Last night, after sunset, I lay in my hammock in the growing darkness of my backyard feeling low. I couldn’t shake the growing melancholy that’s been with me this week, but I couldn’t quite name it either. Why, in the middle of all of the excitement of finally launching the Centre for Holding Space after many months of hard work, was I feeling so much sadness?
Perhaps it was launch hangover? Perhaps it was weariness from holding space for some of my daughters’ crises this week, combined with disappointment in myself when I missed a baseball game and let down my nephew, combined with some vicarious sadness for a daughter’s friend who’s been here a lot this week because of family conflict? Perhaps it was worry over my daughter’s health or concerns over my other daughter’s disappointing job prospects?
I gave up on the hammock last night and came inside to let Netflix put a pause on the overthinking.
And then, some time in the middle of a mediocre TV show, it hit me… today is my anniversary. Twenty-seven years ago, I was a hopeful bride entering a new chapter in my life. Twenty-seven years ago, I was oblivious of the hardships that would bring that chapter to an end.
And tomorrow is another kind of anniversary. Seventeen years ago – the day after we celebrated our tenth anniversary – my dad was killed in a farm accident.
Suddenly I knew what my body was holding. It was grief over the many losses that this week represents. It was the loss of dreams, the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of belonging, and the loss of lineage. It was also the loss of home (my mom left the farm shortly after) and the loss of a grandfather for my kids.
It was the loss of Plan A.
Earlier this week, my daughter and I watched the movie Interstellar. It’s a too-long sci-fi about a hero who must pass through a worm-hole into another galaxy to find another inhabitable planet on which to relocate humanity (because the earth is dying). Frankly, I’m weary of the hero’s journey trope in movies in which someone (usually a white male) has to make the ultimate sacrifice and abandon his family in order to save the world, but there was at least one thing in the movie’s plot line that I found intriguing.
Finding another planet and relocating humanity is Plan A. It’s what motivates the hero (the only man left who knows how to fly into space) to take the journey because he wants to save his children and create a future for them. Plan B – the fall-back plan if the hero and his crew can’t return to this galaxy and to earth – is to stay in the new galaxy, let the old earth and all her inhabitants die, and colonize another planet with the frozen embryos they’re carrying with them.
At some point in the movie, (spoiler alert), after the hero and his crew have made multiple sacrifices and are somewhere in the other galaxy, we find out that the scientist who was the mastermind behind the journey knew that Plan A would never work. BUT… he also knew that if the hero didn’t BELIEVE that Plan A was possible (that his sacrifice was worth it in order to save his kids), he would never be motivated to make the journey. Plan A was what got him to the place where Plan B could be implemented.
Sometimes Plan B is the only thing that CAN happen, but we only get there because we commit ourselves to a belief in Plan A.
This morning I rode my bike to the park and sat on a bench with my journal. The tears started to flow as I realized that my body was still holding some of the grief over the loss of Plan A.
Plan A was what that blushing bride was carrying down the aisle twenty-seven years ago today. It was the dream of a traditional family unit – a home with a mom and a dad with good jobs and a couple of kids with the white picket fence and the annual vacations to interesting places. It was stability and ease and it was raising kids who’d still have grandparents into their adulthood. It was the kind of Big Love and Romance the fairy tales had held out in front of her.
Plan A didn’t involve divorce and single parenting and a dad killed under a tractor or a mom dying too young of cancer. It didn’t include suicide attempts or psych wards or dead babies. There was no thought of trauma or grief or tear-soaked pillows in the middle of the night. None of that was there, in her thoughts, when she walked down the aisle. They couldn’t be, or she would never have taken those steps into the unknown galaxy.
But maybe Plan A was never anything more than an illusion – the kind of mirage that keeps a person moving forward in a desert even when there is no water to be found. Maybe the belief in Plan A is what motivates us, in the early days when the world seems more black and white and full of clarity and promise and binary belief systems, so that we have the chance to grow and deepen enough to live into an acceptance of Plan B.
Maybe Plan A was never the point, it’s just the path to get us here.
For me, an acceptance of Plan B – the realization that my life wasn’t going to be a fulfillment of the hope that the blushing bride carried down the aisle along with her bouquet of white roses – is what brought me to the Centre for Holding Space. It’s what allowed me to make meaning of my mom’s death and write the blog post that catapulted this work into the world. It’s what was awakened in me when my stillborn son Matthew made his brief sojourn into the world and introduced me to grief and pointed me in the direction of the quest I’ve been on since.
No, I wouldn’t have chosen Plan B, but if I hadn’t found my way here, I wouldn’t know the pure joy that this work has brought me. I wouldn’t have found my way into genuine community and the kinds of deep relationships that give life meaning.
I wouldn’t have discovered that life has more purpose and beauty when you let go of the illusion.
Truthfully? Though I let myself grieve Plan A for a moment in the park this morning, because my body needed me to acknowledge it and not brush it aside, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The loss of Plan A is what brought me to this beautiful life, this beautiful community, and this beautiful work. And next month, it’s what will allow my book to be born into the world.
From this side of the Great Loss, Plan B looks pretty amazing and richly textured. In retrospect, Plan A looks rather two-dimensional.
I’m going to celebrate the beautiful complexity that is Plan B. And I won’t be afraid of the grief over losing Plan A, because that’s what gives the beauty its shadow and texture.
I am a meaning maker. A word warrior. A truth teller.
To me, the written word is like a flashlight, illuminating the darkness just enough so that I can see the next place my foot should land on the path. When I read other people’s words, they light the path for me. When I write my own words, I hold the flashlight for myself. And when I share those words, I turn the flashlight back and light the path for those who come after me.
Right now, I want to have words. I want to read them, write them, and share them. I want to cling to them like a lifeline.
I want to make sense of this strange world we’re living in. I want to illuminate the liminal space of COVID19 — with other people’s words and with my own. I want to know where to put my feet and I want to shine the light so that others will find firm footing too.
I turn to the poets and they lend me some comfort and meaning, but none of their poems fully satisfy the ache. I turn to my journal, but mostly I stare at a blank page. I turn to the stack of books on my nightstand, but none resonate with the tuning fork of this particular moment in history.
More than anything, I want to give a name to this thing that’s taken up residence in the pit of my stomach.
To name it is to tame it, I tell myself, as I wrack my brain for the right words for these emotions. Fear? Existential dread? Claustrophobia? Anxiety? Grief? Agitation? Restlessness? Loneliness? Emptiness? Malaise? Distrust? Despair? Anger?
What about the spaces in between the emotions, or the spaces where they overlap? Is there a word for grief-anxiety? Or loneliness-agitation? Is there a way to capture the way they swell up in me, one on top of the other?
What about the times when the emotions settle into little more than a dull ache – like mild indigestion in the pit of my stomach? And… is that joy that’s unexpectedly peaking through now and then? Or hopefulness? Peace? Ease? Restfulness? Are those things real or am I just imagining them?
What about the collective emotions? Is this thing in the pit of my stomach only mine, or am I holding a piece of something much bigger than me? How does this shadow of fear that’s spread over the whole planet feel when it lands in my own gut? What about my children’s emotions – do they swell up in my body the way their tiny bodies once lived in my womb?
I feel the questions fill me, but I don’t find any answers. I ponder, for a moment, whether we need a new name for this emotion – something to mark the newness of the place we find ourselves in. Covidaphobia? Coronanxiety? Is there something that will capture the many layers of uncertainty and loss and instability and unfairness and complexity? Is there something that speaks to the macro (the number of people who will potentially die or have their lives destroyed from this) and the micro (the small day-to-day ways that I and my family are impacted)?
No answers land. No words show up on the page. There is nothing that makes sense in this senseless landscape.
And so I go to my basement and pull out the large canvas I’d been saving to someday make something pretty with. But I don’t want to make it pretty today. I want it to hold the things I can’t put into words. I want it to be messy and unfinished and liminal and therapeutic.
I splash paint on the surface and, foregoing the paint brush, thrust my hand into the paint, swirling it around, spreading it to the edges of the canvas. It feels good to have my hand covered in paint.
At first I have to resist the urge to make it meaningful, to make it “say” something. My old ways of making meaning bubble to the surface and I want to translate what I’m feeling into something that makes sense – something logical and with shape. Would an ocean with waves represent how this feels? Is it the heart of coronavirus I want to express on the canvas? Is it a spiral? A globe? A labyrinth? A cave?
But every time I try to make it familiar and understandable, I feel constricted and frustrated. This is something different. It’s messy. It’s a process. Its meaning is in the doing, not in the outcome.
It’s sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful. It’s sometimes dark and sometimes light. There are moments when I love it and moments when I hate it. There are moments when it cracks me open and the grief erupts like a volcano from my body. There are moments when it stills the churning in my body and I finally find the peace that has eluded me in many weeks. There are moments when I feel myself dancing with lightness as I paint and moments when I want to burn it all to the ground.
I’m tempted to stop in a moment when I like what’s on the canvas. But that feels like cheating – like falling back on an old pattern – so I pour black paint on my hand and drag it through my favourite bits on the canvas. The black feels like truth.
When my body tells me there’s nothing left in me to express, I stop. And in that moment I look down and realize that what’s left on my hand is the most beautiful part.
The next day, I go back to the canvas. Again, I spill more paint and drag it across the canvas. This time a shape emerges. Sometimes it looks like a giant eye, sometimes it looks like lips. Again, I drag black through it. And then silver. And then I drag my finger nails down the page until it looks like everything on the page is caught behind prison bars. And then drops of red, like blood dripping down the canvas.
The emotional waves rise and fall, but they feel easier to hold this time – less constricted. Whatever shows up in my body shows up on the canvas. I don’t try to give anything names – only colours.
Whenever I look down at my hand, I see that it is beautiful. I resist the urge to give that meaning – instead I simply notice it.
The canvas never makes sense. But at the same time, it makes all the sense in the world.
I will keep going back to it, again and again, adding layer upon layer as long as this liminal space keeps us in this shapeless, senseless void. I will let it tell my body things that my brain can’t understand.
I will pour my feelings out through my hand onto the canvas and I won’t wrestle them into meaning.
The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.
We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.
The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on.
Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.
This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life.
Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.
Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.
In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.
In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.
A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.
“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”
I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.
“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”
The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.
It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.
For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.
It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.
Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.
Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.
The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.
Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.
The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.
Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.
It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.
Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.
None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.
I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.
Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.
A couple of days ago, I cried in the carwash. It seemed a fitting place for waterworks, and a little screaming, if necessary. I was on my way home with the groceries that were needed to cook supper for my family, but I wasn’t ready to be home yet, so I used the excuse that the car needed washing to buy myself some crying time.
I’d hit overwhelm. My daughter had had surgery earlier in the day, after many months of repeated attempts to address her breathing problems, and the surgery wasn’t entirely successful. Plus we found out new information about her prognosis that’s been discouraging for both of us. In addition to the worry about her, I found myself hitting some nervous system overload due to some things that happened at the hospital that triggered some of my past trauma. This came at the tail end of a month of traveling and teaching, so my resources were already depleted.
Overwhelm happens, and I’ve come to accept it as simple reality in this life I’ve chosen (or any life, for that matter).Sometimes one simply must cry in a carwash to release all of the emotions one is holding, especially when some of that holding is on other people’s behalf. Sometimes a single good cry is enough and sometimes it isn’t.
I have a lot of capacity for holding space, but sometimes I max out on that capacity. It happens to the best of us, and I share this with you to encourage you to give yourself permission to admit when you’re maxed out too.
In this post, though, I want to go a little further and talk about some of the deeper layers of why we get maxed out in this work of holding space and what we can do about it.
What I’ve encountered, again and again, as I travel the world and meet with people who hold space, is that this work especially calls wounded people. My workshops are full of wounded, healing people. (I considered calling them “wounded healers”, but holding space is more about “being with” than it is about “healing”. Perhaps “wounded witnesses” is better.) We become good at holding space for the brokenness and pain in the world partly because we already intimately know the brokenness and pain in ourselves. We learn to bear witness to grief and fear and trauma and all of the other complex emotions in others because we know those things in ourselves.
The challenge is that, even when we do a lot of healing, we continue to carry those wounds with us for life. We never become perfectly healed, saintly people – we just become people who learn to carry those wounds with grace, integrate them into our lives, and use them to help us better understand other people who are wounded.
When scar tissue grows over a flesh wound, that scar tissue may be thicker than the original skin, but it’s also usually more tender and vulnerable and may need special care. Similarly, when we have emotional wounds, we might grow emotional scar tissue over it that protects us, but we remain tender and vulnerable because of it. We’ll likely need to be extra tender with ourselves whenever that emotional wound is bumped.
These wounds that we carry are both blessings and curses. They help us to see the world through more compassionate eyes and they help grow our ability to sit with messiness and discomfort, but they also make us more vulnerable and more in need of healthy boundaries and robust self-care.
Let me share a little about that woundedness in me…
I mentioned above that my nervous system was flooded while I was at the hospital, and that’s because of the multiple traumas that were being triggered while I was there.
A.) I once spent three weeks in another part of that same hospital trying to prolong my third pregnancy, and that pregnancy ended with the stillbirth of my son. During that three week period, I had a significant psychotic break that was probably brought on by the steroids the medical team was pumping into my body to try to speed the development of my son. It was one of the scariest and most confusing 24 hours of my life.
B.) During the course of my marriage, my former husband attempted suicide twice and had to spend a week in the hospital each time. During those times, I served as his advocate and primary caregiver, and (during the second attempt) also had to be a supportive mom to our three young daughters.
That second trauma is the one that’s left the most complex mark on my life. Both times he went into the kind of intense emotional tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt were times when I’d turned my attention away from him. The first time, I was five months pregnant with our first child. The second time, I was about to launch my own business.
My trauma brain became conditioned to believe that “when I turn my attention away from suffering, people die”. (Or at least they attempt to die – trauma brain doesn’t know the difference.)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of that particular trauma. It’s hard to go into the details, because the story is not mine alone (and I don’t want to blame or slander anyone), but there were many, many ways, in my marriage, that my trauma brain was conditioned to believe that I (and others) would suffer whenever I was inattentive to another’s suffering, whenever I didn’t sacrifice myself to fill another’s needs, whenever I tried to erect or hold boundaries, and whenever I tried to protect my children from the instability created by the mental illness.
When it comes to stress and trauma, I am well acquainted with all of the typical amygdala reactivity – fight, flight, and freeze – but I am most intimately familiar with one identified more recently as “tend and befriend”. Researchers who named the tend and befriend response found that some people (especially women) react to stressful situations by tending to those most vulnerable to harm and by befriending the perpetrator in order to reduce the harm. Again and again, we put our bodies on the line to try to mitigate harm, until it becomes so much a part of who we are that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. (This has also become a culturally expected role of women – especially mothers – so the complexity of it runs deep. Our trauma often becomes part of the way we are controlled by the dominant culture.)
I spent much of my marriage tending and befriending, in many, many stressful situations, so that pattern is deeply ingrained in me and is easily triggered whenever anything reminds me (usually subconsciously) of the original trauma. Triggers can appear out of nowhere, and I never know what will trigger me, but some of the common sources are: when someone exhibits the behavioural patterns of my former husband’s mental illness, when I am critiqued for not caring enough or being inattentive to suffering, when I feel manipulated by passive-aggressiveness, when conflict makes a situation feel unstable, or when someone ignores or makes fun of one of my boundaries. This can happen in the middle of a workshop I’m facilitating, while I’m interacting with friends or family, or even when someone responds critically to a Facebook post of mine. Each time it happens, my body responds the same way – as though the threat is always just as serious as a person potentially dying.
A flooded nervous system can feel different for each person, but here’s what happens to me, usually instantly and simultaneously: Adrenaline pumps through my body (the physiological preparation for fight or flight) and my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, and I become hyper-alert to any perceived threat. My throat tightens and if I try to speak it might come out sounding choked or emotional. My brain gets buzzy (amygdala hijacking) and I can’t focus, think clearly, or access my capacity for logic and reason. I become hyper-focused on the source of the triggering and my brain keeps looping back to it even when I try to redirect it elsewhere (sometimes long into the night, when I’m trying to sleep). I have an overwhelming compulsion to respond to the perceived threat – usually in a tend and befriend manner, but often also in a fight/flight/freeze fashion – even when I try to convince myself that it doesn’t logically make sense to. Sometimes I dissociate (freeze) and feel numb and checked out, going through the motions of relationships and life but not fully present.
My therapist has helped me to accept that, though I’ve made huge progress in healing the trauma, there will always be a part of it that I will carry with me, like emotional scar tissue. I’ve stopped hoping that I’ll eventually never be triggered and instead I’m learning to integrate this wound into my life and respond with self-compassion when the triggering happens.
The added complexity of this kind of trauma is that it’s not only rooted in my marriage, it’s generational, cultural, and religious. I inherited it from my mom, who had much of the same trauma running through her body and likely inherited it from her mom (and so on). I also inherited it from my patriarchal culture and pacifist religion (i.e., “turn the other cheek” is a deeply held belief in my Mennonite upbringing). With something so deeply rooted in my cells, it’s unrealistic to hope that I can transform it over the course of only a few years. It’s likely something that my children will continue to heal for many years too, because they’ve inherited it from me (though we’re doing our best to heal it together).
Here are some of the things that I do when I am dysregulated (another name for nervous system flooding):
1.) Practice self-soothing in the moment that it happens. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, let myself cry, listen to soothing music, lay my hands on my throat and/or heart to soothe the places where I feel my body respond, etc. (For more suggestions, I recommend Gwynn Raimondi’s Nervous System Soothing card deck.) When it happened in the hospital, I walked to the cafeteria for a cup of tea and sat in a hidden corner taking deep breaths while sipping the tea slowly.
2.) Strengthen my boundaries and become fierce about enforcing them. I can, admittedly, come across as rather abrupt and sometimes even a little cruel when I’ve been triggered and need to erect boundaries, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to protect myself in the way that I need to. Sometimes I simply don’t have the spoons to finesse my boundary-enforcement, so occasionally I find myself apologizing after the fact (though I’m careful not to over-apologize or take responsibility for other people’s reactions, because that can be part of my tend and befriend tendency as well). In the hospital, for example, when I became overwhelmed, I gave myself permission to not sit in the same waiting room as my former husband (who I wasn’t expecting to be there) and not explain myself either, because I knew that if I did so, my body would be on high alert and I would have to work extra hard to fight the compulsion to tend and befriend.
3.) Reach out to people who help me co-regulate. I have a few close friends who respond to my texts, in my moments of dysregulation, with just the right compassion, understanding, and protectiveness that help to calm and centre me (i.e., holding space). They were my lifeline in the hospital. Some even offered to drive across town to sit with me, but I decided it wasn’t necessary. They continued to check in on me after the worst of the perceived crisis was over, and I am grateful for the way they supported me through it. The added benefit in admitting to close friends when I’m dysregulated is that the vulnerability helps to normalize it, to mitigate shame, and to build resilience (as Brené Brown teaches).
4.) Continue to look after my body after the flooding has subsided. In a particularly overwhelming incident, it can take quite awhile to return to a sense of calm. Sometimes I still feel shaky and edgy a day or two later. That’s when I immerse myself in epson salt baths, get a massage if necessary, and do some movement practice (sometimes it’s as simple as dancing around my house to the song Brave).
5.) Give myself some intentional time for processing/healing after it’s over. To continue to integrate this trauma wound into my life, I give it a chance to speak to me. After my nervous system has returned to calm, I usually take out my journal and write about the experience and what it revealed. As part of that practice, I always try to find ways to congratulate myself for the ways I’ve made progress, or simply for the way that I survived. This week I had to reschedule a couple of meetings so that I could spend a morning in a coffee shop with my journal, but it was worth it. Sometimes the processing also includes a visit to my therapist or other support-worker.
6.) Treat myself for adrenal fatigue, if necessary. After my marriage ended, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition caused by being in a prolonged state of nervous system and adrenaline overload. I took adrenal health supplements for some time and, though I don’t need them regularly anymore, I still take them occasionally when I go through a period of overload and fatigue.
7.) Practice self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. This week, I dropped multiple balls, and in some cases, let people down. That’s the kind of thing I tend to beat myself up over, but I’m getting better at acknowledging my imperfections and forgiving myself for the ways I fumble when my brain’s not focusing clearly and/or I’m distracted or overwhelmed and/or I don’t have as much time or energy for things as I expect.
This trauma wound often feels like a burden that I’m stuck carrying for the rest of my life, but I’ve also come to see it as a gift. I likely wouldn’t be doing the work that I do in the way that I do it without such an intimate understanding of trauma. It allows me to be more compassionate with other trauma-impacted people, it helps me to be more attentive to what’s going on beneath the surface with people I’m teaching or coaching, and it’s taught me a lot about boundaries and the value and importance of holding space for yourself.
When I teach, I do it not only from my strengths, but from my weaknesses. I believe that people can benefit from the authentic sharing of the ways that I still get triggered and overwhelmed and the ways that I fail people that I’m trying to help, especially when I’m dysregulated. Sometimes I’ve even admitted to having a flooded nervous system in the middle of a workshop. The response to that kind of sharing is almost always relief and understanding – they’re glad to know that we don’t have to be perfect to do this work of holding space and that their wounds are as welcome as mine.
To be wounded is not to be broken or useless – it is simply to be human and real. It is also to be tender and openhearted. When we learn to treat our own woundedness with compassion and understanding, we can treat other people’s woundedness the same way.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, be as tender as you can with yourself and recognize that you are doing the best that you can with the skills that you have. Your body is uniquely designed to have the kinds of responses that you have, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways that those responses have become maladaptive. Instead, learn to hold space for them, integrate them, find the gifts beneath the pain, and do your best to heal and transform them as much as you can.
We are not meant to be superheroes. We are meant to be imperfect humans fumbling through this life together. We are meant to be wounded witnesses.
“Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate.” – Pauline Boss
When I teach about holding space, I almost always start by teaching about liminal space. It helps participants to have a more clear understanding of the depths and complexity of the space they’re holding and the space they must journey through themselves.
Liminal space is the space between stories. It’s a term that emerges out of an anthropological study of rituals that mark a person’s transition from one part of their lives to another. The “limen” is the empty space between who they once were and who they are becoming – like a vision quest for a young person going through a coming-of-age ceremony, for example.
To illustrate the liminal space, I talk about the cocoon phase of a butterfly transformation – it’s the empty space in the middle in which the contents of a cocoon looks like neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly. It’s a space of surrender, ambiguity, and usually a sense of lostness.
The more I teach it, though, the more I realize the limitations of this metaphor, largely because of the linear, goal-oriented transformation that it points toward. The intent of the cocoon is always to produce a butterfly. A butterfly is always the sign that the liminal space journey has been a “success”. There is always (unless the cocoon is destroyed) one direction with one outcome in this transformation.
But what about when the liminal space journey does not result in a lighter, more beautiful creature that can fly? And what about when the liminal space emptiness becomes the pattern for the rest of a person’s life?
Does EVERY liminal space bring a new story of freedom, flight, and beauty?
The answer is no. Life is never that simple. When a person is aging with dementia, for example, there is diminishing capacity and less and less freedom. And when a family member has gone missing or has gone to jail or become addicted to drugs there is no resolution and rarely a happy ending. And when a refugee leaves a beloved homeland and can never return, they live with a lifelong yearning for what cannot be reclaimed. And when a person must learn to function in a wheelchair they know they’ll be in for the rest of their life, there is loss of mobility, autonomy and access to the things they love to do. None of these things offer a simple, linear destination.
Life is always more complex than a simple metaphor can reflect, so we take from it whatever it can offer and then look beyond it to find more complex truth.
Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe situations where there is no clarity, closure, or resolution. According to her, there are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type I: physical absence with psychological presence ( e.g., missing, disappeared, kidnapped, separated, military deployment)
Type II: psychological absence with physical presence (e.g., addictions, dementia, chronic mental illnesses: e.g., autism, depression, bi polar, schizophrenia, etc.)
“Due to the ambiguity surrounding the loss, individuals, couples, and families remain confused. Without comprehension, they can’t make sense of their situation to cope. Without meaning, they can’t find hope to help them move forward with their lives. They are simply stuck.” (From the book Ambiguous Loss, by Pauline Boss)
What is undeniable in these situations of ambiguous loss, even when the “after” story is much harder and more bleak than the “before”, is that there is some kind of transformation. A person’s life has been irrevocably changed. Even if the period of ambiguous loss ends (ie. a member of the military returns from deployment) there is change in the relationship and change in the individuals involved. I remember, for example, a friend who was married to a member of the military who said “When he’s deployed, I have to get used to him being away, and then when I’m finally used to it, he returns and I have to get used to THAT. Whenever I get used to something, it changes.” Her new life was one of impermanence and cycles of loss.
If only we could simply serve as cocoons when we hold space, knowing that a person will emerge better, stronger, and more beautiful after the liminal space journey. If only we could always bring hope to this work and not despair. If only life were more linear and less messy.
But if that were the case, I’d have to find other work, because little of what I teach would have any relevance. This work is only relevant BECAUSE the future is unclear and cocoons don’t always result in butterflies.
Yesterday, for the umpteenth time, I was asked to define holding space, and what came out of my mouth, for the first time, was “Holding space is showing up for what IS, not for what we want it to be or what we will manipulate it into being.”
It’s about letting go of the outcome. It’s about showing up even when the grief is deep and messy and there is no happy ending. It’s about surrendering rather than controlling. It’s about learning to accept the non-linear nature of all of our lives.
When life gets messy and you are in a relationship in which you’re holding space for someone who’s experiencing this kind of complexity and ambiguity, here are some things to keep in mind.
Don’t try to fix the grief. Whether it’s a loss of mobility, the absence of a family member, or the loss of one’s country, there will be grief involved, and it may be messier and stay around longer than you anticipate. Someone who’s been displaced from their country, for example, may grieve that loss for the rest of their life. A comment like “at least you’re safer here” doesn’t help to diminish the loss.
Support (but do not impose) meaning-making. As Viktor Frankl teaches in Man’s Search for Meaning, those people who find meaning in hardship and loss (in his case, concentration camps) have the greatest ability to survive and thrive in spite of it. When, for example, someone who lost a family member to drug addiction uses their experience to support others on the same journey, it can help them to not drown in the grief they still carry. But don’t try to make meaning for them – they have to arrive at it in their own timing.
Practice mindfulness as a way of letting go of attachment to the outcome. A mindfulness practice of some kind (and I give no prescriptions, because it looks different for everyone) teaches us to notice what is present and then to release it without judgement or attachment. One of the mantras I adopted early on is this work that has sustained me through many moments when I desperately wanted control is “The outcome is not my responsibility.” Show up for what’s needed in the moment, and let the rest go. You are not God.
Keep showing up. Many people, when they experience great loss, disability, chronic illness, etc., also experience the loss of friendships. The relationship has changed because the things that you can do together may have changed, or you don’t know how to be present in a situation that you can’t fix, or you’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Your own fear of change or the loss that you have experienced because of the change in your friend makes it hard to show up. But your consistent presence may be one of the things this person relies on to help them survive this liminal space. You may not know what to do or what to say, but your presence often speaks louder than words.
Don’t lose your sense of humour. Of course, you don’t want to make inappropriate jokes at a funeral or at someone’s hospital bedside, but there’s also a good chance that your friend needs you to bring some laughter into the space. A sense of humour helps to build a resilient spirit, so don’t be afraid to laugh with a person who may be tired of all of the sombre people they’re suddenly surrounded by. They will likely appreciate the normalcy of it in the middle of what feels like an upended life.
This is far from a perfect science. There is plenty of ambiguity and each situation is different. Each person is different, too, so the best you can do is to be humble, offer what you can, and let love be your guide.
Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.
I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.
Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.
If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)
As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.
Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)
Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”
There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.
For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.
To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)
Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.
And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.
Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)
I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.
It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.
That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.
While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it.Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).
There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.
As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.
My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.
There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.
It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.
As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.
I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.
Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.