Heavy

I’ll tell you, I don’t know where this is going. Not necessarily this post—that will go where most posts go, just meander for a while, trail off. But the thought process I’m having right now.

It’s quite intense.

I’ll try to explain what I am thinking about. It made me cry pretty hard—although that’s nothing unusual. Then dissociate for a while. I just stared. It seemed okay to do that for a while. Then I took a shower (it’s cold, warm helps), made tea, and here I am.

I just kind of got what it was for me to be an abused child. I can’t describe it that well. I just got it. Things in my head linked up. I got that feeling worthless came from being treated badly. Worthlessness in my head is communication within me about someone else’s disregard for me in their head. If I were worth something to that person—my mom or my dad—they would be treating me better. It’s information, and it’s so intense because my mind has decided this is very, very important. The emotions are intense because that’s how my mind directs my attention, it creates an emotional response. This was life or death, and so my mind is basically screaming at me: fucking remember this. Otherwise, this shit might get you killed.

That sounds very abstract. It didn’t feel very abstract sitting out on the back porch, drinking a coffee, trying to think about this. The thought part of it is that I finally know what this really is. The feeling I have is information I have stored about what happened. It’s a recording, but it has been scrambled. I just knew I felt bad.

Now I know it was part of an event. It was part of a repetitive event, or many events with this in common: my welfare was disregarded. My dignity was disregarded. My humanity was disregarded.

Just like shame is an emotional recording of someone perceives that you did something wrong, which I have been writing about for a while.

What sank in for me was that someone perceived I did something wrong and then the punishment was so severe, I thought I might die. My mother was very physical in her violence. She’s not a clever person. She is too impulsive to be clever. But I think you can do this without laying a finger on a child. I think you can wind them up to this same degree of intensity without physical or sexual abuse.

The point is I hadn’t fully linked the three: the felt sense (shame, for example), the perception (my mom thinks I did something wrong), and the event (she beat the shit out of me.) You can do the same thing with worthlessness or feeling like an object. There is a felt sense, a perception, and an event for every abusive and neglectful situation a child experiences.

It might be that my mind has been trying to put these pieces together, seeing where they go, and that’s why they can be so intrusive. I hope that is the case. I hope my emotional reactions to reminders of trauma can get fainter, now that I know more what they are about. It’s hard to imagine trying to cope with that wash of shame every time someone appears to disapprove of me, or every time I perceive I have made a mistake.

Anyway, the other part of this is recognizing what happened in between: that life needed to be attended to. I was reading about combat veterans, and the omnipresence of danger. You can’t really live in constant fear, even though you are never actually safe, and you have to somehow cope with being hypervigilant while also keep your mind on daily life. You have to somehow brush your teeth, eat dinner, play with your sister, do your homework and generally get on with things while your life is constantly in danger. You can’t escape it. You can’t defeat it. You have to keep moving somehow, despite the constant threat of danger. Your parents are the ones hurting you, and you need them. You have to figure out how to block out fear, block out rage, and get on with life no matter how intense those instincts to run away, hide, become paralyzed, or lash out are. And you also have to resist the impulse to seek comfort, because the people you would want comfort from most are hurting you and it might set them off. That sense of longing inside that I feel, that’s a longing for comfort. I had to find a way to not feel that as a child. You do become numb, because you have to keep your attention on daily life somehow, even though all of this is going on. Even though you are terrified and sad and angry all the time.

As a child, I don’t think I had any awareness of what it really felt like underneath that numbness. I had no idea how sad and confused and afraid I was about my parents hurting me. You can’t. I am starting to feel it now though. I am starting to get a sense of how it was during eruptions of violence in the family, and also of what it felt like in between.

The third thing I thought about was how a thousand traumatic events is different than a single traumatic event, just in terms of its inescapableness and hopelessness. No matter what you do, you seem to end up assaulted. There is a feeling that goes with that perception of futility. The thoughts might be suicidal ideation, but there is an emotion of despair too. It’s the same formula actually: emotion (despair), perception (I can’t escape this or stop this), and event (repeated trauma).

Coming to terms

I have been thinking today that my family was very ill. I think about things that might be memories, and I realize if they are true my dad was very, very weird. Diagnosibly weird, like had delusions. I realize that actually I have protected myself from knowing things about my family for so long that it is actually quite difficult to tell if what I am sure happened was all that happened.

What I mean is if my dad behaved in near-psychotic ways from time to time, I wouldn’t know. There are these quite gaping holes in the autobiography I created for myself as I was growing up.

It’s scary to think this, because of course no one else can corroborate for me what did or didn’t happen. Did my dad really insist on family sex nights? Yeah, I think he might have, but there is no way to actually know, and if it didn’t happen, then I am as delusional as I think he was. I feel a lot of shame about what I think might have happened.

My new take on this is shame is there to let me know I understand this was wrong. It isn’t what dads are supposed to do. So, from that point, what I try to do with the shame is just take it for what it is. Yep, what happened was wrong, and my family was very, very sick and it might be that some people would judge me for the sickness of my family.

What I don’t do is engage in a debate about this, because there is nothing to debate. Instead of thinking my emotions are about facts, I think now they are about perceptions and different people have different perceptions. It’s good to consider those perceptions—if I didn’t think anyone would hold that perception or that a particular person would have that perception, I think about that. But basically I think our minds run away with us, because we have disconnected from our felt emotions, and we are left to focus on this evidence of the emotion instead, which are the thoughts.

Debating about it kept me mired in fighting with my feelings. When I thought it important to not feel shame because what happened to me wasn’t my fault, then I engaged with this struggle with myself to stop feeling even harder. It wasn’t productive. It’s more productive to take note of the shame, essentially just thank it, and move on with life.

The unsettling thing about this is that I do something of the opposite with C. I tell her all the time that she is good, and that she isn’t bad. I don’t know what this does to her. It feels like she needs a part of herself that has internalized my view of her: that she is loveable, imperfect, but loveable. But it might just feel like one more thing that is not acceptable about herself, which is how it felt to me.

Anyway, what happens from there in my head and heart are that I feel more open. I feel sad, but like it was safe to be sad and that I could reach out, at least within myself. That seems positive.

I have been reading some things about schizophrenia, just thinking about my dad and what his life might have been like when he was a child. No ability to trust, is what he makes me think. I don’t know that it did anything, but I ended up veered over into DID stuff.

I watched something, and I thought, “That’s my mom.”

Well, I don’t know if it really was exactly DID, but it seems like it was: the extremes in personality and in mood have that quality to them, trauma-based and very confusing for a child. One of the thoughts I have had recently is that I relate more to the idea of being “stolen” than being abandoned. I mean, being in the US and separated from C makes me feel stolen, or that she has been stolen. It made me think my feeling about my mother is that she was stolen, which is how switching might feel to a child. It might feel an alter had come and stolen the mom you could relate to and who felt safe.

Connected to that, I have been thinking that actually I do have her as a continuous object in my mind. I did attach to her. The problem is she is almost an unbearable object to have in my mind. The perspective about myself I get from her is: I hate you, you are the cause of all my problems, you are malignantly evil and dangerous. And yet this thought about her trauma symptoms and the way they played out with me is that she didn’t hate me all the time. She hated me when she felt rejected or ashamed. But it was almost like that was more extreme, so that must be the truth. This very shaming voice inside me, that’s my mom when she felt distressed and threatened.

It also made me think of this need to check on the object, and a lack of trust that the object will remain there: if her reactivity made her seem like different people to me, it would make sense to internalize that as a need. Everyone has that need to some extent, I think, but this seems to still align together in some way. There is stuff from my dad that fits in with that too, but they are older sensibilities. I wasn’t witnessing murders when I was two, but I was witnessing my mother’s breakdowns.

I think this is really the story I needed to hear from myself: my parents were very, very ill, and it made me sad growing up. Sad and angry. I was sad and angry that I could never have a happy, care-free childhood, that I could never trust anyone to take care of me or even necessarily to function as adults. I felt ashamed of my family, because in the 70s and 80s when I was a child, there was so much stigma around mental illness. My dad was doing seriously fucked up things, my mom was crazy and it wasn’t necessarily that I was at fault, but that I was a part of this very bad thing. It hurt in so many ways.

A lot of bits and pieces

I woke up in a bad place. I can’t even remember what I was thinking, just a shame shower. After a while, I began to think it may not be because of all the things that are wrong in my life that this is happening. It may be because of the things that are going right.

I have adopted a new frame for explaining myself to myself, which is that I have learned a) shame is the mind’s emotional response to a perception of having done something wrong and b) because my parents’ were unable to see me or my needs or respond to me, I learned that being seen or responded to is wrong. I have also learned that confirmation bias means that whatever particular frame of mind I am in makes details which are relevant to that frame of mind seem more significant. If I am feeling ashamed, I will be more attentive to things I might have done wrong or to the perception that other people might think I have done something wrong, because those details follow a pattern I have already hypothesized might exist. My emotions direct my attention to what appears to be important at that moment. My tendency to do this is proportional to the strength of my emotional response. If my emotions are extreme, my attention will be directed in an extreme way also.

So if I wake up thinking of the 500 things that might be wrong with me, it is likely I feel ashamed, but I am noticing my thoughts and not my emotional state. It is also likely that I feel ashamed because of something to do with connection. I want connection, I got connection, or I lost connection. I do think I need to have a more accurate mental map for myself: it isn’t enough to say “this is the past” and treat my feelings as though they are nonsense. Looking at what has happened in terms of connection very recently is likely to be fruitful ground for locating the source of the feelings. It isn’t that I need to feel ashamed of connection, but noticing I feel ashamed and seeing, “Oh, yes, I got connection last night. That’s why I feel shitty today,” helps things connect in my mind. It’s like I remembered the rest of the song, and I can stop singing that little bit I can remember.

That’s one thing.

Another thing is I have been thinking we get connection when we can do this dance of seeing and being seen, responding and being responded to. It is not that I need to be cared for like a dependent child. As a dependent child, I needed to be cared for like one because that is what I was. I can care for myself now, including emotionally, (at least to a large extent) but my need for that dance has not gone away. That is part of being human, and it does not ever go away. I still need attention. I need to feel understood. I need to be special to someone. I need to feel important and like my desires are part of the mix and are considered equally with other people’s. I think I also probably need to feel wanted, that someone is happier that I exist. I need to be doing this internally—being aware of and considering my own desires along with the realities of life and the desires of people around me—and I need other people to do it with me.

What I am getting at is I need to be seen and responded to wherever I am at in that moment, and I need to be able to respond to other people in the place where they are at that moment and I need to be able to respond to myself. It’s not a matter of filling the gaping hole that feels my parents left me with. I don’t need a do-over of my childhood to heal. It is a matter of responding to whoever I am now, which means being aware of where I am now, from moment to moment.

At the same time, whenever that happens, I am likely to feel shame, because it’s the feeling of being seen and responded to that my mind has decided is the pattern for what isn’t allowed and is wrong. I just have to deal with that. Over and over, I have to cope with the shame until it dissipates. There is no other way to do it. When I suppress the feelings of shame, I cut off my emotional processing, which is what will eventually allow me to notice, “Oh, actually this is okay.” It sucks, but that’s how it goes.

I have been thinking about this more because of C. She triggers me a lot. I mean a LOT. And I am also back in my own country, I am removed in some way from the situation that brought us together, and I am reflecting on the direction of my life and her role in that. I don’t know how our relationship happened, or what is happening in it now. I have been feeling a lot of attachment pain, which she is not actually the cause of. She is just reminding me of it, and I have also been trying to make sense of the attachment pain as it comes up. So I have been thinking about all of these things.

The thing about C is that she seems to have become a stable object in my mind, and that seems to be mainly because of something I am doing in my own mind in order to meet her needs or try to meet her needs. I keep imagining her mind, so that I can respond to her, and this keeps her present for me and it also keeps me present for me. It is somehow forcing me to see both of us as stable objects in my own mind. It’s very hard to explain, but I think this is basically doing something very positive for me. And yet it is excruciatingly painful.     

The last day or two, she has ignored every attempt I have made to contact her or offer support to her. I went to sleep last night very sad about this, very ashamed of my desire to reach out for her (because of course I have learned that wanting to reach out is bad), and I got under the covers crying, telling myself I am trying to get a child to meet my attachment needs which is totally inappropriate, and I half-heartedly resolved not to keep extending myself.

I didn’t set an alarm, which is something I have been doing so that I wake up before she goes to sleep.

Of course, I woke up anyway—three minutes after the alarm would have gone off. I called her, which I had resolved not to do in the evening, and I listened to it ring, as I have been doing every morning and every evening for weeks now. She has answered the phone exactly two times since I got to the US, and I just keep calling.

I keep calling, because I think it makes a difference to her to see that number on her phone. She doesn’t answer it, but it makes a difference. A part of what is going on for her right now is she sees I am gone but she has not been forgotten about or discarded. She is still wanted, and it really is circumstance and forces beyond my control that have led to our separation. It is not because she is unwanted or unimportant.

In her mind (unconsciously), that is contrasting with other experiences, in which she was forgotten about. Every time I call, it hurts because of that contrast, and she is using avoidance to regulate the pain of that contrast because that’s pretty much all she has still. She does not have a lot of coping skills still, and the pain is quite intense. So she doesn’t answer the phone.

On my end, what happens for me in my mind is something of the same contrast. Because of how I construct her response—that she is seeing my genuine care for her and responding to that—I have to see every time I call her that I am important and I am good. The way I construct her response imagines that that is her view of me. (I do think she sees things that way. Whatever gets stirred up for her, I don’t think she projects that onto me. She projects it completely unfairly onto friends or boyfriends or adults around her, but she somehow knows it isn’t about me.)

And I have to deal with my pain about that. I have to deal with my own contrast: that my parents didn’t see me that way. They didn’t see me as important or as good. They saw me as evil or malicious or as an object. And they saw me this way because they were mentally ill, and their daily interactions with people were distorted by their respective illnesses. I will never know exactly what those illnesses were, or what was really going on in their minds and hearts, but I do know they were ill (and are ill).

They could not care for me because they were ill. I learned not to turn to them or trust them, because they were ill. The way this learning manifests itself is in a felt sense of shame and also as fear. As a child, I was driven to try to break through these distortions and fight to be seen, because I needed to be seen and they were my parents. I needed them to see me. This tended to end badly, and the pattern that formed in my mind of “trying to be seen tends to end badly” is communicated within me as shame and fear.

So, it is, to say the least, weird. Because she has become a stable object in my mind, I continue to see myself via my attempt to see her, and this is healing. It is forcing me to heal.

Oh, and she is not responding to me, because I asked my friend to call her and talk to her about staying at her present school. It wasn’t me, but my care for her got through, but I didn’t know this until the morning. She is more triggered by having that care and commitment extended to her, and she is probably more fearful about trusting she can depend on it. All of that means she is avoiding harder.

I was thinking about that too. It came to me that when you need to figure out how to regulate your emotions as a baby, there is very little you can actually do. There is so little physically at your disposal. You can turn your head though. You can direct your gaze. So it makes sense to me that avoidance would become a fall-back position very quickly. That is all you had.

 

 

 

 

Shame shower

I don’t know what has brought this on exactly.

I haven’t made any progress towards finding a job. (Bad news.) I do feel somewhat more normal. (Good news.) It’s a huge change to be here, in a lot of ways. It’s a huge change from Country X, and it’s also a huge change from my life before Country X—something I hadn’t really counted on. I am living in the suburbs, and I hadn’t really thought about how that would be different, since I have lived in a much more urban environment for most of the last 20 years. Los Angeles tends to seem like 500 sq. km of sprawl, so I had never thought about how socially and culturally, it would feel different to be in a different pocket of urban sprawl.

I have made some forays back into the places I used to go, places I used to shop and eat, and it does feel different to be there than to be here. It really feels quite different. I actually cannot pin down how they feel different to me, but they do, and I feel more out of place here than I do in the old places.

I went back to the street where I used to live in order to do some of my shopping—basically, I wanted shoes, and they have cheap, comfortable shoes there. It’s quite a lot more gentrified than I remember it, and I didn’t like it. This didn’t register with me until today. I saw all of the new, shiny buildings and noticed them, but what they meant as a pattern didn’t sink in. That part of town I guess is technically Los Angeles, but it’s just south of West Hollywood. If you know nothing about West Hollywood, which maybe two out of three regular readers might not (not having any reason to be concerned with it), it’s a pretty strange mix of Russians, gays and yuppies. There is, of course, an overlap between gays and yuppies. The Russians are mostly elderly. A lot of them are Jewish. This is further south than where I lived. It is West LA, and it’s on a street that goes from hipster to Ethiopian to Eastern European Jewish as you travel north.

It’s a Kmart with a Ross right next door, but it’s in the middle of hipster land. Go figure.

I bought two pairs of shoes, neither one of them especially great, but they’ll do. I also bought a purse, which looks a little like the Bible bag I had as a kid, and I am also pretty sure some woman in her 70s brought something very much like to church.

But some part of me thinks it looks cool.

I have had to do quite a bit of shopping lately because I basically have no clothes. I came back from Country X with two long sleeve shirts, two short sleeve shirts, two pairs of sweats, a pair of hiking boots I never wear, and a pair of very obviously knock-off tennis shoes. And that’s all. I was wearing National Dress all the time and, anyway, Country X-ers change their clothes twice a week usually. Two shirts is really all you need.

Walk around in sweats for two weeks in the suburbs and you start to feel like a serious slob, which is not really what my confidence needs right now. I went to the Goodwill and tried to buy a few things, although it was kind of mainly an exercise in trying to think about who I am and what I like: in Country X, I never liked the clothes other women wear. They wore these horrible rayon shirts with abstract patterns on them that were more ugly than sin. I ended up dressing kind of like a teenager, maybe partly because Charlie was picking the clothes, but also because the “adult” clothes were just so awful.

Also, I got a much-needed haircut. I am considering getting it dyed, because the thing that happened in the last three years is I turned seriously grey. It went to some scattered grey hair everyone claimed to be unable to distinguish from blonde to looking pretty grey. So now I look old. Right when I need a job. So I’ve been very focused on my appearance this week. It’s hard.

I was in Kmart, looking at shoes, and I heard a little voice inside me, “Mommy, I like THOSE.”

So I split into parts again. I used to really fight this, but I see it differently now. The shame of being seen, even by myself, is so great that I have disowned a part of myself, and it’s operating as a “not me.” But at least that voice is still there. What happens next is that voice disappears altogether. There is this balance, with parts, between the impulse to express the self and the impulse to suppress it. Parts come out either when the impulse to express the self is very strong, or the impulse to suppress it is weaker. As the part becomes integrated, it can be expressed as an element of an adult self, but until then it’s mostly expressed either as a part or not at all. At the moment, I think I am integrated enough that some of the time, my parts are functioning as elements of my adult self, but under stress this still happens. Parts developed because it was the only way not to overwhelm myself with shame and still express parts of myself enough to feel some degree of aliveness.

Anyway, I looked at the shoes. I recognized I was under stress, I just split into parts, and I didn’t panic or try to silence the voice. Instead, I thought, “Can an adult wear these?” And they were fine, so I bought them. I welcomed the voice, I listened to it, I didn’t give into it blindly, but I listened, and I think that can be an effective way to handle these moments. It creates safety inside.

But this is all very, very hard. I can’t really describe it, and I can see from my post that I am not describing it. I can’t describe how much I am struggling with seeing myself.

 

 

Food

Some things.

VP Ma’am used to suddenly attack me, so that I didn’t actually want to be around her, especially if she was stressed about something or if I was stressed about something.

My friend attacks my eating, although it isn’t the same kind of attack. I don’t feel that she is intentionally hurting me. There is just something about food for her that seems to be contested. I have never thought much about food. I tend to be chronically underweight, because when I feel stressed, I don’t eat. And that does worry me. It worried me that before leaving Y-town, nothing that had a waist fit anymore. It didn’t seem good.

At the moment, I seem to be a normal weight again. The clothes that once were falling off me fit now. I take this all as a good sign that I am healthy.

I do have a strong sense in her house that my eating habits are not okay, and it’s something I have never really experienced before. It really, really hurts, and it makes me not want to eat with her. I am going to have to deal with this eventually. I can’t just seclude myself. I don’t really know how to deal with it yet, but I will have to, because this is suddenly creating all kinds of shame for me about eating that I have never had before. I have never thought very much about what I ate at all, except to think it should include some fruits and vegetables and maybe whole grains are better than refined ones.

In the meantime, I’ll just describe what is happening. If I understand something, then eventually I do come around to knowing what to do sometimes. Sometimes, understanding is the hard part and the rest takes care of itself.

I was making breakfast this morning, and I remembered I really like breakfast burritos. That is something I used to make and I like it, and it would be a nice thing to go back to doing. So I was putting the burrito together and in the hot sauce application stage, and she happened to walk into the room at that moment. She had been somewhere else in the house. And she just made a sound of some kind, like, “Oh,” or “wow.” It was a very shocked sound, and she had a very concerned look on her face, like I was eating a lot of hot sauce. Now the thing is, I don’t think I like particularly spicy food. Compared to people around me, I have felt fairly average. It’s something else I have never thought about before. In Country X, I didn’t eat the very spicy chilis they like to eat nor did I eat very much of their hot sauce. I would take a small amount, and enjoy it, but not load up on it, because that would burn holes in my stomach. I didn’t ever find their curries that spicy. Indian food is a lot spicier—or it was in the old days, before everyone started getting ulcers and cut back). Country X food seemed somewhat average, but then I did realize that sometimes the food I made for C and for The Boy was too spicy for them. It’s possible my tastes changed in Country X, and that now I eat food that is spicier than what I used to like, but basically my point is that it is not something that stands out about me. I am not the person at dinner who says, “Oh, I can’t eat that. It’s too spicy.” And I am also not the person eating raw chilis with salt.

Anyway, she was shocked, and I guess the first thing about it is that I don’t know why someone would really notice one way or the other how much hot sauce you put on your food, but it definitely stands out to her. I can’t quite relate to it. It’s hard for me to actually understand food as very noteworthy in any way—that might be the difference between us. There are a few foods I really like, but eating is something I do mainly to survive and to avoid the discomfort of being hungry, and it doesn’t seem worth paying that much attention to, other than to attend to one’s health to a reasonable degree.

I am sure this all has something to do with our views of our bodies, and various unconscious notions we have about them, and we might be on opposite ends of a spectrum about it. We might both be at the unhealthy ends of that spectrum. It might be I see eating as basically utilitarian, and she sees it as something quite significant. She spends a lot more money on food than I ever would—that’s something else we will have to figure out, if we eat together and share the same food. There is a lot more food in the house than I ever keep, although both of us have been living mostly alone for a while. The food she buys tends to be a lot tastier than what I would buy, because I don’t really care, and I know I don’t care. If it really is better for my health, I might spring for the pricier version, but very frequently I will buy whatever is cheapest, because I just really don’t care. The peanut butter you would see in my cupboard is whatever was cheapest the last time I ran out, but she has Laura Scudder’s, which really is healthier for you. I will hardly buy avocados, although I really like them, because I consider them to be expensive items. They are a regular staple in her house. So what that says to me is food that tastes good is actually important to her. She is willing to spend money on eating food she likes, because it adds to the quality of her life. And I eat mostly so that I can stop feeling hungry. (That’s not to say that there aren’t foods I enjoy, or that I don’t get any enjoyment out of my food. But there is some kind of difference to it that I am having trouble naming.)

Getting back to the hot sauce, a part of my feeling is just shock that someone would feel that’s worth noticing. I wouldn’t notice what someone ate, aside from taking note of how they like things prepared in case it comes my turn to cook. For her, food seems to be worth noticing. That might be one difference between us.

The other part of this, of course, is that the people I have had occasion to eat with on any kind of regular basis for the last 10 years or so have not been white. I have eaten regularly with Country X-ers and Indians and Mexicans. I have plenty of white friends, but I have never eaten more than the occasional dinner with them. The social occasions that involved food have been with people who typically eat spicy food. So that’s been my audience, and my “normal.” Her “normal” might be a lot more white and, on average, white people might actually eat less spicy food.

That seems to me like an issue for me since I have come here. In Country X, I adopted a lot of food kinds of habits that were comforting reminders of the past, and there were some things I have always done that might be different—different ways of preparing tea, for example (Country X, Indian, Eastern European). I was the only audience for this, so I didn’t think that much about it. Just it makes me feel better. I came back to the US, and a wider variety of foods became available and I wanted to try some other things, like that mayonnaise-y salad and that worked out well.

So I think it hits this wound for me: it intersects with being cared for by many people who came from many different cultures, and I was cared for by many people because my own family didn’t care for me. It’s a great thing to be open-minded, but it doesn’t feel great if your openmindedness comes from not having had a secure base in childhood.

We had avocado toasts for lunch. She and her mom both ate two of these little pieces of toast with avocado on them. Now, avocado is very fatty, and tends to be filling. So it might be reasonable to eat only two. I had four, and I still felt hungry. But her dismayed, “Oh….” After I came back to the table with two more kept me from eating anything else and I left the table hungry.

It intersects too with my feelings about hunger, that it’s very scary for me to feel hungry. I think, actually, that is probably the reason I become underweight when I am stressed. I find it scary to feel hungry, so I block out the feeling. Then I don’t eat, because I am not hungry. I find everything more frightening if I am already frightened about something else, and when I am frightened, it starts to seem unsafe to feel.

I am thinking just at this moment that there might be an element about the importance of food for my friend that has to do with a demographic that I actually know very little about. I was in a Whole Foods yesterday, and I walked out without buying anything. I just hated it. I am not saying it is bad to shop there or that people who like a high-end grocery store like that are doing anything wrong. For me, it was just too much. It was excess. I liked the simplicity of my life in Country X. I liked going to buy my vegetables from the farmers and usually getting whatever looked fresh or that I hadn’t just eaten the day before. I mean, the farmers might be selling only five kinds of vegetables that day, and I might get cabbage because I hadn’t eaten it in a while, or broccoli because it looked really fresh, or carrots because we don’t get them very often. I don’t know why I liked that part of my life, but I did. It felt like this enormous relief not to think that much about it, but just get on with life.

I think I am onto something here….

Part of being a woman, or at least part of being a woman of a certain social class (maybe this doesn’t apply to working class women) is a great concern with food. I think I have somehow missed this little news item. As a woman, food is essentially your domain. You are responsible for feeding your family and for providing interesting and appealing meals. I think food becomes a part of women’s culture and an interest in food is usually part of our identities. I vaguely remember this from college. I remember conversations about food, about restaurants, and that this was kind of weird to me. I think of my mom clipping recipes and bemoaning how difficult it was to create some variety in the meals she made us, and I feel I managed to miss something important about being a woman.

You shouldn’t have to conform to every little cultural norm, but I am not really a rebel. I am not rebelling against the fixation with food. I just couldn’t relate to it.

The thing is, if food is painful to you because the women who seemed to actually love you prepared a very different kind of food, then maybe you disengage with the whole issue. Maybe it’s something you end up thinking of as another job to be done, because it reminds you so acutely of loss and separation. Food is powerful, actually. I know coffee is powerful for me—that’s not a food, but it is a taste. It’s a smell. And it does remind me very powerfully of being very small and snuggled up against someone and nurtured and held and loved.

Maybe you disengage from food, if you lose the people who fed you.

Trauma Mind

I have been watching my mind fall apart for the last few weeks. Not continually. On and off.

I read up about it a little too, because I wanted to know what was happening.

There were two or three things I wanted to mention.

One of them is that people with PTSD usually have trouble concentrating and maybe it’s because the intensity of emotions of trauma direct your attention towards reminders of the trauma. Intense emotions signal to your mind THIS IS IMPORTANT. PAY ATTENTION.

And maybe that’s why the emotions are so intense in the first place: Your mind is making some notes: remember this shit; it almost killed you.

So if your mind is directing your attention to one set of things—because something like that almost killed you—and you are trying to direct your attention somewhere else because either you know in reality what is going on in the present is more important or because you have learned that avoidance is of the best coping skills you have, it’s going to be very difficult. It’s like trying to conjugate Polish verbs with a child screaming in your ear. Yeah, difficult.

The other thing is that trauma seems to increase impulsivity. Which makes sense. Strong emotions motivate you to act. Duh. They are supposed to. Right along with THIS IS IMPORTANT comes WELL, FUCKING DO SOMETHING.

But if the thing that comes to mind is not actually the most nuanced or effective response. Well. You might end up with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Some other thoughts about shame

The first thought I have is that, perhaps—just my musing here—childhood trauma survivors (in part) work really hard at “putting the past behind” them and “letting go of the past” because the person in the past—the child—felt ashamed. During abuse from your parents, you usually feel ashamed. Very, very ashamed. And you feel you are bad. It is not clear when you are 3 or 5 or maybe even 10 that there is a difference between perception and fact, or that it is possible to feel you are bad and have this feeling of shame inside you and have that be merely a feeling and not a reality.

Because of that, it can seem that letting yourself feel what it was to be this child and to be ashamed and to feel you are bad to the very core means that you are bad or were bad. It can still not be entirely clear to a survivor that shame is an emotion and the badness is a remembered perception and not a fact. It can feel that letting in those memories of feeling bad means you are bad or were bad.

If it helps you, you can tell that little child you are not bad and you didn’t deserve that treatment, but it isn’t going to change the memory. It has already happened—it’s over. And what you felt—I felt—as a neglected and abused child was bad. I felt ashamed and I felt lonely and I felt like I was very, very bad. I might not have felt that way all the time, but in those experiences when I felt neglected and abused, that is how I felt. It doesn’t mean I lost the struggle to survive or I was defending myself against the harsh reality that my main source of support were depraved lunatics. It means my mind was a recorder.

My parents’ behaviour communicated that I was worthless and bad, and that entered my mind as a felt sense, as an emotion. Just like I might remember the scratchiness of the carpet or the pain of a blow, I remember I felt ashamed. My mind recorded the emotions of the experience, and one of them was shame. So the reality that the emotion was trying to communicate to me is that my parents were treating me like shit.

Fair enough.

And this is fine. It is fine for me to remember this. My brain, actually, is trying to do something important. It is trying to integrate that feeling of shame with the rest of the experience so that in the present, when faced with a situation which might seem similar, it can see that the present situation is somewhat different and might not be life-threatening. When the pieces of the memory are not integrated, my mind cannot do that. It cannot find the other bits that might distinguish it from those childhood experiences and so I keep responding to the same bits that suggest my life is at stake as though it really is at stake.

So, maybe surprisingly, when I embrace (okay, tolerate, but let’s be positive about this) the feeling of shame I end up feeling better later, after the shame shower has passed on. Because the feeling of shame is something that happened, and I am starting to be able to contextualize it, and I can feel a little bit better that feeling ashamed does not mean I am bad or that I will be hurt. Sometimes I am reminded of the feeling of shame of the past because I have done something wrong in the present, or it seems to me that someone else might be perceiving I have done something wrong.

Then I can say, “Oh, yeah, they didn’t like that” or even “I don’t like that” and make constructive decisions about how to respond to that. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel shame or even that I don’t meander down memory lane into briefly hating myself and wanting to die. But it’s shorter and it also leads somewhere. It leads into something productive. Someday, I might even be able to skip the trip down memory lane, because I’ve been there so many times before, and I have seen everything there is to see.

 

 

Deportation

The culture shock is hard, but I also don’t understand what I am going through.

I went to a meeting of a political party today and voted for party representatives who will consider the party’s future direction. I have never done this before. I liked it.

But I also felt very scared. I came home, made lunch, took a nap, woke up again and began to realize I felt scared. I felt scared and like world was very hostile. No one liked me, and I needed to hide the things important to me from other people.

And I thought, “What did that?”

Well, the meeting probably. So I thought about that, how I felt. It was a crowded room, so there was that. Most people were white—this always surprises me. I don’t know why. Or maybe I am just used to looking around at brown faces. But I did feel that way in other situations, before I ever lived in Country X. I always have the feeling that a group of white people must be white because they kicked out all the brown people, and I am next. It’s just a feeling and there is not really any logic to it. The situations I would be in when I might have this sense aren’t bigoted.

I am also in the suburbs these days. Suburbanites have a certain look to them, regardless of race, and I associate this with whiteness, even though it is about class and not race. I grew up in the suburbs.

So there is that.

Anyway, I thought about how I felt more, and about this feeling of needing to wear a mask so I wouldn’t be discovered.

This is a childhood issue. I just had no explanation for it pre-Country X. I didn’t have enough memories of my traumatic past to come up with any explanation.

Now, it’s a little more possible.

The other thing is I now understand that my childhood impressions are going to be patchy. I don’t have coherent narratives that have been suppressed. What I have are bits of memories that have not been organized into narratives. I have smells and voices and camera-like images, emotions and physical sensations, thoughts and beliefs which have not been associated into coherent understandings of anything. I am not going to reach into myself and find a memory made of whole cloth. There is a lot of “What is this?” in there and it’s not because I don’t want to know. It’s because every time I thought of it, trauma reactions set in, my amygdala came online and my prefrontal cortex went offline and I couldn’t know. I have spent years doing a lot of deep breathing so that this doesn’t happen and I can remember things without my thinking mind shutting down.

This means I am more prepared for the way memories do surface. I think it used to scare me. Or I expected it to be easier to force them into narratives quickly. Something. Anyway, I don’t really expect for the things that do float up to make logical sense.

It seems to me, on the one hand, these are the feelings of a child who has spent a lot of time around people afraid of deportation, but who has this patchy mind, like I have, and does not know she cannot be deported. That would be the secret being kept—this feeling of being illegal—which would be attached to a life no one talks about or knows about, and it would feel to this child, “Well, they don’t know I don’t have papers.” Instead of, “They don’t know I grew up with people who were undocumented, and those people were all scared of being deported, so I felt scared too.”

That’s one piece of the puzzle. Time to make dinner now.

My parents’ minds

I have more to say. Jumbled, but I want to say it.

I made Olivier Salad—Russian salad, as it is sometimes called. It’s the kind of thing your Great Aunt Ethel might bring to a potluck. It strikes me as old-lady food from the 80s.

Anyway.

I have been wondering for years about a particular potato salad I feel like I half-remember. So I looked it up. I looked up a popular salad that was mayonnaise-y and called for potatoes and onions. I don’t know if that rings a bell for me or not. I don’t know if I even liked it. I did think it needed more pickles. Probably that is some of the problem with eating with other people: stuff gets called up and I can’t actually process it. I shut down the emotions to carry on a conversation.

But I did think it was interesting that this particular salad is a must-have for New Year’s for Russians, and here it is the fifth and I kind of have a craving for it.

The strength of my emotions sometimes, in my mind, seals my belief in what happened to me, or at least this kind of instinctive meander towards things.

We had Middle Eastern food last week for dinner and it made me want to cry. It brought up for me a very vivid memory of someone’s Arab mother bringing lunch for everyone at a preschool where I worked in college. It was the first time I had had Middle Eastern food, to my mind, and I remember it the way you might remember your first kiss. It makes me think Aisha or whatever her name was existed. Tabouleh has an impact on me I cannot otherwise explain.

Ditto for craving an old-lady salad.

But as I get closer to what happened to me, I have to also get closer to the emotions and perceptions that were part of that experience. I don’t think anything prepared me for that. I think psychodynamic therapy or my popular culture or my own biases or whatever prepared me to understand my mind as though it was a room sealed off from the world—as though my mind were basically just interacting with itself. But abuse occurs between people. Part of remembering abuse is remembering someone else’s mind—or at least one’s childish best guess at the perpetrators mind. If you’re a child, that will be stored as a perception not of that person’s view of you, but as a view of you minus the mind of the viewer as though the other person is an invisible actor in the social equation.

Traditionally, we talk about perpetrators as though they have no soul and no feelings. Of course, they felt things and thought things. As an adult who lived through childhood abuse, I don’t feel shame because it was easier to blame myself. That isn’t the reason. My parents abused me because they thought I had done something bad and wanted to punish me. Or at least that is what I thought they thought. My memory of shame is there because they felt—or I believed they felt—I was shameful. Behaviour communicates—imperfectly but still very loudly, and their punishing behaviour communicated a view of me as being bad or having done something bad.

Sometimes I see myself as evil, as hiding malignant intentions from myself. Yeah, that’s my mom’s mind. That’s my mom descending into her own trauma memories of someone bent on hurting her and seeing me in a way distorted by her past. She saw me as this enormous, malicious threat she needed to defend herself against. And that’s going to be a felt sense for me. I am going to remember that not as a conscious thought, but as a felt sense of myself.

One night recently, I couldn’t sleep because I felt so dreadfully shameful for caring about C. I felt like the world’s biggest chump. Well, that’s my dad’s mind. That’s my dad, growing up with a schizophrenic mother who probably tortured him, who cannot trust anyone, feeling contempt for and rage against someone who claims to feel warmth and presents themselves as altruistic. He believes, because of what happened to him, that trust itself is bad. Someone who makes you long to be able to relax and to trust is trying to trick you. His mother didn’t trick him intentionally, but her erratic behaviour made him feel betrayed. He punished the innocence in me because that was the part of himself—his own vulnerable child—who could not do other than to continue to reach, despite her unreliability.

That’s probably why he preyed on teenage, immigrant prostitutes. These were innocent girls who were “bad.”

Life goes on

Well.

I don’t really know what is going on in my head.

It might be—this just popped into my mind—that I am suddenly around other people all the time, and what is real for me is not real for the people around me. And that makes me see myself. This isn’t “us,” what is going on inside me. It isn’t average or typical. It is distinctly me. And if I grew up having “me” being a terribly shameful thing to be, then feeling uniquely myself will feel overwhelmingly shameful.

One thing on my mind lately is actually my mind. It is trying to keep my mind from breaking apart—I describe it that way, because that is how it feels. It basically just stops working. I can feel it, just a sense that synapses aren’t firing.

I was reading about trauma and memory, and trauma affects working memory. Stress affects working memory. It affects it generally, in a long-term way, where decreased myelination slows processing speed all the time, and it affects it in a short-term way where processing speed is slowed during stressful experiences.

Why that happens, I don’t know, but I notice it. I notice something very minor happens that makes me feel stressed and suddenly I can’t keep my shit together. It is not an emotional experience. It’s purely cognitive—it seems that way, anyway, because I can regulate my emotional reaction, but I can’t regulate my mind. Odd. Suddenly, I can’t seem to put my socks on before my shoes—not literally that, but things like that.

That’s not real for anyone else. It’s just part of not being a competent adult.

The thing is this has always happened, but I have been more able to use coping skills to prevent it: I become hyper-focused on what I am doing so that my mind can still manage what is coming in, even though what it can process has suddenly reduced. You can’t do that when you are around other people. They want attention. They talk to you and expect a response. You have to summon up an appropriate response to them. You can’t just narrow your focus to what needs to get done and to hell with other people. I have spent more time alone or less aware of potential judgment and criticism so the stress response is not triggered in the first place.

Overall, this might be good: as the level of challenge increases, I get to gradually rise to that challenge. In the short-term, it is hard on the self-esteem. It affects my sense of competence.

But it’s also not real to anyone else but me. I feel I am having some kind of trauma-related reaction to stress that is transient. Irritating, but transient, and something I am trying unravel (What was the trigger for that? What can I do in that moment to keep my mind still working?) For people around me, I am kind of flaky perhaps. Not a full-fledged grownup.

Yesterday, my friend asked if I knew about the dryer vent. Well, I am 43 years old. I know to clean the lint out of the dryer. Evidently, it had looked very clogged one day, and she thought I might not have worked out that I needed to do that. An olive pit fell in the garbage disposal that I hadn’t seen, and it made a noise for a second before I switched off the disposal, and she said, “I usually fish around down there to see if anything has fallen in.”

This is probably why I am in her house. Because that is how she sees me. Someone who, at middle age, can’t use a garbage disposal.

That may be neither here nor there. Or maybe it’s part of a larger issue that deserves its own post.

What I am getting at is that my mind cannot coordinate information under stress, and I can feel that and I am interested in that. To someone else, it wouldn’t seem that way. It would seem like my personality, because it doesn’t happen nearly as often when I am alone. At school, VP Ma’am once said to me I am a little bit like her: “a little bit panicky.” Well, I am not. Most people describe me as very calm. They have described me that way all my lie. But she is terrified a lot of the time, and she also attacks me without any warning. I find it hard to cope with the fear this creates for me.

Which is fine.

Except what I am getting at is I have to recognize that my views are different from the views of people around me. I have to see my uniqueness, that I have my own thoughts about myself and about the world. And it’s hard.

That’s an understatement.

I feel so ashamed suicide seems hard to resist. But I do. Don’t worry. It’s hard, and life goes on anyway.