I had a root canal last Wednesday. It slowly became necessary after I cracked a tooth while chewing gum a couple of months ago. The subsequent filling was not enough, and the ache in my jaw slowly increased. The doctor was extremely competent, and I felt no pain during the procedure. But I was scared. "Root canal" is commonly used to describe the most intense physical pain, and I expected the worst.
The whole experience reminded me of having my wisdom teeth extracted at age 20. In the days leading up to the procedure, and even as I sat in the dental chair waiting for it to begin, I felt detached. Like this was no big deal, and I had it all under control. I woke up several hours later sobbing desperately. My mom told me that as my consciousness receded I was frantically repeating: "I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared." I was a total mess recovering from the procedure, even more sensitive to noise than usual.
That scared part is still there. Depending on the day, it can feel more or less distant, sometimes buried deep and other times right at the surface.
My genius of a therapist uses an unusual method wherein you identify the various parts of yourself and listen to what they need to tell you. For me this has been a profound and also hilarious process with an increasingly colorful cast of characters. There is the ambitious one, the planner, the intellectual one, the sad one, the artist, the joyful one, etc. When I close my eyes and focus inward, I can see each of them, and (importantly!) they can see me. The actual me. The quiet, strong, grown-up me who has been asleep at the wheel for a long time, allowing these characters to run the show.
Some of my internal characters are in charge of protecting the weaker ones. Yesterday I met the crossing guard, all official in her uniform with stop sign and whistle. She was blocking the path to another character who seemed to be in distress. As I paid attention to the crossing guard, her shape began to shift, changing quickly into a dark hooded figure with black eyes, and then back again. She wanted me to see that she can be scary herself. It is her job to frighten away the bad guys.
My therapist tells me that there are often several protector characters that we have put in place over time to protect ourselves from our own pain and fear. Sometimes there are a whole army of them, and you have to invite each one to reveal itself and learn to trust you before you can move on. Toward the end of my session yesterday it became clear that the crossing guard was actually a child herself, maybe six or eight years old, with long blond hair. She was a master of costumes, and of bravery, but she was tired of doing her job alone for so many years. She decided she could trust me -- the real, central, essence of me -- enough to take a break and go play.
At the beginning of Lent I attended an Ash Wednesday service at our church. Like most everything at our church, it was wildly non-traditional and wildly beautiful. Our ministers invited us to use these 40 days for soul work. They invited us to go into the wilderness of our hearts, of nature, and of society. They told us that this work was holy; that by fixing ourselves, we would help heal our community.
I cried through the entire service. I cried so much that I had to sacrifice my scarf for tears and nose-blowing. It was cleansing, and also embarrassing. As I left the service that night, one thought was clear: "I have to change. It is time for me to change."
As we approach the end of Lent, I am a bit amazed at what has happened. The past 40-ish days have been like a giant spring cleaning for the soul. I started working with my genius therapist, identifying and freeing parts of myself long ignored. I came out of the mental health closet as part of a call for
truth-telling essays, hopefully freeing others in the process. And I had a root canal, which literally extracted an old part of me
that is no longer useful.
Into the wild, indeed.
This is a strange process of transformation. It is painful, and it is holy. I am scared, and I am thankful.