In my practice, I talk a lot about slowness and patience with the pace that our bodies take. In somatics work, this is sometimes called the "inherent treatment plan" - trust your body's pace, your body will show you the way. I discuss the difference between those big, transformative experiences which can be useful guides but don't always last, and the small, doable, daily practices that offer us changes we can keep. Ultimately, both are important. For me, there are many small, barely perceptible moments and practices that continuously shift my trajectory. But there is also one, huge decision that snapped everything into clarity.
I’d spent much of my childhood and twenties in a confused blur - I was disconnected, numb, cynical, avoidant. I functioned "well" externally, but I felt miserable and I hated myself. On a "good" day, I could shrug my shoulders and convince myself that, at the very least, there's sugar. In part, I studied psychology because I wanted to figure out what the fuck was wrong with me. I wanted to understand why I was so disconnected from the experience of being alive. And throughout college and grad school, I couldn't figure it out. My life was just fine, nothing terrible had happened to me, I wasn't physically abused, I didn't experience excessive financial scarcity, and as far as I could tell, my parents tried their best. I mean, sure, our relationship was strained, and it seemed inordinately difficult for me to be around them. And yeah, I felt immense obligation and guilt and fear for reasons I couldn't quite discern. And yes, any time I tried to point out something that might have helped me feel safer in the relationship, the response was a mixture of blaming, dismissal, and waifing. But that seemed like normal parent-child stuff. That's just family, right? ....right?
But, as they say, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And the teacher appeared in the form of a subreddit that I stumbled upon for children of parents with a personality disorder. I had started reading the posts because I thought that a few of my clients might benefit from the resources offered. But as I began to scroll, I was blown away by how much it all resonated with me. People described feeling isolated, trapped, fearful, obligated, and guilty. They were posting - almost word for word - things that my parents had also said to me. They called out the behavior I had assumed was acceptable "because they're my parents", because it's what I'd always known: the triangulation, the splitting, the lack of boundaries, the enabling, the enmeshment, the codependency, the circular conversations, the inability to apologize, the parentification, and the lack of accountability. People were voicing the very real, and often minimized impact of growing up around these inappropriate and harmful behaviors. They were using the word "abuse" - a word that I still struggle to attribute to my own experience, even though I know it to be accurate.
Slowly, I came to terms with the impossible role I'd been trying to fulfill. I started to notice that none of the other relationships in my life felt so confusing, exhausting, and stuck. I learned that respect is a two way street, and that it is something that must be earned - no one is entitled to it, even if they're family. I began to open up to the possibility that my anger, maybe, just maybe, was appropriate. And I was curious about what it might look like to have some space from them.
Here's the thing: we all cause harm. It is a part of being human in relationship with other humans. We cannot eliminate hurting other people entirely. And all caregivers will mess up, many times. As an adult, I don't expect my parents to be perfect or to have met all of my needs. But there are key elements to parent-child relationships that my parents simply did not have the skills or awareness to offer: repair and acknowledgment of power dynamics. There are very real generational, cultural, and systemic reasons that my parents (and many parents) do not know how to repair effectively. But without "good enough" repair, and without recognition of the power that they held (see Rule #6), I did not and could not feel safe in relationship with them.
I had noticed for years that visits with my parents all seemed to coincide with an internal pattern: for a little while before a visit with them, I would crinkle up and fold into myself, making myself as small as possible and freezing up around the edges as a protective shield. During the visits, I would disappear somewhere, time would pass in a blur and I could barely recall anything that happened. Sometimes, I'd try to voice a need or a boundary, and inevitably there'd be an argument, or an acknowledgement that never led to any changed behavior. And afterwards, it would take days, sometimes weeks, to unfurl and to find myself again. I was aware of this pattern, but it felt as though I had no choice but to let it happen. I couldn't stop myself from shrinking, and I couldn't force myself to be present around them. I felt guilty for dreading our time together. Occasionally, I would make promises to myself or to them, pledging to try harder, to be a better kid, to reach out more, to visit more. Without fail, I would disappoint them, nothing I offered was enough, and they called me selfish and uncaring. I’d grow inert with resentment and shame. I’d think myself into spirals of confusion and self-flagellation. I'd list all of the things I had done wrong: if I'd said the right words, if I'd used a different tone, if I hadn't brought this up, if I'd offered to do that, maybe it all would've gone smoothly.
Not long after I found the subreddit, my mom came to visit me, after I’d just moved into the first place I’d ever lived alone. I had been wanting to live alone for as long as I could remember. I was thrilled, and even felt excited to show her the space I'd made for myself. I also planned to tell her something that I knew she was going to be upset about, but was tired of hiding from her - something that I should never have felt the need to hide in the first place. I don’t remember much about this visit, but I remember vividly how my body felt during and after. I remember dizziness and fogginess, and shaking so hard that I could barely walk home. I remember collapsing on my bed in a stupor, disoriented and overwhelmed. Random sentences she’d said played on repeat in my head: “Why would I go to therapy? It’s turned you into a heartless bitch!”
And I remember the anger. My anger was, for the first time, unimpeded by shame. It was powerful and protective and it felt rooted in ancient wisdom. I finally believed, in my body, that my anger was a valid and important response to emotional abuse. I remember thinking, as I recovered alone in my apartment in the hours afterwards, I cannot put my body through this again.
I realized in that moment, that I had a choice:
I could keep trying to build a bridge that my parents would continue to knock down, over and over, indefinitely.
I could give up and let go.
April 10, 2019 was the day I cut contact with my parents, and it's the day I truly began to trust myself and my body. That was the day that my adult self took the reins and began to guide me back towards my integrity.
Let me be clear: this decision is not right for everyone. It's not accessible for everyone. I deeply believe in the importance of conflict resolution and repair, when it is possible. But, without a doubt, it was right for me. My parents, and plenty of other people, will likely never feel that my decision is justified. But I can honor my own body. I can trust the sensations that I felt when I was around them, and I can trust the change that I've witnessed in myself since I stopped letting them into my life. That is enough.
Years later, my anger has subsided. I don't blame them and I wish them well. I'm able to access gratitude for the parts of them that I see and love in myself: my mom's interest in dance, her constant seeking of answers to questions not yet articulated, her taste for wabi-sabi aesthetics, my dad's love of movies and music, his dry sense of humor, and his rich internal world that he rarely shared.
Grief is my constant companion, but it is a grief rooted in deep knowing: I had to say goodbye to them in order to meet myself.