In the Beginning

In order to understand the nature and flowing references throughout my blog, I recommend reading my initial post The End of the Beginning first.

10.20.2013

The General



Every army needs a General. Someone to lead, to call the shots, to draft the plan, and to execute. My army of supporters is no different. The General of my army is my older brother.

I debated for many months on when and how to share my story of abuse with my brother. I desperately longed to have his support but was unsure the effect this would have on our relationship. Would he believe me? Would he question the details (some of which I do not have)? Would I be able to communicate the story and my pain in a way he can understand? Would he freak out? Would he immediately jump into action (for which I'm not ready)? Would he be able to understand my sorrow or would it be too difficult for him? Would he be able to help me through this or am I better off keeping my secrets?

I visited with my brother numerous times in various places between the months of April and June, but it never seemed to be the right time. Ultimately I decided to tell him one night in late July during a family visit when everyone else had gone to bed. We sat on the back porch of my new lake house and it was right. I was ready. The monologue flowed. I was able to recount the story with clarity and, astonishingly, without tears. He listened. He empathized. He expressed his sorrow for the pain I have endured. It was precisely the support I needed.

These days my brother and I are closer than I ever thought possible. We talk more openly and honestly than we have in the 38 years I've known him. We have always been close, but never like this. Never this raw, this vulnerable, or this authentic. And in this deep abiding love I have found a great source of healing. When I spoke about the healing nature of sharing your story in my post Super Better, it was my brother who inspired this line of thought. This has been such a powerful part of my healing journey, I want to express those same thoughts here.

Sharing my story has been most healing for me and here is why: deep down I felt unlovable, unacceptable, and fundamentally flawed because of what happened to me. That's why I kept it a secret; if people knew the terrible truth then they would surely be disgusted and leave me! Ironically, when I gave my loved ones a chance to really know me, when I let them into my pain and see that they love me anyway, it deconstructed my prison of shame. When they stand by my side, when they listen to my pain without running away, then and only then I know that my deepest fears are not and never were real. By sharing my secret with my brother and experiencing the fullness of his support, I have never felt so loved and lovable. And when I see that I am lovable by him and others, I am able to love myself. This is the essence of healing.

For all the beauty and joy that has come with sharing the story with my brother, it has also come with great pain. He is now shouldering some of the weight of my sorrow, and this relief for me comes at a price to him. He did not sleep at all that first night. Later he told me he had nightmares for weeks about all the things that happened to me, and he has guilt over not being there to protect me. I have seen him many times the past few months and he has changed. We have had many conversations about our shared sorrow, for all we can really do in this situation is to keep talking. 

Even though it pains him, I am not sorry I told him. I needed his love and support in a way that I can scarcely communicate; there simply aren't enough words. I see a side of him now that I did not know was there, a caring and soft side that he hides from the rest of the world. He calls me just to say hello. He goes out of his way to spend time with me regularly even though we live 3 hours apart. He tells me he loves me at every opportunity, which melts my heart. He touches and hugs me more than ever, a reassuring affection that I direly need. He sends me text messages that simply say "Love you" which makes me cry every time. I am so grateful for his expression of love and care. It has unlocked a need inside of me that I wasn't aware that I had.

There was a practical reason for sharing the story with my brother. Our maternal grandparents are both experiencing failing health. For months I have had recurring nightmares about the possibility of having to face my assailant amidst the inevitable grievous family events, whether hospital or funeral related. I have considered simply not attending these events, but I love my grandfather very much and want to be present. I decided that this would categorize as yet another thing stolen from me if I were unable to grieve his passing out of fear. I needed a family member in the know, someone to serve as a buffer and protector so that I can participate in family events should I so choose. I decided that it needs to be my choice.

This is how and when my brother became The General. I've been paralyzed and confused about how to progress with my healing as it relates to family matters. I am overwhelmed with fear in trying to figure out how to be around them without telling, but if I do tell then who and when to tell, what to say, who to involve, who to protect... all of these thoughts become a swirling mess inside my head and I fall into a state of total disillusionment. It's simply too much for me to process, and most often this line of thinking ends with a meltdown.

The General lays out options. He discusses tactical plans, courses of action, and probable outcomes. Ultimately he leaves all of the decision making up to me and, amazingly, has made it clear that we are on no timeline but my own. It was The General's idea for me to create Healthy Boundaries with our mother. He supported my conversation with her so much that he swept into her house right after I left to reinforce the points I had made. That was meaningful to me because I didn't have to do it alone. In fact most of the plans laid out by The General start with "We could..." I am no longer alone, and this is incredibly comforting.

Sometimes when we are suffering the most powerful thing anyone can do is just to sit with us. Sometimes there are no plans to be made, only tears to be shed. My brother has been there for this part, too. Some days he distracts me with video games, movies, and football. These times are precious to me. Other times there are courses of action to consider and options to be weighed, and this is when The General appears. Lately I have felt at a crossroads in evaluating such options; on one side there is justice, the other forgiveness. Spiritual truth tells me that ultimately forgiveness is the path towards healing. The General leans toward plans that involve reckoning; he thinks confronting the abuser in some way is necessary for my freedom. I don't know how I feel about this yet, and so it is not time for any decision. I will know when the time is right.

This past weekend I attended a film festival where I viewed a documentary called Beyond Right and Wrong. The film explores personal narratives of unthinkable loss, paralyzing grief and the struggle for justice, forgiveness, repair, and reconciliation. I saw stories of Israeli-Palenstinian conflict (for which my heart aches after visiting Israel this time last year), Rwandan genocide, and IRA terrorism. I saw deep peace in the eyes of those who had forgiven and listened to accounts of how they found that place. It is not the same path for everyone. I no longer see justice and forgiveness as mutually exclusive, for some of their stories included a required element of both. There may be some balance in the middle of this crossroad as yet undefined by me or The General. 

And so again, we shall keep talking.








Healthy Boundaries

Mommy Dearest,

When you came to stay with me last year, something happened... something unlocked inside of me. My mind & body were hijacked with memories of the last time we lived together. Secrets were revealed, things that happened to me, ways I was abused and molested by one of your family members. Either you knew about it and did nothing, which makes you an accomplice. Or you were so absorbed in your own world that you could or would not see or care about what was happening to me, which makes you an unfit mother.

Now that I remember and know these things, it has become very difficult for me to maintain a relationship with you. I can no longer pretend that these things did not happen, for pretending only perpetuates the secrecy, silence, and shame. It is this shame that has ruled my life for 25 years. I crave liberation from it and will stop at nothing to get there.

I thought for many years that it was my responsibility, my duty to take care of you. To keep you alive, provide for you. I felt it was my obligation to infuse life into you; that's why I took you on vacations like Disneyworld, to give you experiences that made you want to live. This was the unhealthy role reversal of me trying to give you life. I felt for many years that these things were forced upon me, that I was trapped. I now realize that all of this was in fact my choice. And in this realization I have found great freedom.

You see, I thought that by fixing you I could also fix me. I thought I was doing all of these things because I love you, but in reality I was trying to get you to love me. I now understand what was done cannot be undone. The damage I have suffered by and through your hands cannot be repaired. I see clearly now that you are not the life raft. We are both on the same sinking life raft, and I can only save one of us.

And so I am choosing differently. I am changing how I choose to invest my time and my heart. I am making better and wiser choices about how I invest myself for my own healing. For my own survival.

You've never truly felt the consequence of your choices when it comes to me. I've always been there for you. I'm the one person who never left you throughout your sickness. You never thanked me for that, just like you never thanked me for spending my entire life savings on the condo in which you now reside. I can only draw the inference that you do not appreciate that for which you express no gratitude.

I will continue to provide your basic needs and keep you safe. I will make sure you have a place to live, enough money to eat and have a safe existence. I will do for you what you were unable to do for me, but nothing more. I need time to heal, time to think, and the freedom to do so without having to pretend. And since I always feel I am pretending when around you, I need to do all of this away from you for some time.

This will not be forever. Perhaps someday we will be able to talk about this, perhaps not. I only know that this is what I need right now in order to heal. I am so very angry, and I need time to understand and process these feelings before I can have a healthy relationship with you if that is even possible. 

------------

This is nearly verbatim the conversation I had with my mother two months ago.  At the same time, I constructed a privacy fence between my house and the unreasonable neighbors whose dogs killed my cat (outlined in my post The Spiral). The parallelisms and real-time metaphors in my life sometimes astound me. These were the healthy boundaries that I needed to put in place in order to create the necessary space to heal, and both have been extremely helpful in my journey.

For months I have felt disproportionate anger toward my mother (see On Rage). I was aware of my inability to separate my anger towards her and my anger towards The Wolf. I needed to parse out my feelings and specific wounds from these two very different experiences, which has been inordinately difficult because they were happening at the same time. Speaking my truth was a critical first step.

This conversation with my schizophrenic-abandoning mother was not easy. It was not cruel, but it was painful - because the truth hurts. It was high time I erected the fence I needed to feel safe and be true to my needs. In reading Dr. Henry Cloud's book Boundaries, I feel confirmed in my desire, need, and ability to do this for my own sanity.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often have a blurred sense of boundaries. The lines are crossed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. This violation leaves the victim in a boundary-less state, diminishing the ability to set future boundaries. As an adult, survivors of sexual abuse often struggle in setting boundaries in nearly all of their relationships. This has certainly been true for me from work to family to friends and most appreciably with my ex-husband (this will be discussed more in-depth in a later post called Married to Crazy).

For me, difficulty in setting boundaries came from an inability to process my own anger. Dr. Cloud speaks of anger as the internal communicator, the warning sign that your boundaries are being violated. In order to survive the abuse, I dissociated from my body which cut me off from all feelings. As an adult, I could not speak up when anger arose. In fact the mere appearance of anger would elicit a host of inappropriate internal responses such as fear and shame. I never learned how to express, own, or even recognize my own anger likely because it was precipitated by abusive situations over which I had no control. I was conditioned to feel my anger was the source and cause of why I was being mistreated.

Now, I welcome my anger. I am learning to acknowledge, understand, and listen to it. This is helping me to find peace and a balance in my life that was sorely lacking. No longer does my anger sway from one wide pendulum swing (no anger at all) to the other (complete and total rage at my mother). It is only within this balance that I am able to unravel the rage. I am no longer projecting my anger about being sexually abused onto my mother. Already I can recognize the absurdity of the two categories in which I placed her - an accomplice or unfit mother. The reality is she is likely neither of these extremes. But I had to let myself feel and acknowledge this anger before I could diffuse it.

I am now able to aim the anger I have about the abuse towards the real perpetrator. In this there is great progress for me. I am still angry with my mother, but it is for things that she did. Until my anger was clarified and focused on the rightful target, it could not be processed. For months it has been hanging around me like a hazy, red cloud; I have been irritable and unpredictable. Much of the time this anger gets focused inward and turns into depression. I am hopeful that processing all of this anger will abate those symptoms as well.

Learning to identify unhealthy boundaries and set new, appropriate ones is a necessary part of the the healing process. During the past two months I have experienced the fruits of these healthy boundaries in profound ways. I am discovering the difference and multi-dimensional uniqueness of my sorrow related to being abandoned by my mother versus that related to being sexually abused. More abuse memories surfaced, which helps to further clarify my pain and how to heal from it. I honestly do not think I would have had these memories without first setting boundaries; they have been painful but necessary.

Perhaps the most important positive outcome from setting healthy boundaries is that I feel safer. I am beginning to realize that I am in charge of my life. For the first time, I am in control! That feeling was stolen from me long ago along with myriad other things such as my innocence and my sense of self. Feeling in control means that I am beginning to trust myself in my ability for self-care. Consequently, I am beginning to feel whole. There is a part of feeling whole that is painful, for the whole me is a war-torn picture of abuse and neglect. These facts bring sorrow, but they also bring a sense of full knowing. And with this knowing comes acceptance and grace.

Dee says that one day I will feel joy in the full knowing of myself. It could come in an instant, like a lightbulb. I will wake up and realize that there is nothing more to discover, nothing more to remember, that I will know all there is about myself and this will bring peace. I am not there yet, but I await this day with great anticipation and hope.



9.30.2013

Super Better

I have good days and bad days, and there are two kinds of each. Good days are when I don't cry. The better days are when I don't cry because I actually feel good. These are the days when I am in touch with everything that is good and right and beautiful in the world. The days when I am grateful to be alive and for the wonderful life that I have with loving friends and family.

The lesser good days are when I'm simply pretending not to feel bad. I suppress it because I have to. These are the days I have to work or am obligated to some social function that prevents me from being able to reach the sadness. Sometimes I pretend because I am not strong enough to let the pain in. I feel good only because I won't let myself feel bad. I am numb to the sadness and grief that is bubbling just beneath the surface. I know it is there; I can see it and smell it, but I can't feel it. I simply cannot reach the pain even if I want to.

The super bad days are when I am in touch with the Black Oil. It makes me doubt and hate myself. Everything is so dark; I cannot see the light no matter how hard I try. I want to end the pain no matter what it takes. On those days, I am full of hopeless despair. It is on those days that I want to die. This past year I have had a lot of super bad days; days when I could not pretend but still had to function in the world. Days full of Black Oil when I felt like dying or like I could collapse at any moment under the pressure of normal life. Those were the worst.

The lesser bad days are when I am able to be in touch with my pain without it overwhelming me. I can process, I can cry, I can experience the grief and sadness. Sometimes I can let it out in small quantities, one cup at a time. Other times it comes spewing out at volcano-esque velocity. But the sadness is not Black Oil; it is not shame and self-hatred. It is simply the truth of my experience. It is the sadness locked away inside of me for decades, a veritable vat of grief that wants to be acknowledged, that must come out eventually in order for me to be healthy and well.

My ratio of good to bad days has gradually changed in my favor over this past year. One might conclude that my goal is to only have good days, but that is not so. I want to be Super Better. Super Better, for me, means that I no longer have to pretend and I don't want to die. When I have good days, I want them to be real. No more pretending. And when I have bad days, I want those to be real too. I need to be in touch with and able to express my grief and sadness when they come, and come they will - whether it is because of my sordid past or because of current life circumstances (whatever they may be) that naturally elicit pain. For life is pain; Joy and Sorrow are simply two sides of the same coin. I'm not trying to block out all pain as that would be akin to living a muted existence. I could do that at any time with medication, but have chosen not to. I want to be real, to live an authentic life full of truth. Sometimes truth is beautiful, and sometimes it is pain. I want both. I need both to truly live.

Perhaps I need a new lexicon. The bad days where I am in touch with my pain should not be called bad days; in fact I think I'll start calling them days of true sadness. The good days when I'm pretending aren't really good either; I will start referring to them as pretend days. What I really want is to live an authentic life, which consists of days of true sadness and days where I feel truthfully good.

This notion of becoming Super Better is not my own. Super Better is an online game created by Jane McGonigal where you can design a personalized journey towards health and wellness. Her journey involved recovering from a traumatic brain injury, but thousands around the world have joined in to create their own version. Playing Super Better helps you to build up resilience which supports you in  "staying curious, optimistic and motivated even in the face of the toughest challenges." The game encourages you to identify allies, power-ups, bad guys, future boosts and quests while tracking your achievements to reach your epic win. An epic win is something that can only be achieved by tackling a tough challenge, an accomplishment that feels so awesome you will do whatever it takes to get there.

I am a gamer, and so defining my epic win and identifying all the things that make it more or less achievable appeals to me. The objective of my Super Better is "To Live an Authentic Life." This means eliminating pretend days and days when I feel like dying, living only days of truth (be it painful or joyful). The process of outlining this game for my journey has actually been quite helpful in making sense of and giving language to my healing process. This can be especially useful when communicating with my support army. In fact that is the first recommended step in Super Better: to create allies.

All survivors need a support army; if you don't already have one then start building it. Who are your closest friends? Who can you trust? Who is in your inner circle? Who is the closest family member you can count on? Not everyone needs to know everything, and practicing discernment when sharing your story (at least at first) is wise. Admittedly, it is terrifying to think about divulging your abuse secret. But I have read in sundry sources that real healing begins only when the secret is shared. Brene Brown says shame needs three things to survive: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Until you start talking about your story, it will continue to be enshrouded by and fester in shame.

I found this to be particularly true for my own journey. In fact, sharing my story has been the most healing part and here is why: deep down I felt unlovable, unacceptable, and fundamentally flawed because of what happened to me. That's why I kept it a secret; if people knew the terrible truth then they would surely be disgusted and leave me! Ironically, when you give your loved ones a chance to really know you, when you let them into your pain and see that they love you anyway, it deconstructs the prison of shame. When they stand by your side (and they will), when they listen to your pain without running away (and they won't), then and only then you will know what your deepest fears aren't real and never were. By sharing my secret with those I trust and experiencing the fullness of their support, I have never felt so loved and lovable. And when I see that I am lovable by others, I am able to love myself. This is the essence of healing.

The second part of Super Better is identifying your power-ups. These are things you can do that make you feel better or stronger. My power-ups are:

  • Talk to someone in my army; let them know I am struggling and allow them to give me support
  • Cuddle with my dog in bed while watching Netflix
  • Eat healthy, plant-based, nutritious food
  • Practice yoga and meditation 
  • Stay connected with friends and family by sending messages, emails, or cards
  • Go to lunch with a friend
  • Go for a run, or if I don't have enough energy...
  • Go for a walk
  • Listen to uplifting music
  • Get a massage
  • Create space in my schedule for several hours or a weekend alone in quiet introspection, which allows me to...
    • Watch birds at my backyard feeders
    • Read a book about holistic or self-healing
    • Read a book about a person who inspires me
    • Relax in my hammock, doing absolutely nothing
    • Take my dog hiking
    • Clean my house
    • Write in my journal
    • Paint, draw, or color
    • Ride my bike
    • Complete a small house project
    • Listen to TED talks or On Being

I also have a list of super power-ups. These things are so effective that they truly have the power to change my outlook even on dark days. I have much less control over these events but when they happen I am super grateful and their role in my healing is not lost on me. They include:

  • Getting a text message from my brother that says "Love you." He is my biggest supporter (I write more on his critical role in a later post called The General), and the one whose love has been the most healing.
  • Listening to an audio book on healing
  • Listening to Pema Chodron on meditation and letting go of samsara
  • Connecting deeply with a friend or family member
  • Witnessing something rare in nature such as a breathtaking sunset, a rainbow, holding a baby bird, or having a butterfly land on me
The next part of Super Better is to identify the bad guys. These are things that make it harder to feel strong or get closer to your epic win. My bad guys are:
  • Prudence - my somewhat alterego who takes over when things need to get done and I don't have capacity to feel the pain. She organizes the pretend days, which move me further away from authenticity.
  • Assbags - this is a general category of people (like my horrible neighbors mentioned in The Spiral) who are uncaring and make my life difficult. The world is full of these people, and you never know when or where they will show up.
  • Unhealthy boundaries - these creep up in many aspects of my life including working too much, poor time management, overcommitting, and some personal relationships such as my mother
  • Self-neglect - most often the product of unhealthy boundaries, stretching myself to or just past my limits without equal time to rest, relax, and repair is a surefire way to elicit a meltdown. My epic meltdowns are in exact opposite of my becoming Super Better.
Future Boosts are specific things you look forward to in the coming days, weeks, or months. The essence of this Super Better tactic is that hope and anticipation have a healthy effect on the mind and body. Some of my Future Boosts include planning for:
  • Time with my family
  • International travel
  • A weekend retreat

The point of all this is to understand and anticipate when interaction with my bad guys is unavoidable, and to make sure I have enough power-ups and future boosts in place to make it manageable. Playing Super Better helps you build up 4 types of resilience - emotional, physical, mental, and social - in order to get closer to your epic win. One specific key is to strive for the magic ratio of 3 positive experiences for every 1 negative. Awareness and identification of what is positive and what is negative for you is the necessary first step.

I'm just now getting into Super Better so I have little to report regarding the online achievement tracker. It's taken me this long to get my arms wrapped around what works and doesn't work for me on the path toward my healing. They say that the journey is more important than the destination. Likewise, the process of outlining the parameters of my Super Better game has made me more understanding, aware, accepting, and proactive in moving myself along the path toward healing.

For more information listen to Jane's Super Better TED talk. To get involved and proactive in your healing journey, start your own Super Better today!










9.21.2013

The Essence of Integration

Frau Wolleh with Children by Gerhard Richter

I recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago. The collection is largely Impressionist, most famous for their sole ownership of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon de la Grande Jatte. I was excited to revisit this Seurat and indeed spent a good amount of time admiring it. However, I was most captivated by this piece by Richter. I stopped, I stared, I wept. It is the perfect depiction of my struggle with fragmentation this past year.

Each time I was subject to an abuse event, I left my body so that I wouldn't feel and could pretend it wasn't happening. Now that I am revisiting and processing these memories one by one, I have a mental image of my dissociation. It feels like each time I dissociated, a part of me left and did not come back. They are each floating up above my head in ether-space like white, wispy smoke. Those parts of me are frozen in time (age, appearance, maturity level) and chose not to come back into my body. It's not safe in here. Each time this happened I became a little less myself, a little more fractured, a lot less whole.

Those lost pieces of me are my true essence. This is why I feel fragmented, damaged, and unwhole. As more and more of my essence gathered and lingered outside, I became less Me. A shell of my former self. At the point of mass fracture - The Terrible Awful (about which I have yet to write) - my frozen inner self curled up into a ball, a small and tight 13 year old version of me. Adult Me has grown up around her: hiding, pretending, shielding, overachieving. But she remains unloved, abandoned, closed off, and alone.

My essence continued to escape, one white wisp at a time. All the times I subjected myself to unhealthy situations. All the times I failed to erect healthy boundaries. All the times I entered and stayed in unhealthy relationships (I will discuss this more in a later post called Married to Crazy.) And each time I was revictimized, as it turns out that survivors of childhood sexual abuse are 2-5 times (sources vary) more likely to be subjected to sexual assaults later in life.

The boundary-less situation with my mother only served to perpetuate the escape of my essence. Last fall when I realized the true nature of that relationship and finally acknowledged that I had lost her many years ago, the last of my essence escaped. Adult Me wound up small and tight like a perfect mirror shell of small and tight Little Me inside.

This past year I've been trying to unwind. Stand up. Be erect. Move around. Let go. Loosen up. Be real. Face the truth. Reconnect Little Me and Adult Me. It's painful. Muscles have atrophied. We are stiff. Robotic. Unpracticed. Vulnerable. Rigid. But we are standing! Except now we realize we are empty. Upright, but utterly hollow. The essence of Real Me still floats above, outside. Not in. Not integrated. Not full. Not whole. Not real. Not really living.

I wish so badly to reconnect with those parts of me which were forced out because it was not safe. I can't live without my essence any longer. I won't survive. Being and feeling whole are integral to being me - the whole me, the Real Me. And so much of my efforts this past year have been to show my essence that indeed it is safe to come back in. I will care for each of these lost parts, protect them, name them (discussed in a later post called A Bouquet of Me), accept them, love them, allow them to be playful. Entice them to come home.

The Richter painting is me, Adult Me standing with pieces of lost Little Me just outside. Within my grasp but not inside. It pained me greatly to see an artful representation of what I felt. It still hurts when I look at this painting. Sometimes, maybe even often times, pain is necessary to produce change. I am on a journey towards integration and every little step that gets me there is critically important.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), though Wolleh is a proper German name it is strikingly similar to the verb wollen which means "to want." I desperately want to integrate all of the lost pieces of myself. I venture to say it is vital to my overall healing.

If ever there were a song to describe the message I am sending to my lost Essence, it is best articulated in Drifting by Sarah McLachlan....


Please come home.


9.18.2013

Goodbye Panda

I'm not sure from where or when, but there is a story that has been stuck in my head for years about using a panda as a way to distract foolish onlookers. "Hey, kids, look at the panda!" is a phrase that has repeated itself in my inner monologue countless times. This typically comes up in situations where quick, slight-of-hand shenanigans would provide a momentary lapse in concentration thereby allowing some simultaneous shady act to go unnoticed. Perhaps it was the punchline of a joke. Whatever this was made a lasting enough impression on me that it has now become synonymous with my mind's coping mechanism of using the trauma with my mother as a distraction to keep me from acknowledging, dealing with, and healing from the darker truths that laid dormant far beneath.

I spent over two decades of my life living my mother's story instead of my own. I was overly obsessed with helping her, assuring the care she needed, understanding her illness, finding a diagnosis that made sense, and later assuming care and becoming financially responsible for her. I also venture to say that much of my hyperdrive overachievement in life has to do with my desire to get to a place where I could care for her. In some ways I became a mother at age 12 and had to procure and ensure safety and prosperity for both of us. (See earlier post on Growing up with Schizophrenic Mother for more details.)

At times I recognized the relative unhealth of this behavior and indeed I had many hypotheses for it. That I needed to fix her. That I needed to relieve my guilt of not preventing her suicide attempts. That I needed to pay penance for not being able to keep her well. That maybe someday I could even regain her love. It saddens me to write this now because, at 38, I see how very much of my time and energy was lavished on these needless and fruitless activities.

When I first began meeting with Em we used drawing therapy to extract and articulate the pain I was experiencing before I recognized it as The Breakthrough Crisis. At the time I only knew that my life was in disarray and my mother seemed to be the cause of that pain - or so I had assumed for many years. All of my drawing therapy centered around mother. Em asked prompting questions to which I drew out the answers. It went something like this...

  • How do you feel right now? My artful representation was of me with lightning bolts for hair, drowning in plane tickets and work documents, surrounded by piles of money that I could neither reach nor spend, with all of the things I longed for (community, social life, free time, family) far off in the distance.
  • What is your biggest problem? This one shows me on  my knees begging for my mother to love me while she sits silent and ignoring me while smoking cigarettes. In the background are all of the things I've done and bought for her and, ironically, a pile of money that I later recognized was a mirror image from my first drawing.
  • What will it look like when your biggest problem is solved? I went numb. I sat and stared. My throat grew hot and then closed up; I began to cough. I had to run to the bathroom for a glass of water. We were at Zi's house (Em's friend) who was visiting in Bali for the month and the pipes had frozen so there was no water. I was able to calm myself with deep breathing before returning to our therapy room.
The body has a funny way of telling us things if only we will listen. I wasn't ready to hear what my body had to say, but I was being prepared. I was able to complete the drawing after thinking about it for awhile. At first I saw no solution. I divided the paper in half and drew a picture of mom and I holding hands and smiling, then immediately put a big black X through it. I then drew what I understood to be the real (and only possible) solution which is a picture of myself in meditative position feeling happy, healthy, and well all by myself. This icon became a theme in my mind's eye and in my journals for months.

It wasn't until the appearance of The Black Oil that I began to understand my mother was only the surface issue.  After many months of therapy, EMDR, and recovered memories (see The Theatre and On Shame) I now understand what and why I was hiding. What an amazing and resilient little brain I must've had in order to cover my trauma truth for so long. This charade parade made me incredibly functional but also inordinately fragmented. To not have access to my full self, to divert my focus onto a decoy for so many years, to treat my mind-body like a machine - always demanding and never recognizing limitations - all of this came at a cost. 

Now that I am acknowledging and confronting the layers of my trauma onion, I am paying myself back bit by bit for what was lost. I can never regain it all; some things are gone forever. And for that I am deeply grievous. But I am now able to take care of myself in a way I could or would not before. I am kind to myself. I have oodles of self-compassion and grace when I fall short. I look for signs of fatigue and depletion, and I restore and rebuild when needed. I surround myself with things and people who give me energy and add to my life. I no longer force myself to do things I "should" when they are things that make me feel bad. This includes discontinuing the charade with my mother (fully elaborated in Healthy Boundaries.)

Em and I did a second drawing therapy session many months later and I was mesmerized by the stark contrast. First, I noticed that in my second set I was clothed where I had been exposed in all of the first drawings. Mother was no longer in any of my drawings; upon this revelation I was not upset, I merely accepted. Perhaps most interesting was the change in my viewpoint. The first drawings were myopic, situation specific. The later drawings were teaming with ideas, people, places and included a variety of settings. The multilayered complexity and beauty of my life without charades was being revealed. And unlike my first set where I was off to the side, my later drawings showcase me at the center: calm and radiant.

And so it is with great pleasure that I bid adieu to the decoy, to the distraction, but ultimately to my pretending and fragmented self once and for all. "Say goodbye, panda!"


9.06.2013

The Prophecy

Today is my birthday. Today I am better; I am a surviver. But one year ago I nearly took my own life.

The month leading up to my 37th birthday was the hardest I've ever experienced. The aftermath of my Breakthrough Crisis was a frightful and perilous time. I had never faced true depression before, but for those months I looked it dead in the eyes - operative word being dead. I felt dead: dead to the life I had known, dead to any coherent sense of myself, dead to hope, dead to the world. In fact I spent the month of September 2012 getting my affairs in order. I wrote a living will and planned a trip to Israel, half expecting and half desiring to become a victim of imminent prewar bombing. Truth be told, I longed to die.

The inside of my hands are lined with wrinkles the likes of which I have never seen on someone my own age. Everyone close to me who has looked at my hands says the same thing; we often joke and lovingly refer to them as my "grandma hands." So in my mid twenties when I visited a professional psychic she took one look at my palms and said, "you must be joking." She proceeded to mention enough relevant details about my current and heretofore life that made me feel comfortable with and confident in her skills. She foretold many things that have come to pass in the last 10 years. I know this because I made a brief list of her insights shortly after our visit and have referenced this list on many occasions since. She ended our conversation by telling me that I have an old soul. 

The psychic told me one thing that has stuck in the forefront on my mind for all these years. She relayed that I would witness a miracle by the time I am 37 and that I would write a book about it. I have oft wondered what that miracle would be. A sign from God? A healing? A baby? A walk on water? Some way I might change the world? I avidly awaited this miracle and the chance to share it. 37 came and went. I felt I had failed somehow, and that the hope of my miracle was dead, just like everything else in my life. It morphed from a source of inspiration to a plague of devastating disappointment.

Do you know what happens inside a cocoon? I mean what really happens? The caterpillar basically disintegrates; he melts into primordial goo. Total cellular destruction all except a few extraordinary pieces of embryonic tissue called imaginal cells that enable the transformation to take place. These imaginal cells lay dormant in the caterpillar for all its life until the special moment of transformation. Once they sense the state of goo around them these cells devour the nutrition from the melted caterpillar and begin forming the new structural body of the butterfly. All of the goo is consumed, and the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis fully intact. It takes complete and total destruction of the caterpillar to create the beautiful butterflies we so enjoy and love.

The butterfly has become a symbol for my healing process. Today I feel differently about my experience, about the prophecy, about everything. The great miracle in my life is the unfolding of my story, my truth, and my transformation. Real transformation is a miracle, like the lifecycle of a butterfly. It is hardly explicable by science, for healing doesn't come from the explained. The cycle of samsara - birth, death, and rebirth - is as endless as it is mystical. And through this blog, I am sharing my mystical miracle with the world.

Everybody has a story to tell. Everybody has a wound to be healed. I want to believe there is beauty and meaning here. I need to believe this. Pema Chodron speaks about the human addiction to hope in her discourse on Fearless Nontheism. I do not believe there is some 'great babysitter in the sky;' I do not believe God is actively intervening in our lives. I do believe that the truth is inconvenient and that suffering is a natural and inescapable part of life. But I have also come to understand that this suffering is necessary for transformation. And in the midst of suffering I need hope, for without it there is no meaning in my life.

Jane McGonagil's TED talk is a powerful argument for the relationship between suffering and transformation. In this talk she speaks of research done with hospice workers - those who care for us in our last days - and what has been documented as the top 5 regrets of the dying. They are:
1. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
2. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
3. I wish I had let myself be happier.
4. I wish I'd had the courage to express my true self.
5. I wish I had lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.
These things are sad, mostly because they are true. And yet there is a ray of sunlight inside this sadness. The crux of Jane's talk is that in certain cases, experiencing trauma can produce a state of betterment. Instead of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, about which we hear all too much, there is a possibility for Post-Traumatic Growth. Some people can actually get stronger and lead fuller lives because of traumatic experience. In fact, the 5 things that those who experience Post-Traumatic Growth have in common are:
1. Our priorities change and we are not afraid to do what makes us happy.
2. We feel closer to friends and family.
3. We understand ourselves and know who we really are now.
4. We have a new sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.
5. We are better able to focus on our goals and dreams.
These five effects of PTG are oddly the direct opposite of the top 5 regrets of the dying! In this I find great hope, immeasurable strength, and renewed purpose. I have transformed a great deal in this past year and I'm not finished yet. I am hopeful for what I may become on the other side. What matters now is that...

I know that my suffering has produced a stronger state of me.
I know that my experience - awful as it has been at times - has shaped my ability to relate to others truly, deeply, and authentically.
I know that my truth and my story have helped me create a system of priority in my life that supports Who I Really Am.

I hope that a year from now I will be ever better, that maybe I will even be thriving.
I hope that by sharing my story I am able to help others do the same.
But most and best of all, I have hope.










9.02.2013

The Wolf

For a long, long time I blamed myself for not stopping or preventing the assaults from my abuser. The self-blame was so harsh and so deep that I understand now this is likely why I hid the truth from myself for nigh 25 years. I thought it was my fault. I must have done something to spur or invite the violation, as mentioned in my post On Shame. I wasn't even able to control my body's response to the assaults. I wasn't smart enough, adept enough, strong enough, or good enough. I wasn't enough. Period.

My journal is rife with passages denoting my foolishness, stupidity, and cowardice. During EMDR and tonglen exercises on The Theatre I was clearly able to get in touch with my supporters' tender emotions toward the victimized Little Me. St. Francis wept and wept for the sorrow inside that young violated girl. Jesus was so enraged that we had to hold him back from punching my abuser in the face. I found this both humorous and comforting. As for me, I felt no compassion for Little Me. Dee asked me to imagine how I would feel if it were some other young girl in that situation. Instantly my feelings would morph into sadness, grief, and despair. But when focused on the actual me, I could only conjure remnants of disgust. Dee said that was the part which needed healing the most.

We zeroed in on this self-disgust on a quest towards dissolution. Dee challenged me, as she often did in the most insightful and poignant ways, to consider my humanity. What if, because I am human, I did want the attention, the affection, the comfort, and the pleasure? This question instantly brought out The Black Oil but it also unlocked a heretofore unnoticed pattern. When Dee asked about comfort, I immediately thought about the sound of my abuser's voice. At once I realized that in all of my abuse memories he had been mute. In fact in my mind's eye he had no mouth at all, much like in The Matrix during Neo's interrogation. Memories of my assailant had consisted mostly of his piercing blue eyes, his profile in various abuse scenarios, the feel of his hands, the sickeningly sweet smell of laundry soap (the origin of this nosmic memory will be revealed in The Terrible Awful), but no mouth and no words. Until now.

All of the sudden, I was aware that his voice had been a source of great comfort to me. The simple act of reaching for those memories washed a wave of warmth over me.

He was the one I talked to during the trauma of my mother's suicide attempts.
He was the only one asking me how I was, how I felt.
I trusted him.
In fact, I loved him in the way that a scared child clings to an adult in times of need.
And then he betrayed me.

Something happened inside me upon this revelation. This knowing of intermingled love and betrayal opened up my compassion for Little Me. I wasn't stupid, I was betrayed! I wasn't a coward, I was manipulated! Until this point, the muted monster in my memory was so clearly a predator that I could not help but blame myself for my failure of not knowing better. Doesn't the gazelle recognize the lion by instinct? But this isn't how it happened at all. He garnered and then abused my trust. He endeared himself to me - the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.

The monster had been identified for precisely who and what he was. He was both the good and the bad wolf.
And in either case, I was innocent.



The ASCA Survivor to Thriver Manual has much to say on the topic of unraveling self-blame:
Survivors grow up believing the classic myth of child abuse: that they, not their parents or abusers, were somehow responsible for the abuse. "I let him do it to me." "I should have been able to protect myself." "I liked certain aspects of the abuse, the attention, the gifts, the pleasurable sensations, the sense of being special." The child's often distorted perceptions of who was responsible are enhanced by the abusers' indictments [such as] "I am showing you how much I love you." These words are truly toxic because they do more than simply and unjustly place the blame for the abuse on your shoulders. They eat away at your positive sense of self, and the lingering messages continue to do so in your adult life.
You need to understand that you were the child and that you had neither the power nor the authority to make your abusers do anything to you. The abuse was their responsibility because, quite simply, they had the greater power and they did it to you. Nothing you could have done would have changed this, because families and society are set up to give power and authority to adults. Children have little or no power over their abuse, or much of anything else. 
 As a child, you were not psychologically equipped to believe that what your abusers were doing was wrong, much less speak out about it. Because you were dependent on them for so much, you couldn't risk alienating them by speaking the truth even if your child mind was precocious enough to make sense of the complex web of issues that comprises child abuse. Few, if any, children can do this effectively because their intellectual capacities are not sufficiently developed to do so. You desperately wanted to love them and be loved by them. It would have been foolish for you to incur their wrath and dash whatever hope of love, caring, and nurturing you harbored inside. Think back to what it would have meant for you, the child, to accept that the people who were supposed to love you were actually hurting you. It's not surprising that few children can face this horrible reality, because to do so would cause them to become emotional orphans in the process, and little could be worse than that.
Step five of The Manual is "I accept that I was powerless over my abuser's actions which holds THEM responsible." This is when true healing began for me. Healing is transformation, and transformation is only possible through changing one's perspective from within.  It took years of therapy for me to get to this place, but the unlocking of self-compassion was my turnkey moment. I no longer needed to forgive myself, for there was no transgression to forgive. Knowing this truth set me free from the blame and shame game I had played for far too many years. In my heart of hearts, I was no longer at fault.

I thought for some time that this is where my memory journey would make the upward turn. I was sorely mistaken. A darker, scarier truth lay far beneath the surface - one that would never have revealed itself until Puzzle Pieces connected and Shame was nearly dissolved. Now that I had full compassion for self, I was ready to know the rest of The Terrible Awful story.

9.01.2013

Puzzle Pieces



January to March 2013 was a hazy shade of winter. My mental and emotional states were capricious at best. I oscillated between extremes of feeling 1) terrified of my memories and appearance of The Black Oil, 2) frustrated and angry with myself for not being able to figure things out faster, 3) ashamed of my story and embarrassed about my healing process or 4) overwhelmed by my negative inner monologue which tried desperately to convince me none of this was real.

I journaled feverishly between therapy sessions. Often I would practice in my head how to share revelations with Dee, never knowing how my sessions would go nor what EMDR would produce. Some sessions were full of nausea, shaking, gagging, tears, and headaches. Others would leave me in a stupor or a near-dissociative state. It was hard work that required courage and tenacity, and above all a great deal of self-care. I had many bubble baths, massages, chiropractic adjustments, sessions of retail therapy, and cups of Sleepytime tea throughout these precious, fragile months.

At times I felt that all of the memories had surfaced and that I was well on my way to complete healing and transformation, only to be set back by days or weeks of blackness. I could feel equally hopeful or hopeless; two sides of the same coin tossed in the air each day, and I never knew which one would land face up. Managing time was complicated, and I was frequently late for work. I was usually in the parking lot on time but stepping out into the world would often require a 20 minute pep-talk and a bucket of tears. I learned to keep boxes of Kleenex in the car and to only put on make-up post meltdown.

One morning just after the obligatory pep-talk/meltdown, I barely made it into my office and closed the door before collapsing into tears. It was nearly impossible for me to look people in the eyes as I was terrified they would see right through me. Afraid they would know I was depressed, would somehow know my disgusting past, would recognize that I was disgusting. I made a note to discuss this personal revelation with Dee.

While journaling my mind drifted to an encounter I had with Em a few weeks earlier when she revealed one of her trauma secrets to me. I remember distinctly that my first reaction was "I bet she is lying." This produced a strong sense of shame within me. Why would I question her like this? It's not even that I did not believe her; I instantly did - I know this because my immediate second response was to be filled with love, comfort, and empathy for her. That initial reaction was autonomic, uncontrollable, and I questioned its origin. Is it that deep within my own subconscious I want to believe all stories similar to mine are untrue so that I can perpetuate the lies I told myself for years? Pretend it didn't happen, that you are a liar, that you are bad, that you are the source - for all of these untruths are infinitely easier to digest than the real thing.

I was reminded of a time when I had done something similar long ago; I questioned a close friend in her revelation of a closet eating disorder and it destroyed our friendship. I never understood why I had done this and was sorry and regretful ever since. I remembered how old I was when this happened and that, in fact, I was much younger than my previously assumed abuse timeline. In the moment that I remembered this occurrence a number of other memories, events, and revelations surfaced in my consciousness. It was as if a million puzzle pieces came shuttling in from all angles and connected together in instantaneous snap-lock fashion.

- I remembered running errands and visiting mother's friends and family, and her shuffling me off with the abuser so she could have alone time with them.
- I remembered what movies he took me to see in The Theatre.
- I remembered feeling sick when receiving a Nintendo for Christmas that year. I felt bought just like when he took me to the toy store afterward to buy my silence.
- I remembered becoming overly sexual with boys at school and the start of my bout with self-mutilation.

I recalled more about my cutting episodes than was previously available to me. I had always been aware of my tendency to stab my fingernails - either with other fingernails or by jamming objects like paperclips up inside the quick until it bled. I vaguely remembered another form of cutting though never understood why or when or how often. More puzzle pieces. We never had razor blades in the house but fingernail clippers were always at hand. I would clip sections of my arms and legs and sometimes my stomach; big craters which made ugly scabs that I would then pick at for weeks. One time I clipped all of my knuckles in an attempt to sever the tendons which tighten when you make a fist, rolling over the bone from right to left and snapping across at just the right moment. I remember thinking that if I could sever my hands - the part of me that touches and interacts with the world - then somehow I would be separate from and immune to it. I still have scars to this day from that cutting incident. I never wanted to kill myself, only to hurt and have something to pick so that I could feel. I think it helped me snap myself back into my body at times. I now understand that cutters often do so because physical pain is easier to deal with than emotional pain, of which I was obviously in a great deal.

Up until the puzzle pieces I thought the sexual abuse had occurred after my mother "became sick." Her first suicide attempt had become the marker in time where everything was either Before or After, like Steinbeck's Pearl. I had placed the abuse events in the After bucket. When the puzzle pieces snapped in, I now had access to an accurate timeline. This puts the abuse episodes a full year earlier than I had previously placed, which I found both comforting and upsetting. If I were younger then it was somehow less likely to be my fault. Yet the hazy gaps in my memory create an emptiness that can scarcely be explained. It is a hollow feeling to be searching for clues in your own life; I've never really felt whole because I do not have access to all that is and defines me. As a result, I both relish and fear the puzzle pieces. Furthermore, if this happened in the Before bucket then my entire definition of mother's sickness was now in question. If this occurred while she was still intact, what did this say about her part in this story? (I will elaborate on this topic in a later post called The Liberation of Choice.)

I could never make sense of my living situation amidst this timeline before the puzzle pieces. Mother and I would not have been running errands and dropping in on friends if I were already living with father and it were our 'visitation hours.' I was beyond shocked to learn that the abuse happened while I lived with mother, though it makes sense now that this is why sharing residence with her the previous summer triggered the Breakthrough Crisis. This is also an explanation of why I froze during her first suicide attempt the following year and my EMDR from those memories indeed includes remnants of the physical manifestations of my dissociative state.

I spent approximately 90 minutes gagging, shaking, crying, and stabbing my fingernails in my office while the puzzle pieces connected. I had been trying not to do the fingernail stabbing thing but I gave myself permission that day; these memories were too painful without a reminder that I was alive, that I had survived. I received the memories dumbfounded that I had not previously made these connections but that everything seemed to make sense in an instant. I spent much of this 90 minutes staring out my office window but somehow had worked myself under the desk. Once I came to, I realized what a fright I would be if someone were to walk in; I am grateful and lucky that no one did.

I went home and called Dee for an emergency appointment. I spent the next 2 hours waiting for our allotted time in a surge of panic attacks and bouts of dissociation. I didn't have much control over my body and could not get up for a drink or the bathroom though I desperately desired both. I found that rocking back and forth helped soothe the shaking. Dee tells me that this shaking symptom is much like when an animal quivers during a thunderstorm; it isn't that they are cold, it is that there is an incredible amount of adrenaline and cortisol flowing in their bodies and that these hormones meant for action have to come out in some physical way. If you're not running away then you are shaking out the fear.

The ASCA Survivor to Thriver Manual talks about the fact that the healing steps are not always linear. Once the initial breakthrough crisis has released, there can be many smaller crises that look, feel, and seem the same. It is a cycle, a circle, a spiral that is unique for each survivor. My step of acknowledgement came when I first began to talk about the abuse with Dee; the day of puzzle pieces was a point of no return along my commitment to recovery (step 3). The Manual defines this commitment as "a moment in time when the desire to change and the hope of a better life overcomes the wall of denial and resistance."

I have never felt as crazy as I did the day the memories and events snap-locked. What happened to my body was undeniable and uncontrollable. In fact I was so out of control, Dee and I briefly discussed hospitalization. I was afraid for my sanity, afraid of the memories, afraid of myself. When I think back on that day I can easily reconnect with the fear, pain, disillusionment, panic, and terror. Because of what I experienced both internal and external - and Dee witnessed it all - I no longer had any doubts that my story, my memory, and my process were anything other than real. I was finally ready to stop denying the truth for the hope that someday I would be set free.

My brush with puzzle piece insanity happened on a Monday. I did not have time for a hospital. I had an interview for a new (now my current) job on Friday. How in the world I ever survived that week I will never fully understand.

Someone does. Her name is Prudence, and I will introduce you to her very soon.

8.22.2013

The Spiral

I am a firm believer that the universe brings you repeated situations - new players and details but the theme remains unchanged - until you learn the intended lesson. This provides an opportunity to learn, grow, and apply new skills in a familiar, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, scenario. I've come to call this The Spiral and I am living one right now.

A year ago (see recent Anniversary post) I found myself in a circumstance where I did not feel safe at my home. I had arranged a few months' reprieve from work travel in order to spend time with my mother during her temporary stay. But as the days and weeks went on, the unfolding of my Breakthrough Crisis rendered me feeling inexplicably and extremely unsafe. I clammered for and even forged a couple of hasty business trips simply to escape my at-home exhaustion. I hated the speedy pace of business travel but was desperate to get away from the house and my mother. It did little to assuage my discomfort. As it turned out, I did not feel safe anywhere.

This year, I am in a different city and a different house with a job that requires very little travel. The last four months I have concentrated much on creating a peaceful and safe surrounding to aid my healing process. It has been working out swimmingly until recent events of death, dismemberment, and harassment ensued. It seems there is no pause button on life in the midst of one's healing journey.

My neighbor's dogs viciously attacked and killed my eldest cat in my own front yard a week ago. The experience was traumatic to say the least; picking up parts of his body, feeling his broken spine, noticing his missing pieces, and taking him to the vet for immediate euthanization. I grieved the loss for several days; he was a good friend to me for 17 years.

My youngest cat has been missing for 2 months; I no longer have hope that he will return as I suspect he met the same fate. I contacted Animal Control to get the scoop on local laws, and in fact there is one prohibiting free roaming dogs. In talking with other neighbors I now know that there have been multiple killings in the last year including cats and chickens. This is an epidemic but everyone has been reticent to communicate with the responsible neighbors. Now I know why.

I waited several days to talk to them so as to communicate in a calm, orderly manner. I relayed the sad story of my kitty and sited the ordinance which requires them to keep their dogs contained on their property. The conversation did not go well. They exploded in anger, proceeded to defame my character, denied all responsibility (despite the eye witness account) and ended the exchange with threats of property damage. Later that evening they retaliated in a number of ways with bright lights and noise which prevented me from getting any sleep.

This feels strangely like last year when, in a state of hypervigilance from unsurfaced abuse memories, I could not sleep in my own house despite all efforts. I felt/feel trapped. I felt/feel victimized. I felt/feel both helpless and hopeless. Again I am clammering for some reason to travel, a way to flee the situation with which I cannot deal. This is the point at which I would normally zero out and dissociate for days or weeks.

Instead, I am trying to see that I am simply in the spiral. It is continuous and it is virtuous. It can be my friend. Each time I revisit a place that feels familiar, I can only hope to be at a higher level of understanding and consciousness because of the previous completed cycles. I am more aware, have a better sense of self-grace, and an increased ability to comprehend and deal with the circumstance. Though the situation feels the same, I am different. It's not easy. It can be very frustrating and painful, for I viewed the most recent healing spiral as possibly the last one. It always feels like the last one but the truth is it never ends. That is what brings out my hopelessness, but it doesn't have to. My response to each event is infinitely more important than the event itself.

And so I have decided to view this as an opportunity to change, to respond differently, to transform. This is my moment to be brave! Instead of hiding, I will stand up for what's right. Instead of running, I will confront my fears. Instead of suffering in silence, I will reach out for help. After all, I have an army of loyal supporters now. I am not a princess who needs to be saved. I am a soul who has suffered loss and needs love and strength from willing participants. And oh how my army is rallying.

I see this cat/neighbor ordeal as a microcosm of the macro potential of sharing my abuse story. The memory (death) has surfaced, the perpetrator (dog) has been identified. The time for speaking truth is at hand. The neighbor ordeal has made me feel stronger in standing up for myself and others who have suffered the same loss. I have already addressed it with authorities and feel very empowered in my ability to procure my own sense of safety. Simultaneously, I am working on a plan with my wonderfully supportive brother that will unearth our family secret as a necessary step in my healing journey. It isn't easy, and it might be some time before I am ready. We often don't know when the time isn't right for something so big, but we almost always know when it is. I will be ready. More importantly, I will be supported and loved through it.

I am so much stronger than I was a year ago, and I have the spiral to thank. Scientists say a spiral appears in nearly all things in nature from honeycombs, seashells, the human ear and bronchial lobes, pinecones, and flower petals, all the way to the formation of galaxies. This spiral, represented by the Greek letter phi and best understood through the Fibonacci sequence, is referred to as the Golden Ratio or the Divine Proportion. I like to think that my spiral follows the same celestial pattern and that my healing journey is somehow connected to the healing journey for us all. In this, there is purpose, there is meaning. And there is hope.





8.10.2013

Anniversary

It has been almost exactly one year since the onset of my Breakthrough Crisis. Celebrating or at least recognizing milestones is an important rite of passage in any culture. I often find that looking back on where I was helps me to appreciate where I am. It's why I journal so much. How else am I supposed to gauge progress?

Unstuck includes a number of journaling exercises at the end of each chapter. The book views depression as a call to change. An initial exercise is to outline the specifics of your call and how you can respond to it. These are my answers from one year ago.

1. What's going on right now?

I am extremely dissatisfied with the level of busy-ness in my life due to my demanding, hectic, and travel filled job. I've figured out that I am a person who needs a great deal of stillness, downtime, and routine in order to thrive. On top of this I am trying to deal with the fallout of realizations and changes in my relationship with my mother. Feelings of guilt, resentment, anger, and mostly depression are near consuming me.

Underneath both of these issues is a deep sense of loneliness because I have few friends and little time to build a personal life due to my job. I've spent all of my life's energy, time, and money in fixing my mother instead of investing in myself and my future.

2. Where do I want to be headed and what changes are necessary?

I want friends I can call to have dinner, watch movies, and see the city with. I want to sleep in my own bed most nights. I don't want to feel tired, rushed, behind schedule, and out of control all of the time. I want to enjoy my free time instead of feeling like I'm merely recovering in between times of intense work. 

I want to feel energized and hopeful about life again. I want to regain my sense of wonder in nature, God, people, and animals. I want free time and space to do good for others which makes me feel expansive. I want to express the full range of human emotion, to inspire and be inspired. I want to express Who I Really Am and feel I am making a difference in the world by doing so.

3. What are my first steps for getting where I am going?

- Make an appointment with my doctor to discuss depression and rule out any possible physical causes such as thyroid, hormones, or adrenal abnormalities.
- Find a therapist and stick with it, at least until my major symptoms subside. 
- Talk to friends. Stay connected.
- Pursue closeness with key family members; they are more important than friends.
- Make some modifications in my diet to support health and well-being: more beans, oatmeal, eggs, salmon and water; less coffee, cookies, chips, and crackers.
- Pursue a job change. 
- Set up my mother's care in a way that minimizes my involvement. 
- Integrate things into my life that I know support Who I Really Am: yoga, volunteering, running, hiking, nature, time with my dog, family, reading, traveling for pleasure.



Looking back at this is quite helpful, and I can almost not believe the progress I have made. I was able to make all of the changes I wanted in less than 12 months.

I found not one but two wonderful therapists; the work I've done with Dee and Em has been life altering. I went on two international trips for pleasure. I have a new job that I enjoy which requires little travel. I moved back to a city where I had an immediate circle of supportive friends. I set my mother up in a new living arrangement that no longer requires monthly oversight from me. I bought a lake house surrounded by nature and a peacefulness that allows plenty of time for stillness and introspection. This has enticed my family to come visit which has allowed us to grow closer than we've been in a long time.

When I started this post I thought I was going to lament the passage of time. A year sounds so long. And yet, seeing my own progress laid out in this way I now feel differently than when I began. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to integrate such massive change in a relatively short amount of time! But I believe it was necessary. I could not focus on my healing in the midst of near-constant travel to perform in an overly demanding job, nor when I was consumed with the care and well-being of my mother. I had to identify the barriers and then remove them one by one in order to create a safe place for me to process, reconnect, and integrate.

Most of all, I am amazed that my inner wisdom knew exactly what I needed and precisely how to guide me here. The universe responded to my call. I am forever grateful.

8.09.2013

On Shame


If anger is a surface emotion then shame is the bottomless pit far beneath. Jungian analysts say that shame is the "swampland of the soul." Research shows that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, suicidal thoughts, and eating disorders. I have experienced d) all of the above.

Rage shattered the wall of my silent shame. I began having more abuse memories, so many that I had to name the events so that Dee and I could use a common framework for discussion. At first they came in the form of dreams or in lucid states upon waking, some of them nightmarish. Soon these morphed into body memories which could then be reprocessed and associated via EMDR. Sometimes these puzzle pieces would connect amidst activities like driving or running. Other times they came in the middle of my supposed functional workday. I found the latter particularly disturbing. It was one thing to have memories while alone in a safe environment where I could feel and process what was happening; it was an altogether different experience when I was around people with no place to hide. I had to pretend and keep going, not feel, to be on stage and en pointe. This was a harrowing time for me. I felt like I was falling apart. Fragmentation, guilt, shame and fear plagued me from all sides, but none more pressing than the in-side.

The Hand: I have a distinct memory of being touched while in bed. This was the first one to surface after The Theatre and was difficult for me to acknowledge. Previously I had convinced myself that The Theatre was the only scene of abuse but in this new memory I am in a lying down position, one not possible in a theatre setting. A bed, perhaps not mine. I have no external context for this memory - no understanding of the room, furniture, or house - but an immense amount of detail. Exactly opposite of The Theatre, where I have tons of context but little to no detail. The Hand is touching me - as in my lovely little lady parts - from behind and I am pretending to be asleep. I am hoping that if I lie still and quiet it will all be over soon, much like the stone statue in The Theatre. And likely in a similar fully dissociated state.

Please Don't: Another memory, another position, another time and place. The detail and body memory is different for this event, enough that I am able to distinguish it from The Hand. The most salient piece of this memory is that I feel my body about to sexually climax, but I am praying and begging God to not let it happen. I don't want to. I feel terribly ashamed that this is happening and that my body is responding in this way.

Notable connections and feelings bubbled up during acquisition of these memories. As we processed the events, I was obsessed with my attire. In EMDR sets I would spend an inordinate amount of time "looking" down trying to figure out what I was wearing at the time of the abuse. In my mind, wearing a skirt or nightgown meant that I had given him easy access and was partially to blame. If only I had been smart enough or more careful, I could have prevented it. This is a dangerous rabbit hole for survivors of sexual abuse. It is our #1 fear... that the abuse was somehow our fault. That I showed interest, that I prompted or invited it in some way, that I didn't stop him and therefore that means I must have wanted it. This shame has plagued me for 25 years and is likely the cause of my memory repression and dissociation, aka The Black Oil.

Here is where I tell you how very much I love my therapist Dee for moments like this one. After weeks of obsessing over my attire and the thought of possibly inviting the abuse, she called me out. Inching closer to the front edge of her chair, she looked right into my tear-filled eyes and said, "I don't care if you stood up in that theatre, stripped all of your clothes off and danced around in front of him naked. You were a child. He was an adult. It was his responsibility to hold the boundary and he didn't. There is nothing you could've done to make this your fault and so I want you to stop this clothing bullshit here and now." Her exasperation and brutal honesty shocked the obsession right out of me. I haven't thought about my attire in these or any other abuse memories since.

I have learned through therapy and my healing process that shame and self-blame is often the only way a child can make sense of the terrible trauma of sexual abuse. Uneducated and inexperienced with how the body works, the resulting physical pleasure from unwanted touch is confusing. This response gets misinterpreted by a child as fault when it is anything but. Furthermore, it is easier to blame the self than to acknowledge and understand that adults are not trustable and that the world is indeed a scary place. If only we were told the truth: that monsters are real and they don't live under your bed. They live down the street, in your neighborhood, in your backyard. And sometimes they live at your uncle's house.

Brene Brown says that shame requires 3 things to survive: secrecy, silence, and judgement. My story had equal, hefty doses of all three for 25 years. Once I understood this I did the most difficult thing imaginable: I started telling my story. First my 2 therapists, next I told my 3 closest friends. It was awful and wonderful at the same time. Content with my close circle of five, I continued with therapy and regular conversation with my small support army for months. I have since shared my story with 5 more trusted people in my life, including 2 family members. My army is growing.

LearningToLiveInsideMyBody is a critical part of my healing journey. To aggregate and articulate my process, to share for the hope of healing for others, to rid myself of the shame that indeed this is my story. Some days I have an enormous vulnerability hangover from what I've posted. Other days I feel superbly healed, that the process of documenting these experiences gets them out, as in out of me. They no longer live inside, swirling around and adding to the Black Oil. My story lives on these pages, my computer, the blog server, and now your screen.

A few days ago I made a list in my journal of what complete healing will look like for me. It includes several items related to this topic such as:

  • not hiding
  • no shame
  • no fear that people will find out
  • no self injury
  • no dissociation
  • sleeping all night
  • no panic attacks
  • no stabbing pain of remembrance
  • talking about it with no tears
  • no vulnerability hangovers 
  • no need for an army
  • feeling whole
  • freedom

There are many more items on my list. I look forward to the day I get to experience all of them. For now, I am satisfied with shattering the wall and moving forward on this journey.










On Rage

One Sunday in January I went to church as usual. During praise and worship, we sang a song with the lyrics "All things work together for my good" from Romans 8:28. All of the sudden I stopped singing as I felt the familiar lump of impending meltdown welling in my throat. The tears began streaming but it was not the usual variety of grief and despair. This time I was filled with rage - pure, utter, unadulterated rage - so much that my fists were clinched tightly and my fingernails bore into the palms of my hands. I envisioned punching someone in the face. My mind raced....

Really? All things work together for MY good? Because I can't think of one single fucking good thing that can possibly come out of being sexually abused, at least not for me. I am so angry with God for letting this happen. Wasn't I already going through enough at the time with schizophrenic-abandoning mother? Where was God in this? Why didn't he protect me? Why didn't anyone? Am I supposed to think that this was all worth it so I can write a book someday? Does that make my suffering meaningful? Acceptable? Fat. Chance.




I went home and took a nap. A thick, deep, foggy sleep that awoke with a start. I was panicked. Heart racing, anxiety in my throat, the booming sound of heartbeat in my ears and pounding in my chest. I was also, strangely, extremely sexually aroused. I realized then that this had happened no less than 3 times the past few weeks since talking to Dee about The Theatre. The acknowledgement overwhelmed me, as it was this moment I first understood the source of my deep shame. Whatever had happened while I was being molested, my body responded even though I didn't want it to. I must have been aroused by whatever he did to me. And even though I didn't remember what "it" was, my body remembered.

The next morning I experienced a different kind of rage meltdown. As I drove to the airport for my next business trip, I was reflecting on the anger and shame revelation from the previous day. A moment of clarity came and all of that rage was now directed at my body. It betrayed me! There I was in the middle of this horrific circumstance of being sexually abused; I should have been fighting or at least appalled but instead I was aroused? This was unacceptable to me. A completely inappropriate response to the situation (or so I thought). And yet I could not stop it, control it, or even curtail it. I was utterly disgusted with myself and completely furious with my body.

My rage continued to morph into various forms and direct itself toward sundry targets - my boss, myself, God, my real-estate agent, myself again, the driver in front of me taking too long when the light turned green, the grocery store clerk who squashed my loaf of wheat bread, myself again - and then it landed smack dab on the crowned head of my mother. It has been resting there for many months now with no signs of movement. (I write more about this in a later post called The Wolf.)

I've learned that it is important to let myself feel whatever it is I need to feel without judgement or attempts to control it. Just let it be what it is. I spent much too long suppressing and denying my feelings; I need to let them out. Keeping them locked deep inside is what got me here: depressed, anxious, unable to have a functional intimate relationship, lonely, fragmented, dissociated.

Anger and even rage are a necessary part of the healing process. In fact, healing from sexual abuse is much akin to the 7 stages of grief:

  1. Shock and Denial: I did this for about, oh, 25 years.
  2. Pain and Guilt: Yep, plenty of this.
  3. Anger: Thus my rage.
  4. Depression: Does near constant suicidal ideation count? Yes, I think it does.
  5. Upward Turn
  6. Reconstruction
  7. Acceptance and Hope

And so I am processing 25 years worth of rage and pain. I told you this is the middle of my story. My sarcasm helps me to see just where I am now, and it appears I have not yet reached the upward turn. But I long for it, I believe in it. 

I believe in hope.

8.06.2013

Playlist


I was a music major in college, a double major in music and psychology and then acquired an advanced degree in a specific area of psych in graduate school. Inside me - somewhere deep where the Real Me resides - I am an artist wrapped in scientist's clothing. Music has always been a source of inspiration and healing for me. During my darkest moments this playlist would sometimes help me dissociate, other times it kept me grounded. For much of my life, I didn't know the difference between the two.

Over the past year I have disappeared into this playlist for hours on end - at night to keep the demons at bay or to draw them close; in the car to force my brain into functional form or to numb/zone out so that I could survive another day; in dark moments to dangle my fragile self in blissful suicidal ideation or else to zing me back to life.

This playlist is both my oubliette and the source of stabbing remembrance. I play it when I need to feel, and when I need to not feel. Sometimes the music is my only way to feel, the scalpel reopening my gaping pain. Above all, it helps me to know this is real; this is really happening. The story, the memories, the truth, my truth. And in this knowing and remembering, I have survived.


My soul would forever weep without music to express the pain which has imprinted itself far beyond where language can reach.


You can listen to my Dissociation Playlist in its entirety on YouTube, or each song is listed and linked individually below.

Alice In Chains - Am I Inside
Radiohead - How to Disappear Completely
Alice in Chains - Brother
Alice in Chains - Right Turn
Radiohead - Everything In Its Right Place
Zero 7 - In the Waiting Line
Radiohead - Codex
Radiohead - Give Up the Ghost
Smashing Pumpkins - Disarm
Plumb - Cut
Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb
Flaming Lips - One More Robot
Kenna - Hellbent
Unkle - In a State
Pink Floyd - Breathe/Run
Gary Jules - Mad World
Coldplay - The Scientist
Radiohead - Morning Bell
Mad Season - River of Deceit
Nirvana - Lithium
Pixies - Where Is My Mind
Radiohead - Climbing Up the Walls
The National - Afraid of Everyone
Alice in Chains - Don't Follow
Nirvana - Something In the Way
Junip - Don't Let It Pass
Imogen Heap - Hide and Seek
Alice in Chains - I Stay Away
Evanescence - Bring Me To Life
Radiohead - Last Flowers
FC Kahuna - Hayling
Air - Playground Love
Placebo - Running Up That Hill
Massive Attack - Angel
Alice in Chains - Rotten Apples
Sarah McLachlan - Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Radiohead - Let Down
K's Choice - Butterflies Instead
Pink Floyd - Learning the Fly
Lower Dens - Truss Me
Flume - Insane
Sarah McLachlan - Do What You Have To Do
Plumb - Need You Now
MercyMe - The Hurt & The Healer


I added some of the later songs as my healing progressed. There is a noticable difference in the nature and tone, a milemarker of sorts along my pathway to recovery.