21 Years of Healing

August 22, 1996 is kind of a big deal for me – that date marks the near-fatal culmination of an unhealthy teen relationship.

I’ve written about it a bunch, in personal essays, fiction, poetry. I shared it with however-many of the 300,000 readers of the Greensboro News & Record who turned to the opinion pages when I carried a regular column there, and made a submission to the My Turn column in Newsweek. I didn’t hear back from them but I did like that piece.

This year, I debated whether to say anything about it or just let it go on by.

Part of the internal argument to let it go this year was about just being that far into the healing process. Certainly, there’s plenty of room yet to go, but it’s more like picking the dog hair out of the car’s upholstery after a scary, but successful, emergency run to the vet. The remaining lessons are noticeable and sometimes even painful, but mild compared to what came in the first years after, when it wasn’t even healing, really, but just coping.

At some point, though, I realized there was also an old gremlin message at play, too, one that said it was somehow bad to keep sharing my story. Part of the message said that it’s because it makes people uncomfortable to hear; part said it’s because it’s a relatively minor trauma in a world where, well, where people go through things like happened during the childhood of the fella who was the antagonist in my story of trauma. Part of the message said it’s shameful to have gone through such a relationship and attack in the first place.

One of the cool things about learning to really hear our gremlin voices is that once we get a fix on their messages, we can think them through and feel them out, to figure out what they’re actually saying and decide what to keep and what to 86. Each of those messages about my story is some form of should, as if there’s one right way to live, one right way to heal, one right way to grieve.

Last week, I looked up a quote that’s been churning around the back of my mind since I stumbled across it after my grandma’s passing last year:

Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviors of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life-force. It is riddled with energy, an acknowledgment of the erotic coupling with another soul, whether human, animal, plant or ecosystem. It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled and riotous ways when grief takes hold of us. It is truly an emotion that rises from soul.

-Francis Weller, Entering the Healing Ground

As a culture, we have a terribly limited tolerance for grief, giving the most leeway in the event of the loss of a loved one, though even there we find an unspoken time limit, adjusted based on the age of the person lost and the bereaved’s relationship to that person. The causes for grieving, though, are expansive and appear throughout our lives, regardless of our challenges and opportunities.

Part of my process of healing has been grieving the loss of trust that I experienced during that time, and my sense of safety, and that unique feeling of immortality that those of us who were raised in safe homes take for granted until it’s, jarringly, gone.

Grief also comes from sources less likely to make their way into the plots of Hallmark Specials. Grief can come from recognizing that we’ve drifted from our spouse or best friend, or from rain and a defective air mattress dulling the shine on a long-awaited vacation.

Hell, grief can exist even in the midst of joy. Here, parenting comes immediately to mind, like the loss of independence and increased financial responsibility that parallels the joy of becoming a parent, or the bittersweetness of helping a child move into her first dorm or apartment.

Grief, like all feelings, just is. It isn’t good or bad, right or wrong. It just is. And we can either be the rigidly-built beach house that’s eaten bit-by-bit by hurricane floods, or we can be the one in which a piece of the house is allowed to crumble so that it can become a conduit for the waters that might otherwise more deeply damage the whole.

That’s an oversimplification by a long shot, of course, but it’s a pretty image, isn’t it?

So, I didn’t exactly talk story on this anniversary, but not because my gremlin voices poked at me with sticks sharpened by the sometimes thoughtless, sometimes fear-based input people have given me over the years. Instead, it’s because the healing and learning that mark our greatest lessons often take us in a spiral where we revisit the lesson from different angles and a greater distance as we develop more tools and greater understanding. From where I am in that spiraling path right now, I don’t need to be knee deep in the memories of August 22, 1996, but rather swimming around its wake.

As I move through this 21st season of introspection, growth, and healing, I wish for myself, for you, and for that one person with whom I shared that terrible August morning latitude for ourselves and our feelings. I wish for all of us that we’re able to loosen our grip on the idea that grieving is selfish or detracts from our gratitude or even that it’s virtuous, and that we instead are able to hold onto the idea that it is simply necessary, a part of these complex lives of ours.