Very recently I learned from a good friend that I am not alone in feeling physical heaviness and pressure in my chest when I’m struggling emotionally. My friend works as a trauma therapist, and occasionally I text her a 911 when gossip has injured me or when I am feeling misunderstood and small. Being an INFP has its advantages with regard to writing, painting, photography, and other artistic endeavors that require being sensitive to one’s surroundings and being a keen observer, but sometimes daily living is painful as an INFP (see Keirsey Temperament Website).
One evening a couple of years ago, I was experiencing extreme anxiety, so I reached out to my 911 friend via text. The anxiety felt strangely similar to what I had experienced as a young girl in Oklahoma during my parents’ divorce. Let me tell you something. Childhood wounds do not care how old you are. They do not care how established you are. And they certainly don’t care whether you are a professional football player, a file clerk, a surgeon, a teacher, or a construction worker. Childhood wounds will find you. Time itself does NOT heal childhood wounds. Hard work, patience, sobriety, support, and grace are the mechanisms for healing old wounds. As we progress in this recovery work, we come face to face with old pain. As long as we are willing to experience that pain, with the support of friends and others in recovery, we will come through brighter, stronger, and happier. Let me warn you though: it’s not for wimps. Honestly, there have been times when I have wished I had never set foot in a therapist’s office. What’s with all these layers? Can’t we be done and finished? Why does the Universe bring this old junk back to the forefront after I think I am done with it? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t know what else to do besides keep putting one foot in front of the other.
So, back to the evening two years ago when I texted my friend for support. My anxiety was through the roof, and my emotions reverted back to the same panic I had felt as a 12-year-old girl in 1976 when my mother drove off to the store to pick up a few items and did not return in a timely fashion. I lived alone with my mother after my parents’ divorce. We lived on five acres between two small towns in Oklahoma. Our house sat on Route 66 with no gas stations, convenience stores, or other shopping nearby. Six miles one way on Route 66 would take you to Yukon, Oklahoma, and eight miles the other direction on Route 66 would take you to El Reno, Oklahoma. When she left for the store, I expected she would return in an hour or so, but she didn’t. As minutes passed on the clock, I tried to assure myself that she was simply doing more shopping than she had originally planned. I tried hard to imagine other non-tragic scenarios as to why she wasn’t back yet. As hard as I tried, the ideas felt like lies to me. Panic filled my chest and it was hard to get a deep breath.
I rocked in the rocking chair. I prayed. No mother. I read. I paced. No mother. I watched television and strained to ignore thoughts of tragedy. Still no mother. If we had used cell phones in 1976, this would not have been such a problem for a 12-year-old girl all alone in the country. But I was pretty much stuck – physically and emotionally. Too young to drive and no car even if I were old enough to drive. Should I try to find the phone number of one of my teachers? Scenarios of how I would sleep or when I would need to call the police if she didn’t return invaded my thoughts. The panic was physical as well as emotional. My mouth was dry and the thought of food made me feel sick.
Finally, about three hours after she left, I saw the headlights of her red Chevette moving up the service road to our house. Thank God! I ran out to greet her, but noticed two figures in the front seat instead of one. Who was in the car with my mother? As the red dot came closer, I could see that a man was driving. My mother was in the passenger’s seat. When the car was parked, I was able to see that the front of my mother’s car looked as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. I also noticed that my mother was passed out in the front seat. The man explained that he and his wife had been driving along Route 66 and had seen my mother veer off the highway into a ditch. He and I walked to the passenger door. My mother didn’t move. I opened the door and was hit in the face with the odor of alcohol. The man and I managed to get her out of the car and walk her into the house. We placed her on the couch where she slept through the night.
Relief flooded my body. I could now go to sleep and have some peace. I locked all of the doors, turned out the lights, brushed my teeth, set my alarm, and crawled into bed. I had survived. I was a survivor! Unfortunately, the trauma of the event had made its home inside me where it would stay for as long as it wanted to, rearing its ugly head at inconvenient times just like it did 40 years later when my mother was battling cancer and I was once again in the role of worrying about her. I sent my 911 text to my friend and she texted me back with some excellent help.
“Julie, look at your wedding ring or your short hair or something that reminds you that you are a healthy adult. This will help you remember that, although you are having these feelings just like you did 40 years ago, you can also ground yourself in the knowledge that you are now a healthy woman who has done much recovery work. You are no longer helpless. You can drive. You can vote. You can make decisions that are good for you. You are not helpless like you were when you were a young girl at night alone in your house out in the country. You have options now. You can make choices that are good for you and you can be your own loving parent.”
I can’t tell you how effective this has been for me. Amazing how something so simple can stand as such a powerful reminder of the work I’ve done to get better. I asked my friend if she had ever experienced this physical heaviness in her chest when she was struggling with anxiety or loneliness. To my pleasant surprise, she said, “Yes! All the time!”
She explained that physical pain and emotional pain come from the same area of the brain. She said that it is actually healthy to feel emotional pain in this way because it means that we are in touch with our bodies and connected to pain and joy in a strong way. Although it is extremely unpleasant to feel those feelings, I am grateful to know that I am connected to my “self.” I am also grateful to know that others, like my friend, experience emotions in this way. All of the years that I drank were spent trying to numb these heavy feelings. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I had had some coping skills and tools as a child. A guitar, for example, would have been extremely valuable to help me process some of the loneliness and heaviness I felt.
I’m grateful today. I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Write something in the comments below. Let me know something about you. I also encourage you to take the Keirsey temperament evaluation and find out what your unique temperament is. Cheers.