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When I was about to turn forty, I had been married and divorced twice and lived with my two children in a beautiful turn-of-the-century Louisiana home on the Tchefuncte River. I had been employed at a community mental health center for many years, working toward my state license as a psychotherapist so that I could start a private practice. I lived in a beautiful artist community and had many friends. My heart was healing from the devastation of my marriages, and I was continuing to learn who I was.

dancingwithdevilThere had, however, always been a blind spot in a particular area of my life that needed to be illuminated. From childhood, I had no idea who I was. I had no idea of my own value. I’m sure this baffled my family and the people who loved me. This was an area of deep inner work that I never could seem to enter into. My mentor of the past decade and my closest friends could not understand the choices I made, which reflected low self-esteem and a level of self-destruction. I saw the effects of my choices in my children’s behavior, and I felt tremendous grief and weight regarding this, but I had little understanding of how to change this pattern. I also saw that becoming increasingly more aware of this confusion in me had the potential for bringing more insight, understanding and compassion into my work with others. I knew that there was a connection that could ultimately bring healing to the limited sense of myself. I just had no clue how to effect that change.

I remember having a picture on the wall of my psychotherapy office that revealed two alternative paths that people could choose. One was straight and direct and the other meandered dramatically. The point was that neither path was right nor wrong. It was a matter of individual choice. I came to understand and then teach that for some people the meandering path was the necessary path, otherwise the benefits of more complex teachings would not have been realized. It was not necessarily the easier or more expeditious path, but it was the necessary path for some.

It became clear to me professionally that there was another glaring area of deficit in my development. My clinical strengths were working with children, adolescents and their families, as well as women’s issues and working with couples. I learned a lot from my clients when I was open to the teachings. One afternoon I was seeing an adolescent girl, who was showing me her artwork. She had drawn a yin-yang figure and she explained the meaning as, “there is dark in the light and light in the dark.” I was struck by the wisdom of her interpretation of this perennial truth. I realized that I was gifted in being able to see the light in the dark, but I was limited in seeing the dark in the light. In the clinic where I had been employed for many years, both skills were required. The clinic had treated the likes of Robert Willie, who was the inspiration for Sean Penn’s role in the movie Dead Man Walking, the man who had murdered many teenagers in Louisiana. A decade before my presence there, Willie had sat in the waiting room in chains, waiting to be seen.

One day a week we clinicians were required to see walk-ins. These were people requiring evaluations for medication or hospitalization. I could trust my judgment 99% of the time, but on a few occasions, I underestimated the depth of malevolence, the destructiveness, of the sociopath. On one such occasion I was evaluating a parolee who was a sex offender with multiple offenses. A typical evaluation of this sort would take approximately ninety minutes. After two hours I found myself captivated by the fascinating stories this ex-convict was spinning. What snapped me out of the trance was when he saw my young teenage daughter’s photograph on my desk and made a sexually provocative comment. I immediately transferred him to the psychiatrist and realized how deeply I had just been “played.”

It was then that I met Jamie. Jamie was a gifted case manager at the clinic whose job was to manage cases that were referred to him by myself and the other clinicians. He had an uncanny ability to connect deeply with clients, and I could see that his work would reinforce and forward my own work with them. In my heart, I felt my job was to teach people to see and experience their own lovability. There was a quality in Jamie that was profoundly effective in this area well beyond his twenty-five years. I can see now that I was drawn to this quality like a moth to the light. We developed a partnership in working with my clients that afforded a good deal of growth and intimacy. Over many months I found myself “falling into” the most unconventional relationship of my life. Paradoxically, I experienced the most profound love, mixed with what I can only describe as profound frustration and confusion. During the times marked with frustration, I would find myself slipping into a deep level of self-doubt and self-loathing, the depth of which I had never experienced before in my life.

This was a time in my life that I was exploring my creativity. After having written poetry for many months, I presented my work at my first poetry reading. It was a recurring pattern that when I was becoming empowered with self-expression, I would sabotage myself with a romantic relationship. This was a quality that saddened and confused the people who loved me the most. I could see the confusion in my friends, but I was unable to grasp the significance of this recurring and insidious pattern, much less see how to change it.

The unconventional nature of my relationship with Jamie drew a lot of criticism. With a fifteen-year age difference, I constantly found myself defending its validity. My closest friends were supportive, because they trusted my tendency to learn from all of my experiences.

This controversial relationship with Jamie involved deep personal connections with his family members, which I found extremely satisfying. They were wonderful people. We would go camping together, building fires and playing a good deal of music. They loved me and they loved my children. As we hiked in the woods, his father would identify and teach me about the plants and trees growing in nature. After the pain and oppression of two divorces, it was liberating to once again be able to experience the simplicity of life. On one level, this seemed to be just what I needed.

There was, however, a dark side to Jamie, who had a biographical history of serious parental abandonment and alcoholism. He had violent night terrors, the likes of which I had never seen. He would wake up screaming dragging us both out of bed, certain that he and I were being killed. Over time he became increasingly more volatile and I began to fear that I might be in physical danger. Being a psychotherapist, I was also  intrigued by this behavior. On a visit with his mother, I witnessed the most profound relational reconciliation of past alcoholism that I had ever experienced in my life thus far. The extremes in my relationship with Jamie were both deeply satisfying and profoundly troubling.  As the relationship progressed, the emotional extremes became more exaggerated. My own level of self-hatred was almost violent, although it was internalized. The relationship seemed to be going fairly well until the day one of my beloved female clients came to her session and reluctantly disclosed not only a profound lapse of judgment on Jamie’s part, but a deep personal betrayal and professional breach of ethics I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Evidentially, when I was on a spiritual retreat in New Mexico, Jamie had entered into an inappropriate relationship with the mother of adolescent boys I had entrusted to his care. This behavior had left the family in shambles, emotionally.

When I confronted Jamie with this behavior, not only did he deny the accusation vehemently, but his denial came from a place of such seeming authenticity and reverse outrage that I really didn’t know who to believe.  The shame and self-hatred was almost more then I could bear. The effect on my clients was the antithesis of what I hoped for and worked toward on their behalf. At this point, my world crashed down. Not only was my personal life in shambles, but my children and my clients were effected by decisions that I had made. This created a time in my life of deep introspection, which led to a profound existential shift. I had “hit bottom,” which led to a life-changing decision to withdraw from all romantic relationships. This catastrophic experience had gotten my attention, and I was unwilling to go forward in the same way that I had. There had been much too much devastation, and I was the common denominator.

At this point in my life, I entered into something I had avoided for many years. I entered into a deep and profound relationship with myself. Initially I was terrified. I didn’t know what of, but the fear of repeating the hurtful behavior was greater than the fear of the unknown. At forty-two, I turned around and faced myself for the first time.

After the initial anxiety and resistance abated, I began to deeply know myself for the first time. After three years, I not only felt liberated, but I was finally becoming completely comfortable with myself. Not only had I connected with a deep love of self that I’d never been able to access, but the blind spot regarding gradations of the spectrum of sociopathy was profoundly transformed.

It might seem that anybody can be a caregiver, but in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. It might also seem logical that if someone has raised a child, they could do what is required to care for another person in need. In reality, different skills and abilities are required depending on the situation, the personalities, and the particular disability involved. In my case, at the start, becoming disabled was a gradual process and the learning curve was both incremental and hard-won. I never had “how to” instructions, and all of the basic teachings seemed to be “on-the-job” and in the present moment. In retrospect, much of my process was akin to redesigning the wheel, and only afterwards did I discover that there was already a process in place. I’m certain it does not have to be this way, but this was my way.

Perhaps the fact that my husband was my primary caregiver and that we were both exceedingly independent and self-sufficient lent itself to this somewhat closed system of learning. One is not given an instruction manual in life; however I suspect that some people are more prepared than others and some curricula are less demanding. What I have discovered about caregiving over the last decade is that the more evolved and/or self–aware the individuals are, the more it takes on the form of a holographic paradigm of care. A hologram is a three-dimensional image where the whole is repeatedly represented in the parts. The more conscious the individuals are, the greater potential for the development of a synergistic system that perpetuates love/care and self-love. My particular learning process surrounding the vicissitudes of caregiving have been both grueling and not unlike having to place each brick, one-by-one, into a faulty foundation. My caregiver/care-recipient dyad has seemed reminiscent of the primal relationship between my mother and myself. In my experience with inner work, the caregiving dyad always comes back to this primal relationship. At least this is my working theory.

When the symptoms began nearly two decades ago, I had the intuition that the overall teaching, my soul contract, was about learning self-love. Early on, I had the vision of a small child holding her hands on either side of my face with her nose two inches from mine, wanting my undivided attention. In the vision, I saw that my attention had been divided and diffused. If my idea is correct, that caregiving is holographic, the entire process may be about healing the lack of self-love and/or seeing what is in the way in order for that healing to happen. I came to see that my learning curve was to continually expand my capacity for self-love by continually expanding my capacity to let in love and nurturing from the caregiver. The caregiver’s learning curve seems to be to offer caring with as much generosity as possible. The generosity needs to be authentic and the level of authenticity is directly related to how able the caregiver is to meet his or her own needs. A caregiver who has not learned how to meet her own needs becomes depleted, regardless of how experienced she  might be. Depending on the level of need required from the person in need of care, the caregiver must equally have the capacity to be a sacred provider.

At a certain point, my illness began to progress more steadily. As committed as my husband was to my process in the beginning, the requirements changed almost on a daily basis. Had I been able to see the trajectory, in retrospect, I probably would have secured professional assistance. Had my husband been able to meet his own emotional needs, there might have been a different outcome. In order to expand our capacity to meet our own needs, we must first know what our needs are and what it feels like when they are not met. This may seem basic, but the ability to meet one’s own needs is core to one’s spiritual awareness and spiritual Work.

Had the demands of this illness been less, the learning curve might have been much less demanding. My situation, however, upped the ante, and I don’t believe for one moment that this was arbitrary. I don’t subscribe to the hypothesis that people are victimized by their circumstances. On the contrary, the circumstances are exactly what is required for the curriculum of the soul, whether that is understood and accepted by the ego or not.

My marriage was a re-creation of my primal experience with my mother. She was overwhelmed by my emotional needs and unable to meet her own; therefore the system became one of deprivation begetting more deprivation. I do not say this with resentment or even disappointment. I believe this was the necessary design for the teaching we both needed and I have gratitude and appreciation for the work that took place between us. That does not mean that when this unresolved primal scenario gets triggered in the here and now, that I am cool and calm. In fact, I often have to go through the same process of heartbreak, acceptance, and forgiveness, which always ends in redemption and/or reconciliation. It just happens more quickly and with  more awareness, gratitude, and, yes, even humor.

As I became more experienced in this caregiving ‘yoga,’ the holographic nature of care and love became more apparent and more concentrated. As I gave love and care for my caregiver, they would love and care for me. As that grew and my self-love grew, I could see his or her self-love grow. The whole paradigm seemed to grow as a synergistic system of love and caring. That is when the system goes well.

This holographic paradigm of caring does not come without profound challenges. This process is far from linear and wrought with many pitfalls and trials. More on this sacred ordeal will be covered in Caregiving Part 2: The Alchemy of Caregiving.