Check-ins are important. When I was in 8th grade, I was part of a dynamic, legendary song and dance group called the ShowStoppers. We wore red dresses covered in sequins, heavy nylons, dancing heels, a ton of makeup, and curls. It was epic. I was the worst dancer in our troupe, and I had gotten in on my singing voice. I had never taken dance lessons, unlike the other girls. However, I learned something about dancing in my year there–when you are performing turns, it’s important to have a focal point to reference. That way, you don’t become disoriented, you stay grounded.
Focal points have helped me stay grounded and also have allowed me to assess progress in my life. It’s been 3 months of continuous meditation, 30 minutes twice a day, 3 months of intensive trauma therapy (EMDR + resourcing has sometimes taken several hours a week), 3 months of pilates and yoga, 3 months of exploring my spirituality. And, strangely, the more present I have become, the harder it was to realize that 3 months went by so quickly. I just felt present, putting one foot in front of the other, making my pirouettes without thinking. These things in life have become habitual. Self-care has become habitual.
This past week, two incidents came into my life that were able to serve as focal points, as places where I could assess progress. I have recently started a new role in Washington DC while still living in the San Francisco bay area. This has increased my travel schedule significantly and has also put me in contact with new people. My first day of work was Wednesday, where I spent the day meeting policymakers and staffers. Thursday, I was to be in an all-day meeting with 15 people who would work together to develop policy recommendations for the new presidential administration. This is the most prestigious table I would ever be around, and I was looking forward to just being at the table to listen. I knew, however, that the woman who forced me out of my last role would also be at the table. She has been a significant trigger point for me in the last 2 years, and the last time I knew I would have to see her I actually suffered a considerable panic attack at my partner’s home in front of his group of friends just anticipating having to see her. He and I nearly broke up because I overwhelmed him with my anxiety. I was unstable. When I finally did see her, I vomited, hid in a bathroom stall, and, eventually, experienced a seizure in the middle of a Chicago street…at night. This woman really overtook my senses and shut down all my responses. Naturally, I was concerned about having to be in a meeting with her, so I discussed this with my therapist, who worked with me to process my feelings toward her. While I am still working on processing her representation in my life, that session where I could process through what was left over from this woman’s abuse allowed me to make different decisions. I arrived at the meeting place 20 minutes early, got a feel for the space, and allowed myself to feel present. When she walked into the room, I noticed that I didn’t tense up at all. When she engaged me, I allowed some small talk but also put up clear boundaries, allowing myself to feel safe and present while in her presence. When she tried to undermine things I said, I felt no need to defend myself, and I allowed myself to feel comfortable with a difference in opinion. In the moment, I didn’t notice I was doing something different…but looking back, this is the first time that I could notice a completely vanished trigger. What affected me so deeply in March had no power over me at all. I could breathe into the present moment with no anxiety about the past or fear of the future. And it was so much easier than expected.
The evening after my all-day meeting, I was to take a late night flight back to San Francisco, with a short layover in Atlanta. I had to be somewhere else in California for meetings the next morning, so I was anticipating sleeping on the plane. I love sitting over the wing, at the window, especially during sunset. Getting up to cruising altitude, our cabin heard a loud “POP”, followed by a pillar of black smoke coming from behind the right wing. This wasn’t normal. As the cabin crew prepared to make an emergency landing in North Carolina due to sudden engine failure, I could hear the terror, panic, and fear in my fellow travelers. I found myself breathing deeply, feeling personally comforted that things were under control, which allowed me, in turn, to help comfort a woman for whom this was her first flight. As I landed in North Carolina and looked on my phone to see how I may be able to get another flight back before my meetings started in the morning, I reflected on the last time this event occurred. In 2011, I was part of an emergency landing outside of Palmer, Alaska, coming home from Fairbanks. It wasn’t the emergency landing that got me panicked, but the feeling that I was going to miss one too many graduate classes, not allowing me to graduate. While trying to get a new flight, I had a horrible panic attack, yelled at just about everyone, burst into tears, and called my (sleeping) boyfriend every minute on the minute, leaving him messages. I was a mess. I made it back for my class just in time, but I had a seizure the second I was finished with that class from all the drama I had created. This time, I was able to remain calm, even encourage others while they freaked out about missing their connections. I noticed I wasn’t alone–this hadn’t just happened to me. We were a stranded collective, which allowed me to stay grounded, calm, and humble. When we got shuttled back to the airport, I calmly stood in line, calling my administrative assistant to let her know I may not be at the meeting in the morning, making contingency plans. I waited at the desk and firmly asked to be put on the only flight out that evening, stating that waiting until the morning was not my preference. I got re-planed, and was able to sleep soundly on the plane, making it to my meeting in the morning a few hours away.
Engine failure doesn’t happen every day. Neither does having to sit in a room on the other side of the country with the person who harassed you for 2 years. But little moments do repeat every day. Little moments are able to be your focal point–they can keep you grounded, they can act as a measuring stick. Awareness comes from allowing yourself to put space between those moments, put space where there was once noise. This is the gift the last 3 months have taught me that I haven’t really noticed: the gift of stillness. You see, crazy things happen to everyone. It’s really up to us to make it dramatic and traumatic. It’s up to us to carry around those moments as weights on our shoulders. Once you realize that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction to it, you’re free.
“Spiritual progress is like detoxification. Things have to come up in order to be released. Once we have asked to be healed, then our unhealed places are forced to the surface.” –Marianne Williamson
Healing is an amazing feeling.