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The Dance of the Hypervigilant

I got a text yesterday. A text I would rather have not received. It’s contents were loaded with pain and heartache and struggle, determination, hope, and cancer. The text was from my brother sharing that his closest friend, his lieutenant in life's mother had cancer. He was devastated for him. He asked me to help. I sat in that familiar paralysis of disbelief that sets in upon hearing something I don't want to hear. Wanting to unknow what I now know.

My mind wandered back to the two strong tailbacks dubbed Thunder and Lightning. They shared a position on the field, they have shared each other’s life milestones and now it seems they share mothers with cancer.

Ironically, I’ve sat in that seat, I’ve lived in that space of heartbreak and hope and I still don’t know what to say when life gives someone a ringside seat to suffering.

In my dance. First comes paralysis and then comes hypervigilance.

What launches hyper-vigilance?

For me it’s Fear.

It’s a familiar dance.

When things go awry I harden, set my jaw, and brace for battle. Brace is a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t so much brace as charge. Sword out, jaw clenched, research hat donned plunging headfirst into doing.

My breathing quickens, chest tightens eyes dry up and I begin channeling my worn out mantra of "don’t feel until you fix."

I could feel my jaw clenching as I tried to compose a text to say the unsayable. I am most comfortable bombarding a problem with research, sharing resources, doing, offering, fixing.

I was poised to send in the intel.

But then something inside me said to soften your jaw, slow your breathing and just be. Just offer to be in the suffering. Say I don’t know what to say. Say I’m sorry I know this road and it is long and it is arduous and all you want to do is take a different route.

Mark Neepo in his book Seven Thousand Ways to listen says, "Being hyper-vigilant makes a net of the heart and a goalie of the mind- deflecting everything that comes our way, good or ill."

Hypervigilance makes you numb. Numb to the pain, numb to the suffering and numb to the beauty.

It took a string of professionals and a stint in adult braces (for that clenched jaw) for me to slowly begin to realize being a warrior is not always the way.

My mother’s neurologist called me hyper-vigilant and a hippie. I wasn’t sure which was more surprising the fact she had never met me and came to this conclusion based on other doctors chart notes, or the fact when I indignantly repeated her assessment to friends I saw a lot of rueful smiles and good-natured laughing but no one disputed my new label.

I was slightly incensed but knew there might be some truth into what was being charted. I was surprised I was being observed. I started replaying my doctor’s office behavior in my head. Upon official review, I would give them hyper vigilante. I took umbrage at hippie. I own Lily Pulitzer and used to wear it.

However, I guess my constant pushing for more information on diet, supplements, acupuncture, reiki, CBD oil, meditation may have raised a few eyebrows. I guess I was fortunate to be dubbed a hippie and no one had officially charted, as far as we knew, that I was also a huge pain in the ass.

It was this constant pushing and searching that landed me in the next doctor’s chair. This appointment was mine not my mother’s and I was here to figure out why despite everything finally calming down I still felt so on edge.

As we began to talk I sat up a little taller in my chair when he called me an over functioner.

For a split second, I basked in being recognized for excessive doing.

It was as if he took my biggest fear that I am lazy. That I never do enough. That I am not enough, and said that’s not true.

When he said I overdid it I mentally preened and stretched my spine.

Then I dialed back in and realized that I was not being praised.

I lost an inch as I slid into myself all the while secretly judging the under functioners.

My ego, ever at the ready, was bolstered that on the spectrum of function I was at least overdoing rather than underdoing.

It seemed I was a high functioning over functioner.

I think that was a polite way of saying I somehow, despite my behavior, had managed not to have a complete mental breakdown.

Deep down I thought one might be imminent.

Which is why I was gaining and losing inches in this man’s chair.

I knew I could not keep dancing the dance of the hypervigilant. But I didn’t know how to change the steps. I didn't know how to let go.

When my son was a baby he would take fistfuls of my hair and wrap it in his tiny fist. Only releasing his stranglehold on my hair when I pried open his fists.

I had grabbed onto hypervigilance with both fists and needed someone to help me slowly and gently pry open my hands and release it.

The man in the chair shined a light into my darkness.

I had stopped feeling and I had started lying. The most egregious lie was that I said I was thankful for cancer. I'll come clean and say that I am 1000 percent not thankful for cancer.

When I was in that chair growing and shrinking we discussed that my need to fast track healing for my loved ones could be robbing them of their journey. I was taking away their sense of accomplishment by putting everything on my time table. I did it with my kids, my husband, friends, clients, and yes, my mother.

It was humbling to see that I was part of the problem. It was unnerving to see that I was 1000 percent responsible for creating my fistful of problems. I started loosening my stranglehold on healing. I realized this need to heal, and fix and fast track pain for others is because I want to bypass my suffering.

Another healer told me its a scary thing to live in a world without your mother.


Because I was afraid of losing my mother I started donning extra armor to not feel even while she was next to me.

Slowly the armor is coming off. I'm un-clenching my fists and jaw. I’m telling the truth. I’m not grateful for cancer.

I’m not grateful that Thunder and Lightning are bonded by cancer, but I'm grateful their connection will deepen.

What I am grateful for is the meaning I’m finding around this diagnosis.

I’m learning to connect and love, laugh at myself, and let my dry eyes turn wet.

I am not grateful for cancer, but the meaning this experience is unveiling in my life is an extraordinary gift.

I know this road, it is long and arduous but it is filled with beauty, meaning, love, and connection.

The key is to pack light. You don’t need the helmet, breastplate, or lance. You need free hands, an open heart, and a willingness to learn new dance steps.

P. S. Full disclosure... Because I can't help myself I sent two books on healing out this morning. I'm very much a work in progress.


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