May 4, 2021

The Most Sacred Thing we can Say when we’re in Pain.

*Warning: naughty language ahead!


I never thought I would write this, sisters, but circle up, lean in, and I’ll tell you a story about when I lied.

On April 22, 2020, I got a call from a neighbor while I ran an errand.

“Your apartment is on fire!”

My brain did what it always does when in shock; it created a more palatable reality.

This can’t be my story, I thought. Not now. Not another trauma.

“You mean, the building next to mine.”

“No, yours. Black smoke is billowing out of it.”

My windshield wipers brushed away the misty rain. My pulse quickened, heart pounded in my ears, and my vision tightened to quickly navigate traffic as I felt the fight-or-flight response engage.

My only thoughts were, “No, no, no not this…” Over and over.

My street was blocked off by yellow tape and firetrucks. A large firehose was pouring a river into the apartment next to mine. A neighboring business owner offered to watch my dog while I talked to the fire captain. He said what I didn’t want to hear, “You can’t stay here tonight. It’s not safe.”

As a therapist, I’ve become adept at gauging facial expressions and reassuring people who are in distress. Even in that moment, as my knees crumpled and my back slid down the brick building that housed a lingerie shop across from my brownstone, I wept while reassuring caring neighbors who were looking worriedly at me.

“I’m okay (sob). I’m okay (sob). I’ll be okay,” I gasped as I curled my chest forward, knees supporting my forehead.

What a lie I’d been conditioned to tell.

Inside I was thinking, “How the fuck am I going to do this?”

I curled up in a fetal position around my puppy that night, sleeping on a futon I had in my healing center’s meditation room. I shivered from the trauma, incredibly scared about how I would walk down the next few months, sheltering in place without human touch.

I wondered if levitation was real. I wondered if gravity selectively released some of us as I felt myself floating. I had lost my edges of being.

People would ask me how I was doing on a regular basis that spring.

I learned over my lifetime to not reveal too much. The truth had been used against me. I learned to create shells to disappear in, and thorns to keep people at a distance. In not knowing where the middle ground was in sharing too much, and not sharing enough, I had erred on the latter.

“So how are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m okay.”

“Good. How are you?”

“Thanks for asking! I’m doing as well as can be expected. Getting so much done!”

“Oh…just looking for a new place to live! Trusting it will all come together!”

My greatest shame was I was “too much,” so I lied so no one would leave me.

I always gave my responses with a smile, with a lilt of positivity at the end of each sentence. The fucking positivity was killing me, and the brave, strong front needed to be vaporized because I was dying inside.

In the midst of trauma, I fell hard back into an old coping mechanism of superficiality and maintaining the facade of having it all together. “I got this” was my mantra, and the only side I was willing to let anyone see. Shit had to get done. I couldn’t afford to fall apart.

I couldn’t afford to keep it up.

One evening, in donated underwear and clothes, I was pacing back and forth in a three-foot-wide grassy median, having an honest conversation with my brother on the phone.

“People ask me what I need. I don’t know. People ask me if I’m okay. I don’t know the answer to that.”

He interrupted in a matter-of-fact tone, “You’re not okay. You’re in trauma.”

I kept pacing around the empty parking lot. “I’m not okay,” I repeated. He reiterated “You’re not okay.”

Back and forth we echoed these words to each other, and like a pinball, something akin to “feeling alive” ricocheted through my body. I cried for the first time in weeks in honor and acknowledgement of the welcome truth. I wasn’t okay. I was far from okay.

I felt myself relax and reenter my body. I walked circuitously around the vacant parking lot, weaving my energy back into myself. I wondered if this is how labyrinths were created, walking the wisdom of the body into its own healing, morphogenic field.

Holding presence for another is one of the holiest things we can do. Its grace in action. Naming the unnameable helps us ground each other during times of groundlessness, during times when we are not in our bodies.

To see another and be seen is an incredible, intimate act of unconditional tenderness and love. Witnessing without trying to fix, and without running away ourselves, is a holy gift.

Healing is a tribal event. Fuck all that independent bullshit. The Phoenix process is the melt down into the fire, and the reemergence of the new. We wear T-shirts that say, “Watch me rise,” but rob ourselves of empathy, validation, and the simple holiness of being held in the bloody mess of death and rebirth when we dismiss our own pain and minimize our own experiences.

I want the T-shirt that says, “I’m a fuckin’ mess today, and I need a hug.”

The next day, I cancelled my clients. I had a cry day. I wept for most of eight hours. I took a bath, using a doggie poop bag as a hair tie. I asked someone to drive me around, get me food, and pamper me.

I let myself fall apart.

Tend to your inner fires, love. All of them. The ones that light you up. The ones that take you down and burn right to your core. Let other people into the reality of your lights, and your shadows. They are tender, momentous, gentle, and torrential.

Fires left to burn create destruction.

It’s okay to not be okay.

Listen to the fire. She knows.


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Dr. Christina McDowell, PhD, LSCSW, CST  |  Contribution: 4,160

author: Dr. Christina McDowell, PhD, LSCSW, CST

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