An Elusive Promise

It had been a long day, full of experiences that further heightened my nervous system’s stress response. A client in crisis requiring additional resources, a full day of travel across three time zones on crowded, loud airplanes, and a flurry of insistent texts and calls that required more of me, despite my careful plan to clear my availability for the next three days. I was also hungry, a particularly bad companion to my stress, my last meal a hurried breakfast sandwich at the airport nine hours earlier.

When we finally made it to our destination—a beautiful home overlooking the water on Whidbey Island—everyone else was already gathered, having arrived several hours earlier. My body felt the familiar angst about fitting in, even though my mind knew these were our closest friends, people I would trust with my life. I sat at the kitchen island, breathing in the spicy aroma of the fresh batch of Biryani our friend started as soon as our ferry landed, taking in the faces and animated conversation of everyone gathered in the warm, open kitchen. And sitting in that welcoming space, surrounded by people I love, I felt alone.

An instinctual relational pattern was playing out, a pattern born out of early attachment disruptions and complex trauma. At fifty-five years old, I still have much to tend to that is held in my body without a sense of time and space, so anything remotely similar feels like it is happening here and now. So many of my early memories tell the story of a little girl who was always afraid, who desperately needed the comforting presence of an attuned caregiver to feel safe. In the absence of safety and connection, the only option available became tears of protest and eventual shut-down when no comfort arrived.

In that moment at the kitchen island, I had limited capacity to access any calming resources on my own.

My friend, also a therapist, tuned in as I put words to the stress I was feeling with work demands. He turned his body towards me, his eyes connected with mine, and he nodded slowly. He didn’t speak any words, but in that moment I felt seen, understood, and no longer alone. That moment of connection brought me back to my adult self, one who could recognize what was happening, and make choices that would bring care and rest to my exhausted body and nervous system. I’d like to say those choices were easy and worked quickly, but that is rarely the case when our systems have been in distress for a long time. Rest came eventually, but not before I exhausted myself trying to figure out this pattern so I could fix it, once and for all.

It is so tempting for me to believe this pattern is one I can resolve on my own, because “figuring it out on my own” became my strategy for survival. It offered an elusive promise: figure out the problem and you’ll be done with it. And yet, my healing, and your healing, requires the same thing it always has—a deeper understanding and compassionate connection to who we are, which we experience over a lifetime of moments of attuned presence with others; moments that collectively bring us home.

Janet Stark is a deeply feeling introvert who has learned the value of creating nurturing, restful space in a loud world. She loves the connection that is possible when we slow down and listen to each other with intention. A few of her favorite things include the smell of freshly baked bread, soft blankets, good books, and the warmth of her puppy, Oliver, snuggled up close. Janet and her husband Chris love traveling, especially to spend time with their three adult children.