The creator of all this

I have a fifth thought this morning, which seems at least moderately worth pursuing.

In accepting that the parts exist, I am accepting the bits of my personality and my past that are buried in those parts. That much is obvious. That’s not the thought.

The thought is that I am also accepting the individual who created them. They are evidence of that individual’s resilience and creativity.

The circumstances of my growing up demanded I have no authentic needs or feelings of my own. I must present a front. Not necessarily one that might please the rest of society, but one which did not betray the reality that my needs as a child were not being met—all kinds of need: the need for protection, the need for protection, the need to be emotionally responded to, the need for warmth, the need for privacy and autonomy, the need for consistency, the need to know what to expect, the need to express myself, the need to be liked for myself.

This was confusing for a while, because the front I presented wasn’t necessarily one that would live up to my expectations or the expectations of the larger society either. I mean, I am not the perfect wife and mother. But I was fine. Fine was very important.

Anyway, the circumstances of my growing up seemed to point out that the problem was me. I needed to not be me. I needed to be an “apparently normal” person who did not have needs or feelings or an authentic personality which expressed those needs and feelings, including the need to be helped to cope with the trauma I had suffered. So this person could not know about the abuse either.

But that person is not me. I thought it was me for maybe 40 years. I am the individual who created that person.

And yet all the needs and feelings and evidence of authenticity persisted. I created other people to accommodate them. I have 13 of them the last time I counted. I was very creative. There were lots of needs and feelings and evidence of personality and I created a place for all of them.

That is me. The creator of the whole emotional landscape. I did this.

Advertisements

Happiness and magical thinking: four thoughts

I’ve been up since around four am and it is nine now and my brain finally seems to be working a little. It was doing stuff before, but it wasn’t exactly clear what or whether those things were purposeful or productive.

But I’ve had four thoughts in the last 10 minutes and two of them might even be worth sharing.

One of them is that it is usually our natural inclination to strive for equilibrium. We do it emotionally and we do it cognitively. We make sense of our circumstances in ways that allow us to live with it—at least over time.

If we don’t get something we want, we’re initially disappointed. Then we start to see all the negative points about what we once wanted and all the positive points about what we have now and we say it all worked out for the best. In reality, it may not have worked out for the best, but within our own minds we have made the best out of what happened.

When I look back at the abuse I grew up, sometimes I see my child’s mind trying to make the best of things. My dad hurt me because I was a bad girl and needed punishment. Well, he might have told me this. I may have merely borrowed his thinking, but I was also making the best of things. He was going to abuse me regardless of what I thought or felt about it. I might as well think about it in a way that reduced some of the other painful emotions I might have about it: the betrayal and the injustice and the rage. What I thought at the time sometimes had to do with this propensity to make the best of things. It is the same propensity that is helping me cope now. It is resilience, even if that particular manifestation of it is no longer the one that will help.

My other thought this morning is that sometimes I feel a great deal of pressure to engage in magical thinking. I am not sure if this is just younger parts of me who don’t understand yet that reality exists on its own and cannot be persuaded to be different based on the intensity of your wishes, or whether there was a culture in my family of thinking magically.

But I feel a pressure to think things were other than how they were as if that might fix something. It doesn’t. I can wish certain kinds of very abuse didn’t happen, and they will go on having happened regardless of my wishes. I can wish Natalya weren’t dead and she will persist in being dead. And I can just stop doing that.

For a bonus, I’ll even share a third thought. The third thought I had this morning is that there is really nothing wrong with me. Trauma makes my life a tremendous amount of work and a lot of the time it’s really unpleasant, but there is nothing really wrong with me. My brain and my mind are working exactly as they are supposed to. I lean over kitchen sink washing dishes and my brain searches for similar experiences to compare it to—as it is supposed to do absolutely all the time—and it locates some of them. It presents the most emotionally powerful experience that seems like it might be similar, which is also what it is supposed to do, and I get to remember certain kinds of sexual abuse where my head and neck were in the same position. And I get to have a flashback. Reality has been a problem, but my mind is fine.

The fourth thought I had is that I am doing this right. I wasn’t sure for a while. I felt at a bit of a loss as to how to handle the current internal situation. I faltered. I’m sure again.

Just stay “warm.” Find a way to keep things emotionally at a dull roar, and my mind will take care of everything else.

Mishka

It’s been a whole week since I last posted. I don’t really know why I didn’t post. There didn’t seem to be time. When there was time, I couldn’t think of anything much to say.

Two “new” parts surfaced this week—new to me, anyway. I am getting used to the idea that I have been pretty much the last part of myself to know anything.

I spent the week getting to know them.

One of them seems to be almost exclusively organized around sleeping. He makes sure we don’t sleep unless it’s safe to sleep. It is safe to sleep when Nata tells us we can sleep. Otherwise, it is not safe and we will die.

So that’s made for an interesting week, full of what seem to be flashbacks of unbearable sleepiness and of present-day terror of sleeping.

He doesn’t trust anyone else. Only Nata. And he’s not very caught up with the present. He didn’t know she was dead. Now he knows she’s dead, and every second is full of terror for him, because she isn’t there to tell him what to do.

He didn’t know the reason she won’t let him sleep is that hypothermia makes you sleepy and losing consciousness increases the risk of death. He doesn’t know the trauma he’s remembering is the freezer. He just remembers the importance of obedience, only now there is no one to obey.

He’s a hard part to work with because he doesn’t think to comfort himself. His first instinct is always stoicism, and he doesn’t trust me either. He’s barely aware of my existence. Staying “warm” is hard.

Mishka means mouse. That’s Nata’s endearment.

Spati, Mishka.

Sleep, little mouse.

Needs

I have one thing wrong though.

Ruthie is there because I am not allowed to have the needs my parents weren’t meeting. I’m not allowed to be thirsty or to need to go to the toilet. I’m not allowed to have attachment needs or to communicate feelings. I am not allowed to have the need to express myself or my personal preferences—I’m only allowed to have approved ones, and snakes and spiders and insects (which is what Ruthie likes) are definitely not among them. I am not allowed to have an emotional landscape.

So, I’m not allowed to have the effects of the abuse there—I’m not allowed to have any of the reactions that come from having experienced intense trauma. But I’m not allowed to have ordinary needs either. Because these are the needs my parents weren’t meeting, and the family secret is that this is damaging me.

Integrating requires a lot of emotional skills. One of them is being able to meet my own needs as a traumatized adult. That’s just one piece of it though.

Another piece is coping with the phobia of acknowledging that these needs are there, that I am deeply traumatized, and this has dramatically affected my daily life.

A third piece is coping with the phobia of having ordinary needs: being thirsty, being hungry, needing emotional connection, needing to express my personality.

If I can do that, then I can integrate. Does it sound simple?

It might be. Simple is not easy though.

Out of a box

This has led to a paradigm shift: the thoughts I expressed in the last two posts (“Apparently normal” and “Unstuck) have completely rearranged my head for me.

The parts have been a work-around, so that I could go on not knowing about the effects of the abuse on myself while having some degree of internal communication. They could at least have some awareness of their own emotional realities and take some steps to meet them while allowing me to not know that these realities existed.

For a long time, I denied having parts, but at least they knew about themselves and some of them knew about each other. Then, I stopped denying the parts, but I could go on not taking in the full reality of the abuse and its effect on me by assigning those emotional realities to other parts. I knew the parts were me, but I didn’t have to fully engage with the fear of the consequences of not keeping the family secret: the family secret being that the children in the family were not being nurtured and protected but were instead being used to serve the desires of the adults. The family secret being that I was dramatically harmed by this arrangement.

I have been wondering about this for a while, because the emotions and needs the parts have been expressing recently have not always been very problematic more recently. Ruthie tells me she’d like a drink, or I dropped something. The emotion is not more dramatic than mild surprise.

I know the parts have remained because I can’t always manage the emotional intensity of what they hold, while at the same time I need to know what those emotions are and where they come from. Staying in parts keeps things to kind of a dull roar. I can learn about the emotions but go on thinking straight. But we’re talking about mild surprise. The surprise of a dropped pencil I can deal with. So I have been wondering about this.

Now, I understand it. It’s not about the dropped pencil. It’s about the internal world I needed to invent in order to maintain my parents’ lie that I wasn’t being harmed and I didn’t have enormous trauma-derived emotional needs that no one was meeting.

It’s about the reason there is a Ruthie, that I couldn’t know I had no parent at home to attach to, and the person I was attached to was a fellow trafficked child. If I were going to feel the separation anxiety involved in that reality, I had to feel it as if I were somebody else. Otherwise, the mask would slip. I wouldn’t be able to go on presenting “apparently normal” to the world. Every part has some fundamental emotional truth involved in their creation, but this happens to be Ruthie’s. She knows about separation anxiety. She knows I had no one at home to turn to. Keeping a separate Ruthie has allowed me to withdraw from full engagement with that reality.

I know I haven’t learned emotional regulation skills partly because no one showed me how, partly because the emotions I had were way out of the range of normal, but it’s also that the emotions are evidence that the trauma happened and my need to have adults help me heal weren’t being met. But I am not really phobic of emotions—It feels that way, but that’s not it. I’m afraid of what they reveal. They reveal I was harmed. They reveal the family secret. And I’m phobic of the consequences of revealing the family secret. I don’t want to go back in the box.

And suddenly—it seems sudden—there is an adult inside who is competent to manage that intense fear, who can manage life as a deeply traumatized person, not as someone presenting “apparently normal,” but as someone who actually knows how to cope with the damage I live with every day. I know I’m not going to go back into the box. Because this competent adult is not going to let that happen.

I’m not just saying that. It is not a lie I am trying to force myself to believe. I have learned how to cope, and my needs are getting met. Enough, anyway. Enough that I believe I am a competent adult who can keep me out of a box.

I have proven myself to myself.

Unstuck

My job as Ash has been to present “apparently normal.” I have been responsible for supporting the family lie that I was not harmed, which has meant to a large extent that I could not know what the abuse even was. When I did know, I could not be allowed to know the full details of it, or I could not be allowed to know that it hurt me as much as it did. I could not be allowed to know, because I could not both cope with the knowledge and go on presenting “apparently normal” to the world.

The reason I needed to present “apparently normal” to the world is that this was what my parents demanded I do. I had to keep their secret. If I could not keep their secret, then I would have to go in the box. I would be punished horrifically and memorably. I could not, for a minute, reveal that I was a deeply traumatized child with an out-of-control inner world.

If you were abused, you had to present “apparently normal” too. There might not have been a box. Your family might have found other means. Maybe they stopped speaking to you—for a child, who is totally dependent on the family to meet her emotional needs, total emotional rejection like that is going to be devastating. Maybe they just beat you. But they would have gotten it across that keeping the secret was a family rule and would be enforced.

The secret wasn’t just the acts of their abuse, but their neglect of my needs as a child. The secret was how their abuse affected me and still affects me.

I have, in the past, appeared to be an adult because I am 41 years old and “apparently normal” has involved exhibiting adult-like behaviours for decades. I have not, until recently, really been an adult. I am only an adult now.

This has meant I could not heal. I could not heal because I could not do what was necessary to create a safe world for myself—which has involved being an adult who could take care of my very significant trauma-derived needs.

You need to feel safe in order to be in the right emotional zone to integrate trauma. So for a long time I was stuck, caught in this Catch-22 of not being allowed to know what I needed to be able to take care of. And then I got unstuck. I don’t know how I did it. When I find out, I will tell you.

The trustworthy adult

My experience with Lena the last few days makes me see the importance of having a trustworthy adult. I was reading an article about the narcissistic family this week too, and that seemed to connect up with that idea.

In the narcissistic family, there is not an appropriate hierarchy. The parents do not take care of the needs of the children, and the children do not necessarily obey their parents. The children instead attend to the desires of the parents. There may be no rules, the rules may be inconsistent, or they may be impossible to follow. There will probably not be any rules for the adults, and the rules will most definitely not be designed to help the children develop or stay safe.

For example, if the children have chores to do in a narcissistic household, the chores will not be there to help the children take pride in their ability to contribute to the household or to have an outlet for their increasing competence. The chores will be there to show the parent has raised well-behaved, obedient children or because the parent doesn’t want to do that particular task. And, because of that, the chores may be overly burdensome, something the child only has to do when the parent is in a certain mood, or physically too difficult for the child to do successfully and take pride in.

It was interesting to have Lena help with the dishes earlier in the week. What she got out of it was a sense of closeness. She’s three, so it’s a totally inappropriate task, except that she “helped” (which can mean a lot of things in real life) and she has my hand-eye coordination. It’s not quite the same as a real child, but it gave me a taste of how having chores growing up wasn’t at all the same thing. My mom wanted obedient children and she wanted a clean house. She also wanted to please her psychiatrist. But nowhere in the equation were our needs as children to feel like part of the family team or to exercise our developing “responsibility” muscles.

During the week with Lena—she was out quite a lot at home—I also saw how having rules that protected her and that I felt confident about having in place made her feel very relaxed and safe. The adults were not able to keep her safe as a child. They couldn’t protect her from themselves, from other threats, or from herself. It was total chaos, as far as she was concerned.

It’s hard to explain this well. To give an example, I have tried in the past to say that the little parts don’t need to be afraid of sexual abuse, because I will protect them, and this usually doesn’t have much effect. I have also told them they can protect themselves, and they receive this like I am telling them the sky is now green and the sun and the moon have changed places. But I told Lena the rule now is little girls do not attend to the sexual desires of adult men. I won’t allow that. Men are not allowed to ask her to do that and she is not allowed to provide it, and this is a rule I will enforce.

Oh, yes, she gets that. There is a new rule. I am the adult now and I make the rules, and these rules keep her and all the little parts safe and allow them to get their needs met. So she has to go to bed on time. She has to eat whether or not she feels she deserves to starve. She cannot self-harm or attempt suicide. And she has to support whatever decisions I make. My decisions are always going to take into account and represent an attempt to balance the needs of everyone, and she has to obey them so that everyone can be nurtured.

I have become the trustworthy adult. And one of the loveliest things about this is she can stop breaking her 3-year-old head trying to make decisions she’s not developmentally capable of making.