I want to kill myself quite a lot of the time. It seems to be a very core part of the experience of being forced to cannibalize my friends.
The sense of moral horror, of disgust and violation, is simply unbearable. I would rather die than do it again.
And they are dead. I miss them. I want to be with them. If they are dead, I want to join them in death.
I also feel tainied. My whole body feels tainted. I think you feel that way when you are raped also. This may be precisely the same feeling, only more unbearably intense. It may be part of every horrific experience. But I have the feeling of my entire body being ruined by it. There is something in it that has destroyed it, that does not belong there. The evil of it is as palpable as the experience of eating and digesting, and it seems to extend to everything about me: my body, my actions, my relationships, my thoughts even, everything I could possibly be or do or think.
The thing about memories is that you add to them, but they remain. If I see an enormous spider in my house and feel scared of it, I will later have the memory of the spider and of being scared. I might later add onto it the memory of telling myself it is not a poisonous spider and it is harmlessly on the wall and not on my body, and I have nothing to be afraid of, and I will also have the memory later of calming down again. But the first memory of being scared doesn’t get simply overwritten. I won’t later look back at the spider and then remember not being scared alone. I will remember being scared and then realizing there is nothing to be afraid of.
Trauma works the same way. I have the memory of feeling tainted and then I can add onto it my current perspective, which will join it as an additional memory, that I still have worth and value and I could never be made into someone who was not human and did not count. The problem with traumatic memories, however, is that they are not memories yet. In reality, we do not know what happened or how we felt about it. The experience of it is there in our brains, but we do not know what that experience was. The memory must be formed. It could not be formed at the time that it happened, because our nervous systems were too overwhelmed to function.
I no longer opt for the idea that this is evolutionarily advantageous. It is possible that it is, but I think perhaps evolution just has not caught up with this little glitch in our brains yet. Our brains get overwhelmed and stop functioning at full capacity: full capacity becomes something like a rabbit’s brain. It encodes and stores the emotions and the sensory aspects, so that when we are faced with those sensory aspects we will emotionally respond in the same way. However, that is not a human memory, which is a much more complex entity.
And so we have to spend a terribly long and terribly unpleasant long time forming the memory. We must spend some time with the emotions and sensory aspects in order to make a memory of it. I must spend long enough with the feeling in my body, with the revulsion, with the horror, and with what I saw and touched long enough to be able to say, “I felt tainted.” We must do this while also keeping our nervous systems within a range in which our brains can still function and memories can actually be formed. Meanwhile, our primary caretakers frequently never responded to signs that our nervous systems were overwhelmed—our distress—with attempts to help us regulate. So the fact that we need to regulate, and the means by which we can regulate ourselves, are not automatic. We have to learn them. We have to accept also that they are necessary, and not a sign of weakness or immaturity or proof that we were shamefully damaged by the abuse. It is not, for a long time, second nature to help ourselves calm down enough that our brains can even work.
And this is even more difficult and complex than it sounds, because I have been dissociating my whole life and the sensations inside me—my enteric nervous system at work, creating feelings in my gut, the tensions in my chest and around my heart, the feelings in my throat—are all new. They have to be noted and a web of associations and understanding has to be created around them, so they become something I “know.” It goes far beyond giving it a name: that is anger, that is sadness, that is grief. And it has to be allowed to be linked up to thoughts. That is the conscious thought which arises out of that sensation. I feel disgust, it is unbearable, I want to die. It takes time because so much of this is new. It is like entering into a physics course on the last day of classes. The entire syllabus must be learned in order for that particular lecture to make sense and to have a construct within which it can be placed. The sensory experience of emotions themselves must be “remembered.” They must become automatic, like riding a bike. That takes time.
So one cannot quickly jump through to the ideas one might have about it in the present and not spend much time on how it felt in the past. They both have to happen, and it seems to me the past is ultimately much harder and more time-consuming to consider. It is not that difficult for me to think, “I am safe now. That will never happen again. I will never be forced to cope with that kind of emotional overload. I will never be tortured—and it was torture. I will never be tortured like that again. It is simply not possible.” I cannot leap through to the present—to creating, essentially, a memory of having thought about it—right away. It often proceeds in turns, creating memories of the past and then of thinking about the past and then returning to the past again. But the past seems always to be more demanding. It is always more difficult, and it always takes an agonizingly long time.
I think psychotherapy failed for me because that time was never allotted. I wasn’t ever equipped with either the understanding of the necessity of or with the means to regulate my emotions so that my brain could even form memories. And then sufficient time was never allowed to work on forming the memory of the past. The rush was always into forming a memory of thinking about the past—to this idea that my humanity could not be taken from me, despite the sense of having been so thoroughly tainted that my humanity could only have been destroyed—before the memory of the past had ever been properly formed. This meant that I kept having to do it, to revisit it, and that began to seem endless and futile. Why can I never work through this? In psychoanalytic terms, this is “resistance.” In real terms, it is merely lack of competence in approaching the memory. It never seems to be resolved not because the patient is ambivalent about getting better, but because the patient neither knows how nor understands that it needs to be done. And the patient sometimes does not understand because the psychotherapist does not know either. The psychotherapist is focused on creating the memory of thinking about the past: it is so much easier. It seems so much more promising. It looks like growth. And yet it bypasses the initial and more crucial step of forming a memory of the past in the first place. It is pointless to have a memory of thinking about the past, when you have no proper memory of the past to start with.
This is why we have nightmares and flashbacks. In sleep and in our more vulnerable moments, our minds attempt to do what they have not been able to successfully do. We are not trying to get mastery over the past. We are trying to get mastery over our brains, and we do not know how to do it. Yet, like shitting, it has to be done. We keep visiting the toilet even though we are constipated and nothing comes out. The solution is not to resist the impulse to visit the toilet: it is to take a laxative. The solution to PTSD is to learn to regulate so that our brains can work well enough to form memories. There is simply no other way. We cannot spend our whole lives in the toilet, trying to shit: similarly, we cannot give ourselves over to endless flashbacks and overwhelm. That is not the solution. The solution is making things work so that when we do visit the toilet, something happens. When we revisit the past, our brains are “warm” enough to form memories, and we don’t have to endlessly make them.
At the same time, our memory of thinking about the past will change. What I thought about being teased at 7, say, will be different at 40 than at 10. Similarly, it’s not that I can think about the traumatic past only once. I will need to think about the same events now and again later, because I have changed, my perspective on life has changed, I know different things, and consequently what I think about the trauma.
That is another aspect to the process of living with trauma. You have to keep thinking about it and updating your perspective on it, in the same way you update your perspective on less overwhelming experiences.
There is more to this, but that is enough for now.