74. That’s how many rolls of bathroom tissue we currently have stored in our house. I might have even missed a few hidden behind the laundry detergent basket, next to the hot water heater, or in the overflow pantry cupboard above the washer/dryer cabinet.
No--this isn’t a pandemic toilet paper review! (Although I must admit to being dumbfounded by some of the stark differences between brands: one looking and feeling identical to tissue paper, another closer to a paper towel.)
Yesterday I happened to glance up at a kitchen shelf that displays part of a collage I designed for an IJCollage© workshop facilitated a couple of years ago. On one of the “leaves,” I’d affixed a whimsical image of a shopping cart & over it had written: “LESS = ↓ OVERWHELM.”
Fast rewind to early 1991, when I was completing my Psych degree at St. Martin’s University. I was just beginning my work in the “wellness education” field and had received a call from a man who described his family as being “in trouble.” “Jake” was concerned about the debilitating depression his wife was continuing to experience over the death of their eight-year-old son some months back. Could I come and “help her feel better?” I remember him asking in desperation.
Bolstered by my training and practical experience with both unipolar depression and grief work, I agreed to come to their home the following week. Though the directions had been clear enough (even for someone who routinely gets lost going around the block!), I’d passed the house several times because its address numbers were hidden behind the dense sprawling hedges that flanked the front door. Jake and “Kyle,” his 7-year-old son, immediately responded to my knock.
I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered behind that door: Boxes upon boxes—heavy packing ones, some stacked taller than my height at 5’5”--filled every space as far as the eye could see—the entry way, hall, living room, kitchen. A narrow, zig-zagging path had been created to navigate through the columns. I was momentarily speechless. Not only had nothing been mentioned about an imminent move, but nothing was being offered now in explanation.
“It looks like you’re moving soon?” I finally asked.
“No,” Jake replied casually, Kyle still clinging to his father’s arm. “We can’t seem to get rid of anything these days—It’s just easier to store stuff in the boxes.”
“I see,” I nodded, trying my best to mimic his dispassionate tone.
As we maneuvered around the box towers toward the master bedroom, I felt a mounting sense of overwhelm. My education thus far, formal or otherwise, hadn’t prepared me for this level of paralysis.
I soon discovered “Tally.” This wife and mother lay in bed in a space as cluttered and unkempt as the rest of the house; to be fair, the stacks of boxes stopped at the bedroom door. Jack introduced me and Tally made an attempt to smile and be cordial. The poor woman stank. Her pajama top was soiled, her hair part matted, part wild. I guessed she probably hadn’t bathed in weeks.
“She’s just too depressed to take care of herself,” her husband offered meekly. I asked for some private time.
Sitting next to the bed, I looked intently at this tortured woman’s face. I can’t recall ever witnessing such pain in another’s eyes: burning with intensity, yet frozen. “Tally, please tell me about your son,” I urged softly. And after a long moment of deafening silence, the dam finally broke, unleashing a raw avalanche of grief…
No, I could not “help her feel better.” Tally had to feel her grief intimately before she could even imagine experiencing true relief. That’s one of the most seemingly brutal realities about human pain, suffering and healing. Robert Frost may have expressed it most succinctly:
“The only way out is through.”
I honestly don’t remember what happened next during our exchange, or how Tally and her family’s tragic story unfolded after my visit. I have a vague memory of discussing the three of them with my senior advisor and professor. I truly hope each was able to access the services they deserved to support them through the unfinished emotional processing necessary for healing.
My clearest memory was of the lingering sense of sadness and overwhelm I experienced for days afterwards. Maybe reading that very word “overwhelm” on my collage leaf is what unearthed the memory of that traumatized family with boxes and boxes of unresolved grief. And maybe, for many if not most of us, the need to hold on to what we can control becomes increasingly important after we’ve suffered loss we couldn’t control. My mother’s been dead for over five years and I still can’t imagine releasing her red plaid L.L. Bean flannel pajamas to the giveaway pile.
Decades after I met Jake, Kyle and Tally, I can reflect on subsequent training and experience and recognize the power of compassion in all our lives, regardless of where we fall on the spectrum of mental and emotional health. Compassion is what allows us to unconditionally witness our own and another’s suffering, something so crucial in any grieving and healing process. The more birthday candles I extinguish, the more I understand compassion as the cornerstone for nurturing love and acceptance of ourselves and others. And once we’ve cultivated those responses…
“… the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” ~ Carl Rogers, psychologist, author
May I, we & all beings cultivate compassion for our healing and thriving.
Deb Langhans has worked in the wellness field as a coach/counselor, writer & speaker for over 25 years. She currently owns & operates Journeys to Healing on San Juan Island where she offers "wholistic" life coaching, mindfulness & grief recovery coaching, reflexology, Inner Journey Collage© & a developing line of products designed to encourage healthy habits.
Most services are available in Deb's studio or via phone or Zoom. For more information or scheduling, please go to www.journeystohealing.com (website). email@example.com (email), or 360.317.4526 (texts preferred).