It’s Contagious

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote and then read a short piece about Creepy Neighbor Mr. Mason at my mindful writing class. (Mr. Mason was a family “friend” who thought it was appropriate to kiss and touch me when I was 12 or 13 years old and he was at least 45.) As I wrote at the time, it felt empowering and freeing to just say what happened to me. It was the first time I said it face-to-face to other people besides my therapist and my husband, and to my surprise and satisfaction, I didn’t feel ashamed.

Two weeks later, and it’s Thursday evening again, time for writing class. We’re a small group, and this week all eight of us are here in class. We do our usual sitting meditation, a quick warm-up, and then the teacher gives us some prompts and sets us off to write without stopping for 20 minutes.

Since these pieces come out a bit longer than our 10-minute writes, when we are done we pair off and read aloud to our partners. My partner has written about the sense of imminent Armageddon she gets from the hurricanes and wildfires and suffering that has beleaguered us here in the States for the past several months. I have written half of a scene from a novel I sometimes imagine myself writing. Both pieces are rough but have kernels of something rich embedded within them.

We gather back together as a group of eight. The teacher tells us we don’t have time to share everyone’s writing with the group, but do we have three volunteers?

The serious woman who always sits at the corner of the table raises her hand. I’ll call her Allie, though that’s not her real name. She often writes with a strong voice about physical pain and worry. Tonight she reads about remembering herself as a young girl, raped by an older man. I feel the power of the words might knock me over.

After we read, we always have the choice, do we want recall feedback or experiential feedback or no feedback at all? Up to now, we’ve all always requested feedback. But Allie, suddenly looking small, says, “I think I don’t want feedback this time.” So after a moment’s pause, the next person reads.

But I’m worried about Allie. It’s a big deal to put that out there, in front of a group of people who also take some risks in their writing, but not at that level. As soon as class is over, I move over to her side of the table.

“That was a lot,” I say to her, “and so, so painful. How do you feel, after reading that? Are you okay?”

Her eyes well up with tears. “Yes,” she says. “I’m okay. The first time I read it, in the pairs we were in, I felt I was hit by a wave of overwhelming emotion. But when I read it the second time, to the group, I felt relieved.”

“Oh, I’m so glad,” I say. “That’s how I felt, when I read a couple of weeks ago.”

“I’m so glad you read that,” she tells me. “That’s what made it possible for me to even go there, to even let myself write that, and then to read it aloud. You were brave, and that helped me be more brave. I never said that to anyone before, except a little to my therapist, but she doesn’t really want me to go there.”

I have a mixed reaction to her words–on the one hand, I’m so very happy that I shared something that allowed her to dare to speak up about her experience. On the other, I’m humbled, because my story was small and safe, and so I don’t feel I’ve done anything remarkable.

(And yet another part of me is thinking, what’s with your therapist? Why doesn’t she want you to talk about this?)

We talk for a while, and I realize that this is the first time I have stood and talked, face-to-face, with another woman who has had experiences very much like mine. Allie tells me about her body memories and incomplete glimpses of what happened to her. I tell her I have the same experience, especially about things that happened when I was younger. She says that her experiences still cloud her current life, but she doesn’t want to allow that any longer. We compare notes on what we are doing to help heal ourselves.

I know this is what we all do here all the time on WordPress, and I value it enormously. I have found blogging and reading the blogs of others to be so healing. I have been strengthened and heartened and saved by the comments and caring of intelligent, compassionate readers. And yet, I’ve always been able to hide in my anonymity. I’m aware that at any moment, I can shut down my blog, if I feel the need to.

So it’s not the same as standing in the church basement after writing class and looking in the eyes of another woman and talking about the shame we carry, though we know we don’t deserve it. The intensity and intimacy of the conversation are exhilarating.

I walk to my car, and before I can even drive home, I have to text E and tell her about the evening. She wants to cheer me on and says I have inspired someone else, which is kind and supportive of her. But here’s what I really think happened: daring to tell the truth is contagious.

15 thoughts on “It’s Contagious

  1. There is something about saying it out loud, to another living, breathing/human being that makes it very different. I think it’s something to do with Daniel Siegel’s MWE – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo8Yo4UE6g0 – an emotional coming together that relieves an enormous sense of isolation that we have when we carry this stuff alone. It’s different from writing and reading words on a screen. There’s something about the felt presence of another person and what happens in the physical space between us..

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    • You are so right. And thank you for introducing me to Daniel Siegel and MWE. That’s all new to me, not the idea of interconnection per se, but his take on it.

      For a long time, I’ve felt very lonely inside myself. It’s only recently, through my yoga teacher training (which I have yet to write about) and my mindful writing class and I guess through the therapy retreat I did back in May that I am finding out that connection is a possibility for me.

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    • The class was already good, just being a place where we could come together with nothing to do but write and listen to other people’s writing. The teacher does an excellent job of making it safe and comfortable, low pressure but meaningful. But then layering on this layer of vulnerability, and seeing what it meant to Allie to get to read her story, that has made it into an experience that I know I will carry with me long into the future…

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  2. So is courage! On a writing retreat at a Buddhist centre we shared writing, just general stuff. I didn’t feel confident to read my story out loud because I sometimes still stutter and asked a fellow participant to read. Another woman, who also felt too shy to read her story even if for different reasons then gained the courage to read hers out loud to the group because I was able to admit to not being able to. We should spread this kind of thing around a bit more. Writing is powerful in the healing process. So is speaking the truth about what really happened/happens to us. Those body memories still cripples me.

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    • So you also know how good it feels when, without even knowing it, you helped someone else be able to take a risk. I thought back on it several times today, and it made me happy each time. I hope Allie is still feeling relieved and not regretting that she shared.

      I heartily agree with you that writing and sharing our stories is immensely healing. It means so much that others can hear our stories and look at us with gentleness and compassion and concern, but never with the disgust and judgment we often heap on ourselves. That has really helped to teach me that maybe disgust and judgment aren’t the correct responses to those painful experiences.

      I’m sorry your body memories are still so bad for you. I still struggle with them too, but I think it’s getting better, or that is, less frequent maybe? I think being kind to my body, not overriding it, trying to take better care of it–I think that may be helping.

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  3. Wow that is a powerful experience. And what you shared was in my view not at all small and safe. You took and risk and you made yourself vulnerable, and that enabled someone else to find the courage to do the same. That is pretty awesome and you should feel proud.

    I think that kind of openness is what allows us to make real connections with each other. I’ve found that in the CoDA fellowship that I go to. Through that group I’ve connected with a few women who had similar experiences in childhood. It is of massive value to be able to talk to people who really understand what it’s like to deal with all the ongoing effects of that in adult life. And like you say, it’s a very different experience to sharing anonymously online.

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    • Yes, I’m (FINALLY) coming to learn that taking risks and being vulnerable is what makes intimacy possible. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure that out. It’s as though I’ve been stumbling around in the dark and someone finally turned a light on. Now that I know this, it’s become a lot easier to take emotional risks. What I still feel quite unsure about, however, is how to judge if a person is safe or not. I am not confident that I can recognize an untrustworthy person.

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  4. Not knowing how to judge who is safe is a major barrier to taking emotional risks for me as well – I’ve got it wrong so many times in the past, how can I truly be sure this time? Each time I take a risk there is a moment of blind panic, and I think it takes quite a few repetitions of everything turning out ok to really start to trust the process and other people in general.

    Another thing I have found to be a major barrier to connecting with others and helping them is a sense of resentment and grieving over not having been offered help when I needed it, and wanting to withhold that from others. It sounds quite selfish when I lay it out like that, but I’ve come to realise that like anger at those who have hurt you it is a stage you have to go through at your own pace and for as long as it takes, and eventually you feel like you “have enough” left over to share. One of the least helpful pieces of advice to someone who has had their desire to please and accomodate and seek approval taken advantage of, is that of suggesting they do volunteer work or “help themselves by helping others” without knowing where in the process of healing they are. I think that often you need to be nurtured yourself for a while before you are able to give and share .

    I am really happy that you are at this point ❤️😊❤️ and are growing and helping others as well.

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      • Thanks, I didn’t take it as a rant aimed at me. For one thing, I didn’t do this in order to help someone else. That was an unexpected side benefit, though one that made me feel good.

        I know what you mean; it can be painful sometimes to see other people getting the support and care that you didn’t get but that you needed back then (or still need now). I have felt this too sometimes.

        You are completely right, I think, that being nurtured puts us in a better position to nurture others. There has to be something in our reservoir before we can give something away.

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