After I left my parents’ house, I set about trying to understand what life outside of hell might be like, what the possibilities for it were, how you make this kind of life work.

There was a point when what I seemed to be learning about it began to seem impossibly, unbearably bleak. I don’t know if I misunderstood, or if what people told me was terribly wrong.

A lot of what I learned came out of psychotherapy. There was a point when I stopped seeing a therapist altogether because I left our sessions feeling suicidal. Deep trauma wasn’t getting uncovered. It just seemed to be an hour of looking at glass half-full that was leaking.

After a bit, I would recover. I would start to think, No, it is not so hopeless as all that. And I started to think I could do without the leaky glass.

I’ll tell you why it came about this way, but it might take some time, because it is several factors together.

I came into adulthood thinking Natalya was normal. There were sociopaths and toxic people and then there were trustworthy, caring people like her. But my 2×2 background and my trafficking history set me up to attract selfish, entitled people into my life instead. I was deferential and people with problems with grandiosity like that kind of deference. My long-term relationship was with someone selfish, entitled, and grandiose.

It was a total mindfuck. Life is supposed to be fine now. I am supposed to be able to trust and to love. Why does she keep acting like this? So there was a long time when I kept hitting my head against that particular wall. Dissociation can make truths take a long time to sink in. Information doesn’t get disseminated properly. The evidence somehow never gets collected all in one place. It makes thinking inefficient.

It turns out grandiosity and indifference are not really that rare among human beings. They aren’t the only kind of human being out there, and it’s just better for everyone if grandiose people are left to their own devices while the rest of us with the capacity to care help each other. I don’t know what people with entitlement problems want, but it is not a fulfilling relationship with me. We are just never going to make each other happy.

In therapy, I heard “set boundaries.” It turns out that, for the most part, people violate the rights of others because they understand rights differently than others do. What they see as their own rights are ones that infringe on the basic dignity of others.

They didn’t get this idea from you. They have had it since they were two years old and started to have any understanding of social norms. You will not be able to dislodge it.

So setting boundaries with this type never goes well. You set boundaries and they get really pissed off. Telling someone in an abusive relationship to set boundaries is a great way to guarantee they will get pummeled. (Which I did.)

What you need with grandiose people is distance. Usually physical distance. But emotional distance is a start.

That would have been fine to learn—not that complicated—except that what I heard in therapy is that this was happening to me because I was too dependent on others to take care of too many of my emotional needs.

And that was mindfuck #2.

It made it seem, doubly, that my life could not exist. It was not oly the really bad shit that was impossible, but the good stuff too.

Natalya was responsive. She did take care of my emotional needs. She didn’t just do that when I was small and really was dependent on others to manage myself, but she did it when I was older. If she were alive, she would do it now. According to what I was hearing, it wasn’t possible. She ought to have felt suffocated and turned on me.

We are on to mindfuck #3.

While Natalya was alive, I had a homebase. I had a place that was more than not actively harmful and was instead caring and warm. There were loving arms to be wrapped up in. There was joy. What I heard made me think this could never be possible again.

It made the world I was coming into seem impossibly bleak. My past was both brutal and wonderful. The present looked like a fucking desert. I could, perhaps, keep people from hurting me, but I could never be loved again. At best, relationships were like parallel play. But connection was one dream too far.

It was awful.

I heard, Yes, you can be “safe.” But the “safe” that is possible is lonely. “Safe” is absent of genuine human connection. The connection possible is so little it seems not worth making the effort to get it.

There was one more piece to this: When you are subjected to the level of systematic, organized violence that I was, you understand that you, as a single individual, are essentially powerless against it. Organized violence needs organized opposition to it. It needs a legal system, it needs witnesses willing to inform to that system, it needs a police force, it needs a larger societal belief that abuse is wrong.

If you flee organized violence but continue to perceive that there is no organized opposition to it, a return to subjugation is essentially at the whim of the perpetrators. Because you, as one person, have only two choices: death or compliance. The idea that one person can successfully oppose it is just stupid.

So, when I began to try to suss out what life was really like, and it began to seem that I could not depend on anyone to help me still, the fear remained at the same level it had been when I was in it.

It seemed I was not being harmed only through a combination of luck and laziness on the part of the perpetrators. You can’t live that way. It’s totally terrifying. At any moment, someone might develop some motivation. Your luck might run out.

It is very important after you leave that kind of abuse to begin to experience a world that gives a damn about people. I did not get that and being told that I should not depend so much on others to help me really, really kept me stuck in trauma.

We need to be able to depend on others, but it matters who we depend on. Some people are simply not trustworthy. And that’s that. Move on. Other people are trustworthy. Other people have the capacity to care. Find them.

And another piece.

If the homebase I had as a child was never possible and couldn’t have existed, there was nothing to carry me through the hard work of trauma or, indeed, with just the knocks and bruises of life itself. Natalya is still what carries me through life. There are some things I can do for myself: I get warm when I’m cold, I can put soft clothes on when I want to feel more comfortable, I can eat when I’m hungry and rest when I’m tired, but the rest of what helps me day after day is her memory. I am, I suppose, doing it myself, but it doesn’t exactly feel that way to me. I am not really self-soothing. I am recycling the memory of having been soothed.

I think that is, in fact, what everyone does. But when you have a good childhood, it happens in a way you aren’t aware of.

When my experience was invalidated, I couldn’t even do that much. I couldn’t use those memories to help myself. I had no homebase to return to. The loss was both greater as well as one I had fewer tools to cope with.

My experience was invalidated in other ways—I think just because it’s atypical. It doesn’t fit the paradigm, but people tend to see what they expect to see. They ignore what doesn’t fit, latch onto what does, and distort the bits that can be jammed into the paradigm.

Shame is not really the loudest emotion from my past. I think for many survivors of sexual abuse it is. But I had a sympathetic witness for at least some of mine. Someone literally held my hand when I was most humiliated and dehumanized and reminded me I have worth and value anyway.

For me, horror was louder. People seem to have a hard time accepting that horror is just horror. They want horror to be a form of fear, or a form of shock. It is not. Horror is just horror. It is its own emotion. And horror is louder for me because being forced to hurt someone you love is horrifying. There are all the other horrors, and there is that one too.

Guilt is not that loud either. Someone else had the same moral choices and came to the same conclusions about them for the same reasons I did. People who haven’t been in that situation don’t really understand those choices, but someone was with me when I had to make them and did understand and so helped me to understand. I have felt guilty, but not as strongly for some things as one might expect.

And grief has been the loudest emotion of all.