness and emotional maturity. You’ve also described some really hurtful behavior. Have you seen that skillfulness and emotional maturity from him when it really counts?”
Get angry, I encourage myself. Come on, Laura. I’m running through my new woods. I’m on minute 6 of 20 in the middle of a tempo run, my pace is flagging and I’m frustrated. She’s right, of course. But it didn’t pull me out of my inconsolable sadness then, and it’s not pulling me out of this.
I keep pounding along over leaves and branches, hurtling over downed trees going as fast as I can manage. I’m not angry, I miss him. He was going to go to Boston with me. All those years racing alone I wished my spouse would come support me. I eyed other racers with loving partners, intensely jealous hobbling away from finish lines spent and alone. I’ve never dreaded a race–but now I am dreading the Boston Marathon.
It’s hard to run fast when I’m dreading my entire life. I’m trying, but I feel tightness at my diaphragm and I have so little to give.
The trail comes straight to the edge of a creek. There’s a mangled heap of metal at the water’s edge and I vaguely remember maybe having seen a sign about how some destroyed bridge renders this trail no longer circular.
“The fuck it does,” I spit at the heap of detritus. The bank is steep; I drop onto a big root and fling myself down into the water. Holy shit, it’s cold. I pick up my knees and run across, smirking as the water splashes around me and I stomp up the opposite bank. I wish I had half this confidence when I wasn’t running.
But I don’t, and hours later after teaching a class and fending off another anxiety attack I lay on the floor at my therapist’s office. She is talking me through a guided relaxation and I’m trying, I really am. I drift off three times during the exercise into a one-sided conversation with Kevin, and cannot relax. She asks me to try softening the muscles around my face. I can’t. What are they doing? She asks me; what do the frowning muscles say?
I’ve been weeping for several minutes now and tears roll into my ears and hair as I protest; “That’s really stupid, that answer doesn’t make sense at all.”
“They’re keeping me from falling apart. Clearly they are not.” I lay there crying with my hands over my face.
“I actually don’t think that’s stupid at all, that makes a lot of sense. So they’re protecting you?”
I think how hard it’s felt to connect with people since the breakup, how afraid I am that I’ll be pushed away more and how staying walled off and invulnerable is an intelligible if dysfunctional way I’m both preventing and reinforcing my greatest fear. Yeah, actually it does make sense–it’s even mirroring the behavior I’m responding to. As I make the connection, I cry harder.
Lisa asks me to look around the room and evaluate whether it feels safe. I scan all the innocuous objects and accent colors and blubber like a child; “I know I should feel safe here, but I don’t know when I’m safe now. I thought I knew and he…”
I hide my face behind my hands and wail.
“So you’re having trouble trusting yourself now?”
I nod, and Lisa hands tissues down to me on the floor. I blow my nose a few times and groan with frustration. “It’s the same feeling I’m having when I come home. I walk in the door and I should be able to relax but I’m so scared I can’t even think straight. I feel terrible all the time.”
She asks what this terrible feels like. I say I’m terrified, sad, alienated, “And,” I whisper, “Hopeless.”
“What does it mean that you feel that way?”
“I’m not safe. I’m powerless. I am broken. I’m too broken to love, everyone’s going to abandon me, I’m trapped and I don’t know how to get out.”
She asks what’s the worst part of that. I say that it’s all really bad, that I don’t know.
I’m looking up at the ceiling through my tears, mentally tracing patterns on the vents and I can see Lisa taking notes out of the corner of my eye. I feel like hell and I alternate between putting my hands over my belly where I feel panicky and flailing my right arm all over the place–it feels improperly attached and it’s driving me nuts. My heart is pounding. I’m a mess.
“Have you felt like this before?” My face crumples and I hide it again, wailing like a child.
I remember being 18. I wasn’t even living with my parents; I’d moved in with my childhood best friend and her family. I slept in her bed with her, we did everything together. I couldn’t sleep and I was in the living room alone laying on the couch thinking about how I was going to afford to leave town and put myself through school and how I was going to live. I was trying to calculate how I’d do anything working the minimum wage job I was working; I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever be able to do anything else.
She asks if there was a time before that. There were a lot of times, I can’t remember when or why or how old. I remember exactly how I felt, and I feel it again now because trusting someone who pushed me away has torn open my oldest, most terrifying wounds.
I describe being in middle school or high school, how I needed the pain to stop. I wanted to see if I could tolerate cutting my wrists to end my life. It hurt, and it scared me–but it also felt strangely like a relief. I kept doing it, and I had cuts all over my forearms and hands which somehow nobody noticed or did anything about. She asks when I stopped. I can’t remember but I think it might have been when I left the house.
Lisa apologizes to me. I take in her face as she tells me that it’s really sad that nobody noticed or helped me. I cry more. I’ve had a lot of people do a lot of really shitty things to hurt me throughout my life. Apologies are hard to come by.
There is a mountain of shame piled on top of all those wounded places where someone else didn’t sort out their shit and passed it on to me. It’s hard not to take it personally, not to make meaning of incomprehensible cruelty that keeps being directed my way. I may know in my mind that each major wound represents someone else’s unhealed trauma–but in my heart it feels deeply personal each time I’m abused or undervalued, hurt or pushed away. It feels like it means something about what the possibilities are for me–something bleak.
My therapist apologizes to me for the failure of people in my life all those years ago. It restores some measure of my dignity.