The first time my inner emptiness was visible to me was looking at a photograph of myself taken at my fifth birthday party. There I was, standing on a chair between my half-brother, who was about to cut the cake with me, and another child whose name I could not recall. This was a supposedly a happy moment.
My mother had marked my birth since the first year with these parties. They had become a tradition, one that she would keep up until my 16th year. The picture from the last party my mother held for me was a little different from those of the fifth. Again flanked by friends, on this occasion by two girlfriends, empty was again hovering in my eyes.
Curious about my life and why sadness and emptiness seemed to plague me, about nine years ago I took a trip down memory lane. Looking at the photographs, that empty look seem omnipresent. Forty plus years of age and seeing these pictures at least a hundred times before, that was the moment I realised how pained and troubled a past the little girl then young woman had experienced. In the throes of another debilitating and emptying experience, my womanly eyes for the first time connected with the hollow eyes of this cute little girl standing there with her glass of kool aid raised.
The Trauma of Emptiness
Sitting on the floor of my walk-in closet with the photographs strewn around me, my fingers reached for a more recent picture. An older me – no longer a little girl but mother, divorcée, career woman, long-term partner and now a woman broken again by pain. Staring at myself in this picture, the memories of how empty I had felt at my most recent birthday party flooded me. Dressed in my pink pajamas, a friend had captured it. This time, I knew it was there.
It was my 41st birthday and my then partner was having an affair with none other than a “friend” of the family. They thought it was a secret but the glances between them, even while they pretended to celebrate my birthday, was enough to empty any woman’s heart. Less than a year later, my life fell to the bottom of a dark and empty well as my partner walked out on me. There was nothing in the world that would have convinced me that there was any coming back for me from that.
“Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness. I have to bang my head against some hard door to call myself back to the body.” Virginia Woolf
And banged I did. I banged my head so hard against every wall and when the pain would not go away, I tried to kill it and myself along with it. Twice.
On both occasions, angels rescued me from myself. Temporarily though. They held, comforted and fed me as much as they could and as I would allow. But there came a time when they had to go, I had to let them go and make a choice. What I learned in my empty apartment during what was possibly the darkest winter I have ever seen was that neither food, alcohol or the company of good people can fill the emptiness in your heart. During those weeks of self-imposed solitary confinement, I came to understand the sweet hold that addiction could have. Thankfully, even at my most broken, my spirit of “need to be in control” had not fully left me and eventually She took over.
Filling The Emptiness
One inch at a time, I made my way out of the bed and into the bathroom for my first shower in at least a week. Then, I inched further into the kitchen, dizzy because my blood sugar was low as coffee left in a thermos by one of my angel-friends was what was keeping me alive. Leaning against the fridge, I stared at the apartment door thinking I could either open it and walk a few blocks to get real food or keep it barred and let the emptiness swallow me alive.
You know the decision that I eventually made. I did not leave the apartment that day. Instead, I picked up the phone and called the woman-friend who was most affected by my shattering. She answered on the second ring and in an equally short time was at my door with food and love. Together we wept some more and then I made the call that she had urged me to make for weeks.
She must have prompted them to expect a call from me, she was influential like that, as the counsellor had an opening and within a couple of days I was in the gentle care of Jewish-woman psychologist. Working with her for the next six months, seeing her once a week exhausted my work insurance but this woman-friend of mine paid for the other sessions. My resistance to seeing a therapist was soon thwarted. I had feared that most Canadian counsellors would not understand my journey as a Jamaican, immigrant, racialized, sexualised, marginalised woman and indeed many to this day would not. My woman-friend did as we had spent many hours in heart-to-heart conversations prior to my emptying. She carefully sought out a therapist who would as well. And she found her.
Healing Emotional Trauma
Through her blend of body psychotherapy, spiritual (Jewish) understanding and our basic connection as women, my last leg of the healing journey commenced. On her floor each week, she helped me understand the transference that occurred between my mother and I, my lack of boundaries and the subsequent dysfunction in many if not all of my relationships as a result and the emptiness and sadness that plagued me. With her help, I learned how to start refilling my life but first emptying all that remained, still holding me in fear.
Within a year of this experience, I was off antidepressants, out of psychotherapy, meeting with my spiritual director only once a month instead of twice weekly, eating properly again and doing well on my job to have merited a promotion. Depression does not go away overnight but, in my opinion and experience, with the right care, one that is appropriate and designed to your needs it can be managed and then overcome. The time that it takes will be different for each person. My process was supported by the fact that I had been in training to help others and was also in other forms of counselling as part of my preparation for Chaplaincy. During that time, we met many Teachers from several faith and spiritual streams. One of them was an Aboriginal Elder who made a statement that would later have a most profound impact on my decision to heal. He told us,
“The longest distance a human can travel is the sixteen inches between his head and his heart.”
As the emptiness threatened to suffocate me, I would hear those words in my ear and tried to take the trip. I failed several times but once my heart was aligned with my mind that was when my in filling began.
Coming To An End
This has been a great series of post on emptiness, responding to a reader’s request to discuss the topic. Clara Brown shared her experience with feeling empty after the loss of her second child. Alexis Ali shared her continuing process with in filling in relation to her father. We will end this series with Katelyn Roth who will delve more into the psychology of emptiness.
What I would like you to take away from today’s post is this – it is possible to refill your life even after an extended period of emptiness. With the help of specialists, professionals you can heal after an emotional trauma. Your process might be long, short or somewhere between but the time it takes does not matter. What does matter is that you take the time needed to become who you want to be. While formally in therapy for six months, it took me 40+ years to heal from the physical and emotional traumas of parental abuse, childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape.
I love the words of Lloyd Alexander, author of the book “The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen,” on this matter of emptiness. He so eloquently captures the gift that being empty can bring:
“You must know nothing before you can learn something, and be empty before you can be filled. Is not the emptiness of the bowl what makes it useful? As for laws, a parrot can repeat them word for word. Their spirit is something else again. As for governing, one must first be lowest before being highest.”
Have a great Monday. May it be peaceful and empty of hate and despair. May you be the light in dark places and may your emptiness of ego, prejudice and ignorance bring Love to those who need it most.
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