Accepting Retreat

I usually walk directly into the eye of the storm.

My autonomic nervous system responses of both fight and freeze are strong. I can map this back at least as far as childhood and, quite possibly, past lives. Not only am I prone to walking into whatever danger is emerging, for a long time, I had no sense of needing protection and often came through scathed.

Part of me wore these marks as badges of honour. My pride and ego boosted in some way because I could do it (whatever the “it” was). A big part of who I have thought I was, and how my psychology operated was built on the earliest sensations of responding (mostly to emotions of others) in this way in order to try and control what was happening around me. Hoarding and denying my own emotions along the way and attempting to look brave to the world. To look like I know what to do and can “take on” whatever comes.

The flight part of my autonomic nervous system response has never been my go-to. Internally, perhaps, in ways of denial or trying to get away from the onslaught of those emotional and psychological scars. Not in action, though.

As COVID-19 started to enter New York at first it didn’t feel like much of a risk. Things then changed very quickly and the sheer volume of decision-making had my nervous system re-triggered to allow past trauma to surface physically in my body. The fragments of a decade-old trauma that had not yet been processed reared up and had me in hyper-drive for a few days. I could feel my legs wobble, my sacrum move like jelly, and my energetic cords along my spine spike, flare up, try to get away – out. A solid chunk of energy became lodged with a dull pain in my left thigh. It felt wild and uncontainable.

It was a lot to manage and, luckily, I knew how to reach out for and was able to receive the help I needed to move through it.

Then came the next decision. Whether or not to walk away from the storm and fly home. I didn’t want to risk getting my family sick and yet couldn’t imagine being away from them if something happened. My nervous system again responded – as if on fire, completely triggered and overwhelmed. I felt as though it might blow up. I could again map it back to the urgency of having to make a critical decision in the past (one that resulted in the post-traumatic stress disorder I’ve worked with and healed much of over years).

On top of this was the confusion of flight. Literal in that the flight itself was now deemed a risk. And also my personal nervous system response of flight was never one I relied on. Flight (as in leaving or walking away from) has always felt, to me, like failure. Which, of course, it isn’t. Flight can sometimes be the best possible option especially in cases of danger. I recognize that it is privileged to be able to flee in many cases, including this one.

I didn’t know the outcome of my decision – would I be infecting my whole family? Terror of the unknown outcome gripped me adding more past unprocessed “stuff” loose.

After a few conversations with my mom, I decided to fly home.

I cried a whole bunch, let all the emotions out and then felt oddly awake. Like there was nothing left to move. It felt as though I ducked into flight and surrendered. Letting go of my typical responses, ego, bravado, and also, the ways in which I have judged myself for decades. Letting go of the values associated with those judgments.

Sometimes, the best possible thing to do is retreat.

To retreat – to withdraw and surrender – requires the ability to no longer grasp. To no longer grasp to what is or was or what might come. To let go of expectations of what might be or would be or wasn’t. To also physically remove yourself. To go into the cave willingly for an unknown amount of time.

I’ve written a few times about aparigraha – one of the principles of yoga translated to non-attachment or non-grasping. I’ve looked at it in relation to a scarcity mindset or one of abundance, to the emotional psychology of letting physical objects go, mistaking attachment for connection and even the challenges in finding slowdom. Underneath each layer of letting go has also been a form of allowing my emotions to move.

As I learned more about how to feel and not hoard, contain, or use emotions in harmful ways, my ability to be with what was arising expanded. Now, I can see, that with these shifts my nervous system was also changing. Relearning how to cope and how to choose differently. I have been learning how to keep myself safe and protected. A concept I didn’t value as important in the past and so, grasped as if on a maniacal roller coaster for years, for ways to try and survive.

As I landed back home in Canada, and got to my parent’s place, I felt my nervous system immediately release. It was shocking how much better it felt and how quickly. All the heightened strain dissipated. By the next morning all that had flooded to the surface was gone because I was able to step into flight. Not only was my nervous system back to feeling normal, but it had it’s time to be seen, recognized and to receive a new response from me. It also received the message that it’s okay to go home. It’s okay to accept help. To not try to take it all on.

It was a great moment of healing and releasing past stuck “stuff”. Thanks to the internal work of making shifts over time I somehow (without knowing it) grew my capacity to accept flight as an option. Sitting with awareness, a self-compassionate heart, and a willingness to let go even more, now I know that there are more options.

Now I understand that to retreat is not easy or even a go-to response for many and can be a useful, valuable, healing action to take.