Healing is a complicated journey. You can think that you’re all done, but then something happens to remind you that more time is needed. The worst part about that is that the wound doesn’t need to tell you that it’s there because you’ll check for yourself. Like with a bruise that’s turned green, you poke at the pain to see if it lingers. “Hm, does this hurt? Let me test it.” You apply more and more pressure until you can feel the pain again. It’s never as bad as the initial injury, but it’s still there. Different, but there.
For instance, you want to test the emotional maturity you’ve developed by checking up on your ex. You know this is stupid, because what if they’re still with the person they left you for? Wouldn’t that be horrible? Of course, they are; but you notice that the pain is different now, less hot. In fact, you’re not sad at all, you’re angry. But you’re angry for the strangest reasons, like: Why are they still in Indianapolis? Why are they still an LPN? Why haven’t they married that girl yet? Are they happy? Why did they call you at 11pm on a Saturday? Were they drunk? Why do they still have your number? They were the one who ended things, so what on earth do you have to talk about?
So yes, it hurts, but in a weirder, more complex way that has more to do with how they reflect on you as a person and the decisions you made.
And let’s say, hypothetically, that your ex is feeling the same way, testing their own bruises by checking on you because, after all, they’re human. What would you say?
Maybe something like: I don’t miss you. I rarely think about you. People tell you that time makes you view the past more fondly, but I don’t. I see our relationship for the toxic, obsessive love that it was. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the lessons we learned from one another, or don’t cherish the better times we had—but I don’t miss you. You helped put me on my path, and I am grateful, but I don’t miss you.
But let’s set the hypothetical aside.
Since leaving Indianapolis, I’ve had so many beginnings. We don’t need to talk about physical moves since those are all well-documented here on the blog. The beginnings are internal. Being alone with myself for the first time in my life, I realized that there were so many unresolved traumas that needed tending. I was a worrier because of the unstable home life that I’d had. I had a desperate need for control because I’d never had any agency. I was overly-critical because I hated myself. I was codependent because I didn’t know how to exist without someone needing me. “Rescuing” people more broken than I was became my way of putting off my own pain.
Moving beyond these things was way harder than anything I’d ever done. After I got to Boston, I was still that same sad person I’d been in Indianapolis, with a little more confidence. I got taken advantage of by a lot of people who were empty and looking for anything to make them feel like they mattered. It happened again and again until there came a point last year after being strung along by a man who was so like the other men I had loved before (y’know, emotionally stunted) when I told myself that the bullshit had to stop. If I ever wanted to have fulfilling relationships with anyone, I would have to stop being a doormat for everyone else’s trauma.
The doubts crept in as soon I decided I wanted to change. No, it was more than that. I had an identity crisis. Who was I when I stopped taking care of others? Would I still matter? Would I even exist?
The short answer is “yes”, but it took a long time to be okay with that answer. There were a lot of angry and sad nights. A lot of journaling. A lot of lashing out. A lot of tending to my inner child. A lot of crying in the kitchen while my roommates learned how to be better huggers.
Sometimes in these moments of self-discovery all you need is yourself, and sometimes you need someone to objectively tell you how to get your shit together. When you meet that person, the game changes.
When I met my Yoda, my self-view shifted so radically that I got whiplash. Finally, here was someone like me in the sense that he knew exactly what I needed: For someone to call me out on my bullshit. Someone who noticed when I was doing unreciprocated emotional labor and then told me, “You know you’re only doing that because you didn’t receive enough validation from your parents, right?”
In hindsight, duh. But no one had ever been so explicit about it, least of all me. Shout out to all of the young psychiatry students specializing in childhood trauma out there: You’ll make a difference one day.
With that revelation (and with a slew of psychology books now at my disposal), there was a chance to be a whole person. So, in the past year, I’ve stopped putting stock in the opinions of others, reserved my time and energy for those who do the same for me, and started doing things that scare me. Mostly I’ve learned how to articulate my feelings: “I am happy/sad/angry because of _____.” Let me tell you, there’s power in raw honesty.
So to come this far—to finally feel settled in my own skin and on the cusp of something new—to only be clotheslined by echoes of my past is frustrating. But as I was conveying this to Lark, an excellent friend and roommate, she suggested that maybe what I was sad about had more to do with mourning the girl I was. That person I couldn’t protect from home circumstances, emotionally abusive partners, my own shameful perpetuation of emotional abuse, or my budding mental health problems. Again, a striking truth.
There’s this idea that humans have been grappling with since we had a moment to think (later popularized by Jung) that everyone carries a shadow, and that wholeness can only be achieved when the light and dark aspects of the self are integrated. Shadow aspects here being defined as unconscious aspects of our personality that our ego does not identify with (e.g. anything we are overly critical of in others). We cannot get rid of our shadow aspects, though we can learn how to deal with them. Me hating the needy parts of myself made me a beacon for needy people. I did that not once not twice but thrice with men I loved before I finally figured out what I was doing. I’m not ashamed of that—that is a part of my journey. I needed to figure out what boundaries were.
Healing is hard because 1) the majority of it is done alone and 2) there’s no physical measurement of how you’re progressing, be it forward or back. Eventually, someone may notice something about you is different; but emotional healing is ultimately self-defined. Do you feel better? Does your past bring you as much pain as it once did? Do you have a hopeful outlook on the future? For me: yes, no, yes.
Recently, I’ve also become interested in how ancestry plays a role in who we are. Well, more specifically, how does ancestral trauma play a role in one’s daily life? A lot more than you’d think. Mark Wolynn’s book It Didn’t Start With You does this fascinating deep dive on how the experiences of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents has a way of shifting gene expression, meaning that trauma has a way of echoing. It’s not “woo-woo” as it draws a lot of its validity from leading experts in PTSD, neuroscience, and psychiatry. The book itself posits that the trauma your ancestors lived and had to suppress will play themselves out in you. While the book itself is full of case studies and science, it is the pragmatic list of exercises that the reader can do to distill and work through their fundamental fear.
It was a big, dramatic ask from a book, but it was the kind of healing I needed. But since healing is an individual task, you have to find the thing that makes sense to you. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s painful and requires more honesty than you thought necessary. After all, who would have thought that that person you lie to the most is yourself? But we do. We lie to ourselves to preserve whatever selfhood we’ve managed to scrape together. The reality is that growth can only come from throwing away commitment to the notion of self. Okay, maybe it’s not changing as much as it is molting.
In either case, I’m giving myself that chance.
As I’ve said many times before, one of the best things I ever did was go to Paris. It taught me that I didn’t need to wait for someone else to decide when we had enough money or had excellent conversational skills or, or, or. I went with a friend older than me who had seen the demolition of her life many times over, and she taught me the importance of resilience. It was there that I learned how much fight was still in me. I wouldn’t die as long as I changed. After that trip, I wrote a chapbook that I will someday finish. There is a poem there that needs work, but the lines go a little like this:
I want to survive somewhere longer
than a year. I want to thrive, sleep through
the fall and snow, return when it’s time,
harbinger of spring, summer, made strong
by my rootstock. I want to grow deep
and easy, ready to weather blight, drought,
locust, root rot. Let me germinate despite
the harsh conditions. Take me somewhere
new, a transplant, and let my sod settle. I can
water myself, there’s no need to be tended.
It’s been two years since I transplanted myself in Boston. And you know what? My roots are growing deep.