It’s one of the most important holidays of the year here. Holiday as in holy day.
So the last two days, I’m woken at three in the morning to what sound like bells. Although I don’t waken right away. Today I fought the bells for maybe an hour until I finally got up at four, and yesterday I woke up and then fell back to sleep.
This isn’t relevant. I just thought I’d tell you. Tomorrow is the last day, and then I suppose life will return to normal for a while. Until the next holiday, when the monks will begin chanting before daybreak and this will be broadcast over a sound system for all of us to hear.
It sounds annoying, but this is just the rhythm of life here. Religion will wake you up, especially at this time of year, when there is one holiday after another. But even at other times, I sometimes wake up to drums and a horn that sounds like a sheep bleating from someone’s own personal prayer session because there is sickness in the family or it is time for their family’s annual spiritual house-cleaning or someone died.
Religion is for me now like the sound of traffic was for me in Los Angeles.
But I wake up and Hannah says, “I want Nata,” and begins to kick her feet and cry.
Separation anxiety—if you want to call it that—seems to be the worst, most painful, most intractable form of the trauma I need to deal with.
Nothing seems to have prepared me for this, but Hannah helps me understand it. Because she is very, very little and she is this living, breathing, walking, talking time capsule of myself. When she is out, or even close to the surface, I get to feel how I felt when I was a year old.
And the first thing I learn is that it is terrifying to be a tiny child and have absolutely no protection from anything. It is terrifying to really feel, even at that very early age, that there are no competent, capable, trustworthy adults. The adults are either dangerous or incompetent or both. I know from my own memories, that when I was either very little or very sick I did turn to my mother, but it’s with this attitude of fear. I turned to her because I couldn’t help it. The instinct to turn to someone for help was just too strong to overcome. But there’s no sense of being safe at the end of it. The whole time I’m close to my mother, I’m just afraid.
Then Natalya came along, and there was suddenly a safe person in my life. There was suddenly someone who can be trusted, who doesn’t hurt me. She did, in fact, hurt me, but I didn’t seem to have perceived it that way. I seem to have perceived the hurt as inevitable rather than as something she was causing. It was something that had to happen that she helped me with.
Which is about right.
After that, after she appears in my life, I want that safety again. I want to be with her. I’m sad or lonely or worried or scared or cold or sleepy or any of those things children feel when they want their mommies and daddies, and I want Nata. Only I can’t just have her when I want her. I’m separated from her more than I am with her.
So this terrible thing happens for me. I want her, and she’s not there, and I’m helpless. I’m helpless against the feeling of wanting her, and I have no idea of what to do. There’s no comfort for it. I’m unhappy about something anyway—or I just feel vulnerable and in need of protection—and then with that I have this dreadful feeling of, “I can’t get to safety again.” It’s dreadful.
It’s probably not so different than what other children feel when they are separated from their families for more normal reasons. They are summer camp or away at boarding school or whatever, but a part of the difference is that they know what to do. They have these little things that remind them of their parents and of their safe, safe homes. They have a picture or a special blankie or something, and if they are really upset they might be allowed a phone call, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t have these things, and I don’t even have the concept: when you miss someone, you do little things that bring that person close to you in an emotional or mental sense. You look at their picture or you touch something that makes you think of them. I don’t have this feeling about anyone else, and so no one has suggested to me that I do these things. All I can do is shove the thought out of my mind.
I’ve come to realize through this process that trauma is not really about dreadful, horrifying things happening. It’s not just about events. It’s about whatever emotions have been called up in you that are beyond your ability to manage when you first had them.
The separation was something I couldn’t manage. I was too little, there were too many triggers for it, and I didn’t have any tools for managing it. Managing it did not even seem permissible.
So the separation is something I keep having to try to manage. Every time I wake up and I’m still sleepy and in that vulnerable, sleepy state, it’s a trigger. Every time I go to bed, it’s a trigger. Every time anything is not quite right and I am lonely or hungry or sad or cold or anything, it’s a trigger. Because I want to get to safety again, and she’s safety. But I can’t get to her.
And I have to manage the feeling of separation in the same way I need to manage flashbacks of actually being harmed; the way to manage it is different, but the need to do it is exactly the same.
I do it, but it has not really penetrated my custardy brain that this is what I am doing. I just feel desperate—I have to do something because this just hurts too much. I can’t live with it.
At the same time, I think I’ve not been comfortable with this. After all, she’s dead. I don’t know if what I’m doing is just a way of trying to keep her alive a little. Am I just stuck in a bargaining stage?
No, it’s different. It’s a different problem. Her death triggers the separation too. The whole fact of being alive in the present triggers it—I am alive because she is dead and the fact of her death makes the separation permanent—but this is something different from grief. Separation is the trauma I experienced when she was alive.
Maybe the hard part is that other kinds of trauma I have control over now: I am not trapped in the powerlessness of my childhood. I can protect myself from being assaulted. I can protect myself from sexual violence. Even cold I was able to start and stop and see that I can now control.
I can’t make her here. I can’t make her not dead. I cannot freely choose to be with her, and so the comfort for that horrible sense of separation has to come in a different way. I’ve tried to do it with little bits of her—the earring that looks like hers, the smell of her shampoo, her favourite colour. I don’t know if it is helping or not. It must be helping some, because I can sleep. I don’t wake in the night crying anymore. I think it’s not helping enough. Maybe it’s just very, very difficult, but it’s not like the colour red, which is no longer terrifying to me; It is not even frightening anymore. It’s just a colour. I still miss her—I still miss her so much I end up wanting to die.
The little girl next door knocks as I’m writing this. She asks if I’m going up to where the festival is. I say no, not just now. I don’t know why she’s asking this, and I have a little twinge of guilt. I ought to go, but that’s not why she’s asking.
The little twinge of guilt is a trigger too. I might have done something wrong. I might be punished for this. I want Nata. I want safety again. I don’t think all that. I just feel it. I feel the little twinge of guilt and the wanting and then I feel like wanting to die.
And I know I have to do something more. I can’t go on wanting to die 20 times a day.
When I first started seeing the last therapist I had before leaving the land of on-demand psychological help, I said something about people being willing to harm others—that everyone has a point when they will.
She said she never would.
I didn’t believe her. I still don’t believe her. All it told me was that she’d never been in a situation where that question had come up for her in a serious way, and she didn’t know what that line was.
I do know what that line is for me. I have hurt someone. I was a child, with a child’s resources to cope, but it wouldn’t be all that much different now. I would do it again in more or less the same way if it came to it. I would hurt the person I love most.
I would do it if what would happen if I refused would be worse. I am not a martyr and not a saint, and it doesn’t matter that much to me whose hands the blood is on. It matters to me how much suffering is going to result from everyone’s choices together.
And so there’s another reason trust has been hard for me. Everyone has a line. I want to know what yours is. I want to know if Yuri pointed a gun at my head or at your head, what you would do. I want to know that someone who is close to me is prepared for that question, even if in my life now, the question is unlikely to ever come up.
Most people don’t know. They say wildly unrealistic things. I would never…. Oh, but you would. And it means I have been left wondering.
What would it take to make you hurt me?
I trusted Natalya because I did know. She raped me as gently as she could. She held my hand through it. She carried me up the stairs to her room afterward and she washed away the blood. She didn’t risk her own life for me—in the end, she did, but not when it would make no difference at all—and she didn’t risk mine.
The line was there every time I saw her and I knew exactly what she would do when she saw it. She would help me through it.
But it’s a hard question to live with: What would it take to make you hurt me?
Hardly anyone has that kind of strength. Luckily, we don’t need to have it, but when sociopathic behaviour is still in your mind as a kind of normal—as it has been in mine—you assume that people might need it. You assume that it might be an important factor in your relationships.
Hannah has been looking around the last week and noticing that I have friends. Nice friends. Nice friends help Hannah. She is the first part to look around and think, I’m safe because people will help me.
Everyone else understands that I am actually too small to defend myself. They are just holding their breath that no one wants to, and yet we all know that this happens. This isn’t a rape-free society. No society is. And in fact it sometimes seems pretty rampant here. It’s hard to say if it is worse here than in other places, or if it’s just that here there aren’t any secrets. It’s too small a world for that.
But the other parts remember what did happen to me. The other parts remember that not only were some people willing to harm me, but others who were not under duress did not help me. So there is a limit to what they expect from anyone.
The outcome is a fear that doesn’t quite go away. In a world where you cannot rely on anyone to help you, there is no way to be truly safe. We cannot do this living business alone. We all need each other. We all need help.
We have three more days of holiday, then two days of work, then three more days of holiday. Finally, classes will start after that and I have to be ready for a deluge of work.
But today is the King’s birthday, or it was yesterday, and we celebrate it for three days.
I helped with an art competition for the children—I was a judge. Many things happened in the course of the day, of course, but the thing that struck was the chewing.
Country X-ers like to chew. Usually loudly. Usually all the time. So life is a parade of mouth noises. They chew betel nut, they chew gum, they chew their food. I have, myself, probably chewed gum more often since coming here than I did in my entire life before the age of 10.
And, of course, it’s not just chewing to me. It never sounds just like chewing. I’m always reminded of sexual abuse. I’m reminded of pornography and of rituals and my dad’s bizarre ideas at home. So it unnerves me. If it isn’t right next to me, I can manage. I can realize fairly quickly that whatever is happening does not involve me and I can relax. But it so often is next me. I mean there’s so much chewing going on the odds are just pretty high.
In the morning, that’s the first thing that happens. A girl is sitting next to me while I’m trying to write some things out and she’s chewing gum. She’s in about 10th grade and I know her—she’s a nice girl. She’s not any kind of threat. But she’s chewing gum. Then, later, I’m sitting next to one of our very elderly teachers and he’s chewing betel nut, and he’s a decent man too. (He’s also about half my size.) There’s no need to be frightened, but I automatically am. I can’t help it.
It makes me realize something about trauma, especially childhood trauma—that it can’t, in a sense, be processed on the spot. As a child, I could say many things that were on my mind. They were allowed. My right to speak was not totally constrained. But if something reminded me of the trauma in the course of the day, I could not. It would frighten me, and calming down again would be its own challenge, but I also had to make sure to process it—or not process it—entirely alone. I could tell my friends or the teacher or my parents’ friends about the gorillas I saw at the zoo that I was excited about seeing—or whatever—and I could use language to help me understand it. But the things that really upset me and were frightening and confusing, I had to makes sure not to do that with. I had to keep silence. I could not say, when I heard someone chew gum loudly, that reminds me of what happens to me when I go to Yuri’s place and I don’t like it. I wish I could tell the person to stop, but if I do that, I’ll go in the freezer and possibly die and, oh, there was that time I almost did die and Nata breathed in my mouth and made me wake up again.
I can’t say any of that. Whatever sense I made of my world had to be done in my own head, without the help of others, without that magic of using language with others to organize an experience.
That’s aside from the help I needed in managing the emotions of it. Just from a purely cognitive perspective, it’s dreadful. It’s dreadful to think everything else in my life—all the other things that aren’t very confusing—I had tools to help me make sense of. But the thing that was so confusing it broke my head, no, that one, I had no tools to understand.
It’s a little bit the same now. Sitting next to the teacher, whom I know and can discuss other things that aren’t upsetting with, I can’t say, Gosh, that reminds me of acting in pornography. It reminds me of how much I hated someone touching my private parts with their mouth, and how disgusting it felt. I wished so much I could make it stop. And it creates this disjunction in life, because it’s so upsetting it’s hard to manage. I can’t feel the terror and disgust of it while also writing the organized list I’m trying to make. I need to get the list done, so I have to concentrate on that. I can’t also feel terrified at the same time. The terror loses out, and I can only think about it later.
And that’s my whole life. My whole life has been made of things that couldn’t be smoothly, seamlessly processed as they are happening. It’s full of things that are too upsetting to be processed just then—I have to keep my mind on something else—or that I don’t have the tools to process. My life is full of things I needed help making sense of and had no help making sense of.
It helps me to understand why the first step in getting better for me was really carving out time. The first thing that helped was realizing that I couldn’t live like other people: I needed to set aside as much time as possibly really to make sense of everything that had occurred in the day. Dissociation makes thinking extremely inefficient. It’s hard to make sense of things because the information you need to understand them is inevitably scattered across various barriers and hard to access But there’s also this—just that there are so many things that have to be set aside in the day and thought about later.
Yesterday was a good day. I also came home and cried for about three hours—way past my bedtime—because I never got time in the day to let the tears out.
We had a public program for the king’s birthday, which almost no one but school children (who had to) attended. And then afterwards, I met with Maths Sir and a few other people to discuss an art competition he wants to have today.
In the morning, I went up early to the public grounds to help arrange books for a display and then stayed all through lunch—lunch was provided—and finally came home for an hour or two only around two pm. After that I was engaged until seven. It was all very nice. I sat with my friends and we talked and ate snacks and joked and it was lovely. Later, I was with Maths Sir and VP Ma’am and a man I hadn’t met before and that was nice too.
I really enjoy Maths Sir. He is a genuinely good person, and he cares about things, and he’s fun to work with—we are alike in many ways. He’s a progressive educator in the midst of people who can’t quite shake their belief in the importance of being a good parrot. So I like spending time with him. I like, generally, having male friends: It feels to me like, “Oh, look, not Yuri.” And men are wonderful because you can know they care without really discussing it. You can work together and see that they care in how they treat you along the way—that they consider your ideas, that they do practical things as they need to be done—and there aren’t all these words to contend with. It’s a relief sometimes, because my life is generally entirely taken up with women because I live in a segregated, sexist society, because I’m gay, because I work in a profession that attracts fewer men for the most part.
Anyway, the point is it was nice. All nice.
But I can’t work that way. It’s too many hours at a stretch of keeping things in.
Last night, sleep came only with difficulty. I went to sleep at ten and woke up around midnight to cry some more. Then I woke up at five. And cried for a few more hours. It’s eight now and I’m still wobbling in and out of tears.
There’s a reason for it—things keep moving around in my head and uncovering new pains. But that’s not the point of this post. That’s a topic for a different post.
Because, through all that, I started thinking that the things that feel “ours” to me—and by “ours” I mean mine and Natalya’s. I don’t need to try to adjust that too, and this thought gives me a sense of solid ground: finally, a mental structure in my head that can remain where it is, that reflects reality enough to be functional and helpful, and that is not going to be destructive to me in the end.
And also something that is not just one more loss for me to contend with.
I had wondered about it because it’s a complex topic to negotiate. I grew up so alone and yet also so embedded in a relationship. The assumption that everyone who isn’t a sociopath approaches life as a collaboration with others hasn’t served me well. People don’t. Some people approach it that way more than others—my experience in life certainly didn’t prepare me for ordinary toxicity. It prepared me mostly for serial killers and saints, but not regular life. So I have to figure this out. I have to figure what “normal” is so that I can do it along with other people, instead of continually going down roads with others that are going somewhere I don’t actually want to go.
But this other idea I have is different.
Certain things feel like “ours.” I probably don’t have a complete list, but I know for certain some things do. Butterflies are ours. Freedom is ours. Wonder at the beauty of the world is ours. I think a belief in God is ours. I think language might be ours—Russian might be ours, although I have mostly forgotten it. When I hear it, I still feel a sense of recognition that I think goes beyond recognizing Natalya and feels like recognizing myself.
I think things feel to me like “ours” that to someone else might just feel like “mine.” I think it feels this way to me because, before Natalya, I really had no one. “Ours” is not just the air I am breathing or the water I’m swimming in, the way it is for someone who feels connected in any way to a family. I didn’t internalize “ours” as “just me” in quite the same way that other people do, who adopt the attitudes and beliefs of their family or their culture and don’t notice that it none of those things are uniquely theirs but instead are shared with some of the people who are closest to them.
And I think it is fine for me to be different in this way. I think it is fine for me to think that things about myself are shared with the person who remains closest to me—even dead, she is closer to me than anyone—when others might see them as only their own. I think my view is mine in this case, and I can keep it.
I dreamed that Nata and I had moved in together. We were young and broke and settling into our first apartment. It was tiny—a studio without even a visible kitchen—and we hardly owned anything.
I used to dream of a composite figure of everyone I had been close to—all the ex-girlfriends, the ex-wife, my sister—all rolled into one person. There were still shades of this: We had one desk, and I said, “I’ll need to get a desk,” because the one desk was not mine.
And that’s the ex-wife entering into things. She was very into “mine.” With Nata, we would have had one desk and we would have tried to share it in whatever way seemed practical until we could afford two.
After I woke up, I went into the kitchen. I was heating water for tea and I was thinking about my dilemma these days, my grief, because it has occurred to me that there’s a wall in my head about it. I’ve been walking back and forth through the gap in it, switching sides, but that’s all. I’m doing nothing to bring the two sides together.
There is one side of the wall where I think if what I feel with Natalya is a partnership still, that is fine. I can feel that way. I can think about my life in those terms. It doesn’t matter one way or the other to anyone else if I do, and it’s my life. I ought to do whatever feels authentic to me.
On the other side of the wall, I feel that living as if there is still a partnership is living somewhat in a dream world. She’s dead, and this is a way of keeping her alive a little.
So I’m in the kitchen and I’m wondering to myself what is keeping the wall up—because, of course, picking a side of the wall always seems easier, but it’s totally pointless, and I keep doing it only because the wall won’t come down. The walls stay up because something hurts too much. They get higher when I am afraid, but that’s temporary. When I am relaxed, they come down again. If they are up all the time—the way this wall is right now—something hurts. There is a pain that needs to be addressed.
I’m thinking about this and I ask a question—I can’t remember the question now—but I’m startled at the immediacy and the directness of the answer.
I’m here as long as you need to me to be.
I am reminded of the desk and the difference between how it played out in the dream and how it would have been with Natalya in life—the pragmatism of it and the lack of the importance of the “I”. She would have said, “You’re a teacher. You have papers to mark. Obviously, you need the desk.”
She could not save both of us, and so she saved me. There were two lives involved. She saved the one she could save. She didn’t get herself killed on purpose. She didn’t choose to save my life rather than hers. She could save mine, but she couldn’t save her own. If things had worked out differently, we might both have been saved, but she had no control over that and I don’t think she held out much hope of it either.
And the wall for me is that this still hurts. Because I don’t feel I was worth saving.
But there is one life left, just as there is was one desk, and it happens to be mine.
I was chatting yesterday with a friend of mine—a former foreign teacher who left Country X just a few weeks ago—and she said she was looking around and asking herself, “Do I have a right to dream I can be a part of this too?”
My friend grew up undocumented, so I asked her, is that where that idea came from, that you don’t have the right to the same dreams as other people?
Yes! That was exactly it.
That’s me too. I don’t feel I have a right to the life that Natalya gave me. I don’t feel I deserve it.
And it makes me think again about the pain of growing up as someone who is being treated differently than other children around me. I was trafficked, but my sister wasn’t. I went to school, and I knew the other children weren’t being trafficked either. It seemed to just be me.
It seemed that way, because when I was trafficked, there were not children like my classmates around me. There were other children, but they were disenfranchised children. They were immigrant children, they were undocumented, they had no apparent parents. They were not native English-speakers, they did not attend school, they were not middle or working class. I was singled out from among other children of privilege for a life I saw only deeply disenfranchised children living.
In reality, I was not the only child who grew up that way, but that wasn’t in front of me. It’s not what I saw in my first grade class. It’s not what I saw when I was working the streets.
Because of that, I saw myself as a privileged member of an underclass rather than as a maltreated member of a privileged class.
That wouldn’t be important, except that it makes it hard for me to grieve. I can’t fully come to grips with Natalya’s death, because I can’t come to grips with my life. She can’t really have died because I can’t really have been worth dying for. None of what happened is possible: it seemed impossible for many reasons before, but now there is only one left. I am not worth saving, but she did save me.
And I could avoid that mental collision by pretending it wasn’t about me—she died for some other reason. But I heard what Yuri is shouting at her. I also knew Natalya well enough to know something of what might have been in her head. I didn’t understand everything that was said—Yuri was not speaking Russian, he was speaking a criminal Russian dialect, but I understood enough to put some things together. I can’t pretend not to know now just to make things not hurt.
I could just not deal with things, but it wouldn’t be honest, and it would also leave the wall up. I would still go on having two sides of the wall.
What will bring the wall down is confronting the pain of having been singled out for maltreatment other children aren’t victims of. I have to go back to my first grade classroom and look again at those faces and not split off the pain of knowing they are not sold to men to use in horrific ways. Only I am.
I look around and see every clever and uplifting way to avoid this possible. We all want to be survivors and not victims. We want to find a shortcut around the pain of having suffered something not everyone has to suffer, especially if our suffering was not accidental and human beings did it: Human beings chose to do it. Which is what happened to me.
We don’t want to have to let it hurt. Or, it hurts, and we can’t figure out how to make it better, so we tell ourselves to stop hurting. We tell ourselves that was all in the past now. Things are different here in the present and we can let go of the feelings of the past.
Yes, we can. When the past stops being the present. The pain of being a victim remains in the present as long we can’t do anything about it—as long as we dress it up in nice words and say it doesn’t hurt anymore when it does. As long as you do that, you are just building a wall around the pain and standing outside the wall—as I have done.
Yesterday was somewhat dreadful. It started off fine. I had tea with my neighbors and Post Office Sir and then came home. Post Office Sir wanted me to come for lunch. So a lovely, social day ahead.
Then I felt dizzy and feverish and achy—almost as soon as I walked in the door. I might have been sick, but it seemed more like an extended flashback.
So I went to bed. I let Hannah hold the edge of the blanket and I took something for the pain—realizing remembered pain is being created in my body in exactly the same way as pain from an injury in the present—and I just made myself feel safe and comfortable. I cancelled the lunch date, and I spent the day letting my little self—my Hannah self—feel nurtured and looked after.
And that’s what has to be done with the pain of having been victimized. You don’t need to put it all in the past. You need to be nice.
It’s a holiday today. It is Country X New Year’s Day. At the moment, I am just grateful for the chance to sit quietly, to do nothing, to rest and try to put my mind in order a little.
I wanted to write about the grief of losing my relationship with Natashka this morning. As I think about it, I am increasingly aware that I can’t say what I want to say very well. The words for the ideas seem to crumble and fall apart in my hands when I try to move them around.
So my expectations for this as a clear, communicative post are low. But here goes.
One thought I have today is that life is manageable again. This is manageable. The pain of the loss is like a train crash, but a train crash seems manageable to me now. I have lived through many, many train crashes in my head and they were not easy, but I can do train crashes now. I learned how to do that.
What I couldn’t manage is the train crash without knowing what the train crash was.
I have a word now for what I am grieving. It is not a word I keep pushing away because I think it is impossible or incorrect. It fits, and so it is not a train crash and total chaos together.
It is also not a train crash alone. With words, we begin to be able to draw other people into our lives. We can tell others what hurts and why and these relationships do something that automatically helps us. I suspect this is biological and hormonal and totally beyond our control. But without words, this is hard to find. It is especially hard to find when the people in front of us are not close enough to be trusted with pure emotion. I cannot break down in front of my friends here and simply be held. Which would also work. They are my friends and they care, but I think that would scare the crap out of them. But I can tell people who are far away. They need words though.
So it helps to have this word. It helps to be able to say I am grieving a marriage.
It helps too to be able to say I am grieving something that is rare. I could have a different spouse—a good spouse and a good relationship—and it is unlikely it would ever quite be like that again. That degree of shared commitment to the wellbeing of both partners is just not average. It happens, but not that often, and maybe only to people who have faced a long series of hardships together. In a more typical world, you might need to raise children first, face a life-threatening illness together, weather a few lost jobs, and be staring mortality in the face. I don’t know.
But I realize I have expected it of relationships in the past, and been endlessly puzzled that it wasn’t there. No, it doesn’t come just like that to people, the necessity of sticking together through things, the benefits of supporting each other through whatever needs to be faced, the idea of being in the same life-boat, or the fact that there is usually a way to help everyone win if everyone tries. It comes eventually, but it doesn’t come to people in their twenties. It might begin to occur as we move through our thirties. It becomes a possibility in the forties. But you emerge into adulthood with that perspective only if you have repeatedly faced unbearable pain and fear with someone else at your side. And, for better and worse, most people haven’t. They haven’t faced that kind of horror at all—better–or they have faced it alone and without help—worse. Not that this has been my only problem, but it’s been one of them.
So it clears some things up too. And that always helps.
I don’t know how to grieve though. I think, perhaps, the first thing is just to let myself feel it when it is there. I think, perhaps, it is time to feel the pain whenever it comes to me. I don’t really know when it will come, but I know I have been pushing it aside. I know that has been my habit.
I don’t think I need to look at the 100 things that hurt because Natashka does not need to be considered in doing them. But I think as the things arise, one by one, I need to let them hurt then.
And then we’ll see.