I came back from the Capitol City and I was kind of congratulating myself. The cold was easier to deal with. The long bus ride was easier to deal with. The trigger of departure was easier to deal with. And so it really felt as though all the work I have done paid off. After I came back, I had this really strong sense of safety. I noticed the cold—my hands hurt—and I felt it and felt at the same time I was safe. Not thought. Not told myself. Actually felt. That seemed miraculous. And I began to have this huge sense of optimism. This is working. Things are going to get better and easier for me.
And then I began to get these memories. They are not at all surprising, given everything else I know about my dad now, but they felt really difficult to deal with. They involved sexual abuse and blood—lots of it, from sources I couldn’t always identify—and raw meat I didn’t know the source of either. I mean, I really did not know if they were human or animal. The memory is so horrifying that the dominant emotion of it is worthlessness. I have had to cross every line of decency. Either I am worth so little, it doesn’t matter what rules of society I transgress or breaking every rule has made me worthless.
It as though I am worth so little I do not deserve to even be a human being anymore.
And the memory makes me feel totally hopeless—it is kind of one memory, but it seems like a representative sample rather than a unique event, as those things are sort of the themes that ran through a whole series of experiences.
The hopelessness comes from the sense that it is so difficult to deal with and I don’t know if it will help. I don’t know if it will help me or if I have enough to offer that helping myself will in the end help anyone else either. I want to help here in Country X, but I don’t know that I really do. So many times, I just barely get through the day. It is not clear that my presence makes any particular difference. I want to help C, but I don’t know if I can give her what she needs either. Not for the same reason, really, but because it sounds as though I will have to leave in 3 years from now, when she is in Class 11, although I can come back, and it just may not be enough for her to get a sense of stability.
I go into a suicidal tailspin. I don’t do anything. I just sit there and wonder if really it would be better to go somewhere quiet and die.
I sit with that for a long time. I start to think there is kind of no Plan B here. Death is not a Plan B. Death is just death.
This is how it begins to seem to me. I can try to see if what I have been doing works as well with this memory as every other kind of memory I have dealt with and whether the pain ends up being finite. Or not try. There is not any other realistic choice. It’s not terribly comforting as a thought—I still have to cope with trauma. It’s not as though I found a magic way around it. But it gives me a hard enough look at reality perhaps that I realize what the choices are. They are not wonderful choices, but trying is as good as it is going to get. Death is not life without the pain. I can try and either end up with a better life or a life of endless suffering, but if I don’t try, I will most definitely get no life at all. I can live without trying to heal, and I won’t heal. I can die without trying to live and I won’t live. But it is not certain whether I will heal even if I do try. I cannot know that. Trying is absolutely the best that can be managed. If I don’t try to help C, C most certainly not be helped. If I don’t try to teach well in Country X, I will most certainly not teach well. I cannot know if I will see success, but there are ways to guarantee failure. Trying is as good as it is ever going to get.
It seems, in a way, that that is really what I am remembering: I could try to survive the abuse in hopes that life would someday get better, or I could not try to survive. I could give up. But I could not, in any way through any means, make the abuse stop. Not for a long time. And it’s possible I did not make the abuse stop—that my memories of making it stop are misinterpretations of weird shit my dad was doing to torture me in any case—but what I knew as a child was only uncertainty, only a vague hope for the future. There was life with abuse or death. Life without abuse was not an option, just as life without trying to heal from trauma is not an option now. I did not choose the abuse and I am not choosing the necessity of coping with the trauma.
Maybe for a long time I had the vague holdout of wishful thinking about that: as a child, I tried to pretend it away. As an adult, I sometimes try to pretend away the necessity of coping with it. There is a lot of pressure to do this: the messages from so much of the “recovery” world are deeply wedded to the idea of pretending. We can try harder to pretend and it will get better: that’s the lie and the wishful thinking. We can “let go” of the past and it will magically remove itself and you will not need to deal with it. Conversely, you can “get it all out” and express it and somehow cathect it and it will also magically remove itself.
No, you can’t. Neither of those approaches works. If you have trauma, what you can do is this: do the hard work of regulating your emotions enough that you can form memories of the events and then you can spend the rest of your life periodically updating your perspective on those memories. Which, very possibly, will not be hell to do once you kind of have it down.
But our brains work by constantly comparing the past to the present and if you do not process the past, your brain will keep trying to do it anyway. That is what it does. “Letting go” of the past is like “letting go” of the need to eliminate waste every day. It is just going to make you sick.
This might be one of the last little bits of grief for me about this. I cannot choose a life in which these things did not happen. I can choose death, but death is not life without the pain of life. Death is just death. The past might very possibly lead to a lousy future for me. I can make the best of that lousy future. Or not. Or I can have a future that is even more lousy.
Staying alive through unmanageable horror was absolutely the best I could do as a child, just as trying to cope with the memory of it is absolutely the best I can do now. I can do worse, but I cannot do better. This is as good as it gets. I am shocked at this understanding that I had so few choices: I was a child. Of course, I did not have choices. But I still don’t have choices. I have shitty. Then there is shittier. Possibly several kinds of them. Then there is shittiest. Those are not what I call choices. Those are sheer necessity. As a child, I could choose mind-numbingly horrifying, or more than mind-numbingly horrifying, or even beyond the beyond mind=numbingly horrifying.
No wonder my dad raped me and I asked for more. That was as good as it was ever going to get and lack of compliance could only ever make things worse. He was not even going to kill me. Someone would notice I was dead.
Human decency was never in the range of choices. The best I could do was to try to survive.