Breaking the rescue habit. Last night one of my fiercest teachers showed back up in my life after a lengthy absence. Without her, I would not be ready to offer healthy peer support. She holds the record as the last person I tried to rescue and she effectively broke me of the habit. I will call her Angel because she needs a beautiful name that offers anonymity. She will know exactly why I picked this one.
Those of us who have been traumatized tend to be magnetized to other wounded hearts. But rescuing is a suspect impulse, carrying a taint of toxicity and inequality, holding people at a distance. I was on my way to getting this, but Angel drove the message all the way home. Painfully.
“If you have come here to help me,” Australian indigenous artist and leader Lilla Watson is famous for saying, “you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” There is no question my liberation is bound up with Angel’s.
I note that we are not in a formal peer relationship. I had never heard of peer support when I met her, but it is in large part because of her that I found this calling. She is my peer.
The “b” word. The reasons Angel and I have been out of touch for nearly a year are complicated on one hand and simple on another. In my mind, the main reason is something essential to safe and effective peer support – authentic boundaries. Good boundaries set the stage for honoring personhood, respecting triggers, having yes mean yes and no mean no.
I won’t tell you the details of Angel’s story because it belongs to her, but I can tell you some of the general circumstances that she freely shares with others, and the qualities I most admire about her. She has been in the community mental health system for over 20 years, but has not lost her voice or her will. She persists in seeking help, although her needs have not been met. She’s been saddled with multiple diagnoses, but refused to be broken by labels. She’s endured multiple hospitalizations and powerful psychiatric drugs, but declined to stay on anti-psychotic meds because she doesn’t want to lose her essential integrity.
Angel wants the freedom to think her thoughts and feel her feelings even when they are torturous. This makes her a hero to me.
“I choose to GET BACK UP NOW,” she wrote me in a note last night after we saw each other. Angel has done that repeatedly. Her spirit is the most amazing force I’ve ever witnessed. Knowing the details I do about the traumas she’s endured brings me to my knees in humble wonder.
Back to the “b” word. Nearly a year ago, our relationship was in crisis. Instead of seeing me as her ally, Angel suspected me of being an enemy and plotting against her. We were on a whiplash-inducing emotional rollercoaster. One day we’d be fine and the next she’d be furious at me without explanation. For a long time, I tried to be patient and persistent, but I finally realized my error. In seeking to practice tolerance, I was bulldozing my own needs.
Fertile ground. This is where the ground can get really fertile if you have the willingness to grab a metaphorical garden fork and dig in your own soil. I finally realized that the inexplicable inconsistency of Angel’s feelings and behavior toward me functioned as a trigger for my own childhood trauma. I needed to back off. This was my rationale: if I’m not respecting myself and my needs for safety and security, I am not respecting the relationship. Instead of trying to fix you, I need to stay home and fix me.
Drawing a line was a painful and complicated choice. I articulated my feelings and needs and made a request. My side of the story is that Angel distanced herself because she could not meet my request. Nearly a year has gone by with only a couple of brief and remote contacts. But she never left my heart.
A deeper anchor. In our highest and best moments together over the last 3+ years, Angel and I experienced an uncanny level of mutual understanding. Sometime during the first year of building our bond, we traveled to a deep, shared place in our souls. She asked me to anchor there. “No matter what I say or do, or how I treat you, I want you to always remember that I love you no matter what,” Angel told me fiercely that day. “Please don’t forget that.”
And I haven’t. Even when I had to set a boundary that kept us apart, I never forgot. I kept our anchor in place. That, I believe, is the sustaining grace that allowed us to see each other last night for the first time in many months and go straight from distance and silence to a warm and welcoming embrace. In that hug I felt my tender heart healing.
My self-respect was my gift to the relationship. Me getting out from behind the wheel of the rescue wagon allows us the potential for a different relationship now, one in which we are each driving our own recovery and traveling together when it works for us. A gift that I think Angel and I are each in a position to offer now is to give our bond a chance for renegotiation and redefinition.
Thank you, Angel. I love you. Ultimately, what you taught me is not that I shouldn’t be a rescuer, but that I can’t. Healing myself is my best shot at healing the world.