By Lisa Meuser.
One moment Dave was asking for a hug so he could tell me he loved me. A few moments later, after hugs and “I love you”s had been shared, the scene dramatically shifted. I was sitting on one side of the couch, my mom at the other. He was still standing – all 6 feet and 300 pounds of him – positioned in between us. All of a sudden, in a booming voice, he was calling me a “fucking cunt,” with some other minor insults thrown in for for good measure. My mom, still sitting a few feet away, called out his name in “that tone” one uses to show overt disapproval.
Are you wondering what led him to have this outburst? Surely there must be a reason, right?
Those of us who participate in codependent or abusive relationships live with that inner narrative on a regular basis. Three common thoughts often occupy our attention:
“What did I do?”
“What should I have done differently?”
and “How could I have avoided that?”
I don’t feel obliged to tell you what happened for a few reasons.
1. In no sane reality is that kind of outburst/verbal attack appropriate.
2. I know it wasn’t about me or anything I did.
3. I know the context and the situation.
4. I know Dave. He suffers from rapid-fire bi-polar disorder, intense PTSD, and – on top of that – he has debilitating pain in his back and other areas of his body. He is like a walking landmine, and it only takes a small amount of pressure to set him off.
The short story was simply this: he was set off, and I was his target.
In the moments afterward, I immediately knew all four of those things. I knew I hadn’t instigated that response. I knew he was in immense mental and physical pain. I knew he was like a time tomb, and even he – to a certain extent – knew that he’d just done something really inappropriate. As he stormed up the stairs he continued to talk to us of his pain, offering various excuses and justifications for his outburst.
Back in the living room with my mom, the part of me that knew all those things was (surprisingly!) calm and present. I was conscious of how fucked up that exchange had been, but I didn’t take it personally. It was more like “Wow – life can really be toxic sometimes.” The television continued to play, and I continued to do what I’d been doing on my laptop. I felt present. Connected. Still. Safe.
Life went on as if it had never happened.
Except that it had happened. And it had made an impact. And that impact wanted to be acknowledged.
Little by little I started to review what had happened. Could I have done something differently? Should I have said something to him afterwards, and if so, what? All these questions were trickling down to reflect this subtle narrative: How could I have been me, only better?
“How could I have been better?”
This is the kind of arrogance that codependents such as myself are raised with. It’s an innocent survival strategy – I coped with the dysfunction of my surroundings by thinking it was my fault. It was a way that I could have a sense of control within a life that felt really out of control and unsafe.
I quickly moved through that strategy and onto the next one.
It wasn’t me, it was him! What the actual fuck? I found myself fuming with righteousness, thoughts spinning to once again reveal an innocent survival strategy – trying to have control, even if it was all in my head. “This why I don’t spend much time at my mom’s house,” I said to myself. “This kind of behavior is not okay. This is not the kind of energy I am willing to be around.
As I was fluctuating between inner stillness and inner chaos, Dave came back down the stairs. He came up from behind me, leaned over, and put his hand on my shoulder. “I didn’t mean to call you a fucking cunt,” he said. I took a deep breath. I knew he was trying to apologize, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to sweep it under the rug and I wasn’t willing to pretend it was okay. This wasn’t about blame. This was about honesty and integrity.
The truth is, I wasn’t willing to lie.
You see, I learned how to minimize my experiences (i.e. I learned how to lie) when I was very young. The old Lisa would have “risen to the occasion.” With sincerity she would have smiled and hugged him and loved him. And as she was doing that, she would have been pushing another part of herself down into her psyche’s basement. She would have been lying about the entirety of her experience, and wouldn’t have felt safe to do otherwise.
Forgiving without fully owning or acknowledging all aspects of a situation creates an inner split personality.
It’s a personality that gets love by being kind and forgiving and loving, even if it means getting stepped on, lied to, or manipulated. It’s a personality that can’t say no, choose herself first, or have healthy boundaries. That kind of personality stays in abusive and codependent relationships. That kind of personality minimizes violent or manipulative behaviors done by those intimate with her. She’s proficient at forgiving and loving others, but not so much herself. A sense of safety within is unfamiliar so she tries to get it from outside herself by altering who she is.
The current me did not rise to the occasion of pretending.
I did not minimize my discomfort and anger. I did not minimize the inappropriateness of his actions, even though I knew he wasn’t able to be any different. “I didn’t mean to call you a fucking cunt,” he said. “Please step back away from me,” was all I replied, with a calm but firm voice. Something felt unsafe, and I was safe to honor that. He straightened up, backed off, and immediately began to insult me again as he walked away. I understood. I understood for the both of us. We were both doing our best, even in our triggered states.
Unbeknownst to him, however, he was not merely mirroring the “him” from my childhood.
He was also mirroring a “him” from a past abusive relationship I’d been in, where my ex had repeatedly and cleverly redirected responsibility for his inappropriate responses and projected onto me. There was no accountability on his part – he was always dumping it onto me as the most skillful of gaslighters are apt to do.
But this was not my ex avoiding accountability.
This was Dave, who – for a variety of reasons – does not have the capacity or ability to manage the vastness of his pain. Holding him accountable for his outburst would be like holding a toddler accountable for his tantrum. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t an impact, and it didn’t mean I had to minimize that impact. So I didn’t. I was safe to be me.
My thoughts briefly reeled again.
That tricky bastard Doubt was sneaking in. “Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Should I go apologize?” The old Lisa would have. She’d have thought, “Just move on, it’s not really that big of a deal.” This was the dissociation I grew up with. This was the strategy I used in dysfunctional relationships. This was not the pattern I wanted to perpetuate anymore.
There arose an invitation to let it be as big as it felt.
Not in some kind of dramatic way, but by simply honoring what was arising. Something inside me told me I was processing old stuff that I hadn’t been able to process when I was younger. I didn’t need to confront my brother – I needed to be honest with what I was feeling, I needed to be with my internal landscape, and I needed to be true to me. So I was.
I slept well that night.
But the next morning I woke conflicted with regard to what it would mean for the future. Would I refuse to visit my mom again? I didn’t want to make her feel like she had to choose between us, and I didn’t want her to feel like I was abandoning her. I felt guilty prioritizing my own well-being because it meant potentially leaving her. I felt the pressure of all of this and started to cry, and the cries turned into sobs.
Then it hit me.
I suddenly realized that I was still grieving over how my mom had abandoned me and left me alone to deal with Dave while we were growing up. Moreover, I often took on the role of standing between the two of them, caretaking and assuming responsibilities I was unequipped for at that age. My mom hadn’t protected me from him then, she certainly couldn’t now, and I was finding myself in a delusion that I could some how protect her… and that it was my job to do so. I allowed myself to sob from deep within my being – grieving the mom that I never had, the protection and support that I needed but never received, and the inner conflict that I had known but didn’t have the resources to sort through. As the tears flowed, the torment and pressure released.
Something magical happened after the sobs quieted.
The holdings, tightenings and various grips in my body subsided. All the problems that desperately needed to be figured out faded. The future worries that felt like burdens on my shoulders fell away. I spent the day feeling a sense of peace. I was still aware of some challenges that lay ahead, but there was no sense of the danger, urgency, or threat that had previously been there.
That evening there was a sense of calm back in the house.
I continued to look inward for any sense of conflict – for any need to create separation from my brother – and continuously came up empty. The animosity towards him, the judgments towards myself, and the sense of being caught in the middle seemed to have shifted almost mysteriously. It’s hard to even put it into words, but it was as though working through that piece of childhood trauma opened up something in my system that was beyond both Dave and my abusive ex. It healed another layer of separation that had been between my being and god/Presence.
A chat between my daughter and me might help illustrate it.
She was watching me stare into space.
“Whatcha thinking about, Mama?”
“Oh…. I’m thinking about…the polarities of ‘good’ and ‘bad’,” I replied honestly, kind of chuckling.
She wanted to know more.
“Something in me is studying… trying to know… something that lies within them…” my voice trailed off.
“Acceptance?” she asked.
“Acceptance… ahhh. Yes… but also… something else.” I sat and breathed, waiting for the word that was in the wings.
“Reconciliation,” I finally shared. “My system is looking to know reconciliation, not from my head, but from my being.”
I continued, “I think… that there is an invitation to live in the world, where we can acknowledge that there are such relative things as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and yet at the same time we can see and know ‘god’ in all of it, or maybe with all of it. Inclusion.”
We sat and breathed that in, no more words needed.
What does this conversation with my daughter have to do with the altercation with Dave?
When I’m out of Presence – when I’m adhered to the mental realm and all the concepts and beliefs created there – I can’t help but prescribe to the duality and polarization of existence, and all the good/bad/right/wrong. Through such a lens I can’t help but exclude much of the richness of life as I’m too busy defending my ideas of exclusion. How close to god am I, in such a state? How safe am I, truly, when I’m in such duality.
Living from a place of fear, not love, becomes the mainstay of existence when I try to make myself fit into various roles – good sister, good daughter, good person – and all that those roles entail. In trying to live in accordance with self-imposed roles I innocently minimized what was arising in my experience, which kept me from being genuinely and authentically me. This pretending, based on the various polarities of “good” and bad” and the various concepts linked to them, cut me off from myself and from my knowing of god/Presence.
Working through yet another layer of pain body/trauma from my childhood, I inadvertently peeled back another layer of that (left brain) meaning making (the should, shouldn’ts, goods, bads, etc) – all which contributed to feeling separate from god/Presence. Not minimizing what I was experiencing meant I could be honest and authentic. I experienced presence, safety and peace as innocent byproducts of this authenticity, rather than as a result of my trying to “be good” or do what I “should.”
When aligned with Presence, there is no longer an investment in an absolute “good” or “bad.”
There is, instead, an honoring of the edges of what my human system is experiencing, within the experience itself – me interfacing with others and experiencing my humanity in the process, exactly as I experience it. From such a place, the need to make Dave (or myself) wrong falls away. I feel what I feel and, in honoring that, I connect with authenticity and Presence. Of course I can still make claims of “good” and “bad” and so on, but doing so from a place of Presence brings the experience of freedom instead of exclusion. Presence exists amidst it all – with no requirement to choose sides, defend, or protect.
A couple days after “the incident,” my mom was leading mealtime prayer like she always does.
We were standing up and holding hands, and after she was done I requested that we pause and breathe together, hands still clasped. There we were, joined together. Breathing. I happened to be standing next to Dave. I could feel the two of us breathing as our hands were joined. Not having skipped over any part of my being a couple days earlier, I was fully available to be present in that moment. I said a few words while we continued to breathe. I acknowledged love, god, and our “perfect” humanity. I felt the bounty of humility. At different parts he and I chuckled, sighed, breathed, and nodded our heads together.
There was that reconciliation.
It’s a very different world to live in when I am not trying to minimize anything.
There is less fear, less anxiety, and less pressure. It isn’t always easy, though. Doubt arises, and a different kind of fear can come in as I move into unfamiliar territory of not pretending.
“Is it really safe to be me?” has been a question I’ve long asked myself. The answer used to be a resounding “No!” And while I still may get hints of “No” from time to time, they are short lived when I stay turned towards myself and am honest with what I am actually experiencing. From that place, I am safe to be the me that is arising in that moment – whoever she is in that moment – without minimizing.
This sense of safety is profound – physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The nervous system is quieter, and less preoccupied with past or future. The right and left hemispheres of the brain are co-mingling as designed, instead of the left-brain dominating – as is often the case for most humans today. All of this sets the stage for the ability to be curious and aware, and in relationship with that which I am aware of.
Safety brings about immense freedom in a human being. Within this honest freedom to be authentically me, I feel intrinsically tuned into god/Presence. There is depth. There is width. There is space. There is the experience of unity, whilst acknowledging the vast array of flavors that exist within unity. And ultimately – maybe most importantly – there is permission to be fully human.
 Not real name of relative
 That “force” or “knowing” which contains all, or exists “outside” of self.