What I learned in therapy Lesson 5 – The relationship of love and pain
This is lesson five of what I learned in therapy: Pain is not a part of love, love is the answer to pain.
This lesson actually came later in my healing and my work with the Boundary Ninja. I’m writing about it now as it’s been a subject that has been both coming up in a lot of conversations I’ve had lately and because I am learning to experience it as a lived truth. If forced to choose, I think I would pick this understanding as the most powerful that I learned in therapy. It is also extremely difficult to explain because at its heart is a mystery that lives at the heart of our existence. It’s not so much a truth that you understand, as much as you learn to accept.
I hit a point in my therapy where I had come to terms with the losses of my childhood, I understood that I wouldn’t be able to completely eradicate the effects of my childhood but that I was becoming better and faster at dealing with the fall out such that it no longer interfered with my living a full life as much as it had previously. I was feeling more secure with the Boundary Ninja, going longer without contact, and probably the most significant, was able to see that I really was functioning much better.
For example, I hit a week during which both my husband and I were working OT but since my hours weren’t as bad as his, I was mainly in charge of the house. I managed to work through the week, keep the house in good shape, I had prepared meals the weekend before, so we ate pretty well. At the end of the week, I had to take my younger daughter for her permit, was running my other daughter hither and you, ended up having to remove a tick from one daughter, and in the middle of all that our dishwasher started to leak across my kitchen floor. I started to go into my normal meltdown of “this is too overwhelming, I can’t handle it” which usually precedes me freezing up. But this time I was able to recognize that the feeling of being overwhelmed and not being able to cope was a memory from childhood. That although things were stressful, I am a reasonably competent woman and could handle it. And I did all that without contacting the BN. We had one of those rare but wonderful “hey, look how far I’ve come” sessions.
Having my growth and progress affirmed by the BN, got me wondering if it was time to leave therapy (a favorite obsession of mine for lo, these many years; eventually I figured it out). But as soon as I started contemplating leaving, I would get overwhelmed at the thought of leaving the BN. I started circling between feeling like I was doing so well, that things had really changed and I was ready to go out on my own, then slamming into the boundaries and experiencing such intense longings, of wanting more in the relationship that the boundaries would allow. And oddly enough, I couldn’t figure out what that “more” was. The more I tried to figure out what it was I really wanted, beyond knowing I couldn’t have anything but therapy, the more confused I got. The truth was that the longings from the past and the longings here in the present seemed to be inextricably intertwined and so were almost impossible to separate or understand. I had been assuming that as I worked through my grief over the losses in my past, I would also work through all my feelings about the BN, and stop wanting anything beyond therapy. That as I grieved, not only would it heal the loss, it would “heal” the feelings I had for him.
But part of what was sinking in was that I finally felt safe loving the BN (I very much use the word in a paternal, trusting sense rather than a romantic/erotic sense, although I had those feelings also). That feeling loving toward him, allowing him to matter deeply to me, to accept the reality of the relationship was safe. Which ran counter to all the lessons of my childhood.
But even as I realized this, I was also grappling with knowing the relationship would have to end someday and being scared of how painful I knew that ending would be. Which brought me face to face with my very deep belief that to know love, to know intimacy, to know comfort is to also open yourself to pain. So what was the point? Why do something, and allow it to mean anything to you, knowing that inevitably, you would be in pain? I realized that to love the BN, to accept that I needed him felt like I also needed to accept that I would be hurt by him. But then I would circle around again to the fact that he also provided joy, comfort, understanding, healing and reassurance. To avoid the pain was to also avoid receiving the good. So there I was, face to face with all that I had lost by not letting myself feel safe enough to truly love someone. I grieved for that shutting down.
Recognizing that grief made me realize that I was not yet ready to give up this relationship or to leave it. Whatever this “weird duck” of a relationship is that we call therapy, I wanted to keep it for a while longer. I remembered BN’s promise – made not long after we started individual work together -that he would never ask me to leave, that I was welcome to come as long as I wanted to. Thinking about leaving got so scary, that I ended up making an emergency call to the BN. He called me back and was very warm and reassuring. I explained about feeling safe in loving him but knowing how well I was handling the grief felt like I was close to being done. But that thinking about the end was so scary and painful that I realized I wasn’t ready to leave so I was calling for reassurance that it really was my choice when to leave and that I could stay until I was ready to go. He very gently told me that absolutely, it was my choice and completely up to me. As I started to think about it, I ramped up really quickly, then stopped myself and said “I really don’t have to deal with this until I feel ready to face it.” The BN told me that was true, that it was ok however long it took me and he understood why I had needed to call him and hear him say it again. (One of his strongest gifts was his ability to normalize what I was doing so that I didn’t feel quite so much like a total freak. :))
When I ended that call, I actually ended up quite distressed. Every time I went to him for reassurance and he responded so perfectly, made it that much harder to leave him. Sometimes, I could get furious at him for being so wonderful. Best I can figure, I entered the bargaining stage of grief and started trying to figure out some way to keep this relationship. As I struggled with these feelings, it felt as if I was groping after something elusive, some understanding that was dancing just beyond my reach, eluding my grasp and my understanding while at the same time, that looking directly upon that truth would be to destroy it.
When I reached a point of not being able to articulate what I was feeling, I would turn to poetry to try to explain the inexplicable. So I ended up writing a poem, which I include below. Just a side note, I don’t think this is particularly good poetry but it did turn out to be good therapeutic material. 🙂
I love, yet love in fear
Feeling long sought safety, I flee from the greater pain to come
But love does not follow,
Holding fast, securing ground
To flee from pain is to leave love behind
Receding ever further, more distant, more faint
I turn back to see pain barring the way
Poised on a knife-edge,
To go back to love holding fast is to pass through pain
To return, I must accept its presence
Pain walks beside me as love, and life, draw me back
Standing with love, I find the strength to be pain’s companion
Only to learn that pain is love’s handmaiden
Acceptance dances just out of reach
elusive, ephemeral, refusing to be grasped
Shall I leave both love and pain behind?
Or find stillness, that acceptance may find a place to alight?
I ended up emailing the poem to the BN and asking him to read it so we could discuss it at my next session. I was pretty scared heading down to that session. The BN was pretty cheerful that day and when I told him I was feeling scared, he asked me what I was scared about? I told him that I needed to talk to him (again!) about my feelings for him and that was really uncomfortable. At least for me, he never seemed to get uncomfortable about it. 🙂 I told him I was having a difficult time figuring out how I felt, which made it even scarier because I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I told him about realizing that it was safe to love him, that it wasn’t a trap. But that there were still longings for something beyond therapy, but they weren’t going away the way I expected as I worked through my grief. That I had been assuming that ALL my feelings were about transference, but know I was grappling with the fact that some of these feelings were real and weren’t going to go away. That I was trying really hard to find a place of acceptance but couldn’t seem to find one.
He had a printout of the poem with him and it quickly became obvious that he had read it and had been thinking deeply about it. He centered in on the line “pain is love’s handmaiden” and told me that he had realized that I had a deep belief that pain is an integral part of love. But that the truth is that pain is an integral part of life, all human beings experience pain. Love is the answer and solution to that pain. That when we find ourselves in pain, we move toward connection, because it is in experiencing being loved that we can bear the pain. He actually used being born as an example. That we can’t really know what a baby is feeling, but that they go from a place of warmth, and security where all their needs are met and are thrust out into the cold. That a newborn cries out in distress at this sudden change and when that happens, they are picked up and swaddled and then drawn in to a comforting warm embrace, with another human being working to sooth them.
And there it was, he had identified the point of my deepest loss. That when I was in pain, it was caused by the person that was supposed to love and protect me. So instead of love being a solution, love and pain were horribly mixed in together. There had been no one to pull me in, to comfort and soothe me. This was the center of my grief. It’s why I wanted so badly for the BN to provide things beyond the bounds of therapy. I was in pain and wanted to move towards him to be comforted in the way a child is comforted. To be told he loved me, that he thinks I am special, that I am important to him, that he will protect me no matter the cost, that I am beautiful to him, and that I am delightful to him. Which I realized was really the list of what I had longed for from my father.
During that session, the BN asked me what would happen if I allowed myself to experience the longing? I didn’t have an answer for him (OK, what was running through my head was “WTF? I’ll be in pain, you rat bastard! Aren’t you listening to me? Do you WANT me to be in pain?!” but I decided to keep that to myself at the time. :)) He left to go on vacation and that question haunted me while he was gone. It finally hit me that what we was really saying to me was that instead of fighting how I was feeling, what would it be like to let the feelings in and see what they said. When I realized that, I ended up doing a lot of writing in my journal and talking to a few close friends, and I finally realized what was going on.
If I allowed myself to move closer to someone, then the longings for what I didn’t get as child were awoken. So I was allowing myself to move closer to the BN, allowing myself to realize how important he was to me, but that was evoking all the unfulfilled longings. Many of which were now impossible to fulfill, so there was an enormous amount of grief and loss associated with them.
I had tried the solution of never allowing myself to get close to anyone but although I hated myself for it, I couldn’t completely shut down my own needs that could only be met by another person. So plan B was to move closer, but stay far enough away that the longings would lie dormant. I realized I had spent my whole life looking for that optimal distance which would protect me both from my loneliness and my longings, but such a place does not exist. To love and know I am loved evoked these painful feelings.
I finally accepted that I was not wrong to have those longings as child. They were normal and healthy. I was not wrong to have those longings in my relationship with the BN, they were my continued attempt to get my needs met. This was the reason that the BN was NOT uncomfortable about my feelings for him, he understood their source and what was driving the intensity. It wasn’t that I was some crazed, nut job stalker; I was dealing with life and death imperatives from a very young age.
So the reality was that I had a very real relationship with BN, one in which it was safe to love and feel loved and to experience a deep intimacy. Which was exactly why all these confusing feelings were coming up. But the solution to them was not going to be that the BN would do all those things for me and run over his boundaries. The boundaries would stay intact to keep me safe. BUT, this was the point at which I could apply my new understanding that love is the answer to pain. No, the BN could not fulfill the longings and make the pain and loss not have been. But he could stay and help me with the feelings, provide understanding and care, hear my grief and soothe my pain. It was through this loving relationship that I would find the strength to face my grief and allow my mourning to heal me.
No matter how much someone loves us or how good the relationship is , we WILL get hurt in relationship, because the person, being human, will fail us, or life will get in the way or both. BUT, by being IN relationship, we also receive love, comfort, understanding and acceptance, which are all the things that give us the strength to face the pain. Safety does not lie in never getting hurt, it lies in knowing that we can endure the hurt and that the hurt will pass and we’ll know joy again. That pain isn’t all there is. When we didn’t receive what we needed as kids, it’s REALLY hard if not impossible to believe that. That’s why healing can be so confusing and difficult. Life hurts, which sucks, but better to accept it in order to also experience that life can be beautiful and also contain piercing joy. Neither happen all the time.
In my work on the phone line, I have started to really live this truth. To understand that being available to listen, to understand, to simply provide a safe place for a hurting person to express their feelings seems like so little to do. You have to fight the feeling that it is inadequate in the face of the pain that people bring. But here is one of the mysteries at the heart of being human. I don’t know why it has the effect that it does, I do not understand the process, but I understand the process works. I have lived it from both sides. There is something about being heard and understood, about knowing you matter to another human being that opens you to healing. Our connections with each other open the space into which love can flow, the infinite source of love that heals. It is a wonder and a privilege to watch it happen. Understanding the real role of love was key to my healing and now is the key to living a full life. Yes I will be hurt, but there will always be love in answer to that pain.
“Here is the mystery that is holding the stars apart, I carry your heart, I carry it in my heart.” EE Cummings
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