Bodily Effects of Estrangement


I thought I’d take some time to practice mindfulness in the midst of one of my more difficult moments today being overwhelmed with grief.  I’ve been having quite a few of these overwhelming moments this week.  I focused on what my body was doing and took inventory of my bodily reaction to the current bout of emotional turmoil.

Here’s the list I came up with from today’s grief event and things I remember from others (I’m sure there’s more):

  • stomach muscles clenched
  • stomach queasy, sometimes to the point of vomiting
  • tight chest
  • clenched teeth
  • gasping for air, feeling like I can’t breathe
  • crying
  • sobbing
  • feeling like I’m drowning in my tears
  • doubled over
  • head and neck tight
  • muscles throughout my body tight
  • toes and feet curled and clenched
  • trembling, shaking
  • dizzy
  • poor balance when walking
  • stuttering
  • closed eyes
  • I bite my lips
  • I hide face behind hands or clothing
  • I suck and chew on clothing (shirt edge usually)
  • aching all over
  • sometimes the crying triggers my asthma

And when this happens, all I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep … for a thousand years.

One benefit of mindfully taking stock of my body’s reactions, allowed me to make other choices to help myself feel better.  When I noticed my clenched teeth, I made an effort to relax my jaw.  When I noticed muscles that were being held tightly, I took some time to focus on releasing those muscles as much as I could.

It didn’t take care of everything, but it made a small difference in how I was coping.  A small difference right now can be the difference between life and another stay in the hospital on Suicide Watch.

This has been a bad, bad week.



Acute Stress Disorder and Estrangement

I’m currently working my way through the book, Done with the Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, by Sheri McGregor, MA and sharing my thoughts and responses as posts on this blog.

In the first part of the latest section I read in the book, McGregor suggests that parents experiencing estrangement from adult children shouldn’t be hasty in making major life decisions.  I believe this is much like the counsel that’s often offered after someone experiences the death of a loved one:  Don’t make major changes like quitting a job, or moving, or beginning a new relationship, or getting a new pet.  Anything that would have long reaching repercussions should be delayed until the initial shock and pain dissipate.

McGregor says that in the early weeks following an estrangement, many parents — if they sought professional counseling — would be quickly diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).  ASD occurs in the first weeks following a traumatic event or major loss.  Being suddenly estranged from an adult child (or children) definitely constitutes a personal trauma and loss.

As I thought about my own early days following the estrangement, I experienced the following ASD symptoms:

  • numbed, dazed, detached
  • haunting memories
  • vivid dreams
  • difficulty concentrating
  • avoiding reminders of my children (people, places, photos, etc.)
  • uncontrollable crying
  • sleep difficulties

During the first few weeks, whenever I attempted telling someone what was happening with my children, I would experience an anxiety attack.  My heart would race, I would start shaking visibly, I would stutter severely (if I could get words out at all), and I would feel like I couldn’t breathe.  Writing it down doesn’t sound so bad, but what I experienced was truly debilitating.  It was almost like I’d seize up into a shaking, quivering, crying, stuttering, gasping ball of grief and shock.

It was awful.  Truly awful.

McGregor also states that in the aftermath of a trauma people tend to do one of two things.  They reach out to others for support, or they retreat off by themselves.  She compared the people who retreat to someone with a bad burn who would avoid others to avoid being jostled and causing the pain to worsen.  She said neither reaction is right or wrong.  Both reactions are normal and understandable.  Sometimes a person may switch back and forth between the two reactions.

I did both.  I reached out to people (my counselor, my pastor, a good friend), but I also retreated into my home where I could cry and shake and emote without fear or embarrassment.  I definitely felt as if my pain could be intensified by the jostling of well meaning people and their often unhelpful and unintentionally hurtful comments or reactions.

And the fact that the initial weeks of my estrangement from my children happened at the beginning of the holiday season didn’t help.  Acute Stress Disorder and the holidays don’t mix well, I discovered.  Probably had a lot to do with why I ended up in the hospital on Suicide Watch over New Year’s.

“I’m tired of this—so tired” … so I took a Bible break

Photo credit: ronnieb from

I’m tired of this—–so tired. My bed
has been floating forty days and nights
On the flood of my tears.
My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.

I’ve owned a copy of The Message for a long time, but have honestly never read more than bits and pieces in it.  For anyone who doesn’t know, The Message is a modern paraphrase of the Bible. (FYI: Photo above isn’t from The Message.)

I was taught by my Fundamentalist background that The Message by Eugene Peterson was almost a gateway drug to unbelief and the fires of hell.  While I never thought it was that bad (I felt okay owning a copy), it just didn’t resonate with me.  The language was often too “hip” or, to be honest here, too stupid for me to take seriously.

A friend of mine and I used to play a silly game while we were talking on the phone.  We called the game “Guess Which Verse?”  We’d take turns reading a familiar scripture verse from The Message out loud, and then the other person would try to guess which text was being paraphrased. We were both Bible nerds at the time, so almost any passage was familiar.  We’d usually end up laughing hysterically about how idiotic and dumbed-down The Message was compared to the more familiar English translations we were used to reading and studying (KJ, NKJ, NIV, NASB, etc.).  Even the most familiar passages were often unrecognizable in the vernacular slang of Peterson’s paraphrase.

The Message, in my world at the time, was considered a joke.

A poorly written heretical bad joke.

Fast forward to today.

I’m no longer living in Fundamentalist Land.  I’ve relocated my spiritual home into Liturgical Liberal Lutheran Land.  When I go to church, that is.  Which isn’t often anymore.  Church people and pastors still scare me.

Some horrible abuse(s) at the verbal hands of a number of Fundy pastors and fellow Fundy congregants led me to a nasty case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.  I found it difficult and painful to read the Bible.  I’d pick it up and on almost every page, I’d stumble upon a verse which had been used as a weapon against me, aimed directly at my heart and life.

It was as if the Bible, itself, had become my main PTSD-like trigger.  I’d often find myself sobbing, and not the good “the-Holy-Spirit-is-speaking-to-me” type of sobbing.  More like full blown Panic Attack sobbing.  Shaking, stuttering.  An overwhelming anxiety response triggered by those Fundy church-related abuses.

So I took a hiatus from reading my Bible.  After the decades I’d spent pouring over the pages, not just reading, but studying–looking up every word in a concordance or Bible dictionary, doing Hebrew and Greek word studies, comparing translations, doing hours long indepth inductive study–I had a good storehouse of scripture I could call upon when needed.  And without the random stumbling on hurtful verses, I could find comfort in the ones that weren’t harmful to my bruised soul and heart.

Yes, I took a Bible break.  A several year Bible break.  A break that my formerly Fundy self would’ve considered heretical or back-slidden (or worse).

But today is Sunday.

I was sitting on my deck, eating a delicious frittata, and surprisingly wanting to read a few Psalms in the morning sunshine.  I went back inside and scanned my Bible shelf (yes, I have an entire shelf of Bibles), but couldn’t find anything that felt “safe.”  I saw nothing that wouldn’t possibly bring on an anxiety attack from some familiar passage that had nearly destroyed me in the past.

I was about to go back outside and just think about familiar Psalms, when I remembered I had a copy of The Message.  I didn’t keep it on my Bible shelf, because I honestly didn’t think of it as a Bible, but more as Bible-related “literature” (literature used loosely due to it’s poor writing).

I thought, “Hey, I bet The Message won’t be triggering, because the verses won’t even be recognizable.”  Much to my surprise, I found myself reading from the Psalms in The Message this morning.

Right off the starting gate, I found the cringe-worthy paraphrased verses I expected:

you don’t hang out at Sin Salon,
you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

(That was from the opening stanza of the first Psalm, in case you didn’t recognize it.) 😉

After that insipid beginning, I took a sip of coffee, and braced myself for more of the same.  And it was there.  Silly stuff.  Mundane stuff.  But then, surprisingly, I’d happen upon a section that spoke to me in my current situation of being a mom from whom her three adult children have chosen to fully estrange themselves. (Psalm 6)

I’m tired of this—–so tired. My bed
has been floating forty days and nights
On the flood of my tears.
My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.

There’s also this from Psalm 7 that touched my heart as I thought of the often fabricated and embellished narrative my children are now telling about me and our family:

Wake up, God. My accusers have packed
the courtroom; it’s judgment time.
Take your place on the bench, reach for your gavel,
throw out the false charges against me.
I’m ready, confident in your verdict:

The Message had a message for me.

And there’s nobody more surprised than I.