I wrote almost literally all day yesterday. I have in the past written posts out of desperation, just to get some connection around my experiences or even to force myself to try to organize my thinking well enough that someone else can understand it. Yesterday, I wrote because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts into something someone else might understand and I enjoyed the anticipation of connection over those thoughts. I had a difficult day, but I enjoyed writing.
I think I slept last night for nearly 11 hours. I woke at around 4:30 and it seemed as though I were alert enough to wake up. Then suddenly it was almost seven. I feel now as though I haven’t slept and need to close my eyes again. I am really, really, really tired.
I don’t know what I will do today. It seems a good day for moving in slow motion, for trying to get my bearings again.
C is gone, I think. I assume she is on her way to football camp, but I am not clear on it. She said she was going to a city in the south of Country X which is on the way to football camp, and I assume that is why she is going there, but she didn’t say when she was leaving or if she had left. I am immensely relieved. I need time alone, without the responsibility of trying to behave like a normal, functional person, and while she was here, I could not give myself permission to do that.
One thing that is good about a teacher’s life is the extended time off. I am tremendously appreciative that I have it. Although the actual work periods are sometimes tremendously stressful and triggering, there is something that can be done over the course of 10 weeks or, in this case, 7 weeks or sometimes even 2 weeks (as at winter holiday time in the States) that cannot be done when you have shorter chunks of downtime available on a regular basis. I feel fortunate in that regard.
I had a few thoughts this morning in that space between trying to rustle up coffee and a few snacks. (I have not tackled breakfast yet.) One of them is that I know now, really without a shadow of a doubt, that my traumatic past happened. It is and will be a part of me. I have integrated it into my understanding of myself. It’s as though I moved through a grieving process where denial was really prominent and then bargaining persisted for a very long time: as in, okay these things happened, but is there some way I can live my life as though they didn’t?
No, I can’t. I can have a satisfying life, but not one that the horrors I lived through are not a part of.
Part of the incomplete grieving seems to have to do with fear: it seems there is no way to live with what happened. There is no way to successfully cope with it. There is no way to feel like a decent person again. There is no way to have the same worth as other people do. I can be permanently broken by it or I can “transcend” it and pretend it doesn’t affect me.
It doesn’t help, I think, that generally it is human nature to see people who are different from us as flawed versions of ourselves. As an ex-pat, I see this on display all the time. It is a part of what is grating about being around other foreigners here. Country X-ers are wonderful and better, except they are not like us. I am sure there are times I do it too. It’s just how we are wired. I don’t even think it is socially conditioned to have this attitude of narcissism and arrogance about ourselves. I think it is biological. “Us” is better.
My culture sees people who have been traumatized as flawed versions of people who have not been traumatized. The solution is always to make traumatized people think and behave like non-traumatized people, rather than to accept the reality of the trauma and learn how to accommodate it.
But trauma can be coped with. I can walk into my toilet, be reminded of blood, think about what happened in my father’s “workshop” and live through that. I can still have a satisfying life. It might be an entirely different internal experience than someone who would not have anything even remotely like that in their experience, but it need not be utterly impairing.
It does mean I need to spend a lot of time and energy concentrating on calming the fuck down. Not ignoring the sensations within me that are indications that I am scared. Not controlling my thoughts more carefully so that I need not be consciously aware of my fear. But really and truly managing my emotional and physiological state so that the terror is not overwhelming.
It’s possible in time this will become automatic and so easy as to become almost effortless, and walking into my red toilet will be like a pinprick of fear.
I have no idea. I am pretty sure no one else does either.
I think what I am trying to do—having a full, rich, emotionally connected existence—is actually quite rare. It may not be rare, but I think it could be. Certainly, no one seems to have written about it: maybe I just don’t have good access to books here, in the place where I have lived since I started trying to do all this. Or maybe the people doing it are too interested in life to write books about it. Nonetheless, it seems to be rather uncharted territory. It is certainly uncharted territory for me.
Going back to this idea of needing to calm the fuck down.
So, I woke up thinking about worth and about worthlessness. And I had this idea—it’s a rather obvious one, but keep in mind I was just waking up—that worth is very much in the eye of the beholder. I was reminded of a reader’s comment that had to do with a priceless painting or manuscript. Well, those have value because some people are very interested in old manuscripts and some people love beautiful paintings. There is this understanding in general that something has value because other people value it. I mean, if I didn’t like paintings, I would still have an appreciation for a Mondrian as a commodity because I would grasp that someone else would like it.
My life and myself have value to some people and not others, and even if no one values me at a particular moment, I always have in me that potential to be valued in the future. There is this understanding in society that a human life has value because everyone has value to someone or will at some point. I was reading about Robert Pickton—a serial killer every bit as sick as my dad—and it struck me as I read through the list of victims, that many of them were reported missing, although they were prostitutes and although the police department was not terribly diligent in following up on their disappearances because they were prostitutes. They still had someone who cared enough to report them. They had families who were outraged that 20 of the cases were never tried (because his sentence could not be increased anyway). Many of them, maybe all of them, mattered to someone.
There are two ideas I got out of this: one of them is that, for some people, there is no recognition that everyone matters to someone and each life is important and worthy for that reason: human life has a universal value because of that. For some people, that isn’t true. They feel someone does not matter to them, and that is the end of the story. These are dangerous people.
My other thought had to do with own sense of being worthless. It hit me when I woke up that, in a sense, that is absolutely true. It is an absolutely true perception. My dad felt I had no worth. He treated me as though I had no worth. I was harmed because I had no personal or universal or any kind of worth in his eyes. My worthlessness is a part of the memory of my interactions with him, and it is a strong indicator of danger. I remember that feeling of worthlessness while in other situations where I do not feel valued because it was such a reliable indicator of danger. It was worth remembering. People who do not value me may, at best, treat me carelessly and at worst harm me. They are best treated cautiously, if not outright avoided.
The problem is that the memory is so intense. In the present, I might notice I am not being valued by someone, and my memory of not having value is so intense and so overwhelming my brain breaks apart and I cannot think. I recognize that now. I used to respond to that type of experience in ways that got me through but did not, in the long-run, help. I used to tell myself it simply wasn’t true. I was misperceiving. I used to try to suppress the entire reaction, and I think that meant I remained in contact with people who did not value me for very long periods of time. I did not approach them with caution. I threw caution to the wind.
The real solution is not to do that. Sometimes there is no time to approach a situation like that in the most ideal way, and you do end up needing to suppress your reaction for the time-being. However, the ideal approach is to realize you are overwhelmed and focus on calming down enough to think again. Once you calm down, you can assess the situation accurately. Is it an accurate perception? Does this person not value me? Is their lack of value for me placing me in real danger or is it merely a kind of annoyance?
The difficulty with that is that the memories connected to the overwhelming emotion of it have to be somewhat processed to do that. Otherwise, calm is never possible. You calm down enough to think and as soon as you feel the sense of worthlessness again, you are right back to being overwhelmed.
Staying in that range where you are aware of the emotions and the perceptions and you know, even, the traumatic events they are connected to is really difficult. It can be done though. It takes time and it takes practice and it takes moving through the grief of accepting what happened and the permanence of its presence in your life. But it can be done. I am confident of that.
Trauma affects your life forever, but it need not ruin your life. It alters it, most assuredly. It alters it in ways you might not like and would probably never choose—there are choices, but those choices are constrained by reality. But it is not a death sentence, either literally or in a spiritual sense. You need not cut off your connection to yourself and your emotions in order to live, even if yourself and your emotions are intimately bound up with trauma.
Life is still possible.