Reclaiming Healing Part IV: The Relationship

Over the month of September, I’ve been exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the idea that healing is a destination. From there, I explored healing as a multi-faceted phenomenon and as a progressive cycle of Underworld journeying.

For this final week on reclaiming healing, I’ve been thinking about how healing is a relationship to myself as well as to my trauma and wounds. It’s about being able to meet myself wherever I am.

Remember in the story of Inanna how the only function of the creatures sent to rescue Inanna from the Underworld was to wail alongside Ereshkigal, empathize with her until she had spent her grief. Then she released Inanna and the two were able to integrate some of the aspects of the other—to heal the split between the Goddess of Heaven and her shadow side.

Pulling away from myself in moments of pain and trying to make the memories or feelings go away only makes things worse. That’s when I get an angry Underworld goddess who tortures me.

Rather, leaning into myself in those moments, greeting the sadness and memories, listening to them the way I might listen to a friend or child—there’s magic in that because relationships are magic.

Relationships are healing.

Especially when trauma has been caused by a relationship, I think the view of healing as relational is particularly important. Trauma needs safety in order to heal, and the more safe I can make my internal world, the more my trauma will be able to tell its story and feel heard and held.

With healing as an internal relationship, the ebbs and flows of the various emotions and memories are an invitation to draw closer to myself, to love myself more, to listen deeper, and to be present.

Suddenly whatever is happening in that moment is exactly what needs to happen. Whether I’m feeling strong and capable in the face of something which used to terrify me or whether I’m cradling myself as I cry after a nightmare, I’m healing in that moment because I’m being with myself.

At the same time, I don’t expect myself to be the sole relational support for my healing. Other healing relationships are important too, including my therapist, my partner, my friends.

The trick is that they can provide an external safety and relationship to support my healing, but I have to, in turn, have that internal relationship in order to actually heal.

Often with relational trauma, that internal relationship has to be built. It starts off as an acquaintance and grows as the relationship is deemed tolerable.

My therapist had to create a holding environment where I could briefly meet with my shadow parts before pushing them away again (going back to the progressive cycle!). I couldn’t tolerate extended contact with myself. That had to be developed up along with my self-compassion, tolerance for pain, and ability to stabilize and anchor to my core.

But the more I got to know myself, the more I came to understand that I was strong enough to be with the intensity of my emotions. I was strong enough to hear the stories of the parts I had tried to bury.

Today, I can invite my difficult parts and emotions to come in, sit down, and drink tea with me.

Not always, of course. I still have moments of trying to push away or “move on” to the point of erasing them. That’s where I know I need more healing–when I don’t feel capable of meeting myself and, as Rumi describes, welcoming all of my emotions as my guides in healing.

 

Reclaiming Healing Part III:Journeying to the Underworld

In the last two posts, I began exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the myth that healing is some sort of final destination. Last week, I focused on the multifaceted nature of healing (e.g. it’s not just one thing). Now I want to somewhat return to the idea of healing as a journey metaphor.

One of the earliest ways that I came to think about healing was in the context of the story of Inanna.

Inanna decides to visit the Underworld when she hears about her sister (shadow self) grieving the death of her husband.

As Inanna takes the journey into the Underworld, she has to pass through seven gates. At each gate she is required to give up one of her Goddess symbols until she gets down there stark naked. She goes into the court where her sister is grieving, but rather than empathize with the pain she sees, she mocks her sister.

In a rage, Ereshkigal orders Inanna to be hung on meat hooks, where Inanna stays for some time. Eventually her lady’s maid/friend/person, Ninshubur, realizes that she isn’t coming back on her own and goes around to all the other gods seeking assistance with getting Inanna back. One of the gods eventually takes pity and creates these creatures that go with Ninshubur down to the Underworld.

Once down there, they begin weeping and grieving with Ereshkigal, and they do that until Ereshkigal releases Inanna.

When Inanna returns to the upper world, she brings with her characteristics of the Underworld goddess.

In turn, it’s hinted that Ereshkigal is pregnant  (a characteristic of the role that Inanna played with fertility and life). So each goddess integrates portions of the other.

Thereafter, Inanna spends part of her time in the upper world and part of her time in the Underworld, and the changing of the seasons is born.

While Inanna’s is hardly the only goddess myth that involves a goddess going down into the Underworld, it’s significant to me in that Inanna does so voluntarily (as opposed to being kidnapped or tricked). I love the image of an intentional, cyclic descent into the dark places of the soul in order to integrate and retrieve those lost, wounded parts of the self.

However, it’s not a static cycle either. Inanna doesn’t repeat the same journey each time. She doesn’t forget what happened in the Underworld. She doesn’t lose what she gained down there. Each time she descends, though we don’t get a tale all over again, it’s implied that she maintains what she has accomplished and the integration she has achieved.

Even the seasons themselves, one of the most profound demonstrations of cycles, are not static. They build on each other.

Healing is not easy. It’s not always pleasant. Often times, it can feel like I am revisiting the same topic over and over, yet the story of Inanna reminds me that while there might be similarities in the process of descent, pain, stripping away of that which protects me, and meeting my fragmented, shadow parts, I am never actually taking the same journey twice.

Healing is a progressive cycle. Each time around, something is different. Maybe it’s that I recognize the things that got me stuck before and avoid them more easily or that I take yet another step towards a decision that I know I need to make but haven’t been able to follow through on yet.

Most often, there is some element of further integration with a part of me that was too emotionally raw to integrate all at one swoop. Repeated journeys into the same territory allow me to do pieces of work that would overwhelm me otherwise. The journey is necessary in exactly the way that it is happening. There’s only so much I can process and face at one time before I need to come back up for air and recuperation.

We live in a society that wants a quick fix for everything, from health to wealth, that I think we have somewhat forgotten that the most important things cannot be done quickly. This is true especially for healing, I think. No one has the resources to stay in the Underworld non-stop. Trying to force more to happen than is ready to happen only causes more damage as the wounds “hang us on meat hooks.”

My contention with the destination myth revolved around the finality of the journey, but Inanna’s story symbolizes how healing can indeed be a journey and a cycle at the same time.

It’s a journey whose destination is to revisit the shadow and the Underworld on a regular, intentional basis in order to further integrate the parts that have been lost down there.

It’s a journey that doesn’t devalue the role of recurrent themes or emotions as evidence of having failed to heal. Rather it portrays them as normal parts of the process that need empathy rather than scoffing and judgment.