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6 November 2019

Cleaning Our Closets and Purging Our Pain

Written by
Chantal Laurie Below

Our hallway coat closet is always at least two inches ajar. The sleeve of a fleece jacket or the handle of a reusable bag are often peeking out of the door frame and the sheer volume of hoodies and hats that live in the insufficient space make it impossible to close.

I know I need to sort through the closet. There are 2T vests and a diaper bag in there: my youngest is nearing five (and potty trained, thank God). There are partially working umbrellas, outdated scarves, and hardly worn roller skates. But the thought of rummaging through it all and negotiating what stays and what goes to Goodwill exhausts me before I begin (sorry Marie). I’ll watch another episode of GLOW instead, please.

Underneath the exhaustion though is pain, I believe. Pulling out all the items nestled in the overflowing confines of our coat closet calls me to confront certain realities that hurt.

There’s the ergo that my youngest largely lived in for the first two years of her life. In the chaos of having three kids ages five and under, the ergo contained one child and left me hands-free to play tag with the others, build an obscure Lego animal, prep dinner, or send out an email. That ergo preserved my mental health. And, it meant my daughter’s head was nestled on my chest for hours every day, sometimes creating so much warmth that sweat droplets ran down my belly. It meant I had easy access to the top of her head, so I planted regular kisses on her wispy hair. And, it meant her soft, chubby fingers with dimpled knuckles often explored my cheeks and lips. When I’d pretend to devour them, she’d giggle uncontrollably. It repeated again, and again, and again. Donating that ergo feels like separating from the tenderness of my baby.

Or there’s the bright, turquoise, ice-cream-cone covered fleece that my sister gifted to my oldest daughter. It was far too big for her kindergarten frame when she got it, but she insisted on drowning in its coziness. So, we rolled up the sleeves and she wore it religiously for years. Today, the ends of the sleeves are nubby and fraying, its color is muted, and I imagine it’s hosting forms of bacteria that cause mild diseases to those not immunized. She hasn’t worn it in over a year, but I still vividly see her in it. I can’t place what hike we’re on, though, or what airport we’re in, or which first day of school she’s starting when I call her to mind in that reliable uniform. I know it was the identifying feature I looked for when scanning for her on a crowded playground as we engaged in a heated game of Mommy Monster, but when exactly did I do that? Giving the ratty hoodie to my youngest child as a hand-me-down seems like undue punishment, but throwing it away feels like admitting defeat. I long to secure details of precious memories in my consciousness, but this untamed pace of life means recalling them feels like grasping for sand. My most treasured memories are too often vague, blurred, or entirely forgotten. That hurts my heart.

Bringing out the ergo and the fleece unsettles and stirs me up. But it also allows me to honor something that matters to me and ultimately breathe more deeply, elevate my connection to others in their distress, and feel less overwhelmed by what else exists in my closet’s shadows.

I know that my pain from delving into my closet’s contents is small compared to the suffering that many others endure. There is far deeper grief when the metaphorical closet re-triggers trauma around death, neglect, or abuse. And yet, I see in myself and those I coach that a propensity to minimize our own pain often does little to heal it.

There’s my client who insists that she’s fine with her 90 min commute, emotionally demanding social services job, and four children to raise. But she’s been getting skin rashes, headaches, and shortness of breath that accompany no clear diagnosis beyond ‘stress.’ When she’s given space in our sessions, however, to sit with and deeply notice the sensations in her body, tears well up. She feels the distance from her grandparents who raised her and live 9,000 miles away; her grandfather’s death years ago settles in as a reality vs. a wretched nightmare, the loneliness of her grandmother grips her heart. She begins to wonder if she’s allocating her time and attention in the way her values demand and pangs of regret, hurt and confusion settle in. Opening her closet isn’t pretty, but it’s revealing. The pain ultimately helps her see more vividly what matters to her and how she wants to live this next chapter of her life.

Or there’s my client who made a recent job switch to a booming tech company. She feels energized and curious about what’s ahead. She carries herself with a lightness, eyes wide open, smile in place. ‘Things are great!’ she insists. When we delve deeper, though, I hear her frustration with the various millennials she manages and their seemingly entitled mindset and demands. With further probing we both feel her frustration morph into grief: she’ll never be early in her career again. She reveals details about her adolescent kids and aging parents and then wells up with tears as she says, ‘I don’t know how many family vacations I have left with any of them.’ Giving her the chance to relax her optimism for just a moment offers a release. We don’t solve the dilemma of aging and mortality, but she diminishes some of her related fears by bringing them from the depths of her closet and into the light. Now she’s carrying less emotional weight by accepting vs. resisting what is, accessing greater authenticity, and perhaps loving those around her more deeply.

There’s value in exploring our pain. I’m not suggesting that casual conversation moving forward needs to be guided by the question of, ‘What’s your deepest sorrow?’ (I’m not opposed to it, mind you, I do love disorienting a dinner table conversation). Sometimes we all need to shove those stray cleats or baseball caps into a stuffed closet and lock it tight when company comes over or for our own sanity. But I think too often we keep adding more and more pain to our closets, refusing to admit our pain is worthy, denying that the door’s ajar, and never giving ourselves the space or permission to acknowledge our pain and see its many dimensions. If we do, I think we can move forward with new energy, insight, or intention. Otherwise, it feels like we walk through life insisting on how good we have it but not entirely believing it. That seems like such a loss.

So, my ask of all of us is to try and clean out our closets and see what that space makes room for. Talk to a friend, partner, coach, or therapist. Journal, meditate, walk and reflect, or do what’s right for you. But wonder about questions like the ones below and resist the urge to judge the worthiness of your responses. Instead of trying to make the pain better, just acknowledge it’s real and deserves to see the light. And then tell me what happens…

  • Who or what is hurting my heart?

  • Who or what haven’t I grieved?

  • Who or what am I terrified to lose?

  • What’s causing my deepest pain?

  • Who can I not forgive?

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