My son is a cuddler and loves to sit with me, heart to heart, wrapped in my arms.
For him, this is the best place to be, but for me, this kind of intimacy can send me into a panic.
I don’t receive affection very well, pulling out of an embrace or eye contact before I feel swallowed up, swatting away a compliment or expression of love because I just can’t take it in. Sometimes when my son hugs me, I notice it feels like too much, I can’t breathe and my impulse is to run away or extract myself.
Instead, I sit there, pretending I am okay but wishing I was wired differently as my heart fills with pangs of regret.
My mother’s touch used to make me recoil. When she would hug me, I would hold my breath, praying it would be over soon. Her touch was so full of need or so full of rage that I began armoring myself against it, living in an imaginary cocoon of self protection. Over time, the armor became a part of me, no longer a defense I only used at home.
I have lived most of my life from the inside of that cocoon, never daring to experience much without it until now.
It’s not easy living with an open heart, no matter who you are. There are too many opportunities for disappointment, rejection and abandonment around every corner. You would think a life full of painful experiences would make one more resilient, that a heart would be so weathered by heartbreak that hurt would be a blip on the screen. When a child experiences repeated emotional trauma, what occurs is a shutting off, a distancing, doors closing.
The squishy innocence of vulnerability stays hidden behind disassociation, disintegration and withdrawal.
After all these years, I am so good at hiding my feelings that most days I can’t even find them and what I experience instead is a mix of nothingness, anxiety, confusion and frustration. I have become a master of disconnection, pulling away, and offering just enough that my loved ones don’t feel abandoned.
We all have walls and ways we protect ourselves. Some of us live our lives letting just enough in because it feels like too much might break us. What’s breaking me now is the realization that I am struggling to let the love in, the good stuff that would fill my holes and cracks with what fairy tales are made of, because in truth, my life is a fairy tale. Raised by the wicked witch, I ran off and found a lovely man who was strong enough to hold me while I fell apart and put myself back together again. We have created a wonderful life together, living how we want to live and doing what we love for a living. In some ways, my resistance to believing the fairy tale is hurting me more than all the pain of my past.
I have decided to take my armor off and with gratitude, bury it underneath the palm tree in our backyard. It has served me and protected me but I trust that I can navigate my life without it. I feel ready to soften, to inhabit that squishy place of vulnerability.
Now, when my son reaches for me, I consciously take a breath and step into the experience of hugging him, feeling the exchange of love and connection between us. Opening my heart to the love that is available to me is a daily practice and some days I handle it more gracefully than others.
There is a sweetness to my life I have never known before and although my children are too young to express it verbally, their smiles reflect the changes that I feel.
Author: Ashley Torrent
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Wikipedia Commons