Letting Go of Your Former Self

Letting Go of Your Former Self

Mathias Pastwa (Flickr)
“Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.”
— Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

I am a sucker for ~radical self-healing~ articles. I have written letters of forgiveness instructed by Louise Hay. I have listened to affirmation podcasts and in moments of extreme pain, I try to breathe through it.

But I can remember a time when none of this was necessary.

My body seemed to turn on me after a traumatic period in my life. I suffered from chronic fatigue, an ulcer, and everything I ate created discomfort and pain in my body. I didn’t own myself anymore. I didn’t have control and I didn’t trust my own body for support. I pleaded with myself to return to normalcy, to return to the life I knew before trauma had taken hold. It took years to realize that I never had the control and ownership that I longed to return to. I finally came to face my breaking point. I could no longer become numb nor distance myself from years of pain.

At the start of my junior year of college, I found myself homeless. It wasn’t the first time I had struggled with housing security, and it wasn’t the first time I felt the weight of the poverty I had grown up in. But I did feel a collapse of the safety-net I had imagined getting to college would provide. The university I attended was less than helpful, and when I tried to withdraw for the semester to figure out my living situation, I was informed that my financial aid would be revoked for the semester and I would owe the university for the classes I attended. From standing in lines for WIC or at a food pantry with my mom, peering up while the people behind the desk looked down, the lack of institutional support didn’t shock me. I wasn’t expecting the lack of empathy from what I considered a support system, however.  

Friends slowly backed out of my life, it was all too much for them. I had a friend offer me housing “if I made it interesting” for him. A free couch-surf turned into an attempted assault.

At each new agency and department, the people behind the desk told me I was not eligible for assistance. My muscles became sore and tight from the long bike rides two towns away to a friend of friend’s place who felt safe.  I became listless from nights I spent riding around because I hadn’t found a place for that night, and I was too scared to sit down.

The exhaustion was only overcome by dissociation. I could feel myself slowly peeling away from my body. I needed to put a distance between myself and the constant fear and stress of my situation. I felt like I had stowed myself away and put a barrier between what I couldn’t control beyond my body.

And after my housing crisis resolved, I melted into the exhaustion that I was fighting off for months.

I thought once I was well rested and my life was back on track I would be able to move on, like I had from so many other stressful situations. Especially since what I experienced was the result of the economic stresses that I had experienced my whole life. But I wasn’t’ getting past it. I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I went to the free student behavioral health clinic.

“What brings you here?”

“Well I’ve had a really stressful past year and I feel like I can’t get past it”

“What happened?”

I was stunted. Something very specific had happened to me, but it was part of a larger context. It felt like the trauma I had experienced had culminated in one experience, and I didn’t know how to explain something so intertwined.

Though this counselor wasn’t able to address my particular issues of economic and gender violence, she did give me many “tools.” Talking through specific events helped me acknowledge their place in the past and remind myself that they weren’t a current threat. But because my past and economic situation had not changed, it seemed like I was tinkering at a sense of normalcy that I had never, and probably will never, experience. Many of the calming tools I was given, especially visualizations, asked me to imagine a time I was happy. Imagine a time I was safe. I’m not saying that I have never experienced these emotions, but in counseling the rhetoric seemed to revolve around me being healthy, but didn’t seem to ask if I had been healthy at any point before.

For people whose identity and circumstance subject them to continuous trauma, where lies the healthy reference point to which we can return? Where is recovery? What is there to compare or aspire to, when even long before, trauma was omnipresent? After a lifetime of racial, economic, and emotional trauma, it becomes encoded in our being starting from childhood, a period formative to our identities. This creates a symptomatic sense of self reliance on coping mechanisms created to grapple with our realities. But coping is not healing, and there is no cure for trauma.

After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder I realized my coping mechanisms were ineffective at best, and most likely self-sabotaging. After lots of research and many doctors’ visits, I found out that autoimmune diseases overwhelmingly afflict survivors of trauma, especially childhood or repeated trauma. It doesn’t seem like a jump that my body distrusts itself at a cellular level, since so many of my experiences deal with a breach of trust, particularly of my own instincts. I searched, I read, and I listened to other survivors of trauma and there was an overwhelming push back against traditional methods of healing. Sitting in a dim room continuously rehashing what happened did not seem to be creating a radical shift in self. It also did not seem to be impacting my daily life, especially physically and spiritually.

Though therapy can be really beneficial because it provides the space to safely break down barriers and be truly vulnerable, it was not addressing the ways in which I resisted that vulnerability and openness outside of that room. It also didn’t tackle something so intrinsic to my identity, but also the thing that was holdup up my recovery: resistance. Resistance is part of me at an emotional, physical, and genetic level. Even my ancestry as a Mexican-American woman speaks to resistance being crucial to my identity. But I had mistaken callouses built by years of pain as healing. I didn’t want to heal; I wanted to return to my strong self that could take it. I wanted to return to where I was before one additional source of suffering tipped the scale for me.

In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks writes, “When we can see ourselves as we truly are and accept ourselves, we build the necessary foundation for self-love.”

Resisting this acceptance and letting go of that former self can feel like killing part of who you once were. This identity, which was formed through incredible resilience and strength, may no longer serve a purpose. It’s hard to let go of that without also feeling like you’re letting go of the subtle strength that got you through it. It can feel as if you are grieving your own loss. But the alternative, never truly accepting ourselves, provides no permanent solution. With complex trauma ingrained within our being, rejecting the pain we have experienced and clinging to our perceived sense of self comes easily. My hope is that we can identify when this inclination to resist stops serving ourselves. We also need to access a rawness and vulnerability that makes healing possible.

I think a lot about this line from Andrea Gibson’s “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out” when I think about my healing process:

“I said to the sun, tell me about the Big Bang. 
The sun said, 'It hurts to become.'

Pain and fear have a place in healing. I listen to my mother on the phone stressing about money even though it’s painful. I dance to salsa and cumbia even though remembering the fear of older men grabbing and leering at me is painful. I ride around on bike at night and witness how my body feels different without the desperation, even though it’s painful.

There isn’t a guaranteed method for recovery. It may comprise of a great deal of community support, or maybe a lot of guided meditation with cheesy background music (which is where I’m at), but it does take letting go of parts of ourselves that prevent us from truly healing. It sometimes means sacrificing our external strength to building something deeper, and more structurally sound.

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