“I love when people that have been through hell walk out of the flames carrying buckets of water for those still consumed by the fire.” ~Stephanie Sparkles
I have a tattoo on my back of Charles Bukowski’s quote “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” It spoke to me as I had been walking, often crawling, through a fire for much of my life.
At times, I took different paths, skipping through fields of flowers, but eventually I would find my way back to what I knew, which gave me a strange sense of comfort—the fire whose roots had begun in childhood, with my abusive mother.
This was the fire that used to devour me. I have another tattoo on my foot that reads “Breathe.” For years I lived with a very dysregulated nervous system, constantly alerting me to the threats of the flames forming around me, and breath was something that eluded me.
It was hard to breathe knowing that she could just as easily climb up the stairs, grab something and lash at me.
What could I do to breathe when nobody wanted to know what I was feeling? My emotions were not something that I understood or knew how to manage.
It was difficult to believe that I could breathe in such a frightening environment.
It was impossible to breath when I didn’t know how.
I found that those entrusted in my care had been caught up in fires they hadn’t learned how to escape. As I grew I became more uneasy and unsafe. It was then that I learned how to not feel my breath and to accept the fact that other people could sense it moving through their bodies. And, finally, I began to see flames everywhere.
As the child of immigrant parents who came to America to work for their families and give them a better lifestyle, I was raised in a traditional family. My Catholic school was where I thrived academically. They were great cooks, and showed their love through their kitchen. My academic, physical, and emotional needs were all met.
My early years were spent playing with my brother. He was my support system. My mother’s inability to soothe us as babies and toddlers created very sensitive, shy children, deeply afraid of the world around us and deeply connected to each other.
Unfortunately, our relationship grew apart when we were teenagers. He began to see me as the problem because we had developed different strategies for navigating my parents. The same way I saw myself, it was how I began to see me.
My family was full of shame, abandonment, ridicule, humiliation, and I believed that the family’s dysfunction lay solely on my shoulders. Although there was some physical abuse, it felt like I was being seen.
Gaslit, I began to doubt everything that I believed and was forced to live in isolation throughout my childhood and teenage years. This isolation later became self-imposed. It was too scary to confront the world. I rebelled against this isolation as I grew up, looking for comfort and love from others.
If they didn’t soothe me as I wanted, I grew angry and hurt, isolating myself more and more, or lashing out internally or externally.
To ease my suffering, I turned to external pleasures such as shopping, travelling, and sex. I could not get rid of the hurtful feelings inside.
When I was in my twenties, all I could do was cry. After several months of being uncommunicative, my therapist insisted that I use benzodiazepines to help me communicate. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to work together.
My symptoms worsened both emotionally and physically, and I now needed “saving” from both. As I grew older, the helplessness that I experienced early in life continued. My need for safety and security was also a constant. My brain and body became unsustainable and I realized that no one was interested in me.
With addicts, codependents, and narcissists I was able to confirm this notion. All eventually became tired of me needing love and were able to soothe my pain.
They were familiar and could offer me safety and love, but I was attracted to them. This meant that I was relying on others for regulation, and they were also stuck in the dysregulation cycle.
There were many ways that I could hurt myself. Overspending and starving myself. Exercising too often. On more than one occasion, I took too many medication to help me calm down. This led to me ending up in an emergency department. My nervous system was inhabited by the familiar and it demanded entertainment.
After decades of chronic health issues due to emotional and physical trauma, they finally hit a peak when I was forty-seven and no longer able to work, the one area of my life I’d had some control of. To breathe properly, I needed to be taught how to do so. This was also when I learned how to set the fires.
It took me a long time to get my nervous system back out of the “fight-or-flight” state that it entered as a child. Then, I had to rewire thoughts and behaviour patterns which were triggered by this fight-or flight state. This process allowed me to find the true part of myself, my inner child. It brought me a profound peace and integration.
My healing was a result of the practice of compassion and forgiveness. When I worked to rewire old patterns that were living in my nervous systems, I found out more about the brain and what trauma was stored there. I also learned how childhood experiences can shape how we see reality.
Every day I found new associations in my practice. These were new thoughts or behaviors that had begun. Each day, I had to examine these strategies with compassion and forgiveness.
It was hard at first because this was a new concept to me. However, it got easier as I practised and started feeling self-compassion and love for myself.
These practices were a way for me to deal with my toxic personality. I had deep grievances about the past and things that I wasn’t able enjoy. My anger was holding onto the past and it was now time for me to let it go. My mother, who was the one who lit my flames, became my model of curiosity empathy. My own problems, self-compassion and self-forgiveness helped me do the same for her.
In this case, curious empathy meant becoming aware of her patterns and where they came from by connecting to my own experiences and empathy.
She was someone I observed throughout my whole life. I learned a lot about myself and others by watching her. I also read tons of self-help books about personality disorders and toxic people, but cognitive knowledge wasn’t enough to understand my mother.
I watched, listened, and heard stories from my father about my mother’s childhood. I was able to draw upon the strategies that were already there and see where they came from. She was initially a distant observer during this period of healing. I then began to open myself to getting to know her by gradually exposing my healing nervous systems to her.
When I felt balanced and regulated enough, I rejoined our relationship, but with strict boundaries—for both of us. And I found a somewhat different human in front of me, one who had softened in her old age but still retained old behaviors when “triggered.”
She began to react in certain ways and I learned how to spot her triggers. My nervous system, and my heart were now trained into compassion.
She had toxic survival strategies due to her inability to communicate effectively and to soothe feelings and needs. It was her fight or flight mentality that kept her blind to the reality of the world and the motivations of others.
The world was interacting with me in a similar way that I’d learned, but have since forgotten.
She was often as a child, teen or teenager to me. I connected with her inner child version. It was then that I could change my anger, hurt, and frustration to feel compassion for how she tried to achieve her goals. After this, I was able to forgive myself and let go of all the bad emotions.
She was not accepting my offer. We often joked about her behavior. I was able to smile or laugh at her response.
She reacted to feeling vulnerable. I was able to see that her childhood was filled with vulnerability, which was unacceptable and shameful.
When I identified her ways of showing her love, it felt good to feel loved and understood. It was also easier to respond to her with compassion and forgiveness. It became natural to me to speak as the “parent” (adult) when her old armor of defense came up.
Daily forgiveness and compassion are two of the best practices I use to show my love for the woman stuck in a fight or flight mode from her childhood. Sometimes I need to pull back and remind her that she is not acceptable. But these moments are less frequent than before.
She began to see the value in my changing behavior towards her. It seemed that my nervous system became more stable, which helped to calm hers. She began to feel closer to vulnerability. She felt secure as I allowed her to let go of the anger and substituted compassion for it. This is how she can chip away at a small piece of her armor during our interactions.
She will be okay in her trauma. I can’t change her. To my personal well-being, however, I chose to forgive and show compassion for her, so that she can get a little bit of water whenever I visit her. Remaining in the fire with her, by being angry, was not an option any longer.
It was a difficult time in my life, but I made it through and am now sharing the healing process with others. These days I find myself skipping through fields of flowers on a regular basis, and feel it is a blessing to share it with those who have not yet gotten there—and those who may never.
**I am not suggesting that anyone should keep people in their lives that they feel are “toxic.” We all need to do what we feel is best for us based on our own unique experience.
Maria spent years looking for relief from the suffering she experienced due to the toxic “stories” she received as a child. The stories and medications that were prescribed to relieve them led to physical and mental disease. She eventually found her true self again and was able to see a better side of life. Each day, she works to improve herself and discover new ways of helping others. You can find more of her story here.
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