Life can be serious business.

In His Honor — I Surrender to Vulnerability.

FB_IMG_1455559869184

“It was a gift he gave to you wasn’t it?”

I looked at my therapist dumbfounded.

A gift? How could she say that? There is no silver lining in someone that I love being murdered. I don’t understand how she thinks I could have possibly benefitted in any way from this tragedy.

***

A month before my cousin was murdered, I started therapy again with a woman who is very skilled in trauma-informed recovery, to help me work through an increase in PTSD symptoms. With feet that are always bare, she radiated peace. She taught me how to breath through anxiety and frustration. She reminded me that I am safe now, each time my body responded to a memory with tension.

About a month in to our work, we began digging in to the trauma that was my childhood using EFT tapping, also known as psychological acupressure. It was awkward at first but halfway through the session I started to sink in to the motions.

When I returned the next week, my therapist had an unusual posture and air about her. She said, “I have to be honest with you. I have been doing trauma work for many, many years and I have never seen anyone respond to EFT the way you did.” I thought Oh that must mean I did something right!

She continued on to say, “I watched you going through the motions, but there was no emotion or reaction at all. You didn’t do anything wrong, I’m just trying to understand your response and what is blocking you. You show incredible insight and resilience with what you say, but I’m feeling like despite that, I am getting very little to no emotion or feeling from you.”

Immediately, I responded with “Well, I think…”

“Stop right there” she said. “I’m asking you to feel, not think. How do you feel right now and where in your body do you feel it?”

I became frustrated right away. What does she mean?

I told her that it’s very difficult for me to hear her say I have no emotion. I am a very emotional person. I pride myself on my sensitivity and ability to empathize. I’ve built a life and career out of these strengths and I’m not sure where she is coming from.

“Dawn, you rationalize instead of feel when it comes to you. You keep yourself safe by staying in your brain. You learned at a very young age to disassociate from what you’re feeling in order to survive. You knew how to protect yourself and that is a miracle. But you don’t have to do that anymore. This coping mechanism has allowed you to tap in to helping others heal, just not yourself. You empathize for others, but not yourself. In order for you to work through the trauma, you are going to have to give yourself permission to feel.”

Her comment left me confused, angry, sad and defeated. I knew she was right. And it was a physical feeling that assured me of that–the tightness of my muscles, the hotness in my chest and shoulders, my short breathing pattern. Anxiety–the high alertness that I function on. It’s the one feeling I recognize within myself as confirmation of something–vulnerability. And I felt incredibly vulnerable in that moment.

***

It was less than a week after that session when I got the call that my cousin was maliciously and methodically murdered. I walked around that evening in a complete fucking haze. I didn’t cry and I could barely talk. I eventually took something to help me sleep.

FB_IMG_1455559828739

As the sun began to beam through the window above my bed, tears began to pour from my barely opened eyes. The realization of what I was told yesterday hit me like a direct blow to my chest. I sobbed. I knew I had to travel back to my home town for his funeral, even though that meant coming face to face with my childhood traumas, including my abuser.

***

As I started to see the Georgia red clay out the airplane window, the pins and needles started to race up my arms. I began mentally preparing to barricade my tears. I had to be strong for the those who are hurting, unaware of what I was denying myself of in the process.

Stepping inside the funeral home, I saw more familiar faces than I ever cared to see. It’s not that I don’t care about these people, it’s just easier to live my life across the country from them because to no fault of their own, they trigger me. I’ve stayed away from this place and these people because my mental stability has depended on it.

Despite that, I passed out hugs and offered my shoulder to catch tears because I wanted to help others hurt less. When I spotted my abuser across the room, I froze. I fled to the bathroom and tried to ward off the burning in my chest with deep breathes and an internal pep talk.

Don’t lose it, Dawn! You need to stay strong.

I walked out of the bathroom as they were inviting family in to a private room to view the body. There he was. Lying there so still. I held his sister and father as sorrow seeped out of their every pore. My body shook as I tried to hold it together. All the memories became an avalanche on my heart and my mind began to release it’s grip.

FB_IMG_1455560083182

The pain and grief I felt in that moment extended from my heart to my entire body. I could feel myself losing it. The childhood memories, the only good ones I have, involve the young man that is now lying lifeless in front of me. I wanted to run out of there. I wanted to run as fast as I could away from the vulnerability bubbling to the surface.

I don’t know what my uncle was thinking when he reached for me in that moment. He looked into what I imagine were hollow eyes. Being the only positive male role model in my life, I felt security and protection as he hugged me. He said, “It’s ok to cry.” A stubborn fear of feeling was shattered by his permission to grieve, and I came undone.

***

It’s been almost seven months since my cousin’s passing and my journey back to my roots. Many, many tears have fallen since that time. Tears for his life, and mine. Anger has crept in and out. Sorrow has brought me to my knees. Memories have at times flooded me with emotion; I have accepted them, unapologetically.

There is truth in my therapists observation. My cousin did give me a gift. The loss of his life has left a gaping hole in my heart, but in his passing, he gifted my spirit with permission to feel – the pain, the love, the angst, the truth.

So now, when I recognize my old patterns creeping in, and I find myself fighting to feel, I give in. I strip off the emotional armor and embrace the moment — good, bad or ugly. Randall had a way of always making me feel safe. As I carry heavy grief with me on this day, the day he would have turned 34 yrs old, I will not let myself check-out any longer. In his honor, I will feel — without fear.

Happy Birthday, Houston.
Happy Birthday, Houston. xoxo

Don't take life too serious., Life can be serious business.

What I Know for Sure About the Healing Journey.

Learning how to tune in, and not check out, is vital to healing. Whether it be a loss, trauma, a negative experience or just a bad day, your own willingness to heal, learn and evolve is the most potent drug on the market.

I still have a lot to learn on this journey of healing, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. I have to remind myself often that “Every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right”. So for my sake and for those on this journey to heal with me, I’m going to put my own arsenal on display, as a reminder to myself how far I’ve come, and in hopes of helping others on the path they too are walking.

We all have what it takes.
We all have what it takes.

Our minds come with dead bolts, that can only be unlocked once we feel safe. This is grace, but it doesn’t always feel that way. On a day when you feel “put together”, you can fall apart. At unexplainable times of simple happiness, darkness can flood from your pores. It’s frustrating, but no accident. It is not a sign that you are broken or weak. It’s confirmation that you are stronger than you were yesterday. Only when the mind feels you can handle what is behind the locked door, will it allow you to experience it.

Distraction from ourselves is the false art of healing. But it is what so many of us use as a defense mechanism. Whether it be with work, kids, chores, substances or taking on the responsibility of solving everyone else’s problems. We are conditioned to use any and everything to keep our inner most truths and triggers on mute. There is power and control in coasting, but there is liberation in awareness. It just hurts more. It’s hard to be quiet and sometimes impossible to be still. Many crave both, but once gifted with it, will shut down as if allergic to it. There is protection in busyness, because a quiet mind leaves one vulnerable to self reflection. By tuning out what we are really feeling, we are denying the opportunity to heal. Tune In!

Stigma is a powerful defense against self care. It’s the hand that feeds shame. No one is immune to it’s crushing depth, even those trained to combat it. The stigma (others seeing you as living in the past, wanting attention, not strong enough, etc) that keeps us from speaking up and reaching out, is one more hurdle to fight. The good news is there is a powerful tool one can use to fight this fight. It’s your voice. You may have to go searching for it, and it may shake a little (or a lot) at first. When you first begin to speak your truths, the stigma you feel will sting like dirt on an open wound. It’s worth it. The more you speak about what was done to you, empowerment will begin to override the pain. You will find strength in your vulnerability, if you work at sharpening the tool you already own.

There is a specific alley of healing that most walk down. I call it check-out alley. To some, myself included, intoxication is key to checking out. It’s a way to create a different version of yourself. A version where the “real” you leads, and the “broken” you gets to take the back seat for once. At the tale end of a buzz, greed and despair become one. Self medicating leaves one with a vacancy of pain. A temporary relief disguised as bliss. The ease of life and laughter flowing through my viens when I check out is a survivors false paradise. But false is exactly what it is. If we don’t figure out a way to get to that state of mind, without first walking through check-out alley, healing will never be an option. Knowing this is the easy part, avoiding that avenue is something I am still working on.

Triggers are the windows to the pieces of us that still need healing. A trigger can be a smell, song, touch, scene in a movie, hearing a certain name…really anything that your mind associates with personal experiences. When we are triggered, our brains go into “loop” mode. Our body re-experiences the feelings, both emotionally and physically, of a moment in our past. These are moments worth inspecting. The only way to deactivate the trigger is to ask ourselves, why did that moment make me feel like I want to cry, punch something, run away, freeze, etc? Healing begins when we are able to recognize those moments and answer they whys.

Healing is a mind and body experience. I’ve worked in the field of mental health for almost ten years. In the trenches, always hands on with the population I am serving. I read countless charts, observe a vast array of dysfunctional behaviors and thought processes, empathically experience peoples stories and see many highs and lows on the path of recovery. I have witnessed the body as the mind’s canvas. People wear their stories and traumas. I observe, both personally and in my line of work, how making the connection to patterns of behaviors and thoughts can lead to physical healing. If we don’t accept that what happened to us affects the way we act and feel, the negative energies we harvest will manifest as illness. Often times unexplainably. There are consequences when we ignore the signs. No differently than having “just one more drink”, when we are having a good time. If we ignore that little voice and our already unsteady feet, we will get sick. It’s that simple, but never easy.

Reaching out, will lift you up. As much as we want to “do it on our own”, and prove to ourselves that we are stronger than what is holding us down, we can’t. I’ve fallen face first on the pavement many times trying to convince myself that I can succeed on this journey alone. There needs to be equal parts insight and willingness to learn from others. Find your tribe and use them. The people in your life, whether it be professionals, family, friends or someone you just met, all have something unique to offer you on your journey. Connection to those that share your experience, or are vested in seeing you smile are vital pieces to getting through the maze. Use them.

We are all faced with unfortunate experiences in our lives, whether they are horrific acts against us, unfortunate events that happen to us or because of poor decisions we or someone else makes. Regardless of the root of the pain, we need to be able to use the tools we all possess to move forward. It’s not a matter of living in the past, but rather being vulnerable enough to investigate our past, to improve our future.

Life can be serious business.

A Loss That Lent Itself to Life.

wpid-img_20150108_155907.jpg

Grief is such a peculiar emotion. It is ever present and takes many different forms and tones. Time doesn’t heal it, only changes it. It’s a wound that scabs but never scars. I lost my mother 18 years ago today. And now, I am pondering if that heart wrenching loss is what ultimate gave me life.

This anniversary creeps up on me every year and every year I experience it differently. This year I feel like I’m running from it. Twice today (so far) I’ve fought back tears. Instead of just letting the grief out, I pushed it to the side. A “not now” moment. As I was making lunch for my son, he decided it would be a good idea to climb on his little table so that he could stand on the four inch window sill. As I was telling him to “Get your crazy butt down, you’re going to get hurt!”, he fell. I dropped the peanut butter jar and ran to scoop him up.

As I sat holding my baby boy, he stopped crying pretty quickly but seemed to tighten his grip around my neck. He nuzzled his head in to that perfect nook between my head and shoulder and just hugged me. It’s like he knew. He knew I was the one that really needed to be held. He gave me permission to feel my own hurt and I couldn’t hold back the tears pooling in my eyes. He didn’t even budge as I squeezed him harder, cried and rocked to soothe us both.

Eighteen years ago I lost my mom to cancer but since birth, I never really had her. My grief is deeper than the physical loss of her body. It is a loss of her presence in my life. My grief is shaped around a hole that a constant maternal love never filled. Her name, Constance, is incredibly ironic for that reason. For reasons that I will never truly understand, my mother wasn’t able to fill the role of mom to me. Drugs, alcohol and mental illness all played a part in that, but I know there was more than just those at play. I know there was a hole in her own heart, I just don’t know why.

wpid-img_20150108_153948554.jpgI only know what I know and that is that out of three children my grandparents raised, one committed suicide, one stepped out on her family and even reality at times and the other is living a life so full of dysfunction no one wants him within a ten foot radius. I’m not mad at the grandparents I never knew or my mother. I can look at myself and my own siblings and understand the power of being born with resilience. She, unfortunately, just didn’t get that gene. My mom was a survivor, but never knew which fights were worth fighting for.

My grief has changed over the years. Reaching milestones like graduating highschool and college and getting married shaped it and caused me to miss her in many different ways. Nothing has molded my grief more than having children of my own. Becoming a motherless mom. Raising them, being present in their lives, understanding the importance of being a role model, planting empowering seeds and even letting them see me fall — all of these things trigger grief and love and heartache and hope. It all stems from the relationship, or lack thereof, with my own mother. The anniversary of my mother’s death brings all that to the front of my heart and mine. I was 15 when she died. No where near old enough to become her friend yet, but ready to finally get to know her. It was a place in time that it could have finally been possible, had fucking cancer not taken her away from me.

Time doesn’t make grief easier. It only changes it. Sometimes, it can even make it harder. Time offers growth. Growth forces you to look at the events that have played out in your life, and face the connections that they created.

The string of events, including Mom’s diagnosis of cancer played a part in my removal from a toxic, abusive situation. Her sickness, may have in fact, been my saving grace. It put her in a stable environment and gave my guardian an excuse to send me away, to Mom, after I disclosed her husband had been sexually abusing me for the past eight years. Off I went, to live with my mother for the first time since I was two years old. Thankfully, my sister (who is 12 years older than me) was a part of this plot. She was the rock in my mother’s life at that time and she soon became mine.

When Mom died, my sister was left to raise me. A lost and very damaged 15 year old girl. That end result, however sad and difficult as it was for both of us, set the foundation for the blessed life I have today. I sometimes wonder, in my mother death, was I given the chance to finally live? As I type that out loud, my stomach is twisting, my heart is racing and my mind is truly overwhelmed. It’s a thought I can’t bear to keep but can’t seem to erase.

Perhaps it is the craziest and most cruel thought I have ever had, but it is the only sense I can make of her death, and the cruel timing in which it happened. They say everything happens for a reason and I fucking hate that saying to be honest with you. Even so, I can’t help but feel that her death is connected to an act of love. The kind of love only a mother can have for her children. A love that I didn’t understand then, but do now.

Today, at 33 years old, I sit in silence and let my fingers work through my grief. It will continue to wear many faces today. I will continue to have moments of strength and moments of raw heartache. My grief, a scab that feels ripped open, that hurts and heals me, has once again transformed. I know it will continue to do so. As does my acceptance and understanding of this day, every year.