November 26, 2021

The Hardest Part about Grief—From a Perfectionist in Recovery.

 

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“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter—they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment, and companionship—but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” ~ Sylvia Plath

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As a complex trauma survivor who is navigating the ever-painful territory of being in my body, I believe the hardest part in healing is grieving the parts of ourselves we know we will never recover.

Our grief never ends. It simply metamorphoses, taking one shape, and then another, and another, and another…until, occasionally, there’s the most soothing quiet one could ever experience. Where stillness feels deafening, and numbness feels like the best opiates we’ve ever binged on.

And in that stillness, we find different teachers: the loving, the wise, the gentle, the malicious, the mean, the kind, the creative, the caring.

In his poem, The Guest House, The Sufi mystic poet, Rumi, compels us to invite and honour each of our guests (a metaphor for our wandering emotions) equally—not with harsh judgment or whilst favoring one guest over the other, but with open curiosity to the precious lessons and potential transformation each one carries within them.

But in the midst of the storm, and when, as Rumi says, some of these guests “violently sweep our house empty of its furniture,” it is excruciatingly painful to invite our emotions in. From a neuroscience perspective, this is partially because it is quite common that, whilst revisiting our trauma triggers, our amygdala (the part of our brain that is primitive and in charge of processing fears and threatening stimuli) takes charge and overrides our frontal cortex, making it difficult to put our experience into a logical context.

And lately, there has been one frequent guest who shows up at my door uninvited.

It doesn’t matter if I’m tired after a long 12-hour work shift. It doesn’t matter if all I want to do is go to bed. It doesn’t matter if I regurgitate every goddamn affirmation I’ve ever memorized by heart, believed in, or taught in one of my yoga and meditation classes, from “I deserve to be happy,” to “I am loved, seen, and held in safe space.”

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When that guest arrives at my door, he acts as if he owns the goddamn place. He owns my body. He owns my psyche. He owns my mind. He owns the entire spectrum of my conscious and unconscious memories.

It feels like swimming against the current in an open ocean, without any safety gears, where the darkness is the only constant.

And until I learned to name that guest, I discovered that he will never leave me the f*ck alone.

So this morning, while I was bracing myself hard in between each blowing sob, each time I was able to take a fresh breath of air, I learned how to name it…loneliness.

I’ve read so many wonderful pieces that describe the crippling experience of grief on Elephant Journal, like this one, and this one, and this. What all of them have in common is this felt experience that grief is wavering, endless, and frequent. That in between each experience, there are occasional moments of living with joy, happiness, excitement, and love.

But then, when we least expect it, it peeks its head back into our lives. And when it does, the aftermath often feels as intense as the original experience that had first triggered it.

I believe it’s a whole level of bravery to speak so openly about the loneliness that often accompanies grief. How isolating, suffocating, crippling, debilitating, deafening, piercing, excruciating, and endless it can feel.

>> Is it possible that I am the only one who feels this way?

>> Is it possible that someone in this very moment, somewhere on this planet of 7,000,000,000 people, feels what I feel?

>> Is it possible for someone to endure some much pain and suffering and to come out the other side triumphant, yet to experience so much isolation and fear at the same time?

>> Is it possible for life to be so beautiful and joyous, yet so excruciatingly painful and shattering?

>> Is it possible for us to crave so much love and connection, yet, in the midst of our own wavering grief, want nothing but to be left alone in our darkness?

>> Is it possible to feel so open, vulnerable, caring, and, at the same time, feel so broken, hollow, and defeated on the inside?

Or maybe, these are just the puzzling conundrum of being humans, living on a beautiful, broken planet.

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As a person who relied on perfectionism and dissociation as my two main coping mechanisms to deal with the pain of inferiority, rejection, and abandonment, I never knew I was grieving, let alone to understand what I was grieving over.

I am constantly encased with the feeling of a survivor’s guilt for having a healthy body and mind, for being self-driven and motivated and working hard toward the life I wanted to give myself, and for always having a job where I was loved and admired for the value I was able to bring. So to recognize or to say that I was grieving felt inauthentic, cowardly, and ungrateful.

I believe that all my trauma combined is nothing compared to a starving child in Africa, or a stateless woman in Syria, or a father who watched his home being swept away by the Israeli army in Palestine, or a homeless person who might not make it through the city’s harsh winter—or the million other horror stories we hear in this trauma-inducing world we live in.

In the grand scheme of things, I recognize how fortunate I am for living the life I have.

But in the midst of those violent, blowing grief moments, when my whole body feels swept away and collapses under the pressure of my old narratives of rejection, abandonment, isolation, shame, and fear, gratitude is the last thing I could muster, no matter how much I try.

I read somewhere that the trauma that is driven by abandonment is often harder to process than the one caused by physical abuse. And that isn’t because one is lighter than the other, but because emotional neglect often isn’t as visible, recognizable, or apparent as physical damage. It leaves an everlasting, hidden scar.

And as we learn to dissociate as often as I did whilst using perfectionism as a tool, it becomes harder to remember what happened to us that led us to the isolation and loneliness we feel today.

In one of my recent sessions, while I was struggling to catch my breath under the pain of each sob, I remember telling my therapist how I feel I am losing the best time of my life to my trauma. How where other people saw a wise, composed person, I saw a sad, depressed girl who has tactfully mastered how to hide behind the crafted shields of her accomplishments and perfectionism.

And I feel I am ready to shed all those masks—all those shields of fake bravado and inauthenticity that would rather have me lying on my bedroom floor, crying for hours, than to reach out and tell someone to come over.

But I am just unsure how or what to replace that shield with.

I am grieving. But I am not grieving so much over what had happened. I am grieving over what never did but should have, and the possibility of what never will.

I am grieving over never being able to feel the pure love of a present, caring parent, or sibling.

I am grieving over the loss of a recent family member who decided I was no longer needed in their life.

I am grieving over a grandfather who showed me the closest feeling to unconditional love, and for the guilt of never spending enough time with him as an adult.

I am grieving over never experiencing the romantic love of a partner who saw that my love is greater than my brokenness.

I am grieving over never having a partner who tried hard enough to stay. And for never asking them to.

I am grieving over all the unspoken words, all the lover letter I wanted to write, all the poems I wanted to dedicate, but that found no release. So they stayed in that unbroken, child-like part of me.

I am grieving over the loss of my inner child who was forced to grow up early and had to learn how to parent herself.

I am grieving over the loss of the community I always longed for but never had.

I am grieving over all the unspoken “I love you,” and “I miss you,” because I knew I was attaching myself to people who would toss my heart like garbage.

I am grieving over the years that robbed joy away from me and replaced it with debilitating, endless sadness.

I am grieving over all the happiness I could have felt, but never did.

I am grieving over the years that will go by whilst I continue to hold onto sadness and grief.

I am grieving over the loneliness that encapsulates me in those sheer, dark moments of sadness and isolation, no matter how much I want them to leave me.

But maybe all this, as Jamie Anderson said, is just love.

Maybe my ability to feel so much beauty and pain is an enigma that I will eventually resolve with time. And if not, maybe that’s okay.

For now, I am learning how to be still with all the loneliness that visits me. And maybe that’s exactly where I need to be.

Maybe it is the teacher that I need the most in this very moment.

For now, I’ll let these two simple lines give me the validation I need to know that it’s okay to feel all the feels.

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” ~ Jamie Anderson

 

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