The Affliction is the physiologic manifestation of my anxiety. Of course, I haven’t always known that; it’s been a 30-year journey of understanding and acceptance.
I first got it when I was 12; my mom had recently remarried and we were driving to Trinidad, California in a borrowed Lincoln Continental to meet my new step-dad’s family. I’d always been susceptible to car sickness, so when I began to complain about not feeling well, no one was surprised. Then I started burping. But it was nothing like “I just finished a great meal and OH YEAH, that made some room.” No. Not satisfied burping. Tortured. Painful. Huge and gaseous. Putrid and smelling of Chthonic BBQ chips with sulfur dip. I’m not even kidding.
No one knew quite what to do. Trapped in the car with a child who suddenly looked and smelled akin to their worst nightmare, my family was torn between feeling sorry for me and wanting to leave me on the roadside.
And then I started throwing up. Repeatedly. This was not the usual vomit smell; it was primeval, sulfurous, thick, and dark DARK brown. It went on for hours as we drove down the highway in that gigantic burgundy car, and it took me days to recover. Hi new family! So great to finally meet you. I’m The Pestilent Granddaughter.
My mom and I, who had inherited a penchant for dramatic and ridiculous nicknames from her dad—my grandfather rarely called anything by its given or actual name—dubbed it The Affliction because it really had felt (and smelled) like a biblical plague.
I figured it was a one-time thing, chalking it up to road food and car sickness. I privately blamed the Lincoln Continental and its too-smooth suspension. But then it returned periodically through my teens and on into my early 30’s without the accompanying car to blame. Never more than every few years and never so fantastically as its first presentation. For which I and my ego were really and truly grateful.
By this time I’d figured out it wasn’t motion sickness, but had no other explanations and honestly didn’t care to investigate further. It didn’t happen very often, which was the important part. Plus, I was fully disembodied and heads down in my first marriage (and then recovering from the loss of said marriage), fighting so very hard to seem glamorous and competent and capable.
After the marriage, I took on a lot of self exploration and internal investigation. It was pretty much unavoidable at that point; I was 34 years old and had managed to avoid any real introspective, meditative, or embodied work. I started with cognitive behavioral therapy; moved onto Landmark Education; spent some time with yoga and meditation; read Eckhart Tolle and Alice Miller; taught myself to be with Me or the Not-Me in as much as I could conceive of her at the time. I explored BDSM on what I thought were my terms, almost summited Mt. Rainier on a guided climb, and traveled to New York and back exclusively on public transit all by myself.
I felt pretty awake, pretty with it; you know, aware. The Affliction had become a memory.
And then I met the man who is now my husband. Brendan hit me hard; who he was, how he talked, his strength, his emotional intelligence, his palpable MAN-NESS. I was so drawn to him. I knew within three weeks of our meeting he was The Next One. [Because I don’t believe in The One; as in the one person who is perfect for you and you’re meant to be together. There is only the person I’m choosing to be with right now for this amount of time until we’re not together anymore. You’re the one because I say you are; I choose to love you.]
I wasn’t prepared for meeting Brendan, not emotionally or psychologically. I thought I was; I’d been married before, I’d taken classes since, I’d meditated, I’d gone to therapy and acquainted my selves a little bit. I knew what life was about; hell, I was aware! What I wasn’t prepared for was the level of intensity he would bring to my life—the level of intensity that arose from two people intentionally choosing to be together, and then discussing and sitting with all the ways their patterns and adaptations were preventing them from treating each other respectfully and lovingly.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy—as anyone whose taken on intentional relationship building and family of origin healing with a partner can attest—but I had decided to start using fear as a compass and following where it seemed to point. I was game. He was game. And then, 14 months into our relationship we intentionally decided to try getting pregnant. We talked about it and chose it, agreeing that we would pursue an embodied birth and bring it about with our loving attention. We consciously (and a bit gleefully) put away my diaphragm, figuring it would take my 37-year-old uterus upwards of 9-18 months to get pregnant. We were wrong; I was pregnant six weeks later.
If I were to choose a movie scene to describe what happened over the next four years, it would be The Machine scene from Princess Bride when Prince Rugen gets pissed at Westley’s defiance and turns up the pain dial.
The thing about The Affliction is that It’s so completely humiliating, shameful, and embarrassing. Like a revolting penance visited upon me for the sin of being anxious and afraid and unable to control the world around me; for having social anxiety so thick you can touch it; for worrying incessantly and trying to figure out the exact right answer every time so I can feel safe in my skin. It is literally the manifestation of all my darkest emotions and most rigid adaptations.
During our son’s first 18 months, The Affliction started showing up every few months and then every couple of weeks. I’d barely recover from one bout before another would begin. Extensive medical testing showed I was perfectly healthy; no obstructions, no gall bladder disease, no nothing. Brendan and I were both exhausted; the baby, our 900-square foot apartment, money, our fledgling marriage, and my rigid adherence to patterns and old ways of being. All these things were contributing to the greatest pain I’d ever felt. Something had to give; and the most obvious answer was me.
More often than not, you really do have to be the change you want to see in the world.
The three things that have had the biggest impact on changing my behavior and altering my experience of The Affliction have been weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, holistic peer counseling, and Brendan choosing to honestly tell me how my actions impact him.
The therapy sessions give me a venue for digging into my family of origin and how it made me. They have allowed me to, objectively as I can, see my parents for who they were (and are), recognizing the things that made them flawed, the things they had to endure as children, and then choosing to have compassion for them despite their having hurt me.
The holistic peer counseling introduced me to the concepts of Patterns, Control Patterns, and Behavioral Personas, which were integral to understanding myself and who was driving the car at any given time. In summary, [taken from the HPC curriculum]:
- A Pattern develops around our responses to significant (usually traumatic) life occurrences and manifest as a recording that, when played, seems to temporarily take control of us. It’s important to remember that the pattern is not the person.
- A Control Pattern occurs when one emotion overlays another. It arises when distress or trauma occurs and the environment doesn’t feel conducive to or supportive of our releasing distress energy in the moment.
- A Behavioral Persona comprises aspects of ourselves that take on different personality types. Everyone exhibits personas to varying degrees on variable days, each experience lying along a spectrum. On one end, we adapt to our surroundings fluidly and manifest our integrated, whole person while utilizing different aspects of ourselves. On the other end, we flip between personalities unconsciously, at which point they live our lives without our knowledge or explicit consent.
I lived my life unconsciously and selfishly; for all the work I’d been doing, what really brought down the rubber after years of fight, struggle, and avoidance was to accept that. What made that realization stick was to then, from a place of love and a desire to learn, listen to Brendan describe what it was like to live with Unconscious Me. What his experience of being married to my patterns and personas was like.
Supercompetent. Conscientious. Controlling. Critic. Loner. Caretaker. Chameleon. Shy. Martyr. People Pleaser. Little Chrissy. Scanner. Clipboard. Coordinator. CroneChild. Wraith.
These are the parts of myself I’ve slowly uncovered. Each time I found a new one and listened to what she had to say, even if it was for only a few minutes, space was made for someone or something new. A new voice, something scary or sad to sit with. I started to feel I could solve any problem with my self through communication with my selves; I began to hold regular council meetings and literally gave voice to them. In the shower, sometimes in the mirror. Looking at them, SEEING them look back at me through my eyes. For the first time really seeing my self.
My anxiety has diminished over the last two years and The Affliction comes back less often. It has decreased in frequency, intensity, and duration; even at its worst it now lasts for no more than 24 hours. I actually had an attack that peaked this morning before I went to work. As I watched it come on yesterday afternoon and gradually increase through the evening, as I felt it moving through my body and settling down in that old familiar spot right under my solar plexus, I thought about how much has changed. And I was grateful.