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.


3 thoughts on “Chewing

  1. Cat's Meow February 23, 2015 / 11:39 am

    This is so well described, Ashana.

    I hear you about chewing noises! I am so glad that my husband and daughter are generally pretty quiet chewers. Her best friend chews with her mouth open and I always want to scream by the end of dinner, when she eats with us. I can’t imagine being constantly surrounded by chewing noises; I feel for you.

    • Ashana M February 23, 2015 / 1:25 pm

      Your daughter’s friend is little. You don’t feel you can just remind her to chew with her mouth closed?

      It’s getting easier, but I think sometimes I get seduced into thinking something is fine when it’s just better. 🙂

      • Cat's Meow February 23, 2015 / 7:40 pm

        Not appropriate in this case. It’s a Chinese cultural thing.

        Better is good… But there was an awful lot of room for improvement!!

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