When I was fifteen years old my favorite grandmother passed away. She was a wonderful woman! I loved the sound of her laughter and how she always made extra dough so that my sister and I could create our own pastries. She wrote us letters, gave us hugs and kisses, and even let us spend hours peppering her hair with colorful plastic barrettes. I have so many good memories of my time with her. I will never forget the day she died.
I was mowing the lawn, oblivious to the world as my headphones blared Tiffany in my ears. My sister came out of the house distraught and tearful to deliver the news to me. When she told me about my Grandma, it hit me like a punch to my system. I remember feeling a physical sensation radiating outward from my gut. Then there was nothing. It was like a giant wall slammed down and blocked all that pain from me. I went back to mowing the lawn without shedding one tear or breaking down. All through the memorial service and for years afterwards, I never once cried until my Aunt gave me a wedding gift. It was just a small figurine of two bears getting married but she signed the card “Love Grandma.” Receiving that gift opened a small crack in my emotional defense system and I was finally able to mourn her passing.
Anyone that knows me well is probably aware that I am a “heart on my sleeve” kind of girl. I cry at sad movies and books. I cry when other people are in pain. I cry when I experience strong emotions of any kind. For me to remain dry-eyed and seemingly unmoved by such a huge emotional loss, like my favorite grandmothers passing, was out of character. It took me years to understand my reaction. We usually equate emotions with the heart, but in truth the biological process actually occurs in our brain. My reaction came down to the way my brain was processing those strong emotions.
Whenever I experience something that is traumatic and causes very strong emotional reactions in me, there is a chance I will depersonalize it. That’s what happened when my Grandma passed away. My brain decided that the emotions I was feeling were too much for me to handle. It put up a wall around those emotions to protect me so that it wouldn’t cause me more pain. Then that trauma was given to the personality that was best equipped to deal with it. So, while the trauma of her death happened to me, it also didn’t happen to me simultaneously. Many times, in my past I have completely blocked painful moments from my mind. Other times it has been more like viewing it through a fog. Either way, I am then able to experience things like my grandma’s death from a “distance” because I have depersonalized them.
Most people face some sort of moment in their life when they are faced with deep emotional pain or trauma. Feelings of that magnitude can be overwhelming and really hard to process. Sometimes people need to depersonalize a situation in order to deal with it. However, eventually they process through the stages of grief/emotional healing and find a new normal. For some people though, finding that new normal is particularly difficult. Especially If the events are reoccurring or deeply traumatizing. In those moments, their emotions are so powerful that they build an internal wall around their painful experience to protect themselves. This way they can shield themselves and keep their pain at a more manageable distance, just like I do. Unlike me though, they don’t pass the pain on to another part of themselves. Instead it festers behind their mental walls growing and changing into monsters that are too terrible to look at.
Over time that wall grows as more pain, anger and negativity is built into it, strengthening it. This person doesn’t want to be hurt again! They will defend that wall at all cost by building turrets, parapets, vines, a moat and maybe even a dragon to keep those bad feelings at bay and protect themselves from new pain. But the saddest part is that unbeknownst to the owner of that giant wall, new negative patterns are being created. A wall is a great defense in all its mighty glory but it isn’t picky or smart, all it is meant to do is keep things in or out.
This is unfortunate because it not only keeps their painful monstrous feelings hidden away, but it also keeps everything else out. That includes people, as well as positive feelings and experiences. They build their wall higher and higher creating isolation, depression, anxiety and loss. Stagnation occurs, and repeating mistakes over and over again becomes their new normal. They can no longer see the world around them with clarity. Instead, they see only the potential to be hurt again hiding around every new corner. Clinging to the belief that their wall is vital to their survival they refuse to deal with their past pain. Pain that is slowly suffocating them from the inside out, blocking out the sun. A person cannot grow without the sun.
My walls took the shape of a dilapidated old shack on a dark scary street. Inside that hideous abode was your classic scary movie mansion with twisting stairways leading nowhere, dark passageways, cobwebs and a distinct lack of windows. Unimaginable horrors chased me whenever I entered, terrorizing me to no end. I found myself trapped in my mind mansion nightly while I dreamed. I had to find a way to end my torment. I understood that I couldn’t change my past, and ignoring it was only causing me more pain. But I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I also began to realize that I needed to find a way to communicate with my other selves. They held so many of my memories and were so deeply entwined with me it was imperative that we learn to work together. I wasn’t really sure how to begin, but as Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I let fear and pain guide my thinking when I created my “walls”. Therefore, I had to find an innovative new way to change them. With the guidance of my trusted therapist I found that way.
We started by building a table inside my mind mansion where all of my alternate personalities could work together. My alternates and I decided to take the materials I had built my mansion of horrors with, and remake them into something different. Slowly and carefully we examined each floor board, scrap of peeling wall paper, broken fixture and twisted stair step. Everyone of those pieces had some emotional turmoil or memory attached to it. Not all of them were bad, good memories had gotten trapped in the darkness of my mind too. But the pieces that were harboring bad memories were gently dealt with in healthy ways.
It was a long and arduous task, but little by little we rebuilt my mind mansion into a new and glorious structure. I am proud of the work we have done. Each personality has been given their own private rooms that reflect who they are. The rest of the mansion was created with all of our inputs. My mind mansion is now filled with dazzling light that comes from the many windows and crystal chandeliers. Everything is clean and richly decorated. There is an enormous library filled with all the stories of my life. I can pick up almost any book now and look through it. I can choose to remember and learn from my past or just enjoy the moments I loved most, such as those wonderful moments with my Grandma.
I invite you to try this for yourselves. Tear down your walls and let the sunlight in. There are no limits to what you can create with the pieces of your wall. Build a castle, boat, enchanted forest, or city in the clouds; it’s all up to you. If you don’t like it, you can rebuild it again and again any way you wish. There isn’t a time limit or rules it’s all your choice. I decided I didn’t want to live in a world where I am afraid of what was or what might be. I don’t want to hide in the dark behind the walls of my past pains. No life is truly lived without its share of loss and pain. But we don’t need to run or hide from it. I can now invite people into my mind mansion without shame or fear. I choose to create deep and lasting connections with other people. I choose to embrace each moment. I choose to build each new part of my life with radiant colors.