Suffering in Silence …

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We can never really know when those moments of ‘awakening’ will happen.  When all of a sudden something comes into full view that was prickly and palpable but just a bit too blurry, obscured and covert to detect really clearly.   One of the most poignant ‘ahas’ that I’ve had in a long time popped up very unexpectedly (nearly two years ago) after I received a distressed call that my mother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital … again.  My very beloved in-laws (Oma, now 87 and Opa, now 91) had been enduring storm after storm of medical crises (for several years in a row) …  with countless trips to the ER … numerous hospital stays … and many lengthy and lonely convalescences. We had been desperately craving some calm … not just for them but also for us.

But on that particular day, with no sunny skies in sight, I dropped whatever I was doing and made another 45 minute commute into the ER because no one should be alone in a storm. My heart sank as I saw Oma stretched out on the gurney and the man who had been her husband for over six decades was pacing and perturbed and clearly paled by his powerless to protect her.  The energy in the room told me this foreboding squall was not going to blow over quickly.

Yes, it was dire. And Oma was done. She was begging us to let her go this time… to find a way to end her suffering.  She was pleading with me … with us … in barely discernible whispers to“please” make it stop.  It had been too long.  She’d spent too many fractured years bravely overcoming one hurdle only to find herself promptly propped up against another one.  It was clear that she was not one bit interested in soldiering on through the pain of helplessness and subsequent hopelessness that she had so long been feeling.  She wanted it to be over.

I had seen her flirting with defeat before … but never like this. For many years prior to my arrival in the Lanser family some 40 years ago, Oma had already been an “invalid” (her term, not mine) … she could not brush her own hair or cut her own meat or wipe her own bottom.  And aside from lamenting that “It’s always something”… she really didn’t much complain. We knew she had her bad days, but I was invariably inspired by her attitude and the good-natured grace from which she courageously coped with her discouraging decline and undeniable debilitation.  And, I bore witness to the depth of her determination as she willed herself to persevere and to endure the surgeries and the long and tedious recoveries and the endless hours in physiotherapy in hopes that she could optimize her mobility and/or, at the very least, retain what little autonomy she still had left.  She laboured so hard physically and I intuitively knew she had to work just as hard psychologically to ensure those gloomy daily battles didn’t take her down emotionally.

But in the ER on that particular day … it was clearly all too much.   She wanted it to stop and begged us to spare her of more misery. When Opa’s eyes met mine, I could see him uncomfortably scouring his soul … how he could ever even consider letting her go? My heart ached deeply for both of them.

When the physician finally arrived into assess her condition … Oma compliantly shifted into ‘good’ patient mode and tried with muffled effort to answer the doctor’s questions. I had to help translate because she has a strong Dutch accent and was slipping in and out of English.  At one point, she offered a half-hearted smile in response to the something soothing that the doctor said and eventually she mustered enough strength to defeatedly but clearly declare, “I don’t want to be here.” The doctor was kind and caring and thought Oma meant she didn’t want to be ‘here’ in the hospital … not realizing she actually meant not ‘here’ in her life.  When the doctor compassionately responded that she’d try to get her “out of here” as soon as possible, the floodgates opened. She didn’t want to go home, she wanted to go HOME. Her suffering cascaded down her cheeks in torrents of anguish.  And although it was absolutely agonizing to see her in such a state of despair, I was not prepared for happened next.  As soon as the doctor had left, Opa leaned in toward Oma and told her with a very stern and almost scolding tone: “You had a smile for the doctor. You can have one for us.”

I was stunned.  Whatttt? I could not even fathom what I was hearing.  It took me a minute to recover and recognize that this was Opa’s own angst and terror talking. He was entirely overwhelmed himself and couldn’t bear to witness the weight of her woundedness.  He needed a reprieve … even if it was at her expense.  And so he took it the only way he knew how … he ordered it.

And with his words … I watched her eyes become vacant and a solemn stare washed over her face. She then closed her eyes while she obediently retrieved any and all expression of her agony and she buried it somewhere deep inside her.  She lost her tears and became stoic, stalwart and completely silent.  I stood there, dumbfounded by the depths of sheer despair I could hear screaming out despite her sobered silence.  And I sensed from her rapid response to his request that this was not the first time she had been required to put her pain away … to keep it out of sight.

And I understood, in that very telling exchange, that part of her survival story was to repress whatever she sensed was not welcome to express.  Oma had learned to silence her suffering in order to spare others. There was a time to stop feeling sad and find a smile instead. AND, in the transparency of that blatant shushing of my ‘invalid’ mother-in-law … her pain was  rendered absolutely ‘in-valid’.

I instantly felt appalled and ashamed that for all these years I, too, had unwittingly perpetuated this discounting of her despair by applauding her admirable attitude.  I had misinterpreted her smiles as strength. I saw them as an absence of suffering … rather than a stoic and stalwart silencing of it.  It sickened me to the core of my being.

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Though not a word was spoken … the dissonance was deafening.  It was all too obvious to me now. What we were seeing on her outsides was not necessarily what she was feeling on her insides. This reckoning stirred up something deep in my soul that resonated with the pain of betraying one’s inner truth. How had I been so obtuse?  How could I not see in her what was all too familiar to me?  How had I missed this for so long??  I, too, had learned long, long ago how to muzzle my misery and quietly repress any wounding, pain or hurt that I was experiencing. Phewwwww.

In one sense I knew that I had been doing it, but like the twist of a kaleidoscope … I was seeing the same pieces of my life through different eyes.  A new picture was emerging that left me squirming uncomfortably. Seeing a ‘silencing’ so blatantly imposed upon someone else brought forth a recognition that I had been covertly but completely complicit in a lifetime of dismissing my own heartache … silencing my own pain … and pretending everything was ‘fine’ when it wasn’t. And, sadly, I had become really good at it.

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And once you ‘see’ something, you can’t not see it anymore! Like rocks in a landslide colliding within my consciousness, I was instantaneously bombarded with memories of moments where, time and time again, I had forced myself for various reasons to also suffer in silence. I was so grievously saddened as I started sifting through all the evidence my heart had been holding. It became all to apparent that, over the years, I had morphed into a most magnificent martyr.

I could see as a child, how I deliberately silenced my pain in order to spare myself the shame … my alcoholic father, my mother’s multiple medical issues and diagnosis of manic-depression (Bipolar) … her subsequent addiction/abuse of prescription drugs … her stays in the psyche ward … their divorce … my time in foster care … the neglect and lack of nurture … the feelings of abandonment … the deep desire to ‘fit in’ to something you could be proud of … the longing to feel appreciated and approved of and maybe even respected.  And so … as a child, I opted to put a smile on my face and pretend everything was fine.  I have spoken to this more fully in a previous blog.  My pain was fully and completely silenced … even from myself … for many, many years until it was innocently and unexpectedly awakened in a mother’s group I was attending after we had children. You can read more about that here.

And so … about motherhood. For me, it was another long season of  harsh and heartless silencing.  I learned that what I really wanted to acknowledge was not culturally appropriate. New mothers are not supposed to discuss how horribly hard it can be to give your life over to a child.  Apparently, it was the best time of my life and it was going to go by so quickly that I should longingly adore it all completely. Every. Single. Moment.  I feel compelled in this moment to reassure all of you that I truly feel blessed to have been a mother. I absolutely do. From my humble perspective, motherhood is not a binary experience … it’s not good or bad … it’s not an either/or, but rather … it is an integrated both/and.   From where I am looking, it’s the ultimate in both agony and ecstasy.  I deeply cherish my opportunity to be a mother and the years did indeed fly by … but some of those days were the longest and most demanding in my whole life.

You see, I have been married for 39 years to an old fashioned, traditional, hard-working male … and from the generation from which he was looking,  parenting was “women’s work.”  I had no mom, mom-in-law or sisters to lean on, so I was in the trenches alone. There was no real interest in sharing the load because, at the time, I don’t think he actually believed it was a load or even work for that matter.  He erroneously assumed that because I ‘got’ to stay home, he was the only one working. He realizes now that he was the only one being paid for his work, but back then my efforts to explain my discontent were often met with quizzical looks and/or discomfort and/or frustration and/or a deaf ear.  And from what I could tell, other women seemed to be content with this binary set up. So, I learned to silence my grrrrrrrrrr.  Aside from one other friend and confidant, I had no where safe to put that conversation, so I buried my pain and put a smile on my face.  I acted like nothing was wrong, pretended that it was all perfect and soldiered on.  And, I hid it all so masterfully, that no one else was the wiser about how deeply fractured I felt or how deeply alone and unsupported I really felt in the parenting arena.

And it made matters worse that we had moved to my husband’s home town  … a very small, rural town so he could go back to farming.   I had reasoned with myself that I could be a wife and mother anywhere. I clearly had no effing clue just how arduous that would actually end up being.  But I couldn’t let myself complain … because I had willingly agreed to go and didn’t want him to feel guilty.  No one had told me, though, that the good and kind people who live in a small town already have their circles of belonging.  They don’t need to make friends with the new girl. They are more likely to gossip about her long blonde hair and her jewelry and her eye-liner than invite her for coffee.

I could not have been prepared for how my cosmopolitan roots were going to generate so much ostracism. Unfortunately, I’ve got oodles of examples to draw from … but the worst of it was probably when my mom died at Christmas in 1989 (almost a decade after we moved to that little town). I had deliberately silenced my grief in my home because I didn’t want to worry my daughters by crying in front of them. So, I took my pain for some long walks around town thinking I could hide the torrents of my tears behind my sunglasses.  I learned later that I had been nicknamed “crystal ass” … and then … my daughter came home one day and said her friend’s mom had declared I was a “slut.” Oooouch.

Apparently they determined I was “pedaling my ass around town.”  It was agonizing to be so misunderstood. I got self-righteous and brave one day and tried to address it with one of them.  Let’s just say it didn’t go well.  I suspected I was just making it worse so I downplayed how deeply isolating and hurtful my experience had been. I pretended everything was fine … even though I ached to put a huge sign up on the post office bulletin board … calling them out name by name by name … and … telling them all to shove their mean-spirited judgments right up their own miserable asses.  But …  I didn’t.

It became clear that taking a sanctimonious shot at any of them would not have served the greatest good in the situation. And so I hid all my pain again.  I was am a master at it.  I have been practicing my hiding since I was a wee child. I wonder, though, how often I looked like Oma did when I, too, lost my tears, retrieved all expressions of my pain, buried them deep down inside and pasted a strong and convincing smile on my face instead.  I’d gotten so damn good at repressing my hurt by then that I am sure people believed my sunny disposition was an honest reflection of my idyllic life.  Eventually, I did make some very good friends … and for them I am eternally grateful, but I’m guessing very few, if any of them, had any real clue about the deep ache in my heart.

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And I do look happy. Even to this day, I think most people believe my life is filled with clear blue skies, bright sunshine and lots of lollipops. I’m guessing that is so because it is really quite rare for people to sincerely inquire “How are you doing?” In their defense though, why would they ask … I always look like I AM just fine. And so, for the most part, people tend to connect with me when they need to lean in … when they need support.  And, I am so deeply honored to be invited into people’s hearts (both personally and professionally) and trusted with the most fragile parts of their souls.  It is both my most passionate pursuit in life and my most nourishing purpose. So, please, please, please don’t get me wrong here … I treasure the opportunity to be of service but I’d also like to feel people’s efforts to connect with me are sparked by their affection and interest in me, not just their need of me.

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And, I’d be remiss without sharing that I’ve also felt the need to stifle all the embarrassment I feel for being such a ‘fun sucker.’ It’s always been a challenge for me to simply ‘let loose’ with my husband and our girls and my grandchildren. As I shared in a prior post:

The shame and neglect of my early years has shaped my overly ‘anxious mind’ and unfortunately, it takes a whole schwack of energy to manage the various worries, uncertainties, reservations , doubts, qualms and fears that persistently and unpredictably pop into my awareness.  When uttered in the past, my husband would shake his head in stunned disbelief as my neurotic ramblings effectively sucked any potential for joy out of the moment.  Pretty soon, I just quit sharing them out loud …

The anxious mind is so bewildering for people to comprehend.  It’s not rational at all.  Not even to me. So how could it make any logical sense to others?  How I wish I could just “relax and have fun” within the cacophony of noise and chaos and dangers that my highly sensitive spirit and highly-kindled brain is on high alert for when the house is filled with of all of us. It sounds so reasonable … and yet … is always a struggle for me. So I do my best to manage my jacked-up amygdala and try not to suck all the fun out of the space when the alarm bells are going off unnecessarily in my head.

I know I have chosen to silence myself on many occasions because I truly am a “Highly Sensitive Person” I am acutely aware of the energy in a room.  I can sense when people are hurting and then I worry that maybe I have done something to upset them.  Gah.  It’s tough, because I do not wish to harm anyone with my words, thought or deeds. If it would seem that my perspective would be uncomfortable or unwelcome in a situation, I have often muzzled myself. While I will introduce ‘hard conversations’ in the counselling room or the coaching domain, I refrain from doing so in my personal world without an invitation.  And it would be completely outside my character to publicly unleash any un-tempered anger … even when doing so would protect me from victimization. I can think of at least three times that has happened in my professional career. Arghhhhh.

It does not escape me that there comes a time when protecting others becomes injurious to oneself. And yet, I am forever checking whether the things I am about to say  would improve on the silence.  Is what I need to say kind, true, necessary or helpful?  If not, I have voluntarily silenced myself on many occasions when I actually have had a whole lot I could say!!  And it can often be at great expense to myself that I will stifle a whole conversation because I just don’t want to hurt others. I’ve even considered deleting parts of this blog because I worry that I have cast some of my loved ones in a bad light. All the second guessing is brutal … and … prickly … and … sometimes excruciating.

And so …  in that split second … in that ER room with my precious in-laws … I had some clear insight into the unhealthy nature of the patterns that have been chronically, quietly and subconsciously running my life.  The truth is that I have resisted giving myself permission to bleed in public … it’s seems way too risky. In fact, the more I am hurting, the quieter I will usually get.  It’s become a habit … not always adaptive.  I am far more willing  to discuss my pain once it’s been healed and the lesson from my wounding might be of service to another . Yes. I am more comfortable speaking from the scar.  It just feels so much safer … so much tidier.

However, I am sensing that I need to change this because it is not working all that well for me anymore.  I think a part of me has always known I need to change this, but I have effectively silenced that awareness too.  It seems so very scary to stand before someone … naked in your pain-filled truths … before there is enough scar tissue to protect you.  I’m not yet great with vulnerability.

But … I keep getting nudges from the Universe telling me I don’t have to keep suffering in silence.  Maybe I don’t have to keep doing the hard parts alone. Maybe I shouldn’t expect myself to weather the storms alone any more than I expect Oma should go through them alone. I certainly don’t expect my clients to do that. I don’t expect my friends or children to do that either. Maybe I need to start giving to myself what I most love to give to others … a soft, compassionate and safe place to bleed … a tender touch on an open wound … a safe place to heal the pain. I hope I can be brave enough to keep doing this because I still have some things to say … some things that still have tears attached to them. Yes. There is more to work through.

And so, if you are still here reading … after I have taken up so much of your time with this very long 3550+ word oration  … thank you for staying with me … thank you for not ducking out because I have been so incredibly long winded … thank you for holding a safe space for me,  Karen

P.S. My mother-in-law survived that storm on that particular day … and since then … has gone on to endure many more.  Sadly, she and Opa are struggling once again.  We are hoping they will soon find themselves enjoying fairer weather.  Cross your fingers for them okay?

P.P.S. Oma did not survive that last storm. She left this physical plane on October 9, 2016. We honor her strength and cherish memories of our times together.

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