Muddle: life and death

I seem to have a lot to sort through these days. There have been shifts in my head that have made other things shift and now there’s a lot that seems loose, disorganized, imcomplete. So maye I should make a list. Then there will be at least the illusion of order in what I need to understand.

  1. I feel a lot more these days, but what I really mean when I say that is that I am aware of my enteric nervous system. The “gut” part of the emotions I have has become something I can perceive. Dissociation numbed this awareness. In the past, I did feel. I even knew what my feelings were much of the time, but I was missing that sensation in my gut. For example, I knew I was afraid because of the increase in my heart rate and respiration, not because of the knot in my stomach. I knew I was discouraged because of the sluggishness of my body, not because of the sinking feeling I had. As it turns out, the enteric nervous system seems to produce all kinds of sensations. Part of what I am doing now is just sorting them out.
  2. Those sensations are a part of the sense of aliveness I have these days. In itself, the sense of aliveness is overwhelming. The sensation of being alive and sentient has been numbed so much of my life that I have to get used to having it at all. At the same time, I have to work with the old belief that those sensations are not allowed. They will lead to bad things happening or are part of bad things happening. So I have to work with my fear at having them.
  3. The sense of aliveness tells me in a definite way that I am not dead. I am alive. I lived. What does it mean for me now to be alive? I am still puzzling that one out. But I also have feelings about what it means and those need to be sorted as well.
  4. The urge to commit suicide that I have so regularly is a flashback to the moments when the pain and fatigue were so great that I wanted to give up despite knowing the consequence of giving up would be death—and I knew that. So, for example, it’s an emotional memory of the point when the pain of standing on my tiptoes to avoid being hanged was so great that I just didn’t care. I wanted to let myself be hanged. This memory is triggered by many things, but mostly by fatigue, frustration and discouragement. The emotion it is really expressing is desperation. It is not really connected to despair or hopelessness or self-hatred the way you might expect. When I feel this way, I do have a sensation that might best be described as depression, but I don’t feel hopeless when I feel that way. I just feel like resting. When I do rest, I feel better again and the depression lifts. There are other times when I do feel such intense grief I feel despair, and there are also times when I feel self-hatred, or like self-harming. But my suicidal thoughts are not about self-harming. They are about wanting to sit down for a minute when I could not do that. This is something of a relief to me—partly just because it has been a mystery to me for so long. But also, I feel suicidal every day, so it’s troubling to think I want to die every day. It isn’t troubling to think I get tired every day.

Loss and freedom

There is a trade-off between mourning and freedom. The more I mourn, the more I am aware that the past is past and that I am free now. On the other hand, the more I am aware I am free, the more I am confronted by grief.

Not grieving keeps Natalya alive. It keeps my sister salvageable and my father still someone with hope for redemption. It keeps everything frozen in a sense, not past, but present. And the advantage of remaining frozen is that you don’t have to give up on anything or let anything go. Everyone can still be saved. I can be saved.

But everyone cannot be saved. Natalya really is dead. My father really is a man without conscience or empathy who is and always will be a danger to society. My mother really is mad and my sister really is damaged. The house really was on fire and it really did burn down. There is no longer any chance of a more favourable outcome.

I have tried to stay in the burning house, but that hasn’t helped anyone, let alone me. It just kept the prison in my head.

The last few weeks, I have been very focused on grieving and on acceptance. The result is that I feel both light with freedom and overwhelmed by horror and sadness.

It’s one of those things I had not expected it when it happened, even though I worked hard to get here. But I find myself going about daily life and having the usual feelings crop up and then being able to tell myself, “I don’t need to do that anymore.”

I don’t need to be afraid of tile bathrooms.

I don’t need to be afraid to make a mistake.

I don’t need to feel ashamed of who I am.

I don’t need to conceal my feelings or my personality or anything special about me that might give someone an idea of how to better manipulate or exploit me.

I don’t need to constantly hold all of the horror in mind so that it isn’t forgotten. I do know and I haven’t forgotten. And whether I forget or remember will not bring anyone back.


Another kind of distance

It’s Saturday and classes are over. Time to take stock again, it seems.

This week was difficult. Most weeks are. Not harder because I’m here, but harder because I am the one here, and my mind came with me along with my luggage and the cold virus I immediately surrendered to after I arrived.

I have been grieving for a sense of belonging. The grief has to do with accepting my history and my past and with accepting not only the events that occurred, but the dynamic and the social meaning of what happened.

My father is a criminal. He’s never been locked up, let alone charged but he has nonetheless broken a number of quite serious laws on a regular basis. He is a felon. And what he did involved all of my immediate family, either as victims of crimes or as perpetrators and sometimes as both. At another level, he also violated the moral codes of society and forced the rest of us to break them as well.

So I grew up with a profound sense of living outside the bounds of normal, decent society. We all have some sense of identity based on the groups we belong to: our culture, our race, our linguistic group, our ethnic group, our religious group, our neighborhood, our family. Some of my sense of identity is derived from that sense of living outside the law, outside society, and inside the shadow world of sex trafficking, sociopaths, and madness.

I still have some of that because of what I remember and understand now as a result of my history. For example, I am fairly certain I understand what it feels like to be a psychopath better than I understand what it feels like to be psychologically healthy.

I know what it is to lie and cheat and steal your way through life because that is the only way you can. I have lived by that moral code of cunning, trickery, dishonesty, and sleight of hand. It’s not the way I choose to live, but I can live that way. I could live that way when I had to. In the same way that I can survive here in a different culture with different customs and values, I could live in my father’s world when I had no other choices.

So that sense of not belonging to the world I have chosen to live in is still there. I am still trying to sort out what to make of it now, but I do know as I child my sense of belonging to another world was terribly painful for me. I wanted to belong. Specifically, I wanted to belong to a good world where I could be good, where I did not have to be bad or do bad things and where my mind wasn’t filled with bad thoughts.

In the past, I think I have responded to that feeling by finding ways to deny it. I am not bad. It is not my fault I did bad things. Those people had nothing to do with me.

Those things are true, but they elide certain social realities: that the group of people I spent much of my time with was bad, they did do bad things. My father was bad and still is bad, and we all did bad things along with him.

He was my father.

My mother raped me.

My sister raped me.

My father took me out to sell my body and my mother allowed him to.

My sister was sometimes there too.

Those are the facts.

Those people were my family. They had something to do with me. They will always have something to do with me. And, in some way, I love them. I even love my father, who I truly believe should be put to death because as long as he is alive he will find some way to cause suffering to someone else.

I can’t simply reject them or the world they forced me to live in. It is all much more complicated than that, because the worlds we occupy become a part of us or at least a part of who we think we are. That world and those people are a part of me.

They are my history. If I deny that world, I have no history. I have no real place anywhere, because I don’t entirely have a self. A self is formed not just out of the individual but from the groups we belong to now and the groups we belonged to in the past.

I am ashamed of that world now. I imagine I was ashamed of it then also. I think this shame is something that needs to be embraced. It is definite, real, present. It says the world was real. It is still real. That world exists and I have a feeling about it.

I don’t think this is unlike what other children who grew up in socially transgressive groups feel: if your parents were gangbangers or beggars or thieves, you might feel the same way I do. You might feel both painfully locked out of mainstream society even after you have really joined it and ambivalent about the world of your past. You have left it and yet it’s part of you. You don’t like it. You feel ashamed of it, but you cannot just cut it out of your head like you’re removing a tumor. The past is over and yet it remains.

In one sense, I think the end result is a sense of a dual identity. I belong to both worlds. I have chosen to remain in one of them, but both worlds inform my experiences. I can deny that, but denial returns me to my roots in a life of deceit. I cannot do that. I choose not to do that.

But I am still working all of this out. I don’t exactly know.

A new me

I came home from school after visiting the local holy place with a colleague (as I’ve made a habit of doing), boiled tea (as I also make a habit of doing), and sat down in a chair in the bedroom. And I looked down at my national dress then and thought, “I feel like a new person.”

It was a startling thought, so for a minute I continued looking at the fabric and thought it.

What did I mean by that anyway?

I’m not a better me. I know that much. At the moment, it is especially difficult to be me, so it’s not an easier me either.

I used to feel as if I existed on the other side of a glass from my own life, or that my world was shrouded in cotton wool. I feel less of that now, and it is such a change that it seems like I have changed and not just how I feel.

It’s interesting to think this, because it suggests something of a reward as if maybe I’ve gotten something out of this whole thing.

Lately, I am not generally more aware of being present in my own life or in my own body. Instead, I am more aware of having problems to manage internally. For example, a student misbehaves and I have to manage the feeling of frustration, which can lead quickly into discouragement and then despair and I also have to manage that. Despair leads to suicidal thoughts, which make me anxious, and I have to manage that too. Meanwhile, class needs to go on. I have to remember what I was doing before the misbehavior and my rush of feelings and thoughts. I have to keep doing those things that help kids understand difficult concepts while also responding in a helpful way to the student. All of this while still feeling.

But I have to manage all of that because I am more present.

The feeling of presence is so different from the feeling of numbness and dissociation that it seems like a change not just in how I am, but in who I am. I suppose that makes sense. Habitual ways of being often do become part of our identities.

On the other hand, I also think there’s something to this. Being present is what you might call ego-syntonic. As a person, I am very active, very energetic, very concerned with and involved in the world around me. A sense of aliveness feels like “me.”

However, most of the parts had numbness, a distance from the world, or an emotional flatness tied into how it felt to be them. A distance from the world and myself was ego-syntonic for them. Lana was stoic and emotionally unexpressive. Ghost felt he wasn’t even there. Katie felt alive but she had to conceal her aliveness. Virginie had only a single feeling: fierceness. I have other parts, but those are the ones I spent occupying most of the time. How they felt was mostly how I felt.

This “I,” that is present and alive and feels alive, is new. In the past, I have behaved like that person without feeling how that person would feel. So that’s the reward for all of this work, for trying to manage those avalanches of feelings. At least I think so.

Oh, and today (a week later), I played basketball in my national dress, which involves wearing two or three layers of cloth down to my ankles. That’s aliveness.


Contamination and the problem of existence

One of the recurrent feelings I have that I find difficult to describe or understand even is a sense of contamination or a fear of contamination.

I don’t mean a kind of OCD “if I touch things I’ll get dirty sense,” but it always ends up sounding like that. It is more an “if I am real and exist in the world, I will become bad.” Imagine a perfectly tasty, ripe tomato in a bag full of rotten tomatoes. Very quickly, it will become rotten. My world was full of rotten people, and I did not want to become rotten. So I wanted to think my way out of the bag. I wanted to not be in the world. There were other reasons I wanted to not exist also, but that was an important one.

I was walking to school this morning, when I thought of something that made it fall into place: affective empathy.

To some extent, we know how others feel and maybe also how they think because we feel their emotions in our bodies and think their thoughts in our minds. As adults, we can moderate this process. We feel the borrowed emotion, name it, think some things about it and move smoothly into feeling our own reaction to that feeling. But as children, we aren’t so good at that. We haven’t had enough practice, and sometimes we lack the cognitive empathy to understand the perspective of others we are experiencing a few parts of.

So as a child, I felt my father’s craving to harm others and his excitement at watching their suffering in my own mind and body. It was not my feeling perhaps, but I felt it inside myself. And I didn’t want it.

One way to not feel it is to numb your feelings. In the same way that you can dampen your own pain through psychic numbing, you can dampen someone else’s feelings in your own body.

Pretending I did not exist was a way of trying to dampen my experience of someone else’s feelings in my mind and body. It was also a way of coping with that fear of contamination I had based on how it felt inside me to be around the rotten people in my life.

But I’ve been convinced for a long time that the way forward for me—and maybe for everyone—involves being able to feel what you feel and what others feel without becoming consumed by those feelings and without acting to rid yourself of them. So I’ve tried just to be with them. When I see others are suffering, I try just to be with their feelings. For me, this is both a part of being fully alive and the only way to truly understand ourselves and others. We cannot know what others have lived through if we insulate ourselves from their feelings. We cannot know what we have lived through if we insulate ourselves from our own feelings. As much as we are able, we must be willing to feel.

It occurred to me today that it works both ways. If I am to be fully alive, I cannot numb the memory of what I knew my father felt as he tortured me. I cannot understand his mind—which is at the center of my childhood experience—if I suppress what I know of how it worked.

Feeling his feelings in my own body does not make me him. Thinking his thoughts in my own mind does not make me him either. That is just how we first come to learn about the perspectives and experiences of others, and I am remembering what that was like at an age when I could not do anything further with that.

I can know what it is to be rotten without becoming rotten myself.

Mourning Natalya

Yesterday, we had a school worship service. The whole process lasted the entire day—from before I arrived at 8 am until 5 pm, when important guests arrived for dinner. So I was at school for nearly 12 hours.

I’m starting to understand that what causes most of my difficulties now is that the childhood torture created an intense reactivity. And my reactions are also confused. I have strong, mixed, and sometimes mystifying thoughts and feelings about a lot of things. So arriving at calm and clarity takes work and effort. It also takes time.

Days like Saturday’s worship service mean hours of coping with non-stop confusion and reactivity. Before dinner had even begun, I felt so exhausted I wanted to cry.

We have a half day on Saturdays anyway. Sunday is the only full day off from school, and it’s difficult for me sometimes because there isn’t much time for me to make sense of myself or my experiences. It’s even more difficult when the days are extended for one reason or another—like Saturday’s worship service or a football match in the evenings. It means there isn’t enough time to rest and recharge before the onslaught of having to cope with the world again.

But at least I have this much.

I know the other volunteer teachers are using their Sundays to explore their new environments, to make friends, to have fun. I am just trying to manage and make sense of everything I have had to suppress or set aside to get through the week with some degree of functionality and sanity. I am beginning to be able to accept this as being my life, instead of wishing things to be other than how they are, or trying to pretend I do not need to do this and then having the consequences of denial catch up to me later, or even seeing this as a character flaw or a weakness that needs to be overcome.

One tiny piece of yesterday was a memory of Veronique. There is a teacher here in Country X with a voice something like hers, and speaking to her over tea yesterday brought the memory of her back to me.

Veronique’s name was not really Veronique. It was Natalya. I don’t know why I felt the need to give her my own special name. Maybe I wanted to claim her as my own in some way, or maybe Natalya was not really her name either, but the kind of name adopted by or given to sex trafficking victims like a brand name—something to make you exotic, appealing, sexy. Something to make you sell better. And so it did not make any difference.

But I remember two things about Natalya very clearly now: I loved her and she was murdered.

I read about her death in the paper. I think it was one of those notes on the back page: Mutilated body of unidentified white female found dumped in shallow water in City Y.

Maybe that wasn’t her. But I never saw her again after that. Other explanations for her disappearance are possible. Perhaps they moved her to another location. Maybe she was found by Immigration officers and returned to her home country. But at 12, when I read the two-line report about it in the newspaper. I was convinced they had murdered her. My reaction to someone’s voice over tea on Saturday is rooted in that conviction. Whether the conviction is correct or not.

Natalya was a victim of gross human rights violations. In all likelihood, she was deceived by mercenary human traffickers who promised her a job and a life of promise in the United States. Or maybe she was out-and-out kidnapped. But she did not come here to be a sex worker. No one does.

Once she arrived, however, she was sold to sex traffickers and remained at their mercy until they killed her. It’s not an unusual story really. It isn’t unusual, either, that her pimp forced her both to perform in pornography and to work the streets. I don’t think it was even unusual that she performed in pornography that featured sex acts between women and girls designed to be sold to a male audience. She wasn’t the only young woman I performed in pornography with.

But I don’t remember the others with any clarity. I remember Natalya. I remember her because she was kind. If you are forced to, in effect, rape a child on screen you can do it in a few different ways. You can do it harshly, because that child is even more vulnerable and powerless than you are and the child is someone to take your anger out on. You can do it in an entirely dissociated state, as if neither of you are there, because the horror of what you are doing and of what someone else wants you to do is too difficult to bear. Or you can do it with some concern for the child and her suffering, in spite of the fact that you are also suffering.

Natalya did it the third way.

I don’t know that we saw each other aside from our hours in front of the camera. I don’t recall whether we interacted in any other way aside from the sex acts we were forced to perform on each other. But touch can be immensely communicative, even if we did not actually speak and could not understand one another’s language. Natalya’s touch said, “I do not want to hurt you.” It said, “I care about what happens to you.” Above all, it said, “I understand you are there. You are real to me. You are not merely an empty shell of a bod that exists only to be used.”

I don’t think that is an easy attitude to have while you are being exploited in one of the most dehumanizing and humiliating ways possible. I think it is an extremely difficult one to maintain. But Natalya did that for me.

As a child, I don’t think I knew many people that decent or that humane. When she was murdered, it felt to me as if the last really good person had been snatched off the face of the earth. When I recall her now, I am overcome by an old sense of despair, as if there really is no one and nothing to live for any longer. It isn’t true, but feelings can be like a time capsule, letting us know exactly how we felt in the past.

I am getting better at coping with despair. I am beginning to be able to mop the floor while feeling there is nothing else to live for. I can make lunch while feeling that I cannot cope with life any longer and everything hurts too much. I am grateful for that. It means I can fully experience my feelings without having my life fall entirely apart. I can keep up a little at least.

At the same time, I want to make something good out of this. In a very literal sense, Natalya did not survive. I did. I think when you live through a horror that others do not, there is an internal pressure to live on their behalf. Natalya never made it out of the game, let alone to Country X, and there is a sense that I am here for her sake as well as my own and that experiencing my own freedom fully is the best way to allow her to be free as well.

* This post was written almost two weeks ago.

The burning house

For a long time, I have had the sense of my family of origin being something like a family in a burning house. Only I survived. The others remained trapped.

My father was the fire.

My mother was very, very ill psychologically. Although I can’t know exactly what her diagnoses would be now, it seems to me now that she probably had bipolar disorder. She definitely had difficulties with intense emotional reactivity generally—either because of her temperament or because of trauma or both. Between the two, she sometimes lost touch with reality entirely in the form of psychotic episodes.

My father knew this. He knew she was highly reactive. He knew what her sensitivities were. And he intentionally did and said things to activate those feelings so that her internal state was constantly off-balance and disordered. Although she might have abused her children regardless, my father’s emotional manipulation made her more out-of-control and more abusive.

He also led everyone in the family—my mother, my sister, and me—down a path towards evil.

Harming others is learned, just as helping others is. Specifically, you learn it by doing. Both helping and harming are easier to learn if you begin in small steps. So, if you transgress normal societal rules in small ways, then it becomes easier to transgress in larger ways. You develop ways to cope with your guilt about the transgression, and this removes some of the inhibition to commit more destructive acts. So you are more likely to do them.

My mother was impaired and my sister and I were children. So that made it easier. A group of vulnerable people, unable to make sound decisions for themselves and easily coerced into doing what they knew was wrong. If you can combine persuasion and force to prompt them to commit more and more harmful acts, then you can teach them to be evil.

I don’t know how he began in this process, but I think I know now how he got to its end: it was gradual, some steps were taken because of force and fear, and the end result was a destruction of our moral compasses as well as some of our ability to make decisions or follow through on plans. Only I was able to resist, retain my conscience, and actively plan a way out.

My father is the reason I am left now without any family to rely on. He is the reason I am, at a practical level, an orphan. He destroyed my sister and tortured my mother psychologically. He is evil, and he spread has spread his evil to those around him like something contagious. My father was the fire.