In this Episode of Transforming Trauma, our host Sarah Buino interviews NARM Therapist Heidi Winn. Heidi is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a private practice in Fairfield, Iowa, and learned about NARM as she was grieving the loss of her teenage son, Finn, to suicide. In sharing this deeply personal story of loss, Heidi hopes listeners will feel a sense of hope and connection with themselves in their learning process, and be able to “experience a sense of the effulgence; the richness that I have had from this learning.”
Heidi uses the words “then-daughter” to refer to her son before he transitioned to describe the evolution of identity that took place. Heidi’s journey with her then-daughter began roughly five years ago, when she began harming herself, and eventually attempted suicide four times in one year and spent over three months in a hospital for her own safety.
Heidi describes her own pain and confusion as her child was suffering in such a profound way, saying “It was baffling to me why she wanted to die… She curled up to me in bed and snuggled and said, ‘I just feel like I'm on a mission to die.’” Heidi shares that it was during the hospital stay after the last suicide attempt that her then-daughter finally opened up both to himself as well as to his family about what was going on inside, and reported to Heidi, “I had a moment of clarity last night. I'm a boy inside and I want to be called Finn.” This clarity had a profound effect on his suicidality, which dropped overnight from a seven on the hospital assessment scale (the highest intentionality and suicidal thoughts) to zero.
Heidi did her best to support her son as he came out to himself and to his family, helping him to order boy clothes online, getting special permission to bring a friend to the hospital to give him a boy haircut, and fielding the transition to male identity with the faculty of their small school in Iowa that emphasized transcendental meditation. She admits, “I mean, to be honest with you… he could've come out as a pineapple and I would have accepted it. I had been through so much… and we had tried so hard to keep that child alive.”
As a NARM Therapist, Heidi reflects back on this time with insight and self-compassion, recognizing how she was at times misattuned to her son and the ways that she unconsciously saw her children as extensions of her own identity. What has been described as parental narcissism, NARM helped Heidi to understand these dynamics within their relationship, and most importantly, to have “compassion for who we are, and where we were, and what we did, and that we did the best [we could].”
Heidi describes the ways that their family adapted and learned to support Finn in his transition, and the challenges that they faced with getting him the medical care he needed. To their devastation, Finn did commit suicide in his 8th grade year, while the family was dealing with financial barriers to purchasing the hormonal treatments that were helping him navigate his body’s maturation and menstrual cycle. Heidi shares the profound learning that she went through in grieving and integrating Finn’s death, including the ways that she has learned to navigate her grief through staying in touch with the complexity of her love and sadness. Heidi describes that when she would focus on the loss, and the story of “my child is dead,” she noticed that she felt overwhelmed with suffering and fear. She shares, “But when I allowed myself to feel the love that I had for that child, dead or alive, and I felt the sharp prongs of intense grief and loss, that pain. When I felt that–and it hurt–I felt connected to him. And thus, I felt connected to myself.”
This quote, and the ability to be with the complexity of her emotion and experience after losing Finn, is what is described in NARM as her psychobiological capacity to be with her own inner experience. With support from her community and family, Heidi describes the ways that she used her agency to direct her own experience and manage when she was overwhelmed by fear and despair.
The learning continued to unfold for Heidi, who shares the ways that her grieving has shaped her lived experience, in that she “began to have more trust in a bigger picture, more… capacity to sit with the mystery of not knowing, instead of from the anxiety of trying to know… or be in control.” She eventually found her way to a NARM therapist for herself as a client, and then to the NARM Therapist Training. Here she began to learn more about the survival strategies that she used since childhood to manage various developmental and relational challenges. She also learned how in NARM these strategies are seen as gifts that we can use when needed, but that we don’t have to be controlled by any more. Heidi offers a beautiful metaphor for her understanding of NARM helping her to loosen the dirt of the hard packed earth around the weeds of her strategies. This is what she is hoping for listeners of the podcast today: instead of seeing our identities and strategies as fixed, to “experience that feeling of hope, that those things are not hard packed ground that can never be tilled. It's really effulgent. It's rich.”
Heidi closes the podcast reflecting on the ways that her relationship to her living daughter has changed, in that she has let go of trying to know what her daughter’s truth is or control her in the same ways that she might have before. Not only has NARM helped Heidi to be with the complexity of her own inner experience, its influence has also supported her to continue to allow others to be complicated and unfolding in their lives as well. When she supports other parents of transgender people, she notices that she has a bigger capacity to “be with the not knowing,” of who they are and who they will become. This depth has brought big changes to her practice as a psychotherapist, as she gives more space to her clients to learn who they are and what they want for themselves. As Sarah so beautifully reflects, it’s “a spiritual experience to sit with somebody who is becoming fully themselves.”