I have been thinking about the kitchen sink lately. The kitchen sink upsets me. I wash dishes and have the impulse to self-harm. Eventually, I realized this impulse is the impulse that accompanies guilt. I feel guilty.
What I try to do other than not panic about the impulse is to relax into the feeling. It turns out guilty feelings are easier to deal with than guilty thoughts or guilty impulses. This in itself is not actually easy, although “relax” makes it sound that way. Anyone with trauma will understand “relax” is not automatic or easy.
“Relax” means “do everything possible to feel safe enough to have feelings” and “work continually at calming my body” and even “be conscious of how it feels when I can’t feel my feelings anymore.”
So I have doing this. I have been doing this for a while. I stand at the sink doing things and try to feel guilty instead of thinking guilty thoughts or having guilty impulses.
When I do this, interesting things sometimes happen. I stop having what I think of as “junk” thoughts and begin to have thoughts I want to pursue. They tend to seem to swim up as if out of a cloudy pond. There is something hazy or mysterious or surprising about them.
So I began to think about Piotr, who is a part I don’t really know much about. Piotr likes purple and writing neatly and I do not really know much else about him.
I began to think Piotr is obedient. Neat and organized and obedient.
I should say as I was thinking about this that I understand the guilt I feel has to do with being a bystander. People were murdered and their bodies desecrated and abused and I was there helping this to happen.
Bystanders usually feel guilty. Guilt motivates us to act or if we don’t know what to do we turn away so that we don’t have to feel guilty.
I also know I was trafficked and people saw and did nothing and because they did not know what to do, they turned away from my suffering. And I am pretty angry about this.
I should also say I don’t believe the conventional wisdom that trauma symptoms happen because of maladaptive beliefs about it. I believe it happened, it is already over, and whatever I thought or felt at the time is ok. But I do need to understand it and to organize it and place it within some kind of context.
Piotr came to mind. While I was thinking about him I could feel how frightened I had been. I could really feel the fear in my body.
It illuminated some things. Feeling that fear, I could understand why I would feel very guilty about helping to mistreat the corpses of young women and respond by trying very hard to be obedient. I don’t know what to say about that, but I understand that at a very deep level.
I also understand how this would end up as a feeling that seemed disconnected–this feeling of obedience, because it is not all I felt. I felt guilty and horrified and even angry, and only with the fear does the urge to be obedient even make sense. The rest of me wanted to scream or run away or vomit. Obedience won, but until the impulse gets connected to emotions, my own mind does not make sense even to me.