The deadline I’ve set for myself in filing my paperwork to stay is fast approaching. It’s Thursday, and I have fallen behind on nearly everything else, so I don’t know how I will do it. The emotional burden of everything connected to it is so hard that it never seems to get done. I am just mostly trying to stay on an even keel so that I can teach and so that I can talk to C without behaving so much like a madwoman although I fear sometimes I still do.

I am thinking about it this morning, because it’s urgent. The emotional stuff needs to be cleared away, or I need to shut down and dissociate to get it done. One or the other. It’s kind of my last-ditch effort at doing it the former way—which feels better—and not the latter.

So I try to sit with the feelings about it. I kind of know that I don’t finish the paperwork because I feel I don’t deserve to have C in my life. Then I feel this despair when I try to take the steps that would keep her there at the center of things and the despair makes me want to give up on it all. I’m trying to stay with the feelings about this—the despair and the unworthiness—because if I can do that, then I can understand them. If I instead shut the feelings down and try to think about them without feeling them, the result is a bunch of useless speculations without any real understanding. Also, nothing inside ever shifts. I might end up with a nice-sounding theory about it, but I don’t change. You have to feel to think.

I grew up in the age of self-esteem. In the 70s, everyone began to believe you needed to feel good about yourself to achieve things. It permeated my school life. My mother was in therapy and it began to permeate my home life. So this notion that I am worthless is hard to stay with. It feels forbidden, as if the feeling of worthlessness itself is a fast pass to doom, when really it’s just a feeling. I feel hungry and sometimes I eat and sometimes I don’t. Feeling worthless does not mean I have to sabotage my own life. I might. I might not. Just like feeling hunger does not always make me eat. It’s a feeling and a perception, but it does not have to lead to action. I console myself that way.

Eventually, I can stay with feeling worthless long enough to think about it, and it’s interesting what happens. I start to realize pretty much everyone feels worthless at least some of the time. Otherwise, we would not have all these “inspirational” quotes about how no one should make you feel bad about yourself. Worthlessness is normal. My sense of worthlessness might be on steroids, but it’s fine. It’s part of the human experience. Not one of the more pleasant ones, but a survivable one.

The upside of thinking about it this way is that it relieves me from the burden of having to rigidly control my emotions and my thoughts. I don’t have to cope by trying to control the sense of worthlessness. I don’t have to make myself stop feeling it—which is actually quite impossible anyway. I can just recognize it. Because, actually, I can’t exert that kind of control over my internal world. I can’t make myself feel only some things and not others. And this is part of the despair. I can’t do what society has led me to believe I must do in order to succeed, which is to exert a high degree of control over my own internal world. I can control my actions, but I cannot control my thoughts or my feelings. They just happen. And sometimes they are shit, but I still can’t control them. It’s a losing battle.

What’s required isn’t greater control, but maybe just more response. It’s a different approach to life than what I grew up with. I grew up with control as a reaction to distress. Something is wrong? Grab power from somewhere. Control someone else. Control your feelings. Control something. The secret to happiness is authoritarianism.

It isn’t. The secret to happiness is acceptance. I feel I don’t deserve C? Well, that’s fine. I am not God, dishing out rewards and punishments. I have some papers to fill out. I have a relationship to maintain. I can focus on those things.

At the same time, people are not prizes. You don’t deserve them. Or not deserve them. That isn’t how it works. I can keep plugging along at life, and some good things are going to happen for me. Some bad things are going to happen too. I don’t have to deserve things to get them.



I am having a problem with derealization. It is not a worse problem than usual. I would just like it to go away.

I understand now that things start to feel unreal when something hurts too much. These two factors are directly related. Whenever it hurts, something else feels unreal. Today, it feels unreal that I am here. Standing in front of the closed door in C’s house inappropriately touching her face seems unreal. I think having a reason to live and a sense of purpose feels unreal too. It makes it hard to do anything in the present. I could, but I don’t know how it would turn out. I think it might be better just to try to cope with the pain and do my work belatedly but with my full heart engaged again.

I think it hurts for a different reason than it used to. I think it used to hurt that Nata is not here. The others are not with me. They are dead or left behind. That used to hurt a lot, but I think some of that heartache has been stripped away. I think I’m grieving for my biological family now.

I thought for a while that Yuri was a murderer. He was, in fact, but a careless murderer or a hired murderer. Not a torturer. Not a murderer for fun. Not like my dad.

My dad was the serial killer and maybe still is, and it is my dad that is the reason I have almost no contact with my biological family now. None with him. None with my mother. Very little with my sister.

When I remember Annousheh, I know it is my dad that makes it hard to cope with just now. It hurt to lose her, but it hurts unimaginably to have a father who is a murderer. I cannot even make sense of it. I will never be able to. I can understand a lot of things. I can wrap my head around a certain degree of evil, but not that.

As I am building a life for myself—a life that is truly satisfying and not just one that pays the bills and might not be too dreadful to go through with—I know it is the way it is because of my dad. I know I can tell C she is my little sister because I have no family of my own. I can pay for private school for her if she needs it because I have no children to my own to worry about. I can tell her to come live in my house with me next year because there is no one else. And there is no one else because of my dad. There is no one else because of the intensity of the grief he left me with, because I was afraid anyone I loved he would kill. I am in Country X and literally on the other side of the world, and I am less afraid. And I worked at it. But the reason it’s a 13-year-old I am making a part of my life is because of everything he did to me that left me unable to create a family of my own at the point in my life when most people do those things. Because of him, I have no entanglements. I have no responsibilities. I may never have them. I can have only C if I want. But the reason I have C is because I have no one else, and that is his fault. That is because of everything he took away from me, including the grief that my dad is really a murderer and no kind of human being.


I feel I can’t write about this. I am going to, but it feels tender, too personal, like a plant that might be easily crushed.

C disobeyed me this morning. I told her when she got to school to come to the staff room. She did not. I saw her walking down to her class and she saw me and then in the five minutes it took me to come down, she had disappeared.

I was really, really angry. I saw her after a while—I was so angry I went for a walk, and she was returning from where she had gone as I was walking. I gave her a hard look as she came toward me. It was my angry look and I think probably it is not a nice like. I think it might look psychopathic. I am not very sure, but at its most intense, I know that look is scary even to pretty hardened kids.

I asked her why she hadn’t come up. There were chairs that needed moving. That is actually pretty much C. If she doesn’t do what I tell her, it’s almost always because someone else has given her work to do or is sick or having some kind of personal crisis. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Friends said to come.” I don’t know what to say about that. Impulsive people pleasing? Probably. Who knows. “Just tell me next time.” I let her go.

Why was I so angry though? I felt resolved about things in the present. I told her what I expected in future. She understood my expectations. Actually, she has choices. I want her to make her own choices. That is a part of things. But communication about her choices is important to me. It shows respect. I respect her enough to allow her to make choices. She respects me enough to tell me what they are so that I can weigh how it fits in with my more mature understanding of what is best for her.

But rage kept bubbling up. What’s that about? I kept walking around, wondering. I know some of how life at Yuri’s affected me. The girls did their best to keep me safe. It required complete attention and obedience from me and complete awareness from them.

Then also I was responsible for Annousheh or I felt I was responsible for her and she died.

So I thought about this for a while, and landed in a place of grief. Unclear exactly why, but grief maybe at how I grew up, at the need for such obedience, at the fact that when I was cared for I was never free to be a child and when I wasn’t cared for there was no reason I would want to be a child. Maybe, most of all, a grief at how little life mattered to my dad. Not life in the sense of circulation and respiration, but in the sense of aliveness.

A vending machine life

I’ve been crying a lot the last few days. It has been harder to sleep because, actually, I can’t stop feeling long enough to get sleepy. The thoughts I have at these times aren’t coherent. They kind of drift slowly through, half-formed, disconnected, and sometimes not there at all. Just feelings with no clear articulation behind them at all.

I know it is, in some way, connected to C. The web of connections has been set off by something I am doing related to her. On Tuesday, we had a holiday and this was sort of a non-holiday, as we had to report for a public program, which involved waiting more than 3 hours for the guest of honour to arrive. Anyway, I talked to my friends about their kids. I talked to them about college, because one of their children is just starting college and she’s going to a private college, because her grades were not good enough to get into a public college. One thing to understand about Country X is that private schools are sort of the lowest rung on the educational ladder. Anyway, I was talking to her and I was talking to VP Ma’am about her kids, who are grown now but not long out of college. And I mined them a little bit for information on C’s behalf, because I think it helps to have information as you are making decisions about how to proceed. I think C needs information, and I need information too.

Then I went home and looked up some things on the internet. What kind of marks you need to have to be promoted to Class XI, because not everyone attains that. What kind of marks you need to have to be admitted to different colleges. The cost of private school if you don’t get promoted to Class XI. The cost of private college if you aren’t admitted to public college. I tell C she can do it, but I need to be able to tell her exactly what she needs to do in order to get an education beyond Class X, so that she can see whether it seems attainable. And I also want to know what I can afford if various Plan As don’t work out, so that I know what I can promise her in terms of actual, tangible support if her parents can’t or won’t do it.

Wednesday, I mulled it over. Today, in the morning, I told her I had thought about her future and I wanted to talk to her about it. At recess, I saw her sitting alone, so I went and spoke to her. I laid it all out—the marks she needed to get, the private school option. I had asked in the morning what her dad does. He’s in accounting. How far up in accounting, I don’t know, but he’s educated. He makes a decent salary. There are 5 kids in the house, so maybe they aren’t wealthy, but C’s family does okay. They might be able to afford private school. I ask her about that. She says yes. Would they do that for her? She doesn’t know. But she says if she doesn’t get Class X, she will go and work in her village. She won’t say why. I ask her four times and she says, “Just like that.” She says at last if her parents tell her to go to private school, she will go, but if they don’t tell her to go, she won’t ask them. She will just go and work. I have the strong sense the reason she says that is that if she cannot attain Class XI on her own merit, she doesn’t deserve anything better than that anyway. She will have failed in her eyes.

I tell her I will send her to private school, and her eyes water. She looks down so that I cannot see her behind her bangs, but after a while she has to blow her nose. I tell her she only gets one chance to be a child. If she doesn’t want to pursue a career after she finishes her education, she can always work in her village. It’s fine. But she cannot give up in Class X and then try again for Class XI when she is 30 and changes her mind.

I tell her if her marks are not high enough attend a government college, she can attend a private college, and I will send her there too.

So my thoughts are related to this. They are related to having this kind of conversation with her, the one I do have with her in the end, after a long bout of crying the night before and a long bout of crying in the morning and prior to a long bout of crying at lunchtime.

Because what I feel as I think all this through is that she matters. Her education matters. It matters only partly as a practical concern—it matters because this little spark inside C that makes her C matters, and no one else is really looking after that spark of a child. I’m telling her all this not for the career options it will give her, but because she wants those options. I know she does, because she told me that in one of our first conversations. “Last year, I really wanted to be a teacher, but now it’s not fixed.” That was the difference between being 12 and being 13. Her dreams died. We all get more realistic as we get older, but 13 is no time to lower your sites down to ending your education at 15 and spending the rest of your life doing hard physical labour. It does not really matter to me what C’s marks are, or whether she ends up succeeding or failing in her dreams, but I want her to hold onto hope long enough to give herself a fighting chance.

What it does is make me aware of a shift in perspective. There is the perspective of life and people generally, including oneself, as something like vending machines. You press the right buttons and certain things come out: certain experiences, tangible rewards, maybe certain emotions. If you have high self-esteem, in this view, you would see yourself as having very high quality items inside your vending machine. You push the buttons and you get name-brand potato chips, not the knock-off kind. If you have low self-esteem, then you see yourself as having lousy items to offer: soggy potato chips, expired biscuits, rancid cookies, things people might actually pay not to have to eat. But in terms of your approach to live, they might not make much difference.

If you were raised by someone empathically impaired—someone who couldn’t respond to you—then this is the view you most certainly have of yourself and others. It’s a view of people as objects, but it isn’t necessarily selfish. You might very freely reciprocate with your own high-quality vending machine items. I press your buttons: you press mine. That kind of thing. However, it is a diminished view of the world and for some people it’s quite a depressing view. The experiences available and the tangible rewards are not that satisfying. They feel rather empty, in fact. If life is a struggle for you, as it is for me, that’s shit to look forward to.

But then there is a different view possible, which has to do with an affective experience of life and involves a deep connection to oneself and others. It’s authentic in some way.

C thinks I can’t love her because I worry about her and because she believes she hurts my feelings. I think she sees herself as a vending machine. She isn’t providing me with the kinds of emotive experiences someone who saw her that way would like. She’s providing me with rancid biscuits and soggy potato chips, as far as she is concerned. Actually, she isn’t, but I am not hungry. I don’t need a snack and a particular kind of emotional experience is not what I’m looking for when I talk to her. She has no idea that the reward for me is seeing this little spark every day. It’s this little tickle of joy inside I have that she exists. It’s something she can’t control at all and it’s totally undefinable, and it happens whether she remembers to do her homework or not.

It is this feeling about her that motivates me to help her, and it is also motivating me. I feel I am doing what I want with my life now. I am responding to my own internal world, instead of to vending machine items I don’t even know whether I want or not. So while I am helping her, I feel “worth” more: I don’t feel like I’m offering better-quality snack items. I feel instead that I know what this spark is inside me that makes me Ash. I think C sees it also, and that’s why this relationship has developed. She sees the spark inside me and responds to it. I see the spark inside her. We both, I hope, are starting to understand we are human beings.

Giving a shit

I wish I could work something out. It’s all sort of floating around in my head, without shape or form, but in these really significant pieces. It’s like I’m almost there, and can’t arrive.

I think Annousheh’s mother cleaned. I think she wasn’t a sex worker, and she was 25 or 30. She lived at the hotel along with the girls, but I think her job was to clean. I think her name was Aisha.

I had this weird fragment of memory beginning on Saturday. French. Who spoke French to me and why? Someone seemed to have. A big orange cat named Marmalade. White leather furniture. Good smells. Someone’s house, a clean house, an orderly house.

What I get out of is a sense of someone giving a shit about life. A sense that life has value. Mine has value, the person who lived there had value. I think maybe her name was Yvette. Something with a V.

I have this long, protracted, only semi-intelligible Facebook chat with C about why she matters to me. It begins on Friday and continues in this intermittent, inchoate way until Sunday evening. She has, first of all, the idea that she causes me a lot of worry. She doesn’t mention this over the weekend, but it has surfaced before and never been completely resolved. Then yesterday she says she thinks she can’t matter to because she hurts me a lot. Why does she think she hurts me? How many times has this happened? I can’t get a picture. She says she hurt me on Friday, because she wouldn’t let me come to her house. She wouldn’t because it was “muddy.” And that did hurt. What kind of judgmental jackass does she imagine me to be? But there’s no way to explain this over chat in broken English.

But this sense that she feels she cannot be loved breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that I see her chances at a future for herself foreshortened again and again. She wants to come to my house on Sunday for help with English and math, but her mom abandons her to laundry and babysitting and, in the end, she can’t come. She has an opportunity, but she can’t take it. This might be why she thinks she hurts me: my feeling of heartbreak at watching her life fade into the distance, in a way, when she is only 13 years old.

The thing about giving a shit is you keep trying. She can’t come to meet me early in the mornings most days because there are too many chores at home. Or she forgets about an assignment and scrambles to write it at the last minute. I don’t blame her for her forgetfulness. Having no one to help you stay organized at home will do that to you. She can’t come to my house for tutoring because her mother runs around with her friends and leaves C with the work of raising 4 kids. So I keep trying to think of new little bits of time to help her in. She is intending to stay here in Y-town next year and attend boarding school, but I think if her grades are low, they won’t accept her. It’s something I need to ask an adult about. If she doesn’t have anyone to help her, she won’t pass her exams in Class 10. And then I don’t know what will happen to her. Girls with no opportunities settle for what they can, and what they settle for is very often the most palatable form of exploitation available to them.

Anyway, my heart breaks for her that she can’t understand how she could matter to me. But I think my heart is also breaking for myself, because I couldn’t either. I am only just barely getting a sense of it. In the morning, before leaving for school, I cry for a long time.

Less trap-like

I am not really in the mood to write just now, but I haven’t written anything since Wednesday, and I have a sense of it being “time.”

I am thinking today about something that does not actually interest me that much. It’s important, but laying it all out for you does not really catch my fancy.

I am thinking today about my brain working better and about this making me hopeful for the future. When you are traumatized, I have realized, your feelings in the present recall other feelings, and it’s very intense. Intense emotions create intense cravings to act. It makes for impulsivity. It’s not about your thoughts. The impulsivity can happen even if you shut down thought altogether, which I am quite good at. Your thoughts are merely internal communication about your feelings and desires. You can stop articulating anything, and you go on wishing for the same things and feeling the same things. The upside of thought suppression is that you get less freaked out by knowing what you think and feel. You save yourself a layer of “I’m feeling THAT?”

But the impulses you have in the present based on traumatic experiences don’t always accord with good, common sense. I mean, they are so loudly shaped by one set of data that it does not take into account other sets of data. You’re not really driving on all four cylinders. Instinctively, I think some of us know this. Or we do have some sense of what other sources of information suggest, and we can tell it’s not such a great idea to follow the particular trauma-inspired impulse, and then we try to shut down the feeling and the impulse along with it. Then you get cold logic. Which also leaves out important pieces of information. Cold logic makes you just as stupid about making life-choices as hot emotions.

Through this process, I have realized there is almost always some relevant and important connection between the trigger in the past and the memory it is triggering. I used to think I could say, “Oh, I just feel this way because it reminds me of the past, but it is not like the past.” Actually, it is like the past. It is like the past in some ways and not like it in other ways, and I need the full picture and all the data—past, present, and imagined future—to make decisions about it. But processing all of that makes the feelings too intense and I want to do things that defy common sense.

So there is often something that feels very trap-like about the feelings from the past that get triggered. For example, these days, I am really, really struggling with homesickness. I can’t even tell you if I am a little bit homesick for the familiarity of the United States, because it’s all so convoluted and tangled and emotionally intense I don’t know what’s what. But I have been processing the past so that the volume on the whole thing can be turned down. As I have done this, it feels less trap-like. It feels less like I will have to do things that have a variety of downsides just to keep myself from being overwhelmed by sadness and grief. I feel freed up to make choices based on a broader range of needs and desires, instead of the one “OMFG-this-hurts” desire at the expense of all other desires. I think this is what people mean when they talk about being freed of the past. The thing is I don’t feel freed from the past. My past is more folded into my daily life than it ever has been before. My past is not in the past. It is in the present. It’s just it doesn’t feel trap-like. It’s merely there. Enriching sometimes, sometimes neutral, sometimes a horror I just have to get through.

But it’s an interesting place to be in, and it makes me feel more optimistic about the future.


I imagine it’s completely different for someone with different trauma. I sometimes wonder about that. And I think it would be different if my own trauma were more limited. I mean, if it wasn’t so much death and dismemberment and grief and loss and more just abuse and fear and shame, I would have different things to say about it. It would do different things to me to remember it. I don’t know.

The process is probably the same. We have to work with it in the same way. But I wonder how different my story is.

Because I get these unexpectedly wonderful things amidst the horror. If your trauma is different than mine, does that happen? I wonder, because maybe the good things in your past either didn’t exist or didn’t become such powerful losses that you blocked them out along with the bad stuff. If there was good stuff in there, maybe you never forgot it or maybe there never was any good stuff. You have your present, and it had better be good. If your present sucks, then you’re SOL. My present is okay, I guess. I mean, it’s mixed, which mostly everyone’s is. But what makes the present rich for me is its intersection with the good bits of the past.

I am getting good stuff today.

I have a bit of downtime in the day, and what I feel is unconditional love. Warm arms around me and that instinctive, whole-body sense of being accepted and loved and wanted no matter what. If no one ever really loved you—if all your family was all made up of what I think of as people with relational impairments—then this is something you have to get later, as an adult. If it happens at all.

Still, I wonder who she was. Who was Moder-jaan?