I think that it’s time for a bit of encouragement chez Empowered Grace. That last post was very intense. Intensity can be good. I am very accustomed to high levels of intensity. I often take it for granted that others are not but experiencing different levels of intensity through story and daily life is very good depending upon the nature of the intensity, of course. For those of us who come from high intensity environments, learning to fully experience quotidian events without expecting the other shoe to drop can be very healing. For those people who hail from healthy families, reading or listening to the experiences of others who have survived experiences distinctly outside their own can develop empathy, compassion, and gratitude as well as expand their worldview and inner emotional experience.
For example, Eadaoin and I are now into week 4 of the DBT Skills Group. For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with DBT, it stands for Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It was created by Marsha Linehan as a therapeutic approach for Borderline Personality Disorder, but it is now used in conjunction with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) by many therapists because it is so effective in equipping people regardless of their diagnosis. It is especially helpful for teens who are struggling with emotional regulation and cutting. A few months ago, that was Eadaoin, hence, our current enrollment in the DBT Skills Group.
I want to make it abundantly clear that I don’t easily whip out the “I survived human trafficking” card nor do I get something out of discussing growing up with a parent diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In my experience, it won’t give me gravitas. People will actually look at me with suspicion and say, “No wonder your kids are messed up! You’re probably abusing them.” The point, however, that I want to make is that our life experiences, no matter how harrowing, can help us later on. I am not a person who believes that “things happen for a reason”. Ask any person who has survived something extremely significant like the loss of a child, childhood sexual abuse, a kidnapping, or the like. There is no ontological reason for it. Meaning is applied to the event later on during the process of healing. It wasn’t inherently within the event during the occurence.
Those platitudes that people offer up like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” (not in the Bible) or “Everything happens for a reason,” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or “When God closes a door, he opens a window,” are all said because the person saying them is uncomfortable. They are the ones in need of comfort so they are trying to comfort themselves in an attempt to say something that might put meaning to a meaningless event. It is very difficult to come to terms with the stark reality that sometimes very bad things just happen. There is chaos in the world. What is behind these platitudes? If chaos and evil can happen to someone I know, then perhaps it can happen to me. If some events are truly meaningless in their nature, then that means that there is nothing that can be done to prevent them. That means that anyone could experience something horrible at any time.
The human brain cannot easily accept chaos theory. No. When bad things happen, it must be someone’s fault. When a child dies from SIDS, it must be because someone did something wrong. When a child is abducted, it must be because someone wasn’t paying attention. Someone did something wrong. We have to blame one of the caregivers. Why? You mean that we can do everything right and still experience suffering? If we can’t blame someone, then what’s to stop our own children from getting hurt? If we can’t blame someone for our children’s mental health conditions, then what?
What do you do when there is no one to blame? What do you do when there is no meaning? What do you do when it feels senseless?
I suggest here that our own personal experiences with suffering are what we can use to apply meaning to future experiences. As I shared, Eadaoin and I are taking a 24-week DBT Skills Group. I suggested DBT for Eadaoin because she was struggling with emotional regulation, and she was cutting. My mother used to cut. I don’t remember what my response was to my mother’s cutting. I just remember that she did it so when Eadaoin began doing it I recognized it. I knew that she was using cutting as a response to emotional pain. She was trying to seek relief. She was trying to feel better. Because cutting was familiar to me, I didn’t freak out. I already had a language around it–because of my mother.
Is cutting something I should have been exposed to as a girl? No. Should I have been a witness to it? No. Was it meaningful to me then? No. Did it suddenly become meaningful to me when Eadaoin needed my support? You bet. Could Eadaoin’s cutting have been a trigger for me? Yes. Was it? No. Why? I have done my work. Eadaoin is not my mother, and I am not 12 years-old anymore. This is a completely different scenario, but I was able to use something that was once painful, transform it into something useful and meaningful, and apply it to new circumstances so that I could communicate with my daughter more effectively. And, now, we attend a support group together with other parents and teens who also want to apply meaning to their relationships and daily lives.
Everything that we have experienced, no matter how meaningless or chaotic it seemed in the moment, can be used later on to build a bridge. I haven’t always believed this, but, as I have lived and shared this journey with my family, I have found myself drawing on the darker experiences in my past to find wisdom for the present. I was more than equipped to deal with Grace’s plunge into mental illness thanks to my mother’s diagnosis. I never thought that I would ever be thankful for my experiences with her until the day I walked into the Behavioral Health ER with Grace and realized that everything was familiar. I knew how to speak the language of the psychiatrists. I knew what it all meant thanks to my mother and her myriad suicide attempts.
Because of my own healing journey associated with originating from such a highly dysfunctional family and, yes, the trafficking ordeal, I know the ins and outs of the therapeutic process like the back of my hand. I was equipped to be the mother to the kids I have. This is what it means to put meaning to difficult circumstances and seemingly senseless events. What I see in so many families is that the parents are actually uniquely suited to be the parents to the children they have. That, to me, is what is meaningful. If anything does lack chaos, it’s that. Our life experiences have brought us to this moment in time with these people in our lives, and, whether we know it or not, we have a wealth of resources in our lives that are most likely completely untapped.
We are the resources. It is the process of healing and growing that releases those resources to us and to others. That is how we turn the lead into gold. That is how we learn to view ourselves and our children, regardless of diagnoses, as always empowered. Never as victims. That is how we learn to tell our stories with a sense of accomplishment rather than with shame.
This is what I want for myself, my loved ones, and my friends. That we would walk in peaceful strength, applying meaning to our present, drawing wisdom from past experiences while looking to the future with hope even if there’s chaos. Even in the midst of suffering.
To me, this is what it is to be empowered. Never ashamed. Never reluctant. Instead, proud of where you came from. Proud of where you’re going. Proud of where you are. Proud of who you are. Because maybe, just maybe, your darker life experiences and diagnoses that the world would stigmatize you for are a bright, shining light to someone in your world right now.
You can cause someone else’s darkness to become light simply because you walked through your own darkness and lived to talk about it. Your story, life, and circumstances suddenly become a bridge from chaos to meaning.
How encouraging is that?