All I Am

I thought of something this morning. Had a rough morning. I was running really late. I don’t teach first period, but I don’t come just as the bell rings most of the time. For teachers, there is usually some point before then that’s expected (and sometimes written explicitly into the contract). I don’t know when that is at my school—I’m just supposed to perform all of the duties of a “regular classroom teacher.” Anyway, I figure I’m expected to get there somewhat before the bell at 8:14. But I don’t always make it.

Today I think I got there at 8:30. Worst arrival time yet. Anyway, I didn’t get to school feeling especially proud of myself. I suppose that was bumping around in the back of my mind.

I was on the train. Suddenly I had a thought that children only know the feelings inside them. They don’t have a larger picture.

Let me back up.

So, emotional intensity affects your thinking. I haven’t read studies on this, but I can see it happening in my own mind. Emotional regulation affects cognitive errors, like confirmation bias. The more intensely I feel something, the more eagerly my brain will assemble confirming details and discard disconfirming ones. If I’m in a good shame-spiral, the number of examples of my wretchedness will be many and effortlessly accessed.

The parent is, typically, more regulated, their thinking is less affected by emotion, and able to hold in mind a larger picture. They remember, for example, the naughty little child did something cute an hour ago. The naughty little child won’t remember that. It doesn’t confirm the child’s momentary bias. It will be discarded.

In addition to helping the child to regulate, the parent has his larger picture of the child in mind, and this gives the child access to the picture—because the child’s mind is connected to the parent’s. But what if your parent is equally dysregulated? Well, then there is no larger picture—for either the parent or the child. It means in moments I felt shame as a child, the feeling of being a bad child was all I knew. I didn’t have that sense of a larger picture, that I feel bad at the moment, but that’s not all I am. I think that’s part of what is so painful about going back and processing memories of abuse. In the memories, whatever I felt was all I was. I don’t have access to a parent’s mind, assuring me that this is a momentary experience and the feeling is only part of me, only an experience I am visiting.

Compassion training

I read this article about a study on “compassion training.”

It made me feel better. When I am in a lot of distress, and I don’t know what to do, I feel helpless and it is easy for the distress to become overwhelming to me. If I feel it’s okay to direct acceptance, warmth and concern towards myself, I feel less powerless.

The good news, in my mind, is that I have basically infinite acceptance, warmth and concern to offer to anyone, myself included. As soon as I feel it’s okay to do that–and I don’t feel that something about my feelings is wrong or bad and I need to make them go away–things feel better.

I realize that’s what helps my students when they are struggling. It helps them dial things down. I need to set boundaries, but if I do whatever I need to do with an attitude of warmth and concern for them that is unfailing, it helps them to stabilize themselves in a lot of cases.

It’s the opposite of what I have kind of felt I ought to be doing, which is kind of set boundaries, take responsibility for your own problems, encourage other people to do the same.

I knew to “take care of myself” but the idea that this might involve feelings of warmth and concern didn’t dawn on me. And there it is. Studies have been done in it. It makes you feel better.

Bad weekend

I had a bad weekend. This was somewhat of a surprise to me. It never seems that way on Friday. I always leave school full of hope.

My friend is Abroad. She’s been Abroad for two weeks. She comes back tonight. I have been here with her daughter and her daughter’s now husband. They got married about a month ago, I guess. Just a simple, legal ceremony. A big wedding is planned for September.

I did not chat with C and didn’t call her. There is no one to call. I don’t quite understand this. I got a phone number off a friend of hers who calls me “sister” and it turned out to be a shop. She had nothing to say when I told her this.

Maybe I call all the time and they get annoyed. I have no idea.

C uses her boyfriend’s phone, but recently she hasn’t been. The friend I always used to call says her phone was confiscated by the matron.

My theory of impersonations was wrong. I really am chatting with C’s sister.

It throws me somehow that she seems to have warm and personal feelings for me. I never expected that. I don’t remember much of a sense of personal connection when she lived in Y-town. She ran off to play with her friends most of the time. I felt like a couch or a chair to her. Something that was there.

But I did try not to be the kind of asshole who only cares about one child in a family, and ignores the other children while fawning over the favoured one. I tried to interact with all four of the children like they were important human beings in their own right.

What I heard from others is that C was more neglected within the family. Sister has her ways of getting what she wants and needs that work for her, while C suffers silently.

I suspect that this more the dynamic in my family when we were younger. My sister was the people-pleaser and I had tantrums. To me, it seemed like my sister’s method worked better–at least she was liked and it seemed like she got more of what she wanted than I did. It felt like I had to fight for every scrap of warmth I got.

Maybe it didn’t work as well as I thought. The people-pleaser is never liked authentically. You end up feeling like a doll for people to play with and really unsure of who you even are.

So today I am grappling with this idea that all of the children in the family are being affected by a trauma I am not even sure of the nature of. Sister tells me she feels really alone, which I think is how C feels, although C doesn’t say so. Why would Sister feel alone if her feelings aren’t unheard and unseen just as C’s aren’t? It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, but it is.

It’s confusing to think about, because of course the family itself denies the nature of the trauma. Although I chat with C and C’s sister now and also C’s aunt, who lived with C until C was six or seven, people mostly pretend everything is fine and always has been. But they both seem so deprived. Both of them tell me they feel different from other people, and that their differences from others are not okay. Both C and her aunt seem to have these intense experiences of longing and loneliness that feel trauma-based to me. Where did it come from?

I don’t know.

But that’s not what made for a bad weekend. I just keep falling into these kind of holes of feeling terrible, feeling worthless, feeling that everything I do is wrong and basically no one will ever like me, what I am doing to get better is doomed and hopeless and the opposite of what I ought to be doing.

I am zeroing in on this idea that I have really intense separation distress. It’s so intense sometimes, it’s like insanity descending on me. I don’t actually know what one does about this. I have worked out that pushing through it, keeping up a stiff upper lip, and forcing oneself to go through the motions of “normal” activities doesn’t help.

I do think it all comes down to regulation.


I have found that once I dial emotions down to something more like average, it’s easier to figure out what they are.

That might not be the best place to start.

What I mean is emotions that are very intense, for whatever reason, are really difficult to make sense of. Once I get to the point of being able to actually feel them–I mean as sensations–and not just observable thoughts or behaviours, I still find them hard to even recognize. Partly because they just feel like torture. When I can get them a little more regulated, they start to feel more recognizably like the emotions I know how to name: anger or sadness or whatever.

I got something to dial down today and that happened. I began to see it as a combination of loneliness and shyness. I could see how I might feel that. It was prompted by something in the present, but I could see how it connected to a very young feeling, an infant feeling, that related to how it was to be within my family. A family where I needed to appeal to my parents for help and yet they were as unpredictable as strangers. For sure that’s fear, but there is something slightly different about it than, say, how I might react to a snake or a lion. Something social. I don’t know why I think  that, but there is something about the clenching in my stomach, the thing that once it calms down begins to feel like butterflies that is more like giving a speech than it is like fleeing an attacker.

So there is a loneliness and a longing coupled with anxiety and trepidation about reaching out. I feel this when I think about any kind of contact with C that’s sort of unknown or uncertain: I want to buy her something and I don’t know if she’ll like it, I call and I don’t know who will answer. She was online yesterday, and I wonder if she’ll be online today.

One of the things I have been thinking is that we all have the same basic emotions. It might be in the context of a different situation or different in the level of intensity, but fear is fear, anger is anger. So the feelings I had as a child connect to how I feel now, because that’s all I have. It’s not as though I only felt anger below the age of 13, and now I have kind of outgrown it, like acne or wetting the bed. These emotions connect my experiences.

As social creatures, we have the same range of perceptions about how people might behave. Someone cares, someone is betraying me, someone wants to hurt me. People didn’t stop wanting to hurt me when I became an adult. They still do. It doesn’t happen as often, because I don’t have as many impulsive, dysregulated people as ongoing parts of my day who act out their aggressions on me, but my students, for example, get angry. They specifically do things to hurt me when they are angry sometimes. They may or may not be successful in that, but as a social being, I can perceive that. I can see, this person is intentionally trying to hurt me.

It’s not the past repeating, but there are only so many emotions we are wired to have, there are only so many ways of relating.

Going back to that pair of emotions–loneliness and shyness–it’s still sinking in that my childhood was like that. I lived with people who felt as unknown and unpredictable as strangers to me, and I depended on them for everything.

I had these odd experiences lately: C’s boyfriend chatting with me and pretending to be C last Sunday, and C pretending to be her sister. What struck me about it was how clear her voice is to me. She has these recognizable parts, and there is something the same about parts across different people. A different kid’s pouty toddler sounds a lot like C’s pouty toddler, but it still feels to me that there is some sort of essence to C that is consistent across parts.

When her boyfriend chatted with me, and I thought it was C, it was terribly disturbing. Where did she go? It was a frightening feeling. Later, of course, I realized, well, it wasn’t her. And when C impersonates her sister, the way she chats still sounds like C. Her sister sounds different. Even if I only feel sure of her identity when specifics start to surface.

I don’t think I had a sense of my parents as having a consistent voice across experiences. I don’t think I could “feel” them as being recognizably themselves. And I think that’s why I experienced shyness with them. They were people I couldn’t really know.

Beyond bad abusers

I was reading something yesterday I can’t find again. I’m sorry about this.

It mentioned that a mind alone actually has to work harder than someone surrounded by other people. Groups of people work as a system, everyone trying to keep the group’s emotions regulated to a level that suits the needs of the group. Many hands make lighter work.

So, if I am having intense and difficult emotions, that increases the regulatory burden on other people around me, as my emotions are in a sense shared out among the people around me. I’m starting to understand this without judgment, mainly because I am really starting to see for myself how difficult my emotions are to manage–so it makes more sense to me that other people would find them difficult also. They are fucking hard.

I had this simple idea once–many months ago–that people could be understood as bad abusers who hurt me and good innocents who would help me. I am not excusing abuse, and I have had some new thoughts on that too. But we are all just trying to regulate, and I am starting to grasp that my difficult emotions aren’t just difficult for me. I didn’t create them or ask for them, but that doesn’t make anything easier on anyone.

There are times when people would like for me to just stop introducing my difficult emotions into their mental worlds. People with difficulty managing their own emotions or for whom my difficult emotions prompts connections for them to their own difficult experiences are maybe the most likely to feel that way.

That increases the mental burden on me, though. If I am trying to regulate my emotions while also trying to conceal them from other people, it’s a lot of work.

If I am trying to regulate very difficult and intense emotions while also regulating feelings of loneliness or fear of attack for having emotions no one around me understands or can relate to, then it’s terribly difficult.

It’s just a lot of work.

Some of regulation has to do with kind of knowing what the prompt for it is in the real world–trigger has this very dense and negative connotation. I am using a more neutral word purposely. If you are hypervigilant and constantly responding as though things are threats that other people don’t see as threats–aren’t threats and they have no idea why you would see them as threats–then there is no connection to ease the sense of threat.

I have a student like that. He’s really reactive to every little thing. Loud noises. He’s constantly communicating a sense of being threatened–jumping around, a lot of sudden movements. I think if I respond to, “What was that?” in a calm and soothing way (“That was a helicopter. It’s okay.”) that does something different for him than if I communicate I can’t figure out why he’s so reactive (“It’s just a helicopter. Calm down.”) I know why a loud noise could be very startling to someone who is hyper-alert to threat. He doesn’t lose connection to me in revealing his startled state, and he gets help with regulation instead of added stress.

I was chatting with C this morning. It was unclear for a while who I was chatting with–she was using her sister’s account. It sounded like C. I assumed it was. Then after the chat was over, I saw her sister had posted a selfie during the chat which I hadn’t noticed.

The chat-er–whoever it was–wanted 2 shirts and a pair of shoes. When I noticed the selfie, I began to wonder who I had promised them to. They live on different sides of the country and don’t wear the same size clothes.

It seemed a quandary.

Later, I chatted with whoever was using C’s sister’s account. The conversation veered towards this idea of being seen. I suppose I veered it there. We talked about how it felt for C that I mostly listen. She chatters to her friends, and I listen. Even when I don’t understand, I still listen, and even when I have no idea what the topic is, I have an idea of the emotional content–who is happy, who is sad.

When I do this, people frequently think I am bored. C’s peers might tell C to talk to me. She’s ignoring me, and I must feel bad. But that isn’t the way I feel. I am entering into C’s world, and it’s interesting. We talked about this feeling good for C, that I sit there and listen and imagine how she is feeling, and that experience of having someone imagine your feelings feels good. You feel supported and you also feel real, that you exist and you matter.

I started to think what I have actually done for C that mattered–that was a lot of it. It’s hard to do from a distance, but maybe the memory of it helps.

She ended up telling me she feels really alone. I said when she feels that way she can send me a message or write a letter and give it to my friend to mail to me. I thought if you can imagine someone entering into your world even when that person is not there, you also imagine their regulation strategies. You start to have more ways to regulate yourself, because you have added someone else’s tools to your toolbox. That’s what eventually happens for us as we grow up, I think. Our parents’ regulatory strategies become permanently a part of us, because they have entered into our imaginations. We learn them, and our parents become a part of us.

I think I have been doing that. I have had two genuinely caring people in my life: Nata and my foster mother. A few years ago, I began to really lean on their memories to comfort myself in times of stress. What was hard about this was also confronting the loss. I am imagining them because they aren’t here anymore. I think the grieving was worth it.




Some moments

I had a couple of moments of realization today.

One of them was during fifth period. I co-teach this class with a special ed teacher. He is a genuinely great guy, and I feel lucky to work with him.

He was doing something, getting starting on teaching the lesson. I suddenly had this moment where I felt like straightening up his stuff. It was a kind of disorganized impulse. I just felt like doing something.

I connected at that moment to C picking lint off me, the way she used to suddenly do. I would be talking to her, and suddenly she’d find a thread or a bit of grass on me and kind of swoop in to take it off my clothes.

I had a feeling, a kind of warmth in my heart, and I felt like straightening his stuff, and that’s what C was feeling when she picked lint off my clothes. I hadn’t really been able to understand what she felt in those lint-picking moments, but they had seemed significant to me, and now suddenly I got it. She felt like taking care of me, and it came out of a sense of my being precious to her—as in, this is my important person, and I want to take care of them. Just as we take care of our important possessions in a way that is different than the way we take care of possessions we don’t place any value on.

The second moment I had was at the start of class. The kids were wound up, as they often are on Wednesdays, when we have meetings in the morning and don’t start class until after 9:30. I just had impulse to tell someone what to do. Lots of them needed to be told something. But I realized my impulse to exert more control didn’t come from what they needed me to do. It came from my feeling of discomfort. I was responding to my discomfort by wanting to exert control, and it had nothing to do with what might get them back on track again. Effectiveness wasn’t figuring into that impulse. I just wanted to be safe. I was surprised to notice that. Not surprised that I do it. Just surprised I noticed.

The third moment was about the Wild Boy I have in my second period. I have mentioned him before. He has a diagnosis of emotional disturbance. The information I have on him literally says, “has unusual feelings and behaviors during ordinary experiences.” Well, that does happen. But I think it’s disorganized attachment, and he is in parts. The advice I had about him early on was to talk to him like a “young adult.” Meaning, indicate to him that his Apparently Normal self needs to get control again.

I have not done that. I talk to him seriously and in earnest, but I clearly acknowledge the feelings he is having. I don’t try to indicate to him, either verbally or non-verbally, that he needs to armor himself up more and pretend to be normal. I talk to him about the consequences of his behavior, what happens to me or to others when he acts that way, but I don’t give the message that we need to pretend all is normal or well.

Anyway, today was pretty rough. He had lost his keys and his spinner in the morning, and I know what that feeling of “something is missing” is like for kids like him. It’s like that for me. Losing things fills me with terror. So I get it. I get that that’s hard.

He threw a banana peel out the window, walked around restlessly around my room, threw my cup of water out the window (not the cup, just the water). It was hard. The hardest part is getting the other kids in the class to shut up just at the moment when he’s about to calm down. What they like to do is jump in and say something dysregulationg just when he’s about to dial his emotions down again and start to feel safer. Not every kid. Maybe half. I’ve made a lot of progress with this in the class, and it’s better than it was, but I suppose some of them still feel that this isn’t the right way to handle it. What we need to do is show how angry and upset we are with his behavior. It must be he’s acting like this because he doesn’t realize we’re mad.

I watched a video the other day about parenting trauma kids and there’s this line in it, “Your kid has never gotten upset and dysregulated and slipped up and accidentally given you a backrub, have they? They know what is right and wrong.”

He knows he’s pissing people off.

I suddenly realized, watching this process of trying to help him regulate again while other kids repeatedly pushed him back into dysregulation, and I realized this is actually about that process. He feels vulnerable, and the first thing we think about when we feel vulnerable is that we need to get our guard back up. In my class, he is sliding into some connection. He’s participating in the class in a positive way—not while he’s throwing bananas out the window—but he is. He’s showing himself a little bit, and he’s scared. The fear is what is doing that.

It’s what happened to C last year, before midterm when I used to visit her three times a week. I came, she felt vulnerable, because her connection to me is this precious thing to her, and she began to imagine every kind of attack. The girls will say things, the matron will get angry, I might see something I didn’t like and get angry at her.

Meanwhile, I felt vulnerable too, and some of the time I was paranoid and controlling. I tried to keep it under wraps, but I could feel it as I walked up there. Shit, I’m losing my mind. And in some situations, I began to imagine the girls were sneaking alcohol into the hostel, they were experimenting with drugs. All of these things could have been true, but I was paranoid because I felt so vulnerable. Sometimes I did criticize C for things—a bookmark a friend had given her covered in pro-drug use statements, which may or may not have meant anything to her. I mean, I want her to have some sense and take care of her brain and her body, but that’s not why it went on.

We felt vulnerable, and that’s what we did.

The weirder thing is other kid’s reactions to it, and I wonder if it actually is because people don’t want to confront their own feelings of vulnerability. They don’t want to reach inside themselves and connect to those experiences where they felt vulnerable too, and it seems easier to get you to stop doing things which remind you of those vulnerable times.

None of it was horrible: Mostly telling C to be nicer to me. But it’s possible that’s where it came from.

I get where that came from now, why C was so angry. I feel vulnerable. I feel like I might lose something or I might be showing a part of myself someone will hurt. That’s where the acting out starts in. That’s where banana peels get thrown out the window. You’re gearing up to defend yourself and you just haven’t worked out how or what.

About connection

So one way of looking at shame is as the emotional experience of submission. The other way of looking at it is as the fear of a loss of connection to other people: that if I do this or think this or feel this, other people will no longer be able to understand me. And these ways of looking at it are connected: people tend to approach moments of difference and loss of connection as a threat, so that they display positions of dominance and submission in order to navigate the feeling of threat.

A part of this is the feeling of surprise: someone behaves differently or thinks differently than we expect, and we feel surprised. If we like that surprise, then the feeling might evolve into delight. Think about travelling or being exposed to a new culture (for you).

If you don’t like the surprise, then it can lead towards contempt and disgust, ridicule and judgment. Those are behaviours of dominance.

Anyway, today I was thinking about shame in terms of the fear of loss of connection. I’m still reading this book, Daring Greatly, and it has made more sense to me than maybe anything else I have ever read.

One key point of it is that was sometimes approach feelings of vulnerability by trying to never land ourselves in situations where we might have them. We might approach shame by trying never to end up in situations where we might feel shame, and it’s deadening to do that.

I’m going to try to be perfect, so I never need to face judgment. I am going to be completely competent, so that I never need help or have to risk being refused help. I am going to tell myself the universe will care for me so that I don’t have to face my uncertainty about the future.

I was in the kitchen yesterday making dinner. I was making North African food. This is meaningful for me. It’s a connection to the past, however vague, that is powerful for me. My friend came into the kitchen to do some things. I can’t really remember what. She was sweeping up in the livingroom, and walking through the kitchen to throw the dog hair in the rubbish bin.

I felt terrified. It was incredibly difficult to keep track of where I was in making three different dishes while managing my terror. I thought I feel vulnerable. That’s what this is about. That’s why this is so terrifying. I am displaying a part of myself not meant for public consumption that I don’t expect her to understand–if she feels something positive about what I am doing, it will be the delight of something unexpected, and that’s alienating and painful for me.

I thought she’s doing completely legitimate things. I didn’t say anything about my discomfort. She swept and eventually went away. The terror stayed with me a long time and probably because of that, nothing I made turned out right.

The weirder thing is I was writing this, and she came at the precise moment the laundry finished up and asked if it was done–my room is next to the laundry room, and I had finally thrown a load in after a morning of the washer being occupied. I heard the washer stop and I thought, I’ll wrap up this sentence and then take care of it.

The terror was the same as it was in the situation I was writing about. I have some thoughts about this. But for right now I’ll just comment that it’s weird.

Anyway, I have thought the parts have something to do with this avoidance of vulnerability.

Sometime in the night, I suppose it was at bedtime, I thought in response to my nighttime sadness, I feel vulnerable. That’s why I feel this way. As an adult, the moment of sleep is vulnerable. Of course, it is. It’s the moment of completely letting down one’s guard and losing awareness of the world.

Vulnerability is not the exclusive province of children. Adults feel vulnerable about different things, but they still find themselves in situations of uncertainty, when risks are necessary, and when they don’t quite know what might happen next. They still feel worried about losing connection to others. They feel ashamed and guilty and lonely. Adults feel all of those things.

I imagined these as the exclusive province of child parts, because I did not think as an adult it was acceptable for me to feel these things. I don’t think, as a child, I realized the adults in my life did feel these things. Everyone was so busy trying to stay safe and trying to cope with difficult emotions by avoiding moments when they might not feel safe, that they behaved as though they had no idea what feelings of vulnerability might entail. I mean they vacillated between moments of overwhelm and what on earth are you talking about? I can’t even relate to your feelings of vulnerability, because my own are shoved down so far inside me.

I have been realizing with C and in my classroom, I really have to dig into myself in order to imagine their experiences. Even though they may not be the same circumstances, I have to tap into the box of circumstances in which I felt the emotions they are feeling. Sometimes this is really difficult, and it’s probably more difficult for me than for someone with a less painful life, because that box of painful feelings is just so painful.

But if I don’t do that, if I can’t reach inside myself to the moments when I felt like the same emotions they are having, I can’t relate to them or help them. My ability to imagine their experience and provide connection and support to them breaks down, and I lose the ability to empathize with them. To connect to other people, I have to stay connected to myself, and that is sometimes very hard.

I’ll give an example. A kid in my 6th period just asked me when mother’s day was. Now, he’s a happy, stable, cooperative kid. There’s a good chance he’s asking simply because he doesn’t want to forget to do something for his mom.

If I reach into my Mother’s Day box, I have foster mom is gone, my mother is a lost cause, I had a miscarriage and I’m not a mom to my baby because it died, I am mothering a child in another country with a traumatic past I wonder how to mother on a daily basis. It’s a shitty box.

It also has nothing to do with what is most likely in his box. We aren’t bonding over similar traumas. It’s a simple question.

But if I refuse to open up that box for a second and feel whatever is in it however briefly, and I instead resort to numbing, I also lose my connection to this kid. You cannot selectively numb. I can answer him on autopilot, but I lose that faint spark of joy involved in interacting with human beings.

Those sparks of joy are what carries us through the hard times. If I am numbing myself through the good times, there is nothing to get me through the hard times, and life becomes overwhelmingly bleak.

In the last few years, I have really changed my attitude, and now it feels completely the opposite of what my assumptions were about being psychologically healthy ten years ago. I am no longer trying to put the past behind me. I am not trying to avoid the loss of connection that comes with having a past that’s different from others and might be difficult for them to understand. I am reaching into it in order to help myself understand the experiences of others and to forge connections to them.

This doesn’t always mean confiding in anyone or off-loading my intense emotions on others. It means something quieter. It just means I see someone who seems to be feeling hopeless, and I reach into myself to those moments when I have felt hopeless even if those moments of hopelessness involve unimaginably horrifying experiences so that when I interact with that person, I can approach them with the dignity that comes from knowing I have been there too. It sucked. I hated it. I don’t want to ever go to that place again, but I have been there and I know what it’s like.

It doesn’t mean saying, “Hey, I know how you’re feeling. When my sex trafficked girlfriend got murdered I felt the same way.” It just means if that’s what happens to cross my mind in the context of hopelessness, I cope with that. I let the emotion of hopelessness flicker through me even though it’s painful, so that the person I am talking to can see that I get it and they aren’t entirely alone.

I think this is what healing looks like. It’s when you realize actually it’s possible people around me can’t understand my experiences and because of that they respond to my need for connection in the face of my pain by acting like I am defective. Because people do. We see people we don’t understand as being defective, generally. That doesn’t mean I am defective. It doesn’t mean I need to become someone like I might have been had the trauma never occurred. What I need is to be able to stay connected to myself and to others, by understanding my own experiences and using that as a springboard for understanding others’.

I did that this week. On Thursday, we had a meeting–which I think I mentioned–with the kid and her mom who has been failing basically everything. The person who called the meeting–her counselor? I came in late, it was a really hectic day–said if she were going through what the kid were going through, she wouldn’t be able to sit in class and concentrate. She offered the opportunity to take breaks, not really thinking she’s offering avoidance as a solution, and she’s also not really thinking how it feels to be a 14-year-old girl allowed to leave class whenever she wants to when no one else is. This is not a neutral solution.

I am not saying there is a perfect solution, but I did think, the counselor as well-meaning as she is has never thought how it feels to be told in your situation it’s not really possible to cope.

She’s just not been in a situation that allows her to fully empathize with this.

So what I said to the child is that if you feel supported and that your teachers know this is not an easy time for you and want to help you, it might start to be more possible to sit in class and concentrate. Feeling supported and cared about through your hard times can really help a lot.

The other way my new attitude showed up for me was today, while I was chatting with C’s aunt. We talked a little bit more about C’s childhood and the circumstances of her birth. I may not have said this, but C’s aunt is in her early 20s. They grew up together more as siblings, and C lived with her grandparents and this aunt until she was seven. What I hadn’t really known was that her mother and stepfather left C behind when C was about 18 months old.

I was just thinking what this must have been like for C to lose daily contact with her mother at an age when kids typically experience a lot of separation anxiety–it can’t have been smooth sailing even before then, because C has so many symptoms of trauma and disordered attachment.

And I was also thinking what it must have felt like for C’s aunt to lose what was essentially her youngest sibling when she was in about 7th or 8th grade.

I just asked the aunt if she had been really sad when C went to live with her mom and stepdad. I asked her if she cried. And I just said I was not with my parents for a while, and my sister really missed me just like you missed C.

Then I asked what people told her when she cried because she missed C. The usual thing Country Xers say: it’s natural and part of life. I asked her if she felt it wasn’t okay to be sad when people said that to her, because it’s also natural and part of life to be sad. And I told her when we feel alone with our sadness, it feels unbearable. It’s the loneliness coupled with sadness that’s so terrible. Because I was thinking people say that kind of thing as though they don’t feel sad during times of loss also. Of course, they do, but they aren’t reaching into themselves to use that experience of facing loss to connect to you during your time of loss. When they can’t do that, we lose the most sustaining force there is, which is the feeling of being connected and being understood.

I told the aunt you can tell me when you feel sad, just like I tell you when I am sad (because I do tell her how much I miss C.) I said, “You don’t need to feel so alone.”



I mentioned the feeling of a clenched heart I’ve had the last few days. It’s still there. It doesn’t really let up. I can numb it and while I’m doing that, forget it in favour of something more present and pressing, but I know it has not gone away. I woke up that way. I had terrible dreams: men were hitting me with a shovel, a building was on fire. I woke up with the ache in my heart, and only after a while did the dreams come drifting back to me.

Well, I was thinking about that feeling. Just being with it for a while. I don’t know what has set it off, what it’s about. I don’t know what to do about it either.

Eventually, I started to think this feeling is loneliness. What I mean is this feeling of separation distress is the same feeling of loneliness.

I’ll back up.

In moments of trauma, my parents were there and I couldn’t turn to them, because they were the source of the danger, or they were indifferent or unhelpful. I have been thinking my trauma experiences are laced with that feeling of wanting to turn to someone, wanting to reach out for help and needing to restrain that urge. It’s intense.

That’s not loneliness, that’s please god somebody help me. But the emotion is the same emotion we call loneliness. It’s there for a different reason and loneliness is not as intense as please help me I’m going to die. But the felt experience of the emotion is the same.

I was able to make that connection and I think these connections help in some way. I don’t know why, but I think organizing the experience does help, and this organizes it. Connecting similar experiences organizes them.

I think sometimes I feel that sense of loneliness because there is something I feel unable to express.

To explain that a little more clearly, I think one of the issues I had growing up was that my parents did not recognize I had my own inner world, my own thoughts and feelings that were uniquely my own. That’s generally a problem with children from traumatic backgrounds: it doesn’t magically disappear in adulthood. It’s difficult for traumatized children to recognize that people are guided by their own inner worlds, or that they are in fact guided by a world inside them. People are like machines for them, just goal-oriented.

My theory on Freud is that he was a narcissist. What he writes sounds to me like someone who is not aware that people have their own inner worlds, and so the analyst cannot listen to someone’s telling of a life story or a dream and tell that person the meaning of it, because his access to that inner world comes through the person telling it. It’s like he had no idea how people thought or felt and he wanted a codebook.

That said, it’s interesting to me, because he uses a lot of machine metaphors. Someone who does not understand that people have inner worlds of their own would see people generally as being machine-like.

Anyway, so my parents did not see my inner world. They saw me like a machine, just acting out in the world, without anything inside me. Or they were so overwhelmed by their own inner worlds that my world could not figure into their thinking. There was this massive deficiency in being able to imagine the inner experiences of others.

That’s narcissism. Narcissism isn’t self-love. It’s this idea that people aren’t aware of the inner worlds of others. They might be aware of their own, but they don’t know other people are aware of the inner world of inside them. It’s being a sender of information, without any way of knowing whether that information has been received, because they have no receiver within them, no way of knowing what other people think and feel.

That’s my definition at any rate.

So I think some of these times when I feel this clutching in my heart, it’s because there is something I want to communicate and I don’t know how. I don’t know how to express it or how to get the person I want to express it to understand. I think there are times when I feel it because I want to express to C that I care about her, and I can’t quite figure out if she’s taking that in. I don’t know if I have expressed it in a way she understands, because what comes back to me is not always about me. It’s “I’m afraid of your rejection and judgment. I’m afraid you will betray me or leave me. I’m afraid this won’t last, so I don’t want to get too used to it.”

I think when I am not there with her in any way, she communicates to others that she feels cared about. A classmate says C participates in class and is doing better than herself. What level of performance that means, I don’t know, but what I’m getting at is that C feels a level of confidence to speak up at school, and I think that comes from feeling there is more of a secure base.

I’m sorry this post is all over the place. I just haven’t had time to work this out, but it helps me to share it.

My other thought is that the clenched feeling may also have something to do with things seeming to be a green light for Country X next year, in some capacity. I don’t know where I’ll be exactly, and the process I would predict will take until October or November, but it seems to be headed in the right direction. And there is that internal debate over what that means: what does it mean to rearrange my life for a child?

There are many reasons I might like to go back to Country X, but the tipping point is C.

I was reading an article about “Loving a taker.” Well, it’s clearly about someone with BPD or something like it and a traumatic past, and the moral of the story is sort of don’t love them, because they take everything you have.” I flash back to my own shitty relationship and to therapy during that period, which was mostly focused on the relationship. A lot of it was how do I take care of myself? Withdraw from the relationship. Don’t expect so much from it. Just do what you need to do. So I wonder if now I am doing the right thing. I suppose there is some distrust going on. Will C drain me dry?

In my head, the answer to that debate is that this is helping me. I’m exhausted a lot of the time. I can’t sleep sometimes. My entire torso seems to be full of pain this week. But I feel more authentically myself at school and with my colleagues. I feel more that people want to be around me. I don’t know if they really do or not or how it compares to who it was in the past, but I think my own sense of my world matters. I feel more liked than I used to. Whether I am or not matters less than the perception of being liked. I feel like I’m keeping an awful lot jammed inside, but that I am still able to connect with people better in spite of this. I might have behaved in the same way before, but I am more able to see when I am connecting.

Anyway, the answering thought is that this is hard, but this is growth.

There is the other argument in my head about it: never love someone who can’t love you back. A lot of the time, I think C loves me, but she’s not an equal. She doesn’t meet my needs. I don’t ask her to, and I am not entirely confident that she always even sees me as someone with my own inner world. I am at times, I would guess, the provider of cash and warmth. So is this self-sacrifice?

It comes back to that same idea that this seems to be helping me.

Maybe that’s what I want to communicate. It’s helping me. I don’t know why. And I want to go.

Different lately

A couple of interesting things are going on in my mind lately.

One of them is that I have felt different for the last three days. I don’t know why. I wasn’t aware of much different over the weekend. I was sick on Monday—it was Teacher’s Day in Country X and some of the kids said nice things to me on Facebook. C did not say anything nice to me, but I remembered she did last year and that this day represented some degree of loss and longing. She was close to IT Ma’am who went to Australia the year before last and hasn’t come back yet. It seems as though this year, they have lost touch. Now, IT Ma’am had a baby in the fall—that might be the reason. But she’s also easily offended and punitive. A kind and authentic sort of person, who doesn’t gossip, doesn’t lie and I trust in a lot of ways. However, if C doesn’t receive her phone calls, she’s pissed. And she also kind of keeps it safe with C, doesn’t show vulnerability with her, actually is not real. On one occasion, she complained to me that they basically have the same conversation and it’s boring. Didn’t cross her mind that it might not be boring for C, and that being remembered and thought of might mean something to C, even if all they ever say is I’m fine, my family is fine. She doesn’t express her anger very much, but it might come back in ways like you didn’t take my call, so I won’t call again.

Anyway, on Teacher’s Day, C may feel that. I was aware of missing C and of generally missing my Y-town students, missing the predictableness of the program even though a lot of it is so predictable it is boring.

Tuesday, I was back at school again, feeling quite normal, which is nice. Except all day, I knew I was bunged up inside. I knew I was numbing my feelings. I knew my heart was all clenched up with longing, and I was numbing it to get by.

Today is Wednesday, and I am not numbing as much, but I am some. Some of that longing is still there.

I don’t know what’s going on with me, why the trigger is more intense lately, what set that off, what the longing is for or about. I don’t feel I have any solid information about my emotional state. It does feel like if I had a chance to relax, I would just cry. The loss just feels so great, but I don’t know what loss I am thinking about.

The other thought on my mind lately has been that the worst has already happened for me. I was reading a book by Brene Brown: Daring Greatly. There was a passage in it about a man she interviewed in her research whose wife had died in a car accident. He said before then, he had kind of always held his breath, not really been willing emotionally to risk fully engaging in life, because he felt he might lose it. There is no logical connection in that, but you might know what he means or have done it. Kind of like this is so great I don’t want to jinx it by enjoying it too much.

The thing is Nata died. The worst has already happened for me. I lost the person who meant everything to me. And for me I think it kind of means I know what it really feel like to lose the person you love. When someone is really important to us, we do sense our vulnerability. The thought of everything that could happen to them does run through our minds. Brene Brown interviewed parents, and many of them mentioned moments when something special happens with that child and they tap into that feeling of how wonderful and precious their child is, and what runs through their heads are visions of their children having horrible accidents or suddenly falling deathly ill.

But I know very intimately what something like that might feel. I’m extending myself into the world carefully these days, forming connections, letting C and other people become important to me. And I know exactly how it feels to lose someone who is genuinely significant to me. It’s deathly. Nata died and it was like dying inside.

In the past, I think I have tried to cope with this by never being vulnerable again, by trying to maintain certainty that it can’t happen, it won’t happen. They can’t die. Well, murder is unlikely, but people do die. I know how it feels when someone important to you dies. I know how it would feel if C died. It would feel like there was no point in life anymore. It would feel like the pain of this is so great, I can’t risk feeling anything, and the lights would pretty much go out in my life. No matter how great my coping skills got, it would still feel that way for a while.

Because it does. It absolutely does feel overwhelmingly terrible when a child or a parent or a significant other dies.

And I’m risking that. I know how it feels, and I’m risking it anyway.

I’m doing it, to some extent, because that keeps Nata alive for me. That keeps Nata inside me. Understanding how the value she placed on my life and my future made a difference for me is communicated to me for the benefit of myself through the value I place on the life and the future of another child who has been traumatized and needs help just like I did. It’s like telling myself I know you’re a mess in some ways. I know you have all kinds of pain inside. I know relationships are hard for you. I know you have all of these problems with regulation and it makes it hard to even think straight, but you’re worth caring about. You aren’t a hopeless case. No one makes a sacrifice for someone who has no hope of being a decent future anyway.

Just like those things are communicated through my actions of taking care of a child with all of the same issues. It’s like saying, I know this was worthwhile, I know I matter, and I know it was worth doing.  I know it so clearly I am willing to do the same thing.

I know I was worth it.

It’s hard to stay with that, partly because I feel so vulnerable in doing that. I don’t have any interest in being a martyr. I don’t want to put others before myself. I don’t think sacrificing your needs makes you a better person.

At the same time, I have this profound sense I ought to be doing something else. It makes me feel, in a way, that I have the wrong priorities. I ought to want different things. I could want achievements. I could want relationships. But this is about my relationship with myself. I take care of C in part because it improves my relationship with myself. I can’t explain this adequately. I end up feeling I am talking in circles. How is this different from being enmeshed? How is this different from getting a sense of self-worth by taking care of someone else rather than yourself?

I don’t know the answer. I know there are guidelines that are important.

Am I using other people as objects in order to meet my goals? Or am I treating the people who support me through what I’m doing as people with their own inner lives, who have their own priorities and goals they might prefer to attend to? Do I interact with people as individuals who have a value all their own, or do I consider them as sources of a service I need?

When I need help am I grateful?

Do I use aggression, emotional blackmail, the threat of my dysregulation or anything else coercive to get what I want? Or do I allow people the freedom to make choices?

People in codependent relationships, perhaps—this is my thought—don’t observe these guidelines. They use various kinds of aggression and coercion to get what they need from others, just as the person they are involved with coerces them. I don’t think codependence is about lack of a focus on the self. It’s about how much aggression and force are used to manage the relationship, in place of cooperation and trust. The partner seeking help is usually responding to the coercion: I feel like I have to help my partner, because otherwise my partner does things that make me lose my shit, and I feel coerced into over-extending myself.