Just as I sometimes post to tell you how I’m adjusting to life here in Country X and what interesting things my friends and colleagues are doing, I want to give you an update on what life is like in my head.
I’m in an in-between state, so I’m not writing from the perspective of having arrived somewhere and of now being able to tell you where I started from and how I got here. But I am in a different place than I was before and probably in a different place than I will be in the future. That’s what I mean by being in between things.
The trauma seems to have receded as a focus. I’m attending more to integrating parts. I’m sure there will be more trauma to cope with. I am not doing it now. There is, in fact, a somewhat predictable rhythm to this process. Bits of memory pop up. I cope with them. Then I look at who I am now, having opened up a chink in the wall between myselves. As time goes on, the memories have become less demanding. Making sense of myself has become more demanding.
In integrating the parts, I should say I am not consciously thinking about them most of the time. I am not analyzing parts or trying to organize them into a system in my mind. I am feeling things that in the past I wouldn’t have felt and that still have a quality about them of being only half-there. By integrating parts, I mean cultivating a form of awareness that includes these half-felt feelings that I might have dismissed in the past, or not noticed, or not allowed to myself to feel at all.
So, this morning I had my breakfast and tea (the gas gave out mid-way—my cylinder is empty now) and I began to look around on the Internet at the sites I usually check that make me feel there is a world beyond my small life here in Y-Town (email, Facebook, blogs). And I began to write in my journal. I had this delicious sense of relaxation thinking about the Sunday morning lying entirely ahead of me. It was 5:30 by then. Lots of time before I needed to go out and buy vegetables or do really anything else. I felt that—relaxation and an expectation of pleasure.
Not much later, I began to think about the chores: there are many things I need to do that have to be paced in some way. The laundry needs to be scrubbed and soaked and then rinsed and soaked before I can hang it out, and I need to hang it out early enough for it to dry. (Although it’s raining today, so nothing is going to dry in any case). I boil water in the rice cooker, and that needs to be done (twice) before I fill it with rice again. The hot water heater needs time to heat before I fill the bucket with for a bath, and there’s no water pressure, so the bucket takes half an hour to fill. Mostly, I do the laundry in the same bucket I use to bathe in (I like the size of it), although I have a different, smaller bucket I can use if I need to. But that is mostly a cleaning bucket or part of a mousetrap. So the laundry usually needs to be finished before my bath.
It was 5:30 in the morning, but I still felt a pressure to start on things so that they would be finished before afternoon. What this does is fragment my mornings, so that there is never really a long stretch of time when I can just sit. I need to do one thing, then something else finishes up and I need to do something with that. Then there is peace for a while. After a time, I need to do something else. I write in the mornings, but I can’t sit and write continuously.
Thinking this, I felt stressed and anxious about the chores. I was aware of feeling that.
That’s where I am these days: feeling things and being aware of what I feel. This is my in-between life.
It isn’t entirely comfortable yet. For some part of me, that’s too many feelings to have in one morning. I shouldn’t have feelings like that. Maybe I ought to have feelings over big things, but not over small things. I seem to think I ought to be a kind of machine and just do things. It’s normal to have this kind of ongoing emotional life, but I’ve evidently avoided knowing about that or having one. Or some part of me has.
A different part sees all feelings as problems to solve. Feeling anxious about the chores means I ought to do them, so that I can stop being anxious about them.
Anyway, I got up and did them. Then I felt disappointed at how the morning was slipping away. So I felt that too.
Just being normal and feeling happy, anxious, and disappointed over the course of a few hours is a revelation to me. It’s not entirely pleasant, but it’s different than how I used to be or how I assumed I ought to be. I certainly didn’t know “healing” would mean I would feel that way. I might have imagined only sunshine and flowers, not a constant emotional experience that included both pleasant and unpleasant feelings.
That’s part of the in-betweennes.
It occurred to me later, as I was pouring the boiled water into a flask that will keep it warm all day, that I’m not this way because of my temperament—not entirely. We have this assumption that trauma pushes us further in the direction we are already headed. If we are a bit aggressive by nature, childhood trauma will make us more aggressive. If we are a bit timid, trauma will turn us into wallflowers and doormats. With me, that isn’t the case. The trauma I experienced was so intense it overwhelmed my temperament. I became who I am in spite of how I might have tended to be. How I instinctively react to many things reveals what I experienced. It doesn’t reveal my temperament, and in most cases my behaviour says more about my dad than it does about me.
This is one other layer of contradiction in my head: being in parts already means constant internal contradiction and this is yet one more. For example, I am fearful a lot of the time. I am fearful of new situations, fearful of people, fearful of other strange things you wouldn’t expect like the thing that hit my window yesterday morning that made a scratching, scrabbling sound and then disappeared. I’m not a timid person, and yet I am timid. The timidity is a result of the life I have lived, the omnipresence of danger, and the brainwashing of my cultish upbringing that makes everything a matter of eternal salvation.
As another example, I shut out ordinary emotions, or I have shut them out in the past at least. I have learned not to have them. I am not a cold, flat, emotionless person. That is not my temperament. My temperament is lively, warm, sensitive and compassionate with myself and others. I am this way because feelings were a liability when I was a child. They gave away too much to my torturers.
So there is my temperament, and there is how I have learned to be, and these are often at cross purposes. At the same time, I cannot just say the ways of being that I learned are not me. That would make me “not me” more than half the time. What would I be if I were “not me” so much? I don’t know, but I don’t think I would like it.
I can make sense of myself without disowning what is going on inside me only if I accept the extent of the trauma. Was it really that bad? Yes, it was that bad. It was so bad that my personality didn’t just fragment to cope. It was subsumed by the effort of survival. Survival became the driving force in my life. Not my preferences, not what felt comfortable for me, not what gave me pleasure, but what would allow me to live. My temperament leaked out in pockets, in isolated moments of peace, and most of what I think of as being myself is not in a strict sense a self of any kind: It’s the enacted desire to live. What I think of as being myself—any of my selves—is merely that effort to live. Yes, it was that bad. It was so bad that most of what I could do was just live. And later, I continued in much the same way because those old habits and behaiours helped me to manage the terror that remained even when I was safe. I didn’t know any other way to be.
My temperament is not mostly in my felt “I.” It’s not mostly in the parts. Rather, bits of it are tucked away in every self. Every self has some part of me in it. Every self is not mostly me: it is mostly the thoughts and behaviours that allowed me to live, and all of them have their own feelings, which are always also mine. I haven’t yet found all the bits. Some of the bits are still buried under the louder, stronger will to live. In time, I assume I’ll find them, as the dissociation diminishes, the chinks in the wall grow wider, and more information crosses the boundaries between my separate selves.
At the same time, I suspect the parts might all have aspects of their personalities that are pure embellishment. I needed a structure to house all the bits: the behaviours, the preferences, the habits, the feelings. Like a good writer, I may have added some things to put flesh on the bones of these bits. This remains to be seen. Other aspects of myselves might be fabrications: I didn’t understand for many years why I did things. I may have started to just make up explanations and ascribed motives and preferences to myself that I don’t have in order to have some kind of order in my head.
So here is a list of what is me, and what part I found it in.
Ghost writes poetry and likes holding hands. He can find beauty in anything. He likes butterflies and other insects, and really most living creatures.
Katie likes purple and classical music. She likes wearing national dress these days because it’s pretty.
Charlotte likes tea and has a stern kind of nurturing manner. She scolds in a way that makes it clear that she loves you. She likes being warm, and a day like today—a gloomy, steady drizzle spent cuddled under blankets is the best kind of day she can imagine.
Vivianne likes black and has a sense of style. She has dignity and courage and nothing can really stop her. She’s a coffee-drinker.
Sam (who hasn’t quite settled into a name, but I have to call him something) likes adventure and fun and new things. He likes the outdoors and being out in nature.
Lana is pragmatic. She’s organized and a problem-solver.
“I” believe in God.
The real I is all these things together. I write poetry (sometimes) and like holding hands. I can find beauty in anything. I like most living creatures. I like purple and classical music and wearing national dress. I like both tea and coffee and I am simultaneously stern and nurturing with my students. I like being warm, and I like cosy, rainy days like today. I like black and have a sense of style (sometimes) and I have both dignity and courage. I like adventure and fun and new things, the outdoors and being out in nature. I am pragmatic and a problem-solver, and I also believe in God.
Then there’s another list: expressions of the will to live. Some people might call them coping mechanisms. That seems to degrade them in some way, or to suggest it’s only about managing internal processes and not external ones and that some habits didn’t start off as ways to manage my psychopathic father or my sometimes psychotic mother. But you can call them whatever you want to, so long as we understand they are not my temperament. They are things I learned to do or that I was forced to do. They helped me keep my fear in check or they encouraged my parents to behave a little better, or they reined in my impulsivity, or they kept my emotions from overwhelming my ability to reason. When the people in charge of your life are murderous, reason is very important. You are small and only one person. You can’t overpower them. You can only try to outwit them. You must stay calm.
Ghost is afraid to speak sometimes. Words dry up. If he speaks, they might be the wrong words and someone might kill him. This is partly superstition and partly a practical matter. I did say the “wrong” words sometimes. This did sometimes prompt my mother’s murderous rage or my father’s calculated punishment.
Katie feels compelled to be “good.” In everything, she must be perfect. Otherwise she’ll die.
Lana has a million small obsessions, although these are fading. She counts things and prefers certain kinds of numbers. If “good” numbers crop up, good things will happen. If “bad” numbers arise, bad things will happen. Under stress, she becomes rigid and clings to routine.
She suppresses most feelings—good, bad, or indifferent—and doesn’t trust anyone.
Vivianne is idealistic. Like Katie, she thinks she has to do the “right thing” all the time, but it’s “right” thing based on humanistic values, not the “good” a 7-year-old might understand. She can’t be practical. She must have integrity at all times. She’s going to die anyway, so she might as well hold onto her authenticity.
All of these behaviours helped me at some point. It was often better to say nothing at all than to say something that would enrage everyone or attract attention. Being “good” brought me protection at times and pulled nurturing authority figures to me. It made teachers like me and the ministers say kind things to me. It brought a bit of warmth into my cold and lonely life. Obsessions and compulsions gave me some sense of control over life, so that the fear was less consuming and I didn’t become too paralyzed to act. Suppressing my feelings gave my dad less material to work with. He couldn’t figure out how to hurt me. In the long run, it made me a boring victim, and he hurt me less. Distrust kept me from forming relationships with those people in my life who would only betray me. Nearly every adult in my life exploited me in some way. Personal feelings made it hard to protect myself, and it made it impossible to detect deception—which was omnipresent. Better to hold everyone at a distance. Idealism made my dad give up torturing me. You can’t hurt or control people who no longer think about themselves or their personal well-being. And it also gave me something to live for when there wasn’t much else.
You might say I’m safe now. I can immediately drop all these things, but my head is only gradually becoming safe. I still need to get through the day. No one will torture me, but I could end up losing my job or spoiling friendships or just not be able to do the things I enjoy and make life worth living if I am too reactive or spiral into anxiety. Habits like these are best broken a little at a time. I still need to be able to manage the pain in my head, and the fears that breaking these habits creates can make doing that hard.
Frankly, I am not very concerned about my bad habits. They aren’t soul-destroying or life-squashing. They are more like inconveniences and odd quirks and, as I work directly with trauma memories more, the strength of the habit fades. I do them less without even realizing it.
But the point of this post isn’t really my bad habits. It’s recognizing my bad habits are distinct from my temperament. It’s not that everything about my “true personality” is good, but that it is flawed in other ways, or it will be once I put it together and figure out what it is.
So that’s where I am: I am starting to see who I am as a whole person a little.
Today. Tomorrow, I’ll be in a different place.