When he was two, our son had several episodes where he would simply freeze up and stop responding. Connley would stare at the ground, unmoving for minutes at a time, as if he had checked out of his body, leaving just an empty shell of a boy.
Terrified, we would do anything we could think of to snap him out of it, crouching on the ground and coaxing him with gentle words or grabbing him by the shoulders in hopes of arresting his attention, but unable to shake him out of whatever was going on. Finally, one of us would pick him up like a rag doll and hold him close; eventually Connley would wrap his arms around our neck and let us hold him until he came back to himself.
We had no idea what was causing our son’s body to shut down, and we had no idea how to help him.
A friend who worked as a pediatrician witnessed one of these episodes, and the concern on her face sent my heart into a panic. Fearing seizures or worse, we got a referral to a children’s hospital and made an appointment to have his brain monitored.
Feigning bravery, I carried Connley into a bright exam room, then restrained him through tears while two nurses adhered dozens of electrodes to his head. Each electrode was connected to a long wire attached to a machine that would monitor his brain activity while he slept. Once he was all hooked up, I cradled him in my arms and tried to act calm so he would fall asleep for the test. I stared at my baby boy napping with wires coming out of his gauze-wrapped head and wept, praying for courage and hating that we were doing this to our son.
But we had no other way to find out what was going on inside of him.
The first time I saw him freeze up, I had yelled too loudly, reprimanding him harshly for repeated disobedience. My response was disproportionate to his behavior; he didn’t deserve such a stern scolding. But frustration had been building in me all day for a million different reasons and I had held it in–until that moment. I snapped. I shouted. And he shut down.
It should have been a clear connection; the shame that flooded my body in the aftermath of my overreaction should have been a clue that my startling anger had scared him. Triggers for other episodes were harder to pinpoint: entering an unfamiliar house with lots of voices speaking at once; playing outside and being approached by a gruff neighbor; and countless other moments that seemed innocuous in isolation.
The neurologist confirmed it, though: Connley’s brain showed all normal electrical activity. No seizures. Nothing medical explained what we had witnessed. The doctor explained that Connley was shutting down simply to get a response out of us.
Connley needed comfort but didn’t have the words yet to tell us what he was feeling inside. His body found a way to protect his heart when it felt unsafe.
My body does the same thing.
I notice a tightness in my chest, a churning in my belly, a clenching in my shoulders and I’m learning to pay attention. My body knows before my mind is aware that something is happening inside of me. It cries out for help, sending signals to get my attention, bidding me to stop and notice, to provide comfort and care.
It hit me hard yesterday, the old panic gripping my chest, wrenching my belly to the point of queasiness, constricting my lungs so my breath came shallow and quick. I didn’t pay attention until my heart started pounding, hammering from the inside like a fist banging on a door.
My body was giving me clues, inviting me to notice my internal world, to pause long enough to get curious about why I was so anxious.
I took a deep breath, lowering the phone that had screamed for my attention and choosing to suspend for a moment the people awaiting my response. “What is wrong with me?” I asked, berating myself for what seemed like irrational anxiety. (Condemnation comes easily when I feel overwhelmed, heaping shame on top of the fear that floats beneath the surface.)
But curiosity and judgement cannot coexist. So I exhaled slowly, surrendered, and changed the question. I wondered instead, “What is happening inside me right now?”
The answer came quietly, like a frightened child peeking out from her hiding place to make sure the coast is clear. “I’m afraid,” I whispered. Somehow, naming it diffused the pressure inside my chest. “It’s all too much,” I admitted, gently allowing the little girl inside to have a voice. “I’m just afraid.”
A few minutes of breathing, a text to my husband to ask for prayer, and acknowledgement of my fear was enough that morning to get me through those moments of anxiety. It’s not always so simple, though.
Sometimes there are weeks or months or even years of feelings that have remained unnoticed, avoided, ignored. But when my mind tries to talk my heart out of an emotion, my body eventually finds a way to get my attention.
If I ignore my loneliness, I often find myself digging through the pantry after the kids are in bed, grabbing handfuls of chocolate chips but never able to satisfy my craving.
When stress overwhelms me, I sense pressure building inside my head until my brain feels physically tight, like a balloon that’s overly inflated. The tension I carry in my shoulders eventually progresses into debilitating headaches that demand attention.
Being hurt by someone I love feels like the blood draining out of my face. I often shut down and withdraw, unable to make eye contact and disengaging in self-protection.
We aren’t meant to carry our internal worlds alone. We aren’t meant to internalize or minimize or rationalize away the things we feel, especially the things that feel unpleasant or unacceptable.
And we all feel things, whether we notice them or not.
The longer things have been buried, the more work it takes to excavate what’s beneath the surface–so I often resist. It’s muddy at first, hard to see where to start, and I need to be willing to sift through it slowly. But I can’t do it alone.
I used to think my neediness was a character flaw. Now I know that needing help to process what I feel comes with being human, and it’s necessary for my health.
We desperately need those we love to come close enough for us to whisper “I’m afraid,” or “I’m hurting,” or “I’m lonely.” We need to be held, fully accepted and embraced in our vulnerability, protected from harm in the safe arms of another.
Sharing what’s inside of us is both terrifying in its vulnerability and healing in its intimacy.
It seems so simple, so easy. Name what’s happening inside. Say, “I’m sad” or “I’m scared.” Our words are the invitation for those we love to come near, wrap us in their arms and help the child inside (because there will always be a child inside us) feel safe.
But it’s anything but easy.
Sitting still with ourselves long enough to notice what’s happening inside takes courage. And using words to name out loud all the things we feel in a given day–the fear, insecurity, joy, pain, disappointment, excitement, anger, doubt, and beyond–it may be one of the bravest things we can do.
Connley’s six now and still learning to put words to the big things he feels. I’m still learning too. We’ll keep practicing together, keep choosing to invite each other in, helping one another name what’s happening inside us.
And when we just don’t know what to say, a hug always fills in the gap where words fall short.