Wonder

I’m going through something. It feels good, but it’s also hard to handle.

It’s hard to explain, but I want to reach out and have that connection, so I’ll try.

There is a holiday in Country X and C has gone to her village and she has actually chatted with me. I have been getting a real sense of the fear involved in trying to connect with me. This relates to my understanding of my trauma-based feelings of fear about reaching out. It’s really quite primal, like we were administered electrical shocks. So I started to understand as I was chatting with her that the times when she internally flees, it is not about me. Really and truly, it is not about me. She kind of knows this, but I am still catching on. She wants to reach out to me and feels maybe my grandmother will disapprove or my friends will tease me or everyone will stare or the matron won’t like it or….This is against the rules, but I don’t really know why.

And it really started to sink in. I’m loveable. She loves me. And there is just all of this other stuff.

If the most likely explanation for someone’s behaviour stops being I am worthless or bad, if that’s not the default, then things look really different.

It seems to relate to some idea that I can be me.

C’s stepmom had a baby recently, so we were chatting about that. I told her that her dad misses her. I said at happy times, we miss the person that can’t be with us. She didn’t believe me and I asked in a few different ways why she thought that, because I wanted to know how she feels and what she thinks about things. I didn’t get any real answer. I made a couple of guesses and she kept saying no.

But I thought how it’s like that for me. There are always these ghosts, all these people that feel like should be there and aren’t there, mostly because they are dead.

And the thing is many of them I feel are dead because my dad killed them. I don’t know what to say about that.

There is an important point to this: it has really seemed more real to me that I can be myself. This can be my experience, and it’s okay. I can feel that there are people missing from important events and feel sad about that, and that’s going to be okay. I think I have in the past believed, however unconsciously, that the only way to get on with life was not to experience any impact of the past on the present. I did not believe I could be my unique self with my unique past. The only way to get on with life was to bury what had happened.

That might have come from a lot of places, including infant neglect and trauma, but I think it also came from others who might not feel comfortable knowing what has happened to me or that these things do happen to people, even if they happen rarely.

I am beginning to feel it’s okay. I saw dismembered bodies as a 5-year-old, and life somehow goes on.

However, there is sometimes an expectation that trauma can’t or shouldn’t change you and that the only way to survive being the child of a serial killer is to put those memories in a box and try to be as normal as possible. Or, alternatively, to feel triumphant about having survived that. And there is often nothing to be triumphant about. I struggle with the consequences of my past on me psychologically. I can’t say those struggles aren’t real. Things don’t stay in a box, and no reasonable person can say in good conscience that it all worked out for the best. That’s just insane.

That said, I don’t think there is any way to live through those things and not have horror intensify your search for meaning. I don’t think there is any way just to return one’s attention to ordinary life and become caught up in everyday concerns. I don’t think it’s possible to survive it without developing some kind of sense of deep purpose. There is no way for the meaninglessness of the violence I witnessed not to lead to a stronger sense of meaning.

It’s hard to explain how I have felt a sense of shame about this need for meaning, and I think it comes from just the general human tendency to see difference as defectiveness. I had my own schemas, but I also think many people do just feel an active social life, a decent job, and family relationships ought to be enough. Success is returning to a life you might have led had none of the tragedies in your life happened. I really can’t do that.

I was looking at something yesterday about torture and I realized other people can’t either. It was like I had never noticed that before. Other people sacrifice many aspects of what is taken to be a typical, full life in favour of something that has more meaning for them. It’s not a defect in me. There are many reasons people get involved in helping others, but it also restores one’s sense of meaning following tragedy.

So if I went to the shops today and bought a card for C that says “Only a very special girl who is loved very, very much can open this,” then it’s because I find meaning in addressing her profound deprivation of warmth and affection in infancy and early childhood. It’s not because I am so broken it seems easier to fix someone else or because I am trying to avoid attending to myself, nor is it because I am trying to manipulate a child into addressing my unmet needs. I do see her deprivation because I was deprived as well, and it takes a lot of internal work with myself to connect to that deprivation within me so that I can understand what she is going through.

There is this pressure I feel sometimes to be defended, to reject others and “work on myself,” and I have found, within limits, I can’t work on myself without being in relationships, and I can’t effectively attend to others without attending to myself. I have to be able to cope with myself.

The main thing is there is an emotion about feeling like it’s okay to be me. This realization that I am uniquely myself, it isn’t just a sentence I repeat in the mirror until I believe it. There is a feeling—it’s a difficult one to feel and I think I have to manage a lot of shame to get there. I think the feeling is basically wonder.

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Missing

There is a holiday in Y-town again. I think it’s the Regional New Year. I don’t know the reason for this, but there is a Western/Central Country X New Year, which coincides with the Chinese New Year and there is a Regional New Year and I don’t know why.

The kids get 2 days of holiday and are allowed to go home from the hostel. So C’s uncle went to pick her up and he said she would call me. Which she didn’t. I keep getting promised phone calls, which don’t materialize. Then I am awake half the night worrying and wondering what to do, if anything. Frequently I am too upset to think straight and I do nothing, but it would probably be helpful if I called the person who was supposed to set up the phone call.

Anyway, today my eyes are full of sand and I feel like sleeping, but I am awake.

But I had something of an informative bit of processing last night. Two things were going on at the same time: she hadn’t called and I didn’t know where she was.

Not knowing where C is does something to me unlike anything else that triggers me. When I don’t know where she is, I feel like I have to find it. I feel very frantic about this, like it’s crucial I physically know where she is. And I also feel very angry—the anger does not always materialize, but it’s like I am primed for it. If there is any indication that something is actually wrong in real life and not just my mixed up mind, I feel very much like lashing out. I am inclined to lash out at C, because usually she is the reason that something is wrong. There is no one actually hurting her. I am mindful of this, and I know in times when I don’t know where she is I need to watch myself and work harder than normal at staying calm. And this has worked.

But inside I feel very much like a confused mama bear unable to figure out who is attacking my little bear cub.

I think this is related to a particular event. There are a lot of things lately that I am working with that are common to many events or are general patterns that happened in a variety of situations. This one feels like a single incident or like a finite number of incidents.

Anyway, I was really tired and couldn’t stay awake to receive her call. If she called, I would wake up, but I just couldn’t make it. And I woke up hours later with the lights on and realized she hadn’t. Then the usual feeling of franticness set in. I sat with that for a bit, wondering what to do. This is one thing I keep coming back to. Life goes on, despite the trauma reactions in my head and usually I do need to do something at these times. And it somehow needs not to be something insane.

So I just sat there with things, feeling the franticness which I know is a memory. It’s a memory that I don’t really understand. I couldn’t find someone and something terrible happened after that. I don’t really know what the terrible thing was. I no longer speculate about this. I have in the past, and I don’t know if my speculations have been helpful or not.

After a while, I had a sense of inkiness. I think this might have been something like confusion. I think confusion might have felt like an inky blackness in my mind. It may not have been a literal darkness.

And then there was a feeling of needing to put things together.

Fuck.

I know what follows running to find someone. I did find that person—whoever she was. And she was in pieces.

There are moments like these when I realize there’s a good reason I react so strongly to things. For most people, a moment when someone was not where she was expected to be never ended in a dismembered body. That’s not within the realm of possibility. But for me, that’s one of the possible outcomes. That’s something that could happen, because it did happen. People I loved really were murdered.

Continuity

Maybe this is where I am.

I keep wondering what will help with this. Is what I have been doing helping? What have I been doing anyway? Mostly, I have been applying less judgment to what I think and feel and allowing it to be.

I keep thinking about Mr. Roger’s testimony that made the rounds of social media: Feelings are mentionable and manageable. That was his big goal. In the private space of my own mind, everything is mentionable and manageable. That’s the idea. Things feel worse when they cannot be mentioned and I don’t try to manage them if I don’t feel I can mention them. Instead, I fight internally over it, which can lead to an intensification of whatever is going on, as though I am trying to shout myself into hearing. Or to shut down and not understanding my own experience. That can happen too.

I was thinking about C, because there is a holiday coming up. I was thinking about other holidays, and missing the times I saw her on those holidays. I thought about the end of her eighth grade, which is when I started giving her money on holidays. Someone kind of told me that’s what people do with kids. I hadn’t thought about it. I’m kind of stupid that way. So I found her and she was with her friends talking about how many snacks they could buy with the money they had.

So I gave her money. I think I was planning to anyway, but the timing of it was really like they didn’t have enough to buy what they wanted. And I was there, on hand, to treat them.

I am writing this, and I keep turning away from it. It’s interesting to watch myself try to cope with what is clearly pain. I got through three sentences in half an hour.

Anyway, I gave her money and I had to fight with her over it. I mean, physically fight to give it to her, which is not totally unheard of in Country X. It’s not really that unusual. If someone is really polite, you basically have to wrestle the cup out of their hand so that you can pour them a cup of tea. But in kids it’s kind of unusual to go to those lengths.

This is what holidays were like at some point in the past. I was thinking about that, and missing those times and I thought really it will never be quite like that again. Things change. It looks good for going back to Country X. It doesn’t necessarily look good for going back to Y-town, nor does it necessarily look great for C to continue in her school there next year. Her marks improved in 9th grade, but they need to improve by a lot to make it into 11th grade. So whatever happens next year, it is likely to be different than what it was.

And I thought that is kind of the difference between objects and living creatures. Objects are more or less static, but we know human beings through interactions which are different each time.

There is something about abuse and neglect that makes people discontinuous. I think you can’t really tell that this is the same person you are dealing with, even if the interaction is different. It’s like you don’t know who you will get. You can’t create attunement, because you can’t figure out the next move.

It made me think too I need to be able to feel the child who felt worthless was still me, and that actually means I need to feel the worthlessness. I need to experience it inside my body just as it felt to me then, so that I can know now that was me. This person now and that person then are the same person. And this really means it needs for it to be safe for me to feel that sense of worthlessness and everything that goes with it: the sorrow and the shame and maybe even anger. So that I know that was me. It isn’t an intrusion of foreign thoughts and feelings. That’s me.

In order for that to happen, I need to not have any judgment about it. It needs to not be out of bounds for me to have negative feelings, although I can’t allow myself to drown in them either. I need to regulate those feelings, because they are intense. And I also have to have a lot of self control, so that I don’t act on feelings that are very intense.

But that hurt child who wasn’t cared for or valued or wanted by my parents and had no one to express those feelings to or get any comfort from, that was me.

 

Resolving the cognitive dissonance

Well, I don’t know what to do.

It’s Saturday at last. Hurrah! I have some free time. That’s the great part.

I’m also kind of spinning out–very intense emotions or shutting down emotionally. And I don’t feel confident I know what helps, or what will make a difference for me. I don’t even really know what might be setting it off. Lots of feelings of worthlessness. What of the things I actually do when this happens help me? And why exactly are these feelings coming up so strongly now?

It suddenly crosses my mind—and maybe this is a helpful thought—that it has to do with paired experiences, opposite impressions. My mind is trying to sort out—rather than compartmentalize—cognitive dissonance.

I started teaching on Tuesday, and it turns out I have inherited a teaching load of students who have been repeatedly abandoned by temporary teachers. They had a permanent teacher take maternity leave after winter vacation, and then a gap filled by a substitute for a few weeks before a long-term replacement could be hired, and then a long-term replacement who left for a permanent position, and then another gap filled by yet another substitute. So, there are trust issues. And discipline issues.

I just watched the class for most of Tuesday while the previous sub taught, and on Wednesday I came at the kids pretty hard with basically the new regime. Which is basically that we are a class. When someone is talking, everyone is quiet and listens, because we don’t talk just to kill the silence. People talk to be heard. I gave them assigned seats. I made them sit in them. I put them in groups and made them talk to each other in very structured ways. I made it clear that there was a strong leader in the room, and I also think I made it clear I care about them. They did not like it.

I noticed who had the hardest time with the transition, the kids who didn’t seem to feel safe and seemed to find it difficult to enter the room or look at me, and I took extra time with them and worked on those relationships the most. I have a kid who has been identified as emotionally disturbed. He has an IEP. To be honest, I have had kids with worse behaviour in my class before. But anyway in this district someone took the time to give him some kind of help. He made some kind of disturbance just as I was coming in the room, and the substitute threw him out. On my first full day of teaching, I think he walked out, if I remember right. The next day, I gave him standards for something I can’t remember anymore. (I am sure I ought to be documenting all of this better.) I gave him the sentence, “I am a positive member of the class and my team.” He left out the word positive.

I am pretty sure it’s an attachment disorder, and the departure of a familiar district substitute reminded him of times when other people have left and he has not been safe. He made a disturbance to get the attention of the substitute so that he could be reminded that the substitute was there and watching him to make sure he was safe, and the substitute responded by rejecting him. When I began to teach, he felt unsafe and wanted control, and then he felt angry at having to surrender control. The first reaction to beginning to feel attachment can sometimes be anger, and what I saw this week from him was a lot of anger. And yet I think it probably also felt good to him to see that someone else was capable of asserting control and could maybe help him control his behaviour.

On Friday, he stayed in his seat and he mostly participated appropriately, despite doing a lot to disrupt the class. He is in my second period class, and in fourth period, he came back. Probably, because he had begun to experience feelings of attachment and he wanted to check whether I was still there.

He asked if he could stay in the class and I told him he had already sat through one period of torture with me. I don’t think he wanted another hour of it. So I protected his pride and did not directly reject him. I came to the door and asked him something—how is he or something—and offered my hand to shake or give a high five. He couldn’t quite touch it, but he made the motion of it.

My goal with him is to attune to him enough that he feels an attachment, so that there is a reason for him to start trying to control his behaviour. In the past, there has been no reason to—no one seemed to care about him, why should he care about someone else? Why take in someone’s perspective if they can’t take in yours?

But getting back to my feelings today, I have been acting all week like I matter. I have been setting a lot of boundaries very assertively. I was very, very firm about a lot of things. And I think I have also put out my care and concern for the students, which I think translates into an equation for me that everyone matters and can be where they are. The ED kid can be where he is, and I can be where I am, and we are all just going to try our best. And all week I acted like that. I spoke like that. I told them we are going to be a disciplined class, because then it becomes clearer what is happening and what is expected and those clear expectations allow everyone be successful, and by Friday, when most of them stopped fighting the change, they began to see that. They began to see they had (I hope) a strong leader who cared about them as individuals.

A lot of times in school, I think students see strong leaders who don’t really respond to students and are merely imposing their own will because they can. I think they began to see a strong leader who was balancing the needs of 30 or 35 different people.

If they matter, I matter, don’t I?

I guess I am just working it out.

Special

I don’t know what happened.

Things were kind of going along. I did the laundry, wrote a letter to C, wrote in my journal (managed to sit with difficult feelings…yay me), had lunch, changed my clothes in preparation to go out.

Wham. I am in some kind of emotional hellhole, where I just feel despair. I can switch it off. I catch myself doing that. It’s not what I want to do unless life demands it.

So.

I don’t really know how to proceed. But there has been something on my mind and probably I haven’t fully had time to process, and maybe that’s it. I was chatting with C’s aunt, who is 22 and I am sure also has disordered attachment. Anyway, C is pretty close to her, but I think at times finds her intrusive and not responsive to C’s needs for autonomy and to be able to set boundaries.

We were talking about C’s phone, because C did not bring it with her to school. She left it with her cousin in her village, because she didn’t want to be distracted at school. Her aunt misses her, so I said that. I said C is trying to be serious and concentrate on school, otherwise she would have brought her phone. She loves that phone.

Now, I am the one who bought her that phone. IT Ma’am bought her a phone last year—it was quite a nice, but used. It has not really lasted well—most of that is C’s fault. She had a temper tantrum back in May and cracked the LCD, which began to leak black fluid across the screen. Her friend dropped it, and the buttons on the side fell off. She asked me for a new one, and I agreed, because although she deserved to have a phone in shitty condition for being careless, it was just so sad to look at it. Anyway, she had suffered through the black streaks for 6 months by then.

Anyway, I hadn’t really thought this being from me. She wanted a phone. I bought one.

Her aunt said, “The things you give are her special things and her belongings.”

It’s not entirely true—she loans out and loses a lot of things I give her. But I do think when I get it right and I do find something she really does value it, that it becomes a symbol for her of being valued enough to be given something special by a person she, in turn, values.

In a neglectful family, this doesn’t really happen, because everyone is essentially competing for scarce resources. You might get nice things, but it isn’t an expression of mutual regard for one another. It’s hard to take that in. She values those special things that I give her, because she values me. She values that sense of communion with me, that comes from being thought about with regard and then thinking about the person who has regard for you.

So I have been mulling that.

Unstable identity

This is just a small thought. My mind is jumbled up today—lots going on up there, and this little thought kind of dropped down out of the pinball machine.

I think we don’t realize that our identities are joint constructions made of our social roles, histories, preferences, and tastes that we mostly don’t examine. It’s just “me.” If being capable and assertive got you attention and value in your family, then that might become a part of who you are. It was something you could do, something supported by the people closest to you, and you might never think about that being a part of your role in your family, especially if your family is not wildly dysfunctional and nothing about being capable and assertive begs examination. Identity is so much an agreement between how you feel you are and how other people think you are or allow you to be.

There are a lot of things that accumulate as a part of ourselves that we just don’t think about if they are coherent and don’t cause any problems. Over years, bits of identity get added on or adjusted—our identities evolve through our affiliations and experience.

However, if you don’t have stable objects, those roles and tastes and things that make you feel you belong aren’t stable either. You might suddenly take on the persona of a motorcycle gang member, because briefly there is some sense of belonging with that group, and there is no homebase to anchor it into anything—so that it isn’t a gradual evolution of self. It’s jumping around.

I don’t know if that is coming across clearly. I am just saying lacking a clear sense of “I” has to do with not having an internalized “other” who constructs that “I” with you, even when they are not physically present with you, but having many different “others” of the same importance who might have very different views from one another.

Scanning

So I have a job. Maybe starting Monday. It feels very abrupt. Yesterday, I was still shuffling around metaphorically in a kind of mental bathrobe and slippers, and now I need to hit the ground running somehow.

It feels very scary.

I was at the district office filling out paperwork, and I began to realize that the woman explaining things to me was talking faster than I could process anything. My working memory really is jacked up, and in these situations I am trying to cover that. I am not giving feedback to the speaker about what I honestly understand. I am giving them a response I think they expect. So I nod at the points where I note that understanding is expected. I am not nodding at the points where I do understand. I am processing the information and processing the response that seems to be expected of me. Actually processing my own experience of understanding is something I do as and when I get the attentional bits left over to do that. Which might not be a lot.

Wow.

I am middle-aged and I had no idea I have been doing that all my life. Whenever I am in a new situation, I am taking note of what response I am expected to provide to someone else as part of the data I need to process. And that circuit is taking a higher priority than anything else—a higher priority than actual learning, and certainly a higher priority than generating a response that provides authentic feedback to the speaker.

No wonder I just nod and hope that it all makes sense later when I look at the written instructions. I see giving instructions as someone wanting to be heard and attended to and I want to get that over with as quickly as possible.

Maybe my working memory is jammed up with that as much as it is slowed down by the thinner myelination which happens with chronic stress.

Anyway, I kind of get why new experiences are so stressful for me. I am scanning so hard for what is expected and in a new situation, that’s so much less clear.