Get Well

Self and the City: Taking Steps is Easy

by Jessica A. Rose, LMHC

I believe that therapy is supposed to be hard – that it’s only when therapy is in fact hard, cracking us wide open, that it’s able to finally access the hurt parts that need tending to.

Remember that line in the theme song of Orange Is the New Black:“Taking steps is easy/Standing still is hard?” Waning mental health can feel a whole lot like prison, so the reference is apt.

 Stillness. We don’t know we’re avoiding until something forces inertia. There you stand, once dynamic, now static; still. Still enough to notice your breath, notice the tingling in the spaces between your fingers, still enough to notice your pain. In my case, this stillness gently abducted my inside parts right around my daughter’s third birthday. I had been taking steps for so long – an impetuous sprint into deafening darkness. It’s only when I began to stand still that all that was ancient met my pace and stood next to me, demanding attention and tending to. This stillness led me into an Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing practitioner’s office twice a week to do the kind of work that firemen do – run headlong into the flames, the ones that everyone else is running away from.

I had been doing monk’s work in my first three years of being a stay at home mom. I breastfed on demand,co-slept with my baby, and tended to every whimper before it developed into a cry. In the beginning, I held her nearly every moment of the day and night. 

As she became mobile, and an increasingly separate being from myself, my work became different. I changed diapers, I wiped her nose   up toys. I taught her about art and letters and animals and read to her and sang her to sleep and cleaned up toys and wiped her nose and changed her diaper and taught her about art and letters and animals and read to her and sang her to sleep – and endless repetition of love and service. At every age my child resides in, a part of me is convinced she will forever be that age, with that particular set of annoyances and sweetness indigenous to that age forever our reality. And then the leaves fall, we measure her height on the kitchen door frame, and I’m pulled back to today, where she has grown, inside and out, and everything is new again. There are new annoyances and new sweetness. And now she speaks, and jokes and is clever and defiant and has hands that are gentle with animals and a paintbrush. She looks like her father. She is separate from me.

She is soft and secure and funny and light.

She is separate from me.

I was ill-prepared for the slow peeling away that is the healthy growing up of a mother and child. During the years where she was my newest appendage and the years of monk’s work, I submerged myself so deeply into the effort of mothering – mothering my daughter and re-mothering myself in tandem – I became one-dimensional. During this time, I wasn’t required to examine my past. There was no time, no place for that – there was just mothering. There was a silent emotional changing of the guards that happened when my daughter didn’t need me to be her surrogate arms, legs, hands and feet. When she could feed herself, go into the refrigerator and get herself an apple, pick out her outfit for the day, play quietly by herself, set her paints up and cover three feet of paper with the excavations of her imagination – all, without me. She needed me less and at the exact same time that I needed me more.

To be clear, I was blind to all of this as it was happening. It’s only looking through the rearview mirror that I can see the psychic watch guard of emotional needs pass the baton from her to me. 

I felt unhinged and fragile and anxious all the time. My birth was traumatic, both physically and psychologically. I made no time to address this trauma, not until I stopped breastfeeding and my hormones (the whole gang – adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones) bounced around like a pinball machine on Adderall. 

This massive hormonal disruption gave way to adrenal failure which gave way to a new territory of physical illness and emotional upheaval. Once I was able to find a practitioner to help me reset and stabilize my hormones, I found my way to an EMDR specialist, a therapeutic treatment utilized to reduce and sometimes ameliorate the injurious thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic event (for more on EMDR, see this and this). 

A proper telling of my experience with EMDR is another article entirely, however, what I can say with impassioned certainty is that this series of treatments reached parts of me that were at once both buried and in control. “Certain” is one of those words I have worked to edit out of my vernacular, similar to “always” and “never”. If I am to be certain of anything, it’s that I am able to stand still in honor of the steps that walked me to here, in large part due to the work that was accomplished during those devastatingly exhausting EMDR sessions. Because it’s the work – the humid and thirsty work – that is our only hope at learning how to mend ourselves; mend ourselves so that we are able to walk into parenthood with the emotional means to be the teacher/soft place to fall/emotional compass/spiritual guide/healer of cuts and scrapes, they require.

Feature Image via Jessica Golightly

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