Updated: Jul 15, 2022
I had an intense pain in my lower stomach. I couldn't tell what was causing it, and it was very different than just a usual stomachache. It was as though my intestines and bladder were in a tight knot and then a cat was shredding them with its claws. Yes, that sounds awful and graphic, and yes, it was that bad. It began early in the morning and just continued to get worse. Luckily, it was on a Friday.
If you know anything about my schedule, you know the one thing I never budge on is my weekly session with my therapist, Cathy. Every Friday at 1:30, unless I am off the island, I won't miss it. I even went as far as doing FaceTime for my appointment when I was in bed after surgery. It is simply that important to my health.
Cathy is the one person who really knows who I am and why I behave the way I do. She has taught me how important it is to not only look inside but also look behind me. Until we become aware of it and break the pattern, our past is the determining factor in how we act and react to life. This has little to do with how our parents treated us but has more to do with how we PERCEIVED it.
As children, we are constantly looking at our parents to know how we should behave. I noticed this front and center on our recent trip to Disneyland. I happen to turn into the giddiest 12-year-old girl as soon as I see the entrance. I absolutely LOVE Disneyland and think it truly is the happiest place on earth. Charlie obviously got the message of how to behave - he was amazing! There were no meltdowns or tantrums, just smiles, giggles, and bubbles from the entrance to the exit. And not to toot my own horn (ok, a little, but just because it's fun to say "toot"), but I'm convinced it was simply because Charlie saw my actions and demeanor as how he was supposed to behave.
On the other hand, I also noticed all the tired, cranky, tantrum-throwing children throughout the park, and you know what, their parents were tired, cranky, and throwing tantrums. It was very clear those children were doing what children do best, they were doing what they saw. They were perceiving the situation through their parent's actions, which is why "do as I say, not as I do" never works.
Back to the importance of looking behind you. This process is not about dwelling on the past; it is about becoming aware of what survival skills you learned and then pulling them apart based on whether they are serving you any longer. For example, if your parents were extremely strict with your grades, you may strive at any cost to get perfect grades as an adult by ways of perfection, OCD tendencies, etc.
One thing I don't talk much about is the fact that I don't have a relationship with my biological father. Deep down, I wish I did, despite the fact that he continually has broken my heart since my parents divorced. He took the divorce so poorly that he completely removed himself from my life for about 7 years after the split. After that, I developed this internal need to be perfect, pretty, and an overachiever, as well as the ultimate peacekeeper and people-pleaser. I never spoke up for myself, always kept the peace, and lived by the idea that I was happy if everyone else was. In a nutshell, I sought ways to be amazing enough so people wouldn't have any reason to leave me.
The fact that my dad didn't come back around until I was 15, and then came and went for years at a time after that, really messed with my head and emotions. I didn't understand how he, or anyone for that matter, would want to leave me if I didn't give them any reason to.
That internal need revealed itself by means of literally an internal knot in my stomach. As I spoke in my therapy session with Cathy, I began to list everything that was weighing on me. For the sake of keeping some privacy, let's just say you could sum it up as me trying to be perfect in every area of my life, yet not speaking up in any of the areas I needed to. The knot just kept getting tighter and tighter each time I said yes to others and no to myself. I wasn't allowing any wiggle room and I was paying for it.
Cathy heard me out and only offered comfort rather than solutions as the tears began to fall down my cheeks. And then she said it, she said pure truth, "You're running on empty, and now is not the time for any big decisions. It is time for self-care". That did it, the tears were turned on like a faucet and they poured down my face, pooling on my lap. My head fell, my shoulders released their grip and collapsed forward, my chest buckled as my body surrendered, and I wept. Cathy did something she's never done in the 2 years I've seen her; she asked if she could sit next to me. I couldn't form a single word in between the tears so I just nodded.
She got up out of her chair and came to sit next to me. I cried harder. She then asked if she could touch me and again I only nodded. I saw one hand on my knee and felt the other on my shoulder. And I cried harder still. My chest continued to buckle with every sobbing breath. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to stop, but I knew I didn't want to interrupt myself from this physical release of my emotional stress.
The crying continued for about 15 minutes. Cathy didn't say a word. Her presence next to me was unspoken permission to just cry until there was nothing left. For her, I didn't have to be perfect. With her, I could speak up for myself, in fact, I was expected to. Within her four walls is the safest place I've ever known, and when I feel the need to let out some tears of frustration, I picture myself in her office, and my eyes well up immediately - not out of sadness, but from relief.
Once I was all dried up, I lifted my head and looked at the clock. I had gone over my time, and still, she hadn't stopped me. I just smiled as she looked at me with such empathy, and told her to thank you. She smiled and hugged me, not letting go until I did. That final look she gave me is what I hope to offer other women. It is a look that says, "I see you. You don't have to be apologetic for what you just said or did. My heart goes out to you, and while my circumstances are not identical, I do know that feeling of defeat, deep sadness, overwhelm, and the need to release them. You are not wrong for feeling the way you do and I have a love for you regardless".
As I left her office, I could feel the pain in my stomach begin to release. My shoulders felt lighter and I felt so relaxed like I'd just gotten an incredible massage. I jumped in my car, put the top down, and drove to the ocean. I found a quiet place to park right by the water and grabbed my journal. I wrote and wrote and wrote. My pen could barely keep up with my thoughts as I scribbled everything I'd been carrying, from the areas of my life I was feeling less-than, to the things I was not speaking up about. The list seemed to go on forever and I finally began to understand what my body had been trying to tell me.
After almost 2 hours of writing, I looked behind me at the open road and ocean. It made me realize that the past can no longer hurt me. When I was younger, those survival skills of perfection and people-pleasing were vital to me, but as an adult, I no longer needed them. I am learning that I will survive if I mess up along the way, and speaking up will serve me much more than staying silent. And ultimately, I can give myself praise for the freedom that has come from the awareness of what my body was trying to tell me.
I started my car and drove away, completely aware of the lack of pain in my stomach. The knot had released its grip and all I could do was smile.