THE WALL THAT WALKS
I ran into a long lost friend in the cereal aisle over the holidays.
As we quickly caught up on friends and family, I asked after a close relative who’d always been a favorite of mine.
“Not doing well,” my friend told me. “There are days when she doesn’t get out of bed—spends all her time alone, on her phone.”
As I absorbed this tough news, I listened as my friend described the so-called dark wall her relative was trapped behind, rendering her all but unreachable.
“What’s a dark wall?” I asked as a wild-eyed shopper careened by.
“Something a therapist told me about,” my friend said. “You should look into it for your blog.”
With Christmas in full swing, I left the store worried for my friend and her relative. The holidays are probably the most isolating time of the year for people who aren’t in a good headspace.
I contacted a transpersonal psychologist that I know, Sarah Forni, who has a background in trauma counseling to see what she knew about dark walls.
“It’s a memory thing,” Sarah told me. “A sea wall to hold back trauma.”
Built for protection, Sarah told me dark walls exist where trauma, mental or physical, is a factor.
Wired to prioritize bad memories over good ones, the human brain holds traumatic memories close to the body, the way a knight does a shield.
To protect against future threat, the ever-vigilant brain kicks into overtime—stacking negative thoughts, one atop the other, like this:
“The bad thing happened once, so it could definitely happen again.”
“This person acts like they care about me but so did the person who abandoned me.”
“This street doesn’t look anything like the one where I was mugged but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Better to stay in my car…in my house…in my room.”
“At first what seems like a good idea—all those protective measures—suddenly is not,” said Sarah. “Once the mind starts building, it’s hard to stop it.”
While initially grounded in fear, dark walls often co-opt other protective emotions like anxiety, depression, fear or anger, as fortification. This explains why they can be so hard for outsiders, even trusted loved ones, to penetrate.
Just like that, a defense mechanism meant to be protective becomes a prison, one of their own making. First they give up talking to strangers, next its friends and family members. They might send the odd text but the idea of anything face to face becomes challenging for them—even terrifying. Left unchecked, the wall and the person meld into one until there’s no telling the two apart.
I think of my friend, passing her loved one in the hallway, this “walking wall” of a person she wants so badly to reach but can’t.
I tell this to Sarah and ask, “What can be done?”
The answer begins with identifying the negative biases that built the wall in the first place and see them for the big old bricks they are. For the person struggling behind a dark wall, the goal, said Sarah, is, “getting clear on where you are vulnerable “ and then working to “correct” or at least mitigate the vulnerability.
This will involve a lot of heavy lifting, Sarah said. It’s not enough to simply recognize the protective thinking keeping you or a loved one hidden from the world, you will also need to lay bare that first ugly “trauma” block on top of which all your fears and woes rest.
There are tools, some basic and some taking more effort, that can help chisel away at a dark wall. Depending on the person, and depending on the trauma, tools spanning from therapy to journaling or exercise to mindful breathing can begin creating an opening through which an emotionally trapped person, like my friend’s loved one, might eventually escape.