Meaning

(I wrote this on the 5th of January and forgot to post it.)

My struggle these days has to do with motivation. Not engaging in denial to cope means I have to accept the magnitude of what happened and the reality that it is part of me. It may not always be this hard, but the light at the end of the tunnel is just a light. It is not nirvana awaiting me. Sometimes, it does feel like nirvana because even ordinary enjoyment is stunningly new. It also means recognizing the real effects it has on my functioning. It makes life really, really difficult for me. I don’t like looking at myself as some kind of damaged or broken person, it is both demeaning and oriented towards a “poor me” kind of mentality I don’t feel. I mean, I need an insane amount of downtime to work through things. Making difficult decisions on-the-fly doesn’t always go well for me. It makes me a poorer friend and a less effective teacher. I am basically just a less competent human being because of it. But you don’t need to give me a cookie for it. It’s just how it is.

It hooks right into the feeling of worthlessness that comes out of being forced to transgress every standard of human decency.

I suppose that’s really what’s going on here. I have to accept a more realistic view of myself in light of what my past has done and this does that thing my brain does where it looks for something similar to compare it to. I mean, there is that meandering through the brain looking for connections. And it connects to the worst trauma I can even imagine.

Lucky me—I get to process the past and the present together. Yippee!

Facebook suggests an article about Victor Frankl and leading a life of meaning and it really resonates for me. Thank you, Facebook. The main idea that resonates is this: that one owes a responsibility to life to survive. You have something to give or something to do. You endure, not because it’s necessarily going to become fairyland, but because there is something in each of us that is irreplaceable.

The problem with this for me is I am starting to recognize that what I can actually “do” is considerably less than hoped, because the other part of being a survivor is that you feel you must have survived to do something really great. Some people are able to manage that, I think, but I cannot. Attaining average is this colossal struggle for me. I know, as a teacher, I have these tremendous gifts. And then I have these other, equally tremendous shortcomings which I am working on but remain present. The overall balance is not particularly outstanding. Having lived through hell does not make me more wonderful than people who did not—either the dead or the merely untouched. I am just me. Inadequate, struggling, fucked up, and trying hard. Trying hard and frequently not succeeding. So, as a survivor, I am in this bind: both expecting more of myself and capable of less than I expect of other people.

Nonetheless, I think this idea has value: that each of us has something in us worth preserving, a kind of destiny we owe the universe to live out as best we can. I think this must have been the idea buried deep inside me during the worst of the trauma. I think it is not actually a new thought, but the thought that has gotten me through everything: I have a contribution to make to the world. But it might be a tiny contribution—that is the caveat from the present. I did not survive because I am “special” or better than others or have some kind of superior product to offer. In fact, I may have considerably less to offer than I otherwise might have or than other people do. But I still have something.

It’s a fundamental difference between a survivor’s outlook and the perpetrator’s: I survived because I felt life is precious. Everyone’s life is precious. Mine is too. The perpetrator sees others as having value only insomuch as they can meet a need or provide a resource. Which isn’t to say those who died didn’t have that belief, but just that without it I don’t think I would have survived. I would not have reached this place of honesty, at the very least.

The fact is, I am going to meet other people with the perpetrator’s belief system. There will be other people who feel that I have no value because I cannot perform or because I do not meet their particular desires or need. And fortunately I am no longer a helpless child and I don’t have to live with them or depend on them for my daily sustenance, but I did not grow up to stumble into a world where everyone is kind and good and always cares about others. This is okay, but it’s triggering.

The struggle inside at the moment is between these two states—maybe you can say states: the sense that life is just too unbearably painful to survive or to want to survive (and processing these memories often is) and the sense that there is something worth surviving for. Which doesn’t sound so bad, perhaps. I mean, as thoughts, they are not dreadful. But I am not dealing with thoughts. I am dealing with the emotions of unprocessed trauma in which these two ideas were in constant conflict with me. So I get to think about these things while feeling the intense hopelessness and worthlessness of the past. I get to consider it while feeling overwhelmingly suicidal. I get to do it today, and I will probably get to keep doing it for a while, because the brain is not instant. It takes time to work all this out, arrange all the pieces, organize the memory and shift it out of the amygdala and into the hypothalamus.

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2 thoughts on “Meaning

  1. desilef January 8, 2016 / 11:25 pm

    As you end with shifting traumatic memory out of the amygdala, I wonder if you’ve ever done any of the strictly physical exercises for processing trauma. People like Bessel van der Kock and others who think the trauma is held in the body and that unrelieved tension is in communication with the brain and with the endocrine system. (I know I’m not saying this in the correct words.) So just working on straight, powerful posture can have an effect. I was recently introduced to TRE which puts people through a series of gentle physical exercises that end by eliciting an involuntary tremor through the body that apparently for some people shakes out and relieves their PTSD. In some cultures, maybe the wild dancing that accompanies some ritual offers the same relief.

    But those thoughts aside, welcome to middle age where almost everyone discovers s/he will never do the great things expected or desired – though in your life, as usual, yours is an extreme case! I do think, especially for women, the fallback is to have survived for the sake of their children and those of us who are childless are culturally challenged to prove we deserve to breathe the air. You prove it every day not only through your adoption of C, but your work with all the children and the way you’ve let the world into your world as you share the horrors but primarily all the insight and wisdom. No one has to prove anything. If we are here, we deserve to be here, but I can say that and still know the pressure to prove to prove to prove.

    • Ashana M January 9, 2016 / 8:00 am

      I wrote that and then realized it’s not exactly true in my mind: I think remains in the amygdala, but activity in the prefrontal cortex calms it down. Forming memories of the experience allows you to do that. Otherwise, it’s just the amygdala pumping out fear reactions until it gets tired. Or something like that.

      I haven’t tried bodywork like van der Kock advocates because I don’t really believe it. I really believe it is your brain that your remembers, and your brain instructing your body in how to respond. If you adopt a different posture, that often is associated with different memories and that might make you feel differently–just as Russian elicits different memories for me that make me feel differently. It might work as a way to get warm, but it’s not a long-term solution. Just my own opinion on that.

      Sometimes lately I do feel middle-aged and it’s nice. Most of the time, I feel elderly.

      You do deserve to be here. If you were a man, it might be easier for you to see how your work contributes to the world in so many ways. I suppose if you’re a woman, your work has to be mind-blowing to count. It can’t just be these little positive additions to the world.

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