August 1, 2021

A box full of Darkness: 10 things I learned from Suffering & Healing.


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“God seldom delivers…virtues all wrapped in a package and ready for use. Rather he puts us in situations whereby His help can develop those virtues.” ~ C. R. Findlay

I have just left an Al-Anon meeting where this was the quote of the day for our daily reading. Al-Anon is a support group for the families and friends of addicts.

I wish I had found it years ago.

God knows I was pointed toward it by various therapists, but I resisted going as I did not believe I was suffering. I was too full of shame and guilt to believe anything other than “everything is fine, I just need to try harder.”

Two years of attending regular Al-Anon meetings has made me realise how much I was suffering and how unable I was to really understand or see it.

Addiction courses through the veins of my family. Alcoholism and anorexia were the ever-present, silent elephants in the room during my childhood. Anorexia was talked about often but never, ever in front of the sufferer.

At home, there were whispered conversations in hidden rooms which were rushed and scary, in case they were overheard. In public, anorexia was a badge of martyrdom for the adults. Yes, it was a terrible burden having an anorexic child, but they were good people doing all they could to support and help cure the anorexic.

Alcoholism was also never talked about. I came to know well the nightly cycle of adults moving through a plethora of personalities during a single evening.

At five p.m., I was an inconvenience to stressed out and short-tempered adults. At six p.m., I was an audience member to a pantomime of elaborate tales told by jovial voices and punctuated with raucous laughter. At seven p.m., I was a dancing partner, twirling round my kitchen floor in the fading sunlight. At eight p.m., something subtle in the air would change and the tales being told would become more morose, the laughter replaced with barbed comments and abrupt endings. At nine p.m., I would listen with bated breath to the monologue of vitriol and accusations and pray that if I said the right thing we might get to bed soon. At 10 p.m., I might slip off to bed or stay up to referee a big terrifying fight, where plates were thrown, faces scratched, and hurtful words screamed in people’s faces.

The years between age 7 and 15 are a blur to me. The memories are foggy and out of sync but the messages I received still ring loudly in my 42-year-old ears. And they have been the rules by which I have lived most of my adult life.

If I was tidier, my mum would be happier and less angry with my dad.

If I was kinder, the anorexic would eat.

If I got great marks at school and always did what he wanted, my dad would be happy.

And I was the well one in the family.

I was healthy. I had lots of friends. For f*cks sake, I had a pony and wanted for nothing! I was beyond lucky, and I was blessed. How dare I ever feel any sadness, anger, or injustice? My job was to be grateful and be okay. Be the girl who always had a big smile and made my dad proud. I was not allowed to suffer.

My job was to take away everyone else’s suffering.

My God I tried. I have spent the last 26 years consumed by this mission.

One month after having my first baby girl, I was so tired I could hardly see. I had spent the morning in tears, pushing a pram around the local park, wondering what the hell I had done and how was I ever going to look after this strange little human bundle in front of me.

I desperately needed to rest, but instead I got into the black cab that took me to yet another therapist’s office in a beautiful Regency terraced house in London. I walked into the grand reception area with its beautiful 30-foot-high ceiling, the centre covered in swirling flowers crafted from delicate plaster mouldings.

I checked in with the male receptionist dressed in a drab grey suit with a navy plastic name badge pinned to his lapel. My name was checked off the list on the clipboard and off I went up the echoey, austere staircase to the dreary cream room on the fourth floor.

I sat on the old, uncomfortable, burgundy sofa with a flicker of hope that this family session might finally be the meeting that changed everything. Maybe the therapist would see through the façade of lies and see that the stories being told of happy marriages and united relationships were fantasy and not reality.

Maybe if I told them about the dream I had last week, they would understand how desperately I wanted them to agree to try and persuade them to go to rehab. I had dreamt that we were all trapped in a burning house, and I was not able to wake anyone up. I screamed and screamed for help whilst trying to drag their heavy, inert bodies through the smoke.

Maybe someone would ask me if I was okay, or even better, thank me for all my hard work in arranging this meeting and all the others. Maybe they would acknowledge that I was doing it because I truly loved the them and not because I was a controlling pain in the arse, as they so often said.

Three hours later, a stand up screaming match marked the end of another session spent rehashing endless old conversations, lamenting countless broken promises, throwing around a multitude of accusations—and still nothing had changed.

They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

I was most definitely insane.

For 20 years, I was consumed with trying to fix others. An endless round of therapists, clinics, and family interventions were the merry-go-round of my insanity.

None of it worked. None of the suffering stopped for any one member of my family.

I now realise that it was my own suffering I needed to acknowledge and work on.

My physical body desperately tried to send me signs to stop focusing on everyone else and look at myself.

For years, every couple of months I would come down with tonsillitis. I thought it was just bad luck. I now know it was a sign of extreme exhaustion and a result of years of swallowing the words I truly wanted to speak.

Recurring knee injuries were not just down to an unlucky skiing accident or an ill-timed jump in the gym, but were my body trying to tell me that I was on the wrong path. That I needed to bend more and be less rigid in my thinking.

I nearly lost my eye in an accident with a car door and am now partially blind. The accident didn’t happen just because I was in a rush. It was my body telling me to stop and look. To really see the truth of the life I was living. To really look at my marriage and my own destructive behaviours. A message to see things how they really were, as opposed to how I so dearly wished for them to be.

It took betrayal to finally wake me up. My world crumbled when a long-standing secret was revealed.

The night he left, I lay in bed with my right arm wrapped around my six-year-old son and my left around my eight-year-old daughter. Their little arms were thrown across my chest and both their bodies shook as they sobbed uncontrollably. It was a sound unlike any other I had heard them make. It was desolate, it reminded me of the howl of a baby animal alone and in distress.

As the tears poured down my cheeks, I felt grateful to my friend who had that morning advised me to let my children see me cry. To let them see it is okay to cry and feel all the big feelings. Without those wise words, I would have clamped my heart shut and fought to keep the tears inside.

My chest felt tight, like there was a heavy weight bearing down onto my torso. The feeling of needing to vomit kept coming and going. I so desperately wanted to take away the kids’ pain. They could not understand why daddy had suddenly disappeared.

I hate lying more than anything else in the world, but I lied to them in that moment about where he had gone and why. I was seething with anger. I remember thinking I would physically attack him if he walked into the room at that moment. I would scratch at his eyes, pummel him with my fists, and spit in his face. I was furious at him for putting me in a position where I had to lie. Furious that the kids had to experience this level of grief and confusion at such young ages.

There were many more moments like this over the next two years. I don’t think there was any single eureka moment when I realised I had to focus on myself. Instead, it was a slow dawning. A realisation that became clearer and clearer to me over many months via a multitude of different experiences, meetings, and conversations.

Four months after that night, my daughter had to be physically restrained by my sister so that I could go to an Al-Anon meeting. It was a freezing cold, black winter’s night with sideways rain lashing against the windows. I desperately needed to go to a meeting. I had been oscillating between feelings of panic attacks and extreme exhaustion all day.

My daughter did not want me to leave the house and she screamed and clung to me, begging me not to go. When I did manage to peel her clutching hands off me and leave the house, there was an almighty crash when she threw a chair at my sister and tried to jump out of the kitchen window to get to my car.

I felt so torn. I felt so guilty leaving her, but I knew that I had to go to give myself enough strength to get through tomorrow and all the days after that. I turned back three times. I was like a mad woman driving up and down the same road.

When I eventually got to the village, I was unable to find the address where the meeting was taking place. I walked around the deserted streets in the howling wind and rain on my own for half an hour before returning to my car and driving home. But luckily, the bite of the cold wind and the drenching by the icy rain had done the job and I felt a tiny bit stronger than when I had left the house.

This was the first time I had chosen to do something about my own suffering, ahead of someone else’s, and I had chosen myself over one of the two people I loved most in the world.

Suffering sucks but it has been the greatest gift to me.

Without suffering, I would never have gone to Al-Anon. I would never have seen the healers, teachers, and therapists who have held me through the past two years and taught me so much.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” ~ Mary Oliver 

I am now grateful to my husband and my family for all the pain.

My suffering has taught me these 10 things along the way:

  1. I believe and trust that there is a higher power guiding me toward what is meant for me. If I can sit still, check in with my body and feelings I can connect to my higher power which was previously impossible as I was so manically running around trying to fix others.
  2. I realise that I have to reparent myself in order to be the parent I always longed for growing up. I must let my children see my flaws, my pain, and my failures in order for them to be okay with having their own struggles. I can sit with them and hold their hand during their own periods of pain, but I cannot fix it nor take it away.
  3. I am powerless over every human being but myself.
  4. I don’t need anyone else to save me or make me happy, I can do that all on my own.
  5. The bad days made me realise how goddamn special the ordinary, mundane days are. Moments of beauty or happiness are to be treasured.
  6. In times of suffering you find your truest friends and have no bandwidth for those who gossip or want to pretend nothing is awry. The people who sat quietly with me, loving me, and listening to me but not trying to deny or dumb down my pain are the people I now treasure and surround myself with.
  7. I must always choose my own peace and happiness over that of others. I will no longer betray my own needs and desires to lessen someone else’s pain.
  8. I am worthy. I am allowed to not be okay. I am allowed to rest.
  9. Everyone is suffering and hurting in some way. I can now acknowledge and empathise more with other people’s pain.
  10. You can’t decide when it ends. You can’t just pull yourself together. It will pass but you do not get to decide when. It must be honoured.

If we stick with it, if we sit in the suffering, the sludge begins to ebb away and we learn the lessons we are meant to learn. Or maybe we won’t. We might think we have learnt the lesson, only to have some more suffering sent our way to help us learn a little bit more.

I now have more good days than bad. More time spent laughing than crying. I know that there will be more bad days ahead and I know I will learn and grow from them.

If my suffering were a person, I would like to say to her “I’m sorry for ignoring you all those years. You’re not at all fun to be around, but I’m not afraid of you anymore and look forward to whatever lesson you next have in store for me. Bring it on bitch!


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