I used to imagine there might be a time when I’d be “healed.” Often I couldn’t believe it would ever happen, but it it ever did, it would be some kind of nirvana in which I would be beatifically, radiantly calm, untroubled and untriggered by my past. Maybe it’s exactly that kind of vision that made it so unbelievable.
Perhaps it’s more helpful, instead, to envision myself as an increasingly skillful user of an ever-growing set of coping strategies. I am more skillful than I used to be, and I have more strategies at hand than I used to. And at the same time, I need to become yet more skillful, and I could probably benefit from adding a few more strategies.
Here’s an example from last week:
I had a mammogram last Wednesday morning. I went in feeling relaxed about it. After all, the last one I had, two years ago, went smoothly; the technician was kind and careful, attentive to my experience. This time I had to go somewhere else (change of insurance), but it was at a Women’s Health Center, so I assumed it was a place that also valued the quality of the experience of its clients.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be a faulty assumption.
Cindy introduced herself to me as the mammography technician. She was cheerful and friendly. She led me to the room and gave me a short, waist-length gown. “Undress from the waist up and put the gown on so it opens in the front.”
I followed instructions, and when I was ready, she came back and explained to me how 3D mammograms worked… but not how she would work with me. Instead, she just told me to slide off one side of the gown. Then, with no hesitation, she grabbed my breast and pressed it, hard, against the metal plate. She continued to move me about as though I were a doll. Bend this way. Lean that way. Hold your hand here.
I’m agreeable. Okay, I’m compliant. I went along with it. What else should I do? When she moved the other plate in to tightly compress my breast and ignored my involuntary, “Ouch!” I got the message that the point was to get a clean picture and not to make me comfortable. Okay, I went along with the program. Let’s get this over with.
So we got it over with, phew. Cindy told me to go ahead and get dressed. She didn’t leave the room while I got dressed; instead, she stood at the computer, checking and saving the images. This probably made sense to her, because her job was not about her interaction with me, as a woman whose breasts she pulled and stretched and smashed. Her job was to get clear images of the breasts.
It wasn’t until I walked out of the clinic that I realized how upset I was. My hands were shaking. I felt like I was going to fall over. I felt irritated with Cindy, but I felt furious with myself: look, I did it again. I let someone else do whatever they wanted with my body, and I didn’t protest at all. On the contrary, I cooperated.
This hit all my I’m so bad, I’m so complicit, I deserve it, I must want it buttons. When those buttons are pushed, my brain starts to spin too quickly. I can’t focus, and thoughts seem to whip through my mind at warp speed. I feel the old impulses to harm myself. I want to crawl in bed and hide from the world. Curl up. Give up.
At the same part that most of my brain is busy with the same old stuff, some part of my brain says, wait a minute! I know what this is! This is an old pain I’m feeling. It’s not really all about the mammogram. Sure, Cindy didn’t handle that in a thoughtful, compassionate way. She could have done better. But it wasn’t terrible. The terrible feelings are all from old experiences.
So I put my hand over my heart. I spoke to the girl inside me that experienced the initial violations I was remembering now. “Oh, this hit your old wounds. That hurts! Of course it hurts–it’s such a tender topic for you!” Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be upset, I thought; you are entitled to your feelings.
This is what I mean about strategies. I have learned to accept (more or less) whatever feelings I have, instead of scolding myself for having them. I have learned to validate my emotions, to put my hand on my heart and express some sympathy for myself if something is hard.
And this is what I mean by having more to learn. In the midst of the experience, I could have been more alert to what was happening and what it meant for me/my younger girl self. I could have asked Cindy to slow down and tell me what she was going to do before she grabbed my breast and treated it like a giant wad of Silly Putty. I could have asked for a short break to collect myself. But I am still slow to tune in to my own emotional experience, and I let being accommodating matter more than my well-being.
Still, I can see I’m more skillful than I used to be. I did, after all, make the choice right away to be kind to myself. Later that day, when I saw E for the first time after her vacation, we talked about this, and I texted her again the next day, because I found it hard to feel soothed again. What am I forgetting? I asked her.
E couldn’t tell me. I should check in with my little girl self, she said. Did she need more empathy? Validation that it was important? Did she need me to advocate on her behalf?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I cannot just go inside my head and ask, “Little one, what do you need?” and then get a clear answer. I wish it were so easy. E says it’s a matter of trying different things and paying attention to how I feel. Does the tension in my stomach decrease? Do my thoughts stop racing? Those would be signs I’m on the right track.
So I’ve been trying to do that the past few days. I also spent the weekend at a digital arts workshop, which was incredibly interesting. One or the other of those things has helped me feel calmer again. Or maybe it’s the combination; I can’t be sure. At any rate, this experience has helped me see how far I’ve come–and that there’s further to go, as well.