The night before last an unwanted visitor crept into our house. As my husband and I drifted to sleep she was already inside, stealthily moving to her target. If the automatic ice-maker on the freezer hadn’t dumped its load just then – its familiar rumble jolting me from the verge of dreams – I would have dozed on, never the wiser. But my eyes opened and there she was, watching me. She went into action the moment I discovered her presence, slipping under the covers and whispering in my ear.
Her method is always the same. She starts out friendly enough, chattering about the events of the day as if from my perspective, but then quietly points out the things that escaped my notice: a worry, a slight, a misstep, a failure. Soon she is connecting decades’ worth of dots, reminding me that I should always worry, always guard myself, that I always get it wrong, that I am unworthy. Then she flicks the switch on her projector, playing scenes I don’t want to see.
She first appeared when I was three or four. I cried and sobbed so loudly my sisters awoke and ran for my mother, who sat on the edge of my bed and asked “What’s wrong, Jeannie?”
“I’m scared of the magic pictures!” I wailed.
“What are magic pictures?”
“Mean faces that float in the dark. They won’t go away.”
“Oh Jeannie, that’s just your imagination!” mom laughed with relief. “It isn’t real. It’s just in your mind.” My mother was well acquainted with my active imagination – I had numerous invisible friends and hippity-hopped around the yard constantly making up songs and stories to amuse my pretend entourage. Mom rubbed my back and told me the magic pictures were all in my head.
Her words were meant to comfort, but this new knowledge frightened me. If the magic pictures were coming from inside my head, then no one else could help make them go away. It was only up to me, and I had no idea how to stop them. So I learned to wait them out, to cry more quietly so my sisters couldn’t hear. As the years went on, the magic pictures became scenes from real-life, full of biting criticism; the past replayed through a lens of self-loathing.
In sobriety, recovery begins as we go back and understand where our thinking got off-track. Minor misalignments from childhood carry us far off-course by the time we become adults. We heal by identifying these points in our lives and resetting (this is the concept of “UN RE” that was so powerful for me I put it onto coffee mugs and t-shirts).
The other night, as I endured archived mental footage of shortcomings, failures, and bad behaviour from years gone by, I sobbed in the silent way I’ve learned (only now it’s not my sisters I’m afraid of waking, it’s my gentle husband next to me). An hour went by. My visitor was relentless.
I tried to think my way out of it by remembering my mom comforting me all those years ago, telling me it was just my imagination, but the visitor would have none of it. She immediately twisted that thought into guilt: I misinterpreted mom’s explanation back then. How many times have I thought I was comforting my own children but instead I was screwing them up? Soon a fresh wave of tears came as I reflected on possible parental failures.
Then another voice emerged, perhaps this very voice I’m using to write with now.
“This is why I drank,” it said frankly. “Drinking helped me fall asleep before the whispering. Why am I allowing this? This is nothing but lake diving.”
“Lake diving” goes back to a lesson from Sunday School. When we ask for forgiveness, the thing we did wrong is forgiven and tossed into the bottom of a deep lake. Once we take responsibility for something and acknowledge regret, we have to accept the forgiveness for which we’ve asked. Going through memories is like scuba diving for old garbage from the bottom of a lake, emerging triumphantly with a shout. “I found it!”
My tears stopped suddenly as I realized the ridiculousness of waving decaying old dug-up relics over my head, reliving the pain, and calling, “God can you ever forgive me?!”
I pictured God in Billy Crystal form, waving his hands and shaking his head.
I’m busy over here, what do you need? I’ve already thrown that in the lake, why do you keep diving after it? Why do you ask me to do the same thing again and again? I’ve got the refugees to worry about, d’ya mind? You’ve been forgiven already, what you don’t believe me? I’m God! I should know. Cut it out. Leave it alone. Enough already.
Huddled under the blanket, I started to smile. As my mind became more alert, the dark visitor and all her power faded away. She doesn’t come often anymore, but clearly I need a plan to deal with her.
I thought about a powerful book I’d recently read called “The Buddha and the Borderline” by Kiera Van Gelder, and some of the techniques used to help those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) regulate emotions and process triggers.
When Kiera relates an upsetting encounter to her therapist, he asks her which of her “parts” was engaged in the event. The concept is that all of us have different personality parts that we draw on in various circumstances: at work we engage one part, socially another part, in confrontation a different part – we draw on familiar past experiences and bring out that part of us. It’s why we might be competent leaders at work but fall into childish patterns at family events. Traumatic events from the past can lock in some “parts” that are not so helpful – a crisis might bring out a “deer in the headlights” response that comes from being powerless as a child, for example.
Kiera’s therapy involves envisioning all of her various parts together in a room, familiarizing herself with all of the ways she has learned to engage with the world: the tough girl, the frightened child, the academic, the victim, the dominatrix. Once engaged with awareness, she can call forward the most appropriate part of herself. Most people do this instinctively and have lots of healthy parts to work with. Trauma and/or mental illness can create parts that are injured and disruptive, however, and these need to be nurtured and understood.
In recovery, it is common to hear people talk about their addictive voice as a separate part of themselves. Some give this part names like Wolfie, Trixie, or The Itty Bitty Shitty Committee. I’ve never named mine; she’s too slippery and enmeshed to single out. But as I laid there in the dark, I was pretty sure she’d just left the room, chased out by Billy-Crystal-as-God’s sweeping gestures.
“What part of me was that?” I asked myself, emulating the therapist from Van Gelder’s memoire. “Who sneaks in here and whispers and plays old movies and makes me cry? Why does she do it?”
I found the answers in my mind, and fell asleep soon after.
Last night I crawled into bed with lingering dread, fearing the whispers as I have since childhood. Then I remembered that I could call forward a different part, so I asked the wise, kindly woman who’s been developing these past few years to comfort me to sleep. Her voice was raspy and warm as she murmured, “You are safe…everything is fine.”
With a twinkle in her eye she added, “No lake diving for you any more. God is busy taking care of the world. Time to get the rest you need.”