The Lived Experience, Episode 1 – This week: Elizabeth, Part 5 (final)

Last week, we ended with the importance of unconditional love; this week we continue on this path of aspects that help in healing.

“If you look at your life right now and say you are really happy… what are the main threads that give meaning to it?”

“Yeah… my partner of course… He’s just so amazing…” Several times during our conversation, her eyes have glistened and turned red around the edges, but now that she is confronted with the question of what gives meaning to her life, the tears flow freely. She receives a hug, grabs a tissue from the kitchen and sits down again. She says that having a partner who loves her unconditionally is by far the best thing that ever happened to her.

It is amazing to see how in the end, it usually boils down to this: strong, loving relationships with others make humans thrive. We are indeed hardwired for connection. With it, we feel abundance; we grow and flourish. Without it, we feel deprived; we suffer and perish. When we feel heard and seen, we can heal from what was painful. When we feel safe and secure, we can compassionately inquire into ourselves and work on our issues and our healing.

She continues with an emotion-loaded voice: “He’s just infinitely patient with me. I’ve had to deal with all of this shit before and I was talking to a friend who said: ‘Why go to a psychologist now, when you’ve been away for seven years?” I think in the first years I was away from home I was so good at pushing it away, always worried about another visa, or country or whatever. There was never the mental space to grapple with all this shit and go through it and process it. I left at 18 and never dealt with it. Now I feel more secure; I have a job, a loving partner, I’m not stressed about making it to the end of the month anymore. All of a sudden, I have this mental space and things started to come up. That’s when I thought: ‘Okay, I need a professional to help me through this!’ ”

“That’s very brave of you!”

“Yeah! My partner has been there from the beginning of this process, about four years ago. Learning to recognise things in myself, dealing with all the shit coming up, learning to apologise, and he has been so infinitely patient with it all and shown me unconditional love which is like the best thing… Wow! He is definitely on the top of that list.”

“Are you aware that there must be something lovable about you…? I mean he’s not just being a sucker picking up some victim and playing the rescue role here, right?”

“Well… yeah… but sometimes I wonder if I’m just being manipulative once again in making him love me by saying the right words and making him do the right things for me.”

“This is how deep this feeling is rooted… that even if you are truly loved, you’re still wondering whether you’re truly worth it.”

“Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to accept the unconditional aspect of it, because I still feel I’m not worthy of that connection.”

For many people with trauma, the aspect of ‘worthiness’ is very prominent. Losing the connection with our true selves can make it hard to deeply trust that we are worthy of love and connection and joy in life. Related to this, we return to the theme of staying true to yourself, of being authentic and feeling okay with that.

“How authentic do you feel you can be in your current life and work?”

Elizabeth sighs: “Euhm… not very, I think… It depends on the situation, but I always find I’m checking and re-checking myself, especially in social situations. I feel that there is no way I can be myself and people accept me. That is such a bold way of looking at social encounters, that… well… there’s no way!” She speaks with passion and together we laugh about it, consciously aware of the fact that apparently, there is still a long way to go.

We teasingly challenge her: “What would that look like, the authentic Elizabeth?!”

She lightens up: “Very outspoken, very loud, interested in a whole bunch of things! I feel that I’m sort of this all-encompassing bridge between topics and areas of interest that most people do not combine, but I can’t really talk openly about all these topics, because people could be like ‘oh, it’s weird that she’s into that, because our group is not into that’. So yeah… the authentic Elizabeth is much louder than she comes across, and not constantly careful about the way she approaches things. I’m constantly re-evaluating and overthinking things, and that should not be part of my authenticity.”

We speak about the impact of stress on the body, of being alert to danger all the time, after Elizabeth mentions that she had a blood analysis recently and had some unexpected values. She says: “I didn’t realize until now that stress has this very strong impact on the body.”

“Oh, this is interesting! You didn’t realise that until recently? Actually, this is the whole point and it’s called ‘psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology’, describing the effect of the psyche on neurophysiology and the immune system and hormonal regulation. Actually, it’s implied in what some see as an important definition of trauma: it’s not what happens to you, but ‘what happens inside of you as a consequence of what happens to you’. It can be seen as ‘a wound of the spirit’, a disconnection from the self. You were talking about your sisters just taking everything in and suppressing how they felt with regard to your parents. But what we see is that if you suppress or de-press your emotions and feelings, you de-press your immune system and this can lead to so many physical problems and also de-pression.”

Elizabeth looks astonished and interrupts: “My sister is always sick; she always has something!”

“Stress… toxic stress, long-term, chronic stress!”

She listens in amazement about the link she now discovers: “Wow!”

“Also, on the point of using your full potential, high adrenaline and cortisol levels are neurotoxic; they eat away brain cells, which means that you lose connections in the brain that guide your responses to triggers from the environment. You then develop a limited number of ‘routes to go to’ if something happens. The more a route is walked upon, the stronger it gets. It becomes the standard or safe- mode route. It becomes your way to cope with what happens and you have less of a specialised network to respond differently in different situations. The longer you suppress the stress, the bigger your chances are for all types of NCDs, blood pressure elevation, heart problems, even cancer. If you depress your immune system for a long period, your body has more and more trouble fighting health threats and maintaining your balance, your homeostasis. If you dive into this more deeply, it becomes easier to see how stress physiology plays a role in overall health.”

We mention having noticed that several times, she has brought up the ‘shit’ that has come up. We wonder what it is that she would like to heal from most. “Yeah… again, all the things that I’ve internalised that are very unhealthy. For a long time, my coping mechanism was self-harm, like cutting; that’s how I dealt with stuff. That’s something that still needs to be solved. It really feels like I’ve been cheated out of all the things that other people have, like a good relationship with their parents, and I feel very bitter about that and envious of other people who have that… and that feeling can really affect my relationships with other people. Those are kind of the main things that I hope to sort through with a professional.”

“When you say ‘bitter and envious’… could you rephrase that in a more compassionate way towards yourself?” She smiles and softens: “Yeah… maybe like mourning towards what I did not have…?” “Grief…?” “Yeah, grief is a really good word for that. Grief feels like something that is an easier process than envy is for example. You go through stages of grief and work your way up.” “Yes, exactly, whereas being envious and bitter is still very judgmental towards yourself, instead of compassionate…” She nods: “Yeah…that’s true; that is an interesting perspective once again.

We wonder if she has ideas about why her mom couldn’t offer her the caring and attentive buffering protection.

“I mean… I guess this was partly because she didn’t learn how to do that, as she never received it herself. She also generally feels threatened in her own life, I think, in her identity of being a good mother. It’s ironic, because she used to say that sometimes: ‘I’m such a bad mom.’ I think she was very insecure about that. She really wanted control, and because she had no control in her own life as a child in that chaotic environment, once she became a mother and started her own family she felt that she could exert control. She didn’t want to relinquish it and as I was growing up and starting to question more and more, she just kept that feeling of control. I think she was just scared. I think that after I left home, my mom was probably very sad. I recognise that element and I feel more and more just sad for her; the longer that I’m able to distance myself from that anger, I feel more and more sorry for her almost.”

We mention the sequence of behaviour being a result of an emotion that comes from an unmet underlying need. If you acknowledge that, it changes how you view and address the issue. Focusing on the behaviour leaves a lot of underlying pain unaddressed and may not be very helpful. Somehow, Elizabeth must already be on her healing path, because she acknowledges the intergenerational trauma by seeing that her mom’s behaviour was probably based on feeling scared and she feels sorry for her.

We wrap up and thank Elizabeth very much for her openness and will keep her posted on publication. She guides us downstairs and we say warm goodbyes. As we unlock our bikes, the impressiveness of Elizabeth’s candour still lingers. The clouds from earlier in the morning have disappeared and the sun has come through. The seagulls are still there, flying around and screaming, betraying the closeness of the sea. We decide to cycle to the coast line, walk along the beach, and have lunch with the sun on our faces, while letting the story we were honoured to hear sink in.

Posted in Interviews by experience experts.