Authors: Ashley Judd
That Sunday, I was up most of the night, wild with irrational fears and anxiety that felt like worms in my chest. I felt I needed to tell the tech what I was experiencing, yet as I lay in bed, I imagined I was locked in my room, which increased my anxiety. When it finally drove me out of bed, I was so surprised and relieved when the knob turned smoothly in my hand. It never occurred to me that a) this was not a lockdown unit; and b) locking clients in was an illegal fire hazard. I stumbled across the garden, found the tech, and in gulps of air punctuated with heaving sobs managed to say something about how no one has ever believed me before when I said I was in trouble emotionally, that I had been in bed really coming unglued. The tech soothed and consoled me, validated me, reminded me she was not trained to do much more than that, and offered to call in other staff. I was blind with emotion, but calling staff was too much of a brouhaha, I thought. God knew what assignment they’d give me if they heard about my meltdown. I went back to bed and rode out the spell.
By morning, I was utterly worn out. I decided this was unsustainable. I could not live without adequate sleep. I marched to the foyer and, seeing Erica there, said, “Hi, look, yeah, I am just gonna go to a nearby hotel, grab some sleep. I am sure a few hours will make a big difference. I don’t need my whole suitcase, I’ll just take a day bag, and I’ll be back later. Thanks.”
She stared me down.
“A.J., it does not work that way. If you walk out that door, you are taking your stuff with you, and you aren’t coming back.”
“Come in here,” Erica said.
I was led into the treatment team’s staff room, where their long morning meeting was well under way. The entire gang, or what felt like a coven, was assembled around a paper-strewn table, with client cases opened, charts on the wall. It was like walking into a genius’s laboratory, where obvious creativity and skill kinetically charged the air.
Erica may have said something to explain why she’d brought me to nerve center. I think I feebly built my case for sleep. But what happened next was what really mattered and was another of those life-changing moments.
“Ashley, what are you so afraid of?”
I was amazed to hear the confession, the incredibly vulnerable truth, come out of my mouth.
“I am afraid I am going to lose my mind.”
There. I said it.
The energy in the room changed. The very air became gentle. There was a palpable softness.
An array of eyes looked knowingly at me. People who had been where I was, who were now somewhere much further down the recovering road, nodded their understanding.
“We will never let your mind go somewhere we cannot bring you back from,” Erica said.
Although my chest clamped and I had no idea what they were saying would look like, I accepted their promise. I walked out the door, rejoined my peers, and proceeded to work very, very hard on my treatment plan for forty days and forty nights, sleep or no sleep.
I took ownership of a middle chair on the glassed-in porch, facing the garden and the creek. I spread out my paper, pens, and other tools. I wrote during every free minute, answering the questions of my now numerous first step preps (if step one is to admit I am powerless over something and my life is unmanageable, a “first step prep” is informally known as step zero: “This shit has to stop”), my auto, and all the subsequent assignments I would receive. I attended, and actually enjoyed, every group: process, Twelve Step, cognitive, behavioral, spirituality, experiential, and art, among others. I found the work fascinating, in spite of being painful, and found that when I was deeply engaged, either by listening to my increasingly loved and valued peers or by doing my own work, I didn’t feel tired. I gave my all to the work.
One night in art group, we were asked to draw the body part that gives us the most hassle and then process out loud why we dislike or feel shame about that part of ourselves. Clearly an exercise designed for disordered eaters, I nonetheless had no trouble identifying the body part that grieved me most: my brain. I drew one, and in a creative, messy-but-still-somehow-makes-sense series of designs and statements, I shared that I knew my brain was my greatest asset (especially when used in conjunction with my good and tender heart) and that among other things it was a smart one that allowed me to experience great beauty, joy, and pathos. But too often at this stage of my life, my brain was racked with difficulties, consumed nonstop with trying to manage anxiety and emotional pain, sorting out multiple channels of static like a radio knob being spun back and forth across the dial, never tuning in one strong, clear channel. I knew there was plenty of hope for my brain, but this wonderfully strange thing I drew visually reflected the chaos and darkness too often in it. I also related my brain to my body, the low-grade, chronic lower back pain, the deep wound I felt in my actual, literal heart during my worst depressions, a pain so harsh and unbearable that I could think only of killing myself to make it stop.
I also began to benefit as much from my friends’ work as from my own. In experiential group, held in a cozy, small, womblike room, a recovering drug addict who in her previous inpatient treatment practiced her eating disorder the entire time (a sadly common occurrence, it was soon clear to me) began to do deep work on the core pain that set up her addictions in the first place, triggered by abandonment and neglect of an alcoholic mother she loved “like a drug.” She read aloud a letter she wrote to her now deceased mother, and by the time she was on line three, I was the one in a heap crying. Our stories were quite different, but that did not matter. I
. A grief I could not contain swelled up in me, and by now I was willing to let it do so. As I had been encouraged to do on my first night, I began to let it all go.
My friend, unsurprisingly, vomited after she read her letter. Purging was how she had been handling her feelings for years; by now it was an automatic response. While she was being attended to, the treatment team focused on me. “Lord almighty, what was going on with you?” they asked in their inimitable West Texas accents. It was wonderful to say I didn’t know, to just be, to feel, to cry, to be paid attention to in this way while I grieved, to be accepted and validated without being minimized or told I had the story wrong and facts mixed up, and to begin to see for the first time that with enough of the right kind of work, “this, too, shall pass.” My deepest fear had always been that I could not heal. In spite of how agonizing the work was, it seemed I was not terminally unique, as it says in the Big Book of Co-Dependents Anonymous, and that it would finally be “possible for me to mend.”
I haltingly read my first big chunk of written work one evening in a reading group. In such groups, held a few times a week, those ready with written assignments would read them to peers and staff, who would reflect back what they had heard, as well as offer observations on the text and how to go further with the work. I tried to read in a clear, confident voice, hoping my presentation would make sense of the insensible, this baffling, cunning, and powerful disease of codependency and the behaviors it spawned. I had difficulty with the questions, from section headings such as “noetic disorders” and “otheration,” and I took a tentative stab at providing responses. There was one paragraph I wrote that came to me in a burst of hyperlucidity. For the first time, I intuitively captured and described how whenever I called a certain person in my life, my voice mails followed a pattern: friendly, warm greeting (make you like me, make you glad to hear from me, make you want to listen more). Description of my day (make it upbeat, interesting; engage them: seem attractive, independent, someone to admire). Emotional content (glimpses of how I really felt, truth coming out, hint at that hole in my soul). Download my thoughts about them and how much I love them, what they should be doing (present in a “good way,” but goal is to make them do what I need and want them to do; address my deeply hurt feelings. The “If only you would … I would feel better” section). Summarize all of the above, condense into a nice little paragraph nugget that would be very clear (Goal: make them think this all makes perfect sense, do not think I am crazy). Inquire about their day (be interested in them, altruism, back to upbeat woman at top of message. Goal: Hook them into calling me back). Repeat, day after day.
My peers that first week included a sixty-three-pound anorexic who couldn’t be in a top bunk lest she break a brittle leg descending from it, a crystal meth addict who had been forced into prostitution, and others with serious chemical and process addictions. Yet when I finished this work, as well as the uncertain beginnings of my exploration of childhood depression, they were dead silent. They looked at me a long time before anyone spoke up. Finally, someone spoke.
“I am so glad you are here” was her feedback.
I was stunned and agitated. They were addicts, alcoholics, and the like, but what was wrong with me? I was nuts, by their reactions.
nuts, I have learned to say, but with a huge grin on my face, because today, I am glad of it. Because of Tennie and the others who intervened on my behalf, I was beginning to receive the best treatment in the world, but for codependency and depression, perhaps our society’s most underdiagnosed and untreated emotional problems. Without their keen observance of my emotional pain, who knows how many more voice mail messages like that—and worse—I would have left in my lifetime.
But it would be a while before I could shuck off my disease and laugh at my former insanity. That night, my new friends, taken into my confidence, helped me begin to see and reconcile how abusive my childhood was. In particular, I began to learn about the effects of neglect and abandonment on a child, how different a day in the life of a child is from a day in the life of an adult. How although it may not have been a caregiver’s intentions, the effects of their actions registered deeply as abuse and trauma. I was taught that the modern definition of abuse is “anything less than nurturing,” and I began to grieve for the small, precious girl I was, needy and vulnerable, exactly how God intends children to be, and the many, many less than nurturing experiences I had. I was told that slapping a child in the face is a uniquely humiliating experience for her. The Karpman drama triangle was explained to me, a pattern of individuals triangulating, jumping from prosecutor, victim/martyr, and rescuer roles, and boy, could I easily see it at work in many of my family’s relationships. It was an extraordinary relief, finally, to have something to call the tortured dynamics with which I had been raised: abuse. I began to recognize the behaviors I had developed in my adult life as attempts to restore within me the many losses of my childhood. Having been taught from an early age that who I was was not okay, I had used people, places, and things as a basic source of my identity.
I was taught about the shame core that develops in abused kids when their abusers, for whatever reason, are
and thus teach the child to be
. They began to teach me about the insidious effects of witnessing others being abused. And they explained I had a long road ahead, because sadly, in a way, healing from these types of trauma can be harder. There is a lack there, a nothingness, a void with which to work. Clinicians even say that sometimes severe physical abuse is at least an interaction between perpetrator and victim, an indication of some kind of interest in the child. But with neglect and abandonment, the message can be that the child isn’t even worth the bother of beating. It can be hard to find a way into the damage done, to begin to undo it. With abuse to one’s actual body, there are powerful modalities that trigger those memories, stored in the very cells of the body, and move out the abuse, memory, and emotional energy. But when it didn’t happen to one’s body all that often, but was played out before one’s eyes … well, one of the consequences is you draw your brain in art group when asked, “What part of your body troubles you?”
After that first night in group when I read for the first time, I was disturbed by the feedback I received. It was a watershed moment in treatment when the dam really burst and the floodgates opened. I did not sleep a wink and had one of the worst nights of my life. The real work was beginning, both identifying what had been eating me alive and applying a simple plan of action to address it.
Shades of Hope teaches it is abusive to point out a problem without highlighting a solution. Wow, was that a radical idea! In my family, relationships and communication seemed to be all about the problem, particularly as it was observed in one another. I have piles of scathing letters and faxes written to me from my relatives inventorying everything they thought was wrong with me, detailing my failures and shortcomings as a daughter, sister, and woman; vitriolic essays (and voice mails left overnight) about my not doing the right things on holidays; sweepingly negative statements about my personality and soul. If I had a beautiful party, I was a snob. If I burped, I was crude and rude. In their eyes, I couldn’t get life right, at least not for any sustained period of time. Often, other people are dragged into the letters, outsiders used to bolster the damning case built against me. And to be clear, my own disease did complicate and burden my relationships. In doing my work, I began to identify and take responsibility for my symptoms, such as denial, poor boundaries, low self-esteem, toleration of abuse, compliance, and dominance, and the way they affected others. I was learning how typical these antics are in alcoholic and dysfunctional family systems, where the rules are constantly changing and no one can ever be, or do, good enough. In these situations, there are no solutions. That Shades would teach me solutions that led to serenity, solutions I could apply to all these situations, was revolutionary.