Given my line of work, I often get the question- how long? It is always in reference to some form of suffering. How long will it take? How long will it take until I feel better? How long until I no longer feel triggered all the time? How long will it take until I feel like myself again? Will I ever feel like myself again?
My heart always goes out to the person who is asking it, because to me it is always an indication of the deep need that is there and an indication that the person is prepared to start the process, which is a very vulnerable time. Understandably, reassurance is what we seek. My answer is always the same… I don’t know how long it will take you, but I know that you will get through it by allowing yourself to do two things: lean in (ie experience the feelings) and let go (ie process them).
When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, I had been going to therapy to address issues from my childhood. While that work was cut short by needing to move home, it began an important part of my healing. After she died, I found a new therapist who helped me to hold myself together when I felt like I was being torn apart. But it wasn’t until I began my master’s program in art therapy that I finally found the tools I needed to fully engage and release the grief that I felt. I spent a good 6-9 months with a nightly practice of visual art journalling, in which I leaned into the feelings and let go of them by expressing them through shape, color and form. And then I spent the remainder of my time studying and examining the nature of grief, attachment, and identity.
The death of my mom made me acutely aware of the many ways we experience loss throughout the lifespan, which often get overlooked as they are not related directly to death. The loss of innocence, the loss of friendships, when we finish/end a life stage, the loss of intimate/romantic relationships, and so forth. In between the death of my mother and graduate school, I worked for a domestic violence agency in their shelter, and I came to realize that it was often the persons inability to tolerate the grieving process of leaving their abusive partner that lead them to return to the relationship. It wasn’t a sign of weakness that they could not tolerate grieving, it was a sign that we desperately need to learn how to grieve in order to heal. This is what drove me towards needing to figure it out, both for myself and for those whom I wished to serve.
I realize that a lot of trust is involved in this process, trust that if you lean in and let go that it really will be more helpful rather than harmful. We have a natural tendency to pull away from pain. If this lack of trust is really inhibiting you- create an exit strategy if you find yourself getting in over your head. Most people won’t actually find themselves in that space, but if you are worried, than it is important to take that into concern to heart and honor it by responding to it.
If you are skeptical, become a scientist. Observe how you feel before, during, and after this process of leaning in and letting go. No true hypothesis can be fully vetted until you have run the experiment for a good chunk of time, so set a daily goal for X amount of days and see what happens. As those sassy memes like to remind us: “Wow, I really regret that workout today- said no one ever”. The same is true for this process of emotional processing, because when we show up for ourselves, it is an act of self love.
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.