Evenings have been difficult the last two nights. I find myself in a gritting-my-teeth kind of attitude, where I make dinner, wash dishes, and get to bed as quickly as I can, because it seems like there’s no real way to make it better.
It turns out the trigger is the knife. I am making dinner and cutting vegetables, and the knife scares me. It might be worse now because one of the things I picked up in the Capital City was a sharp knife. Actually two. The one I used for my first two years here was a tiny little serrated thing that might be suitable for cutting up a tender steak. It was good for cutting tomatoes, I guess. Anyway, the knife is not larger, but it is sharper. It seems to call up memories of my dad (pretending to) cut me in pieces. So it’s hard.
Dark seems to trigger the same thing—maybe lots of bad things. That doesn’t help either.
Then I go to bed. I am scared of bed too. Bedtime has been a trigger for a long time. It has eased, but it began to emerge a few nights ago that actually bed is terrifying. Bed is where we got raped a lot of the time.
We want our mommy or Nata or C or whoever might make us feel better because we are scared. Then other stuff upsets us. Nata is dead. We don’t know where C is: maybe she’s lost her pieces somewhere, who knows. Maybe she hates us. Maybe whatever.
So it’s hard. I can calm down and I can sleep, but I’m not really dealing with all of this. I’m too tired at bedtime. I just try to keep breathing so that I eventually sleep.
One thing on my mind lately is something I read in a Holly von Gulden article. Attachment is a sensory experience, not a cognitive one. That is why talk therapy does not help. Well, I think learning to regulate emotions is a sensory experience too. I think anyone who has been chronically abused is going to have trouble with self-regulation, because usually there wasn’t a “good enough” parent somewhere to help with that. There might have been a non-abusive parent on the scene somewhere, but severe, ongoing abuse doesn’t happen if there are enough functional people in the family to protect and support the child. What you probably have instead is a parent who scares you into suppressing the expression of your emotions, at least some of the time. Which is another way of saying you learn to dissociate them.
I am maybe fortunate in that there were all these attachment figures. They didn’t have the power to protect me, but they were there to help me learn to regulate my emotions. The problem is that they died mostly. In a few cases, they moved away—I think Aisha and Aliya both moved away. That’s why packing scares the shit out of me. And maybe that was this morning’s problem. I helped someone move.
Anyway, digression aside, I have this advantage where there was something sensory in my past to help me with self-regulation. There were people I really did feel safe with. I just had to cope with grief enough to use those sensory experiences to help me.
If you don’t have those safe attachment figures, I think you do have to be your own attachment figure. You have to be the person who knows how to help you calm down and can provide soothing when you need it. You have to kind of jump from being a child with no “good enough” parent to being your own “good enough” parent with nothing in between and limited role models. Maybe only shitty role models. Maybe the adult in your head only knows how to criticize and how to shame you into behaving. Which does nothing to help with calming down.
I have been thinking that having parts is, to a degree, the result of growing up having flashbacks. Oddly—it seems odd to me—we think about how we, as adults, are going to handle our flashbacks, but no one seems to be interested that you grew up as someone who always had them. I mean, if you were abused when you were 3 years old, you have been having flashbacks since you were three. You did not suddenly begin having them as an adult. You sat at the lunch tables in preschool, perhaps, and the kid next to you chewed with his mouth open, and you were flooded with shame for no reason you could discern or with tactile memories of having been sexually abused. At the very least, these experiences were connected to events that no one wanted to acknowledge and seemed to have not really happened—only you remembered them. It was all very unclear. This did not seem to happen to anyone else. No wonder it all went into different kinds of “not-me” boxes. How else do you make sense of being flooded by these overwhelming, emotional intrusions into your ordinary day? How else do you contain them, so that you don’t hit the kid with the bad table manners or burst into tears or hide under the table? None of which will endear you to teachers or help you make friends.
And the only way to cope with flashbacks is to regulate. It’s the only way to go on with life so that your cognition isn’t distorted and the only way to integrate the memories into a coherent whole so that they stop intruding as mysterious bits of horror.
I was thinking about this and also thinking about how I think it once seemed to me that I would eventually discover that the person I felt myself to be during the flashbacks was “the real me.” I mean, I feel worthless in some of them. I think I expected to discover, deep down, that is my real feeling about myself. And it isn’t.
Flashbacks are not you, just as one reader commented that feelings are not you. Flashbacks are memories of you during a particular event. It is how you felt and thought in that moment, or in those types of moments. It is not you drilling down into your authentic self. It is something that happened to you, and it is a record of how you thought and felt and reacted to that event. In a lot of cases, it is remarkably similar to how anyone might feel in that same situation. It is not necessarily that revealing of your personality, the way something more neutral might be. We all have different tastes and preferences, different temperaments. We respond differently to the same kinds of music, to the same foods. But when we feel we might die, most of us feel scared. It isn’t revealing of who you are.
So I was thinking about my memories of being sexually abused—mainly, by my dad, but I expect being trafficked was merely an extension of this. There is a dominant feeling of worthlessness. I think, actually, a part of that sense of worthlessness is really powerlessness. I felt powerless to help my friends. The feeling is one of complete defeat. Because my dad abused me in the midst of death, the two are connected: his sexual abuse and my failure to reconstruct their dead bodies. But it’s also this feeling that I had no rights at all. I had no right to my own body. Beyond just not being able to choose my own actions, I could not choose the physical sensations I was having. It is like being forced to eat when you are not hungry or you are full. The level of powerlessness is tremendous.
It began to dawn on me that this right is something everyone has. Adult women, who might choose to have sex, also get to choose not to have it. They get to choose not to have it with the same partners they sometimes do choose to have sex with. There I was, a child too young to even know how to choose, and it was thrust upon me. It was thrust upon me by someone a young person would be biologically programed not to want to be sexual with: we do not feel sexual desire for people we have grown up in very close contact with (a problem for the kibbutzes). And at an age when my brain had not started producing the hormone that makes you feel sexual desire.
And I did not have that right. Within my family, that right was taken away from me, that right to my own body, to have some control over the sensations I was having or what was going on inside me. It’s not so much that the sexual abuse hurt me and scared me—although it did—but it completely assaulted my basic physical autonomy, my right to control my own body.
The worthlessness is not me, but it is how total assault on your very fundamental right to physical autonomy feels. I understand why it always makes me want to be dead. How much better to be the pieces of bodies lying around, who went through my dad’s table saw and did not have to feel anything. Because losing all right to your body and being assaulted by sensations you do not choose and cannot control or regulate is torture. It really is torture. The Geneva Convention forbids it.
The worthlessness is not me. It is not some core attitude toward myself. It is part of something that happened, and it is something I keep remembering as a part of flashbacks I have, but it is not some core truth about myself I have to face.