Last year I found myself in the position of supporting a very close friend who was going through an incredibly difficult and dark period in their life. I was their primary support person through this challenging chapter, and as such I would speak with them on the phone at length every day, sometimes several times. They were struggling with a serious illness, the fallout of a relationship gone awry, and ongoing financial difficulties. There was no question that I wanted to be there to support my friend in any way that I could, but as their situation progressively deteriorated, and they increasingly needed my help, I found myself beginning to unravel - my own psychological and physical health began to fold under the weight of my friend’s situation. I was taking on their trauma.
Gradually this progressed to the point where I was developing the same symptoms they experienced with their chronic illness. That I could take on their situation so deeply was both terrifying and fascinating. As my physical and psychological health declined, however, I had to acknowledge it was time for a course correction.
One night I sat alone and processed all of my frustration, angst, and trapped emotion around the situation, forcefully pushing the heaviness of my friend’s entire reality out of my system. I screamed, I sweared, I felt ashamed, I cried. And when it was over, I went for a walk and literally felt like I was ten years younger than before. It was amazing, and I knew that if I took a break from supporting my friend that feeling of lightness might well stay.
When I talked to a mentor about all of this, they said one of the wisest things I think I’ve ever heard in my life: Miles, you can step away, and a part of you will feel better. You felt better when you processed and pushed that darkness out of yourself because you protected your inner child - but you did not help it to mature. You didn’t learn how to exist alongside darkness and tragedy without it injuring you. You didn’t learn how to hold a light in this level of darkness, and that’s the real lesson here.
Indeed, to hold light amidst darkness would seem to be one of the biggest lessons for all of us living here on Earth. To hold our light in the placid waters of controlled solitude or during idyllic moments is small potatoes.
So I had a new task - to support my friend and take care of myself at the same time - to keep myself expanded and bright inside when outside of me there was a situation of apparent despair.
To an innocent and vulnerable part of me (which I refer to as the inner child), having my friend’s dramatic, volatile and damaged life entering my world every day felt like having an unstable, toxic alcoholic bursting into my house every day, taking up the space with their overwhelming, dysfunctional energy. This part of me felt unsafe, defensive and pretty well terrified - the exact way a child would if such a person was coming into their otherwise peaceful home all the time.
When I’d processed all my anxiety and frustration about this situation earlier, I’d basically freed my inner child from this burden entirely - now it was time to show him how to feel safe and happy within it.
I explained to him, in the way that a parent would to their child, that our friend was indeed quite damaged and toxic, that all of his feelings about how unstable things felt when our friend was around were valid - to a certain extent. More importantly, however, I explained to him that the only reason our suffering friend was coming around was because they wanted to get better, and they felt that we might be able to help them achieve this. Our friend didn’t want us to suffer at all, and there was actually a really beautiful purpose to them being around us - to get better.
When I shared this with my inner child, he got extremely excited by the idea that he might actually be able to help our friend - it was like a switch automatically flipped where instead of feeling like an overwhelmed victim, he (I) felt like a capable, autonomous person with a very exciting and important role to play.
I continued to have a dialogue with this overwhelmed part of myself, and because in my mind’s eye we were already having our conversation in a house, I decided we would build a new room in the house specifically designed to accommodate our beloved and troubled friend. This room was where they would go whenever they came around from now on. It had a huge glass window that we could talk to them through, so that their energy would be contained to the room, but we could still see them and support them right on the other side of that boundary.
Now my inner child was really beginning to relax, and even more, get excited about the possibility of helping our friend feel amazing.
The next time I spoke to my friend, I actively visualized them going into their special room in this house, and was explaining everything to my inner child, making sure they felt comfortable and safe, while simultaneously holding space for my friend. When my friend was processing heavy emotional wounds, I was explaining what they were doing to my inner child, and instead of feeling overwhelmed by what was happening my inner child became an active participant - cheering on my friend as they processed, processing actively alongside him and believing in him completely.
After that conversation, instead of feeling drained and beat down, I felt charged and strong - the contrast was night and day.
I know enough about trauma to know that one of its primary causes is the experience of being overwhelmed or defeated, and that’s exactly what I’d been experiencing in a slow moving way with my friend’s situation. I’d allowed myself to be overwhelmed, to feel defeated by their situation - something that as a facilitator working with others I’m very good at not doing, but that in this particular personal circumstance, had totally owned me.
I also know that one of the most powerful ways to heal trauma (or prevent it) is to be proactive rather than frozen - to take some kind of corrective, life affirming action to protect oneself from whatever it is that would otherwise overwhelm us. And of course we can go back and do this retroactively - but here I had the opportunity to do it in real time.
The conversations with my friend continued, and I continued to consciously visualize the dynamic of them going into their special room, then study the response of and actively mentor my inner child while remaining present to my friend and their needs. Partially as a result of this, I began to stop believing that their situation was as bad as they often felt it was. I was no longer in overwhelm around it, so was able to see the bigger picture: That this situation was, as all things are, a temporary phase. That there are always answers. That we are all taken care of. In other words, I was actually able to hold light in the dark - and to hold that light for my friend, which is what they really wanted and needed - not someone to take on and get overwhelmed by their situation.
Amazingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the neurological symptoms I’d been developing subsided with this shift in the way I was positioning myself. I did notice, however, that when I slipped up and let myself get overwhelmed again, that the symptoms would come back - a helpful (if someone annoying) reminder that I needed to attend to myself.
I won’t claim to have mastered this skill by any means, but I will say that to stretch myself and hold light in the complexity of challenging situations brings with it a kind of satisfaction and richness that running from that challenge for quieter waters simply doesn’t. I guess that it’s the feeling of growth, of becoming an integrated person.
The specific way that I held and educated the overwhelmed part of myself here is one that I’ve returned to again and again in different ways, and one that I regularly share with others. It might sound clumsy visualizing my friend in a glass-walled room while I hold hand’s with and guide my inner child, all during an involved conversation with my friend, but it can feel surprisingly natural, and is really just a part of integrating these various aspects of our psyche so that they can organically and fluidly flow together.
Sometimes our greatest teacher is the dark and scary stuff - it’s what forces us into our light.