Thinking out loud

I feel like I need to reassess, to choose a direction again. It’s an odd thing, really, since I don’t know where the process is going exactly or how to navigate it. I’m mostly allowing it to unfold on its own. But I suppose sometimes we’d like the illusion of purpose, even if what we’re doing isn’t getting us anywhere faster than doing something else would.

There are some loose ends. Some things just to be aware of—incomplete thoughts to chase down.

Charlie worries about his thinking. He worries about behaving as though others he interacts with have a set of goals that are shared with him when they really don’t. He worries about his capacity to change this assumption as well as the loneliness of a life for him in which he can never make that assumption again.

And yet there is sort of a way of saving this position, of not having to modify it too much—and it is easier for now if assumptions and preconceived notions and beliefs only need minor tweaks instead of massive overhauls. There are so many of them. If they need overhauls, integration will take a long time.

The tweak is to understand himself (myself) as still part of a collective. His life (my life) is still entwined with Natashka’s. We are still a collective, and in the rest of life we are interacting with the world as a collective alongside separate collectives or as a collective alongside individuals. We don’t necessarily have shared goals with other individuals or other collectives. We might. We might not. But Natashka and I still have the same goals or can. Charlie can still use that frame to understand his world. He doesn’t have to change it. At the moment, the goal is for me to figure out how to be happy again. She no longer needs much of anything for herself, but I do, and my well-being has become her happiness. It probably always was. But when I was a child I had her well-being to worry about too. Now I don’t. Now if I take care of my own, I have taken care of hers also. In that way, life has become easy. It is much easier than it was, and the relative ease of it is maybe something I am not used to. It is perhaps too startling to take in. I don’t know. I think it is.

It feels like I knew this in one part of myself, but other parts of myself didn’t. I have the sense that I knew it as soon as I lay Natashka’s body gently body back on the pavement. Not that I was alone then, but that I was living for two people and my life came with responsibilities now. The questions was, for a long time, what does it mean to live for two people. Does it mean you live out the life the other longed for?

No, it doesn’t mean that. No one wants you to eat her favourite ice cream because she has lost her sense of taste.

Later, I might begin to realize it also means something different than I think it does now, but it seems to mean I take care of myself: I can be happy living, but all she can do is watch me living. I ought to try to live well.

I ought to try to live the way it seems to me she taught me: authentically, kindly, with grace and with courage. I don’t need to do much beyond that.

That’s one loose end tied up.


I get it

I don’t know what “it” is, but I get something. I get the process of what I am doing now, and the process of what has to be done.

It started when I woke up yet again wanting to cry and not wanting to get out of bed or generally get on with life because Natalya is not here and the whole bed/sleep thing seems to really trigger this feeling and it’s awful. And it happens every single freaking day. Today, worse than usual.

I think I’m less dissociated. Yippee.

So the question arises, why every day? Yes, I get that emotions are information. The information is that she is dead and I am not happy about it. The information is that I spent my childhood moving in and out of an intense longing to be reunited with her and bedtime and waking-up time reminds me of that most strongly. It reminds me I don’t live with her, that while her little room in that single occupancy hotel was home to me, it wasn’t the place I got to return to. It felt like home, but no one else thought it was. I always had to leave.

Message received and understood. ACK

Why do I have to keep getting the message? At this intensity? Every day?

That isn’t just a complaint. I want to know.

I think I do know.

Our brains think in different ways. Certain kinds of information are processed along one track and other kinds of information are processed along another track. One of them is conscious and effortful—that’s the bit I wrote up above. The other kind of thinking is fast, effortless, and usually outside our conscious awareness. It’s not outside our awareness because we don’t want to know about it. It’s outside our awareness because if we were aware of everything being processed in our heads the din would be enormous. And it’s not necessary. I don’t need to look at the bed and think, “That’s a bed.” My brain just needs to, non-consciously, locate the procedure for making it up and then instruct my body in what to do. As it does.

It’s started to seem to me that, in conditions of traumatic dissociation, these two ways of thinking are often separated. I imagine this happens so that we can think still, so that some kind of cognitive ability is retained even when instinct would mandate we shut down cognition and just act. I don’t know this, but it’s my hypothesis. The reason doesn’t matter that much though.

The kinds of information that are being processed automatically are more extensive than I realized. It includes procedural memory, and our emotions are often procedural—like making up a bed in the morning. A certain thing happens that has happened in a similar way before and your brain locates the usual emotional response and instructs your body in creating that corresponding emotional experience: those physical sensations, that respiratory response, that hormonal release. It’s efficient. You don’t have to think through how to react every time someone gives you a present. You’ve had one before. Your brain knows what to do.

That’s one piece.

I think now our social selves are also formed through non-conscious processes. We are aware of them. We know about them in a conscious, slow-track way, but our slow-track isn’t creating our social selves. It’s the fast track. I have parts because the process of understanding who I am as one person relating to other people was cranking along even though nothing made any sense. And so the fast track said, Okay, they don’t make sense together: my internal experience is totally disjointed and the way others perceive me is also totally disjointed, but we can make this work if we just divide it up a little.

The fast-track does other things, but that’s enough for now. It does procedural memory and it does how we see ourselves.

The fast-track also processes information differently than the slow-track. It requires a different kind of evidence. You can tell your slow-track something once and it might not remember, but if it does, that’s enough. The city where I live is called Y-Town Okay, done. I can now refer to it as Y-Town. One telling is enough.

The fast-track understands probability and so it needs multiple exposures before something is true. Something happens once, the fast-track says, Okay, this is something that can happen, but it looks like a fluke to me. It happens again, and it says, Okay, maybe we need to pay more attention. It happens a hundred times, and it says, This is how things are.

I get, at a conscious level, that the experience of separation from Natalya is a part of the trauma of my childhood. Being separated from the only reliable, nurturing figure in my life was a part of the ethos of my growing up. I get that that was my experience.

But my fast-track isn’t there yet. It needs a few hundred more exposures to that information before it can shuffle my self-identity around and say, Oh, yes, that’s me. That’s how I feel and felt. It’s still wondering if it’s a fluke.

Message received but not understood. NACK.

I have to keep doing this until my fast-track does that for me. I cannot cogitate myself into a single identity. I have to give my fast-track exposures so that it can formulate it for me.

Meanwhile, I need to be able to cope with the feelings. I need to make the whole process suck a little less for myself so that I don’t just go on dissociating my emotions because they are too big and too intense and too dreadful. I need to be nice.


Natalya’s death hits me in a different way today. It hits me harder and deeper and in a way that I seemed to emerge from knowing fully, completely that she is dead.

There is a feeling I have about her death. It’s not a new one, but I don’t think it had understood before that it is a feeling from the moment of her death. It is not the only feeling: it is part of the swirl of enormous flood of emotions I had when I felt her take her last breath and then after that the sense of life flowing out of her.

It is an emotion that is hard to name. I might call it gratitude or perhaps awe—the two of them together somehow.

She lived and for a while I was in that life. I could hear her and talk to her and touch her and hold her and love her and be loved by her. And then she died. And it is a miracle I was with her in that life. It is a miracle I was with her in her death.

Maybe we all feel that way about people we love. They are a wonder to us.

She was a wonder to me.


Sam has this looping, disturbing memory at night before he falls asleep. It is creepy and terrifying and yucky, but it is entirely unclear to either of us why it needs to be remembered.

There are 9.000 other more creepy, more terrifying, more yucky memories that could be playing out in our heads that don’t.

Also, this one doesn’t make sense.

It goes on replaying in the morning, just in a kind of loop. After a while, I start to realize it is not one memory, but a whole category of different memories that seem in some way related.

I can’t really untangle them. I know what I’m remembering, but not why it’s important or what it is that ties them together for me.

And then it suddenly hits me. Nata had a baby. The memories are important because of the baby.

She was pregnant. I think she was pregnant twice—once when she was quite young, maybe only 12 or 13, and again when she was a bit older. It is the second baby she delivered. (The first one was aborted.)

I remember holding that baby—the weight of it and its squashed-up baby face.

The thing about babies is the relationship so often forms before they are born. There is that seven or eight months before you ever catch sight of them when you know they are there growing inside their mother’s body.

And then they are born and they are wonderful. They are miraculous. Most of the time, they end up with all the usual body parts. They have 10 fingers and 10 toes. And they cry and they shit and spit up and they do all of these amazing baby things that indicate they are real, genuine, authentic human beings and in so many cases someone you loved—or yourself—made the baby inside her very own body. It is completely stunning. Despite all the spitting up and the crying and the shitting, it is terribly hard not to love them. Especially if it never occurs to you to try not to. The love just comes.

Maybe if you are tired and fed up and never get to sleep, the miracle of this is lost on you, but if you are 10 or 11 years old and a youngest child (so that you have never witnessed anything quite like this before), then this makes an impression. You are spell-bound with wonder.

I was spellbound with wonder.

But then, one day, the baby is gone. They come to take it away, and after that I never see the baby again. The miracle of its life is like one more thing stolen from me. She is one more loss to grieve for, one more person I could not protect, one more love I could not keep.

I don’t know what they called her later, this baby who would now be 30 years old, but Natalya named her Vera. She called her Veroushka, just as I later called myself. Vera means faith.

I miss her.

You don’t love me

Katya does not appear very often. When she does pop up, there is often this kind of rootless, unattached thought: You don’t love me.

I remember saying this over the dinner table to my mother. Who then gave me a good hard whack across the face. Which pretty much confirmed things for me.

Increasingly, I’m getting the sense that my actual relatives were, for me, like roommates you don’t particularly like. They were there. I had to figure out how to get along with them. There were occasionally some moderately good times and the appearance of warmth.

But they weren’t family. They were people I lived with. They sometimes took care of me because they had to, but there is very little real connection. Even my sister, who grew up with me, had an entirely different childhood. She wasn’t trafficked and she has blocked out the real, dreadful shit she lived through because my parents were really and truly insane—and not in a wonderful, creative, out-of-the-box kind of way, but in a homicidal, these are dangerous people to let loose in society kind of way. So I don’t have that sibling connection of a shared history, even if two people always see the same things a little differently and a history lived in the same place is never entirely shared. Our history is not in any way shared. We lived in the same house as if we lived in entirely different worlds.

Katya, I realize, had to come to grips with that. For years, most of us will grieve our mentally ill family members, hoping they can function and become capable of love and authentic, nurturing interactions with others and then after decades realize this is never going to happen for them or for us. For children of parents who are mentally ill, this grief often lasts, unresolved, for decades.

Katya was grieving this at seven years old. She had to somehow face the idea that, no, they did not love her. They could not. In that regard, they were fundamentally, permanently broken.

What they knew how to do was use her. And that is what they did.

From my perspective

I have a little thought these days. There are bigger and more important and more troubling thoughts in my head that get prioritized. But I wanted to spend a little bit of time on this one.

As the parts emerge, what they bring with them is only partly the story. It is mainly the emotional impact of that story, its realness and its solidity. What they bring with them is the sense that it is my story, it is my history, it is valid and it is important and it has brought me to where I am now.

Everyone else gets a history and a past and a childhood. They have forces that shaped them that they can talk about, they can make jokes about, they can wax nostalgic about.

Without all of my traumatic memories, I have nothing. I have a life lived in a state of semi-deadness as I tried to get through things. I have nothing that tells me how I became the person I am now or how I got here. I have a whole childhood I remember that has no real significance, because all I have is trying to keep shit together and get through the day. There are no truly important relationships and no real joy.

The hard part for me is perhaps that everything that is significant is attached to intense kinds of pain. I can’t just surgically remove it. I have good memories so close to horrific memories I can’t remember the good stuff without also remembering the bad stuff. If I can’t deal with the bad stuff, there is no good stuff either. And inside the bad stuff is often nestled good stuff.

So there is a relief for me in being able to deal with some of the bad stuff, because then I get a childhood. I get a past and a history and an identity, and it is not all bad. It is hard to get this across, but as things surface, horrifying things, there is an increasingly a sense that I am having my right to be a person restored to me.

Other people’s histories are not, perhaps as dreadful or as shocking as someone with a history of childhood trauma. They are dialed down a few hundred notches in intensity, but there are still the highs and the lows, there is still the knowledge I do this because so-and-so used to do it. There is still a sense of continuity between birth and the present.

I never had that. I had a great, tangled mystery of a self. I had a sense, not of continuity, but of total disjunction, as if I had been plopped onto the earth quite recently. It’s nice to think you can “let go” of trauma, but I’ve started realizing letting go leaves me as someone who is not even quite a person, with no solid identity, who has no past, and came from nowhere.

It leaves me with nothing at all.

When I remember, I can be a person again. I can be someone who came from somewhere, who lived through horrible things and wonderful things—just as everyone else did—and I can be uniquely myselt. Just like everyone else.