The masks we wear (reclaiming my power)
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
My full story has only been held by two people. Those two people are 1) my mom 2) my best friend, Merel.
Merel came into my life during a time when I desperately needed something, though I didn't realize it at the time. That 'something' I so desperately needed was authentic connection and safety. I think when you have never felt a sense of genuine, authentic safety in connection (or if when you have you haven't realized it) it is very hard to understand. All that I knew I felt around her was a sense of relaxation and that I could take of the 'mask' that I felt I had to wear every time I had an interaction. The mask I wore was to conceal the desperation and fear that I was living with on a daily basis. Feeling the need to suppress and conceal the 'shameful' experiences that had gradually compiled within me over the years.
Around Merel, it was easy, effortless, fulfilling, satisfying, energizing and SAFE. I realize now that the safety I felt was coming from a place of her having begun her own healing work and having the awareness, skills and tools to do things like speak her truth and set boundaries with me, things that I had never been taught to do, or hadn't done in an effort to maintain my attachment needs in the ways that I knew how to at the time. In watching Merel model how to do these things, I felt confident that our connection was safe and secure and that it would be safe for me to do the same and that I wouldn't be rejected or abandoned in our connection.
Slowly, with Merel, I felt safe enough to open up around my experiences - many of which I hadn't shared the full extent of with anyone else. Much of the more difficult things were shared with her via text once she had gone back to the Netherlands (her homecountry) and was preparing to make a more permanent move back to Canada. I chose to share with her over text as that was what felt most safe for me and was how I was able to regulate my #nervoussystem and share openly in a way that wouldn't cause me to become too #dysregulated.
When my stories were able to be held by Merel with compassion and she was able to show me understanding, I was able to challenge the beliefs I had about being horrible and irredeemable in my loveability.
You see, what I had experienced from a young age were connections that were not able to hold space for my true, authentic self. These connections were with primary caregivers who, while they loved me and communicated that verbally, had their own histories of unresolved attachment trauma and were very #shutdown. As I child, I was not able to understand that the lack of attunement from my caregivers was not my fault, but a result of a deeply unhappy marriage with layers of unresolved resentments that had begun before I was even born. When you are young and your needs for secure, authentic attachment and connection aren't met by primary caregivers, your only option is to assume that it has something to do with your own lack of #worthiness or #loveability. The reality that your parents cannot meet your needs is too deeply frightening and threatening to your being as you are depending on these individuals for your survival. I learned very quickly that my feelings, emotions and experiences were 'too much' to be held by these caregivers. As a result, I learned to create a version of myself that would be acceptable enough to get my basic attachment needs met, (even though they still rarely were) and I continued to adapt in these ways well into my adult life. I still do it now.
I don't need to go into detail about the various, ongoing and consistent traumatic experiences that I experienced in childhood (both within my home and outside of it) but suffice to say I did not have the safety required in relationship in order for me to truly feel seen, heard and to express and process these experiences and the emotions surrounding them. THAT is the important thing to note about trauma, it is not often what happens, but the absence of what should have happened that leads to the damage.
Fast forward to the age of seventeen when my parents finally separated, my Dad left for another partner and my mom went into a life crisis of her own. I found myself in an extreme state of what I now know to be #dorsalvagal, a defence mechanism where the nervous system shuts down and dissociates as it is no longer capable of being present to 1) the degree of threat at hand 2) the lack of authentic connection and safety. This defence mechanism is physiological in every sense of the word. It is a protective mechanism that we share with all other mammals and even our earliest primates, reptiles. It is the the oldest and most developed branch of our #autonomicnervoussystem. I would discover twenty years later that not only had I entered a dissociative protective state at that time, but the stress on my body/mind would also contribute to the onset of an autoimmune/ hormonal illness, #HashimotosThyroiditis, a condition that went unrecognized and untreated for most of my adult life. The combination of all of this lead me to seek support where I had been taught to seek support, from my Family Doctor/GP. Of course, as the standard of 'treatment', I was handed a prescription for antidepressant medication in as little as fifteen minutes, with zero exploration or link to what was perhaps happening at home or in my personal life. I was handed something else that day along with my prescription, as well. Though it wasn't explicitly said, I was handed a belief system - something was 'wrong' with me that needed to be fixed, and this pill was what was going to do it. The only problem was, the pill didn't fix it. I was given no other explanation for my distress or symptoms outside of this concept that I was experiencing a random chemical imbalance. Or perhaps not random - ‘genetic‘.
This message/belief that I inherited that day would set in motion a chain of events that would take me close to twenty years to work my way through, and at the end of it, barely survive. It told me, in so many words, that the underlying #belief that had been created in my childhood, when I was not adequately nurtured, that there was something WRONG with me, was correct. There WAS something wrong with me and it was that I was depressed or, as it is so often labelled by society and the medical community, 'mentally ill'.
Had someone sat me down, asked me what was happening in my family, told me that perhaps my feelings of anger, grief, sadness and suppressed rage due to what I had experienced were valid and totally understandable, perhaps I would have had the opportunity to process them, safely, with the support I needed. I did go to a therapist at the time. She was a friend of the family and while extremely empathic and passionate about her work, there was no explanation of trauma or the body included in the process. The talk therapy that I experienced did little for me aside from allowing me to ruminate actively in front of another human being for one hour a week. It gave me some sense of connection, which I am grateful for, but it still pathologized me, helping me to 'cope' with the symptoms of my 'pathology' in the 'best way possible'.
This focus on my 'wrongness', the pathology and the 'genetic' nature of what I was experiencing completely dismissed environmental causes. Did my grandfather experience depression? Yes. He also grew up in a profoundly abusive home environment and then proceeded to be sent over to Germany in WW2 where he was the sole survivor of a bombing of his platoon. He was immediately given alcohol by his comrades to deal with the symptoms he was experiencing, as was so common back then, and it became a years long battle with addiction for him. Was there a genetic predisposition? Perhaps. What was neglected was the fact that my grandfather had been profoundly traumatized. And so had I.
What was missing from those early doctor visits and therapy sessions was what I have come to understand as #traumainformedpractice which understands the role and effects of #stress on the #nervousystem. My body shutting down and bringing me into a disconnected state was a monumentally intuitive, powerful, protective and resilient act. It was survival based. Was it safe for me to be connected with the stress, uncertainty and ongoing stress occuring in my home? No. Was it safe for me to process emotions like anger, shame and even, yes, rage, towards my primary caregivers, the ones who were biologically supposed to protect me? No. Did it then make sense that my system adapted to meet the immediate needs of my circumstances? The answer, I believe, is yes.
Did neurotransmitters play a role what I was experiencing? Perhaps. I have come to believe, however, that this theory is extremely reductive and simplistic, not to mention that is has never actually been scientifically proven in the history of medicine. (If you have a hard time believing that, as I did, I encourage you to look it up for yourself). It is, at best, a guess that has continued to be honoured as the standard of care in North America for mental/emotional distress.
My whole point to this sharing is that twenty years ago, when I went through one of the most monumentally stressful periods of my life and my body responded, I was met with the notion and belief that there was something wrong with me that needed to be fixed. And I believed that - for twenty years. And it perpetuated my symptoms. It lead me down a path of going to clinician after clinician after clinician, asking for help, support and guidance. Giving my power away. Asking for solutions from a system that medicalized me. Continuing to try to shut my body up and shut it down. And it never helped. It only got worse. Pathologizing what I was experiencing only pushed my system into a deeper protective state, reinforcing the 'brokenness' 'separateness' and shame that I was already carrying around. It mirrored perfectly the lac of attunement, validation, connection and #safety that I had experienced growing up. It retraumatized me.
The question that I find myself asking now is: what if, in the moments when I was stressed, struggling and shut down, I had been supported in understanding that my body was a brilliant survival machine? And that while, yes, what I was experiencing was monumentally painful and challenging, there really was nothing WRONG with me after all. What if I had been provided with the safe connection I was starved for and recieved help to reconnect to my #body and its sensations and the emotions that were shoved down inside of it? What if my experiences of abuse and neglect, while maybe not viewed as severe as a combat veteran or a car crash surivor, had been validated as real and my pain had been legitimized? Would Would I have felt as great a need to continue to disconnect from my body, symptoms and emotions?
There's no way to be 100% sure BUT these are all the questions that I am beginning to ask myself as I learn more and become empowered by #traumainformedcare, #thenervousystem, #polyvagaltheory, #thepowerofconnection, #attachmenttheory, #internalfamlysystems, and many other practices and modalities that are helping me to understand and connect with my inherant #unbrokenness.
Slowly and steadily I am taking my #power back.