Mental Health & Spirituality

This is a topic I’ve wanting been wanting to discuss and bring more into my counseling practice for awhile now.

And so, it begins.

Truly, I believe Inner Work is one of the highest forms of spirituality, but for the sake of explanation, I’ll separate the two in the following paragraphs.

Spirituality is hard to define, because unlike religion, it’s really up to the individual to define it. In broad terms, spirituality is the belief of something greater than oneself, such at the Divine, or the deep connection shared between all living thing. It’s the Sun and the Moon, the Earth and the Sky, it’s Me and You (or, as Marin Buber would say, the relationship of “I and Thou”).

Mental health refers to your the well-being of your mind and includes psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It considers where you are on the spectrum of despair and joy and how well you’re managing daily life (I wanted to say “human existence”, but that already connects us right back to the spiritual.)

In past years, we’ve seen a lot of spiritual teachers speak simply of being happy, connecting to the Divine, and raising our vibrations. They talk about eliminating negative thoughts and switching right to positive affirmations.

Then, we have the mental health therapists, talking about the reality of depression and other mental illnesses, cognitions, being with uncomfortable emotions, and “feeling your feelings”*.

(Actually, I wish more therapist practiced “feeling-based” therapies…too many still focus only on the mind, forgetting the mind and body are connected.)

Now these two seemingly opposing world’s are reuniting. Most spiritual teachers I follow now speak about trauma work, such as Gabrielle Bernstein in her recent book Happy Days: The Guided Path from Trauma to Profound Freedom and Inner Peace. Then we have psychologists like Lisa Miller, PhD, researching and writing books like The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and the Quest for a Inspired Life.

I’ve had a lot of friends first on the spiritual path of meditation, Yoga, etc., and then have to back track to mental health. At Naropa University, where I went to grad school, we were taught early on in meditation class the term “spiritual bypassing”. In other words “lets just clear our mind and pretend emotions like sadness, anger, and fear don’t really matter”. That path can only last for so long, although it may be years, until a person eventually hits that “breaking” moment when their soul demands attention for the deep wounds to be healed. (With that, a few spiritual practices early on make for great coping and regulation skills during therapy.)

Now let’s circle back to the idea that Inner Work is one of the highest forms of spirituality.

If we think of Parts work (or IFS), we know that the more we work with our wounded and protector parts (ex: Inner Critic, Ego, Addict, etc) and reintegrate them into the whole, the closer we are to our Higher Self, or what Richard Schwarts simply calls the “Self.” This is the part of us most aligned with our true nature, and for those who practice spirituality-our god/universe/divine-center. Similarly, the more we work with uncomfortable emotions and allow them to be seen and felt, the easier they shift and transform, like clouds in the sky. Built up clouds and emotions lead to storms. Clouds and emotions that have room to move allow for more sun, spirit, and joy to come through.

In short, if I don’t fear not being enough, I have the freedom to just be the full expression of me.

This is why, as a mental health therapist, I still enjoy listening to Abraham Hicks, Wayne Dyer, and Louise Hay*. We do want to raise our vibrations and think better thoughts. I just want to “modernize” things a bit.

First, I think we need to switch from using the word “negative” to “uncomfortable” when speaking about our emotions. I do understand the term negative when it comes to energy, but it’s important that we don’t label any of our emotions as “bad”. All emotions are sources of information and deserve to be seen and felt. That is how we validate ourselves.

From there, we can make “feeling good” a two-step process, with the first part being feeling our uncomfortable emotions. At the beginning, this includes the deep Inner Work of working through trauma and inner child wounds. We have to dig in here so we can truly allow the light to shine in and heal us. Expect a lot of storms and a lot of rainbows. While uncomfortable emotions may never go away, they do start to move through a lot faster once we’ve worked through the deep stuff and have had practice feeling our emotions.

This is also where happiness is a choice…we have to choose to do the work.

In the second step, while their still is choice involved, choice to “choose the better thought”, and to choose your actions on the path towards a meaningful and joyful life, I believe its more about simply allowing. Again, when we let go of the darkness, when we heal our pasts and learn how to move through emotions, the sun naturally wants to shine. Really, its about stepping into your Light.

To summarize, I would say that the mental health/spiritual journey is really the brave journey of going through the darkness, the darkness of our minds, so we have the freedom to be the highest versions of ourselves.

*In The Power is Within You, Louise Hay writes about how, after her cancer diagnosis, she had to go back and feel her resentment and deal with past trauma.

The Opposite of Love

“The opposite of love is fear.” -Said in different ways by many people, but I usually think of The Course in Miracles or Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love.

Your thoughts?

After all, the Lumineers say “the opposite of love’s indifference” and plenty of others will say it’s hate.

What if we add the caveat that the only way to move towards love is to befriend your fear?

Fear certainly isn’t bad. It’s our key primal survival mechanism. But in our modern world, fear has gone a little haywire. We fear what needs to not to be feared.

Fear in today’s world, you see, protects one from the risk of love, the risk of getting hurt, of having your heart broken. If it’s not the opposite of love, we can at least say it’s the biggest block to love.

Really, it’s all based on a myth. Love never goes away. It may change forms, but it can never disappear. Love surrounds as just as much as the air surrounds us. We’ve just been trained not to see it or deny its existence. Instead of being all encompassing and always existing energy that is all around us, we’ve been told love is limited and that love can hurt us. This is a lie.

While yes, a break-up, divorce, or death can be a source of great emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger, it’s not love that is hurting us. It’s the lie that it’s gone. Love is the cushion we fall back on. It’s in the arms of friends and family waiting to comfort us, our dogs waiting to lick the tears away, the Voice within us telling us it will be okay. It’s still in the relationship that was, it’s still in that other person, even if the relationship ceases to exist how it once was.

This doesn’t mean we still don’t get to have our uncomfortable emotions. We just need to take the time to feel them, as scary as they can be, and let them pass, so we can move towards a path of freedom, a path full of the love that awaits us.

Side note: You’re living a human existence in a world filled with fear. If you don’t understand this right away, that’s okay! You just have to believe it’s true. Personally, it’s been months and months of dedicated inner work to get me to this point, and I’m still not fully there. I just trust my Higher Self that the message is pure.

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“Love in your mind produces love in your life. This is the meaning of Heaven. Fear in your mind produces fear in your life. This is the meaning of hell” 
― Marianne Williamson, Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles.

“A Course in Miracles says that only love is real: “The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.” When we think with love, we are literally co-creating with God. And when we’re not thinking with love, since only love is real, then we’re actually not thinking at all. We’re hallucinating. And that’s what this world is: a mass hallucination, where fear seems more real than love. Fear is an illusion. Our craziness, paranoia, anxiety and trauma are literally all imagined. That is not to say they don’t exist for us as human beings. They do. But our fear is not our ultimate reality, and it does not replace the truth of who we really are. Our love, which is our real self, doesn’t die, but merely goes underground.” 
― Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

Fine Lines: My Experience Living with a Narcissist

Early on in my internship days at a residential treatment center, I was doing an intake for a young 20-something woman. We must have doing the sexual trauma section of the intake. All I really remember is when she said “There’s a fine line between consent and giving in.” 

I had to hide my gasp. The words struck me- they still do. Such a poignant way to describe a terrible truth. 

It wasn’t more than 2 seasons later that I found myself experiencing her words for myself. The truth now haunting my own story.

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This is the first time I’ve told this story*, over 3 years later. Even my loved ones only know this story in part, and I still fear them reading this. Most people know me as an open, vulnerable person when it comes to sharing my journey, so why I haven’t I told it? Here’s a few of the reasons: the story wasn’t there, how strories usually first appear in my mind and then wait for me to write them. I was still confused on what happened, how I could have let it happen. With that, came a great deal of shame. People may actually think differently of me, that I’m not as strong as they thought, after reading this. Additionally, I was scared, for reasons that will later be revealed. 

Additionally, I also wasn’t fully aware that what happened was traumatic until a dear friend (another therapist and healer) I was hiking with used that word as she reflected back the story. 

Now, I can look back at the end of this story, the part where Pacer and I were staying in a hotel room, and see the beauty within it. I can remember the love and strength of my sisters. When my older sister, in the midst of her journey with cancer, telling me “life is too short to be anything but happy.”

I have also found compassion for my ex-boyfriend. I believe, at least in this society, this term is both overused and that we all have some narcissism in us, and that part of us is very insecure. To have the true narcissistic wound is a painful existence. Inside, these people hold inside the exact opposite of what they externally show: confidence, prideful, put-together, self-admiration. Internally they are constantly fearful of how others perceive them, have little self-love, and are terrified of anyone finding out about their imperfections. It’s not a way I would want to live. 

Finally, I have started to forgive myself and the role I played in the relationship, and the actions I took even after my sister’s helped pulled me out of dark waters. 

*I did allude to it here: https://adogandhergirl.com/2019/09/10/heartache-and-healing-in-the-san-juans/

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The relationship began with a surge of excitement. In therapy terms, his love bombing (which comes from a deep attachment wound) played off of the emotional neglect I experienced in childhood. (My parents are wonderful people, but their midwest, baby boomer generation had learned to dismiss emotions as unimportant, and this message was passed on to me until I decided to change it. Otherwise, I knew I was loved and all my other needs were met.). This felt exciting to me, and my usual nervousness around new people quickly diminished…which was my excuse of not pursuing a very kind, Jim Carey-like man I had also recently met. I can’t say I didn’t notice red flags, but I easily dismissed them. Like the time the bartender wouldn’t serve him another shot after talking to another bartender and nearby restaurant on down the block. Then that night, or maybe it was another, that I was slightly nervous about him driving me home after almost missing a red light. 

I didn’t know until much later that my older sister had noticed these red flags right away, how he always had a drink whenever we went to a restaurant, or the flare in his voice the Christmas Eve party . My twin sister still hold on to some guilt. She always questioned my decision to be with him while also trusting my decision. I think that’s what a sister is supposed to do, and I never told her all the details. Probably because family rarely talks about personal lives or even asks personal questions. Actually, my parents know nothing to very little of this story at all (a friend may have leaked a small portion out). My sisters and I felt that they were already going through enough, especially with my older sister fighting cancer. My mom’s cancer diagnosis would come just a few weeks after…and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have told us if she could have hid the side effects of chemo. (Twin, while I would prefer that you not read this, because I know it was a painful experience for you too and I’m ashamed of some of my actions, please know that I will always value your opinion and your spiritual guidance. But this was not your fault. Your job was never to save me, but your and Amanda’s support meant everything to me. )

Not much longer after the we started dating, I remember covering for him at a group run. I think in one of the days before he had hit his head on a cupboard, which brought on symptoms from previous concussions he had got fighting in the Iraq war. (Note: Him and I morally disagreed on some big subjects and usually I was made to feel guilty if I even inquired about his view points. Yet. as a Highly Sensitive Person, I felt compelled to caretake.) After the group run and his speaking engagement at the running store, I remember my sister and a friend giving me quizzical looks. I can’t remember what I said, but I did my best to cover up for his odd behavior. Truly, I don’t know if his behavior was concussion related, medication related, or alcohol related. But he was a war hero, who appeared to be highly regarded in the running community*, and wasn’t I doing what I was supposed to be doing?

*Later, after the relationship ended, I discovered that others had mixed feelings about him too. I had no idea.

That winter, I don’t remember much. Things must have been okay for awhile, and I was busy with my second year of grad school in Naropa University’s Clinical Mental Heath Counseling/Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy program, which included many trips outdoors (more shame- should I have seen this coming with my training?). Actually…wait. That’s not true. During a backpacking trip in Utah, my dog got deathly ill back at home. I remember my sister telling me that he went to work and left the clean-up and caretaking to her and her partner…they quickly took my dog, Pacer, to the ER. At this moment, I can barely type. My dog is my everything… how could I have ignored that? How can I forgive myself for that, and all the other times I let him make the decisions off of his needs…like when our flight from one of his races got in late, and he wanted to stop at IHOP, when I knew Pacer was at home waiting for me?

I do remember almost breaking up with him. I believe it was January. I remember standing on his doorstep. I think we basically had broken up. Then I decided to do a short, late afternoon snowshoe hike to a mountain lake. You would think that would have cleared my mind and calmed my body. But I went back to his apartment after that and allowed the story to continue.

Spring brought on more flags, that I didn’t know were flags. I just knew he seemed a little off. My second year of grad school ended with canoeing trip down a canyon in Utah, followed my a formal rites of passage, something my cohort and I had been building up to all year. A rite of passage is a sacred event. All year, I had been working on accepting a part of me that I had pushed down much of my life, and I wanted to step into my sacred feminine power. For three days and nights, I slept, meditated, and fasted on the Colorado-Utah border and basked in the magical space my peers and professors had created with the land. It was a transformational week. When we got back to Boulder, we held a “welcome back” ceremony with family and friends. This too, was important to me. I invited my sister and him. My sister, as always, was excited to be there for me and took part in the ceremony. He was subdued, quiet, and a little “off.” That weekend, I held a more intimate dinner with him, my sister, and her boyfriend. I cooked a special meal, and read a poem I had written in the desert. While a little awkward for all of (none of us had grown up in a spiritual fashion), he just wasn’t there. Uncomfortable. Which ended up being the norm for all the times the attention wasn’t on him. 

It wasn’t until summer that the signs really became obvious to me, or I at least knew that the relationship wasn’t good and I wanted to get out. My lease was up at the end of May and I had plans to move up to Estes Park at the end of summer as I began my internship. So, in the interim, I moved in with him. I cried almost as soon as I got there. He didn’t clean. Didn’t make any room for my stuff. I didn’t want to be there, but I had nowhere to go (my sister’s place was tiny and didn’t allow dogs.). That June, my sister was racing in Poland and her partner soon after in France. They bought me a plane ticket and paid for my stay so my sister and I could celebrate our 30th birthday together (we’re twins). I again trusted him with my beloved dog, Pacer, who’s both very sensitive and protective. Without going into detail, what I now believe was carelessness (but he had a good story at the time), led to a lot of court dates that became my responsibility. Luckily, she stayed safe. 

Then the yelling began. 

I tend to be a forgetful person at times. I lose my keys and forget where I put IDs. For instance, as we were getting ready to check our bags at the airport, I forgot that I had left my credit card in my Yoga bag. The plane tickets and his race expenses were on my card, as usual (I think I eventually always got paid back, sometimes with some dispute. There’s was something about credit after the housing market fell…). He got pretty upset. My survival response is to freeze, his was obviously, to yell (fight). On the ride back to Boulder, I literally sat frozen in the car in fear of the anger penetrating of his body, as well as my guilt for messing up the trip. Back at his condo, he slammed the door in his bedroom, and I laid in the fetal position on the patio. Still feeling guilty for potentially ruining his race and letting his sponsors down, I talked him in to taking a later flight. I repacked his bags. 

It happened again, sometime during the Perseids meteor shower and right before I was due to check out my potential place in Estes Park. I can’t remember if this was the time I remember him driving too fast down I-70 and me thinking “Pacer is in the car”, but being too scared to say anything else for fear he would drive faster. Or maybe it was another time. What I do remember him yelling, and I do remember leaving, driving away from town to hopefully see a shooting star, wishing for an escape, but returning, again because I had no where to go and had none of my stuff. And, after all, the yelling wasn’t “that bad.” The next day, I desperately didn’t want him to go with me. A week later, I desperately didn’t want him to sign the lease with me as I moved in. But I had forgotten how to say “no.”

Really, the yelling and silent treatments are all pretty blurry. I only know they happened because I wrote them down, which ended up being a key to my sanity. Proof I wasn’t making things up.

He was staying at his place down the canyon for another month. For a short period of time, I enjoyed the freedom of my new life. I had decided, with the help of therapist, to write him a letter to end the relationship. I believe I gave it to him before he left to pace a well-know athlete at 100 miler, another link to popularity (and probably a good reason to date me, with a sister and her boyfriend, whom I consider my brother, both being professional athletes). While timid, there was a relief in leaving him the letter. If only it had lasted…

Not long after, he came to my basement apartment, tearful and apologetic. I did say no…until he continued. He pleaded for a month or two, to see if we could work things out. I didn’t like this idea, but I gave in. I don’t know if I came up with this idea then, or at the beginning of the next summer, but I decided that I liked the rest of my life, so I could handle a partner I didn’t want to be with. Plus, it made the rent cheap. It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized if your goal is to have a joyous and meaningful life, you don’t need to invite darkness in and then let it hang around (I’m not referring to him specifically, but the darkness inside of him.)

In general, things were going okay for the next few months. I let him drive back to Ohio with me for Christmas (why didn’t he go see his own kids?). I soon kicked myself for allowing this, rather than having a peaceful drive with my sister. There must have been some type of argument, maybe because I protested that I wanted to listen to my music too, and then a tense silence. This is when I could feel my older sister’s dislike of him, though she didn’t say it.

Sometime in the transition between winter and spring, I fully understood, by experience, that client’s words “there’s a fine line between giving up and giving in.” Now it’s obvious to me that I had been doing it all along. “It’s not that bad.” There were plenty of good times too. He wasn’t always upset. And really, he only yelled a few times. He’d never physically hurt me. This continual practice of giving in eventual led to sex too. He never forced it. For me, it was just easier to give in, to allow a few tears to invisibly trickle down my face in the dark room, then to say refuse and deal with the tension the next day. I know some people won’t understand, and I’m thankful that they don’t. If you’re an HSP/empath, you might…the felt-sense of tension, of waiting for something to break, can feel unbearable.

On the other hand, I learned later that for a narcissist, not having the attention on them cab be extremely uncomfortable. That sign, that I didn’t yet know was a sign, was evident that spring as I neared my graduation. Like the day my cohort and I were giving our capstone presentations. I was super proud of mine, “Mother Nature Attachment Theory” I had titled it. I remember my sister being super proud too. He must have said something to me after, but didn’t stay much longer for presentations equally wonderful from my cohort, my friends. When I got back home late that evening, he was napping, no dinner made. Just some comments on the effort he made to get there on snowy roads. Then, month later, my family flew out to Colorado. I just didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t think they all would come. My old sister barely made it. She was so sick between the cancer and the chemo and other drugs. It meant everything to me that they came. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in a great mood the morning of my graduation. Driving down the canyon to Naropa, again listening to his music, I had to explain to him that this was as important to me as one of his ultra races were to him. I think he actually understood that. It just didn’t last. A few weeks later I was driving up the canyon after a long day of wilderness first responder training in the valley, and I ended up right at the scene of a major car crash, just minutes after it happened. One guy was trapped in his car, and I think eventually was helicoptered out. The other gentleman was out of his car (pulled out by two amazing people) and in severe pain, his dog faithfully by his side. While I did little more than check the guys vitals and sit by the dog, I was pretty shook. After making sure the first witness to the scene, who also stayed the whole time, were okay, I drove back down the canyon (the scene was still blocked) to go up the long way, getting home hours later than planned. I don’t remember being asked if I was okay. I remember him walking up the stairs to do his laundry. 

We still had a few adventures that summer, though I was sure we wouldn’t make it through him running a well-know race in July. He didn’t understand why I didn’t want all the expenses on my credit card, or why I was at least hoping to get help paying for my plane ticket. But he did agree that I could climb a 14er beforehand. The 22 mile hike was amazing, but I got extremely dehydrated coming down and felt like death by the time I got to the car. After first he was concerned when I gave him a call. Then I fell asleep for an hour. When I got back it was a “you took all day while I was stuck in the hotel.” (The town was only a few blocks long). Yet, the trip ended relatively well. For the next month, things were okay, until they weren’t. 

I’m not really sure what happened. He must have been out drinking with a friend. Something must have been said that opened, or threatened, a wound. I was at home completing my Girls on the Run volunteer online training. He just went off. Then he’d go into the bed room, close the door, and come back out to yell some more. This went repeat for awhile, me just sitting on the couch with Pacer and taking it. Then I snapped and my protection mode switched for the briefest, regrettable of seconds. I threw a glass at the wall. This just further enraged him. He told me if I didn’t pick it up, he would call the police. I think I refused at first, then maybe I did so tearfully when he actually did call the police. I may have called my sister during this time. I remember praying my landlord and her granddaughter weren’t home (they weren’t.). The cop who came was really nice. He asked to talk to me first, and asked I why I threw the glass. I said I didn’t know (in hindsight, I was fully in my amygdala and definitely not in my prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of the brain. It was a true reaction.). Then the cop told me that my then boyfriend actually had an outstanding warrant, and that he was under arrest. He was taken away, and I felt some relief for the briefest of hours, alone in the apartment with just me, Pacer, and his cats. I wish the story ended there. Instead, he called me a few hour later from the jail and told me “It’s in your best interest to come pick me up.” I was never really scared of him physically. It was more the threats he threw at me and my family. More along the lines of ruining careers, and for me a counseling career I had just started. My sister and her partner always laughed at these (and there perspective helped a great deal), knowing there was no basis for his threats. Unfortunately, I did’t have that perspective. So, I picked him up. I think another week or two passed. He ran another race. Then it happened again. I was on the couch, hiding under a blanket with Pacer, and he yelled and yelled and yelled. This time, I was at least smart enough to call my sister and her boyfriend in-between the yelling and door slams so they could record what was happening (I still had my old slide phone at the time). After listening to a few rounds of this, my sister told me to get my dog and get out. I don’t know why I needed someone telling me the obvious (probably because I was back in my freeze state, as my fight state had just made it worse last time) but I did. She got me a hotel nearby, and we drove down the hill and towards safety in the dark.

The next day I still really didn’t know what to do. My sisters made sure I was able to stay at the hotel for a few more days. My landlords texted to see if I was okay. They had heard most of it, and would have come down if they heard anything physical. However, they also knew that Pacer is quite sensitive, and that could have added to the chaos. They asked to meet me by the lake in town. The plan was to ask him to move out, which they did. And yet, the next evening, I was crying on the phone to my old sister on the curbside by the hotel. He had given them a story on how this was my fault…he’s always been quite the talker. My landlords didn’t know what to do, but I think we’re taken aback on his refusal to move. In the end, they had to give him 30 days to move out and then allowed me to move back in. This is when I took off for a week to camp, then moved into a motel for a month. 

Another hopeful end to the story. Unfortunately, there’s more, including a part that I am deeply shameful of. 

Somehow, another month or so later, he asked me to meet him for coffee. I don’t know if I didn’t have him blocked on my phone and he texted, or maybe he emailed, or even wrote a letter….there were lots of letters, many that I just threw aways as I had been holding onto them as “just in case” evidence. Me, being too overly compassionate, especially because he had two boxes of my friends stuff that we had put into storage for him, agreed. Another tearful apology, still wanting to make things work. I think I said no… but then he called. Late one night, I think from somewhere out of state. Another military friend committed suicide. (I don’t say that lightly. The post-war deaths are some of the most concerning.). He was emotional, potentially suicidal. Of course, I, at that point in my life, felt like I had to help him de-escalate. Then for some reason, a few nights later, I was experiencing extreme physical pain. Weak, I called him. Really, for a problem he caused. He wasn’t a fan of condoms, so I got a copper IUD. (My brain and body can’t handle anything hormonal, nor apparently, a foreign device.) The different but shared pain experiences were enough for a chemical reaction and a physical re-connection. A choice I still can’t believe I made. 

I slept with him. Three times. After all my sister’s did for me. After all we went through together. After all the help they gave to me. I felt like I had failed them. 

What would they think of me? What would my friends think of me if they new any of this story?

I finally said “no”, a true “no”, when it stopped feeling good, the guilt took over, and knowing I would never let him near Pacer again. I blocked his calls, his emails, etc. 

It’s just so hard to break-up with someone in a small town.

Soon, I couldn’t go to the gym without fear of harassment, him matching his schedule to mine. Letters on windshields. Stories from a friend that he was talking about me. Encounters at the parking lot of the one main grocery store in town. My poor boyfriend after, truly a lovely man, being on the receiving end of my panic attacks and spirals. Calls to my landlords with threats of suicide, saying it was my fault if I didn’t go see him. Another drunk night, with him driving into an electrical poll that fell close to my landlords bedroom. My fierce landlord, a woman then in her late 60s, yelling at him to go as he knocked on my door while Pacer and I hid in the bedroom. (I laugh a little bit now looking back…no wonder why my already sensitive nervous system was a mess for so long.) 

Eventually, it ended. A random text here and there after he changed his number, a rare encounter at the grocery store, a message from his ex-girlfriend after me, not saying much except that she was also scared. 

The shame has been slower to let go of. It was my fault that he moved to the small town. Being in grad school to be a mental health therapist, I should have seen the signs. Going back on what my sisters had done for me. The feelings of being weak. Not holding my boundaries. 

In hindsight, I think that maybe I thought I was tough. I could put up with it. Because it wasn’t “that bad.” And that is why I write this.

I’m still a little scared to share this story, partially because, as I said at the beginning, I know this will change people’s view of me. A friend I’ve known since college, who knows parts of this story told me “that doesn’t sound like you Rach.” Partially because I am scared of getting an angry correspondence from him or a threat to sue or something like that. But after witnessing another kind, empathetic woman, like me, endure a similar situation, I don’t have a choice. I know too many woman who have uttered the cursed words “It’s not that bad.” as a reason to stay in an unhealthy relationship. While I don’t want to compare myself to women who have been in truly abusive relationships, I write this because I know my situation is far too common. For no other woman, or really person on this planet, would I wish them to live a life that is “not that bad.” As my older sister, now passed on, said to me “Life is too short to be anything but happy.”

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In hindsight, I can explain what happened from a therapist’s perspective. I can talk about how hormones work, the emotional brain vs. the intellectual brain, and different attachment styles. I would tell my clients “It wasn’t your fault.” “Look how hard you were trying to be loved.” “Look how hard you tried to prove to another person that they were lovable too.” And I would mean it. When it comes to myself, it’s been a lot of work to give my inner therapist a louder voice than my inner critic. It’s been a slow process to give myself the same compassion I show others, but I’m getting there. 

Since this experience, I was in a relationship with a wonderful man (aforementioned above) who is still one of my closest friends. After him, I briefly dated a man with bipolar disorder. I don’t say this in any way to condemn anyone with bipolar disorder. When under control and actively being worked through with a trauma-informed therapist, there’s nothing wrong with dating someone with bipolar. The man I was dating, however, often presented very young and very reactive. Again, I knew his abuse history and my heart went out to him. This time, I realized a little bit sooner that it was patronizing to him and unhealthy for me to continue dating him. Then, why never in a relationship, I briefly dated a man whom I deeply loved, but his sacred contract was to break me and it was he who finally turned me into ashes. I am still rising from those ashes, but I’m certain that it’s a Phoenix I shall become. 

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In writing this, I have done my best to leave out specific details. However, a few readers may know whom I talking about and I ask that you please, please don’t share this with him, both for the aforementioned reasons, and for his sake. Again, I don’t envy anyone carrying the darkness of a narcissist. He still has light within him. Whether altruistic or not, he has raised money for a lot of charities, has kids, and deserves peace if he chooses to claim it. I’m fearful of how reading this would affect him…it could cause a psychotic break, which is why I’ve gone round and round on whether I should publish this or not. My intention here is to be a light, not to hurt. With that, I hope this gives others the courage to refuse to live in a place of “it’s not that bad”, and to ​instead ​live in their own fullness and beauty. 

Choose to Be Happy (without overriding other emotions)

Somedays, I’m only happy because I choose to be so.

No, I’m not talking about toxic positivity when one pretends that the only emotion they feel is “happy.” That’s a pretty extreme version of suppressing emotions. Any of my counseling clients would tell you that I’m a big fan of feeling ALL of our feelings. Emotional intelligence is an essential life skill. This practice of choosing to be happy also isn’t about overriding trauma, attachment wounds (a type of trauma), or negative thought patterns. What this practice can offer us is a floaty in dark waters. Or even when we’re climbing out of shallow water, like those mornings we just feel a little off (“blah, ehh”are common sounds for this feeling), maybe for no reason, or maybe because we scrolled through Instagram a little too close before bedtime.

Just that 1-5% difference in feel bad to not-so-bad matters.

Choosing to be happy can help us shift our energy to find thing we’re grateful for, which has been shown to increase a sense of over-all wellbeing. It can help us make choices that will increase our happiness. It may be the choice of asking for support from a loved or a therapist. It might be the difference between saying “I feel like sh*t, so I’m going to eat sh*t all day” to “I don’t feel great, but I’m choosing happiness. I’m going to have at least one healthy meal today.” It’s not a magical cure. It’s not saying “no” to sadness, anger, or fear. It’s actually saying “yes” to them, because when we feel our feelings and let them move, we give space for more joy and freedom. And that is what I want for myself, for you, and for my clients. Not just to learn how to feel and deal with emotions, but to create more space for happiness.

Starting my (someone who’s experienced depression and anxiety) morning off with something positive or calming is a key practice for me. Here’s my morning playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/09nIn0W8X8ccrDCSF70V4f

The Introvert’s Anxiety

*I realize not all introverts have this anxiety.

I was texting with a friend and mentioned my fear about being living so close to my 3 yurt neighbors. Will I have to socialize? If so, how often? Will it be awkward? Will my peace be disturbed? (Yikes!)

He texts me back “What are you afraid of? People love you.” and proceeded to list off examples.

Feeling misunderstood and slightly annoyed, I decided it was a good time to end the conversation.

Then, like always, I thought more about what he said to me and considered his examples, as well as other memories being in a group. Being honest with myself, in the midst of a few memories of feeling totally out of place at a business function (in my past life) or in a group of runners, I had to admit; people generally seem to like me. I might be social awkward, and I might have a challenging time being part of a group, but people either don’t notice or don’t care about the things I say or do that are slightly “off”. Those things that I’ll generally replay on repeat in my mind later on. Other times, when people look at me, I debate with myself if they’re looking at me because they find me intriguing…or just odd. Another possibility… maybe it’s my perception of myself and others that is a little off. Maybe I’m not that awkward…or maybe we’re all a little weird.

This new thought, that people generally liked me as a person, was confirmed when I met and chatted with my new yurt neighbors the following week.

Where my fear came from, I’m not 100% sure, but I think it might be time to start changing it.

*Another note on fear… a lot of it is based in the future and ends up not being real. The only thing that I was asked if I wanted to do was go in the sauna after we learned how to turn it on, which I politely declined. Otherwise, I think most of us yurt folk are early to bed and like to keep warm at night in our own tiny abode.

Grasping at the Clouds

Why do we always want to tell others how they hurt us?
Most of us knowing we would never get an apology, or even recognition that we have wounds. My own experience is rarely an acknowledgement of my feelings. Usually, it’s a complete lack of a response and I feel abandoned all over again.

Maybe it’s a wish things could somehow, miraculously, fantastically, work out. Maybe the hard parts could be undone, erased. Less from a feeling of sadness or anger. More from love- back to the denial of a love lost.

Even when we know its fantasy, even when we know we want to be loved differently. By someone who hears our needs and does more then speaks words, but takes appropriate action.

What to do when left with our own hurt?

Acceptance… yes, of the situation. But more so, of the fact we are still grieving.

From there, the only other answer I have found is to sit or walk with the hurt, even as it lingers. To keep showing up for myself and my pain that few others in my life ever could. To stop grasping at the clouds. To witness myself “I see your pain, and I am with you.”

And then I hug Pacer extra tight.

Cocooning: Yurt Life

A calm, regulated nervous system creates an atmosphere within the body in which healing is achieved. The body truly is designed to heal.

“Higher levels of stress cause higher cortisol output via the HPA axis, and cortisol inhibits the activity of the inflammatory cells involved in wound healing.” -Gabar Mate, When the Body Says No

While this quote is specific to wound healing, we can transfer this knowledge to the whole body, as the book When the Body Says No does for many conditions such as ALS and cancer. I was also lucky enough learn from other therapists who carried this knowledge and have helped people heal mentally and physically. In addition, I can bet you that any of my counseling clients who experience high anxiety also have gut issues, in part because the blood flow is being directed outward, just in case they have to fight, flee, for freeze, and not towards the gut to help digest foods. On a more personal note, I can tell when I get a headache that I’ve caused because of high levels of stress and worry.

*Childhood Disrupted by Donna Jackson Nakazawa is another good read on the topic

In short, science is finally catching up to what many healers already know. Actually, what many of us know, but have been taught to ignore or thought silly after frightened men gave intuition names like “woo woo” and undermined Eastern traditions.

As I wrote in a recent post “Healing” https://adogandhergirl.com/2022/10/23/healing/, I’m on a path towards healing my Achilles heel, in part by calming and regulating my nervous system.

Without exactly knowing it until a friend defined it (https://adogandhergirl.com/2022/10/27/wanderlust-and-transformation/) I was in the wanderlust phase, or what others may call the transformation or liminal phase. The phase of “in-between”. No longer my old self, not yet my new self. What I conveniently forgot is that the wanderlust phase involves a challenge, and that challenge doesn’t actually happen externally…from a divorce, death of a loved one, or an outdoor survival challenge. It’s actually what happens within. While my challenge initiated by being unable to work through attachment wounds with a lover*, the actual challenge was working with what was happening inside of me. The internal messages of not being good enough, not being wanted, not being understood, and all the fear, sadness, and pain that came with that. In short, I was actually forced to start healing my attachment wounds. I continually showed up for myself (https://adogandhergirl.com/2022/08/04/i-will-not-abandon-you-coming-back-to-myself-in-the-san-juan-mountains/), much of it through inner child work. It was liberating…and also exhausting. A continuous cycle of fear coming up and self soothing, dysregulated to regulated. There just wasn’t enough energy left for my Achilles to heel (not to mention I was still hiking up mountains with Pacer).

*In hindsight, it probably started much easier, just more subtly.

Hence, the cocoon phase. A phase often left out of the stages of transition or rites of passage. A phase I would gladly hand out to any of my counseling clients if I could, if our society wasn’t based on “work, work work, earn, earn, earn.” Because of how I had already been living, this was something that I could carve out and and create in my life. Hence, yurt life.

Quiet. At the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Peace. A step back from going into the office for work, from errands of daily life. Also, intentions of serenity and healing, which I’ve created the next 6 months around. (I could have easily allowed my life to become busier without intention.)

I am still working on taking more time away from Instagram, but I’m getting there. Healing takes time after all 😉

Wanderlust and Transformation

I was hiking with a dear friend earlier in the year and talking about some of my internal struggles. This friend also happened to be a therapist, and someone much more holistic medicine and astrologically knowledgeable than I am. At one point, she ever so quickly paused but so clearly said to me “Oh, I think you’re supposed to be going through this right now. You’re in the transformation stage.”

I instantly resonated with her words, I just thought, or hoped, I was further along in the journey. To be clear, nothing externally tragic was happening to me. Just a “relationship” opening up old wounds. My discomfort was internal. Only in hindsight can I realize I was letting go of, resisting, and grieving my past self. The part of me that wasn’t serving me anymore, but had protected me for so long. A loss is a loss, even if it’s the best possible thing for you. I was in the process of exposing my wounds so they could be healed…and not just healed, but transformed.

“Love can only heal what presents itself to be healed. If our woundedness remains hidden, it cannot be healed. The best in us cannot come out unless the worst comes out as well.” -John Welwood, PhD

Now, looking back, I can see my journey with clarity, a clarity that I certainly didn’t have when I was going through it. I just trusted (most of the time…okay, some of the time) my friends words and my intuition that I was on the right path.

And that, my friends, was the North Star in my Wanderlust Phase.

As to what I am transforming into, or rather, who I am becoming, that has yet to be seen. But it’s gonna be good. As well as any evolution thereafter.

“I will not abandon you.”: Coming back to Myself in the San Juan Mountains

(Note: This is an edited version of my journaling. The other pages were messier and free-flowing, allowing me to move through my anger and fear. While I’m happy to share many of my thoughts, some things are personal and sacred. I also apologize for the going back and forth with tenses. This is a mix of journal entries and reflections.)

Day 1

The San Juan mountains greeted us with clouds, drizzle, and 50 degrees. A comfort. Mother Nature reflecting the emotions living inside my body. A storm of beauty, gratitude, and grief.

“I will not abandon you.” She whispered.

Day 2

The next day, I cried. Balled might be a better word. As in balled my eyes out as I stumbled down an alpine trail.

You see, I don’t just cry. I ugly cry. I could never be an actress daintily crying in a movie, even though tears come easily for me. They always manage to make crying look like such a pretty act. I cry more like the comedian impersonating the actress crying in the movie, wailing, hiccuping, and sniffling.

“I hate having such a big heart.”, I nearly texted a friend before choosing not to.

This happened several times throughout the day. Each time I thought the pain might break me. “How can my 5’4″ frame bear so much hurt? I’m going to be ripped apart.”, I thought. But after a few minutes, I’d feel the space in my chest expand, the pain would settle, and a smudge of clarity would take its place.

**********

After the evenings misadventure that included a failed attempt at backpacking (which turned out to be good luck), a cloud enshrouded us. It felt good to be consumed. The hug I had been wanting. Later it started raining. It was nice knowing that Mother Nature was crying with me. That I wasn’t alone, not with Her and Pacer by my side.

“I will not abandon you.”, we whispered together.

She reminded me not to self abandon. I keep saying this “I will not abandon you” to myself as my body tried to go numb. I so desperately want to, but I was determined to feel. To not abandon myself, my body, or my Inner Child who always felt like her emotions were too big and needed to be hidden. I had learned through my older sister’s passing that I can survive this pain, this “breaking open.”

And as the darkness enveloped, I could rest.

Day 3 (Colorado Trail)

On the 3rd day, I was mostly tearless as long as I was moving. (I had intentionally planned the day to be moving for half, then napping, journaling/writing, and reading in the second half.) Sad, but more hopeful moving through the sacred mountains. There was clarity in the remote space. Thankfully, Mother Nature decided to wait to cry until we were back at camp. There, we cried together. And that crying opened up space within me to write.

I have so many regrets, but I know I was doing the best I could with how my nervous system was reacting. I have to forgive myself. And if this leads to his healing and happiness, I can find joy in my suffering.

And then I got my perfect moment. Pacer and I were napping (well, I was resting while Pacer was on and off snoring) in the car, mostly dry inside, as the rain fell around us and pitter-pattered on the car. Pacer grabbed my hand with her paw.
(I always new if I were going to get married, it would be in the San Juans. -Note: Humor coming back).

Maybe what he had given me was a gift.

I noticed that even though it was still raining, the sky wasn’t that dark.

“…nothing beautiful in the end comes without a measure of some pain, some frustration, som suffering. This the nature of things. This is how our Universe has been made up.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu (The Book of Joy)

Day 4 (Colorado Trail)

I woke up in the middle of the night trying to get comfortable, frustrated and sad my time in the abyss was being cut short. The stars were out.

Today’s intention: find joy.

(Later) Still no sun, although I see it trying behind the clouds. A little more gratitude. Enough light and joy to feel Amanda again.

It’s funny how both grief and love can feel so all-consuming. Well, maybe love isn’t the right word. Fear-based love. I never understood the “fear God” concept in Catholic school, so its interesting to me to see I’ve still clung to the ideology in adulthood. Can I let it go for good?

Love, while everywhere, is spacious, not confining. Its Mother Nature saying to us humans “Even though you hurt me, I will still give you wildflowers, just as Father Sky presents you with the Perseids meteor shower each August.”

No tears. There hasn’t been thunder in a few days. Still clouds. Yet a clearing. No sun, but stars.

(In my isolation with Pacer, I was also blessed to meet with a friend this day, a kindred spirit. The perfect break in my retreat inside myself.)

Day 5 (Handies Peak)

Sunshine.

The first time we’ve seen it since arriving in the San Juans. A butterfly from my sister. Still clouds, but so much more sun. A friend commented on a picture of me and Pacer on Handies Peak, saying that we/I looked so happy. (Pacer is almost always happy). I reflected: I was. The type of joy that only comes from suffering. After forgiveness, with gratitude and acceptance. Unfiltered light.

While I was never in a labeled relationship, the inherent love was always there, right from the start. It just had no space to grow. Not because we didn’t hold unconditional love for each other, but because we held conditional love for ourselves.

“I will not abandon you.”, I whispered to myself.

****

The most courageous human act is to choose to love again after your heart as been broken.

To live, to truly live, is to have your heart broken. At least once, but often many times. After, it is a natural survival response to guard it. After all, it is the holiest thing we possess. But once we are aware of this mechanism, we have a choice: to put walls up around our hearts, to defend and protect, or to let our hearts be broken open and allow for even more love to be let in.

****

Final reflections:

  • Part of me feels like I have simply repeated another “non” relationship from several years ago. Another part of me realize that I have pulled back yet another layer and met with a deeper truth.
  • A few days, mostly alone in nature can help me feel, explore, and grow more than a few months’ time at home. Somehow, in the arms of Mother Earth, healing is accelerated. I feel closer to Me again. (For me, the San Juan mountains* appear to be my go-to: https://adogandhergirl.com/2019/09/10/heartache-and-healing-in-the-san-juans/) *These mountains played an important role when Pacer and I backpacked the Colorado Trail in 2015 as well.
  • A lot of the pain had to do with the “second arrow“, that voice that asked “why doesn’t he want me?”, that believed I wasn’t enough. Ultimately, stepping into that pain and following the thread of that false belief is what lead to my healing.
  • I have rarely ever felt this close to myself.

Pain & Freedom

Rarely does my therapist let me go into existential crisis mode. And rightfully so- I could theorize and deflect all day.

But last session was different. She let me go there, probably realizing it was intertwined with my pain. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain, all wrapped up into one.

I gave my “fuck you” to god. “I feel so much pain, why can’t you just give me this one thing that lets me feel free?” My dance. My connection. My flight. My stride.

Of course I know God/Spirit/The Universe has given me many things, such as Pacer, a twin sister, friends and family, etc.- but any time I travel down that rabbit hole I’m led to feeling guilty for not feeling grateful enough, and that’s a whole different part of myself I need to work on. My higher self reminds me not to conflate gratitude with guilt, that I can feel many things at once: pain, anger, sadness, and gratitude.

The funny thing is that trying to stop the physical pain has led me to unraveling my emotional pain.

After running on and off in pain for years, I finally decided to call it. Annoyed because I had already worked on this and accepted I may never run fast again. But not run at all? I felt all the stages of grief, often multiple stages at once: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

I try no to let my negative voices belittle myself. “It’s just running, after all.” Truly, I (choose to) identify more as an explorer than a runner anyway. But I can’t deny that running has always been my best and favorite way to feel free, the feeling I most crave in life. Each stride, grounding and flying in a single second.

I’m not quitting. I’m just surrendering. Accepting. Realizing I can still try to heal my pain while accepting the pain my never go away. But I’m not going to force myself to run in it anymore. Which is a whole other type of healing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui8kUKuLBaU