A Healthy Stepmother . . . on the cycle of pain and comfort.

The research on chronic pain is exploding with new ways to manage long-term pain without prescriptions of life-destroying pharmaceuticals. Because being a stepmother spans decades, we might consider applying some of these strategies to our situation.

In one scenario, pain is localized to one particular focal point, but the interwoven nerve endings are sensitized to notice what is going on in another area. It’s much like the sensitivity many of us bring to the emotional state of others in our families. It’s as if we have radar and can pick up the smallest uncomfortable moment or anxiety or anger or any other reaction. We know when our husbands are in pain, we know when they are distressed. Even though they tell us nothing is wrong, we know there’s something up.

Sigh. Often the stepmother is the one who verbalizes the pain, but it’s her husband who is feeling it. She might not even know she’s doing this, but I’m beginning to think this is more common than I originally thought. I wonder how much indignation comes from a stepmother witnessing the significant pain her spouse is enduring.

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in R...

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in René Descartes’ Traite de l’homme (Treatise of Man) 1664. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently accompanied my mother-in-law to a pain clinic where they systematically reviewed her pain response and experimented with different courses of treatment. As they began to peel away the layers and she found relief, they discovered an old, old, old injury on her low back that had been untreated for decades. She’s getting better and her pain levels have dropped dramatically.

One of the things I recall the nurse practitioner telling her was that they needed to teach her brain some new calming strategies. She needed to learn new reactions to pain, rather than the old anxiety reactions and alarm that pushed her into big adrenalin releases into her blood stream which in turn created havoc in her mental state.

I don’t think she was very impressed in the beginning. Talking wasn’t a familiar process for her, in her generation a person just pushed on through the difficulty, it’s how she got injured. Acupuncture was a little more familiar for her and she willingly tried that. She had massage and therapy in a warm water pool. As she got treatment for the actual problem, her overall pain response began to diminish, so that now she can tell exactly where the pain comes from. And, now she has ways to work with her reaction to the pain. Rather than tense up everywhere, she takes a bath and calms her nervous system. She lies on the floor and lets her muscles relax.

We stepmothers can borrow those strategies. We can teach ourselves a new reaction. We can begin to notice when we tense in reaction to painful emotional experiences and calm ourselves so the pain doesn’t spread like wildfire. If we get to the calming early before the pain is so loud and strong it causes us to think we’ll be consumed, we have a better quality of life ahead.

We can learn to calm by paying attention to the signals from our body. When we notice ourselves holding the breath, we let it out and take in another and keep on in that way. When we notice we’re tense, we let our hands loosen and our eyes open so we’re not squinting and we let our face soften and our tongue quit pressing so hard against the roof of our mouth. Basically, we unanchor. We still keep our feet on the ground, in fact, we want to rely even more on our feet on the ground or our butt on the chair. We keep track of where we are in space and we let everything else be less ready for defense.

By softening and unanchoring, we can actually get more prepared for whatever it is we need to do. We can lean toward this person in support of what he is saying, or leave the room because we need a momentary break, or walk back in and find the ground so we can stand in the space listening to words that don’t match our feelings.

In those less anxious, calmer, less painful observation states, we have a better chance of staying connected to our important people and a better chance of feeling like we’re okay, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

And, ultimately, each moment we spend in that unanchored, tongue not pressing, breath not holding, face not scrunched posture is another moment added to the collective pool of experience in knowing how to remain calm. The calm pool is the place we can return to over and over and over to remind ourselves how to recover from difficult interactions. The calm pool is a place we go to restore and rejuvenate.

It’s not that we’ll live in the calm pool every moment, that would be a rather zombie-esque life. But, the calm pool will help us become familiar with returning to an equilibrium or homeostasis throughout the physical self. When the calm is as easy to access as the anxious or worried response, we’ll find it easy to return to an emotional equilibrium.

That’s what is happening for my mother-in-law. A little pain is her signal to rest and calm. Fatigue doesn’t push her into anxiety for the bigger pain that might come. She’s getting stronger, she can walk farther, and she’s made some new friends.

We can do that too. We can build new reactions to these long-standing pains that will be with us the rest of our lives. We can learn to let go and enjoy the roller coaster that is this delicious life we’ve got an opportunity to enjoy.

Hey, let’s meet up in the calm pool.

Enhanced by Zemanta

A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks with her vulnerability.

“I really don’t have any big issues up in my life right now.” I proclaimed to my women’s group as we discussed the focus of our group that day.

Not an hour later, I shook with tears and the other women in the group waited respectfully for me to say more about what was happening for me. I never did articulate what was lying underneath the pain of that moment.

Reflecting later, I realized the emotion of digging down into the stories for the book I’m working on, the emotion of getting together with a couple of family members after 12 years of not, my concerns about the plight of so many around the globe, and a week of crummy sleep had all contributed to my vulnerable moment.

My protestations that nothing was wrong were the old, dusty habits of a lifetime of saying that things were fine. The old story was that I was able to take care of myself, thank you very much. For decades, I’d been reinforced for not needing emotional support and I’d been taught to keep busy and get things done.

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting cryi...

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting crying (first part of apparition). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The experience of sitting with women who didn’t flinch or rush me to wrap up my story compares with no other experience of being listened to. In fact, they simply waited and eventually we came to a moment when we sensed that the emotions had calmed enough that we could wrap up, including their emotions that had arisen from seeing my big emotion. What was most important is that they did not see me as the emotion. They know me and so they waited with me until the emotional moment had passed.

What if a stepmother had space like that to be vulnerable. What if someone would sit with her, quietly, and wait for the emotion to pass? Not a rushed waiting, as when will this be over, but a patient, hands folded, gazing near her but not staring at her, and simply breathing into the room together. That was the gift my friends gave me. They didn’t rush to me to take it away and make it okay, they simply waited, with me.

I’ve been practicing for years letting the tears come when I hear someone say to not take it so personally, or to just push on through, or to wait until the kids are grown, or that’s just the way teenagers are. Or a million other things that people say when they don’t really want to deal with a stepmother’s vulnerability. It takes practice to let tears out privately, but eventually it’s easier to let them go in front of others. I think that’s why I was able to cry with my friends.

I’m learning to be vulnerable and to share my tender moments. Crying in the company of others is my new thing to practice, my new moment to know that if what I’m saying will bring me to tears, there’s some truth in it. In fact, I feel an urgency to let out the years of not saying how I felt in the moment. The role models I’ve had were women who’ve either suppressed their tears into stony silence or held them in for so long they came bursting out in a panic attack. It seems there’s something in between. As if the measure of my mental health is directly related to the ability to feel, process, and welcome the next emotion easily and smoothly, just like I change positions on a chair.

In fact, the way the Dalai Lama shows emotion is my model. I’ve read that as he’s in conversation with someone, he can go from deep concern for the story he’s listening to and in the next moment be laughing with tears running down his eyes, or crying because there is such sadness.

Rather than clinging to the masks of okay-ness, I’m ready to let the emotion be what is on my face. Rather than using anger as the medium to justify letting my feelings of pain into the space between me and someone else, I’m going to bypass the anger and just get to the simpler emotion.

The vulnerable moment can be as familiar and easy to navigate as the joyous one, the comfortable one, or the sorrowful one. Most of us are not used to showing our vulnerability and will do anything and everything to avoid it.

Bring on tears rolling down cheeks. Bring on fluidity of emotion and not holding things in until I burst. Bring on good emotional posture, the going in any direction with feelings, at any time, and without a lot of fuss.

Cry, laugh, frown, snort, cluck, sputter, shout, sing, and smile your feelings. I’m right there with you.

Enhanced by Zemanta