Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When Strength Becomes Armour

When my daughter, Emily, died in 1989, the world fell away from my feet for a very long time. I had previously lost a child through adoption in 1978 and, no matter what the choice involved, no matter what happiness I brought her new family, no matter how many well meaning souls congratulated me on "doing the right thing", the loss of "Sarra" was as emotionally painful as the death of Emily. Two children gone forever - my heart broken completely.

I can't think of a single parent who has heard my story who hasn't first shuddered then quickly counted their blessings. All in the split second before they automatically say, "You are so strong, I couldn't survive that." For years I mentally said "oh yes you could and you would. What makes you think I'm so special?" but I never said it out loud because no one knows their strength until tested and no one ever wants to imagine that the test might come someday - like a pop quiz in life. So - mostly I sucked it up, moved forward and ate myself through my pain.

I became pregnant with Gillian less than 2 weeks after Emily died - a single act of sex between two traumatized souls producing a new hope for the future but, inevitably, adding to the burden of a life not yet ready to be rejoined. I have no memory of the pregnancy - so wrapped up in my own head, I barely recall her birth. I do know I never moved out of maternity clothes - every ounce of emotional relief I sought from the bottom of a bag of chips during my pregnancy stayed with me on my hips.

I learned to survive - my husband and I grasped hands together tightly and moved forward one tiny step at a time. I spent the first 6 months of Gillian's life thinking that she, too, would die. I became resigned to the fact that I had no control over the things that mattered. Over time, the gloom started to shift a little and I found room for small measures of joy. Gillian was an easy baby, her older sister Heather was a charming 4 year old. Steven and I became closer than any couple could imagine being - we are, to this day, each other's biggest supporter, closest companion, best friend. So, the fog lifted, and I started to move forward.

I AM "strong" - my spirit has been forged in a veritable blast furnace. People, as I've said, openly admire my strength. I admire my strength - marvel at it at times - what I've been through!! How I've managed! How I cope!! I'm amazing...

Except, I rarely felt amazing, or particularly strong. I was a lost soul with a tough armour on the outside and a huge gaping hole on the inside - just like those relics from the middle ages. I kept trying to fill that hole with food - anything and everything. It was a momentary pleasure followed by a monstrous personal disdain that dug the hole a little bigger. An endless circle of eating to fill up and feeling emptier as a result.

I didn't even realize this was happening to me. As life tumbled on at its breakneck pace, I ran along side of it. Wonderful people, events and accomplishments kept me moving forward with a kind of momentary pleasure. No one looking at me from the outside could have guessed that many nights, while I lie awake in bed, it took every fibre of my being not to scream out loud. Those moments were frequent enough to tell me that all was not right but life was enjoyable enough during the day that I didn't probe it too deeply. I bought another Mars bar.

My armour of strength became so thick that nothing got in or out. It took a chance encounter with a caring psychologist to point that out. She was supposed to help me find a new job after relocating to Calgary with my husband's job change. She was supposed to sort out my aptitudes and interests, help me navigate the decidedly different health care system in Alberta and help me get back to work. Instead, she met with me a couple of times and then asked "why do you think it is so hard for you to ask for help?"

It was an epiphany. It was THE moment that started me on my journey to health. It was a tiny little question with HUGE implications. It was the wee little chisel that found a weak spot in the armour. Our lengthy discussions about this very question led to more questions and more discussion and slowly, the armour started to feel less constricting - I was starting to breathe.

I am strong. I have coped with trauma. I have dealt with pain. I have survived. But, when strength becomes armour it can do more harm than good. I became so good at coping, that I stopped letting anyone see that I didn't always cope well at all. I became so good at masking my pain, that I never let anyone see when I was hurting. I was always externally cheerful, relentlessly pragmatic and present oriented, never daring to dream, never showing a moment of weakness. I was efficient, hard working, thoughtful, intense. I was short tempered, impatient and filled with a kind of sad anger that can't be defined. I disdained weakness, fear. I was a mess of conflict, resignation, sarcasm and hopelessness. I never let anyone visit the damaged inside of me. Not even my husband.

My armour was killing me - learning how to shed it saved my life. Learning how to ask for help - learning how to accept help! Learning how to dream - to feel like I deserve to have dreams! Learning how to stop comparing my tormented insides to anyone's outsides - learning to change my insides! Piece by heavy piece, my armour has fallen away and my life has begun to emerge.

It's still emerging.