In my sophomore year of college, I volunteered as a legal advocate for battered women. This challenging work introduced me to a whole new world; I had never been beaten, had never been involved in the legal system, had never experienced much outside of my suburban upper middle class reality. I had little to offer these women, many of whom had lived lives defined by trauma and deprivation.
I saw first-hand how the cycle of abuse drew its tentacles across generations.
I wound up very attached to some of my clients, and very protective of them. When I started dreaming about them and, worse yet, lying awake night after night wondering if they were okay, I knew I needed help.
My new therapist, a college counselor not much older than me, told me to create an invisible golden pyramid around my body, to protect my fragile self from seeing broken eye sockets while hearing "But I LOVE him!". Every time I walked in to greet a client, I was to build my golden pyramid, through which I could see and reach out, but nothing could truly penetrate.
He knew from our very first session that I had little internal defense against outside influences. I was then, as I am now, highly sensitive - an easy cry, an easy mark, a hair-trigger sensor of neighboring emotions. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and then I place that sleeve directly into the palm of pretty much anyone I interact with, saying "Here you go! Do with it what you will!"
I gamely tried building this pyramid when interacting with my clients and my lack of success surprised no one. I would spend copious amounts of time visualizing a shining pyramid, only to find it vaporize the moment a client began to cry.
I always cried too, which was not terribly helpful.
After similar experiences in a special education classroom, a teen alcohol and drug inpatient unit and a suicide hotline, I decided I wasn't cut out for pyramid building and so gave up on the notion of pursing social work as a career.
Someone else, someone a lot tougher than me, would have to save the world.
Years later, I was running a private massage therapy practice as a way to support my dance "career". I loved the work; it was quiet, one-on-one, tangible. Seeing and feeling the difference I made in someone's body was deeply satisfying and when people left my table happier, more relaxed and grateful .... well, it was a heckuva lot better than waiting tables.
Somewhere along the line, while working with dancers, athletes and desk jockeys in equal measure, I began to attract a new type of client: the chronic pain sufferer. These women - for they were all women - were sweet and vulnerable and deeply, deeply suffering. I think they mostly liked me because I listened to them, as they often wanted to talk just as much as they wanted to be massaged.
Before massaging any client, I always grounded myself first, a hippie massage school version of building a golden pyramid. I had worked on this version of pyramid building since college and with most of my clients it served me well. But I soon found it wasn't enough when I worked on those with chronic pain.
One would come in with an unrelenting headache and leave feeling relief, but I would have a headache. Another suffered from general stiffness and depression and I'll be damned if I didn't feel stiff and depressed every time I finished working on her.
It was like their misery seeped into my body. Their pain became my pain.
I tried to visualize their tension flowing through me. Or reversing the flow and sending good energy into their body. Or letting it bounce off of me and disperse into the air.
None of it worked.
Eventually, I wound up with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, my arms so weak I couldn't work, drive, type, brush my hair. I finally found relief through studying Pilates and closed my most of my massage practice to become a Pilates trainer.
It was clear to me I needed more distance from my clients, that physically touching suffering people was too draining on someone as sensitive as myself. I just didn't have what it took.
Someone much tougher than me would have to heal these people.
In the years before I became a mother, I worked in therapy on setting boundaries in every relationship I had. After years of trying to guess what people wanted from me, the thought that relationships can be an open, equal give-and-take was new. I slowly learned how to turn my antennae inward to sense what I felt and what I wanted and then give those needs tentative expression.
I gave birth to Z at the age of 34. I had done over a decade of weekly work in therapy and was finally in a equal partnership with someone who knew me and supported me in all my imperfection.
I felt I was as evolved as I was going to get.
When you've worked on setting boundaries in psychotherapy for many years, having a child is an especially humbling experience. When she opened her mouth for her very first cry, I could almost hear the universe saying Those are some shiny new boundaries you got there, GOOD LUCK WITH THAT.
From the moment of her birth, she and I were tethered in a way I had never been with another person (other than my own mother, perhaps) and I had absolutely NO barrier between her emotions and my own. When she smiled, I grinned like a loon. When she despaired, I would tear my hair out trying to calm her, to soothe her, to make it right. I could see my needs, but they were far away and her needs were always front and center. Of course, this is mostly the way it should be with infants; they cannot fill any of their own needs at first and we must attend to them as best we can. But somewhere along the line, my needs, newly understood and wanting to be filled, had to fit in too.
It didn't take me too long to decide that someone much tougher than me was needed to do this mothering thing.
But, of course, while there are many, many people tougher than me, there is no one else to do this job of mothering my girls.
Motherhood is not an internship I can quit. I have to muddle my way through every moment with my girls and hope that the benefits of being raised by this deeply sensitive, deeply imperfect mother outweigh the negatives. I am learning, in my typical two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach, to set and enforce boundaries with the biggest boundary pushers I've ever met.
I think about my college therapist's golden pyramid often these days, as my girls give me nearly constant lessons in boundary setting.
"This is my notebook, but I can get you one of your own." "I'll be available to help you when I'm finished with this phone call." "You may get angry with me but you may NOT hit me."
I still struggle to not be affected by their every mood; despite all my efforts my skin is still paper thin, my inner defenses against the emotions of others, especially those I love, are still weak. But I don't build a pyramid to protect myself anymore; it takes too long and it lacks flexibility.
Instead, I imagine a pop-up tent. It is pressed down to the floor most of the time as I let my girls in close to me to be seen and heard and loved. At other times, when they are being too loud, too close, too needy and I can feel their emotions flood into mine, I let the tent pop up around me. I am there with them, but on the other side of a whimsical piece of fabric, a thin flexible boundary between us.