I’m reading Tattoos on the Heart, subtitled The Power of Boundless Compassion. The author, Father Greg Boyle, tells about his work with “homies” (kids from the gangs) in the worst section of L.A. “Empowerment rests in returning folks to themselves, to the very truth of who they are. Gang members (and everyone, to that matter) are surprised to discover that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them. To discover that God is too busy loving them to be disappointed is life changing. But there is work to be done besides — to engage in attachment repair, healing, collating of resilience, and the largest task of all: to redefine who you are now in the world. All these constitute the empowering work a homie must undertake to be free and clear. This is no small endeavor.” This is in the interview with Father Greg at the end of the book.
This work can’t happen in a vacuum, or be learned from a book. It requires that there be a human being who can love you enough that your life can change in the ways that Father Greg describes. Reading about these kids, whose parents were drug addicted, or abusive, or disappeared, or killed themselves, or all of the above, makes me feel ashamed. After all, I grew up in wealth, my family were “upper class,” I went to an Ivy League college and graduated with honors — I could have had a lucrative career or married and had children. Instead I stumbled around, trying to learn social skills, trying to find a man who would love me, having lots of painful and destructive relationships, more than one breakdown. I thought I was a defective person and hoped therapy would fix me. I’ve been in therapy almost all my life. Certainly continuously for the last 20 years of my life. My parents were alcoholics, and I didn’t learn how that damaged their children until I was 42. I did not understand that I had been traumatized in infancy until I read Peter Levine’s book on trauma, Waking the Tiger, where he says that an infant can be traumatized by being left alone in a cold room. p49 When I read the chapter on hypervigilance, I went into a hypervigilance spiral that I experienced as “terror through the roof.” p155 In the book it warns you that if you are triggered by something in the book, stop reading and find a Somatic Experiencing practitioner. So I did.
I’ve worked with Somatic Experiencing, with five different practitioners. It helped a lot, and part of my healing was learning about the physiology of trauma. Now I am working with a new therapist, who deals with both trauma and attachment issues, which means the core experience of attaching to your caretaker at the very beginning. Without this, your life has no foundation. So you stumble around, trying to figure out how to live. I was fortunate in being intelligent and going to good schools. My intellect was engaged, supported, and rewarded. Unlike at home, the assignments were clear and grades provided clear feedback. So my intellect developed in a healthy way, and has given me a powerful tool to help me figure out how to live. Unfortunately, as I learned very quickly, there are lots of difficulties that intelligence can’t help with.
As Father Greg says, the work to be done is “to engage in attachment repair, healing, collating of resilience, and the largest task of all: to redefine who you are now in the world. … this is no small endeavor.” I have to engage in the same work as the homies. So far my life has lacked a “Father Greg” — someone who is so loving that they would get through my defenses against taking in anything from outside. Father Greg describes this as someone who “through their kindness, tenderness, and focused, attentive love return folks to themselves.” p192
This describes my new therapist, and she works in a different way than anyone else has. She responds to me actively, and she gives me careful, minute and accurate feedback of a kind I’ve never gotten. She describes what my face looks like or what my voice sounds like. The person she is describing is VERY different from how I see myself. That old image is imprinted in my cells and the neurons of my brain. So making that kind of change, at the very foundation, is very hard work and often very scary. It doesn’t leave much energy or attention for getting through an ordinary day, much less coping with extra tasks, like getting the oil changed, or dealing with bureaucracy. Unfortunately, I have only a few friends who really understand this, so I am forced to be alone too much of the time. Being alone triggers the original abandonment. Sometimes I get very fierce and decide that this work is worth doing. Sometimes I think it’s just too hard and I would rather be dead. So far, the one who is willing to work is winning out.