When I was a child I felt loved and secure. I don’t remember ever worrying about anything until the third grade when my world was upended. It began with an unexpected move to California that rocked my quiet and content little world. I did not want to leave my friends or my extended family in search of adventure. I was quite unhappy with the prospect of going to an unknown place to start over again in building relationships. Sadly the next many months of my life would be filled with tumult and, ultimately, one of the greatest traumas of my life.
In the third grade we moved four times and I attended five different schools. That alone had been enough to shatter my sense of complacency, but when my father died at the end of the rambling school year I was crushed in a way that I was never able to voice until long after I had become an adult. My mental well-being was rocked to its very core, but people did not think to provide therapy for children back then. I suppose they believed that kids were mostly ignorant of the pain of loss and that I was resilient enough to adapt quickly to my new circumstances. Instead I spent the next decade dealing with my grief and attempting to rebuild the confidence and sense of security that had been destroyed upon my father’s death.
It might be said that I became tough, a stoic who simply accepted that life was difficult. I learned to submerge my emotions by mostly ignoring them. I found that I had power over dark feelings by throwing myself into work. It was a deceptive technique that kept me going even when my mother became severely mentally ill and the responsibility for her care fell to me when I was twenty years old. By that time I had accepted that mine would be an unusual life interrupted intermittently by tragedies that I did not want, but knew how to overcome. I was saved from total desolation by having the good fortune of being in a life long relationship with a very good man who has relentlessly stood by my side in the most difficult hours.
My students taught me that I was not alone in my suffering and that there were many individuals who had to endure even worse challenges, often without the love that I always found even in my darkest hours. My heart grew from working with them. My compassion expanded and allowed me to once again accept my feelings, even those that hurt. In many ways working with my students became the best therapy for my own traumas that I might ever have found. I saw their problems and understood their sorrows in ways that ran deep into my heart. I became known as “Mama B’ to my kids, the person who would truly understand their trials and their sorrows. In turn, helping them led me to being honest with myself about my own emotions.
I speak openly of my journey these days, not for the sake of finding sympathy, but because I want to encourage others to speak of the demons that have haunted them. Talking about uncomfortable feelings and owning them is a first step to overcoming them. I suppose I understood this best from an incident that occurred during one of the multiple times that my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder. Her illness coincided with an annual wellness appointment that I had with my doctor. During the visit he remarked that I was so healthy that he had little to say to me, but suggested that I might want to discuss something that was bothering me. Uncharacteristically I told him every detail of my life and the pain that I was feeling. I cried as I unpacked decades of sorrow and he listened intently.
At the end of my rant he spoke with total understanding about my situation. It was as though he had somehow found a window to my mind, my thinking. He even perfectly described what he thought my emotions might be. He congratulated me for my bravery and told me to never again bottle up my feelings the way I had been doing. It was as though he had lanced a poisonous sore on my heart. As the infection drained away, I felt as that a miracle had just occurred.
I now know that tragedies come and go in our lives. Some are almost unbearable and others bring a short interlude of sadness. By being honest with myself and knowing whom I can trust with my thoughts I am now able to heal after each battle with the vagaries of life. I have many scars and some of them flare up from time to time. There are triggers that bring tears and even worry. Mostly though I have learned that the pain of loss, betrayal, illness eventually lessens even if it never goes completely away. I am still strong, and even stoic, but I no longer push my true feelings aside nor do I attempt to go it alone.
We are in a time of protracted uncertainty and sorrow. Unlike my own forays with such moments, this one is affecting the entire world. As humans we are worried and exhausted. It should be okay to express our concerns without judgement. In turn we should be ready to listen with intent to really hear what the people around us are saying just like my doctor did for me. We all need understanding, and while a stiff upper lip can be admirable under certain circumstances, it can also be an iron mask trapping our pain in a toxic way.
This is a moment of great importance when we must set our differences aside and minister to those who are in grave need of kindness and compassion. Our world is in turmoil not because of a single individual or one way of believing, but because we have forgotten how to truly care for one another, starting with healing ourselves.