This is another post that I wrote two years ago. A lot of what I say in it has been covered in other blogs. When I wrote it, it was Mental Health Week, I was trying to express how important self expression and letting down defences and masks in my own life and recovery has been. I hope it is not too repetitive for some of my older followers 🙂
What lies beneath, what really haunts us, may be so invisible and even improbable to some, at least to those who look upon us from the outside not knowing the journey we travel and how we might struggle in our private self. For many years I lived behind a façade within which I was struggling, going through the motions whilst hiding inside a lot of pain which I was self medicating with alcohol. I value so much the major piercing of this front which occurred shortly after I admitted just over 22 years ago that I had a major problem with alcohol.
My path of recovery led to the rooms of AA and these meetings helped me to begin to speak up. They also filled me with terror at first. At the same time it was such a huge relief to be in a place where others were opening up and being honest about their own demons.
I had suffered a lot of trauma by then (age 31) and in many ways I had not yet developed any deeper insight or self compassion. In the absence of connection and support I now see I struggled a lot alone with nowhere to go to express what was really going on inside, the impact of what I had suffered over years but to the bottle.
If recovery has taught me anything it is how essential self compassion is to healing for so many of us especially if our life has followed a darker path with many difficult twists and turns. One of the dangers of being in AA was to not get out from under the label of being defective in some way and identifying permanently with labels. During the time I was in the rooms I struggled with the words “defects of character”, it seemed a very judgemental expression.
I began attending Al Anon meetings after my marriage ended, 11 years into recovery and what I learned there was that my so called “illness” was a family issue, not about being personally defective. In the course of development I had been arrested due to a lack of nurture and due to the ruptures and traumas that had occurred in my family as a result of other factors going down. In time I learned that I suffered not due to a fault of my own, but that I was responsible for my recovery, for learning about myself, for reaching out, for making changes and learning to accept the boundaries of what I could and could not change. This healing, recovery, self discovery process is ongoing. It never ends.
I now know that in the course of growing up I developed defences and survival mechanisms that did not always serve me well, but that did have a reason and a self protective purpose. I also had a backlog of pain that could drive my decisions and reactions and learning how to deal with that in a more positive way has been a huge process too.
When I entered AA I already felt that I was bad enough. I already thought I was enough to blame for the failed relationships, for the fact that until then trust was a major issue that led me to mask things with alcohol and other substances. It has taken years to understand why I chose this method of coping in a family that was emotionally illiterate and it was not okay to talk about feelings, let alone have them.
This week in Australia (I am not sure if it is international too) it is mental health awareness week. On radio and television many people who have suffered with depression and other mental and emotional illnesses have been sharing their stories and experiences. The message that I am hearing in terms of those for whom recovery occurs is that rather than blame themselves and remain locked in shame they have made the important and fraught decision to open up to others around them (friends, employers, the general public) and speak about the truth of their experiences. This has involved taking off the mask and dealing with the thorny issues of shame, stigma, guilt and judgement. This kind of truth telling fills me with hope for humanity as it seems we are on a path now of seeking to break down some of the stigma that surrounds those diagnosed with so called mental illnesses.
My first encounter with mental illness took place at the age of 17 when my eldest sister started to have psychotic episodes following a major cerebral trauma. This trauma that happened to my sister resulted in huge splits in our family. Certain members decided that my sister was unsafe to be around. It wasn’t that she was dangerous or abusive in any way, she was an exceptionally kind, loving, humane person. It was just that her behaviour was out of the ordinary. She was involved in some huge flights of fancy, spending sprees and following the ending of her marriage (due to the fact her husband abandoned her and lied to her four children about the fact that she did not actually leave them, as they were led to believe but that he had pursued an affair with a mutual work colleague in the year following my sister’s cerebral bleed), she took up a new relationship with someone who also had deep trauma and a drinking problem.
Alcoholism is actually a multigenerational issue in my family on my mother’s side. It could have been the amount my sister was drinking and smoking and working contributed to the stroke she had. Most definitely she was overextended and not taking care of herself. It is not for me to judge why certain members of my family decided to sideline my sister, but it was very sad for those of us who were trying to be there to offer emotional support, who witnessed the devastation of her suicide attempt and who felt strangled in expression the feelings of pain and powerlessness.
Just over three years following my sisters suicide attempt my father died of a terminal illness and so by the age of 23 it was just my mother and I left, until I made the decision to stay true to my decision to go travelling taking myself and my unhealed trauma with me.
My sister, Jude who I am writing about above died just over a year ago after a long and painful life filled with frustrations, grief and unresolved pain. Her death was mostly due to the adverse effects of the host of medication she was on for over 30 years and the deep effects of the emotional estrangement from most of her family which she always bore with resignation and acceptance. Witnessing all of this with my newfound sobriety was a huge burden to bear. It made moving on with my own life next to impossible for me. who would be there for my sister? I think though it may have been a burden I was not responsible for.
Around the time my sister died last year my second sister underwent over four separate hospitalisations for bi polar disorder. On the day my sister Judith was cremated my second sister was re-admitted to the psychiatric facility at one of our local hospitals where she spent over three months.
I have been able to share some of my pain over Judith’s death online here in my blog and in therapy. It has been difficult at times to share the grief with my family. And of course I have cried a lot on my own, most especially earlier this year at easter at which time both my mother and my sister were in hospital. Somehow I have come through the pain of this period stronger and wiser. I had to let an unhelpful therapeutic relationship go around the time I lost my sister, Jude and this year I have had good support in my grief process. Blogging and journaling has helped me enormously.
At the moment there is still ongoing grief that my second sister is still struggling with depression and the adverse side effects of the medication she has been on being changed over and over and led to two major falls. I have to be honest and say medication when used as a bandaid alone and advised by professionals who profit at over 200 dollars a visit fills me with anger and rage, but this is the path my sister chooses and which her eldest son promotes without question.
My mother and I have been watching from the sidelines feeling powerless and wishing my sister had other resources at her disposal to help with her depressive symptoms at the moment. We watch her isolating and all we can do is stand by and love. making gentle suggestions for her to reach out. My sister struggles in taking off her mask, sadly. She feels ashamed and she has suffered subtle emotional abuse and lack of true empathy when most deeply affected by her own buried feelings. What she has endured over the past few years has left deep scars. She has known many instances of loss, supporting loved one’s through major illnesses, and eventually experiencing the breakdown of a 30 year marriage around the time her children left home and began to build their own lives. I think of her deep aloneness at present like a wound that is held deeply inside and aches but has no words or no channel of expression out into the world. Having known similar wounds (with differences too) I cannot help but feel compassion.
It is hard to watch someone you love struggling. There is no escape possible into superficial remedies or truisms in this case and I am very careful not to say too much. In the past I have tried to make suggestions and I know that until a person is ready for certain things it is pointless trying to force change. In any event it is not under my power or perhaps even my right to know or decide what is best for my sister. I can only know what has worked for me under similar circumstances. I am still looking for ways to be more effective in ways of supporting but I also understand more than ever the limits of my own abilities. I also wish to choose health and happiness and positivity for my own life. I wont help anyone if I allow someone else’s struggle to stifle my own need to live and connect and embrace light, hope and joy in my own life.
I feel enormously grateful that in my own life, I was able to open up and begin to drop the mask just over 22 years ago. It certainly has been a long journey to uncover what lay beneath my own struggles in life, self expression, connectedness and relationships. At this time of year I become quiet self reflective as this particular time is resonant with so many memories of past traumas and new beginnings as well in my life.
I know how painful it was to sit in a pile of ashes when everything I longed for burned to the ground in my early forties. I went then into the dark night which was the deepest darkest black. I dreamed of it as a deep pit of sludge I was to empty little by little with a silver cup. That work took years and had to be lived through a deep tearing in my body and soul that almost threatened to end me. And yet I endured it, all those tearing nights and frozen days weighed under by magnets in my soul. the feeling of being impaled on a hook in the underworld, interspersed with days when the light returned for just a day or two.
Inside the cocoon I built some strange alchemy was taking place that I could never fully explain in words and it is only in the past few weeks that I have finally felt solid wings and legs forming fully and unfurling gaining strength as I sense the dark night receding and a new dawn beckoning. it seems to me that my legs can hold me now in a way they could not before. The dizziness and spinning is slowing and I am sleeping more deeply, there is less startled awakening. I seem to have solid ground underneath me now in a way I never had before and the mask/cocoon seems to be dissolving as I find myself in a new place with a vision back and forward though fully rooted in the present.
I remember when I was on retreat in Glastonbury all those dark years ago and someone told me this quote:
the miracle is not to fly on air, but to walk on solid ground
This earth is my home. I need not fear it, I need only love it and love myself through the fear. Through coming to know what lies beneath I have been able to transform and release what has held me in prison and disconnected me from others, keeping me separate and alone. I will always feel a bit removed from others who have walked a lighter, brighter path, how could I not? But today I am grateful for the fact I can be true to myself and share as honestly and openly as I can about my own healing and recovery journey.