I was trying to check in with myself the way the minister had described. Well, not the way she had described, sitting quietly with my journal twice a week. But at least to check in with myself, at all. As I hurried with my newfound energy between house tasks and career tasks and writing tasks, my question about my illness still hung in the background: Why? Why did this happen to me?
One answer had come on a walk. I’d been thinking about my book about Dad, reflecting on my childhood, the “me” I had been at age seven when my parents divorced. My family role was Protector–big sister to Jeannie, emotional support to Dad. (This was a self-appointed role.) I protected Dad from pain, instinctively taking his side in the divorce, guiding conversations away from topics that might hurt him. To Jeannie I was a surrogate father, the steady, consistent support Dad himself couldn’t provide, uplifting her when she might have been overlooked.
There had been sacrifices involved with this role, I saw now. It required vigilance–hypervigilance. A guardedness that came with a clenched belly. I needed to always be on the alert for the next danger. It meant an outward focus and a sense of noble sacrifice. Strength and valor became the highest virtues. Softness and vulnerability signaled weakness. This mentality sculpted me into someone trained to ignore myself. To ignore my self.
It felt now like that fighting spirit, constant alertness, and inability to relax had ultimately cost me my health. Hypervigilant is not a healthy way to be. I wished now that I had known differently, found more balance at that young age.
And yet, looking back, as I walked around my neighborhood and took in the flower blossoms and scents of spring, I was moved at the thought that my young self had been so devoted to protecting others that she had unwittingly sacrificed her own well-being. If someone had told me, at age seven, that to be my family’s Protector I would later have to develop a disease, I probably still would have chosen the same family role. Protecting was in my basic nature.
(It still is. I can’t shake it.)
This inner story about myself gave me a glimmer of the meaning I had been seeking. The lingering feeling that somehow, by developing colitis, I had prevented my sister, especially, from greater suffering in her own life. Or at the very least, that I had tried. Deep down, the protective big sister in me could find some peace in this thought.
“It’s far-fetched,” I said to the minister in our second meeting. “And it’s very unlikely that that role really did lead to my disease, I know. But thinking this way is helping me.”
My second thought had come at the end of a shower. Stepping over the threshold of the bathtub and reaching for my towel in the steamy room, I’d had one of those moments when an answer just comes out of nowhere, out of the space between other thoughts. Paradoxically, this thought directly contrasted with the first–and yet it, too, brought me comfort.
It was the simple thought that sometimes there is no answer. No reason.
This thought had come with a sigh. It felt like a truism from God. Like a grownup saying, “You’ll understand when you’re older.” Now God–that voice inside me–was saying, There is nothing to understand. There is no reason this happened to you. Just stop asking why. You’ll drive yourself crazy.
This thought gave me the deep peace that often comes when you encounter a basic truth. Sometimes, even if the truth is not the answer you wanted, just recognizing it as truth can give you a certain amount of peace.
“I want to congratulate you,” the minister said, “on being able to exist with these two conflicting truths at once.”
I smiled. “I’m a ‘Yes, and’ person. I believe it’s possible to feel two things at the same time that seem to contradict each other.” I knew she would understand this. She was the same kind of person.
She and I decided that I didn’t urgently need her time anymore. We would check in once more, in a few months, although I could contact her sooner if my despair returned. But something in me had shifted, and it was hard to imagine that happening.
The minister helped me see that what I’m doing at this phase of life is integrating. My life has been so fragmented over the years, and now I’m trying to bundle it all up and make sense of it. Like my Dad book–I needed to make sense of my fragmented childhood and complex relationship with him. In my household, I’m doing the same thing. I finally have the space (barely!) to get into the boxes and boxes of old things that have been in storage, in our basement in Madison and at Mom’s. To bring all these pieces of me together in one place. It will be a long process–I have a lot of stuff–but it feels good, whole, like filling in gaps inside me. Integrating all the pieces into one whole Me.