As crises mounted – one pandemic, political unrest, wildfire after wildfire – therapist Annie Armstrong Miyao tried to keep her feet on the ground. Which posed a challenge: If you are to be the strong one, for your children or for your clients, how can you be a source of comfort to others who are suffering from grief, displacement and worry when you feel the same way about yourself?
To keep her feet on the ground, Miyao first tells herself what she tells her customers: It’s okay to be wrong. Then she reports to her body. She finds silence wherever she can. And she looks at her three children, sees how strong and resilient they are, and remembers that she is too.
Establish a connection to inner calm and courage
As a therapist, how can I help my patients and children struggle with their existential fear during this pandemic when my own is so present?
Last month my family and I drove our air-conditioned car to nowhere to escape the heat and smoke-filled air during the devastating California fires. I felt a deep pain, almost unbearable, and couldn’t name it. I started to cry. As a therapist, I help people identify and nurture their feelings. But suddenly I had trouble identifying my own. At that moment, I connected to the gaping hole of grief and fear that my clients and children so often ask me to fill.
During this floating reality in which I testify that both my patients and my children are expressing their grief, I sometimes become empty and swim in what Carl Jung might call the collective unconscious. Flooded by our deepest shared experiences, past and present, that define part of what it means to be human, I am currently at a loss as to how I can help others – or help myself. How can I help my patients and children with their worries and deep sorrow in the state of the world? How can I help them process their existential fear when I feel so much about myself? How do we help our children feel safe when dealing with so much the unknown?
Like many others, my family feels the strain of competing space. The kids are a strange mix of over- and under-simulated. My husband is Mexican and Japanese. I am Irish, Scottish and Swedish. We grew up with different political, religious and economic values and yet we have wonderfully teamed up to go through life together. I find myself crying when I keep his hand on the passenger seat as we head off on a carefully manicured COVID safe excursion. As our kids scream song requests with mouths full of snacks, tears quietly pour out as I wonder what the future holds for my three beautiful brown babies. We are lucky with most of the measures: we are healthy and fit for work. And yet I hurt and ask myself: when will you be back at school? Will they have a president who is meaningful for the collective good, the precious environment and their future? And while I am enjoying the richness of our lives raising mixed races children, I wonder when they will fully grasp the history of our country of racism and violence. How are you going to arrange this with your white mother and brown father?
But the children are resilient. We know this is true. I see it with my children and customers. A large part of my practice is working with children and adolescents who are struggling with anxiety. Overall, my patients’ symptoms are made worse by the stressors of this particular time. That is, children adapt and jump back at high speed. This unstable quality is the reason why we feel such whiplash as a result of their ever-changing moods and can so easily calm them with a hug and soothing words.
It is sometimes surreal to go through this adjustment process while, in parallel with my children and clients, I have great feelings about the universal challenges of the world. It doesn’t seem right to downplay their fear. Is it okay to acknowledge their worries and sadness?
I nod in agreement when my first grader says, “Mom, we can’t see a lot of people because of the coronavirus and I’m getting bored. And sometimes that boredom turns into sadness. “Yes, my darling, yes.
My husband and I hold her tight as she cries with a growing understanding of why people protested in the streets of her hometown, which she links to the terrible death of George Floyd. “It’s so terrible!” she whines. I know baby I know
My second daughter is a rascal who gets wild easily. I often find them half hidden somewhere, without pants with the brown sugar bowl. She tells me in the second week that I am mostly cooped up inside, the fires raging, smoke extinguishing the sky and the sun turning. Apocalypse Now orange: “Mom, my legs itch. I have to run, mom. “I know my love, I know.
My third is only eight months. Plump and happy in the constant company of his sisters after escaping the hell of a congested LA route to school. While there was some heartache having a newborn baby at the beginning of the protection, he is a bright light in all of our lives. Thank you my darling thank you.
In my work I keep space for people’s pain and joy. I am there to guide and empower them to find their own understanding and their own solutions. I have been trained to tolerate my own discomfort for the discomfort of others. I am trained to find my own center at every opportunity so as not to transfer my emotions to the experiences of my customers. Nowadays, when I listen to them describe anxiety and overwhelm, depression and anxiety, I say, “You have an appropriate response to what is happening. What you are describing is a reasonable response to what is happening. “
I have to say to myself now: I have an adequate, sensible answer to what is happening.
In the past, I’ve swum laps to keep my feet on the ground. I always chose the slow lane in the Santa Monica College public pool. I breathed out twice, once or twice, the outside world was muffled and I was slowly cutting through the water. My pace matched that of the little ladies who wore shower caps and were doing aqua aerobics next to me. I can’t do that now. The pool is closed. I also have three children and I work; I’m lucky enough to find time to eat a bowl of soup. I used to find antidotes outside of myself: dinner with friends, casual conversations after high school, and family vacations. This has led to over-buying green kitchenware and cleaning products, as well as finding projects to entertain children stuck at home. That tactic of buying things no longer worked as quickly. I was also very good at knuckling it white. That was no longer a sustainable option. This suspension is long.
I am grateful for the distraction and purpose my kids and work provide. A few days feel completely normal. Other days the world and the demands of my responsibilities are too big and I have to get to work to find new ways to resolve my worries. So, I follow my instincts and attend a billed workshop to reset my nervous system with a soulful, wise woman. It was simple and calm and I drank it up thirstily. After a little exploring and sharing expectations, it worked. I found it: peace.
I arrive on a gray morning and watch the ocean roll in. I wait for him to come when I nurse my baby before bed and follow the tips of his tiny shoulder blades and the slopes of his plump shoulders. I notice it when I watch my toddler’s fist grab the handle of the food grinder with its knobby knuckles. She grunts unsuccessfully to twist the tomatoes through the sieve. “I am tall, I am strong. I’ll do it. “She says with the grain. I stretch out the feeling of standing at the stove and stir the boiling simple tomato sauce that I make over and over again these days.
My way of relieving the pain, this hole of sadness and worry, is by noticing when my heart rate is steady and thoughts are slowing down when I am present in the moment without fear. Then I try to breathe it in, to stretch it out. Oh hello, quiet, there you are.
The connection from clients to moments of peace has become increasingly common in my work over the past eight months. I have tricks and tools – after all, I’m a therapist. My favorite is a guided meditation where my client chooses a place where they feel safe and calm. We close our eyes and breathe and just let our body be. Then I approach them by imagining what the place they have chosen looks like. I ask you to imagine the color, the objects, the light – as many details as you can conjure up. Then I ask how it feels, in this place where they feel safe and calm. Is it warm or cold? Is there a heavy blanket under which you feel comfortable? Then what do you hear? And finally, what do they smell? After spending ten minutes walking them through the sensory experience of introducing themselves in a place where they feel safe and calm, I let them check back in to their body: what do they notice? I invite you to slowly open your eyes. They almost always end the mediation with a smile, stretching, and yawning as if they had taken a nap. Are set.
I let my clients – and my children – do this exercise as often as they want. Like me. As we connect to our place of silence and tranquility, our children will feel it and we will have a greater ability to hold space for whatever is going on with them. Find this place in you and connect with it for a moment too. Rewire these neurotransmitters, carve new grooves in these somatic pathways, and increase your ability to have peace and tranquility. This may not take the pain away, but I can take care of it and fill the hole. Hold on to your point of view. Get to know it and visit it as often as possible. We need it now more than ever.
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.