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A Lone Wolf Answers Back: Healing Ourselves Back into Community

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Beth Anstandig

Through the dark valley, the call is heard. Two ears stand up and listen intently as the howl echoes, and the notes bend and change. There is a pause. A choice. A barely noticeable but critically important moment. A dilemma is born. A pull toward togetherness and friendship, toward safety and community, closeness and love. And, an equally strong pull toward the freedom of solitude, the deep breath of quiet, no pressure to share, the simplicity of being only ONE. The moment is over and the call is returned, a musical mirror riding the waves of sound:

I heard you. I’m here too. We are here.

Susan and I knew of each other through a common friend before we actually met. We had been introduced via email and phone numbers were exchanged because we were scheduled to attend the same workshop. This is one of my favorite parts of our story. I sent her a note and asked if she wanted to schedule a time to talk on the phone so we could get to know each other. I texted. Then, I picked up the phone and called. The valley was mostly quiet on the other end! Sure, she replied with a few whimpers of acknowledgement, but her interest in connecting seemed pretty flat. I have a full life and lots of friends, so I was mostly unfazed and didn’t take it personally. Here’s another layer of truth: I have accepted and celebrated a more community-oriented lifestyle for many years now, but make no mistake, the lone wolf in me loves the relief of social pressure. When there’s an opportunity to go at it alone, when another person lets me off the hook and I can drop into invisibility, I want to roll in the dirt with excitement. I want to rip off my clothes and wander into the mountains for two weeks. There’s a wild and feral part of my inner world that wants all of you to leave me alone.

There was a time that I was wholly committed to being a lone wolf. For many years in my life, it was perhaps not visible to others just how much of a lone wolf I actually was. But in so many ways, I was a like a ghost wandering among the living. From some early traumatic experiences at the hands of other people, my heart had been broken. I put the most tender and perhaps precious parts of me into a vault. I found a way to bubble wrap myself. The world of relationships had become a frightening place for me. It was a high contact sport, the stakes were high, and I was done being hurt.

This is when a wolf will decide to meander off alone. The social commitment is profound and runs deep into the wolf pack much like it has historically in the human tribe, but sometimes the dynamics of the group become too much for an individual and he/she chooses a solitary way as a way to prevent injury. I did this in several sneaky but effective ways: 1) I spent a lot of time with animals, as I found their relational world to be much more honest and pure. 2) I exercised my intellectual muscles. If I had to interact with you, I would shake your hand and show you my intelligence or knowledge. I met you while protected by my degrees and accomplishments and resume. 3) I made my outer world incredibly tidy and put together so that no one would dare to look closer and see that I was dying inside. 4) I drank heavily in social situations so that I could be numb and alone, even in the middle of a crowded room. 5) I made myself inhumanely busy making it difficult to actually catch me. A person in motion is hard to genuinely see. 6) Finally, perhaps the most brilliant of all tactics, I made it all about you. I constructed a professional and personal life as a helper of others. Your problems and your stories, your life became my best protection. The light shined on others and kept me right where I wanted to be, alone and in the dark.

About a dozen years ago, I got two pieces of feedback that stopped me in my wolf tracks. One was from my dear friend Judy while we were at a professional training for therapists. I remember exactly where we were sitting, the lighting, the sound of her voice. That’s how BIG moments work. They stay in your memory like a prehistoric cave painting, there for good. She told me that it was hard to get close to me because it seemed like everything was perfect. She said it didn’t feel safe for her to be real with me because the perfection made her feel less than and that if she shared her truth, I would never be able to relate with her. I think she believed that if she shared what was hard and messy and human, I wouldn’t say ME TOO. I wouldn’t relate and she would be alone. She was right. She was so profoundly right. I was like a perfection hoarder and I surrounded myself with accomplishments and organization and poise so that no one could get anywhere near the real me. I had earned a graduate degree in studying OTHER PEOPLE. I got a therapist license to practice HEALING OTHERS. When we were told in grad school that self-disclosure with clients was unprofessional, I felt like I had won the relationship lottery. Ah, I’m off the hook! I can stay in hiding. I am safe.

About a year later, another colleague asked me a super important question. “Do you have any friends?” “Of course, I do. They all came to my wedding. Look at my phone book.” But the question meant so much more. I think she was asking, “Do you let anyone in? Do you let anyone KNOW you?” And my answer then was most certainly NO. When I got sober from alcohol, a radical change began almost overnight. I started to wake up from the lone wolf nightmare I had been living. I started to come out of the isolation fog. I saw, quite quickly, all that I had been hiding from, the messiness of my own life and the very complicated and painful world of relationships. It was like changing a bulb in a basement you thought was just fine only to discover it was flooded with water and full of junk. I started listening to others, and in them, I found the tiny crumbs of courage to begin to see myself. The shame began to lift. I started to see everything I had been hiding, parts of myself that I had refused to grow and skills in relationship that I had been too scared to learn. Participating in my sober community was how I took my first steps back into the wolf pack. It was shockingly simple. Letting others know me was going to save my life. But it was not easy.

Lone wolves are are unable to share resources because there is no one to share with. They expend tremendous energy acquiring food because they don’t have hunting partners. And, they are much more susceptible to injury and illness. Eventually, lone wolves assimilate into a new pack they encounter along their travels, or they return to their original pack and make another effort to be part of the group. If one of those two things doesn’t happen, lone wolves usually live a shortened life. I’m afraid the human story isn’t as simple. There are so many ways for us to live among the living and to be dying inside. Our inner world may be empty, lonely, dark, and sad. There may be important or even essential parts of ourselves that we share with no one. Our physical bodies may be sharing a sidewalk with bodies, sitting in a cubicle among other cubicles, or even gathered around a dinner table. But by no means does that guarantee that we are present and spiritually alive.

We heal back into the human community one relationship at a time. When Susan and I finally met in person, we were like two lone wolves reuniting. There was an instant connection and unnameable knowing that I had found another of my kind. Though each of us had surrendered many of our lone wolf practices, there were many ways that we were still holding out. Let’s get this straight. We never, and I mean never, intended to start a business together. And we certainly didn’t intend for it to focus on community building. Our business started us. It grew and continues to grow us. It heals and continues to heal us. It teaches us what it means to come out of hiding and back into connection. Through the years we have worked together, we have had to grow alongside the clients we work with and the horses who gently show us what it means to show up in a herd. We often have the privileged vantage point of witnessing lone wolves emerging from the darkness and letting the people they live or work with begin to see them, to know them. The horses always show us the way, create a safe bridge and carry the burden of our fear or shame, not on their backs but in their hearts. The sacredness of that process inspires and propels me to want to be even more open, to take my own next steps into community, partnership, family, to show up for my life with even more passion and openness.

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