I’ll run the risk of being intimate with brokenness. ~ Sleeping at Last, “Son”
There is a feeling that creeps in sometimes, when sitting with a client. I used to think it was because I was new to the work, that it was merely an issue of inexperience, something that would fade with practice. Face to face with pain, they talk, I listen, and I wonder, “Is this helping? Am I helping?”
Sometimes, the things they’re saying - or more often the things they aren’t saying, but I know from their history - all feel like too much. How can you possibly help someone who has been through this?, whispers the voice of doubt which accompanies me to every session.
As I speak with, and learn from, a greater number of therapists, counselors, and social workers, fellow students as well as those with years of experience, I am learning to quiet that voice. I am finally reaching a point where I have stopped interpreting my misgivings as an issue of incompetence.
Sometimes, this not-knowing is the best thing I can do.
Trauma is defined as an event in which the normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed, and thus the memory is stored differently in the brain and in the body. Trauma occurs when the thing that happens is JUST TOO MUCH, when the body and the brain - and perhaps the soul? - say, “I have no idea what to do with this.”
And so I’ve come to see it as a mark of respect and validation, to sit with these clients and think, just for a little while, “I have no idea what to do with this either.” It can’t end there, but maybe it’s necessary for the beginning.
After trauma, things feel broken. It’s all too much. There is hurt and shame and a general sense that one is trying to put the pieces back together but they just aren’t fitting the way they used to, so now what? And maybe, in an effort to make things whole again, to not have to feel that brokenness any longer, we hurry up and glue the pieces back in a clumsy, haphazard way, so that nothing works quite the same anymore but at least all the pieces are there. At least we feel like we’re doing something about it.
Have you ever tried to put flowers in a cracked vase, the kind that gets smashed and glued back together right away, before anybody has a chance to see it broken? If you don’t take the time to glue the pieces just right, it leaks. Set something heavy on it, and it crumbles. Maybe it looks okay on the shelf, maybe you can turn it in such a way that you can’t even see the broken pieces in the right light. But under any kind of stress, it just can’t hold up.
My role as a social worker, as I’ve just begun to understand it, and the role of anyone who works with trauma, is to look at what's been crumbled, to confront the brokenness, and to stay the rush to crunch together mismatched pieces that don’t fit the way they used to.
It is to say, This is your brokenness and I am not afraid. It hurts so much and I am going to look at it with you anyway, until we can put the pieces together slowly and carefully and make things truly whole.
There is an intimacy in looking at such brokenness that is both necessary and terrifying. In doula work, we call it “holding space.” It refers to sitting, standing, walking, or swaying with, holding the hand of a woman in labor and saying, No one can carry this pain for you but I will stay with you in it and help you not be afraid of it. While I’m hesitant to compare the birth of a baby to the survival of a trauma, I would argue that there are elements of the pain and the transformation that are remarkably similar. More importantly, I would argue that for those of us who come alongside the people experiencing such pain, the roles in each scenario are nearly identical.
Further, I would argue that this mentality is not in any way limited to those in professional roles, and that we could all benefit from learning to be intimate with brokenness - in ourselves, in our loved ones, and in our culture. I would argue that the beauty of the Advent season is the expectation that our brokenness, individually and collectively, will find healing - and that the commercialism of the holiday season is a desperate attempt to pretend such brokenness does not exist.
Nobody wants to see brokenness. We don’t want to see it in our culture and we don’t want to see it in our friends or our kids and definitely not in our marriages (I’ve written before about how I contributed to some major problems in that regard), and under no circumstances do we want to see it in ourselves. Oh God please no not that.
We’re wired to try to get away from pain and we’re wired to turn away from brokenness. If by some chance we see our own brokenness, we typically put the pieces back together real quick, because we know nobody wants to look at that.
For as long as we refuse to acknowledge our brokenness, we miss out on opportunities for healing.
Advent is difficult for me because sometimes I feel numb to it. I want to be in the beauty and magic and love and peace of it, but it’s hard to get there.
Why? Because I don’t want do the part where you have to feel the pain and brokenness that makes the resolution so comforting and healing.
This year, I know that Christmas and all its silver and sparkle will stay meaningless and hollow unless I allow myself to feel the brokenness in the country, in the world, and in our spirits, in a way that gives me something to celebrate in late December.
In preparing to celebrate Christmas with its intended meaning and power, let me first face all the brokenness and resist the urge to turn away. Let me remember, when I feel afraid of it, that facing brokenness is the first and essential step on the path to healing.