Sunday morning musings

I feel deeply exhausted these days. It is partly that I am not quite getting enough sleep. It is not anything dreadful, but I can really sleep a lot.

I have that holiday-season wish to change bits of my life. I am beyond thinking if I just settle on the right routine, my problems will be solved, but I did buy a sketch pad a while ago, thinking maybe I’d get something out of drawing again. Then I didn’t know what to do with it exactly. Then I began to realize I have physically never been as flabby in my life before, and I don’t like the way my body looks, although I tend not to look at it much.

And I’m tired, and I wonder what else might help me feel less tired, and if I am just emotionally exhausted from various mental challenges I am trying to take on, or if I am actually sick. I know I am not sick in the sense of a cold or a flu, but maybe I’m anemic?Or if it is merely the sleep problem.

I had one of those days where literally I did not leave the house and I barely left the bed, and when I did think I’d better get up and get on with things, I did not feel well at all. And I don’t know why.

I do think I am progressing psychologically or whatever you want to call it. I suppose that is what I was trying to express in an earlier post, when I was writing something I realized I had written many times before. Things seem to be connected in a more coherent way: ideas to experiences to emotions. So that what I believe might be true about something seems more trustworthy and real. And that is nice.

I had a moment when I started to think the reason my dad tortured me was that some people are so unable to render themselves vulnerable, that they can only allow themselves to experience empathy by creating the feeling they have in someone else.

We crave that reflection of our own experiences in others as deeply as food or water, but exposing yourself to others requires you can tolerate the risk that they won’t understand or care. My dad couldn’t tolerate that degree of risk, and so he could only express his terror and pain by causing that terror and pain in me.

This was a kind of settling thought, arranging some of the confusion–how could someone do that to a child?–into something more like order. It doesn’t make it right, but it makes it feel more predictable and less frightening in some way I can’t exactly explain.

And then I was thinking about my mother, who I think probably could not understand emotional experiences well enough to navigate social situations capably due to her own developmental deficits. One way to avoid the unpredictable feeling of being unable to understand other people or get them to understand you–some of the research on borderlines points to problems with lack of empathy accuracy in situations that more closely mimic real life as well as with problems in presenting to others confusing emotional messages–is to avoid outright the kinds of complex exchanges that occur with equality. If someone is making all the decisions and either you are in control or you surrender, you don’t have to think how to get someone to listen to you. Just be submissive or be dominant.

I also thought her rejection of me in many cases came from having deficits in empathy. That’s obvious, but it fits better than it used to. I think when she wanted me not to be hungry or tired for example, she could not really understand that I was nonetheless hungry or tired. She really was mind-blind, and I think it might have come from not being able to reach into her own memory for situations in which she felt as I did, because she was so easily dysregulated.

Her rejection comes in a few types: you have no right to want or need that, you are not important or significant enough to be given what you want or need, what you want or need is bad, hurtful, selfish, weird or otherwise unacceptable in itself. Mostly the middle one.

She really is both borderline and a narcissist.

I also thought the times I have these experiences of negative self-states, other (more average) people experience too, but when they happen to me it feels more global. It feels my whole being is that self-state, rather than a self-state that has to do with what is happening right now. Most of so-called “self-care” involves one’s sense of self-esteem. Haven’t you ever noticed how someone can “feel better about themselves” after they get their hair done? I don’t mean to trivialize the whole thing, but shifting senses of ourselves is meant to be part of life, not oh-my-god-I-feel-bad-I-must-die-or-self-harm. There is something about the fragmentation in the mind of a traumatized person that keeps you from realizing the self-state is telling you about your situation within an event and is, in itself, not destined to be permanent.

It might be because negative self-evaluations are meant to be aversive: you don’t tend to get yourselves into situations again where you know you will be ridiculed, shamed or patronized. Maybe you avoid those people, or you stand up to them so that they back off, or you avoid the activity that brought it on.

But as children, we were trapped with people who chronically undermined us in  order to enhance their self-esteem or simply could not imagine our experiences. We could not learn to respond to those signals, but had to simply suppress our awareness of them.

Just some thoughts today.














A plea for Galay

At the risk of my world’s colliding (I try to keep my work life and my personal life a bit separate for obvious reasons), I am venturing a plea on Galay’s behalf.

He wants to keep going to school. He’s in 10th grade and has exams that determine his whole future. Which he won’t fail, but he won’t make the cut to get to go on for another 2 years. (I’ve seen his grades before. I am afraid that’s the hard truth.)

11th grade is a pretty small dream.

He would like to go to private school, which will take him, but costs money. If you have an extra 5 bucks lying around that you won’t miss, can you help him?

Please share the link widely, but not my blog post, if you don’t mind.

Send Galay to 11th grade.


galay in class2

Mental illness on the holidays

I wrote in my last post about my brain not processing emotional and social information in times of stress–essentially. I don’t actually know what to do about that, except it does help to not panic, obviously. It helps to think, well, I feel so weird because my brain kind of stopped doing its thing. Beyond that, I don’t really know how to proceed. I don’t know what’s going to make me better.

My therapist cancelled on me today. She has a bad cold again. I was thinking about what to use my session for, and I got the text she couldn’t make it. So, I guess I don’t need to plan it out just yet.

I am not having a good morning. Things seem cloaked in a blanket of despair and lethargy, and I don’t really know why.

I have this lingering sense–it crops up frequently–of being constantly interfered with. I am trying to live my life, and as soon as I allow other people in, they begin to try to prevent me from doing that. I wonder about this, so maybe I’ll write about it.

We can start with my last therapy session. I mentioned we spent most of the session talking about Thanksgiving, which holds very little interest for me. I did my best. She said something about it being difficult for some people. Well, I know that. It’s a shame for them.

Then actual Thanksgiving rolled around. I had quite a lovely day.

I came home and my landlord was about to sit down to dinner. He saw me from the window and invited me in or a hello. It was terribly awkward. I may have imagined it, but I felt very clearly this is what I was supposed to have done for Thanksgiving. I was supposed to cobble together a makeshift family for the day and at least pretend to want to be like everyone else. I thought I could feel pity ooze out of them, although they were very polite about the whole thing.

The thing about having mental illness in your family is that they are mentally ill all year. A holiday rolls around, and you know the score already. I have already accepted that they are the way that they are and I’d prefer to go look at the tigers and eat shaved ice rather than brood over my parents being the people they are.

People who don’t have mental illness in their family or haven’t come to terms with it, just see that you are alone on Thanksgiving. They don’t see you are alone all the time. Thanksgiving is not more painful than the other 364 days out of the year.

The only difference really is that the zoo is less crowded and I can see the animals better–sort of like an acquaintance of mine who is Jewish and jokes that Christmas is the day they get to go out for Chinese food.

I know holidays are hard for some people. I think half of it is a sense of failure, as though the illness within our family is our doing. But I think there’s this other part of it that comes from the rest of society never coming to terms with something we have to, which is that mental illness is part of the human experience and has to be accepted and dealt with. You cannot just call people toxic and throw them off the island, or rescue the kids with shitty parents and expect them to turn out alright because you don’t want to believe it had an impact on their development.

I suppose I feel trapped at times in a perpetual state of mourning by these kinds of interactions, as though life simply cannot be lived with the reality of things as they are. It intersects with the issue I had with my friend a while ago over the cleaning, when my therapist was pushing me to talk about my feelings with this friend. She couldn’t allow me simply to accept that my friend is in no fit state to hear me, and may not have the capacity to hear someone else’s perspective at all. That’s how it is, or might be, and rather than try to force reality to conform to my wishes, it might be better to get on with my own life and to try to seek fulfillment and pleasure in the places I can.

After traumatic experiences, your sense of the world can be so shattered that it can feel impossible to go on with life. It can feel like somehow the traumatic event must be undone or there is simply no way to cope with a life in which it happened. That’s how Nata’s death felt, and sometimes it still feels that way. How can I even breathe with Nata not here? It feels impossible. It feels impossible that she should not be alive. There is a sense of can’t-go-on about it, a can’t-do-this. And yet you do begin to pick up the pieces of your life and begin to be able to arrange them into a way of living that can make sense again. Eventually, life does become possible. You do begin to come to terms with what happened, but life does not revert to what it was before. It becomes something different for you, and what it becomes is unique to you, but your life does change because of it.

I suspect that when other people who haven’t experienced my trauma are faced with a little glimpse of it, however briefly, they go through a bit of that: Life cannot be with this trauma in it.

Okay, so that was useful. Thanks for coming along for the ride.


My brain

I think I’ve got something figured out. This is my own idea, as far as I know. I have never heard anyone else quite say this.

It’s not totally clear to me, so I don’t know how well I can explain my idea.

Those caveats aside, let me begin simply, by saying that stress is what causes my symptoms. Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?

But I mean those times that are really awful, when I feel suicidal or worthless or otherwise mysteriously miserable. Intense stressors impact the functioning of the areas of the brain responsible for social functioning, for understanding my mind and the minds of others, and for selecting effective responses, and I can’t make sense of or manage my own mind at those times.

Because the feelings can seem so intense (or, just as often, are not felt, but I have some incredibly strong impulse instead), it seems like they must be about something terrible. They aren’t. Not that terrible things haven’t happened. My brain has just developed a sudden coordination problem and cannot manage to calm my emotions, make sense of them, or decide among several courses of action.

That’s really what I have said all along, but without completely grasping it. It is the stress that’s causing this reaction, but the stress is not necessarily causing the emotions I have or the impulses I have. Essentially, it’s causing a decline in my base ability to function in regards to whatever happens to come along in that moment.

I don’t think what i have said is especially illuminating, but thanks for listening.


I feel very strange today–mostly numbingly tired, but also struggling with emotions I don’t really understand.

I had therapy yesterday. I didn’t know what to really say after last week. I couldn’t really get away from a sense that what I might think or wonder about was not worth the bother of listening to or trying to understand. What do you do if you think that?

But I also imagine that may be a bias I already have and it’s easy to find evidence for something you are already inclined to believe.

I still can’t understand her response to me. I don’t know why I would need to keep repeating “no” to someone. I don’t know why no would not mean no to someone over the age of 14. I don’t understand pushing a boundary once it has been set. There doesn’t seem to be a way for me to understand it.

I do wonder if it was simply that the topic itself was so painful for her it couldn’t be talked about, but I find that hard to accept as an explanation. Do people really subtly try to restrict what you talk about out of fear of their own emotional reactions to it? Would a therapist do that?

So I didn’t know what to talk about, and we had the kind of session we have when she takes the lead. She asked a lot of questions. I dutifully answered. I didn’t think deeply about anything because when I do that she doesn’t wait for an answer. I just get another question. It was quite boring. There seemed to be life at the end only after the session was kind of officially over and we began to talk about going to the zoo.

I did bring up that I seem to be triggered by the sink. I had thought it had something to do with washing dishes, but I feel that doing other things at the sink at too. She asked me why. I said I didn’t really know. She said I could think about when I had last had that feeling. Well, I seem to feel guilty about the sink. I felt guilty walking home for no discernible reason, in class on Thursday for not carrying out the lesson plan in the way I later realized the teacher wanted, on Friday for not plugging a teacher’s laptops in (I forgot). I could go on. Do people only feel guilty on important occasions? Or maybe those are the only ones they remember.

It’s a sink with a metal counter that drains into it. That’s the kind of sink I had in Country X–not the faucet, that was just a tap affixed to the wall–and it was several inches shorter. So short one tall guest who offered to wash up knelt down rather than lean over it.

Maybe I miss my old house.

I also wonder if it looks a bit like a commercial sink to me, with the stainless steel counter, and if there was one like that where I saw bodies being butchered.

That seems more likely, but who knows…

I am struck by the idea that perhaps it frightens me to think that my story might turn out to be merely boring. I could be struggling with all of this difficult stuff and have it only matter to me.

I suppose that’s significant as an idea for me. When you grow up soliciting on the street you have a very clear idea how insignificant your life is to other people.

I think last week’s idea about the boy and his teacher related indirectly to that: it’s not that the boy didn’t matter, but that he was too much. I don’t think, for example, my mother had many ways to calm herself. People like that often navigate life by trying to control the world around them: they can’t calm down, so the best approach is to not get upset in the first place. Children are upsetting.

People who are like that live in these emotional wind tunnels. It’s deadening for a child, but the only way the adult has learned how to function and get through life. I think that might have happened for me with my mother: she didn’t want me, not because there was something terrible or even boring about me, but because her ability to cope did not extend to raising a child. A lot of my story is unusual, but I don’t think this piece is.

It’s a refreshing thought for me. I am sure for my therapist it wasn’t.

It’s not that easy to think no one helped me when I was being trafficked because it was too painful for them to think about long enough to take some action about, but it’s better than thinking the traffickers had their blessing. It’s also better than thinking people were just too busy with their own lives, although that’s probably true.


Feathered dinosaurs

I have been letting things percolate.

Saturday was therapy. Nine a.m.. I am never actually on time. I have come to understand this is about sensitivity and, with it, impulsivity when it comes time for approaches. This might sound different than what I mean.

What I mean is the uncertainty of approaches raises my level of alertness to stimuli. More things seem potentially important and in need of my attention, which makes it harder to organize my actions or decide priorities. I don’t notice this as indecisiveness although someone else might feel that way in that situation. What I notice is I find myself making up the bed or picking up that stray sock I dropped on the way to the washing machine yesterday when maybe I ought to let that go.

A Freudian would say I am avoiding going. I think my ability to process and organize is overwhelmed and that makes it harder to reach my goal of leaving on time. Maybe my house needs to be clean, maybe I need to dress better, maybe I need to get that email sent off. It is too many things. I see too many things that need to be done. There are too many possible perspectives to consider. And that’s because uncertainty is making me alert, and my alertness makes stimuli stronger, and too many stimuli are making demands on my attention. Freud would see a goal. I see it as difficulty in organizing myself to achieve a goal.

So I was 2 minutes late. Not more than that. I am generally 2 to 3 minutes late to therapy.

I got there and no one was there, so I sat down and began to write my check. I had gotten as far as the date–so not long–when Therapist arrived. Her babysitter had been late. She apologized, and I said truthfully that I had been literally waiting 30 seconds and not to worry about it–she hadn’t inconvenienced me in the slightest. Of course, it crossed my mind that she also might become disorganized as approaches loom and might also be picking up stray socks when it’s time to pick up the car keys, and that in itself can feel shameful. I can’t get it together is how it feels, and there is a sense of your competence mysteriously evaporating.

This may or may not have any bearing on our session–this matter of being late.

After the formalities (check, receipt, how have you been?) I began by telling her an observation I had made about a teacher/pupil interaction. The student was struggling and I more or less forced him to stay with his difficult emotions while trying to problem-solve. His teacher rushed in to set a boundary on one occasion and to help on another. She had a sense of franticness about her: I cannot let this go on. And I speculated it might be because she couldn’t bear whatever emotion this sparked for her.  It seemed likely.

I had not told her one of my mental occupations is to practice mentalizing and to try to imagine people’s inner lives. This helps me make sense of their behavior as well as my own: we aren’t utterly unique and there are times I might occupy later precisely the same mental space as I have seen someone else occupy in the past. If I have thought it through ahead of time because I saw someone else experiencing it, it becomes easier to process in the moment, when I need to respond quickly. When I am watching someone else and imagining their mental state, I don’t need to act. I can think through what they might be feeling or thinking at my leisure, because it’s not my life and I don’t need to do anything.

She said right away, “I am going to challenge you.”

I know my heart sank. I didn’t understand the need for conflict. I often don’t. I think I probably need to be able to understand why people do seek out conflict, but so far I have not had much luck. There is an emotional rush involved in trying to win at something that I don’t enjoy, but some people do.

She asked then, “Do you think that’s always the case?” Something like that.

Well, I didn’t quite know how to answer that. Why would that matter. I was talking about approximately 3 minutes in time, and what might have been happening in those 3 minutes. I am sure what happened within those 3 minutes also happens at other points of time, and the points of time when the same dynamic is going on probably look much the same as this one.

I said, “In situations like that, yes.”

I mean, it’s kind of like saying do you think all birds are birds. We could discuss when is it a bird and when is it a feathered dinosaur with wings, but I am talking about birds right now. Birds interest me.

She said, “Don’t you think there are times when that isn’t going on?” Or something like that.

I said no. Birds are birds. I am not at this moment terrifically interested in things that appear to be birds but are, in fact, not birds. I suspect a part of me is irritatingly literal. She asked me what I thought. No, I don’t think that. I am telling you what I think, and I didn’t say that.

She asked this three more times. A question asked once is a question. A question asked more than that is a demand with a mask over its face. She said something about distortions at some point, that she was challenging my black and white thinking.

I kept saying no. I finally said, “No. Full stop.”

I cannot actually fathom her motives for any of this. I suspect it has something to do with things that are unspeakable. We cannot speak about people silencing the emotional experiences of others because those experiences are too painful to witness. Saying cold-blooded animal with wings are sometimes dinosaurs and not birds is like saying since it is not always a bird and we cannot be certain about this, we cannot speak about birds. The existence of birds becomes unknowable and unspeakable. We become stalled in debating the very existence of birds.

And yet I think it is knowable and speakable. At the very least, it’s interesting to talk about birds and to think about them.

It’s Friday. Our appointment is tomorrow. I have no idea what to say to her. I think we need to be able to talk about birds. We need to be able to say there are times when people silence the emotional experiences of others because they are too painful to themselves. This cannot be something she cannot bear. And yet saying birds exist, I believe they exist, I believe we can know when it’s a bird and when it’s something merely birdlike and you have to be able to deal with that reality does not make her able to deal with that reality.

I feel the need to figure this out because when I don’t have a plan in mind we end up talking about topics that bore the life out of me. We talk about whether I meditate or go to the gym (no and no) and things of that nature, and I feel like I am talking to someone on the Autism Spectrum and the pain of keeping my attention on something that holds no interest for me for 50 minutes just to be polite makes me want to cry.


It usually starts to get somewhat easier after Halloween has passed. I begin to sleep better, as I get more exposure to sunlight in the mornings and less in the evenings. The decorations come down and are traded for what are, for me, more neutral holiday symbols.

I don’t know if it will get easier this year or not. It might.

I saw my therapist on Saturday. She had had a GI infection all week and we hadn’t seen each other for two weeks. She asked me how I had been. I said I lived through it. She asked if I would normally describe a week that way. I said no.

I was somewhat appalled at this point that she forgot how hard this was for me.

She said she knew fall was hard for me. I said fall is hard because of Halloween. She had been vomiting all week. I felt I ought to try to be charitable that she might forget my troubles completely.

I think the worst possible feeling about what happened might be that the lives of the girls I grew up might simply not matter to anyone other than me. They were the ultimate in disposable human beings when they were alive, and when one of them was brutally murdered, this was forgettable too.

So I didn’t feel charitable about it.

At the time, I didn’t know how to communicate any of that. We moved on. She asked various questions about how I had coped. I answered dutifully. I am not sure what the point of these kinds of questions are. I functioned. I did not get through the pain of it by, say, shooting up heroin, but there is very little she could have done if I had. I ate rather more than my fair share of junk food and watched quite a bit of old movies.

I didn’t know how to describe how it felt to me that made it difficult. I tried. I don’t know why it is difficult. Anyone with PTSD probably feels as I do. I don’t know how to say, well, I feel like smashing my hands with a hammer when I wash dishes, but I actually don’t know why. It makes it harder to wash dishes.

I suspect some of my inability to explain comes from speaking to someone used to people who unknowingly strive to cope using dissociation, when I am trying not to. They want the urge to break their own hands to be blotted from their awareness, and I want to be able to experience the emotion that lies under the impulse I am aware of: partly because I think the emotion would be easier to work with and partly because dissociation has not gone well. You end up half dead doing that.

She asked me if teaching was the right profession for me, which seemed rather extreme. I said I like teaching, but also that I think all jobs have their stresses. There is no career in which I can wrap myself up in cotton wool until difficult anniversaries pass.

I have learned this in the past few years: life proceeds, regardless of whether you can manage the pace of life or not and all you can do is the best you can with that.

We had been talking about parts the previous session, and she did remember that. Not that I had held my dead lover in my arms as she drew her last breath on this green earth 31 years ago, but that I have dissociated parts. I felt I probably had to talk about them.

So I did. I did not feel that comfortable about it. I felt rather like this was torture that needed to be endured. The whole session felt that way really, like something terrible which needed to be gone through.

Then I went home, and lay in bed without thinking what I was doing and it was probably five hours later before I even noticed I had done that or that time was passing while I lay there, watching old movies. I don’t have any real idea what to do when it’s this bad. I lay there the entire day. I spent a lot of today, the next day, in bed too.

My mind does feel now as though it has begun to sort of wake up, but I wonder about this. Why does it seem that my consciousness actually evaporates when I am under severe stress and what do I do about that?