Today is the first day of summer vacation. Vacation here has become one month. In previous years it has been two weeks. The change was instituted last year when I was gone.

Vacations rush by here more than usual I feel. There are, in fact, more school days, because about three weeks are lost each year to exams, and they aren’t included in the number of school days (which are supposed to be 180–just as in the US). There are also days not considered instructional days when we are still involved in school programs. These are officially called “holidays.” But they are work days.

So I am doing that usual first day of holiday planning and fantasizing and dreaming, “What will I do with the next month?”

I have mentioned I think part of working with the kids is dealing with trauma reactions and part is about making up for bypassed developmental stages, when kids normally learn strategies for managing impulses. Some of it is, for example, the terrible twos all over again.

I think I deal with some of the same things. Not that I have tantrums, but the regulation strategies I learned were guilt, shame, and distraction. I sit down to write, a potentially dangerous activity, and it seems to me that’s what I do.

It’s something to sort out.


Trauma mama

It is exam time. Country X has a very strong exam culture. Children from pre-primary on up have twice yearly exams. These count for increasingly more of their marks as they go up. In fourth grade, which I teach, the exam is half the mark at midterm and 2/3 at the end of the year (overall, 3/5 of the mark).

The odd thing about this is that Country Xers have no concept of the unit or unit planning, although their textbooks are arranged in units. They do not routinely give unit tests or plan culminating activities at the end of units. I suggested that backwards design is intended to be a part of unit plans and was met with blank stares. Teachers give tests according to whim. Some teachers only give 1 or 2 tests a year. We now have a cycle of tests on Saturday, so that each of the subject teachers must give a test every 5 weeks, whether it is needed or not.

Anyway, so I spent yesterday morning monitoring about 150 4th and 5th graders sitting in an echoing multi-purpose hall while they took an exam. It was an unpleasant and frustrating experience, as it often is.

Nothing about it was organized or coordinated in terms of the human beings involved–there were 3 monitors and 3 subject teacher. We train the student to ask permission to enter a room, which means you have students standing in the doorway asking loudly, “May I come in?” whenever they need to return to the classroom (and students you have given permission to go to the toilet asking whether they can leave the classroom), but if no teachers are present, they walk on in. It’s one of the stranger things about the culture (for me).

So 150 students entered the exam hall unattended, because someone had left it unlocked. They have to be checked for cheat sheets beforehand, because Country X students cheat as much as you let them. While I was checking, the math teacher began to give instructions to his students at a deafening volume in the National Language. This meant students as a group were not first given any instructions generally about the exam–there was a page to attach to the front. They needed to be reminded to raise their hands silently if they needed something rather than calling out or leaving their seats.

It also meant when the children asked me what he said later, I had no idea. I find it frustrating that whenever there are ordinary matters to talk to the children about, the teachers who are meant to teach in English lapse back into the National Language. How is it they can understand the complexities of the subject in English but they can’t understand “turn to page 7 and look at question 14”?

In the long run, it means students do not learn what we call “mortar words” in language development, which are the vocabulary words common to all subjects. They learn the specialized vocabulary of their discipline, but not things like “open” or “draw.”

In the short run, it means I am left out of the loop and cannot fully participate with the group in many situations, although I would like to.

So that was a frustration.

In the afternoon, I sat with the math teachers and tried to mark the 5th grade math papers. It is done in a group to minimize the unfairness that comes from one teacher being very punitive about marks and another teacher inflating the marks.

Also, Country Xers like to do everything together.

I don’t like this system, because I find the people with me spend half of the time marking and half the time off-task and dragging others (including my distractible mind) off with them, so that the effort of maintaining my attention feels Herculean. Also, several of the math teachers are very careless in how they mark, and I find I need to redo it anyway. So it’s not a time-saver.

The thing is they have been giving me the multiple choice sections to mark. It’s very easy, of course, but I began to think they do this because they are all men and they see me, as the only woman, as not being very capable. I can only be expected to do the work normally given to non-teaching staff who have 10th grade educations.

It’s not always very easy to make sense of social messages in another culture, but yesterday I began to suspect men here typically do not see women as being very intelligent. This had never crossed my mind as a possibility before.

It’s an odd experience for me to ponder this, because in the US, I am never seen that way. The gender bias is less intense, but I also talk less here because I am consistently left out of conversations (or the endless gossip and complaining bores me to tears) and no one has any special reason to think I have thoughts of any kind, let alone intelligent ones.

While I was marking, The Girl called. She had wanted to go home in the afternoon, because she is off school in the afternoons, but I am not, and it gets lonely being in the house by herself for 3 hours. I know it doesn’t seem like a long time, but this is Country, where people don’t buy shampoo by themselves.

Then she got home and evidently found the household in more chaos than anticipated. The best cow had died, a second cow was sick, and her mother had responded by embarking on a drinking binge. She said she wanted to come back. I said that seemed like a good idea.

After the marking was finished, I tracked down The Boy, and told him we were going to fetch her. He was not at all happy about this, but went. I have recently (as in, day before yesterday), instituted the “naughty chair,” although we just call it a chair, because I was fed up with his obstructionist tendency (if I can keep you from doing what you want to do, I can feel I have some power and I feel safer). I started this after he was gone for a weekend, and I began to see that life is actually fairly pleasant. He just objects to everything so relentlessly that he sucks the joy out of daily life.

The (maybe) strange thing about having traumatized children is that it’s possible to see them in this very negative way (that he really is grasping at control, it really does make me feel like life is nothing but bleak and unremitting desert), but still feel concern for them. I can’t live with someone who spends so much time trying not to mop the floor that it’s actually more pleasant for me not to try to teach him responsibility, life skills or teamwork, and it’s also not going to be good for his adult homelife if he needs to be in control all the time. (I think of C’s family, and I am pretty sure her stepdad’s need for control is one of the core reasons behind their collective misery.)

What I am getting at is an attitude of acceptance rather than paranoia about negative behaviours. What I see in the children at times appears to be the result of alternating over-indulgence and neglect. I think in The Girl’s case, her parents are afraid of her dramatic presentation of emotions and so either become punitive or frightened in the face of them: either placating or abusing her. What you get out of that as a child is that you are a frightening and dangerous person, and yet that is how you know to get your needs met. It’s not a good self-image to have, and it’s also confusing. Why am I so bad? Why do I do such bad things? You haven’t learned to curtail your own aggression through deliberate control of your impulses, and you also haven’t learned other strategies. What I see in The Boy is more a kind of laziness on the part of the parents or maybe the result of despair. Enforcing boundaries is just too difficult, or maybe the parents feel guilty for the times they have punished their children harshly as a result of lost control and in the same situation where they have once lost their tempers enforce no rules at all. I am not sure.

There is some kind of confluence in my mind of knowing that what I am faced with in the children is re-doing normal developmental stages which were not successfully mastered and trauma-based behaviours.

I remember last year, my therapist was surprised that I mentioned that for traumatized children, personality disorders are one possible outcome. Specifically, one reason I intervened in C’s life is to  to try to prevent this. Maybe it’s neater to categorize the world into victims and perpetrators, but sometimes perpetrators are former victims who are now in positions of power.

It’s exhausting, and I feel very keenly I have no one to talk to about it. The loneliness is sometimes quite intense.


I feel especially bad this morning.

I asked The Boy’s sister to come to the house to study for a few hours, because actually she’s going to fail in a unsalvageable way. I have tried to help her, but I can’t get her to stay after school or there is something else after school she needs to attend. I haven’t been able to give her the support she needs. We had a holiday on Saturday, and my grading is caught up, so I am relatively free to help.

She came and brought her five-year-old brother. Country X kids occasionally do this. They feel lonely and want company and don’t see that actually the idea was for me to teach–not to provide a babysitter for your parents.

So The Boy had the brilliant idea to give his brother something like raspberries mashed up in a jar while sitting on the principal’s borrowed sofa set. He was eating them with his hands. The Boy is 13 years old. I have trouble fathoming his lack of sense at times.

I told him to get his brother a spoon and sit at the table. I think I neglected to tell him to go wash his brother’s hands. Anyway, I needed to take a bath at that point. I had heated the water before they came, not knowing when to expect them. I was in the bathroom for about ten minutes, the whole time hoping they could keep it together for that long.

I came out and they had gone outside to play–relief.

But in the evening, I saw in the light red streaks across the cushion of the chair where the little boy had been sitting, as though someone had wiped his fingers across it with red-stained fingers.

I was rather panicked about it, because the stain had been there all day, setting more and more deeply. Anyway, I washed it, and it’s possible that it may have faded enough to be unnoticeable. I’ll see better when it has dried.

So today I am not at my best. It’s very difficult and stressful living with The Boy, because he does not really have a conscience yet. Consequences do not seem real to him, nor do other people’s feelings. He needs to be able to tolerate shame well enough to start to learn what is right and what is wrong, before that happens. Right now, he is still too defended.

He is not all bad, by any means, but he gets caught up in the moment and can’t remember things like don’t steal, don’t break other people’s things. There are times when he feels like a big 2-year-old, minus the remorse later.

I am struggling more than usual. I felt in the morning especially worthless. I felt it’s important for me to stay with this feeling long enough to understand it. I think over the years, I have accumulated views which blamed the victim. I have come to believe that people mistreat me because I don’t have a positive view of myself. My lack of a sense of worth allows it.

What has occurred to me is the assumption of malignancy–people are just waiting for an opening. They are hoping someone will come along that they can mistreat. In reality, I don’t think they are. There are some people who are like this: anyone who seems willing to act as a whipping boy will be given the job. But this isn’t a universal phenomenon. Most people aren’t restraining an impulse to harm others they are just waiting for the chance to release.

In my own head, it’s meant I haven’t been able to engage with these feelings of not being valued. I don’t think I understood them to be social perceptions which might give me information about something happening right now. I understood them to be who I am all the time, which made them more frightening than they needed to be.

I think previous experiences with therapy did not fundamentally alter my gaps in mentalization. They colluded in supporting pre-mentalizing modes, rather than developing them into adult mentalizing abilities. Feelings can’t be felt because there is no difference between feelings and reality is psychic equivalence. I didn’t recognize that trying to escape feelings of worthlessness came from this assumption just as much as expanding upon it.

I don’t feel valued, because The Boy did not consider my need to take care of the borrowed sofa set. Against the backdrop of his desire to please his brother, so that he could be liked, all else was forgotten.

I can force people to do what I want at times, but I can’t force them to feel concern for me, and I think this was the deep undercurrent of my childhood. I could make my mother pay attention to my needs if I screamed enough, but I couldn’t make her feel concern.



C called last night–I had called her a few times and also sent her a text. I am not usually so persistent unless there is really some matter of urgency at hand, but the Boy kept asking me to call her, which he does not usually do. Anyway, she called back and wanted Galay to call her. He told me, after their talk, that she wanted him to come to her mother’s house so they could come together from there.

Yesterday, her mother said we would meet soon, as though she really did intend to come here. The last time she came to Y-town, she did not tell me she was coming or call me or make any attempt to see me, nor did she come at midterm to see her own daughter. She did come to see me in December. I have my doubts about the whole thing.

There was some point in the past when I did not care very much. I wanted to help C, and I was okay with being kind of like broccoli–good for you, but not necessarily wanted. I don’t feel okay with it now.

So in the morning, when I woke up, at the time when I feel sad anyway, I was thinking about this. I was thinking about not seeing her and about my not knowing whether she wants to see me or not and all of the times she was angry at me when I saw her just for being there.

And I thought something like I can force people to do what makes me feel more comfortable, but there is no joy in that for me. Then I have what I want, but I feel sad about it. I thought not everyone feels that. They feel life is a contest and they want to win.

I also thought I don’t know what the reality of the situation actually is, but reflecting like this tells me about my own mind. Reflection doesn’t tell me whether C is coming, or whether she wants to come, but it tells me about my expectation that she won’t and how I feel about that and if I think about it long enough, I might also start to know why I have those expectations and that could be because of her past behaviour or the past behaviour of other people or both.

The idea of mentalizing helps me. I was thinking, as I reflected about all of this, that what I felt was a sense of being unwanted. It seems to me in the past I might have thought feeling unwanted meant I was unwanted, and so the thought was untolerable to me. I had to get rid of the thought to get rid of the experience.

Now, I think instead that at some point in my life I have felt unwanted and I will again at some point in the future. Not everyone will want me or has wanted me. This is part of life, and understanding how it feels and why it feels that way as well as what to do about it can only help me.

That said, it was pretty awful to feel. Later, I thought my young self felt unwanted quite a lot. My mother did not have much of a sense of other minds, and I may have been compelled to overwhelm her with my needs to get her to see them.

I have been very sad recently. I have noticed how they are not real smiles that I have on my face. I am hiding sadness most of the time. I didn’t get tea one day and someone told me, “Let the others drink tea,” and I replied, “It’s the only joy in life I have,” and I realized actually this is to some extent true. Much of life feels like drudgery interspersed with crisis. I began to think I need to consider having some kind of actual fun and not just homework and three meals a day and trying to make sure all three of us have clean clothes on and decent-looking nails.

Then C’s dad asked me why I didn’t get married and I realized, not for the first time, that the primary reason I haven’t had a successful long-term relationship is that the non-Nata sadness is so strong I can’t think clearly.

The thing is that I could enjoy life, but I don’t.

C’s dad reminded me once again that I have real losses that I need to grieve and I don’t know how.

I got a call from C today where she did what she usually does when an approach is looming and she didn’t make much sense, and I didn’t know what she actually wanted or needed from me. She was talking about coming here and it sounded to me like she won’t come. She didn’t say that, but she said she will come at her mother’s convenience. Her mother is not a responsible person. She waits for the mood to strike and the stars to align and then if they don’t, she feels it was not mean to be. Pro-active is not in her vocabulary. If C waits on her mother to get her shit together, she will be waiting a long time.

In the past, I have called her mother, and this has sometimes been what was needed. It didn’t make any difference. Her mother said she will send her when she damn well feels like it.

I should add that the tone is entirely my invention. She was nice about all of it. She said she will send C. I am almost certain she won’t.

The thing is whether she does or she doesn’t, I have to live with what I think. If I think she won’t send C, I have to live with that thought. I don’t know if this makes sense or not, but I cannot rail at the world for the thoughts I have in my head.

In the past, when I did not like my thoughts, I changed them. I decided I was being unreasonable based on the pleasantness of the thought. I am not suggesting I torture myself with negativity, but it doesn’t leave me free within my own mind.

Anyway, I had a series of very bleak thoughts at the idea of her not coming. C brings me happiness–effortlessly and without anything being done intentionally. Seeing her will bring me happiness. If she doesn’t come, then it’s like the tea–one of my few pleasures lost. I thought I have had an unfair life. This is a problem to take up with God. It’s a very heavy burden to place on a child. Tea can take that kind of pressure, but not a child.

I thought again, “I really need to talk about Nata.” She’s not the only source of my inner pain, but this inability to grieve her death is affecting every part of my life and every relationship. I think I could begin to tackle everything else if I could get a grip on that.

Maybe I just thought that, but it’s how it seems at the moment.


Strange days

Yesterday was strange.

I had had a chat with C’s dad a few days ago. He speaks English reasonably well and we can communicate, so he has been at times a point of communication over C, especially since she now goes to school close to where he lives. I can’t say much to her mom, and her stepfather is notoriously difficult (although perfectly nice to me). I also like her dad. He has a feeling about him that is very much like C, and it created an instant sense of comfort when I first met him in 2016. I feel he is my friend.

So he said a few days ago that he had had a dream, where the three of us were together and C was telling her friends about us: “This is my father and this is my mother.” He added “haha.” Country Xers, I feel, do this. I feel Country Xers often hide vulnerable or unacceptable emotions behind jokes. Anger and sadness are played off as playing, and teasing can be ruthless. Because I can’t understand what is being said most of the time, I am trying to understand emotion, and that’s how it sounds to me in the staffroom sometimes. “I’m really angry, but I know I am not supposed to be angry, so I will now laugh as though I was just pretending.” Only, to me, it doesn’t sound like pretending. I don’t think Country Xers see it the way I do, but as an outsider I am either more ignorant or less biased—more or less likely to see the truth. So I stick to my own opinion about it, not sure whether it is correct or not.

Galay does this too. He says something soft or vulnerable, and it is followed up with “haha.” I did with C’s dad what I usually do, which is to act as though the haha is not there, because I think the haha is a kind of test of my reaction—if I am not accepting, the haha is there as a defense against vulnerability. Well, I do accept feelings. They are all okay. I live with the feelings in my head, and that’s pretty hard, so I think I can live with the feelings in other people’s heads.

I said, “That’s very sweet.” I feel there is a deep sadness in C’s father’s heart for his first little family, which he couldn’t keep together. C’s grandmother would not allow him to marry C’s mother, and I think it played into an existing narrative of being inadequate and unwanted, so that C’s rejections of him are seen not as the acts of an inconsiderate or confused teenager, but as evidence of his failure to be a good father.

I encourage C’s father to behave like a father. I know she actually does have very tender feelings towards him and also that children whose parents abandon them have a very intense sense of confusion over the abandonment even when it is situational and nothing to do with their worth. I often tell him that she needs him, because she does. She may not always be able to see that he feels concern for her, but she needs his concern. Her mother is neglectful and her stepfather is controlling. Her father is her best hope.

It didn’t especially surprise me that he had a dream in which C expresses an acceptance of him as her father. I think he longs for that.

But then he said, “From today, I don’t want to call you sister anymore,” (that is how he has been addressing me the last year). I asked him why. He said something like I am C’s mother and it feels a bit uncomfortable to call you sister. Then he called me mom.

This did not actually make complete sense to me, but the conversation ended soon after that. One of us had other things to do.

I pondered this, because actually your child’s mother is usually your wife and not your own mother. In the languages here, mother and wife are the same word, as is the form of address for an important woman. I suppose it’s more like the lady of the house or something. Words often have very broad ranges of meaning, so the vocabulary is quite restricted. There is only one word for building. Stick, tree and wood are the same word. It’s easy to learn to speak (so they tell me), but I find it difficult to understand. You have to already know what someone is talking about.

The day before yesterday, he said he had something to tell me, but that he felt guilty. He said he would send a text. I encouraged him to do this—that was pure self-interest. Otherwise, I would worry endlessly over what he wanted to say.

Yesterday morning, he said he had the feeling that I am his wife. I felt very worried about this. He has a wife and three children with her. As C’s “adoptive” mother, the last thing I want to be is a homewrecker. I didn’t know how to respond, because he was telling me something that clearly had deep meaning for him and he felt very tender and vulnerable about it. I also wondered if he was describing something he hadn’t needed to describe before, and he may not literally mean what he was saying. I said feelings are okay. I also said he shouldn’t hurt his family.

I had a lot of free time yesterday, and we chatted throughout the day—on and off. So I stayed stirred up, I suppose. He asked me why I hadn’t married, and I told him something about Nata, without the trafficking angle and minus the murder bit. Also minus the girl bit. When there is a bit of a language gap, no one notices you are not using gendered pronouns.

He said something like it wasn’t too late for me.

But to tell him about Nata, even in three sentences, I had to think about her, and I realized how much it felt when she died that life had become incomprehensible. I don’t think I could cognitively put together any part of what happened: life and death even, or myself without this important person for me, or why someone would choose to murder someone else. I realized it’s still incomprehensible to me, and not being able to come to terms with her loss has impaired my life in a very long-standing way. I realized I have to come to terms with her death in order to have some kind of life of my own.

There was that.

If I hurt you, you do not bleed….

Fonagy talks about individuals reverting to developmentally earlier forms of mentalization or non-mentalization entirely under stress and he also talks about entire systems remaining in non-mentalizing states. He talks about teleological systems, in which only concrete actions can be understood. In this kind of system, individuals become coercive: aggressive means are used to force behaviours which mimic the appearance of care. (I know you care about me, if you do want I want you to do. Hystrionic behaviour can stem from this motivation: if I make you feel uncomfortable enough, then maybe I can make you things I recognize as caring.

Another system he describes is one called psychic equivalence: thoughts are seen as real, and so thoughts must be carefully controlled. Results are equated with intention. There are no accidents.

Finally, he describes pretend systems, and this one strikes a deep chord with me. Only one’s own thoughts and feelings are real. Other people have them, but they are not experienced as “real,” leading to feelings of isolation and emptiness as well as intense selfishness. Lack of sense of reality to feelings “permits interpersonal aggression,” because their emotional impact has no importance.

It also permits acts of self-harm, because psychological existence is seen as being decoupled from physical existence. (I can destroy myself, but only kill off the bad or unwanted part of myself.)

That was also my dad, who could kill animals and people, because their deaths were not felt to be real or to have importance.

They were real to me, and I felt pain and fear when I witnessed his violence towards others. It was decades before I understood this as normal. I grew up seeing only self-interest. I didn’t know I put myself in the place of corpses, because that is actually natural for people to do: not just I could be next, but I tried to understand what it was like to be them, to be dead and to be chopped up into pieces, because actually that is what people do. Imagining the experience of others is natural.