Complexes, chronic pain, and change

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Recently I found myself caught in a complex—one I didn’t realize I have, or didn’t understand the full extent of—about control. Or a lack thereof.

Carl Jung’s definition of complex was one of his biggest contributions to depth psychology, so central to his work he almost named his collection of theories “complex psychology.” Complexes are generally described as emotionally-charged memories, ideas, and images around a core theme. Essentially: from a very early age, we start to associate certain feelings, attitudes, and experiences with archetypes like mother, father, sister, brother, power, creativity, etc. The more associations attached to a particular theme, the stronger its influence on the psyche. Complexes are not inherently negative, but our reactions to them can be.

If, for example, you were often criticized as a child and made to feel less-than, you might develop an inferiority complex, which could manifest in any number of ways. You might overcompensate by being very dominant and competitive, or struggle with self-esteem, with seeing tasks through to completion. If it is a mostly unconscious complex, you might project it onto others, criticizing weakness and dependency in those around you. (See: Trump.) Should someone or something trigger those old, uncomfortable feelings, causing you to want to act out, you might find yourself “caught in your complex.”

(Side note: I am not a professional, so please take my interpretations with a grain of salt.)

Is it over?Anytime you have a disproportionate reaction to a situation, you can almost guarantee you’re in the midst of a complex. And anyone who’s ever been caught in the riptide of one knows that shit will fuck you up. You’ll swell with emotion, might want to jump to all kinds of action, but in general the best response—thank you, This Jungian Life—is to sit on your hands, shut up, and wait it out. As Jung said, we have complexes, but complexes can have us. And apparently I have a complex around control.

Last month, we had some issues with our heating. First the boiler was acting up, then maintenance suspected there might be air bubbles in our pipes. Multiple days we didn’t have any heat, but not for more than 12-24 hours at a time.

On the surface, this is not a big deal. Our apartment has never been toasty, and anyway I love cold weather. I’ve lived in many cold climates. In the grand scheme of things, I am blessed to have heat at all. Just put on some more layers, right?

But my reaction any time we’ve lost heat in the winter has been… very disproportionate to the situation. Distress. Anxiety. Rumination. Intellectually, I know it will eventually be fixed, but my heart goes straight to low-grade panic.

I’ve tried to figure out why this is so triggering. When I lived in Maine, filling the oil tank in our apartment was so expensive, we usually kept it pretty low. Throughout the winter, I always had this fear of that moment when the heat would turn off, when we’d have to scrape together hundreds to turn it back on. Blizzards would blow through and knock out power as well, and then too I had that same fear: the house growing colder and colder, the heat never coming back on. I know family and friends in coastal areas who have similar fears after living through hurricanes. But is that what this is about? Mother Nature?

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If winter in Minnesota didn’t bother me, then surely a briefly broken heater in Seattle won’t… right?

A little bit, for sure. But David pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: because I suffer from migraines, and because they can be debilitating, I am extra mindful about my surroundings. I don’t eat food that makes me feel like shit, I generally don’t drink because it makes me feel like shit, and I am particular about everything from lighting, temperature, and the amount of sleep I get each night, to exercise and how I spend my energy. I go to a chiropractor to keep my body aligned, and I go to therapy mostly because it’s awesome, but partly because I know how sensitive I am to unprocessed emotions: they literally make me sick. So this complex I fell into is not just one about control, but about pain, even safety.

Access to healing modalities and the ability to regulate my surroundings is a privilege. I am not a controlling person in general, but I guess I am controlling of my environment. I feel I have to be, because I know what will happen if I am not. When the heat shuts off unexpectedly, it’s like someone’s pulled an errant thread and I can sense already the ways in which the whole thing will be undone.

This might sound extreme to anyone who hasn’t wrestled with chronic pain. I’ve gotten migraines since I was a child, so bad they’d make me puke, but I literally didn’t learn the word “migraine” until I was 21. No one in family gets them—a fact that prompted my most recent neurologist to order an MRI “to be safe”—and growing up I didn’t know anyone who got them, either; it wasn’t in our vocabulary. It was just assumed I had a headache, the kind everyone gets. But one day at work, shortly after college graduation, I was describing the pulsating, unbearable nature of these headaches—which, at the time, I had been getting daily for months—when a coworker said, “Those are migraines. I get them too.” It was the first day of the rest of my life. After more than a decade of visits with neurologists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, osteopaths, allergists, therapists, and chiropractors, I have a pretty solid understanding of my body and my pain, what makes it better and what makes it worse, and I live in mindful awareness of these boundaries.

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Post-migraine during a trip to California with my sister some years ago. See: water, painkillers, woozy posture, the way my hair looks because I’d been shoving my hands against my head for hours.

Sometimes a mindful existence doesn’t matter, though. I go through periods in which I get migraines daily and others in which they are a rare visitor. Four years ago, I got a migraine so bad I asked to be taken to the hospital. In that moment, I had lost the thread; I felt a total lack of control, a total inability to help myself.

This is the crux of chronic pain: it isolates you—and much of the time you are OK with this—but healing is often hastened by the care of others. I remember laying in the hospital and the nurse standing next to me saying, “it’s OK, you’re OK,” and it making all the difference, like all those times a loved one helped me to bed, laid silently beside me, and/or rubbed my back while I fought off searing pain and nausea.

I have not always received this care in reaction to my migraines. Many people have underestimated them. But we must take people’s pain seriously. We must take them at their word.

David shared a perfect metaphor for complexes: they are like the sun, blazing and blotting out everything. But beneath it is a sky of stars, all the countless times we got what we needed, received care and attention when we were hurting, felt the steady warmth of heat in winter, lived outside the boundaries of our lives and thrived not in spite of but because of it.

We must remind ourselves of all the times things went right.

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Taking the advice of this piece by dancer and writer Marlee Grace (@marleegrace, & marleegrace.space).

When I told my therapist about the heat, about the undone feeling of it all, she nodded slowly and said, “You’re moving to an island, Lynn, 3,000 more miles away from everything you know.”

Oh, yeah. 

On the surface, I have been over-the-moon excited about this move, about living on Maui and everything I will learn, all the good people we will be around and all the good good things we will do. But I’ve had trouble sleeping deeply the past couple weeks and a few times now I’ve dreamt about losing my teeth. What will come of our time there? How will it go? What I want to feel is control, assuredness, because control is what makes me feel safe. But it’s not really possible right now—it never really has been. I suppose I will keep trusting and leaping until I learn this lesson, I will keep reminding myself of the stars on days when all I can see is the sun.

An end in myself

The other morning I was at the chiropractor paying for my adjustment when the doctor asked the next patient, a woman seated in his small lobby, how she was doing.

“Fine,” she said, shrugging. “Just waiting until I can not be here for a while.”

I understood.

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We have two and a half months left in Seattle, part of which I’m spending at home in North Carolina. When David and I decided this past summer to move to Maui, we came up with lists of places we had to go in Washington, islands we had to visit, hikes we had to take before moving. We didn’t want to take our remaining time in this beautiful state for granted. But little of it has been accomplished. As our move date creeps closer, our desire to explore has lessened, weighing on us.

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“There are no people up there, right?”

In Seattle, if you want to find real solitude in nature, you have to wake up at 3 a.m., drive two hours outside the city, then hastily scramble to the top of some mountain before the majority of other hikers awaken and find you there. We used to love to do this. We love getting up really, really early and venturing out in the dark. But an activity we once found novel, we now hold in contempt. We don’t want to wake up before the sun to find solace in nature—we want to be able to walk out our back door and find it. I suppose this sounds bratty, but I think access to wilderness, to quiet, to calm, is a basic human right. Here, unless you have money, transportation, and time, it’s almost an impossibility.

Normally I love exploring any place in which I find myself. I never understand folks who claim boredom. No town is too small or too remote or too seemingly plain for me; I’ve always been down to scout out some obscure trail or backroad or landmark. I used to do this for a living. But I’ve lost my adventure mojo recently, and so has he.

Instead, we’ve been hibernating, enjoying the remaining weeks in our cozy apartment, digging into shows like “His Dark Materials,” and reading. I’m on a break from graduate school as I apply to transfer to the University of Hawaii, and this time off has freed me up to read whatever I want. Whatever I want! So of course I moved quickly from heavy stuff like trauma and transference to books on marriage, monogamy, and children. First up was Motherhood by Sheila Heti.

As a 30-something woman from the South who is in a healthy, happy relationship, the question …kidsis always in the back of my mind, like a ghost. Sometimes I use the daily events of my life to try and answer it. A day spent with one of my best friends and her kids: yes. Hearing shrieking children in my building morning, noon, and night: you know? Maybe not. To quote Heti:

Sometimes I’m convinced that a child will add depth to all things—just bring a background of depth and meaning to whatever it is I do. I also think I might have brain cancer. There’s something I can feel in my brain, like a finger pressing down.

I understand that parenthood is more complex than any of these wonderful, impossible moments. I can’t know it until I know it—and I know there will be something to mourn no matter which path we choose. The older I get, though, the more my ambivalence grows. Often I tell people that I don’t think this is a world I want to leave to any child. And there are so many motherless kids; why not take care of them?

This is all true. David and I often talk about fostering or adopting later in life. We are deeply concerned about climate change. And we both want to be involved with children in some way, whether as a coach, mentor, or therapist. Before we decided to move, I was interviewing for an internship at a play therapy center for children on the peninsula and was so excitedI am particularly passionate about working with “difficult” kids and adolescents—those who are often cast as the black sheep of their family.

And yet. The truth at the heart of all these truths is I value my freedom more than I value the experience of becoming a mother. I love being able to get up and go with little planning, use my money for travel, have quiet nights at home, write endlessly, selfishly, ask questions, explore all kinds of paths and dream up all kinds of futures, like—what if we lived in Maui? What if I trained as an analyst in Zurich? Or applied for a grant to travel to Antarctica? Or worked with sled dogs in Alaska? What if we spent a season in Japan or South America or built a house in the Great Smoky Mountains? 

As Heti writes, “A life is just a proposition you ask it by living it, Could a life be lived like this too?”

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This is not to say that parents can’t do all these things too—but the doing is more complicated. And this is not to dismiss the choice of women I know who have become, or are becoming, mothers. I have always felt that if you have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about something, it’s best to leave it to those who wish to take it, to really grab hold of it. I bow down before mothers. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to be one.

On a flight a couple days ago I watched a mom hold her chubby-cheeked baby up to the window during landing so he could see the sky and the earth and the setting sun, and I felt my heart twist up, oof, like, am I really never going to have that? But then the feeling passed, and like most days I thought that the greatest gift I unknowingly gave myself was making it to my 30s without marrying or having children. I am not who I was 10 years ago. I want different things. Do I even believe in marriage? I think so. But it’s kind of a creepy proposition (for hetero couples, at least), isn’t it, if you squint real hard—the whole let’s-get-this-virgin-in-something-white-and-stick-a-ring-on-her-finger thing? And do I believe in monogamy? Do I truly feel that life is best lived in a dyad, that all of my loving and longing should only be shared with one person… ’til I’m dead?

I don’t know. These are not questions women are supposed to—and in some cultures are forbidden to—ask. In general, nothing is more ghastly or offensive than a woman who doesn’t want what she has been told to want, or worse, who believes, as Heti describes, that she is “an end in herself.”

Of childfree women, she writes:

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What sort of trouble, indeed?

What Seattle Gave Me

About ten years ago, I was at a bar in North Carolina with some friends. I had just moved home from Maine after a difficult breakup. We had been together a little less than five years, dating throughout college and beyond. During that time, he had introduced me to Maine, his home, and it had become mine. Now single, I longed to make a new home for myself and set my sights on Seattle. I had a remote job, and the city spoke to everything true in me: my love for moody climates, bookish cultures, majestic wilderness. And so when people asked what I thought I might do next, I told them, “Move to Seattle.”

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At the bar that night, I started talking to two men, one of whom was an athletic coach at a local university. I told him about my recent move home and my dream of moving to Seattle, and he told me about life with his wife in rural North Carolina. Then we drifted apart. The bar was loud, smoky, filled with frat boys playing darts. When my friends and I eventually decided to leave, I walked over to the man to say a quick goodbye. He watched me talk and then said gently, firmly, “Lynn? Go to Seattle.”

It took seven years for me to do just that. By then, my interest in the city, or city life in general, had diminished, but I happened to find a particular graduate school for counseling that I wanted to attend and it happened to be in Seattle. Sometimes we start stories and life finishes them for us, I think.

After two and a half years here, my boyfriend, David, and I are preparing to leave. In February, we’re moving to Maui, where he used to live, and are so excited. As it turns out, Seattle is not for either one of us. When I am in a particularly bad mood, I refer to it as “Gotham.” It has been everything and nothing I dreamed it would be. This, of course, is how idealization usually ends—with reality.

For now, I want to focus on the good that has come from my time here. This overburdened city has supported my existence for the past few years, and that in and of itself is a great gift. Here are some other important things it gave me:

A safe space to explore

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Photo: Elle Malmstrom

After my first year of graduate school, I buzzed my head. I did it because I had always wanted to and because, after a year of difficult personal work, I wanted to shed something. It was an empowering move, and that positivity was reflected in the responses I received from friends and strangers around the city. Back home in the South, though—and I say this as someone who loves my home—I often experienced judgment, sometimes bordering on disgust. Strangers glared at me in confusion, as if trying to determine my sex, while a few acquaintances passive-aggressively joked that I looked like a “little boy.” (This, of course, represents only a fraction of the cruelty some have dealt with their entire lives.)

The thing was, some days I wanted to look like a “boy.” Often I loved my androgyny. In Seattle, I felt free to explore this. One of the greatest gifts the city gave me was a safe space to lean into my ever-changing self.

Dance

Created by Seattle-based choreographer Kate Wallich, Dance Church is a 90-minute class, part cardio, part free-form dance. When I first heard about it, I was intrigued. As an adult, I longed for the ritual that church offers, but rarely did I feel comfortable in a church. And I loved to dance. I had taken dance classes the entirety of my childhood and adolescence. But it had been so long since I’d danced anywhere, even at a club. All of that changed two years ago when I showed up to one of Wallich’s classes with a friend.

I have been blessed to live just blocks away from Dance Church’s base in Capitol Hill. These weekly gatherings have been an invaluable source of personal healing, bringing movement, joy, release, and communion back into my life. It might be the thing I’ll miss the most when we move.

True wilderness

I have spotted wild turkeys while riding horseback through the North Cascades, howled with wolves, felt the sun on my face after a multihour trek to a glacial lake, seen a volcano turn red, yellow, and orange in fall, napped like a baby bear on a log in the middle of what audiologist Gordon Hempton considers to be the site of the quietest place in the lower 48, and watched herons, gulls, and crabs skitter about countless quiet coves. Anytime I need a reality check, a reminder of the smallness of my troubles or the goodness that waits if I bother to look, I walk to the end of our street: to the right are the Cascades, to the left the Olympics, and behind me is Rainier.

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A winter hike in the Cascades.

A relationship with grief

There are two ways a person can live in Seattle: dissociate, or cultivate an ongoing relationship with grief. For the past couple years, I’ve walked through downtown every day, either on my way to or from school or for work. My first semester here, I cried constantly: in class, in my sublet, in therapy. Seattle has one of the highest, if not the highest, rates of homelessness in the country. I have seen dead bodies splayed across sidewalks, humans stuffed in nooks and crannies, wrapped in sheets of insulation, stepped over, slumped over, avoided, ignored, shaking from withdrawal. Last Thanksgiving, a person collapsed outside our apartment in the middle of the night and moaned like a wild animal. What to do with all this suffering around and inside me? Tend to it. As Francis Weller writes in The Wild Edge of Sorrow, “The work of grieving for the world translates into a fierce and undying devotion to the world.” This has proven true for me.

And gratitude

I considered myself a grateful person before I moved to Seattle, but my gratitude has tripled since then. Thank you, God, for a roof over my head. Thank you for good health, for a job I love, for my education. Thank you for David. Thank you for my therapist. Mental healthcare should not be a luxury, but it still is. Thank you for my shoes. Thank you for all ten toes. Thank you for my family and friends. 

Sometimes I’ll be sitting on the toilet peeing and think, thank you for this toilet. Thank you for private spaces, which so many of my neighbors do not have. Thank you for my healthy bladder. I promise I will take all of what you’ve given me and use it for good.

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Grateful for the view out our window. On clear days in fall and winter you can see Rainier covered in a soft pink light.

A priceless education

For years, I wanted to get a masters in counseling, but two things stopped me: I didn’t want to go into debt, and I couldn’t find the “right” program. Healing is multilayered to me, more than just talk therapy. I wanted a program that addressed the whole person, incorporating the clinical, cultural, and spiritual. When I discovered The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, I knew it was the place. And it proved to be so. The school believes that you can only take someone as far as you’ve been yourself, so the first year is devoted almost entirely to deep personal work and personal and communal healing—in addition to the therapy you are required to participate in outside school.

It was a wild and painful time. Walking into school regularly felt like falling into the Upside Down. I often tell people that even if I never work in a therapeutic capacity, the interpersonal education I received there will last me a lifetime. And the friends I made will always share this great and beautiful knowing with me that no one else can understand.

Us

After years of friendship, David and I started dating a couple months before I moved to Seattle in August 2017. He moved out the following January. Can I tell you how exciting and gratifying it was to get to take not one, but two cross-country road trips with him?! We have had so many adventures since then. We have supported each other through all the ups and downs of work and graduate school and life. We made a little home. We made friends. How could I ever not be grateful for Seattle? It laid the foundation for us.

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Devils Tower, Wyoming, on our first cross-country trek.