All images by Cindy Kunsman from Under Much Grace and used with permission
After the first stage of recovery where we find safety and stability (things we sometimes must learn about for the first time), we find ourselves in a place of revisiting trauma to see it for what it is.
Awareness in Grief
For me, though, the experience is more than that, and I find it to be more spontaneous. The best analogy that I have is that of driving home from work after a busy twelve hour shift as a nurse in critical care. I don’t know how long it took for my body to become self-aware after a hard day, but I know that by the time I hit the ten mile point, I’d suddenly have acute awareness that I hadn’t emptied my bladder in quite some time. Epinephrine or adrenalin suppresses function of the gut and the urinary tract, and for me leaving work, its effects lasted until I’d driven ten miles from my workplace. My brain would become magically aware of the needs of my body. I’d race in the house and retreat to the bathroom, and then, I’d remember that I was hungry, too.
When we are in a place that is not safe or stable for us, our stress hormones run high. If we have been living a dysfunctional life for some time or if we only knew dysfunction as children, we have some learning to do first. But once our minds accept that we’re safe, we become aware of our needs. After we stabilize in a safe place after a trauma, we begin to feel and we begin to remember. This often feels unsafe as well, for no one wants to feel the discomfort of pain or loss. We find ourselves looking directly at our pain, wondering how we are going to cope with it.
Anticipation of Grief
Sometimes, when we begin to feel that first hint of pain when we feel safe enough to be self-aware, we can make things out to be worse than they really are. The rush of those stress hormones can be invigorating in their own right, and sometimes we can mistake those feelings for just being alive because we get so used to them. We forget what it’s like to be safe and stable – or maybe we never knew the feeling. And that shift can be very scary.
There may be other accounts of this, and for brevity’s sake, I may summarize too much. When I first learned Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for piano, my teacher first asked me to listen to the story of what the composer experienced. He’d just really started to become quite deaf, and there were other problems involved having to do with the building where the piece would first be performed. It was rather long as well, and Beethoven feared that no one would like it. When the performance was complete, people had to get him to raise his head to see the throng applauding and celebrating what is probably his most well known and loved piece of music. He anticipated that it would not be well-received, and others had to encourage him to look up to see his reward.
I realize that I anticipated something similar recently when I risked contacting old friends. In my remembrance, I am most familiar with my own sense of shame and pain, feeling like a misfit. I really only sought out others on social media to see if I find some old pictures for a project. For years, I believed that people would remember the skewed way that I felt about myself, but I found that people were actually much kinder than I expected.
Part of me wishes that I had not resisted the “reunion” for so long, but I also wonder if it would have meant as much to me as it does now. I don’t know that everyone was as happy to see my name and face again like those who applauded Beethoven, but I did think of the stress to which he subjected himself, riddled with self doubt. But I think that I also may have learned something about what it is like to take the risk to reconnect. There is a great inhale of resolve in an act of faith, committing to whatever may follow such an action. Can I open my heart to feel? Can I afford to do it?
A few days ago, I wrote of how my friend likened stray daffodils to the mark that a forgotten person leaves in this world when they depart from it. As I revisited my past in my mind, I thought of all the flowers – the people who are no longer alive or available to me anymore. Some have died. Some are no longer interested in a relationship. Some relationships are just too painful to pursue. They are the daffodils forgotten, many seasons ago, some of which died and dried to nothing on those green stems. But even those forgotten ones, I remember. I even grieved for the ones that I likely haven’t recalled at all – blooms turned to crispy, paper-like crepe.
The people that I’d known in the past that still grow, just like the daffodils of spring. I thought of all of those crunchy, brown leaves covering the floor of the woods at the end of winter, long before the trees and shrubs become green again. In a sea of brown and ashen bark, up spring the tall, slender green stalks and leaves of a stray, lonely daffodils in the woods where most people would not expect to find it. I’d forgotten about how strong they seem amidst that lifeless leafy bed.
When the cold harshness of winter fades into warmer, longer days, the daffodils awaken. Like the cheery faces of the trumpet like blooms all framed by a happy collar, beckoning all to look, I found the warm faces of forgotten friends. Memories came with them, and while many were happy, some were sad. But unfortunate things should be sad to us. I am not the same wounded creature that I once was long ago, so the sad things were not debilitating like the were in the past. But I was safe enough to feel them and to brave the woods to find them. There weren’t many, but like those scattered blooms from my childhood, they became that much more precious to me.
Gifts of Spring
Along with the reckoning with the pain and getting over the anticipation of what may have been much more painful, I found pieces of myself. A friend said how happy she was to have me back in her life and even welcomed me “home again.”
This is especially meaningful to me, for I am no longer in contact with that home or my family. So just those words gave me the sense that I can be home in my own heart. I’m sure that there will be other winters in my life, and even in the summer, the green leaves and stems of the daffodil fade away. But today, it is springtime, and those faces of loved ones shine like the yellow sun.
I had believed so strongly that I had much to fear. (But I have also learned about how to stay safe, not just how to find a transient place of safety.) I felt that if I let go of what I knew – that panic of anticipation where I felt like I had some control and shield from pain – that I would not exist anymore. What if there was only more annihilating pain on the other side? What if I would learn that, not only was I a mess inside, I was far more of a mess than I’d ever realized. What if I learned that I was even more helpless, and that the wee bit of control that I did have was nothing but a pale illusion, hiding me from the bitter truth?
But I also realized how constricted my life had become. It was time to inhale and exhale again. The winter was ending. There was still a chill in the air – chilled just like the cold and succulent stems of the daffodils in the woods that snap so readily between my fingers. But I was alive to feel them, and I remembered all the years before. They were the heralds in the woods that sang of the green, warm days to come. And I was there to see them. I knew them all.
I was alive. I was healing. And I was given a clearer and more true picture of the world than I’d ever had before as I braved making sense of the past. I was living to tell of it. I was living to see and feel it.
If remembering ever gets too cold or blustery, I can retreat back into the house or bundle up in a coat. I know how to be safe and how to care for my needs. I have learned how to be aware of them. I have learned that I need to go inside when my nose and my toes get too cold. I don’t have to give up that much comfort to pick a daffodil with my own fingers. And I can easily wash their clear, light, barely sticky sap from my hands after I place them in a vase. I don’t have to stay in the woods to appreciate their beauty, and they look so elegant when collected and recollected together.
And so unfolded my short cycle through Stage Two, reminding me of the path of recovery.
But they were not the only blooms that I would soon receive.
Just one more post will address the other set of gifts that I received as I embraced the process. Understanding the roadmap helped me trust the process so that I could move forward.
Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.
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