The work of healing the heart is most often a beautiful mess. Over two decades ago, early in my own recovery from life’s wounds, I thought I could escape the mess from pressing through to the outside world. I hid it from others. I hid it from myself. I hoped I could keep the mess tidy and contained. I honestly had no understanding of just how deep and wide and pervasive my internal mess was. Functionality, performance, achievement and perfection can hide an unbelievably large mess. It would take years to understand and accept this truth. The untidy truths of my childhood had been neatly fragmented and organized in a multitude of splintered off compartments. It would take the painstaking unearthing of what had then been locked, disguised and hidden away before the magnitude of it could sink in.
As a child I was acutely aware that the mess was everywhere in the adults moving in and out of my life. From what I observed and recorded in my small, tender, impressionable and wounded heart …they most definitely did not ever want that mess exposed. I watched them hide it. I watched them deny it. I watched them medicate it. I watched them give it to others. I watched them hurt and punish themselves at the shame of it ever being revealed. I watched them die for it. My love for them all was deep and cavernous and It felt terrifying, conflicting and confusing.
It seemed like something was entirely out of control. I marveled at how they moved in the world, as though none of it existed. It was crazy-making to witness the messes accruing and then watch them disappear from view. Did they really happen? Everyone and everything seemed in order shortly after they spilled out. The clean-up and the burying came quickly. I began to question my reality at an early age. Trusting my gut, what I saw, knew and experienced was a casualty that would take a lifetime to unearth, resuscitate and restore.
As a young girl, what I had worked so desperately hard at never letting press through me to the outside world, in actuality, had been influencing everything about my being. It seemed ironic to me that decades later, I would have to willingly descend into the mess and sort through it all. Who I was becoming, how I engaged with others, what I was pursuing and all that came in between, was navigated by what lay buried and unexamined. I thought I knew my story but I had only lived with a version of it. The idea that being vulnerable about it was beautiful or that letting my emotions catch up to me would be a brave and courageous endeavor, was a faraway concept.
It was a life and death battle from day one in my therapeutic relationship. The stakes felt enormously high. The black, tangled, internal mass that relentlessly pursued me had to be outrun. I clutched onto my ability to intellectualize and keep my head separate from my heart. It offered a felt sense of safety and protection …and an illusion of control. One cannot just grab a shovel and with great force pierce the earth of a life story. It’s a tender, slow and compassionate process before the excavation can begin. The therapy relationship prepared and richly nourished the soil of my recovery despite my valiant efforts at protest.
As an adolescent, I would marvel at the ability of others to access their real feelings. I remember a particularly wounding arrow that pierced my soul. An acquaitance, oblivious to the realities of my early traumas or what was happening behind our family’s closed doors, drew an arrow of words and launched them. I appeared to have a flat response to a disturbing story that was shared and this bothered her. “You have a such a cold, hard heart of stone,” she said. I felt a tsunami of tears and a familiar blocking of their flow. It felt dangerous to let them be seen. But the fear and pain it evoked deep within was undeniable. For years I would fear these words were true. That the blood that ran through my heart was indeed cold and had caused it to harden. Was I able to love? Was I worthy of being loved? The sequestering of all of the painful experiences and the emotions that went with them had left my heart isolated and underdeveloped. I felt exposed and naked when this arrow struck. I had spent my young life taking care of so many others…. if they only knew….
In the therapy space, it felt like a game of chess when the early excavation had begun. A game it felt imperative that I win. My therapist felt like an adversary. Every set of eyes peering out from the many doorways inside my soul were watching and listening. He was viewed with deep mistrust and suspicion. Vulnerability felt like an enemy and the mess too grave a risk to expose. It was too deeply buried. The matter felt increasingly complicated as a small place inside was growing attached to this human. Early loss had taught me to keep an invisible barrier between myself and others. It was less painful that way.
This barrier, however, created a continual dilemma. How do you reach for someone that the wounded child within is convinced will meet an early demise upon hearing your secrets? How do you expose the depth of your need when fearing it will be yanked from you within moments of the revelation? How do you deeply care with shame convincing you are not worthy of that care being returned to you? This was the war zone for so many parts inside who wrestled to release their stories in the therapy room, week after week, month after month, year after year.
It is a slow, gentle and methodical act of grace to slowly chip away at a scarred and wounded soul in hopes of setting them free. Like Michelangelo’s reflection… “I saw an angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” This was the work of my guide and helper. Each stroke towards my rough and encased soul required skill and precision. It requires humility in the waiting and sometimes not knowing. It asks for disciplined, tender and timed gestures. Such small movements can appear fruitless to those beyond the therapy walls. They are a welcomed act of mercy to those terrified of what will be set free. I had one inside my soul who quietly watched every movement and marveled at this delicate process. I knew from very early on that if I could release my true form trapped within, I would spend my life guiding others to free themselves from what had buried them.
There is no escaping the necessity of exposing what feels most vulnerable in order to heal what was most broken. The tension between these two was at the heart of the therapeutic relationship. Wounds that were formed in the context of trusted relationships especially needed a cleansing and rebirth in new, healthy and safe relationship. Healing alone, in isolation, is a formidable task. In my own story, I needed someone outside the system to enter back in alongside me with fresh and impartial eyes. As we often are, I too was a product of pain carried forward from those that came before me. I was woven within a life tapestry whose threads of trauma, abandonment, abuse, addiction, betrayal and loss were long and many. Laying these before another soul, amidst the shame that so often accompanies this act, is a herculean effort. It turns out It is also a stunningly beautiful and heart freeing experience. There is life-giving treasure to be found in the initial mess of understanding our stories.
As truth and understanding begins to replace the lies and shame that trauma can deeply embed, breathing expands and the space to truly know oneself enlarges. It takes time. It can take a long time. It takes brave, honest and courageous work. It may take years. It can be terrifying yet hopeful, exhausting yet energizing, heart-wrenching yet life-giving. I am no longer afraid of the messy parts of a life story, my own or those around me. I choose to willingly enter into those spaces with those recovering in my work with Healing Expressions.
Reaching into the soil, digging, unearthing and sorting through what others had no other choice but to bury, is an honor and leaves me in awe most days. Those vulnerable seeds do eventually burst through the earth, in new growth, freedom and possibility. I am so grateful my own journey led me to participating in and witnessing this transformation in others. I cannot help now but to always see the stunning beauty in the messiness of a heart’s restoration. I hold onto the hope for my clients when initially, they may not see or feel it. I believe in and truly trust this process. Understanding our stories and the ways our lives have been impacted, although a bittersweet journey, ushers in life-giving breathing space and expansive growth.