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.


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!


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.


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!"


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.


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.


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.