Learning how to regulate emotions is a lifelong practice. I have found that sometimes the biggest teacher is when we realize we are not being mindful. In this first article of the series, I share where I began, a place of suffering, a place far from living mindfully.
My marriage was in trouble. I was operating in fight, flight, and freeze. Dysfunction was high and the threat of divorce loomed. But how did I get here; where did it go wrong? We were so in love and used to be happy together.
Moving to Australia for Greg felt right. I felt it in my bones. After a year and a half of long-distance dating, 10K miles apart, I visualized the move for love to the other side of the world as seamless. That is until I actually made the move.
It turns out you can’t just move to another country; a visa is required—cue visa approval saga. I packed my house and bags and headed to Australia but would have to leave in three months if I didn’t have a job. Needless to say, no job secured, so back to the US, I went.
Unemployed and homeless with the future in limbo was more stress than I could handle. Of course, I wasn’t truly without a home; my bestie and family welcomed me to stay with them. But I didn’t have a job and was paying a mortgage on an empty house. I believed wholeheartedly Greg and I would persevere but there was no timeline to assure me.
My body revolted from the stress of it all.
I started to pass blood. Every time I sat on the toilet, there was blood. The first time I saw it, “It can’t be,” I thought. My denial was crushed as it reappeared time after time until it was daily. The frequency increased to fifteen or more bloody stools a day. And then the urgency increased without warning; I would have the immediate need to go. I was unable to function.
A colonoscopy revealed ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease. Processing the diagnosis was impossible. The instability of life showed up in the large intestine, the compass of the soul. They say to trust your gut, but what do you do when the gut is out of order?
I responded well to the medication and the symptoms quickly disappeared. In a matter of days, I went from being bedridden for weeks to moving through life. The symptoms were out of sight, out of mind.
I diverted back to denial mode with a mission: press on, get the visa and move forward. However, when I returned to Oz six months later with a visa, the ungrounded feeling remained. Now I felt even more lost; who was I now? Trying to forge a new identity without a support network and heavy with homesickness, I felt lower than low.
I became grief-stricken for my old life. Putting on a brave face while I cried in solitude day in and day out for months on end was my norm.
When Greg and I had our first argument, it began the downward spiral. What would have been your average miscommunication turned into a deadlock of silent treatment on his end and a tear-filled tyrant on mine. My nervous system was in a panic; there was no peace inside of me. I was either ready for battle, fleeing the scene, or paralyzed in fear. My unsteady emotional state did not bode well for the relationship with my then fiancé.
I had lost myself; the bottom had fallen out from beneath me. Sunken in disrepair, yet I was still attempting to rebuild a new life. There were many good times; when we were on, we were on. But it seemed all too often we were either at war or recovering from the fallout.
The fights escalated into a toxic stew of walking on eggshells and brash verbal lashings with both of us sulking in respective corners. If I wasn’t sobbing uncontrollably to Greg, I was screaming at him; I had little emotional regulation. We fought more than we didn’t.
Standard relationship issues became an inferno of fighting. I was either livid or despondent and, even worse, pretending to everyone else that everything was fine.
My emotions were manic; a single remark would set me alight. There was no space between the stimulus and my overreaction. I felt little sense of security or trust in myself or my new life.
As my emotions flared, so did the disease. It came back. My body was mirroring my inflamed thoughts. Lying in the hospital bed, I thought I couldn’t get any lower. The flare and hospitalization were reflections of my inner-turmoil.
When I felt threatened, I developed bad habits of emasculating Greg, wildly snapping at him whenever I felt cornered. I also went into complete shut- down where I would spend the day crying in bed, paralyzed by the emotions.
Life felt like a constant battle to not let the grief, sadness, anger, and insecurity get the best of me.
If I wasn’t fighting or freezing, I was in flight mode. One time the urge to flee was so great during an argument, I jumped out of the car and ran. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I knew I had to leave the situation.
At my worst, I would rage. Out of control, I felt I was starting to lose my mind. On one occasion, I had picked up a wooden cutting board and smashed it on the ground out of frustration. The next moment I was pounding my fists on my head with screaming sobs. Every fight was a war, with one of us always suggesting I move back to the US. The cycle continued for years. The physical urges to destroy objects and hurt myself continued to escalate.
I didn’t think I could get any lower, but then the pendulum of emotions swayed, and anger turned to despair. Another argument left me feeling abandoned, untrusting, and distraught.
I couldn’t get the suicidal thoughts out of my head.
I considered how I would do it. What would be the easiest and most convenient way to end the suffering? Hanging myself seemed too difficult to arrange; guns were unavailable, and no garage to put me to sleep by carbon monoxide. Drowning could work. It wouldn’t be messy. I would walk out into the water and hold my breath until I could no longer. Maybe I would pass out. It could be peaceful. Greg wouldn’t be the one to find me. I would leave a note. I saw myself doing it. I knew which beach I would choose.
I drove to the water. It was a winter’s day of cool salty air with the shining sun hanging low in the sky. I sat there in the car, looking at all the shades of blue, blurred lines where the sea met the sky through my tears. This seemed like the only solution to stop the pain. My behavior felt so rash and my emotions wild; I was scared of myself.
Thoughts drifted through me. The water would be cold. What will it be like at the very end? What if it doesn’t work? And how did I get here? This morning felt like a normal day, but now I’m here. Apprehension arrived just in time.
A moment of light appeared through the darkness.
The thoughts were overpowering, but then I remembered, they’re only thoughts, they will pass.
I had a therapy appointment scheduled in a couple of days. For now, I would go home and get in bed, wait out the coming days, then discuss the episode with my therapist.
By the time I was sitting on her couch, the thoughts had passed, but the harmful residue remained. There was an unsettled feeling inside me, and I felt I had little control over my emotions. Scared by how far my mind played out the scenario, I knew I had to make a change.
Check out, Mindful Autoimmune, my free download of mindfulness practices to help Autoimmune Friends feel grounded and centered.