Connection is something we all long for. We were not created to be islands unto ourselves–we were made to be in community.
For those who grew up in a loving, nurturing family, connecting with another feels “normal.” For those who grew up in dysfunctional families, where the air they breathed was confusing or scary, connection does not come easy. For those who suffered abuse early in life–physical, sexual, emotional (including neglect), another person becomes something to be frightened of and not connected to. Anything outside of themselves becomes the “other.” A character in Lisa Palmer’s novel The Nobodies says, “Even with my friends, I feel I need a layer of protection. There is a stillness they luxuriate in with one another that I find myself stopping short of.”
What psychologists have found is that the brain does not develop normally when it is in a surrounding of toxic stress. Without realizing it, one’s body automatically goes into an adrenal response of fight, flight or freeze at any new situation or relationship no matter how benign. It often goes back to one being a parentified child. If a parent was absent due to depression, alcohol, chronic illness, workaholism, etc., a child may often find themselves in the situation of having to parent themselves, trying to meet their own needs. A child’s job is to play; they do not have the skills to be a parent. This sets the child up to feel terror or helplessness in any new situation because they are being asked to perform beyond their capacity. These experiences become trapped in their cellular memory because, “the body keeps the score” says Bessel Van der Kohl. As an adult, they are often mystified at the anxiety or panic that arises each time they enter into a new situation or relationship and an invisible wall that they cannot penetrate seems to appear. To the child within, however, it is still overwhelming. It feels as though they are always carrying a backpack weighing many pounds on their back.
This has been my journey. As a small child in the Appalachian Mountains, I endured much abuse that was not named until much later in my life. Even as a psychotherapist, I still find myself often freezing when I am met with a seemingly overwhelming situation. I have to take several deep yoga breaths, give words to what is happening and say to my child within, “It’s ok, you don’t have to handle this. This is my job. I am a grown-up now and I can make different choices.” The breaths take me out of fight or flight mode and reengage my pre-frontal cortex. This allows me to be present to the situation rather than immobilized by panic.
My first escape from the unacknowledged and unknown terror within was books. Oh, how I loved to explore with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. There was a world out there beyond my own! How wonderful! I moved from Nancy Drew to Wuthering Heights and other books where I could connect with the pain of the characters and know I was not alone. I eventually moved on to self-help books and was then drawn to become a psychotherapist to understand myself and how the world “works.”
I loved picking strawberries and running in the fields. Nature helped heal and soothe me without my knowing it. Looking up at the sky, I always knew that there was something “bigger than me.” There was always a healing presence guiding and protecting me that I later called God. I have often heard this same thing from my clients. They experienced books and nature as a part of their healing, even tho they, as I, had no idea this was going on.
Healing is possible even if we did not receive the nurturing and modeling we needed as children. We can move from having to be a TSA guard scanning everyone we meet with a wand of hyper vigilance to see if they are bringing danger. We can heal and we can begin to do that for which we long–to connect with another fully.