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I’m in the bathroom, and I can feel my heart closing up.
A part of me is becoming small, bound up. Separate. I feel a sudden and intense desire to be alone, while at the same time wanting to somehow rewind and not feel this at all.
I’m at a choice point. I can feel myself withdrawing, going away. I can feel the swirl of shame and the dance of anger, of rage that I’ve been put in this position at all.
I know what will happen if I close, as I close.
I’ll go back out and pretend everything is fine. I’ll run away inside and remain technically present on the outside. I won’t tell my partner I’m upset, but I won’t be available for connection, for kisses, or for soft-hearted, knowing glances.
I’ll pull into myself and harden. He’ll probably notice, but I’ll avoid his eyes. If he squeezes my hand, I’ll squeeze back, but only by rote. I know he’s not the bad guy here, but I don’t always know how to get myself out of this bind.
If I stay like this, then the ride home will be depressing. The quiet will be impenetrable. My sadness will infect the space like a fog.
I don’t want that ending. I’ve gone on that ride many, many times.
So I decide to do something new.
“I can feel myself going away,” I say to him, once I’m back on the couch. “I’m going away. This is hard.”
The shame is specific. I’ve been having a challenging time in this part of the journey we’re on, and he has stuck with me. Despite the fact that our friends have gathered in another part of the house and are chatting and laughing up a storm, he has stayed with me because I’ve felt nauseous and uncomfortable.
“What’s hard?” he wants to know.
The part of me that has already left is telescoping in and out. I’m working hard to stick with the communication thing.
“You’re with me because I was having a hard time, but you’d rather be out there with them,” I reply. “You’re babysitting me.” I try hard not to say this with derision, but I think my voice gives me away.
“Well,” he reflects, taking a moment. “Yeah, a part of me does want to be over there…but I’m glad to be here. With you.”
I have trouble taking this in. A part of me wants to scream, “Liar! You don’t want to be here. You’re just here because you feel like you should be. Just leave then! Get away from me. Get away from me!”
But that’s not a part I tend to give voice to. I’m not the type to get obviously angry. I don’t shout or stomp around or shriek. As one previous partner put it, “When you’re upset, you don’t explode. You implode.”
I can see this movie play out. If I implode now, it won’t be obvious at first. There will be no fireworks, just quiet and limpness and regret. I’ll leave and it will take a long time to get back, if ever.
Then two things happen.
One, you pull me in. I am sitting up and you are laying down, down where we’d been when I left to go to the bathroom while my psyche swirled up into my head in a maelstrom of anguish.
But you can tell I’m not really softening, that there’s still something hard here between us, despite what you said. So you physically pull me down to where you are so you can hold me. Body to body. This helps. Because while my mind was swirling, my body was frozen.
Two, I make the choice to open.
There’s something raw and painful here, and I’m having trouble translating the truth of my heart into the language of the mind. But I choose to try.
“I don’t always know the difference,” I say slowly, “between care and obligation.”
I can feel you listening as I work this part out. I don’t fully understand, but I know that it’s related to the fact that it’s painful for me to ask for what I need.
Needs are unnerving. So the safest and easiest thing is for me to not need anything from other people. It’s why my car is so important to me. If I have my car, I don’t need to rely on anyone else to get around. If I have my car, I have the warm things I put in it so I never have to be cold. I have water in case I’m thirsty, snacks in case I’m hungry, a blanket in case I want to sit on grass, sunglasses in case it’s too bright, gum in case I want fresh breath. I have the ways I take care of my own self right there, provided.
When I ride in your car, I feel vulnerable. I have to rely on you.
Am I important to you? Do you want to take care of me? When I actually, truly, really need something, will you be there?
These are obvious questions that I imagine you would say yes to.
Yes, you’re important to me.
Yes, I want to take care of you (within reason).
Yes, when you actually, truly need something, I will do my very best to be there.
This is not a guarantee. I’m your partner, not your parent. I can’t give you undivided attention every second of every day. I’m not a replacement for the horror of being left in the crib (or whatever happened to you). But I do love you, and I do want to be there as much as I can be, especially in moments when you feel vulnerable.
The choice to open is the choice to believe you.
The choice to open is the choice to not shove you away with the power and determination of every single cellular structure in my being. To not say, “F*ck you,” even though a part of me means exactly that. To not hate you for seeing me exposed in my need.
I believe that if you’ve experienced developmental trauma, you have less of a choice to open. If you’ve never massaged that part of your lived experience, if you’ve never gone in and touched that pain and rage and sense of defeat and desolation, then your bodymind will simply close. Because at that point in your journey, it truly is the safest thing to do.
But if you’ve got some personal growth under your belt, then you’ve got a choice. If you’ve, say, had some experience reaching for friends and having them reach back, or you’ve done enough therapy with an attuned person who loves you and who you feel loved by, then when you’re faced with a terrifying moment like this, you at least have the option to open.
What will you do then? Will you follow your well-worn, shut-it-down programming? Will you allow the grooves in your bodymind to close you off, generating that familiar sense of “safety” by doing it all yourself, taking care of yourself all alone, because after all, you’ll never let yourself down, right?
Or will you make a different choice: to lean into the sometimes grueling discomfort of opening when you want to close?
It’s easy to open when you want to open. When things are going well and you’re in your comfort zone and you don’t have any messy, inconvenient, tiresome, embarrassing needs, then staying open is a snap.
But when there’s even a dollop of shame involved, then there’s resistance. Sometimes lots of it. Then being brave looks like choosing something other than that over-followed path of isolation and “safety.” It pushes you to, if you choose, explore the world of a new kind of safety:
Of being held when you don’t have it all together.
Isn’t it interesting that close and close can mean such different things?
I want to close.
I want to feel close.
It seems to me that a lot of doing “the work” is really just coming to terms with two simple facts:
I need to feel close.