Myself

Life feels a lot better since I have less judgment of myself.

I don’t mean I have decided that different things are allowed than were before, but just that it is less important to me whether it is or not. I am sure that’s because I feel safer.

Anyway, I was writing in my journal this morning. I wrote, “I don’t matter.”

That’s what I felt, so I wrote it down. And instead of debating about that with myself, I just considered how that felt to me. It felt like being a person speaking in a world of deaf people.

When it seems like no one knows how you feel or why, you don’t know how to communicate your own internal state to others and no one around you has any idea, it is like not existing.

It reminded me of a therapist who used to tell me, “You need to be seen.” It felt terrible to me to hear that. Why do I have to be like that? Why do I have to need to be seen?

It was like being told something terrible and shameful is showing. I never said that to her. I just wondered silently why she was telling me that.

And I also wondered why she thought only I need to be seen. Doesn’t everyone?

It was deeply puzzling. And I just nodded.

I just felt terribly ashamed. I thought about that shame. I stayed with it, and wondered about it. It felt like not being allowed to move or breathe or exist.

It came to me how much my childhood was about control. It doesn’t immediately come to mind, because there was no pattern–life at home was utterly chaotic. On the one hand, not having consistent rules leaves a child uncertain of what will be allowed and what won’t be, so the child ends up endless searching for the limits. That’s some of what I’m doing that leaves me very vulnerable to shame: I’m trying to find the limits. The emotional indication of having crossed a boundary is shame.

But my parents both felt very unsafe and frightened and they exerted control intermittently, suddenly and arbitrarily just to feel safer. I couldn’t count on anything I did or said or felt to be okay.

I don’t know how to express this, but it feels much better just to be with that, and to think this is what is going on inside me and it’s okay for that to be happening. It’s okay to go to the dark, painful stuff as I feel it. It’s okay that this is how child abuse affected me.

Inside myself, it’s okay just to be myself.

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At the doorway

I was reading something about attachment and it was describing the behavior of toddlers with disorganized attachment. It said something about the toddler cries when the parent is in the doorway, because the child’s attachment system is activated. Then when the parent enters the room, the child flees, because then her fight or flight system has been activated. That made a lot of sense to me.

I thought of the times when I really feel that tug and that longing, the feeling that I want to scream. Those are all times when connection is standing in the doorway. I suppose it’s the sense of wanting to invite that connection in or to go out of the room towards it. I have felt that way buying presents for C or when it’s a time when she might normally call online. In those moments, the thing that comes to mind is sometimes to intensify that effort to communicate my desire, as though I believe life would make the connection happen for me—she would think to come online, I’d locate the perfect colour for her, the phone would be on and not out of battery—if I just screamed loud enough.

Well, that’s how we start out. We start out communicating our needs to someone else and then let them meet our needs, because we are helpless. When you do that as an adult, it communicates helplessness to other people, and it’s really annoying. I suppose that’s why the instruction is always to meet your own needs, take care of yourself.

The hard part is I don’t always know what it is. What’s the connection I want? Who is the parent in the doorway right now? What do I do to bring that parent in? I don’t know. But it’s nice to have some way of talking about that feeling of longing to myself, a metaphor to describe it that resonates.

It made some of C’s behavior make sense to me in a felt way too. I remember towards the end of my time in Y-town, when I brought her to my house on a Sunday and had to work the next day. She wanted to go to her grandmother’s quickly. Now it might be she began to miss her. I think it was more sitting alone in my house for too long. The loneliness set in. When it got too intense, she began to feel like running away. I remember before mid-term that year, when I first began to visit her and before we had a regular schedule worked out, I would tell her I was coming to see her, and she would get headaches, cry and then tell me not to come because of it. But she had the headache because she wanted me to come so badly. She wanted me to come and she was also afraid.

To me, it explains her anger. I had, in a sense, come in, and her fight or flight system was activated. She didn’t feel overpowered, and so instead of running away, she prepared herself to fight back against an attack.

It helps to have an explanation that seems to fit. I didn’t really have one before. I know it happens, but that doesn’t make it make sense.

It also made me think how intense the loneliness is. If you need to keep everyone out of yourself at some kind of safe perimeter, you are robbed of connection. Yet, if you invite them in, you feel afraid or angry. It’s terrible.

I was reminded of the times I came home from the hostel and went to bed that night or woke up in the middle of the night just shaking with fear—all that fear suppressed while I was with C, hitting me afterward.

The loneliness is very real.

I don’t care anymore

I have been reading another book by Brene Brown. I’m really interested in this. The current book is Daring Greatly. I know it wouldn’t have helped me a few years ago. I needed at that point to figure out regulation. I’m still working at it, but three years ago, I didn’t even know that’s what I needed to do.

I knew I needed to “take care of myself” and “self-soothe” and I had no fucking idea what that actually meant. I thought it meant something that people kind of do as a luxury or an indulgence. As in, “I took care of myself and got my hair and nails done.”

Well, it turns out a lot of people self-soothe by intensifying their own sense of membership in a group. If other people in their perceived group have nice hair and nails, they self-soothe by proving they are one of them with nice hair and nails of their own.

A lot of what people do when they feel stressed is to heighten visual and linguistic markers of their group identity. It suggests to themselves that we are part of a group that will protect us.

It doesn’t work for me.

We’ll get back to that.

I didn’t quite get that I needed to get a sensation in my body going that I hadn’t experienced in 30 years, and that was intensely evocative of pain and loss to try to remember.

I figured it out. I know how to do it. It’s just hard, and under stress, I can’t do it. I couldn’t do it this morning when the young man next to me was playing really angry music I could hear through his headphones. I couldn’t help but experience him as a threat, and I couldn’t get my body to calm down. I recognized that the social expectation is that people get to play whatever music they want to with head phones on, even if i can still hear it, and I also recognized there were no other seats and I didn’t want to stand. So I stayed where I was–knowing if I said something to him, i would just feel more ashamed.

After a while, he asked what stop we had just passed. I told him, and I asked him where he wanted to get off. He was getting off where I thought he was–a local community college. Then I started to realize: he’s armoring up. He was well-dressed, looking sharp, going off to something that makes him nervous, and he’s playing tough-sounding music in order to prepare himself. i don’t know if he was on his way to class or a job or even an interview, but he was dressed for something important, and it was something he felt nervous about.

I do that too. It’s not the same kind of music, because I am not a young black man, but I do it.

I was glad I hadn’t said anything to him.

The interesting thing is after we spoke, he changed the music to something more mellow. Then he switched it off completely.

When he got off at the next stop, he said, “Have a nice day.”

I don’t know how to say this, but some of what’s going on with me is just coping with feelings I can’t calm down. His music made him feel threatening to me–I really felt like hitting him, just getting him away from me. I sat there. I tried to calm down, even though it was hard and basically I couldn’t. And it was worth it. I had a nice exchange with him that I was glad I had had.

It’s not my fault it’s hard to calm my emotions  down. I didn’t create the circumstances which made me sensitive to threat, or that made my emotional response to threat be so intense, nor did I give myself a parent who couldn’t teach me how to calm down. I didn’t choose to be this way.

But neither did the kid next to me who is trying to screw up the courage to wow someone as he’s foraying out into the world as a young and vulnerable adult.

Until a few years ago, I think I had a pretty simple idea about things: my family was bad and the rest of the population is good. Or people who don’t intentionally cause harm are good. Or maybe people who don’t fall into recognizably selfish categories are good. Or something. But it’s not like that. It isn’t anywhere near that simple.

I am the way that I am, and I have to figure out how to work with that given the world that exists around me. That’s just how it is.

I’ve been thinking about therapy and why that went wrong for me for so many years. I have been thinking what helps generally is empathy: if someone can see things from our perspective, we feel supported, but it’s also this person who can see from our perspective but maybe with some additional information or with a bit more calm who can then help us problem-solve and strategize about where to go from there who can help us move forward.

And I didn’t have that. I don’t know if it’s out there, and I didn’t choose it, or if it’s just not very common among LA-area therapists. Or even if I just didn’t extend myself and allow myself to be seen enough to get it.

I do know that what interferes with empathy is our own tendency to confirmation bias. So you walk into a therapy room with a therapist who has learned that clients frequently feel a particular way or do things for a certain set of reasons. Given that, they will gravitate towards parts of what you are saying which support the ideas they have already learned and, in their own minds, they will minimize what doesn’t support it.

Why didn’t their pre-conceived notions fit my feelings or experiences?

Maybe because what they were trained for was what I used to think I needed to do in order to “recover” from childhood abuse, which was to stop feeling the things I was feeling.

What I think the therapy I was getting was designed for was to allow me to relax my control over the impulses I was constantly restraining to not have difficult feelings for a specified block of time (during therapy), and then work harder at constraining them the rest of the time.

One issue that has come up is that I can’t actually restrain them for as long as I was trying to. Strong feelings mean strong impulses, and I can’t reasonably restrain them for 14 hours a day seven days a week. My self-control was giving way, and it was giving way partly in the form of numbing. That was leading to a cycle of hopelessness: we can’t selectively numb, and without joy, I had no energy left to get through the grief I needed to process.

In addition, so much of my attention was devoted to self-control that I had no energy left to process what was going on in my life. I couldn’t think about what was in front of me, because my brain was basically maxed out trying to keep myself from feeling difficult things, trying to keep myself from saying and doing things that would harm myself or others, trying to keep myself from thinking about painful things. There was very little left over for, “What might the best course of action be in this situation?”

And it wasn’t happening in therapy either, because what I got in therapy was essentially, “This is my view. Try to think like me.”

Because “interpretation” is essentially the therapist’s view. I was providing a sense of alliance to my therapist, trying to provide my therapist with empathy. And I wasn’t getting any. My therapist couldn’t step into my shoes, but I was trying valiantly to step into hers, thinking that would help me.

I have all of these layers of shame to work through–all of these layers of ways I have fallen short of someone’s expectations–and that includes being a good therapy client. Today I just don’t care. Today, I’m thinking that was never the right approach. I’m not looking to stop feeling my pain. I’m not looking to vent my pain for an hour or three a week and trying to be more obedient the rest of the time. I’m trying to have a connected, authentic life, which actually does involve pain. It involves a lot of pain and a lot of grief.

One of my really connected thoughts recently–one of those thoughts which hooks into specific, sensory memories and to emotions–is that my mother really did not want me. I don’t know the reason, but I know she didn’t want me. She didn’t like me. She didn’t want me to be me. This hurt.

I couldn’t process that I was hurting, because my hurt did not seem to be real. It continued to not get processed, because when I talked about feeling–in a roundabout way perhaps, but it was there–that I didn’t feel allowed to exist, what I heard was I ought to stop blaming myself.

Well, this isn’t about whose fault it is, is it? This is about what happened.

So I don’t care what anyone has told me about what will make me better. I’m not trying to do what they thought I wanted to do. I’ve been getting directions to one place, but I’m trying to go somewhere else.

What will help me is to provide empathy to myself, because I need to understand myself in order to explain myself to someone else.

An authentic life

The day had a rough start. I could hardly get out of bed. The urge to hold onto the pillows was just so strong.

It started to emerge that I was really, really sad. I think I cried. I felt like I just wanted to go home. I didn’t know the reason. Sounds like foster care stuff though, doesn’t it? Sounds like removal and return.

I started thinking too that Veroushka’s loss seems to have been in June. I might have been in foster care all through spring and summer—that seems like the right time of year to me, although I was very young and I don’t exactly know how long it was or when it happened. But Veroushka’s surrender to adoption would have echoed my own return from care.

I am starting to understand how return from care would have been devastating to me. Attachment occurs in relation to attunement. The greater the degree of attunement, the stronger the attachment would feel. There is a time factor as well, but a foster parent absent mental illness would have been much more capable of attunement. If I had been in foster care for six months, the extent of the attachment might well have outstripped the attachment to my parents I had developed in the two or so years before.

And going back to my parents, I couldn’t express any of that loss or grief or separation distress. I wasn’t supported through it.

It got worse on the train going to school. I can’t even remember what happened inside me, but I know I felt really weird, really bad. At school, I eventually checked my email, and I got an email from the NGO working with foreign teachers. The head of the office there had said the board would vote on whether to send foreign teachers to Country X on the 24th. It’s been pushed back a couple of times.

Well, the email said the current need in Country X is for coaches of Country X teachers, rather than classroom teachers. So there would be another round of interviews all of us as candidates would need to go through, and then we might be selected to serve as coaches for varying lengths of time—up to a year. Nothing about the option to renew, but my thought is if I am there in Country X, I can organize a job in a private school for the following year. I’ll be in a better position to make the contacts. Also, I will know where C will be in school in 2020. In 2019, it depends on her 10th grade exam scores. It’s all up in the air right now.

I got the email, and I was okay.

I hadn’t been conscious of being so aware of this email hanging over me, the uncertainty it indicated, and it seems to me now the wait for it had struck me very hard.

I got a second book by Brene Brown: Daring Greatly. I know it wouldn’t have helped me that much before I got a handle on emotional regulation, but now it makes a lot of sense to me what she’s saying. She poses the question, “What do you do when you feel vulnerable?” And her answer is that she (and other people) commonly react with anger, aggression, blame, attempting to control or to find certainty. Doesn’t that sound right?  Those sound like things I have done or that I have seen other people do. When the people around you lack empathy for vulnerability, you get hurt in these moments.

I feel like I can process what is going on right now a lot better, and situations where I feel vulnerable don’t escalate. It’s kind of amazing.

But to return to this morning, I felt vulnerable not knowing what might happen with next year—not having heard back. What I might have done in my past is to try to gain certainty, and I might have debated with myself the odds of being sent to Country X as a classroom teacher. This would have gotten me exactly nowhere because the fact was simply I didn’t know. I didn’t have enough information. It wasn’t possible to get that information until the NGO got back to me. They did, and the answer was something that hadn’t even crossed my mind, although it makes sense to me now.

Something else: I have felt really ashamed about C changing the direction of my life. Before three years ago, I had never heard of Country X. I might have wanted to teach abroad—I had thought of it. At the end of 2014, I thought of renewing another year because it seemed to be benefiting me personally and one more year away from the US seemed minor in terms of the change to my life overall. I stayed for 2016 because of C, and I am going back because of C. Without her, it would make a lot more sense to stay in the US, get a regular teaching job again, save for retirement and generally be prudent.

I feel like I’m diving into enmeshment in every way I’ve been warned about. I was thinking about the email, that I would love to be a lead teacher in Country X. I loved helping the other teachers in Country X. It felt like I was using my talents when I did that and it felt to me that I was doing very valuable work. I loved being able to help the education system in Country X by gently influencing instruction so that it was more responsive to the actual learning needs of children. It felt great. I like being a classroom teacher, but there is a ton of stuff I don’t feel great at. I am not great at the enormous amount of paperwork involved. I get no satisfaction out of a stack of papers I need to check. I like the relationships with students. I like when things click in for them. I like planning engaging lessons.

The thing is this isn’t just about C. it’s about choosing an authentic life. An authentic life involves some level of risk. I can’t really know if all of this will work out well for me. I can’t know I won’t die of typhoid or become seriously ill or disabled. I can’t know really if my chances at creating a decent retirement for myself are going to permanently disappear if I spend the next year or several in Country X. But what I am taking away from this is that, when I can make my brain work right and get emotion and thought to coordinate smoothly, I make decisions I feel more like I can trust. They seem sensible enough.

The other thing I noticed about my thinking is that one good thing happened, so there is this kind of halo effect. This worked out so it feels like everything will work out. I am sure the reverse happens too. One thing falls flat, and it feels like everything will fall flat. My mind automatically adopts a bias towards marshalling facts to support what I currently thing (life is good, for example, or things fall flat). It’s just something to be aware of. Something if I know about ahead of time and notice might help me take the emotional sharp edges off life.

 

Manipulation and people pleasing

Lots of stuff  floating around in my head.

I didn’t mention this, but I know a lot of it is because I had space to grieve for Nata. Things kind of shook loose in my mind. I don’t mean I remembered new things, but I made new connections.

I was looking at something C had posted to her new and terrifying boyfriend–a kind of love note thing.

It popped into my head she’s manipulating him. Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn’t, but I’ll tell you why I thought that. It seemed to me she was using his disordered attachment, his emotional hunger, to protect herself from the possibility of abandonment. If he shows signs of getting too close to too far or whatever, she can distance herself, he’ll grovel. She gets a hit of importance, power and control. Meanwhile, she gives him what she believes he wants–what she believes everyone wants, because that is what her abuser wants, which is a sense of superiority and specialness by telling him complimentary things.

No one is really vulnerable. No one is showing their real selves. He emotionally blackmails her with need. She insulates herself against real need.

I don’t really know whether she’s doing that. I did start thinking about all of the ways she has struggled to remain in control with me, and how I’ve just kept going, because she needs me.

But people do.

I think my ex did. It affected me differently, because I didn’t know why she was doing it. I didn’t know why someone would want that much control. I didn’t know how much fear it pointed to. Thinking about it gave me insight into the push and pull involved, the cycle of it, and what my ex got out of the ruptures she claimed to hate.

I didn’t know that if I you believe, deep in your soul, that you are destined to be unloved, unwanted and unaccepted, the best you’ve got to keep people around you is tricks. Your best shot at life is people-pleasing and manipulation.

That’s a lot of fear.

And at the end of it, I would guess, you have no idea who you are.

Sparkle

I was in Target looking at pencils. There were some in bright colors and patterns with sharks on some of them. I liked them. I felt a little sparkle inside–I was looking at things to send C.

I recognized my next feeling as shame. I can’t really remember what I thought, but I really clear sense of feeling teary and being unable to raise my gaze.

I suppose I thought about it for a while, and it came back at other moments as well.

I began to connect it to my mother’s still face–a la The Still Face Experiment. Whatever my more adult cogitating about what I have to be ashamed about, it’s that feeling of sparkle that really feels to me like it isn’t okay. I feel, very deeply, it isn’t okay to be happy or to connect over a sense of shared joy. It doesn’t feel okay to be affectionate. That is the absolutely deepest feeling I have.

The other feeling I have that is just about equally difficult is feeling longing isn’t okay. It isn’t okay to experience separation express, to miss someone or to need someone.

There are other layers of trauma, other tough stuff to deal with–fears about performing up to a certain standard, for example–but those two are the most hard-wired. I can’t be happy and I can’t be sad.

No guarantees

I had a brief chat with C. It felt good. It felt good just to have a brief connection with her, and I started to notice I had more energy suddenly. I felt optimistic. I went in the house and did some productive things.

I reflected back on what this book says I read last week (the one by Brene Brown): Joy gets us through the tough times. We cannot selectively numb, and when we use numbing to get through the bad times, we also lose the good stuff and we end up more depleted and less able to cope. I’m not blaming myself. I had no other useful strategies.

I had: therapy (which didn’t help) and activities (which left me numb).

I don’t really know what I am doing now, but I am able to cope with a lot more. I also take on less. I don’t grit my teeth and try to get through “healing” the way I believe I am supposed—to whatever that might be.

Anyway, I told her some things that were very vulnerable—just I love her, she is special to me. I started to realize how vulnerable I was. I started to think I don’t really feel worthy. I don’t feel good enough. But I am essentially all I have. And I am not good enough, there is not anything I can do. I just sat with that for a while. I am the best I have. I can keep trying to do better and be better, but at any given moment, I am the best I have to offer anyone. And it’s possible for someone not to like that or to consider me to be enough. There are no guarantees.