My body hurts. Whispers of new pain have slowly surfaced over the last ten months. Aches and twangs in my neck, a tingling in my shoulders, and an unusual kind of twisting in my spine that has affected my hips.
Yet, of course I am in pain; my son has been sick this past while, and I’m his mum. It seems my body has quietly been soaking up the trauma and sadness, burying it inside, kindly allowing my mind the space it needed to get on with getting on. And there has been a lot to get on with. Hospital stays, doctors meetings, multiple surgeries. Keeping vigil. Witnessing. Helping my brave boy shoulder some of the shock of a surprise diagnosis and its consequences. Trying to make sense of a world when a young, fit, gorgeous man can have his life turned upside down out of nowhere. Carrying on with life nonetheless. Having him living back at home. No time to feel it.
The crisis is over currently - thankfully - and he is back at work, well enough, travelling the road back to himself. It's only now these shouldering shoulders are starting to ache. The pain in my heart has travelled out as a tightness in my back; rivers of tension pulsing down my spine. The choked back tears are rising up from my chest into my throat. When my body is held or deeply massaged, it sobs. I am deeply, deeply tired. I am hurting.
When I put my ‘health psychologist’ hat on, I know that this is inevitable. We are wired to feel the pain of others, and in particular the pain of people we love. We have mirror neurons dedicated to feel in our own brains and bodies what others are feeling. Yet as human beings we do not have an inexhaustible capacity to feel this kind of pain for too long. We must also take care of ourselves. But when the stress goes on and on, when it becomes too much, we become fatigued. Or maybe we stash it away to deal with it later. This is, of course, familiar territory for me. It’s what I teach!
Most of the time, I really do take my own medicine; I practise yoga, I meditate, I have some good support, some wonderful teachers, and I am pretty kind to myself. Self-compassion is my daily practise. I know how to do this. So what’s going on? Perhaps this is more than caregiving - or empathy – fatigue. It feels a visceral, physical pain that goes deep into my bones. It feels like vicarious trauma, perhaps from watching my boy’s body being hurt, being cut, from watching him in horrid pain. Perhaps from a number of other difficult things that were happening at the same time. I didn’t think I could bear it, yet bear it we must. My dear body held the overflow, titrating the shock(s) bit by bit, until the time was right and I had the space to feel it. I thought I was doing fine. Turns out there is more work to do; the only way through is through. And even as I feel it for myself, I am still aching for him, I wish to take it all away from him. Yet I know I can't; this is his journey.
What I can do is to go very slowly now, to take things as ease-fully as I need. I can keep myself company on the journey, I can wrap myself up in the grace of time and space. It's not just ‘yin’ self-compassion that I most need right now (the soothing, validating, nurturing quality of self-kindness). It’s time also for some “yang”, for fierce self-compassion; for some new boundaries and clarity. For a clearer and more powerful“no” to demands and requests I no longer choose. I need to turn up the power. It’s time for a whole lot more fun. Life is getting shorter by the day.
No more teaching workshops this year, no more new clients, no more saying “yes” when I would rather say“no”. It’s time to shut up shop. It’s time to create more space. I know I will be back out there in the world at some point. But just right now, this body has my full permission to stop. I am resting, I am closing the doors. I am curling into a ball, and I will sleep.