Navigating Curveballs and Weathering Storms
When life gets tough, it helps to stay curious and examine our roots.
Even before I ended my teletherapy appointment this morning with my trauma therapist, I knew I’d write to tell y’all about a few things we discussed, because a few important things really clicked for me.
But first, let me give you some brief backstory.
I’ve been feeling a bit dysregulated lately, and I can easily point to several reasons why, including a rewarding-yet-super-heavy workload, the recent time change, tax season (ugh), a book I’ve been reading that’s been more triggering than enjoyable, and then, yesterday, another mass shooting at a school.
My sleep, diet, and exercise are all “off”, and I’ve been pretty much bouncing from one thing to another, never feeling awful, per se, but rarely feeling grounded.
And so, as I spoke to my therapist about my discomfort with so many uncomfortable, unsettled feelings, she nodded when I explained that I want to feel more rooted.
First, she asked me to describe how my body was feeling.
“Kind of…I don’t know…short of breath?” I said, questioning if that was accurate. “Well…maybe more like … shallow breathing…?”
“Mmmm hmmmm,” she nodded.
“I mean, that’s not the whole picture…” I said, trailing off. I worked hard to conjure up a visual to describe what it feels like to constantly react to life’s curveballs (past and present), but no luck.
“Tell me more,” my therapist said.
I explained that I’d been feeling a bit down, fighting against a growing sense that my anxiety, if left unchecked, might turn into depression. Simply put, I’ve been feeling anxious about my anxiety…and it’s crazymaking stuff.
My therapist, as usual, said something perfect.
“You know those inflatable things in used car lots?” she offered.
“Um, yeah?” I said, smiling.
“The ones that shoot up straight,” she continued, gesturing with her hands, “then drop down and tilt and lean before popping back up again?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” I said, giggling and shaking my head. “I know what you’re talking about.”
“Is it fair to say,” she continued, “that you sort of feel like one of those?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “A lot like one of those. It’s like stuff just keeps knocking me down, and I’m tired.”
She went on to remind me of the obvious — that life’s curveballs and their potential triggers won’t stop coming. But then, she said something not-quite-as-obvious-to-me:
“You’re doing a fantastic job,” she said.
“I’m what?” I asked.
She reminded me that, in the years since we first started meeting, I’ve become a hell of a lot more grounded and settled.
And, she’s fucking right.
Way back then, when we first started working together (seven years ago?), I was in the midst of a divorce and only just beginning to address some looooong-buried emotions. I spent my days vacillating between fear and emotional overcorrecting (ie., apologizing for everything). Much of my life had become something I no longer recognized, and it felt like my life ran me.
I’d spend our therapy sessions asking question after question, most of them beginning with the word why:
Why am I so sensitive? (Therapist: “Let’s explore your trauma history…”)
Why does this feel so bad? (Therapist: “Because it IS bad…”)
Why didn’t I see this coming? (Therapist: “Can you read minds?”)
Why does it feel like things might never get better? (Therapist: “Because at the moment, your pain IS all-consuming.”)
While my therapist had an answer to every one of my questions, never once did she dismiss my pain; she validated it and helped me explore it. In doing so, she also helped me understand that my insatiable curiosity served a purpose, as long as I stayed open to learning and exploring.
Early on, I wasn’t yet able to clearly identify boundaries in my life — and so, everything that happened kind of felt like it was happening to me. Such was the way I’d learned (or not learned?) to cope with complex trauma.
And yet, all hope was not lost.
During these years in therapy, I’ve learned to recognize, talk about, and write through my toughest, most painful feelings.
I’ve become more boundaried, more aware, more empowered, more rooted, more compassionate toward myself (especially about the things that were out of my control), and most importantly, more cognizant of the differences between myself and the wider world. All this work has led me to a place that’s more grounded and anchored and resilient…
…but sometimes, like today, in a moment of vulnerability (or exhaustion or confusion or illness or overwhelm), it’s easy to slip back into the familiar “mode” I’d lived in most of my life, feeling like I am broken and powerless.
And so, today, my therapist pointed to a clear example of my progress.
“Remember what happened with your friend?”
Those six words were all it took to bring me back to that day in December 2021 when a dear friend, in a moment of poor judgment (and don’t we have them all?) blindsided me with a text. Upon opening it, I stood staring at my phone for several moments before finally realizing it was intended for the eyes of others, and that the subject of its critical nature was… me.
I can only now describe that text as insensitive and ill-considered, but for many months after I opened it, I believed it to have been intentionally mean-spirited, vicious, and cruel.
It took me longer than I believed was “reasonable” to process the shock and betrayal I felt. Initially, I withdrew completely from my friend, unsure how to respond, certain our friendship was through, and fearful I’d let escape my feelings of defensive hysterics, running like hot lava just under the surface.
But, in spending the time I needed to sit with my feelings and actually letting myself tolerate them for an extended period of time (trust me, there were many tears, many apologies, and many requests for explanations and forgiveness), I was able to consider:
My feelings (anger, betrayal, humiliation, hurt, and disappointment)
My friend’s feelings (mortification, regret, and overwhelm as she worked to manage her own personal struggles).
Since my friend had, for years, encouraged me to share my deepest and most vulnerable self, my endless rounds of questions kicked in:
Why had she lashed out in such an uncharacteristic way?
What had I done to prompt her criticism, and what could I own in this situation?
Why had she gossipped to others?
Why hadn’t she said anything directly to me?
It’s been more than a year since that experience, and I’ve been slowly learning how to answer each one of those questions. From my perspective, we’re tentatively working our way back toward one another, albeit at a snail’s pace and with our raw and tender guards up. I can’t speak for her, but I love her and I can only guess that she, like me, wishes that exchange had never happened.
Still, as my therapist pointed out today, that was a pivotal growth experience for me, and most likely for my friend, as well.
I learned that, though life can (and will) throw curveballs, resolution and healing can (and often does) take time. I learned that, when someone hurts us, it’s just as important to ask “What’s going on for them?” as it is to ask, “Why have they hurt me?” And, I was once again reminded that, when all hope feels lost, it’s important to breathe, be kind to ourselves, and (at least in my case) to write.
As my therapist pointed out this morning, going through that horrible experience wasn’t easy, but I handled it, I learned from it, I grew as a person, and I am now even more anchored in who I am. And while that certainly won’t be the last storm I ever weather, I can now feel more confident that my roots are strong.
And, as for that image of a goofy, floppy, ridiculous inflatable in the used car lot? I think it’s a perfect, even hopeful visual for how life can ebb and flow and throw us for loops. The key, as my amazing therapist says, is making sure that bad boy’s as secure and grounded as possible.
Christine Wolf’s upcoming Write To Heal Retreat in Carefree, Arizona, still has a few more spots left. Learn more at www.christinewolf.com or www.WriteToHealRetreats.com.
Powerful writing. Seeing that text must have made you literally dizzy with its uprooting. You are strong to have gone through that and not lose your empathy towards your friend. That inspires me. As you might have read with some of my writings, that's a mighty sword of compassion you wield.
I feel like March is a harder month than it used to be, and it was never easy. Maybe the pandemic anniversary? The hardest thing is for me to sit with my uncomfortable feelings and not be able to do anything to change them. I just have to let them be, take care of myself as best I can, and move through them. Lately, I feel quite bored. I'm pretty sure it's because I am alone too much. I don't get how people love WFH so much. I find it pretty monotonous. I have had a few weeks home without work travel, so when I start traveling again, I will pep up, but these fallow periods at home are hard. I take walks and such, but it doesn't really address the void other human beings fill. Thanks for sharing your process, Christine.