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.