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By Lissa Rankin, MD

I had known my current partner as a dear friend for two and a half years before he felt safe enough to tell me the real story under his polished, accomplished, “I’ve got it all going on” image. He drip-fed me the story of his trauma history via text while I was in Hawaii, stringing plumeria flowers into leis in preparation for a retreat I was teaching. Text by text, he wrote his story, unfolding the devastating tragedy of his young life, one paragraph at a time. All of this was a surprise to me. I had known him- I thought very intimately- for years by that point. But it turned out there was a great deal of secret pain I didn’t know anything about.

When I realized what was happening and I started to take in the gravity of what had happened to this man I loved, I texted that I would be happy to pick up the phone or get on Zoom so he could tell me in a more intimate way. He responded by saying that, as a writer, it was actually easier to write about something so vulnerable, it was actually easier to write about something so vulnerable, rather than tell me voice-to-voice on the phone or face-to-face on Zoom. As a writer myself, I totally understood that.

So I sat there all day, stringing leis, while he wrote me a private memoir. The brutality he described was so tragic that my heart hurt and my eyes teared up as I sat outside in the garden, holding sacred space for his brave disclosure, feeling so moved by his share and so sad he went through so much pain. He told me he had never written his story before, and he had never had someone hold it so tenderly, like it mattered, like it was precious and deserving of being wrapped in silk and held in loving hands. I told him his story was a treasure to me, and it was an incredible privilege to be the holder of his story, the one he trusted enough to allow the story to be witnessed.

His story was so personal, so open-hearted, so full of pain and suffering, like a toothache you might feel frightened to breathe over. It was written like the most gorgeous of memoirs, the ones we all love, like Eat, Pray, Love or Wild or Untamed- in which the protagonist is not afraid to make themselves not only the hero, survivor, and victim, but also the perpetrator, bearer of shadowy aspects, and fool.

He was so scared to share his story with me, given how much pressure men like him feel to bottle up their emotions, hide their imperfections, avoid vulnerability like it’s a novel virus, put on a brave, stoic, equanimous mask, and tend to women’s emotions, rather than expecting women to hold theirs. He feared I would think less of him, look down on him, pity him, judge him, or otherwise see him as damaged.

But I felt just the opposite. I thought he was brave and badass and beautiful BECAUSE of his vulnerability, courage, and resilience. That he came from the origins that beget him and became the man he is today is a fucking miracle.  Not only did his vulnerability not make me feel inclined to reject him, as he feared. It actually made me trust him more and feel closer to him, since I had shared a lot of my own vulnerability with him, and it had felt unequal for quite some time. The day he wrote me his story was a turning point in our relationship that got me on a plane after Covid restrictions lifted to fly out to where he lived. We’ve been living part-time in California and part-time in Boston ever since.

Because I believe writing your vulnerable story and having it witnessed by loving, attuned, non-judgmental eyes and faces is medicine that helps rewire the traumatized nervous system, heal relational trauma, and be part of a holistic treatment plan for mental or physical illness, I am joining forces with Memoir As Medicine author Nancy Aronie to teach a six-week Memoir As Medicine online writing class. And you, dear ones, are invited. We begin January 18 and if you register before January 8, you save $100 and get all kinds of yummy bonuses. 

SIGN UP FOR MEMOIR AS MEDICINE HERE

Happy New Year!

In addition to letting you know Nancy and I will be teaching our writing class, I also wanted to check in and wish you a thriving 2023, after a tumultuous few years that have left a lot of us feeling pretty undone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my priorities over the past six months, and you may have noticed that one of the things I’ve been prioritizing less is being active on social media and blogging a lot. In part, that’s because I haven’t felt the public health duty to keep you all informed about the pandemic with as much urgency as I felt in 2020. In part, it’s also that I’ve been trying to cut back on other priorities so I can move my non-profit work for Heal At Last up the priority ladder.

But it’s also because I’m one year into a romantic relationship with this man who told me his vulnerable story, and the traumas that informed that story mean we have a lot of relational healing we’re devoting ourselves to, together. He is also an author and a physician in the mind-body-spirit space, so we have a lot of fun sharing what we have in common. We also share some common growth edges too, like how to know what we need and dare to ask for it, share power rather than giving it away or dominating, negotiate healthy boundaries, and stand up for ourselves and protect ourselves and each other- without getting into power struggles.

Since I’ve been mostly single for nine years other than a very short relationship that ended with him abruptly abandoning me, my daughter, and the dog we had just adopted together, and since my new partner has a heavy trauma burden and I have my own relational trauma issues, navigating intimacy is no small task. We have three different IFS therapists involved – one for each of us personally and one couple’s therapist. And we’re also seeing trauma therapist and cult recovery expert Rachel Bernstein from the Indoctrination podcast to help with recovery from narcissistic abuse.

We are very aware of the amount of privilege we have to be able to pay for all that expert support, and we feel some guilt around how many people also have heavy trauma burdens and yearn for healthy relationships but don’t have the resources or access to get this kind of help. It’s not fair, and we’re both working in our professional lives to try to change that.

That said, it turns out it’s a BIG lift to do this kind of personal, spiritual, intimate trauma healing and attachment wounding repair together, as a couple. It’s a beautiful, tender, heart-opening experience, and it also feels like climbing Mt. Everest sometimes.

When we started coming together more intimately a year ago, I felt like we were in Kathmandu, looking at the impossible peak of a giant mountain, and I was going, “Um…that’s a big mountain. We’re going to need to work out every day and get in shape. We’re going to need tons of equipment. We’re going to need a sherpa and a trainer and some oxygen tanks.” And my boyfriend was going, “Ah, that’s just a little bump of a hill. No worries. We’ll leap right over it.”

I was going, “Uh- I think we might get frostbite. We might lose a limb. We might die. We might fail to summit.”

He was going, “Oh don’t be so dramatic. We’ll be fine. Just hold my hand and we’ll go for a little stroll.”

It was a refreshing moment when we both found ourselves at the bottom of the mountain taking a few steps towards the summit, only to realize we took three steps up the mountain and then began promptly pushing each other down the hill. It took us six months to make it to base camp, and we were able to spend the summer, first in Boston for six weeks and then at Esalen for a month, acclimating to the altitude, only to begin our climb again when we separated after ten weeks together, and humbly realized we were still pushing each other down the mountain.

We’re now navigating an attempt at a real intimate relationship with home bases 3000 miles apart, and I’m also trying to balance that with raising a junior in high school who was impacted- as all our teens were- by the pandemic. It’s made me realize that I’ve come a long way from my medical life, when relationships were always second to my job, when the people closest to me always gave me a hall pass because “Lissa’s busy saving lives,” which meant people expected very little of me relationally. The loss was irreplaceable, and the capacity for real trust, intimacy, safety, and connection was nil. My loved ones were generous with me, but the toll was too high. I did not want to make the same mistake twice when my writing career took off and opportunities started rolling in that threatened to take me away from my loved ones. I feel proud that I got my priorities in better order in this career than I did when I was practicing medicine.

A year and a half away from an empty nest, I’m beginning to feel the ache of that motherhood transition. If you do your job as a mother good enough, you raise this beautiful creature who is supposed to break your heart when they naturally pull away and begin their own autonomous, sovereign life. That day will come soon and I can feel the tears right underneath the words, but until then, I am cherishing every moment I still get my daughter at home.

In between mothering and nurturing a new romance with an old friend, I’ve also written two book manuscripts I haven’t tried to publish yet- one about IFS-informed boundaries and one about spirituality without spiritual bypassing. So needless to say, social media and blogging slipped WAY down my priority list in the past few months. But I’ll be coming up for air here and there to communicate with you all.

As the new year dawns upon us, I wonder how things are unfolding for you. What are you learning? What has changed with your priorities since the pandemic? How are your relationships faring in the midst of all this change? Are you doing okay?

My cousin Rebecca Ching, the IFS therapist who (thank Goddess!) introduced me to IFS, posted to her newsletter some New Years inquiries that I thought were wonderful creative journal prompts or conversation starters with loved ones, so I’ll share them here, some of which were inspired by Desiree Adaway.

  • What worked? 
  • What did not work?
  • What did I celebrate?
  • How did I honor my boundaries?
  • What commitments did I achieve and which ones did not not achieve?
  • What was my favorite memory?
  • How did I treat and talk to myself? 
  • How did I feed well, move well, rest well, hydrate well?
  • How did my word of the year anchor me and where did I go astray? 
  • Knowing what I know now, what would I say to myself at the beginning of 2022? 
  • What surprised me? 
  • Who were my most treasured and supportive relationships?
  • What mistakes did I make that still sting? And where do I need to grieve and forgive? 
  • What changes and transitions did I move through this year? 
  • What brought joy and energy?
  • What did I dread or drain me?
  • What or who did I move away from? 
  • What were the most helpful supports, tools, resources?
  • What am I grateful for and how can I express that gratitude? 
  • What will I say yes to in 2023?
  • What will I say no to in 2023? 
  • What is my word for the year? 
  • Who and where do I need to ask for support to achieve my commitments while honoring my boundaries and focus?
  • How can I push back on how things have always been done, dissent or resist in ways that move me and the communities I am in towards more health and healing?

Happy New Year to you all!

Originally published at lissarankin.com