Worry

The laundry is done. I swept the floor. I had breakfast and lunch and a nap and now I’m hungry again. I am supposed to visit an English teacher today. She is Maths Ma’am’s cousin. We did not set any particular time and, to be honest, I am probably over-taxed at the moment. But I feel like having social time again. I have been living in this world that is just me and horrifying memories and C and not a lot else. It wasn’t a lot else because I couldn’t handle anything else. I was maxed out with those issues alone. I am probably still maxed out.

But people are so nice to be around sometimes.

I am going to ask VP Ma’am to get the bank details for me. I can get them from C’s dad: he is educated and speaks English well, but men get their pride hurt when people give them money and, continuing with this idea of playing it safe, I don’t want to talk to him and risk any problems. Also, he seems to spend weekends getting drunk. Evidently, he was here when C’s family was loading up all their possessions in the truck to head off to Timbuktu. (I think I’ll call it that: their new home is in Sticksville. It’s a place you get transferred to when you have been bad.) But he was dead drunk.

VP Ma’am can call up C’s mom and ask about it on my behalf. C’s mom does speak English, sort of. Not well. Things get all confusing sometimes and bank details might get complicated. So that’s the plan. When I am a bit more revived from post-nap haze, I’ll call her up and ask her to do that for me.

I woke up from my nap with a thought. It’s interesting how things seem to be getting processed when I sleep in the day. The day before yesterday, I woke up and, unconsciously, had this idea that I should reach out to C. As it turns out, that instinct was correct. It’s the 6th now. School starts on the 15th. It took 2 days to sort out what to do. Meanwhile, there are these other things: making sure C has a place in the dorms, getting money to her parents for C’s 2-3 day trip to Y-town, her parents arranging for the taxi.

The thought I woke up with is that the reason I can’t seem to stop worrying about C for more than a few days at a time is that I don’t acknowledge worry as a part of adult life. It’s this constant surprise to me. Why am I worried so much? My brain keeps sending the message to me to worry because the message is always NACK. Not acknowledged.

Well, I am worried because there is someone who depends on me and that I have some degree of responsibility for. I worry because actually I am trying to navigate a language barrier and a cultural difference, which makes for not an insignificant communication complication. She depends on me, but I am never entirely clear what she needs me to do.

In this case, does she need me to lay off and let her study at the school of her choice? Was Timbuktu really her choice? Or does she need me to solve the bus ticket problem? I think now she needed me to solve the bus ticket problem, but the morass of things it could have meant she needed me to do was thick indeed.

No one is going to die if I don’t take care of her, but it might be her whole education on the line. At lunch yesterday, VP Ma’am asked me, if C is in Timbuktu, will she pass in Class 10, do you think? No, she won’t. I don’t think there’s more than a very slender chance of it. Will she here? Maybe. Give it 50-50.

She has a learning disability. Her life is consumed with being the parent of two adults and three children. I have the power to give her a chance she would not otherwise have in life. This is not a small deal. As much as I want to assure myself that whatever happens is okay, there are real things to worry about. The problem is that I don’t stop worrying, because no one has ever depended on me before in my adult life. I am continually surprised by it, and the worry never fully registers in my mind as something that is there for a reason and I ought to attend to it. I do attend to the problems, but I never take in the fact of the worry completely. So it keeps coming back in this intense and unpleasant way.

Worry is normal. People do it all the time. I would worry less if I could accept that.

 

End of Act I

Yesterday turned out to be busy. In the morning, VP Ma’am called me up. (She is not VP anymore, but if I change the name, you really will not be able to keep them all straight). She had some paperwork to take care of at the Government Building and wanted company. I washed up quickly, got dressed, and waited. After a while, she called me again. She was at the bank, which is near my house. I went to meet her and we walked up together.

VP Ma’am is my friend. I don’t tell her the frightening details of my struggles, but I do talk to her. She is one of two or three friends here that I really tell the truth to, at least the truth in an emotional sense. If it is driving me crazy that the National Language teacher is sitting outside the classroom chatting with his girlfriends while my students throw paper airplanes and generally avoiding learning, I eventually vent to her. She has also been C’s neighbour for the last six or eight years.

So I told her what had gone down with C. the abbreviated version. Not the exchange of texts with some friend or neighbour or cousin of C’s. That does not reflect very well on C. VP Ma’am mostly said let her go. C doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing for her; she isn’t worth the bother. That is really what any Country Xer would say. They are skilled in sour grapes. But it hurts me. In real time, I cannot process that, but later I realize it. C is the most precious human being in the world to me, and my friend is saying she has no worth. It’s dreadful. At the same time, it is also not true. C does appreciate me. I know that she does, but she has all of these other pressures on her. She is also scared. Things end up getting jumbled up in our relationship.

The last time I saw C, we were arguing, as you remember. I was not behaving like a sensible adult. You remember this.

C made tea. The neighbours who helped them move were all sitting in the empty livingroom drinking beer and I guess there were one or two people not drinking. She made tea for them and for me. So she poured tea for me and gave it to me, but I was angry at her. I didn’t want her tea. I was sitting then in the window sill in the kitchen with her. C put the tea in the window sill next to me. This is not Country X politeness. If I say I don’t want tea, C will ask why and I will say I am not in the mood or I just drank tea at my house or my stomach is hurting or whatever. Then she doesn’t give me any. This was a different gesture.

Later, I went to sit in the livingroom—everyone had gone then. Only her mom was left and I sat with her, not speaking. C brought the tea and set it next to me. When I went back into the kitchen again, I left the tea sitting there.

After C and I had really fought and things had cooled down again, C was cleaning up. She brought the tea from the livingroom, or maybe I saw it and remembered. Anyway, then she wouldn’t let me have it. “It’s cold.” She poured the cold tea down the “sink” (actually a concrete square on the floor) and heated the tea left still in the pan for me.

In other words, she does care.

VP Ma’am also said she would talk to C or to C’s mom or both. We finished up VP Ma’am’s business in the Government Building, walked down the hill again, bought her bus tickets, and then I went to her house for lunch. Around 3, she was going for a haircut, so we walked together in the direction of my house and then parted ways.

I lay in bed when I got home, having slept badly and exhausted from the day with VP Ma’am and really not getting time to process the previous day. I tried to sleep and couldn’t. I cried some. I managed to have some thoughts about things. Around 6:30, I finally got it together again. Math’s Ma’am was having an annual blessing for their house. I was supposed to go around six. I started calling around to see who else might be going. No one was going. I finally landed on a teacher who was, got cleaned up again, and went.

I was just outside Maths Ma’am’s house when VP Ma’am called. She said, “It’s good news. They are searching for a vehicle now. C is coming. She relayed some of the rest of her conversation with C’s mom—VP Ma’am did not speak to C. I don’t really know why C said she did not want to come back to Y-town. Maybe it really was the bus tickets. A taxi all the way from where her family lives now to Y-town is very expensive. Maybe she did not feel she could ask for her parents to arrange for that, and then she found all the reasons in her mind why this was the best plan anyway. Maybe she got to their new house and found it too hard to leave her family. Maybe a lot of things. I have no idea. None whatsoever.

But her mother is making her come. I think, perhaps, although I would like it to be C’s choice where she studies and how involved I am in her life, she might not be mature enough to know what is best for herself. She might need the adults to decide and tell her what to do.

VP Ma’am said also, “Don’t poke C.”

No, I won’t. I am not going to say anything to her until she gets here. The temptation is to verify with her that this decision is okay with C and this is what she truly wants. But, as I said, I don’t know if she is mature enough to decide for herself what she wants. At this point, all I can do is fuck things up.

It’s better to wait quietly.

Plus, I didn’t sleep well two nights in a row (too sad to sleep, too happy to sleep), the saw next door is up and running again, I had no processing time yesterday, and my head feels disconnected from my body. I am not “warm.” Not at all. Not even a little bit.

Monday, VP Ma’am will go to our local high school and talk to the high school principal and arrange whatever needs to be arranged. Tuesday and Wednesday are a local holiday here. Thursday I go back to work. The following Monday, C is supposed to start school.

Things are fine. Or they are not fine. I won’t poke C. I will clean my house, do something about the empty gas cylinder, catch up on the laundry, and try to stay sane. I can only fuck things up.

The only thing I intend to do—the only action—is to ask VP Ma’am to get C’s parents bank account details. All of this stuff—the taxi, food and lodging for 2 or 3 days getting here, personal things for school—will be expensive. I’ll transfer money to cover it into their bank account.

That’s it. That is the only action I am going to take.

If I forget, you can remind me. For nine days, I am to do nothing except get myself ready to return to work. If C really does not want to come, she will tell her parents, and she will not come. I don’t need to ask her. Otherwise, she will do as she is told. She will obey her mom. Not me. She doesn’t obey me particularly. But her own mom. She will obey her. And being here is really best for C. I know it, VP Ma’am knows it, her mom knows it, and probably C knows it. C might just need her mom to insist.

Meanwhile, the saw next door has started up. I have all these feelings to sort out. I started the laundry before VP Ma’am called me up yesterday and never had time to finish it. My coat is filthy and needs a good scrub. There is stuff to do. Mainly, I need to calm down.

Calm down

The key is not to panic.

The first step, with any situation or any feeling, is to calm down. I have realized this. At this stage, I can mostly cope. I might not be able to cope when I am teaching again and there are more stresses in my life and I have less control over the pace of things, but just now whatever is happening I can cope with. Usually. But I have to remember to calm down first.

Feel suicidal? Calm down.

Feel hopeless? Calm down.

Don’t know how you feel? Calm down.

Feel like everything is behind glass and nothing is real anymore? Calm down.

I don’t mean shove things down inside more firmly so that I can get on with life. That is not calming down. I still get confused about this, I think. There are times when I am distressed and I start to realize I have this feeling like I am just bracing myself for the next blow. I am just holding out, trying to keep going through the motions of life, while whatever is distressing me passes. Or I die of old age. Whichever comes first.

By calm down, I mean actually do something soothing so that I am back in range of “warm” again. It’s a lot easier now. I can do something in my body that I can’t describe or explain that is just calm. It makes me calm. If I am not totally a mess it works. The problem is that I sometimes forget to do this. I don’t realize I am in that “bracing myself for the next blow” state and I don’t try to calm down. Or I don’t realize I need to do that thing that makes me calm down. Or I don’t realize the thing didn’t work and I need to go for something stronger. Or I forget what the stronger stuff is.

I am all in bits and pieces today. Sometimes I get sort of the edge of a feeling, like just a bit of it emerged from behind glass, but not enough to make a positive ID of it. Then it slips back again. I can’t see it anymore. Then something else emerges. I think I have a lot of different feelings today.

I think the problem today is that somewhere in my head I have an idea of how I ought to feel and think about what has happened—about C choosing to stay with her family—and my real thoughts and feelings have stepped outside of that. So I am scared. I don’t know what I think I ought to feel, but it’s some idea of myself that probably arose over a lifetime and it probably has something to do with being a person I believe will be safe to be.

And I am not that person. At every step of this journey, I think I have come up against that. I am in no way the person I believed myself to be. It’s quite possible I am the person other people think I am, but my idea of who it is safe to be and who I really am parted ways quite some time ago.

I am scared. I am scared to be this other person. In the back of my mind, I think I have an idea in my mind that the person I really am is doomed in some way. She is someone who can never be happy in life, who hurts too much, who will never make wise choices. It’s as though I think I can just never make it work.

I think it seems impossible to be a person who has really lived the life I have lived, and who carries those events and themes within me and has allowed them to shape my life. I think I assume the correct response is to try to let them go. You are supposed to work through things so that you can forget them faster, not so that you can create a coherent approach to your life or to make meaning of what has happened to you. If you do not let them go, you are allowing the past to control you. You are supposed to fight that. You are supposed to never allow trauma to define you.

It does define me. In every way, it defines me. I am always someone who lived when nearly everyone I loved died. I am always someone who must make my life count in a way that someone else doesn’t need to. I am always someone with a dead village in my head of people who loved me and believed in me and kept me safe as well as they could. I am always someone who feels accountable to them for the way I approach life.

Because of them, I find myself asking, as Viktor Frankl asks, “What does life demand of me?”

C is not here. The day-to-day conditions of my life have changed and I need to ask that question again. What does life demand of me? And I am afraid. I am afraid that question is the wrong question. It is not allowed. I am afraid if I do not live a life that is, in a sense, more selfish, I can never be happy.

I think too, I feel I am supposed to be angry at C. I am supposed to feel taken advantage of and that I have thrown money needlessly at a lost cause. I don’t think I feel that way. It is certainly not the loudest feeling. It’s true I did spend money buying her things I thought she might need in boarding school. It’s just money though. I would not have spent it if the money was going to feel that it hurt. I am not out rent money in other words and, anyway, I am an adult. I took a risk. It didn’t pan out. That happens.

I think I feel I am supposed to be crushed I could not be her savior: my pride should feel hurt. But I don’t think I feel that either. I didn’t expect to be. That isn’t how it works. Maybe it doesn’t work that way with anyone, but it certainly does not work that way with kids. There are no quick fixes in their lives.

Instead, what I wanted to do, and still want to do, is keep showing up. In whatever way is required or possible, just keep showing up. Over a year, or five years, or 20 years, if you keep showing up, it makes a difference in how that person sees themselves and their lives. It makes a change. But it’s a long haul. It’s not a short one.

What I most want to do is show C that she can be loved for who she is. Not loved for her compliance or her performance or her adoption of the correct mask.

The other shoe

I finally talked to C.

I’ll tell you how it went down first.

I was feeling tired and sort of wretched, like a black cloud had descended over my life. There was nothing to look forward to ever but pain. So I took a nap. It seemed best.

I woke up from the nap thinking about C. I have been imagining how the conversation between us might happen when I did see her, if I did. How will she face me and what will I say to her? I might have been running that through my mind. I am not sure.

But I missed her and I also this feeling, an impulse to force the connection. I thought to myself, “Am I warm?” I checked out my emotional state. Was I flat and dissociated? Was I hot? I was feeling distressed, but not overly so. I have an idea now of where an acceptable range of emotional arousal is. I can kind of feel it. I am distressed, but still thinking. Or, I am distressed and my brain just broke apart. It seemed that I was my brain was still working. I also thought about what the consequences might be if I did push things. Well, she might not talk to me for a while. She isn’t anyway. Big deal.

I sent her this really guilt-inducing text. Guilt gets a response from her. It’s not my preferred approach to relationships, but C is a special case. Direct communication is hard sometimes. She mistakes it for anger.

The text was this: I did not adopt you for time pass. I really really care about you. I know I hurt you, but I care enough to regret and not repeat. Why are you acting like there is no relationship and you don’t know me?

And I got back: Sry for evrthin sry

I wrote: It’s okay. I really really love you. Always.

And got back something about her file and not getting bus tickets.

Which frankly sounded stupid to me. So I called. No answer. I sent a text. Called. No answer. Sent another text. These were of the type: You need to talk to me about this. I want to understand. At some point I got a response that C was not there. Well, I think maybe she wasn’t, because it wasn’t her spelling mistakes. Still terrible spelling but not hers. I said Go get her. There was a further exchange. I got a lot of lies. This person was in the Capital City and C was with her parents in their new home. Idiotic. In the course of this, the person asked, “Who are you?” I said She is my adopted daughter and I love her a lot. Please get her. I got back, She told me about you. She love you too. That was nice. Anyway, eventually the person switched off the phone.

So I called C’s old number, which turned out to be with her aunt, who is in Y-town. Her aunt was very pleasant to me, confirmed that C is with her parents in their new home, and said she would find C’s number for me.

I called C’s mom and C answered. I didn’t recognize her voice, but I asked for her and she said, This is C.

Finally.

This child drives me insane. We discussed her choice to go to a new school. I got mostly lies from her. Once she starts lying, it’s hard to get her to stop. I don’t really have any idea what the reason for her decision was, but I think it was her decision. Or at least a decision she does not want me to intervene in.

It was actually a strange conversation in some way I can’t quite define, maybe only because she was scared and trying to be brave, or maybe because something has changed between us. I felt warm then, but I don’t now, so I can’t really speculate what it meant. Just note it for later. What changed was a sense of carefulness—her shyness and my feeling that I needed to hold her with very soft gloves.

In the course of the conversation, she called me ma’am a few times. I hate this, partly because in the US we call strangers ma’am. It is not something we do to people we know. People we know we call by their names and a title if that’s appropriate.

At the same time, C is not a student to me. I revert to certain habits and assumptions because I feel outside the student/teacher set of cultural norms with her. But maybe also just because I do hate it. In chat, at least, she used to call me mom. Then it began to dry up. She began to say it only when she wanted something. Then not at all. I don’t know why that happened. I don’t think she stopped feeling as close to me. It was something else. Anyway, I told her how I feel. I said, “Stop it. Stop calling me ma’am. I hate it.” She did it again and I said the same thing. She said, “Sorry, sorry.” I said something like talk to me properly. She said, “Yes, mom.” I forced her, and that was different. I did it the last night I was in her house, the night of the terrible argument. Not about calling me mom, but the insisting. Before I left I insisted she tell me she love me, something that she has also stopped saying. I will say, “I love you,” and she will say, “Okay.” But that night I made her say it. I made her say it four times, so that she was saying it clearly and loudly, and I made her say, “I love you a lot,” because actually I think that is true. I think she does.

Before hanging up the phone, I told her I loved her again. She said, as usual, “Okay.” And I said that’s the wrong answer. Try again. She didn’t really understand that. She just said okay again. I said something else—I can’t remember what—and she got it. “I love you, too.”

I don’t really know why I started insisting. This is Country X, and one way to make someone feel welcome to do something is to insist they do it. Someone refuses tea, for example, and you practically arm wrestle them for the cup, because they are refusing tea out of shyness and not a lack of desire. This is hospitality here, so maybe I am thinking that.

So that’s what happened.

I will think about it more tomorrow, when my head again feels attached to my body and it seems possible I am thinking clearly again. But I am relieved to know what she decided. I am relieved to feel I did my job. I talked to her parents for her. The rest was up to her. I am also grateful she was there every day to make me keep trying to get my shit together when I was trying to deal with some of the darkest parts of my grief. I am better off because of her. I don’t know what I would have done without her. I don’t know how I could have done the work I did.

Skin

I don’t know where to start with this. I figured something out about myself—I think I did—something that has puzzled me for a long time.

I was chatting with a friend of mine today. She’s kind of a new friend. I don’t know her that well, but I seem to feel like being honest with her. I guess I don’t really have time for friends I can’t be honest with. I don’t have free time to fill up with mere entertainment. Social relationships are either necessary obligations, or they are giving me connection I need. I have too much work to do to sustain acquaintances.

The thing is we have these chats that confuse me. I like her, but there is a large part of our interactions that for me is one long wtf. Which is actually not unusual. I am not close to any of the other foreign teachers because of that. I do a lot of polite nodding while thinking wtf. It’s some kind of cultural gap, and it’s really nothing new, but Country X highlights it, and it highlights it in a somewhat painful way for me. I don’t really want to be reminded how different I am from other people, especially since I don’t know why I am so different, and especially since they don’t know either. It is much simpler with Country Xers. If they want to talk to me, they start from an assumption that I will be different from them in fundamental ways, and we move from there. Other people from Western countries usually start from an assumption we will basically have similar experiences (with some variations due to our particular personalities). Or something. And then inevitably I have no real idea what they mean, because we aren’t having similar experiences, I am not making the same sense of things and the implications of what they are saying escape me. I know in the sense that I have heard it all before, but I cannot imagine their mindset nor can I imagine why they think I could imagine.

It’s puzzling.

So I was thinking about this, because that is what puzzling things make me want to do: understand them. And, because, very honestly, I find the wtf kind of limiting. There are a great number of probably very nice people I don’t connect with because they make me painfully confused and I don’t like it.

Maybe it starts with no sense of an “us.” I mean, for white people (to be frank), there is usually an “us-ness” that the individual is not consciously aware of. It is not like being Black, where probably you have been thinking since you were seven years old what it means to be Black. If you are white, as I am, your culture lies completely outside your awareness until you find yourself in the midst of a different one and your own ways of doing things start being called into question. But I think as an ex-pat, you look around and see other ex-pats, and you feel a sense of connection.

I don’t, because the other ex-pats here mostly make me feel confused.

I’m talking in circle now.

Anyway, I was thinking this and it occurred to me that the difference might be that I see culture as a kind of skin, like a shell or a set of clothes. It’s not that closely linked to my identity. I put on certain behaviours and ways of communicating for certain occasions, just as one might wear a suit to the office and dirty jeans to do yardwork. I don’t know anyone else who quite sees it this way.

As I said, if you are white, the link between your behaviour and identity is usually outside your awareness, but it is there. It is actually there for me: I notice it from time to time, that I cannot properly adapt to certain situations because the struggle with my identity is too great.

But this feeling I have that culture is a set of clothes that can be taken on or off. Well, that’s me. That’s because of how I grew up. It was something to take on or off, a state of being rather than a permanent identity. I went to Aliya’s house and we behaved one way, and I spent time with the Russian girls, and I behaved a different way and I went home and behaved yet another way.

A different person with a different family would feel one of these environments to be “us” and the other environments to be ways we behave when we are there, but those ways of behaving are not really “us.” The difference in my case is that I was being neglected at home. I was being abused, but more importantly, my emotional needs were in no way being met. This made me kind of up-for-grabs attachment-wise. Any nurturing female was welcome to sign up as mom to me. I seem to have had several.

So, when I changed my behaviour in different settings, I felt myself to be that behaviour. I went to Aliya’s house and felt I was temporarily Arab, like that is something you can do. I spent time with the Russian girls, and felt I was Russian, like you can be Russian for a few hours a day. It wasn’t the typical experience that a child might have, where they might go to a friend’s house and learn about what it is like to be Arab and maybe imitate those behaviours, but still understand they are not Arab. I took on the cultural identities of different settings because I felt such a strong attachment—because there was no single set of strong attachments at home—and so culture became temporary to me. It became something you can take on or off.

I don’t know that this attitude about culture is such a big deal, except that it makes me approach people from other cultures in some fundamentally different way that means I get a different reaction back from them. For one, there is no sense of novelty. I don’t get that “buzz” of everything being new. I came to Country X and they wear beautiful national dress and have prayer flags everywhere and have a very specific style of architecture. Except for the paintings of phallic symbols on the exteriors of houses, I had no sense of “this is new and different and isn’t that exciting?” I mean, I go to a different country, and I expect it to look different. It’s pretty, but the buzz is not there for me, because I am not surprised. I am not surprised, because I expect it. Because that is how I grew up.

It’s hard to explain this.

However, despite my inability to really articulate this, what I mean to say is, if nothing else, that buzz of novelty makes people behave in some particular way that I don’t behave in. Because I behave in a different way, I get a different response, then I have different experiences of interacting, then I make a different sense of it. When I meet other foreigners, all of whom have gotten that buzz of novelty and gotten whatever reaction from it they got, our experiences begin to part ways.

It might be also that many practices that feel identity-bound for people don’t feel that way to me. They are easier to give up. Not everything is that way for me, but many of them are. And that leads to other changes in my behaviour that lead to other differences in experiences.

It’s very noticeable here, but this has been going on for my entire life, where I have not conceived of any one particular culture as being necessarily mine. It’s not entirely that I feel like an outsider or like I don’t fit in, but that fitting in is this kind of temporary thing. Some people do that, but they find it painful. It’s this constriction of their real identity. And it is not like that for me. I feel neither excited at the novelty nor constricted by a sense of obligation to change. I feel, somehow, like this is a way to be understood. Putting on the skin of the new culture is a way for the deeper kind of communication. It’s pragmatic, and yet it feels so comfortable, to just adapt.

I do not think this particular view is at all common. For me, it came out of that coincidental nexus of having no strong attachment figures within my own family and being placed within all of these other immigrant settings. Almost anyone else, I think, will have some kind of sense of an “us” that relates to culture or to race or to ethnicity. Or at the very least to being “third culture,” to being an ex-pat, or to being an immigrant, or to being an outsider of some kind. Almost everyone finds a home base somewhere.

In contrast, I think of culture in the way that I do—as something temporary—because that is what it was like for me. I took it on and off. It is not something I learned as an adult trying to navigate a complex, multicultural society, but something I grew up doing. I became whatever culture I was in, because someone in that environment loved me and I identified with whoever loved me.

It has changed my interactions with everyone throughout my life in small ways that have ended up making a big difference.

So there. That’s why I’m like this. J

 

The Syrian Delegate

An odd thing happened to me last night. Well, lot of odd things happen to me—in my head, I mean. I went to Maths Ma’am’s house. Her sister is stitching some National Dress for me and wanted me to try them on for size. So I did that. I taught Lucky. I drank tea. Then she said stay for dinner and go. So I did that too.

The thing about Maths Ma’am’s house—I may have mentioned this—is they don’t watch endless, mind-numbingly stupid Hindi serials, which is what most people here do. Lucky watches cartoons, sometimes in English, or the TV is off, or they watch educational programs. If Maths Ma’am isn’t busy, she sits and watches TV with me and we discuss it.

You don’t realize how awash in information the West is until you leave it, and have to pay for every byte you download. (Why must news article be 6 MB? It’s absurd.) And the book selection at the school library is not so broad that I might ever learn something new from it. So watching TV at her house is huge.

These days, we watch Al Jazeera. Maths Ma’am used to watch a Japanese station (English-language), but they’ve evidently been broadcasting boring programs. I like Al Jazeera. I caught up on the news for a world. I had no idea there were civil wars over quite so much of the Middle East. I watched something called 14Up South Africa, which was interesting, but less than utterly enrapturing. They interrupted it a few times to give us updates on the non-progress of Syrian indirect talks in Geneva.

I didn’t have the best day yesterday, I’ll remind you. I was kind of all befuddled and mixed up. I couldn’t seem to remember how to calm down. Consequently, I went to her house in not exactly the best state. It was okay, but one of those behind glass sort of evenings.

They were updating us on the non-progress of the talks, and the delegate for the regime began to speak, and I thought “Mom” and wanted to hug him. It was this very strong feeling inside. Well, the gentleman in question is in no way mom-like. He is official-looking and elderly. There is something more going on than I was ever fully aware of.

I have tried to piece together the situation with Aliya: a lot of it is guessing, nothing much is really clear. I don’t even really think her name was probably Aliya. I just don’t know what it was, and I think Aisha was not her, but her friend.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the emotion of it though. Not only the loss later, after she left—and I think she did leave—but the attachment when she was there. I was trying to find facts, and facts are definitely useful. They give you a frame to make the bits of memory that inevitably start surfacing make some kind of sense. I think I was trying to piece too much together while still keeping my feelings behind glass. Some of it may be just that I was very young, and I don’t have this long set of older memories to give context to the younger muddle.

I don’t know. But I can only have responded to the elderly statesman the way I did because of his language: the fact of his speaking Arabic, or his particular dialect. Syrians mostly speak Levantine, North Mesopotamian, or Iraqi dialects of Arabic, but he’s a government delegate. Maybe he was speaking Standard Arabic, which no one really speaks as a mother tongue. I really don’t know. But it seems today it is both more puzzling and more important than I ever thought.

Baby me

The saws have started up. There are two, both south of me somewhere. One on the east side, one on the west. I suppose two is better than three, and better than either of them being immediately next to me, cutting tin, which they were yesterday. I wonder, though, what would happen if I had one single saw-free day to calm down in? What would I be able to process? How much easier would it be to deal with the saws later if I had more than a few hours in the morning to try to calm down?

Because, of course, what happens is one thing scares me, then everything scares me. Things I can cope with on another day become things I cannot cope with anymore. It all just gets more and more difficult. It is easier now than it was in early January, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It only means that the urge to commit suicide is not overwhelming. I’m not fighting to make myself get through the next second quite as much.

I was making breakfast this morning—I think it was then—and I began to consider something. I had a memory once, a few years back, of pulling my head back. That was the only memory—simply moving my head away from something. My therapist at the time said I must have been a baby, that my memory is probably something from being about six months old, because that is all you can do at that age. Just move your head. Someone must have hit me, and I was flinching away.

I think that must be the fear I am feeling. It’s a baby fear. I want someone, there is that feeling of attachment, I cry for that person, and she hits me. I am afraid of that. As I was cooking, I had a sense of that. I remember now how small I felt and how terrifying it was to be hit.

Afraid

Attachments are hard. I don’t know why they are hard, but they are really, really hard.

There was a point in the winter when everything became drudgery. I am not sure when this happened. I think it happened gradually. There was no longer any joy, even in the good things. Lucky comes to my house every day and I teach him. If you watch me, it would seem that I enjoy this. I think I probably do enjoy it. But the enjoyment I actually feel inside is terribly, terribly faint. He comes and I give the appearance of enjoying it and mostly I don’t feel anything at all.

After school let out, I went to C’s house every day. Every morning. Every afternoon. I was there quite a lot of the time. I did not enjoy this. There was some point when the enjoyment seems to have dried up. I don’t know why, or when it happened. I noticed a change in her. I don’t think I noticed the change in me. It was as though all the life went out of her. She became quiet—maybe because I was there. I don’t know. I noticed it and could not explain it. Occasionally, there was something of a quiet happiness. I played with her siblings, and she seemed happy to watch. But the boisterous C who laughs loudly and pushes her friends to get a rise out them entirely disappeared. I don’t think I realized I was with her and hardly able to feel anything. I didn’t realize the life had gone out of me.

Anyway, I have noticed the feeling I have for her, that wish to be with her, what comes on the heels of it is always fear. I miss her and then I feel afraid. The reason it all seems so intense to me is the fear. I cannot make sense of it. I don’t know what I am afraid of—I search around in traumas for things I might be afraid of, and there are many. I think I might really be afraid to be myself, to be someone with roots of some kind in the present and in the real world, but I don’t know why—if I am afraid someone will hurt me, or if it’s just the last thing I remember before I went behind glass. Maybe I remember wanting someone and being afraid and then it all becoming too much.

Exhausted

It is ironic how different the winter holiday turned out from how I hoped it would be. I had this idea that C would leave and I would be relieved of my one responsibility: she would go to her village and be with her grandparents and I would not think much about her and I would be freed up to deal with my own issues. And my own issues would not be overwhelming—they had seemed to be less overwhelming at the end of the school year. Stuff would get worked out and I would be face the school year with this great leap in healing having happened.

And, of course, none of that worked out exactly. C triggered me endlessly by not picking up the phone—something I forgot is not as simple for her as it is for me—and by not clearly telling me where she was. (I think now she did tell me, but it did not pass the confused English barrier.) And I created my own hell for myself by falling apart in front of her right before she left.

Then there was the saw.

I woke up today after a very long sleep—in bed at seven, not up until slightly before seven—feeling even more tired than before I slept. Feeling more tired and just hopeless. It is so hard. It is so hard and it never gets easier. It only seems to get harder, no matter what changes in my exterior life occur, whether we are on holiday or I am working all day, regardless of my work load and social life, it is never, ever easy. It is always exactly and precisely as difficult as I can stand, which clearly points to the idea that the work I need to do psychologically is beyond me, and I am biting off the bits of it I can chew.

I had a late breakfast—no particular reason. It happened that way. Then I had a nap. When I got up from nap, it felt exactly the same way. So completely exhausted, like really I could sleep absolutely all day. And maybe tomorrow also. Maybe the next day. It didn’t feel good, but I tried not to push that feeling of exhaustion away—I could. I could just kind of snap out of it, which would mean dissociating. It is not so intense I can’t do that. But I am trying not to do that anymore. I am trying to just to feel whatever I feel, even if I don’t like it that much.

Then I had this thought: At what point did someone assure me that working through intense trauma and integrating my personality would be invigorating and fun? Oh, that didn’t happen? Yeah, it didn’t. No one has ever said that. If they did say it, then that would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are idiots. Because it is not. It’s exhausting. You can pace yourself with it however you want to, and it is still mind-numbingly tiring. It is cognitively draining because there is that internal landscape of feelings and associations you are trying to create so that they all relate to a single person’s life and not a bunch of parts—and figuring the parts out was hard enough. This is Trauma work 201. Then there is the emotional work of it, just the energy. I am terrified a lot of the time. Then I have to figure out how to gradually bring that terror down. It is draining to be terrified that much of the time. It is draining to consciously attend to bringing my level of arousal down too. Yeah, this is completely, utterly exhausting. And all I can really do is be nice to myself about it.

Flashbacks

Evenings have been difficult the last two nights. I find myself in a gritting-my-teeth kind of attitude, where I make dinner, wash dishes, and get to bed as quickly as I can, because it seems like there’s no real way to make it better.

It turns out the trigger is the knife. I am making dinner and cutting vegetables, and the knife scares me. It might be worse now because one of the things I picked up in the Capital City was a sharp knife. Actually two. The one I used for my first two years here was a tiny little serrated thing that might be suitable for cutting up a tender steak. It was good for cutting tomatoes, I guess. Anyway, the knife is not larger, but it is sharper. It seems to call up memories of my dad (pretending to) cut me in pieces. So it’s hard.

Dark seems to trigger the same thing—maybe lots of bad things. That doesn’t help either.

Then I go to bed. I am scared of bed too. Bedtime has been a trigger for a long time. It has eased, but it began to emerge a few nights ago that actually bed is terrifying. Bed is where we got raped a lot of the time.

Oh, yeah.

We want our mommy or Nata or C or whoever might make us feel better because we are scared. Then other stuff upsets us. Nata is dead. We don’t know where C is: maybe she’s lost her pieces somewhere, who knows. Maybe she hates us. Maybe whatever.

So it’s hard. I can calm down and I can sleep, but I’m not really dealing with all of this. I’m too tired at bedtime. I just try to keep breathing so that I eventually sleep.

One thing on my mind lately is something I read in a Holly von Gulden article. Attachment is a sensory experience, not a cognitive one. That is why talk therapy does not help. Well, I think learning to regulate emotions is a sensory experience too. I think anyone who has been chronically abused is going to have trouble with self-regulation, because usually there wasn’t a “good enough” parent somewhere to help with that. There might have been a non-abusive parent on the scene somewhere, but severe, ongoing abuse doesn’t happen if there are enough functional people in the family to protect and support the child. What you probably have instead is a parent who scares you into suppressing the expression of your emotions, at least some of the time. Which is another way of saying you learn to dissociate them.

I am maybe fortunate in that there were all these attachment figures. They didn’t have the power to protect me, but they were there to help me learn to regulate my emotions. The problem is that they died mostly. In a few cases, they moved away—I think Aisha and Aliya both moved away. That’s why packing scares the shit out of me. And maybe that was this morning’s problem. I helped someone move.

Anyway, digression aside, I have this advantage where there was something sensory in my past to help me with self-regulation. There were people I really did feel safe with. I just had to cope with grief enough to use those sensory experiences to help me.

If you don’t have those safe attachment figures, I think you do have to be your own attachment figure. You have to be the person who knows how to help you calm down and can provide soothing when you need it. You have to kind of jump from being a child with no “good enough” parent to being your own “good enough” parent with nothing in between and limited role models. Maybe only shitty role models. Maybe the adult in your head only knows how to criticize and how to shame you into behaving. Which does nothing to help with calming down.

I have been thinking that having parts is, to a degree, the result of growing up having flashbacks. Oddly—it seems odd to me—we think about how we, as adults, are going to handle our flashbacks, but no one seems to be interested that you grew up as someone who always had them. I mean, if you were abused when you were 3 years old, you have been having flashbacks since you were three. You did not suddenly begin having them as an adult. You sat at the lunch tables in preschool, perhaps, and the kid next to you chewed with his mouth open, and you were flooded with shame for no reason you could discern or with tactile memories of having been sexually abused. At the very least, these experiences were connected to events that no one wanted to acknowledge and seemed to have not really happened—only you remembered them. It was all very unclear. This did not seem to happen to anyone else. No wonder it all went into different kinds of “not-me” boxes. How else do you make sense of being flooded by these overwhelming, emotional intrusions into your ordinary day? How else do you contain them, so that you don’t hit the kid with the bad table manners or burst into tears or hide under the table? None of which will endear you to teachers or help you make friends.

And the only way to cope with flashbacks is to regulate. It’s the only way to go on with life so that your cognition isn’t distorted and the only way to integrate the memories into a coherent whole so that they stop intruding as mysterious bits of horror.

I was thinking about this and also thinking about how I think it once seemed to me that I would eventually discover that the person I felt myself to be during the flashbacks was “the real me.” I mean, I feel worthless in some of them. I think I expected to discover, deep down, that is my real feeling about myself. And it isn’t.

Flashbacks are not you, just as one reader commented that feelings are not you. Flashbacks are memories of you during a particular event. It is how you felt and thought in that moment, or in those types of moments. It is not you drilling down into your authentic self. It is something that happened to you, and it is a record of how you thought and felt and reacted to that event. In a lot of cases, it is remarkably similar to how anyone might feel in that same situation. It is not necessarily that revealing of your personality, the way something more neutral might be. We all have different tastes and preferences, different temperaments. We respond differently to the same kinds of music, to the same foods. But when we feel we might die, most of us feel scared. It isn’t revealing of who you are.

So I was thinking about my memories of being sexually abused—mainly, by my dad, but I expect being trafficked was merely an extension of this. There is a dominant feeling of worthlessness. I think, actually, a part of that sense of worthlessness is really powerlessness. I felt powerless to help my friends. The feeling is one of complete defeat. Because my dad abused me in the midst of death, the two are connected: his sexual abuse and my failure to reconstruct their dead bodies. But it’s also this feeling that I had no rights at all. I had no right to my own body. Beyond just not being able to choose my own actions, I could not choose the physical sensations I was having. It is like being forced to eat when you are not hungry or you are full. The level of powerlessness is tremendous.

It began to dawn on me that this right is something everyone has. Adult women, who might choose to have sex, also get to choose not to have it. They get to choose not to have it with the same partners they sometimes do choose to have sex with. There I was, a child too young to even know how to choose, and it was thrust upon me. It was thrust upon me by someone a young person would be biologically programed not to want to be sexual with: we do not feel sexual desire for people we have grown up in very close contact with (a problem for the kibbutzes). And at an age when my brain had not started producing the hormone that makes you feel sexual desire.

And I did not have that right. Within my family, that right was taken away from me, that right to my own body, to have some control over the sensations I was having or what was going on inside me. It’s not so much that the sexual abuse hurt me and scared me—although it did—but it completely assaulted my basic physical autonomy, my right to control my own body.

The worthlessness is not me, but it is how total assault on your very fundamental right to physical autonomy feels. I understand why it always makes me want to be dead. How much better to be the pieces of bodies lying around, who went through my dad’s table saw and did not have to feel anything. Because losing all right to your body and being assaulted by sensations you do not choose and cannot control or regulate is torture. It really is torture. The Geneva Convention forbids it.

The worthlessness is not me. It is not some core attitude toward myself. It is part of something that happened, and it is something I keep remembering as a part of flashbacks I have, but it is not some core truth about myself I have to face.

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