Updated: Feb 5, 2020
A few months after I started on the path of recovery I was referred to a therapy group at a local hospital. The group, which was for women with a history of substance abuse, was a pilot project aimed at bringing women together to explore their experience of recovery with a particular focus on healing from trauma.
At that time I was doing pretty much everything I was told to do, so I agreed to participate even though I was a bit fuzzy on the whole trauma thing.
There were twelve women in the group, all of whom had committed to sticking together for an entire year with the goal of forming a strong connection with each other. We were a bit stand-offish at first, but before long we started to trust each other, support each other, and care deeply about each other’s experiences.
With one exception: Shelley.
Shelley was, um, different from the rest of us and, truth be told, we were more than a little bit afraid of her. She’d lived a pretty hard life and had the battle scars to prove it. She was missing a few teeth, she was heavily inked, and she always dressed in t-shirts with frightening logos and a beat-up black leather jacket accessorized with chains. Lots of chains. She spent the entire two-hour session with her chair tipped back on two legs, her arms crossed, and an angry look on her face. She rarely made eye contact and other than offering the occasional grunt, scarcely contributed to the discussion.
I quickly settled into a pattern of my own. As I said, I wasn’t sure what was expected or how I qualified to be in this group but, with the exception of Shelley, I found myself surrounded by women who seemed to like to take care of other people, so during weekly check-in I defaulted to a routine of sharing how baffled I was that my life had unraveled and I’d ended up in this place.
“I just don’t understand what happened,” I’d say to no one in particular as my eyes filled with tears. “I have no idea how I ended up here.”
At which point my voice would break and the women in the group would pat my arm and say “There, there …” and tell me it was all going to be okay.
And that was it. I was off the hook.
Around week four I was sitting directly across the table from Shelley. As I launched into my check-in routine I glanced up to see her shooting daggers at me with her eyes. The more I cried and whimpered the angrier she looked. And then she jumped up, sending her chair flying backwards, leaned over the table, her face no more than a few inches from my own, and said these exact words:
“Lianne. For f*** sake. You f***ed up. F***in’ deal with it.”
And then she backed away, straightened her chair, wiped the spittle off her chin, and sat down.
I was stunned. Everyone was stunned. I have no idea how long we sat there with our mouths open in a communal state of shocked silence, broken only when one of the nurse-facilitators said, in a soft voice, “Lianne, would you like to respond to Shelley?”
I sat quietly for another moment or two, baffled by the incongruous mixture of shock and relief I was experiencing. And then I looked Shelley directly in the eye and said, “You’re absolutely right. Thank-you so much for pointing this out to me. This is exactly what I needed to hear.”
And I meant it, because in that moment I knew Shelley had thrown me a lifeline. Up until then I’d been focused on shielding myself from the undeniable fact that my life had unraveled and that I had allowed this to happen. Shelley’s bold words and indelicate language were exactly the cold splash of water needed to bring me into contact with the kind of radical acceptance that would allow me to begin the long and rambling process of reconstructing my life.
So that I could, indeed, explore my history of trauma, and heal.
Which is exactly what happened.
In the years since, I’ve edited Shelley’s expletive-laced outburst into a simple mantra that keeps me open to the challenge of radical acceptance, particularly when I find myself rehearsing an old sorrow that offers nothing but bottomless, inconsolable grief:
Embrace this. Memorize this. Absorb it into the fiber of your being. Feel your feelings, cry your tears, scream into your pillow, and repeat after me: THIS HAPPENED.
An excerpt from: Practicing the Recovered Life, a six-lesson course on the foundational practices of the Recovered Life. Contact me for more information.