Learning to float.

As swimmers dare/
to lie face to the sky/
and water bears them,/as hawks rest upon air/
and air sustains them,/
so would I learn to attain/
freefall, and float/
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,/
knowing no effort earns/
that all-surrounding grace.
— Denise Levertov

Healing from trauma requires an ability to learn to both lean on and take in help. You can think of this learning to lean, actually, as one of the pre-requisites of help. It is hard to get help or make use of help if you can’t emotionally lean on help, and essentially, take the weight off the wounded part of yourself. You would never heal a broken leg without taking the weight off of it, and you can’t heal the broken and fragmented parts of yourself without taking the weight off of them either, and that requires learning to lean.

I have been thinking about this even more this week because I have been texting back and forth with my friend Laura who has a toddler-age daughter about her daughter’s difficulty falling asleep at night. She was a good sleeper and now with her busy toddlerhood she is suddenly a terrible sleeper—having difficulty settling herself down and getting calm without her mom actually being present.

Toddlerhood is an age of exploration and movement—mostly movement away and in to the world. Toddlers stretch themselves and search and their curiosity and enthusiasm pulls them outward. It’s like they are constantly pulled to jump into the moving river of life and then they find themselves overwhelmed when they realize that they have moved far downstream from mom, dad or caretaker. “Wait a minute! How did I get here? Where are you? How could you leave me???”

Toddlers are still learning to trust in the constancy of the world and relationship—Are you still there when I can’t see you? If you aren’t there, do I still exist? Toddlers still don’t yet have the capacity to hold someone in mind. Out of sight, out of mind. They need to borrow the battery pack of their parents to relax, to slow down, to feel calm. And sleep is so difficult, for both children and adults alike because you can’t put effort at falling asleep. You can’t try harder at it because effort actually works against you, keeping you awake. And the more upset you get, the more difficult it is.

Falling asleep is about letting go. And anytime we have the dual task of learning to let go and learn to trust --at the same time -- we are challenged by one of the most difficult learning curves we will face. Some of these learning curves come in their normal developmental stages, like my friend Laura’s daughter and some of these learning curves come when we go back and mend our broken pieces. We have to learn all over again, or even for the first time, what it is like to let go and trust enough to heal.

Learning to lean and learning to fall asleep have something in common. Both of them are like learning to float. Teaching a child to learn to float is an incredibly complicated act. First of all, there is no logical reason that anyone should believe in floating at first sight. When you put an object in water it sinks. All small children know this. So when you tell them that you want them to just lie there on top of the water most children look at you like you have lost your mind. Yes they are determined to learn how to swim, but asking them to just lie there seems completely crazy.

And how do you teach a kid to learn to float? It is a really gradual process. First, you  have them lean against you. And when they trust you enough, then they will lay on your outstretched arms with you holding their entire weight on your arms. And then gradually, oh so gradually, you will lower your arms bit by bit and let the water hold them.

It must be gradual. Why? Because the minute the child gets scared-what do they do? They scrunch together and sink and then shoot up and grab your neck—proving their own point that floating is impossible. It is why Laura must put her daughter to bed and stay nearby enough to be a felt presence and gradually move further away as her daughter learns to float back to sleep. Laura has to have her emotional arms underneath her daughter enough to be felt.

I loved teaching kids to float because it was so tangible. It was easy to physically hold a child and let them feel your presence and trustworthiness. It is easy to feel how much they could tolerate floating on their own before I needed to be held again. It was so empowering to the child as they learned how to float and feel that this substance that felt so dangerous before actually could hold them up. The pride that they could master it, and feel the bliss of floating.

So often as a therapist I wished that this process of learning trust could be as solid and tangible as learning to float. Learning to emotionally lean on someone is the same process, but it is so much more incremental and so much more difficult. It is not easy to be an adult and feel so vulnerable. It is hard for adults to learn to swim and float, it is is hard for adults to learn the kind of trust it takes to lean on someone emotionally.

So if you can’t ‘work harder’ at learning to float, learning to lean, learning to sleep—what can you do? You don’t work harder, but you stay at it. You show up. You keep putting yourself in the position of leaning, of trusting. You practice all of it, even when you don’t believe. You practice until you believe. Until the day comes when you lean your head back and relax and you realize you’ve forgotten to be scared. You have forgotten that you didn’t believe. You have forgotten that you couldn’t. And you finally relax into the trust and healing and let them work. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD, 2016