Sometimes The Scariest Things Are Just 'Monsters In The Closet'
It was a little over two weeks ago on a perfect blue sky day that I realized just how deeply the current pandemic and required social isolation has affected me. How deeply it’s affecting my ability to parent, to communicate, to accurately take the temperature of my mental health and energetic body.
If you were to label my parenting style, you would say I was just shy of a full-on free range parent. We let our children explore. In fact, we live in coastal Maine specifically so our kids can have freedom to explore. They are strong, physically capable, curious little people. So the fact that we were climbing over, under, and around rocks along the water was not unusual. In fact, everyone was feeling pretty good. In our house these days, our moods are deeply connected to our ability to get outdoors. So by all accounts, with the warmth and blue sky and the fact that we were all together as a family, we were on our way to the perfect family day.
As my two-and-a-half-year-old son climbed and explored, I could tell that my usual ability to tolerate safe risk wasn’t quite there, but I swallowed the urge to stifle his exploration. As his attention shifted to another area and he began to climb down from where he was, I found myself both screaming in fear and completely unable to move. Screaming at the top of my lungs, from a deep deep place of terror. From where I stood, all I could see was peril. I truly saw him falling over the edge of this cliff we’d been exploring into the ocean. My husband, with a wary eye on me, tended to our son. He made sure he was completely safe and then asked me to walk over and look at the spot where he was just climbing. There was no cliff. There was no peril. The rock was about six inches high.
I felt my breath quickening and my throat tightening. Tears started to stream down my face. I cried hard and let the tears fall until I could breathe again.
It’s taken me so long to share this experience because I’ve been reflecting on it almost daily in an effort to understand just how I could have been so activated yet so unaware of the state of my nervous system. The answer? Trauma. My dear friend, Elizabeth MacInnes, shared recently that anything that makes us feel unsafe in our bodies can be interpreted in our bodies and minds as traumatic.
I think I am struggling most with the knowledge that I am not coping as well as I thought and that my perception of reality is somewhat altered. Seeing danger where there is none is clearly an indicator that I am operating with my sympathetic nervous system — the part of our body that is responsible for responding to dangerous situations with a flood of stress hormones — in hyperdrive.
I know I’m not the only parent right now who is walking through their day and seeing danger where there is none. The amount of space-holding we are doing for our families right now is untenable. We simply can not function as everything to everyone. Clearly it’s not working for me. I’ve begun to view the current public health crisis as tensional stress — the same forces at play during an earthquake. The uncertainty of our situation is at a foundational level, and it’s adding immense stress to areas of our lives that may have already been challenging — to our fault lines, if you will.
There has to be space to fall apart. To release the tension. Otherwise the result is a total breakdown, an earthquake that rocks you to your core.
So I’m offering you this story as permission. To not be okay. To fall apart. To cry until you can breathe again. And, to be gentle with yourself when the danger you saw turned out to be more of a monster in the closet than a real life threat.
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