In the Beginning

In order to understand the nature and flowing references throughout my blog, I recommend reading my initial post The End of the Beginning first.


Goodbye Panda

I'm not sure from where or when, but there is a story that has been stuck in my head for years about using a panda as a way to distract foolish onlookers. "Hey, kids, look at the panda!" is a phrase that has repeated itself in my inner monologue countless times. This typically comes up in situations where quick, slight-of-hand shenanigans would provide a momentary lapse in concentration thereby allowing some simultaneous shady act to go unnoticed. Perhaps it was the punchline of a joke. Whatever this was made a lasting enough impression on me that it has now become synonymous with my mind's coping mechanism of using the trauma with my mother as a distraction to keep me from acknowledging, dealing with, and healing from the darker truths that laid dormant far beneath.

I spent over two decades of my life living my mother's story instead of my own. I was overly obsessed with helping her, assuring the care she needed, understanding her illness, finding a diagnosis that made sense, and later assuming care and becoming financially responsible for her. I also venture to say that much of my hyperdrive overachievement in life has to do with my desire to get to a place where I could care for her. In some ways I became a mother at age 12 and had to procure and ensure safety and prosperity for both of us. (See earlier post on Growing up with Schizophrenic Mother for more details.)

At times I recognized the relative unhealth of this behavior and indeed I had many hypotheses for it. That I needed to fix her. That I needed to relieve my guilt of not preventing her suicide attempts. That I needed to pay penance for not being able to keep her well. That maybe someday I could even regain her love. It saddens me to write this now because, at 38, I see how very much of my time and energy was lavished on these needless and fruitless activities.

When I first began meeting with Em we used drawing therapy to extract and articulate the pain I was experiencing before I recognized it as The Breakthrough Crisis. At the time I only knew that my life was in disarray and my mother seemed to be the cause of that pain - or so I had assumed for many years. All of my drawing therapy centered around mother. Em asked prompting questions to which I drew out the answers. It went something like this...

  • How do you feel right now? My artful representation was of me with lightning bolts for hair, drowning in plane tickets and work documents, surrounded by piles of money that I could neither reach nor spend, with all of the things I longed for (community, social life, free time, family) far off in the distance.
  • What is your biggest problem? This one shows me on  my knees begging for my mother to love me while she sits silent and ignoring me while smoking cigarettes. In the background are all of the things I've done and bought for her and, ironically, a pile of money that I later recognized was a mirror image from my first drawing.
  • What will it look like when your biggest problem is solved? I went numb. I sat and stared. My throat grew hot and then closed up; I began to cough. I had to run to the bathroom for a glass of water. We were at Zi's house (Em's friend) who was visiting in Bali for the month and the pipes had frozen so there was no water. I was able to calm myself with deep breathing before returning to our therapy room.
The body has a funny way of telling us things if only we will listen. I wasn't ready to hear what my body had to say, but I was being prepared. I was able to complete the drawing after thinking about it for awhile. At first I saw no solution. I divided the paper in half and drew a picture of mom and I holding hands and smiling, then immediately put a big black X through it. I then drew what I understood to be the real (and only possible) solution which is a picture of myself in meditative position feeling happy, healthy, and well all by myself. This icon became a theme in my mind's eye and in my journals for months.

It wasn't until the appearance of The Black Oil that I began to understand my mother was only the surface issue.  After many months of therapy, EMDR, and recovered memories (see The Theatre and On Shame) I now understand what and why I was hiding. What an amazing and resilient little brain I must've had in order to cover my trauma truth for so long. This charade parade made me incredibly functional but also inordinately fragmented. To not have access to my full self, to divert my focus onto a decoy for so many years, to treat my mind-body like a machine - always demanding and never recognizing limitations - all of this came at a cost. 

Now that I am acknowledging and confronting the layers of my trauma onion, I am paying myself back bit by bit for what was lost. I can never regain it all; some things are gone forever. And for that I am deeply grievous. But I am now able to take care of myself in a way I could or would not before. I am kind to myself. I have oodles of self-compassion and grace when I fall short. I look for signs of fatigue and depletion, and I restore and rebuild when needed. I surround myself with things and people who give me energy and add to my life. I no longer force myself to do things I "should" when they are things that make me feel bad. This includes discontinuing the charade with my mother (fully elaborated in Healthy Boundaries.)

Em and I did a second drawing therapy session many months later and I was mesmerized by the stark contrast. First, I noticed that in my second set I was clothed where I had been exposed in all of the first drawings. Mother was no longer in any of my drawings; upon this revelation I was not upset, I merely accepted. Perhaps most interesting was the change in my viewpoint. The first drawings were myopic, situation specific. The later drawings were teaming with ideas, people, places and included a variety of settings. The multilayered complexity and beauty of my life without charades was being revealed. And unlike my first set where I was off to the side, my later drawings showcase me at the center: calm and radiant.

And so it is with great pleasure that I bid adieu to the decoy, to the distraction, but ultimately to my pretending and fragmented self once and for all. "Say goodbye, panda!"

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