A Country X update

Today, we have another religious festival. We don’t get a day off for it though. This year, it fell on a Sunday, but in other years when it fell on a weekday, the school still didn’t give one. I don’t really know why this is. Maybe you can only declare so many holidays, and our principal is a bit severe and maybe not the holiday-declaring type. So this holiday does not mean any extra time for thinking about anything or trying to do anything about parts.

But there are various bits I should update you on.

First, I had a visitor to lunch today. This is the first adult I’ve invited home—although a few students came last weekend for tuitions and the neighbor kids came over some time ago, curious about my house and my stuff. My colleague got a migraine and I burned the curry, so I wouldn’t say it was a great success, but perhaps it’s progress towards a social life. It’s easy not to have one here—somehow easier than back in the States. And that probably isn’t such a good thing.

Then I blocked up the kitchen sink and broke the tubing that leads to the drain in the course of trying to unblock it. I think it is more or less fixed now. It is definitely unblocked. So I have a functional kitchen sink again.

I have a mouse or at least I used to. Last Sunday, it ran around the kitchen and then into the livingroom, where it disappeared. I have not seen it since, but maybe it’s just become more sly.

I also had a cat visitor last week. At 5:30 in the morning, an orange kitten came yowling at the door. Curious, I opened the door and it ran in, looked around, and went to sleep on my bed until I kicked it out before leaving for school. I have not seen the cat since either. Maybe it is somewhere running after the MIA mouse. But it was nice to have a cat around again for a little while. I should probably tell you the cats look different here. They are not usually either striped or splotchy (although there are some splotchy cats), but an almost solid color somewhat like a puma. They are mostly tan or gray. My visitor was orange.

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A holiday and a toddler

I spent most of the weekend with Ghost. I learned some things: One, that he is about two years old; Two, that he is a he.

When someone forms an identity out of being invisible, you don’t at first realize these things about him.

Ghost does not talk—he has learned to talk, but can’t any longer. But he feels things.That’s the way to get to know him—to feel what he’s feeling.

He’s afraid of other people and afraid to go outside. He’s afraid that someone will see him, and then they will realize he’s not a real person, and then they will kill him.

So I went to the district headquarters today. There was a holiday, and that’s where it was all happening. Because of Ghost, I felt very awkward. I didn’t want to make any mistakes in how I wore my national dress, which of course meant that everything blew everywhere—it was a windy afternoon—and I looked even more uncomfortable and out of place than the sole white person in the crowd might have otherwise looked. But I hadn’t realized this.

Because, of course, Ghost is really me and although I’m not actually two years old (or a him), other things about him are also true for me. I do feel like I’m not a real person and that other people might find this out. And I hadn’t known this.

There is a certain kind of logic to the feeling: Other people don’t generally treat people the way I grew up being treated. Other people don’t, as a rule, do the things I was forced to do. Therefore, I must not be a real person. Real people don’t do those things.

But it’s also a way a toddler might try to feel safe. “Maybe,” my toddler-self thought, “If I am very quiet and very still and don’t cause any problems, no one will notice me. And if no one notices me, they won’t be able to hurt me.”

I remember some of that. For many years, I was selectively mute. I spoke sometimes, but there were situations where I didn’t say anything, people I didn’t respond to, weeks where I said nothing to anyone. Selective mutism, contrary to popular assumption, is not usually linked to trauma. It is the result of an anxiety disorder. But I was both traumatized and highly anxious.

So not talking took on a personality in my mind. And that makes sense too. For the rest of me, mutism came unexpectedly. My throat would close. Words refused to come out. Words fell out of my head. It was not a person doing this. It was just fear. But a person is easier to understand than fear.

Nonetheless, the end result of trying to act like you don’t exist is that you begin to feel you really don’t. And being abused had already done that.

Sometimes, I also realize how difficult it was as a small child to understand lying. “Someone told me this doesn’t hurt or that it wouldn’t hurt. They must not know it hurts. They must not be able to see that it hurts.” Or even, “Maybe it doesn’t hurt. Maybe my pain is not real. Maybe I am not real.”

Lying. Lying was difficult to grasp.

I also concealed my pain, because my father is a sadist. Suffering egged him on. If I wanted him to stop, it was wiser to try to conceal my suffering. If I did that, he might get bored. And so I stopped seeing my own pain too.

It’s all very complicated, isn’t it? But this is why seeing my own pain has been important to me. It means that I was real. I existed. I bled the way anyone else would.

We went for a walk today, Ghost and I, after leaving the district headquarters. It was the first time he’d really been out. He has been too scared.

I live very close to the main center of my village. You might say I live in the very center, but really I have to walk about half a block to get there. The school where I teach is about seven minutes beyond that. This was the other direction. I hadn’t realized how quickly things would feel different. There were birds aside from crows and English sparrows. I don’t know what they were, but they were Country X birds—not these imported, foreign creatures. There were no dogs barking and no children screaming. Where I live there are almost always children screaming. Or crying, or singing, or chanting rhymes.

Dogs barking and children screaming: Those are the sounds I hear from daylight until I sleep at night, and the dogs go on barking until morning when it seems they actually sleep for a while. Those are my lullabies. But out of the village center, there are fewer children and no dogs. It’s suddenly quiet.

I saw a cat though, tail held high above old rice stalks as it wove its way through a murder of crows.

And pretty. The village center is not as covered with trash as other places I’ve been, but you can’t walk two steps without seeing an empty crisp packet or an old plastic bottle. It was one of my first disappointments. The country, everyone told me, is beautiful. Yes, if you can stop seeing all the trash. There’s a stream running parallel to the road that leads to the school. The trash I see in it every day pains me. It is not the LA River, but for a village of a few hundred, it shouldn’t be this way.

There were empty crisp packets and old plastic bottles on my walk, but fewer. Not so many that the landscape made me wince.

Anyway, it was a nice walk. He liked the birds.

Spring in Country X

The trees are beginning to blossom—white and pink. I don’t know what kind of trees they are, or if they will later bear fruit. But there are various patches of pink on the hillside from them. They are beautiful.

We have another long weekend now. It’s an important Country X religious event and they are celebrating for three days. I will, I swear, eventually go and join them, but right now I’m sitting at home inviting some feelings in—mainly whatever is underneath the little voice that says, sometimes, insistently, “I want to die.”

Usually, I hear it and don’t feel much of anything, except afraid. I assume I am afraid of the urge to suicide, but maybe I want to snuff myself out because the terror is too much to bear. I don’t know. I work at trying to know and don’t get very far.

But today I feel it. Mostly, the feeling is terror. Because of that, I realize my dissociation is primarily organized around keeping the terror to a manageable level so that I can keep making good decisions and I can stay alive.

Which is why it follows that the urge to die is the most dissociated of all. What if I really followed through on them? I don’t want to think about that.

So, I try to think it is safe to feel this. Feelings are just feelings. Thoughts are just thoughts. Impulses are just impulses. Nothing can hurt me. But the urge is so strong I don’t entirely believe this.

Until it crosses my mind that, in fact, I don’t know how. I don’t even know how to dispose of my own garbage yet, let alone locate a lethal weapon. It must be possible—people must kill themselves in Country X also—but the ways I can think of are both too brutal and too iffy to contemplate. I could, for example, connect myself to live voltage, but Jesus that sounds like a horrible way to go.

Nonetheless, my suicidal thoughts force me to directly confront the horror that was my life as a child and a young person as well as how much it still hurts now. Yes, it was that bad. It is that bad. Despite every good and wonderful part of my life, the pain is unbearable.

Perhaps here I should add that I have only attempted suicide twice that I can remember. The first time, I was not yet three. The second time, I was five. Unbearable.

What I’ve done up until now is to deny it. Deny the pain or the extent of it. Deny the causes. If I couldn’t deny, I have at least minimized it.

The end result has been whole parts of myself devoted to holding that denial. Without the denial, this is what I am left with: pain so great, I simply cannot bear it.

But what I start to feel as I write this—and maybe this is just the slippery slope of denial again—is that maybe I can bear it. You are here with me, listening. I am not alone. And so perhaps I can bear it. I think maybe you have also felt pain you could not bear, and yet you did bear it. You are here in spite of it.

I am reminded now of the years of useless therapy I put in, trying to make the unbearable bearable. I think now it was useless because my therapists (and there were several over the years) could not sit with unbearable horror. No amount of coping skills can bring the horror back into the range of bearable again. You cannot analyze sense into horror or offer insight. Horror is by its very nature incomprehensible. It defies understanding. It is simply mad.

All you can do is just be with it. And they could not do that. I could not either. They retreated into their modes of denial, and I retreated into mine. They analyzed or made suggestions for ways to dispose of the feelings—depending on their inclination—and I dissociated.

One mistruth people always want to tell you about suffering is that it is now in the past. You are safe. (I am safe.) It is not in the past and it is not over, because what is unsafe is my own head.

What I grew up with is considered psychological torture. The nature of psychological torture is that the pain is a result of how the mind and brain function and not so much because of the rest of the body. Waterboarding, done “correctly,” will not lead to death or permanent physical damage. But the terror and powerlessness it creates are immense and lasting. By the same token, psychological torture continues to hurt because of the way our minds remember—associatively, rather than in a linear fashion, and by re-creating the same internal physiological and emotional processes. So the terror and powerlessness, for example, resurrect themselves for years after the waterboarding has ended. It is not enough to know that the torture chamber has been decommissioned forever and no one will waterboard you again. The “knowing” part of the brain is not the reason the torture was painful.

Everything done to me was a form of psychological torture. I grew up, in a sense, in Guantanamo. Forced and transgressive sex acts are torture. Exposure to extreme heat or cold is also. So is the use of stress positions, drowning, mock execution, witnessing the torture of others or being forced to torture others, and being forced to eat excrement or inedible food. The purpose is to create overwhelming feelings of terror, humiliation, and powerlessness. The purpose is to make your feelings hurt you.

In psychological torture, the mind hurts in addition to the body, and the mind—unlike the body—keeps hurting. You cannot control this. It is not a matter of “letting go” or of experiencing one last catharsis or of putting the past in the past. You can only learn to be with it when it hurts, to be with yourself when you hurt. I am trying to learn this now. On a Monday afternoon, in Country X, while the trees bloom and a mouse runs around in my kitchen, finding crumbs. Maybe I can. I don’t know.

Happy day

Today is a holiday. Yesterday, in a technical sense, was also, but I wouldn’t have had to work in any case. So today is both a celebration and a day off. It is not actually Happy Day—that’s a different holiday.

Because of my thoughts yesterday, I am in a different place today. It doesn’t always work out this nicely—sometimes I need to stay in the difficult feelings for a long time. But the pay-off later is why I do those kinds of things.

It seems to me that, although my remaining, unintegrated parts are probably not what you would think of as full personalities, they are ego states. They are mostly about moods and how I tend to think and behave in those moods. So Lana is mostly rooted in anxiety. Katie is happy. Ghost, while not a specific emotion, is everything you feel and do when you are invisible and don’t count.

You wouldn’t think happy would end up dissociated—especially if you assume, as I do, that dissociation has something to do with denial. But it does when happy is linked to unbearable loss.

I was happy at the Keegans in foster care. After I was returned to my natural parents, happiness was too powerful a reminder of what I had lost to be tolerated. Happiness needed to be kept at a distance.

So, having acknowledged some of that loss, I was able to feel happy today without having it become swallowed in grief. Not all day, but a good couple of hours. It was nice.

I have some thoughts about happiness as well as about the whole process

Happiness is an energetic feeling. You need some of that to keep you going. Without it, all you have left to motivate yourself with is fear or anger—which might explain why depressed people are usually anxious as well.

Happiness makes you put on rose-coloured glasses. It’s probably not the best place to make decisions from. For example, although I have a full five-day work-day ahead of me (and 12 lessons to plan and write up in a totally unfamiliar format based on an incomprehensible set of textbooks), I think I can still get this done by Tuesday morning with time for a post and a walk. Anxiety is probably a more realism-inspiring state. But happiness is more fun.

I am the same person when I feel like Gloomy Gus as when I am Katie. Katies and Gloomy Guses come and go, but I am constant.

People basically treat me the same way regardless of how I feel or see myself. On the one hand, how we treat others is mostly based on our own internal moral compass and not other people’s moods or self-views: Jackasses remain jackasses. They don’t just come crawling out of the woodwork to accommodate my low moods. On the other hand, I see myself in parts, but most people see me as a whole.

I know that is probably obvious to all of you, but I’ve run a bit behind on these things.

The first stage is acceptance

I have been meditating on the idea of disappointment.

This started a few weeks ago. There was a holiday at that point, and this meant a public celebration and two days off from school. On Sunday night, the texts began to come in. “How was your weekend?” And the teachers placed elsewhere in Country X told me of what exciting, wonderful things they had done. I, well, I went to the public program, and then stayed home trying to sort out my head so that it would still work the next week. This is another holiday weekend. Although I also have the pressure of lesson-planning, I am doing some of the same thing.

It’s not so much that I wish I had gone out and done wonderful, social, culturally enriching things as that it got me thinking what I would be doing if I didn’t have a head that required so much sorting out.

It made me think about losses again, because the losses from abuse are often ongoing. The harm doesn’t end when the abuse ends. It lasts.

There are things you need to do In order to recover when you have been traumatized. This takes time and energy you can’t spend on other pursuits. Further, abuse affects how we think and behave, and so it impacts how well we can function in work and relationships. These areas often suffer.

Because life does not proceed in distinct segments—it is continuous—the impact from the past proceeds into the future. Lost opportunities—because we were too busy or too impaired to avail them—translate into a diminished present and future.

To put it succinctly, my father (and I blame him more) didn’t just rob me of my childhood. He took away great swathes of my adult life, and those great swathes will extend into the future. Whatever my life becomes in the future, I will never be able to do what I might have done if I hadn’t grown up in his house.

I don’t want to acknowledge this. For most of my life, I have not. I would prefer to put a more positive spin on it. I would like it better if I just appreciated what I had. Or if I gritted my teeth and moved on. And yet what this has left me with is a nagging, unresolved grief.

It’s a grief that has followed me for as long as I can remember. I was like the child on the playground who can’t walk, marveling at all the other children playing tag. “That looks like so much fun. Why can’t I do that?” Not knowing that I had no legs

There were so many things it seemed to me then that I ought to be able to do—things the other children did easily, or things I knew I had the skills to do and the talent for. But I couldn’t remember what I needed to remember, or I was caught up in my own crisis, or I became overwhelmed with anxiety. “What’s wrong with me?”

Even now, although I know what is wrong, the time I need to put into healing takes away from opportunities to socialize and diminishes my relationships. It takes away from my work and limits my career. In the past, the poor choices I made as a result of what I can only think of as brainwashing mean that I don’t have children and my partner is far away from me. It has taken away from my family life.

I cannot think of any domain it has not affected. What’s hard to articulate clearly is that in 20 years from now when I hope to have fully recovered from the abuse, you will still see those affects. You cannot magically make up for all that lost time. When you are tortured throughout your childhood and your adolescence, you end up 30 years behind the curve. You make a life, but you cannot make the life you might have had. This is true in tangible ways (I will never have the retirement fund I might have had) and in less tangible ways (my relationships will be “younger” and less secure).

I didn’t know this when I was younger. After I escaped from my childhood home (and it always feels like an escape to me), I thought I’d get some counseling, move on, and all would be well. It was not well. It is still not well. It may not be well for years. And consequently, most of the hopes I had for my future I those days led to nothing more than disappointment.

And I am reminded here of the only good parenting moment my mother ever had. It was raining that day. I remember the umbrella and the plastic boots. I was having a bit of a tantrum and stamping my plastic boots. My mother said, “Yes, it’s disappointing that you can’t play outside today because of the rain.”

Yes, it’s disappointing. This life is a disappointment when compared to the life I might have had if my father had never existed.

What’s interesting about not denying or minimizing the feeling is that, while painful, the disappointment is livable. I can’t live with the denial. I can’t even live with looking for a silver lining. Those strategies keep me in pieces and prolong the pain. I can even enjoy the life I have now while feeling sorrow at the one I can’t have. They are not incompatible. And those kinds of mixed feelings and complex realities are the stuff of being whole.