Being Seen

I never realized how important it is for me to feel seen until the last few years. I began to realize how much it mattered to me to be heard and validated in my last relationship, which lasted over two years and ended over a year ago. We worked a lot on our communication and relationship, and that was something we identified was of great importance to me feeling secure and loved. Having my side and experience heard and validated, whether in an argument or in a decision, was often the difference between me lashing out or breaking down and us moving forwards. For most of my life before that, I was unsure why I felt so insecure when instances came up where I felt ignored or cast aside, or even when I just wasn’t explicitly told I had done something right. It just seemed that I was high-maintenance, or that I over-reacted a lot — or this is what I was often told. In reality, I had certain needs that weren’t being met and that rocked the little bit of stability I had at my core and put me on uneven ground. 

It took me a long time to believe that naming and finding ways to meet your needs wasn’t being “too much,” it was a necessary act of survival. We all have needs, and when those needs aren’t met we begin to decline. Abraham Maslow studied these needs and devised his theory on human motivation with a basis in the hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy is drawn as a pyramid, with the idea that higher needs cannot be well-met if the lower, foundational needs aren’t being satisfied due to a lack of foundation to build up from.

The lower needs are more basic survival needs, with physiological and safety needs at the very bottom. Physiological needs consist of things that are vital to life, such as nourishment and hydration, air to breath and shelter to sleep in. Right above that are safety needs, which consist of literal safety and security, but also stretches to things like health, a job, personal security, and other resources required to be secure in life.

It is easy to understand how lacking in this area would make it very difficult to focus on anything but trying to become secure — if you have no food, you will have a hard time prioritizing your health; if you have no job, you will have a hard time focusing on building strong relationships. Thus, each lower level must be fulfilled to a certain degree of stability for one to be able to move up the hierarchy and focus on higher levels of needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Plateresca / Getty Images

Next come psychological needs. Once basic survival and security is met, the next needs deal with love/belonging and esteem. This is why it is not enough to just give a child a home — rather, you must love and include them while reinforcing their capabilities and autonomy for them to develop normally and healthily. When these things are missing, psychological problems and mental distress develops.

Love and belonging refers to intimate relationships and your support circle — friends, family, intimacy, and a sense of connection. I always felt I had these but in reality never felt I belonged due to an inherent lack of deep connection within my relationships. This is where being seen comes in — belonging and connection requires others to know you on a deep and intimate level, and doing so requires that they see you for who you truly are and validate that. And then that they love you regardless. Without this, one can’t build esteem, which consists of self-respect, respect for others, strength and freedom, among other things. Without love, belonging, connection, and being seen, you can’t build yourself up and believe in your worth. You becomes stuck in a belief system that puts you at the bottom and reinforces the idea that you are not enough to deserve being seen, being loved, or belonging.

This has been my largest deficit throughout my life, an inability to believe in my inherent worth. To believe I am enough. Instead, I have always believed I was too much. And this was reinforced by my intimate relationships, especially my family. I was often labeled as dramatic, overreacting, high-maintenance — many terms that reinforced the idea that what I was feeling was wrong and made me unlovable. I couldn’t belong because I wasn’t like everyone else. In reality, I have always been sensitive and felt big. I was never making my expression or my feelings into more than it was — I really felt everything that I was saying I did. But instead of being validated for that, which would allow me to deal with what I was feeling and be heard for my suffering, I was made to feel that the way I inherently am was bad.

This was never anyone’s intention. My family didn’t set out to invalidate me, they set out to normalize me. They didn’t feel the way I did, and my emotions scared and frustrated them. As I have grown older and embraced who I am, rather than trying to push it down and stifle it while simultaneously feeling constantly crazy, I have realized that though I feel big, if I am heard and my needs are seen, I can meet them quite easily. And that there is nothing wrong with needing things.

Everyone has different needs, and so many of them, like mine, are based in deficiencies from their childhoods. Needs that were discounted or never met, and as a result are all the more important in adulthood. And just because someone else’s needs are different from yours does not make their needs invalid, bad, or wrong. It just makes them different. And if you love someone and want them in your life, then trying to meet those needs is a part of maintaining the relationship just as much as recognizing your own needs and asking for what will meet them is a part of caring for yourself.

When I was 18, I tried to kill myself in front of my parents. Things had not been good. I had been hospitalized earlier in the year, and my parents had treated it like a one-and-done-check-meagan’s-crazy-off-the-‘to-fix’-list kind of thing. I was hospitalized for 10 days, and finally had felt like the suffering I was experiencing day in and day out was being seen. I was put on a ton of meds, I was depressed, I was struggling.  The day after I got out my parents insisted I return to school so as not to get behind. I was so drugged up my mom had to dress me. I slept through my classes for the first time in my life. My schedule was changed so that I could leave school everyday at noon and go to therapy. 

In my parent’s eyes, I was supposed to be better. I went to the hospital, got medicine and treatment, and got discharged — thus, *ding*ding*ding* all better. I was drowning in my sorrow which had had a medicated band aid placed over it, and everyone had moved on but me. My visibility was gone. Again, I was not seen.

So I made the decision, after another argument with my parents about how much I was suffering and how they wouldn’t send me to the hospital because ‘what about school?!’, to down a bottle of klonopin in front of them. I have never seen so much terror on my mom’s face. My dad yelled at me something to the effect of what have you done. I ran upstairs, threw up the pills, and then walked out the front door and kept walking. 

At this point, I do not believe I really wanted to die. If I had, I would have kept down the pills. Rather, I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to take me seriously when I said I AM SUFFERING. I NEED HELP. And I still struggle with that. I have had to fight for the treatment I have been given. I had to fight for breaks when things were too much and I was suicidal and afraid for my safety. I had to fight for treatment for my eating disorder. I have had to fight for what I am going through to be seen. I have had to fight for my needs to be validated and met.

I do not write this to villainize my parents. My parents did the best they could. We sometimes forget that in these situations, the mentally ill person is not the only one having a hard time. It is so incredibly distressing to have someone you love be so sick, especially when you have never felt the way they describe and you have no frame of reference from which to understand it. People can only be there in the capacity that they can, and that is entirely based on their level of education and experience with the issue at hand. My mom didn’t know how to help her suicidal daughter anymore than I would know how to help a 10-year old who’s father just died in the Vietnam War, something she dealt with in her childhood and would be much more equipped to help another with now.

Everyone’s parent’s fuck them up no matter how hard they try not to. Unfortunately, it is impossible to cover all the variables that can lead to distress later in life. I was so well cared for growing up. But because I was different, I felt invalidated. So now, I fight to be seen.

The reason I am writing on this topic now is because of a painting I made over this past weekend that so succinctly speaks to this feeling. I have fought to be seen for so long, I thought it wasn’t an issue anymore. But it is. It keeps coming up in therapy. The need to have my struggles validated. The need to have my trauma be recognized as real. The need to be heard without someone trying to alter my story. The need to own my life, own my trauma, own my story.

See Me
acrylic on 18×24 canvas paper

I just began EMDR again, and I think perhaps that is where this need is stemming from, at least partially. I had my first session last week, and since I’ve had one or two memory flashes, but mostly I’ve just had a lot of feelings come up. Feelings of being at fault for the bad things that have happened to me. Feelings of being inherently not innocent, of welcoming bad into my life. Feelings of being complicit. Feelings which have come up at other times in other ways, especially in feeling responsible for my own mental illness and what it has done to my life. Feelings of shame and guilt, most of which is not my shame and guilt but others’. The deep dark root of the void is beginning to show itself, which I suppose is the point. That is why I am diving into this part of my treatment. But it’s like all of these shitty feelings and beliefs about myself are my foundation — they are at the bottom of my pyramid of self and have interfered with my ability to move up the hierarchy of needs. Like a parasite that has infested the foundation of my safety and inhibited the grounding and rooting necessary to thrive. Instead of love being rooted, a lack of belonging has. Instead of understanding, a belief of being simultaneously too much and not enough has festered there. How can you grow towards self-actualization, towards becoming the most you can be, when you are so deeply rooted in a belief that you are nothing?

I feel as though I am beginning to uproot this parasite, these weeds that have hindered the growth of the good. But like when you pull a weed from a flower patch, the earth becomes torn and unsettled before it can be patted down and grown into, I feel like my insides are being torn up little by little. This general sense of unease has permeated my being, something I am describing succinctly as ‘bad weird’.

I am afraid of being uprooted. All I have ever known is weeds. I do not know what will be taken from me and my life as those weeds are removed. Even though I know it will be replaced with good, it is terrifying and I feel sick. I suppose this is probably what the weeds feel like when they are torn from the ground and left to wither and die so that the flowers may grow.

The Positivity Paradigm

When existence has been characterized by suffering for so long, it can be difficult to comprehend what life without it could look like. The concept of a positive, happy, well-adjusted person who lives a fulfilling and happy life seems so foreign to almost be unreal. Impossible. It seems as though life is always hard, will always be hard, and any claim of a different narrative is idealistic drivel.

Suffering likes us to buy into this narrative because it means that we won’t cling to the hope that it is possible to be free. And when there is no hope for freedom, you accept the hardships life and disorder puts on you as ‘as good as it gets.’

But the reality is that existence beyond suffering is real. People exist who are well-adjusted, securely attached, who lack trauma and suffering. Who are happy – actually happy – the majority of the time. Now one way to view this is to take a victim mentality and ask why. ‘Why them, and not me?’ Why do I have to suffer, to have trauma, to have dealt with abuse or disorder or suffering. This can be a very self defeating narrative, one in which you allow circumstance to trap you into an existence of being broken.

But another way to view this, and the way I choose to view it, is that the existence of these people is infinitely empowering. They represent hope. They represent freedom. And they are proof that life can exist in a paradigm so foreign to those who suffer that it seems a fairytale. 

This means that we don’t have to accept our suffering at face value. We don’t have to be a victim to circumstance. We can strive for happiness and not settle for less, regardless of what life throws at us.

I believe in the power of agency. Of the ability for us to choose how we react and are effected by the things that happen to us and around us. This is how I have been resolving my world-shattering realization that ‘full recovery’ may not amount to what I have always dreamed it to be. I have no control over what the outcome of recovery looks like — if full recovery consists of maintenance and tolerance of symptoms, then there is nothing I can do to change that. But I know I want my life to mean something. And I have constructed the goals and values that make my life meaningful. Thus, regardless of the outcome of recovery, I can choose to live that meaningful life. I can choose to believe in myself and my own ability to cope with whatever life throws at me, because I am more than my existence.

I wrote this post a few weeks ago, but had difficulty completing it. It felt too short to actually publish, but I didn’t have any more to write. The realizations in it had made me feel limitless, something I had always wanted to be. But sadly, as the experience that inspired these realizations ended and I returned to real life, everything started to tank. My health, my mind, my recovery — it all went back to the struggling state I was in prior to this experience. The hard truth that my limits are real and tangible hit me again like a ton of bricks and destroyed the positivity I had been feeling.

Now, nearly two weeks later, I realize that the reality is it isn’t one or the other — limitless or hopeless. There are aspects of both. I am far more limitless than I was 5 years ago. Or 1 year ago. Or even 6 months ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am dealing with some hard things. Some of us are dealt a difficult hand, and it’s not something we chose or can control. It just is. And that sucks. It sucks to have limits put on you that you never asked for. It sucks for every day to be hard when for some it is easy. It sucks that your normal doesn’t necessarily get to be like other’s. But that doesn’t mean we have to resign to our illness or our struggles.

In the last year I have realized that I am so much more capable than my illness and my hardships have ever let me believe I could be. And I have begun to identify the potentiality of a life worth living that I fight for everyday. So, it is okay that it is hard now. It is okay that I am not limitless. It is okay that breaking from my structure and routine throws me off for a while. It is okay that I am not better. Because I am still trying. I am still fighting. And I will continue to do so. Possibly forever. But I refuse to accept misery. Ever. Full stop. We deserve more than that, my Warriors. We deserve lives we want to live. And I believe with my entire being that we can achieve that. We may have to fight forever. But isn’t that worth it when you consider the alternative?

I am restructuring my recovery right now with all these insights at mind. I have decided to focus on the root of my issues rather than the symptoms. Yes, my friends — on the root of trauma. I am terrified of this. It’s scary to decide to face what you have forever buried so deep so you never have to look at it. Trauma can mean a lot of things. And I think its at the root of so many of our problems and behaviors. So I have decided to start to tackle mine. Because it limits me so much more than anything else. And I am okay with getting worse for a while. With the fight being harder and the battle feeling unwinnable. I am okay with cutting back on parts of the life I have built to make more room for recovery. I am okay with all of this because no matter what I believe that life can be better than it is.

I suppose, after re-reading the first half of this post, that I came to the same conclusions a second time. And this, in my opinion, simply strengthens the concept that we are more than our suffering. Whether things are going great or terribly, there is always more that we can reach for if we believe that we deserve it — and we do deserve it. So believe in yourself. I do.