I’ve always approached the world head-on. It almost feels as if my whole body is attached to and held up by my jaw–my chin jutting forward in a hyper-vigilant pose of don’teventhinkaboutscrewingwithme defiance. I can feel how much tension is created by that position and how, simply by encouraging my jaw to relax, I get a ripple effect through my head and face and neck and shoulders and back and hips and legs and even my feet.
But the pattern doesn’t actually start in my jaw.
There is a place in my solar plexus, incorporating my diaphragm, small intestine and gut, that is the first responder to any potential threat (real or perceived). When I’m about to feel something that doesn’t feel good, that place becomes a knotted tangle of contraction.
Sometimes my core gets so tense it’s actually painful. In the past, that was the only time I noticed it, and I almost always dismissed or ignored the pain. I’m now learning that any sense of contraction in that place is an invaluable signal from my body that the old pattern is being triggered again. So I’m learning to pay attention. Because if I can learn how to catch the pattern when it starts, I can learn to stop it before the full scenario plays out. And that will free up a whole lot of life force that has been consumed by the task of suppressing what feels painful.
When I was nine years old, my younger sister got leukemia. I remember the day I learned of her diagnosis–my nine-year-old self on the phone with my mother, trying not to let her hear how freaked out I was because she was close to tears and I could feel how hard she was working at trying to stay strong. And later that morning, me, face-down on my grandmother’s bed, sobbing my broken heart out into her pillow as my world fell to pieces.But in between the phone call and the tears, I walked around my grandparents’ house with that spot in my solar plexus locked up so tight I could barely breathe. It took about three hours before I cracked and finally let the tears flow. Then I wasn’t sure whether I would ever be able to stop crying.
I don’t remember how long I lay on the bed. But when the tears began to slow down, I remember deciding that was enough. I wasn’t going to add to my family’s distress by letting them see how upset I was. Ever again. From that moment on, I rarely cried at all. When I did, it was brief and in private. I tried very hard never to cry in front of my family and I learned how to stuff emotions into my body so they wouldn’t leak out. Over time and with practice, I got better and better at it, until eventually, I could rarely feel much at all–because before the emotion could be felt, I’d transmuted it into physical contraction.
I’d always wanted to have magical powers, but that kind of emotional alchemy wasn’t what I’d had in mind. Nonetheless, it was a form of magic, a powerful protection spell that kept me separate from my emotions and (eventually) from my body.
Let’s be very clear: No one ever suggested it was my role to take care of my family’s emotional wellbeing. I invented that job all on my own, based on a complicated blend of my personality defaults and a story about my responsibilities as the oldest child. I never declared that I had taken the job. To the casual observer, my behavior probably didn’t change much. But inside, I felt a profound change. My job was to be strong–to hide my grief and help our family carry on with daily life in the face of this nightmare unfolding around us. After a while, I didn’t have to try very hard. Emotional control became my default setting, with very occasional lapses.
In assuming responsibility for taking care of my family, I made decisions on their behalf that I had no right to make. I was doing the best I could but the belief that I knew what was best for them was so strong, it took me almost 40 years to realize it was only a story. Like most stories, it has not served me well in this life.
But here’s what I’m most sorry for: When I chose to put my family’s interests first, I also abandoned my own self-interest. I traded their emotional welfare for mine. I shut myself down and pushed the world away. It would take a long time–and the sound of my own suppressed pain would have to reach an ear-splitting wail–before those walls could begin to crumble.
So where does Buffy enter the story?
Well, I was re-watching Season Five, where Buffy’s younger sister Dawn magically appears at the end of the first episode. If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a précis: An order of mystical monks are protecting an energetic Key that unlocks the doors between all universal dimensions from a hell-god called Glory. In an attempt to hide the Key and stop Glory from opening the doors to hell, the monks give the Key human form. They mold it flesh and send it to Buffy as a sister. To ensure the Slayer will protect the Key with her life, the monks make the human from Buffy’s blood and implant everyone with the memories needed to make Dawn real.
In the scene where Buffy discovers Dawn’s true origins, the last monk confesses the story of the Key as he dies. He explains the Key is now human–helpless, innocent and needing Buffy’s protection. Buffy, trying to take in the news, asks, “She’s not my sister?” The monk replies simply, “She doesn’t know that.”
And in that moment, this hit me: What if I saw all parts of me–for example, my nine-year-old self, who decided to stop crying–as helpless, innocent and needing my protection? What if I saw her as truly precious? What if I was absolutely clear that she is in no way separate from me? If I was prepared to protect myself with my life, how would I behave towards myself then?
Something in me shifted profoundly that day, because I realized that I am my first responsibility. I’ve neglected that job for a long time. So I decided to stop assuming I know how best to take care of my family and start taking better care of myself.
Almost 30 years after my sister’s death, I’ve done a lot of work around grief, but I haven’t yet touched all of it. I need to feel all this grief and it helps to write about it. I need to write out the remaining broken parts of my heart, because I’m writing myself back towards life–and I need to publish some of it, even if it creates distress for my family. Because I’m writing for her and me and all of us. And I’ll be writing for all the kids who are right now facing more pain than they know how to feel and who may find it helpful to hear that it didn’t kill me.
Of course, I’m terrified. I’m scared that if I fully open to this grief, I won’t ever be able to stop crying. I’m scared my family won’t like what I’m writing or that I’m writing it, and I’m scared it will cause them more pain.
But the fear of staying closed to grief has finally trumped all other fears. My body is ready to give this up–in fact, it’s demanding release–and I can feel the rewards ready to be claimed. Waiting for me are true relaxation, deep rest, a soft yet strong body, untapped reserves of life force and a heart open enough to feel the love my soul has for me. The prize is worth the risk.
Belinda Noakes helps people find the courage to rewrite the old fearful stories that have scripted their lives. As a writer and compassion coach, she’s helping to heal the heart of the world – one story at a time. Follow her on Twitter @belindanoakes and at www.tinybrave.com.