By Philip Blomberg
One warm and pleasant evening I was early for a church committee meeting at St. Michael’s. It was late summer or early autumn, and there was still plenty of light out at 6:30. At that time there was a Trader Joe’s market across the street from St. Michael’s, and I had bought some take out sushi there for dinner. I also had a drink, so I could have a picnic there in the courtyard right out in front of the church, which has a couple of wood benches, and two lovely trees.
In the midst of eating the sushi, I tried to swallow too big of a bite, and the food got stuck in my throat. At first it just seemed like a minor mistake, and if I just swallowed hard enough the food would pass, but it did not. I started to panic because I couldn’t breathe. I stood up and looked around. There was a woman loading groceries into her car a mere fifteen feet away from me. I made the international “I’m choking” sign by putting my hands to my throat. All well and good, except for the fact that she didn’t see me, and got into her car and drove away. I didn’t seem to be able to move, and by that time I was becoming frantic. I remember having the thought that I was going to die in front of St. Michael’s, and while that had a certain thematic, poetic flare, I didn’t want to die just yet. I suddenly remembered the part of CPR training about doing the Heimlich maneuver on yourself. I positioned myself behind the bench and clumsily threw myself down onto the back of the bench. The sushi came out, and I fell to the ground. I lay there for a few minutes, then got up and brushed myself off. I was embarrassed, even though no one was there to witness the event (what’s that about I wonder?), and I was just grateful to be alive.
In the next few minutes, I noticed that everything in my field of vision seemed to be in soft focus, which at the time I attributed to oxygen still finding its way back into my brain and nervous system. But twenty minutes later the glow that things had around them did not dissipate. I went on to that committee meeting — which was a meeting of Saint Brigid’s Guild, the healing prayer ministry at my church — and during that meeting I realized the glow was only around living things, not inanimate objects. Everything that everyone said seemed to be extremely important, even side conversations, and I found myself leaning forward to hear every word.
When I woke up the next morning the glow around beings and plants was still there, as was the feeling that everything said was important. It was clear that everything and everyone, including birds and animals, were holy. I felt ultra-sensitive to everything that moved and breathed (my friends and family will tell you I’m pretty sensitive already). The experience was very close to being psychedelic, but without the tracers and the resulting doubt. This made completing simple chores and tasks quite difficult, because vacuuming seemed less important and quite loud.
This state of being went on for a little more than a week, then began to fade away. It was completely gone in two days, and things were back to “normal.”
You can believe whatever you want of course, including that it was some kind of delusional episode, but I think it was a heightened state of awareness, not some impairment. What I gleaned from that experience was that everything is holy, and that every little thing that people say is important. As a human being I just can’t live there in that state of recognition and appreciation — I would never get anything done — you are all too beautiful and too holy to behold. Going to work would not seem like the best use of my time.
My mother was holy, too, but it took a really long time and a heck of a lot of work for me to come to that realization. My mother died in 1995. She was a three dimensional human being of course, she had her good qualities and finer moments, but for me she was mostly an abusive alcoholic who had caused a lifetime of damage to me and my siblings. I have worked through a lot of the resulting disorders from her treatment of me, but I still have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and thanks to her I often operate from a place of shame, albeit unnamed and without any real cause. Rightly or wrongly, I blamed her for my inability to form lasting relationships, and my general mistrust of the world.
Some years ago, long after she died, I reached some sort of saturation point of being resentful towards her and blaming her for some of my problems. I was in a lot of pain, and willing to finally do something about it. I was seeing my therapist at the time (an on-and-off journey of some twenty years now), and she suggested a book on forgiveness. The book is entitled Forgiveness – How To Make Peace With Your Past And Get On With Your Life, by a couple named Simon and Simon. I think it is a truly wonderful book. I was hungry for change and ready to do something radical: I actually got out a pen and did every single exercise the book suggested in exactly the way they told me to do it. (That might sound obvious, but I don’t think I’m the only one in America that has a shelf or two of self-help books that I read the back cover and maybe the first chapter and never opened again.) I was cautioned by my therapist and the authors to take the journey slowly, that trying to force myself into the next stage of change was counterproductive. I did take it slowly, and tried to internalize each lesson. The book talked about how forgiveness was not forgetting, or condoning, or absolution (and that’s not ours to give), and not a clear-cut, one time decision. What it actually is, is a by-product of an ongoing healing process, an acceptance that nothing we do to them is going to heal us, a letting go of intense emotions attached to incidents from our past. And finally, it is moving on. Two of the assignments stick out in my memory. The first was a letter I wrote to my mother, detailing all the good things she gave me, and then the things she gave me that I was rejecting, that I was claiming not to be true — I was not a mistake, I was not defective . . . I was in fact a precious child of God, lovable and capable of giving love.
The second assignment was the real turning point for me: to write a letter from my mom to me, the kind of letter I would have wanted her to write. I had to think long and hard about that one . . . so long in fact I wasn’t getting it done at all. I finally came to the idea of using free writing: the technique of putting the pen down on the paper and just writing as fast as you can, no filtering, no punctuation, no worrying about grammar and whatnot. The result of that letter, and the other work I did at the authors’ suggestion, changed my life. I was forced to wonder, in a deep way I hadn’t done before, what had happened in her life to make her the way she was. I just don’t believe that anyone is hard wired for evil, stuff happens to us along the way that leads us into a certain state of being. No one ever says I want to be a child abuser when I grow up. My mom suffered some kinds of abuse—and judging from her actions, maybe sexual abuse—and, yes, a whole lot of disappointment. Add alcohol to that and you have one mangled persona. I came to a new place of empathy for her: the once innocent but now damaged part of me saw the once innocent but now damaged part of her. When thinking of my own life I like to believe that if I had known better, I would have done better. Given all that had happened in her life, and being an untreated alcoholic, she did the best she could at the time, even if a lot of it wasn’t acceptable behavior.
The goal of trauma therapy is to be able to remember the events of the past without reliving them, consciously and unconsciously. And without the mere thought of such things ruining a day, or a week, or more. Yeah, sometimes I have my share of counter-transference at my job as a counselor and in my life, and I still have episodes when I can dissociate, but for the most part, I do remember the past without reliving it.
The following Mother’s Day I went up to the cemetery where both my parents and both my paternal grandparents are buried. I had been there many times before, usually to sit and talk to my dad, but I had never brought flowers specifically for my mother. That day I placed some lovely lilies in the container in the ground, and said “Happy Mother’s Day, mom.” For the first time since I was little, I meant it.
Nowadays, every year on Mother’s Day I post that picture of my mom on Facebook from when she was maybe sixteen or seventeen. She is smiling and looking toward the future. She looks like she would be really fun to be around. It isn’t the woman I knew, but it is the woman I wished I’d been given a chance to meet. I can get as sentimental as I want to about that, but the simple truth is that whatever hardships she had to deal with in this life, if her life didn’t turn out the way it did, I wouldn’t have ever been born, and I wouldn’t have turned out like I did. I think my Facebook post from this last year says it best: “I hope the next life is better for you than this one was, mom. And I love you.”