No tears. A little after I read my story, Lisa, one of the other women at the retreat, asks me, “How can you read that story without crying?”
I shrug, “I don’t cry anymore. I remember I cried in 2010 when my son went away. And I cried in 1998 when my boyfriend (now husband) misunderstood my intentions about something important. I can’t remember crying any other times in the past 19 years…”
I know, crazy, huh? This is part of why I sometimes fear I have a heart turned to stone.
Of course, I know it’s not all stone. I know I love my husband and my sons. I have affection for my friends. I get worked up about political injustices. But I don’t tend to get mad in relationships. I rarely, if ever, feel sad. And I worry that even my love is turned down lower than what it should be, sometimes.

The afternoon. After we share our stories, we break for lunch, a huge spread of sandwich-making materials. We can make our own food and go to the beach or eat at the table or whatever we want. We have the afternoon free, though we have two assignments to work on:

  • a collage representing the characteristics of our wise inner guide
  • a conversation with the girl we described in our stories

A couple of the women go running. One eats and goes to take a long bath. My plan is to eat and then take a nap, since I slept so little the night before (insomnia being a long-term challenge for me and maybe worse because I was nervous about the retreat).

I go back up to my room. It’s sweet, with a beautiful round window facing out towards the ocean. I lie on the bed, but I can’t fall asleep. My head is busy. I am starting to regret telling such an intimate story. The longer I lie there, the more my thoughts spin out, unfocused and disorganized. I can’t decide if it’s exhaustion or psychological distress; perhaps it’s a bit of both.

I berate myself for sharing the story about Lee. Maybe it’s too melodramatic. No one wants to hear something like that. It’s like nothing else the others have told. Maybe E thinks I should have reined it in.

Fine, then. Forget it. Stop going in circles. I get up and go back into the dining room. The sandwich spread has been been replaced by materials for collage making, mostly old calendars and magazines. Because I knew we’d be making collages, I have also brought some materials along. I sit down and start selecting images.

While I sit there, Astrid, another one of the participants, approaches me. “Can I tell you something?”

“Of course,” I say.
She sits down next to me. “I’m so glad you shared that story of yours, even though I imagine it was hard. For my own story, I tried to pick something safer. I was nervous about what others would say. But actually I have a story a lot like yours, too. And it helped me to hear all those great messages you got. They were so reassuring. And you know what else? It helped me to hear myself say, ‘it’s not your fault’ in my own voice.”
I can’t say that all my uncertainty fades in that moment, but it helps, a lot, that’s for sure.
I work on my collage. I decide that I am not looking for words, for the most part. I am looking for a feeling, a warmth, a protectiveness. I keep it simple.
Outside, there’s a hammock. I  crawl inside of that. I still can’t fall asleep, but I like the feeling of being enveloped in a cocoon.
Then I head back up to my room. I pull out the other assignment. I’m supposed to have a dialogue between the younger injured part of myself, the girl, and the wise woman. I’m to take the perspective of the wise woman and imagine what kind of stance she would take toward the injured girl. I should start with compassion, and I can draw from all the empathy and responses I  just received from the other women before lunch. Then I should speak out loud to the girl about the feelings she probably experienced in the situation and the needs she had.
This is an exercise I am familiar with; E and I have worked similarly before in individual therapy. Sometimes speaking, sometimes writing, I have tried to express to the girl that I “get” her experience and what it must have been like. E advises that I actually ask the girl, “Is there more to the story you want to share? Am I understanding your feelings?” and to listen, internally, for what I hear back.
For the assignment, if we want, we can ask the girl about the beliefs and conclusions she drew from her experience (or we can guess at the beliefs and ask her if we are correct). We can assess whether these beliefs are realistic and life-affirming. If the girl seems willing, and we feel there is a strong connection, we can suggest some alternative beliefs (for example, instead of “I am weak,” she might consider, “I didn’t have the knowledge, tools or strategies to fight back”).
So, I know what this assignment is. I may have even done parts of it about this particular story; I can’t remember for sure. But it feels too overwhelming at the moment. I put my head down and finally, fall asleep.