Recycled Pain, Part 1: The Car Wreck
A raw account of what happens when we don't take responsibility for our own pain.
I sat alone on our bed, laptop open, waiting for my therapist to join our Zoom call. I had logged on before him, giving me a minute to decide how I was going to tell him what had happened. The truth was, I didn't want to tell him what had I had done; I didn't want to tell him that it had happened again.
The laptop gave a familiar ping, and his face appeared on the screen.
"Hello", he said by way of customary greeting. I waited for him to finish the administrative work on his end, as he always does whenever we begin these sessions. After a moment, his eyes moved to the screen, and he asked: "How are you doing?"
I dropped my gaze from his and pressed my lips together tightly, silent for a full minute as I fought back tears. I wasn't afraid to cry in front of my therapist, but I was absolutely afraid to admit out loud what I had done, even though he was never judgemental. I took a steadying breath, but my voice still shook a little as I replied:
"Not so good."
(3 Days Earlier)
I could tell that I felt irritated, but I didn't necessarily want to stop feeling irritated.
Moments later, a thought bubbled up to the surface:
What if I married the wrong person?
Huh. I hadn't seen that thought in awhile.
Some iteration of this same thought had been a regular visitor when I first met my husband, even occasionally after we got married — and it would always throw me into a panic. After months of therapy and self-inquiry, however, I began to understand that this brand of thought would predictably make an appearance when I felt inadequate, or when I felt vulnerable beyond my comfort level. Over time, it began to happen less and less, eventually disappearing altogether ... or so I had thought.
But ... no, I was definitely not feeling inadequate, and I sure as hell wasn't feeling vulnerable.
And so I reasoned … that thought must be true.
The needle on my irritability gauge crept from a 3 to a 4, but I didn't notice it — I wasn't watching.
We had somewhere to be on the other side of town at 5:30, and it was 4:50. I buzzed from room to room, gathering everything we would need for our errands, not wanting to be late.
"Can you be ready in 10?" I shot over to my unsuspecting husband, who was finishing up work from our couch.
Hearing my tone, he slowly straightened, his eyes clocking my posture, how I continued to hurriedly fold up clothes as I waited for his response, not meeting his eye. After a moment or two:
"Pat", he said gently, "we're going to be OK. You don't have to rush, I can feel your stress. It's OK to slow down."
Ah, there it was — the anthem that had been sung to me by adults of all manner, ever since I was a child. In a more neutral moment, the comment may have passed through the gates of my ego without being challenged ... but this was not a neutral moment.
No, in this moment, my internal sirens screamed an alarm and the gates of my heart crashed shut, while the full might of my inner army snapped to attention and readied their spears (so medieval, my ego).
The needle of my irritability shot from a 4 to a 6, and this time, I did notice. And yet, I had zero interest in taking space to figure out what I was feeling; I was very comfortable at the speed that I was going, thank you very much. So instead, I fired off this cool, neutral reply:
"I understand that you may not do things the way that I do things, but I need you to understand that I'm trying to make sure we're not late — it's OK for me to move quickly to get things done, and sometimes that's what's needed. I know this isn’t your intention, but it feels like you’re asking me to change who I am, and it makes me feel like a kid."
… Oops. Maybe not-so-neutral. Something that, unfortunately, did not go unnoticed by my husband, whose lips pressed together as he fell silent and cast his gaze back down to his work.
A pause. "I'm sorry", he said softly. "You're right."
I stood there, nodded, then marched into our room to proceed packing up for our errands.
We were both buckling in.
We knew that we were in it.
As he drove us to the appointment, my heart pounded uncomfortably in my chest as I looked out the passenger window. I was trying to breathe into my belly, as I had learned in my Respectful Confrontation workshops, but the air felt dead and stuffy. I rolled down my window.
We didn't say much more just then, and my brain quickly made up for the lack of verbal communication. How did this happen? We always had so much fun together, he was always making me laugh and feel loved and listened-to and a million other wonderful things — how did we get from that to this?
Something must be missing, my brain assured me. He's not trying hard enough in the relationship. This is going to just keep happening, you know.
And so my mind rattled on and on, constructing a litany of faults to point out and fingers to point. By the time we got home, we could both feel the weight of my unspoken frustration, so we headed to the couch to talk, as we always do when one of us is feeling something strong. I began.
"So, what are you feeling?"
His chin stiffened in response to my question, and he stared straight ahead as he thought.
I tightened my seat belt.
After a minute or two — even in these kinds of conversations, he always speaks thoughtfully — he proceeded to gently, but firmly, state his case: he felt like I was angry about what he had said earlier, and he didn’t feel like it was fair that I had taken such a stance. He wasn’t trying to be condescending, he didn't feel that it was wrong to say what he had said.
His points were measured and valid; he is a much more careful driver in these kinds of conversations than I am. With each well-formulated thought and calm rebuttal, however, the pressure in my chest dialed up higher and higher; something about the steadiness of his response was making me feel more and more frustrated. My heart was pounding, my head was pounding; I felt a reckless surge of adrenaline, and that's when I did it — I let go of the wheel.
My inner guards poured over the wall between my heart and my mouth and took on a strong offensive. I got defensive. I started explaining that I was feeling this way because I was worried that he wasn't trying hard enough, he wasn't interested in doing the work, that I had to keep reminding him, and if he really wanted to do it, then he would do it himself. I told him how important it is to me that he has interest in bettering himself.
I broke off, slightly out of breath. I had run out of steam.
I felt better — the pressure in my chest was gone.
But as I fell silent, it was as if all of the sudden, blinders that I didn't even know I had on fell away, and my eyes were able to work again (had they stopped working?), to take in what was in front of them — and what I saw took my breath away.
I saw the man in front of me, the man I knew better than anyone, the man who is always on my team, no matter what — the man who, in that moment, felt like a total stranger. He was sitting as far away from me as was possible on our cramped, two-person couch, shoulders slumped, defeated, his gaze at his feet — the portrait of shame.
In that moment, I knew that he was no longer there with me on the couch, or even in that room — but back in the recesses of his own memory, reliving the years of his life when he had been a physical punching bag for others, others who didn't have the tools or awareness to control their own inner armies, others who had also let go of the wheel.
I looked inward to my heart, desperately seeking reassurance — I was right, I was so sure I was right — but those gutsy, obstinate, pain-in-the-ass guards were nowhere to be found. The only sign that they had ever been there was the echo of their spears clattering to the ground.
As I stood alone at the gates of my own heart, I looked around to see what had made them scram, and that's when I felt it: the air cooling slightly as I stood, all of the sudden, in shadow. I didn't have to crane my neck to know that what loomed above me was my own monstrous shame, closing in, cornering me.
I didn't even try to run. Shame always paralyzes me.
Remorse, disgust, shame and self-hatred flooded my chest, hot and desperate, as I looked across the couch at the person I loved more than anyone else in the world, at the face that now bore the pain and shame that — I was finally able to understand — had been mine all along.
A few moments passed — the smoke began to clear, and eventually, he looked up. This wreck, thankfully, hadn't been a fatal one. He wasn't hurt enough that he couldn't walk.
He got out of his own car and bravely offered me a hand, helping me out of my smoking car. We wandered through the wreckage together like a pair of seasoned investigators, pointing to the burnt rubber on the road, noting when the first wrong turn had been taken, how far the skid marks were from the site of the crash. We identified the driver at fault (surprise — it was me).
We somberly took note of how familiar the scene looked, having both been here before on the account of my reckless emotional driving.
As is standard procedure, we gave the driver (still me) the equivalent of an emotional breathalyzer, and — further surprise — I had been driving impaired. I had been feeling inadequate, after scrolling through Indeed earlier that morning and seeing that I wasn’t qualified for the jobs that I was interested in. I had been feeling overwhelmed and tired after days locked in a tug-of-war with myself, trying to decide what to do with a project that had been draining me for months. I had been feeling foolish for investing so much time, energy and resources into this project, one that hadn't offered the return I had hoped for. I was coming to terms with the uncomfortable reality that I needed to move on.
But I had the tools, I had the awareness, to handle the weight of these uncomfortable realities myself. The truth — one that I don't want to admit — is that I didn't want to slow down enough to deal with them myself.
Slowing down has always felt more dangerous to me than speeding up.
And it is in this very dynamic that I've created for myself that I've hurt — that I continue to hurt — the people that I love most.
. . . . .
(...to be continued in Part 2)