Purpose

In that book I wrote about in my last post that I like so much, Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy, Rebecca Coffey interviewed survivors of various kinds of trauma–including Holocaust survivors.

Richard Bikales and his younger brother Norbert on the Swiss-Austrian border in 1946. They had not seen each other in 8 years. Richard would have been about 25. His brother was 17.
Richard Bikales and his younger brother Norbert on the Swiss-Austrian border in 1946. They had not seen each other in 8 years. Richard would have been about 25. His brother was 17.

Richard Bikales, one such survivor, describes very movingly his sense of purpose.

“When we were fighting for simple, naked, raw survival, this in itself seemed to be the overwhelming purpose in life. But we did not just want to survive. We wanted to see the day when Hitler and his bloody empire would crumble. We believed that with every fiber of our being that no matter how all-powerful and invincible our tormentors seemed, one day they would be broken, and we wanted desperately to see that day.

“When Hitler was defeated, we had achieved this all-consuming goal. We had stayed alive. We had held out to see reduced to utter helplessness the men in power who had set out to destroy us and who had hunted us as their prey. We had seen the last dying wish of millions come true. So no matter what happens in life, we have acquired a basic conviction that in the end, good wins out over evil. Not a childish, naive division of the world into good guys and bad guys, but a fundamental belief that human goodness is the norm and that the vicious, the brutal, the unconscionable is an aberration that cannot prevail.”

When we have been tortured, as I was, it’s hard not to come out of that experience with a desire for revenge  or at least to win.

For me, revenge is persisting. Winning out over my father and others means growing up to be a good, decent, caring person–a whole person who can contribute to society in a meaningful way.

Like Hitler, my fathers’s distorted, sociopathic belief was that he was all-powerful. In my life, he was. But if he could not shape my spirit, if he could not make me become like him, then that grandiose belief in his power is nothing more than a delusion.

If I have myself, then he was never right.

And that’s why I keep getting up in the morning–to prove that no matter what happens, no one can destroy the good that is in me. No one can make me evil. Good persists. I can persist.

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Unbearable Truths

I’ve just finished reading a really fantastic book. It is called Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy. The author, Rebecca Coffey, recounts the stories of a number of people with trauma issues who are trying to get better, including their stories of trauma. Her main point is that the rest of us need to be better listeners. Trauma survivors need to tell others what happened to them in order to again feel part of humanity, but so many people fail to do so because of the distress that listening to these stories causes.

Hearing about traumatic experiences leads those who haven’t been traumatized to question their own understanding of the world as a relatively safe place mostly populated by relatively safe people.

In a word, trauma precipitated by the cruelty of other human beings forces us to confront the capacity for people to be cruel. In order to recover from trauma–and in order to hear the stories of trauma survivors–we need to confront the human capacity for evil.

Throughout her book, Coffey returns to the stories of survivors she introduces early on, probing them, expanding upon them, reconsidering them. Madeline Goodman (not her real name) was gang-raped as a teenager by 27 young men at a party and then left for dead. In trying to heal from her trauma, Madeline must both confront the evil of those 27 young men who perpetrated the rape as well as other victims who were released and failed to go for help.

In other words, she must confront not only evil but the indifference of others to it.

Those have been my struggles as well. I can, in fact, come to grips with the sadism and lack of empathy of my father and my mother’s dangerous emotional dysregulation. I can accept that there are others in the world like them. Just as no two cheetahs have the same pattern of spots, the souls of human beings are not the same either. And some people want to harm others–either because they enjoy it, or because harming others helps them cope with their own pain.

But it is difficult for me, just as it is for Madeline, to confront people who might have helped but didn’t. In some cases, given the limits of the courts and justice system at the time I was abused, people who cared and wished they could help were powerless to do so.

But later, when all I needed to do was to heal from what had happened, people continued to not help. I am thinking here specifically of the years I spent in psychotherapy–more or less just spinning my wheels. There was a marginal benefit of spending an hour a week with a therapist, but it did no more than take the edge off. I did not get substantially better until I gave up on the power of the outside world to help me and began to read.

It took me about 7 years to figure out what I needed to do to get better. After that, I was able to improve substantially quite rapidly. I do see a therapist now, but I no longer expect her to know how to help me. I go in for each session with a purpose and I consider ahead of time whether what I want from that session is something that we both have the tools to give me. Anything we can’t do together is homework. And I have a lot of homework.

There isn’t a lack of knowledge in the field about how to help people with intense and complex traumas, but the individuals I have looked to for help didn’t have it–and haven’t sought it out when it should have been clear that I was not being helped by what they knew.

It bothers me that I don’t trust anyone to be able to help me. It seems an unnecessarily negative and pessimistic view of the world. But people haven’t. I spent a decade waiting around hoping someone could help me. No one did.

What I am left with is wondering why. Because I am thinking here of people who did care–unlike the original perpetrators in my life, they did care. They didn’t want me to suffer. They wanted to help. But they didn’t know how and they didn’t try hard enough to find out that they learned.

I am left thinking they didn’t because it was easier not to. The pain of witnessing my continued suffering was easier to manage than the pain of confronting the gap in their knowledge. And I suspect the largest part of that pain was the pain of accepting the world as it is: a complex place, full of both good and evil, in which we are sometimes powerless.

And although I was in more distress, I had more tools to deal with it than they did. although they were not sufficient, but I lacked their choices. Not confronting my helplessness or the powerlessness of others to help left me in the grip of unbearable memories. Not accepting the human capacity for cruelty left me in a state of unremitting fear. It was easier for me to accept unbearable truths than to wrestle with them.

But for others, who haven’t directly experienced life in that way, there are different choices. And among them is the choice to simply close their eyes and refuse to see.

The Present Moment

This symbol represents being present in the current moment.
This symbol represents being present in the current moment.

I have realized recently (among many other things that I have realized) how difficult it is for me to remain in the present moment. I’m not really a future-oriented person. I am not worried too terribly much about what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year—aside some fairly significant things like whether I can ever afford to stop working or if I, instead, I’ll need to retire at age 95.

But I spend a lot of time thinking about the next five minutes, or the next ten. Maybe even the next hour. Not usually much farther than that. But I do it compulsively. Every minute, it seems, is spent planning the next five.

Some of this is my job. It’s just how teaching works. And some of it just how I am.

But if living in the next five minutes from now is a retreat from the present moment, then it isn’t hard to figure out why. The present has so often been unbearable. The past was even more so.

In the aftermath of trauma—whether you end up with post-traumatic stress or complex post-traumatic stress or a dissociative disorder or some other diagnosis—the past is never the past. It intrudes.

It may be easy for someone who hasn’t experienced this to think, “But the present is fine. The present is okay. Nothing bad is happening now. All those things are over and done with.”

But that isn’t how it is for us. Bad things are happening now. Intrusive thoughts are happening now. Intense sensory or emotional flashbacks are happening now. And what is going on in my head that I have no control over is a part of the present, just as much as my current job is and where I live. Maybe more so, because you never get away from your head. But I leave both my home and my job nearly every day.

So there has been an unbearable present to manage. Of all of the possible ways of coping with an unbearable present, constantly planning what I need to do next isn’t really the worst of them. I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol or self-harming, destructive relationships, or arguing with my bosses and getting fired. I could have done considerably worse.

But as the trauma symptoms recede I find I no longer need to plan so much. I can simply be in the present moment much more of the time. Not completely. Not all the time. But sometimes.

I lived in the present moment getting ready for work this morning and so I didn’t stack up in my mind the next 10 items on my to-do list and I forgot to put on deodorant. But it wasn’t a hot day, so I suppose it worked out ok.

Still. I can more often leave the future to the future and the past to the past and live right here in the present. What I find interesting is the effect this is having on my self-esteem.

Self-esteem is often conflated with self-image. We think of the regard we have for ourselves as largely tied up with what we think of ourselves—whether we can see our good qualities or not, and whether we measure up to a particular yardstick that we believe tells us we are “good enough.”

However, self-esteem is also about being. What is it like to be us from moment to moment? When being yourself feels like torture, it’s hard to think much of yourself. It helps a lot when being yourself feels a little more okay.

In those times when I am able to simply be in the present moment, some of those present moments are pretty nice. Nothing special. Just nice.

I find I like myself now.

Insomnia

All of the bad things that might happen to me due to my poor sleeping. Wikipedia.
All of the bad things that might happen to me due to my poor sleeping. Wikipedia.

I can’t sleep. Pretty often. After the shift to daylight savings, my life becomes a slow torture because I can’t adjust. I sleep less than ever these days.

Mostly, I don’t fall asleep. From time to time, when I’ve very stressed, I wake up very early in the morning and can’t sleep again. Or I wake repeatedly in the night. But mainly I can’t fall asleep.

I have decided I don’t know how. I spent so many years trying to stay awake, watching the door, trying to be prepared for what might happen after the lights went out and the house went quiet that I’m good at keeping myself up.

Other people talk about their minds racing. Or turning worries over and over in their minds. I try to give myself interesting problems to work on while I lay in bed, not sleeping. I used to do math in my head, but nowadays math is a little more stressful. Math problems keep me up. They don’t put me to sleep. The thinking is just to give myself something to do while I go on not sleeping. It isn’t keeping me up.

My body is keeping me up, not my mind. I’ve tried relaxing visualizations. It doesn’t really help. I imagine lying in an island paradise, the birds calling, wind rustling, the distant sound of the sea. It’s gorgeous, but my legs still want to move. They want to stand up. My eyes want to open.

Falling asleep is physiological. Your respiration slows, your heart slows. Everything begins to slow. And then you sleep. I am thinking about island paradises while my heart goes thumping away at the usual pace. Nothing is slowing down. My mind might be relaxed, but my body isn’t.

It reminds me of when I used to meditate many years ago. I stopped doing it because all I did was fall asleep. Usually for hours. Meditation made my heart slow down, my respiration slow. Everything began to slow and I fell asleep.

I’m thinking I’ll look into Zen meditation again. Little did I know—those 25 years ago—that it was exactly what I needed. Just for something other than I wanted to use it for.

If you’re anything like me, your mind can slow down. It can come to a complete standstill. No thoughts at all. But getting the body to unclench and let go of the day’s tension is another matter entirely. Sometimes we need to start with the mind to heal, and sometimes we need to start with the body. Trauma (and other difficulties, I suppose) are not just in the mind or just in the body. They are in both.

Self-blame

I feel like my head is one sideways today.

Some ideas are really that big.

This is today’s big idea. But I have to preface it a little, give you a bit of context. So here goes.

I’m talking about child abuse again. Bear with me. I will think about other things again in a few years. Until then, I hope you aren’t too bored.

Image by Maura Luna.
Self-blame. Image by Maura Luna.

Abuse makes us feel ashamed. I’ve written about that before in Thinking Like the Enemy: Why Victims Blame Themselves. There are lots of reasons for it. But we all know it doesn’t feel good, so it’s one of the main things that survivors work at changing–that uncomfortable feeling. When we are abused as children, we typically blame ourselves as well. That’s closely linked with shame.

We generalize along these lines: I feel bad, I blame myself for whatever has caused my bad feelings, therefore who I am must be bad to be causing this.

So, that’s the context.

Here’s the big idea. It was easier to blame myself than the perpetrators. Now, we know that that’s what kids do and we know they do it for that reason: It’s easier. Nothing new there.

But no one has mentioned this part before, so I thought I would: I had more control over myself than over the people who were hurting me. It was more effective for me to numb unbearable feelings than to prevail upon the abusers to stop. Exercising an extreme degree of self-control made more sense than expressing feelings that would never be heard and that would probably result in being abused further.

Holding myself accountable for dealing with life as it was allowed me to function much better than trying to change a situation I couldn’t. That is still the case. Luckily, I have more tools. And life is a lot easier to deal with.

But I think that is also a part of why we sometimes blame victims as a larger society. We feel we have more control over the decent people who are kidnapped, beaten, or raped than the monsters who do it. We don’t know how to control the monsters among us, that look like us, act like us, speak like us, but don’t think like us. And when they get the chance, prey on us. That needs to change.

Have a Wonderful Day, A Wonderful Evening

At seven o’clock yesterday evening, I realized I was exhausted. I was thinking about various small, but pressing matters: laundry, having a bath, feeding the cat. And then I realized.

meditation_techniquesI was exhausted. Utterly, completely exhausted.

Long day, long week. But actually I’ve been exhausted most of the time for years. No wonder I can’t sleep half the time. I can’t distinguish “regular tired” from “time-to-sleep” tired. I’m tired so much of the time.

I was exhausted for years because (I suspect) fatigue was a form of physical memory of abuse. It was a flashback of not being allowed to sleep at times when little girls should be sleeping and of having my body used and abused in a quite physically exhausting way for hours at a time.

But, it’s also exhausting to be constantly on guard. For trauma survivors, one part of the mind says, “Never rest. Never relax. Relaxation is the beginning of the end. It’s when you relax that all hell breaks loose.” Because, so often, it has.

Meanwhile, another part may understand that if you never relax, cortisol poisons your brain and makes you sick. (Not literally. But too many stress hormones do impact your immune system in a negative way. And if you are chronically stressed, you do tend to fall victim to colds and flus more often.)

So I’ve been doing yoga this week every morning–first thing, before breakfast, before I even sit down properly with a cup of tea. This is what I’ve been watching.

I’ve never been a yoga fan, but this incredibly uptight, engineer father who first called me up because his son had a B+ in my class convinced me to reconsider. I mean, if he could enjoy it, anyone can.

I like it because there’s this guy I don’t even know telling me to have “a wonderful day, a wonderful evening,” but I also do finish up feeling both relaxed and refreshed. And that’s at an hour when it’s still dark outside. And will be for some time. I have never felt relaxed or refreshed that early in the morning before.

I am not a morning person. My only way of getting around morning has been to get up when it is, for all intents and purposes, still night. But that does not mean I wake up ready to party. I’ve been getting up, drinking tea, and staring at the opposite wall in a haze for an extended period of time as a part of my morning routine for years.

So this is a real change for me.

Being able to relax has made me realize more forcefully how much our bodies need us to relax. Whether we are safe or not, whether we feel safe or not, we need to rest. We need equilibrium. Whatever does it for you is a good thing: visual imagery, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, thinking positive thoughts.

It also made me realize there are two ways into this: the mind and the body. When we think of the mind-body connection, we tend to think of the connection going only one-way. When something is amiss in the mind, then something can also become amiss in the body.

But it works the other way round as well. If something is not right with the body, our minds are likely to have trouble as well.

We can approach problems sometimes from either end. I can think, “I am safe. I feel completely relaxed…” and so on. Or I can breathe deeply and slowly, alternately tense and relax my muscles, and stretch. I can do both. But I need to do it.

The Freezer

images (6)I want to tell you about the freezer today.

The freezer was in the garage–one of those chest freezers people usually keep out in their garage for all that extra food they have and don’t need. That’s where we kept it–in the garage. My parents bought it off a neighbor, I think. I don’t recall when that happened–if I was 5 when the freezer came into our lives, or if I was as much as 10.

But the freezer was my father’s torture chamber.

I don’t remember why I ended up in the freezer–or if my father justified it in some way.

I’ll tell you what I do remember: the experience of suffocation, the fear, the lightheadedness and the pain in my hands mostly from the cold. I also remember the strategies I used to try to stay conscious and to minimize the pain.

It helps, for one, if you don’t cry or call out. It helps if you breathe slowly and shallowly and as little as possible. It helps if you breathe into something warm, so that the cold air doesn’t hurt so much in your lungs and so that that part of you–whatever it is, an arm perhaps–is just a little bit warmer from your breath.

And you hope that you won’t die this time. Or perhaps that you will.