C had a holiday on Saturday, and went to her grandparents’ home on Friday evening. I got a message on Facebook: “Mom, I reached home.”
Touching. And touching to have it be remembered that I want to know where she is and whether she reached her destination safely.
She said, “Call me later.”
This was Friday evening for me. So I got her message while I was racing out the door, running late as pretty much usual, and tried to keep her apprised of my whereabouts and ability to be in touch with her until I got to school and could call her. Not that I couldn’t call her, but I thought she would be frustrated with the noise of the train.
I was mostly avoiding sending signals of rejection. She has never asked me to call her that I remember.
When I got to school, she didn’t answer.
The day passed. I had therapy in the evening. The therapist slowed down, which we had talked about in the last session. It helped, and we had a more connected session, where I didn’t feel I was cramming myself into a box in order to do things someone else’s way. We had agreed also to talk about Nata’s death (although she didn’t know this), but we didn’t. The things we did talk about instead seemed acceptable.
I am aware that the traumas I most need to talk about we haven’t talked about. We dance distantly around them.
Oh, well. I have not found forcing conversations on people a helpful strategy.
I chatted with C quite a bit on Saturday (Sunday for her, I suppose). I talked to her about feeling she is good. I know that the feeling of being good develops because of a relationship. It’s not some absolute reality, in fact. But when your parents don’t do this for you, you have to provide that experience for yourself. I talked to her about remembering the feeling of goodness and worthiness at times when she feels shame and trying to recall that feelings of shame can feel global–that your whole self is bad–but that shame comes and goes. Shame is not your true self–it just feels that way.
Towards evening (for me), she brought up her boyfriend suddenly. We have not talked about him since midterm. I wrote tremendously long letters about this, which she did not recall and may not have read.
She asked me if I had been chatting with him. I told her no, because actually he has blocked me. I have no great desire to chat with him, but it is not up to me in this case. I wondered to her why she was asking.
She said he missed me. Okay, well, he has blocked so he’ll have to work that one out himself.
Some other things were said–not what I wrote above. It became apparent that C was angry.
The little boy in my class on Thursday has spurred me to think about some things in maybe a slightly different way. He went through everything that C goes through: the wild leaps between states, fear, anger, sadness. Seeing someone else go through made it look different to me, and what I thought about it was that people need to be able to continue to make sense of their experiences while they are being reactive and trauma-y. I talked to the teacher after school–she had been at a training, and she returned to her classroom at the end of the day while I was writing a note.
Her response to the child in similar moments was to be puzzled, as I have been puzzled by C. “D, you’re safe….” she told him, when he had a temper tantrum the other day. Well, he has to learn from experience what safe is. Her response only made his own state more confusing to him.
That’s what I thought.
So when C is having trauma kinds of responses, she needs to be encouraged to stay in an emotional place where her internal experience can be seen and thought about. That ability to feel and also see oneself as one is feeling needs to be preserved. What has happened for her is she learned she has to choose between being a thinking person who is unaware of her feelings or a feeling person who acts impulsively without thinking.
So I told her to tell me about why she was angry and I would listen. I wouldn’t get angry at her and I wouldn’t leave. I would listen and try to understand. It seemed to be more important to keep her in this place of being able to think about feelings than to get her to see things in a way that might feel more accurate to me.
She said a few things. I asked if she felt better and got no response. Eventually I called and her grandmother answered. C came to the phone and I asked if she felt better. She said she didn’t know. I told her when she talks a lot, I feel proud of her, and this seemed to open a door to a flood of more talking.
Things began to make more sense. Speaking seemed to suit her.
It emerged that either Boyfriend was very confused about the facts or lying. He had said he chatted with me on her account, and that I had said he was a bad boy or something like that. I couldn’t remember anything like that happening, but I looked through just in case. No. No mention of Boyfriend at all. I said, “Let’s try to imagine why he might say that I said that when I didn’t.” C suddenly needed to make lunch at something like 9 am. Now, it’s possible that she did. It’s also possible that she simply felt too frightened that Boyfriend had lied about me to keep talking.
I was feeling pretty sick and feverish at this point and did not aggressively follow up.
I have a couple of theories at work in this. The first is that I am trying to do with C what I do with myself: not judge the thoughts, just try to maintain an ability to think while in the midst of feeling. It’s fine that C is probably angry over some deeper issue than Boyfriend’s drama (given how often she is angry at the mere sight of me). This is about developing a mental skill, not about insight.
Anger itself has been unspeakable. It might take many attempts at speaking about anger to begin to feel that speaking about the deeper sources of her anger are going to be okay. We can start by talking about the girl who took money from her or about a lie her Boyfriend told her about me.
The same has gone for deprivation: she can talk to me about the unfairness of not being allowed on an outing when she needs to buy pens, when the real issue might be how unfair it is that her parents have not allowed her to even try to meet her own needs, let alone meet the needs of their child. But at least this makes deprivation speakable. What can happen is that the kind of deprivation brought up seems so trivial, the topic get shut down altogether. Deprivation remains unspeakable because when someone makes a stab at it, the stab does not seem to make sense.
The other is that life with complex trauma is partly so difficult because these intense emotional states caused by a vigilance brought on by relational triggers results in a patchy sense to reality. The intensity of emotions creates cognitive bias and you end up filtering for certain kinds of evidence. The more intense the state, the greater the cognitive bias. If you are reacting to many different stimuli that create wildly different biases, it feels like reality is changing in the blink of an eye. There has to be a way to ride this process out.
As an adult, I have realized life does not wait for me to calm down again, and while I don’t want to act impulsively based on these intense states, I somehow need to figure out what to do while I am in the midst of them. C has taught me as well that the things we notice while in these states are often real: I can’t simply dismiss them as unfounded fears. But what I need is context for them, and maybe some restraint. If you feel like running, maybe you don’t overshare. That kind of thing. The impulse to run does not mean you literally need to sprint, but there are many ways to back away from something which feels dangerous.
So that’s what I am trying to do with C. Trying to ride this out with her, so that she has help with trying to understand what are upsetting and puzzling experiences. I am trying to get across to her that the contents of her mind need not be frightening or dangerous, although the emotions are intense and difficult to deal with. They can be manageable.
The last thing I think about this is how, like the little boy in class, C has needed to break through drunken stupors and dissociative states in order to get basic needs met. The kind of courage a child has to summon in order to demand they be fed by a parent who wishes to remain neglectful and expresses this in physically and emotionally devastating ways is astounding to think about. The child has to think, at some level, you might kill me, but I am so hungry or so lonely or so in need of toileting that I am going to risk death in order to be cared for.
Well, C switches. I don’t know how this works exactly, but it shuts off some sense of the danger so that C can pursue her needs and not be overwhelmed by fear. I could see this to some extent when we talked. There is a girl that for some reason always seems lavender to me who said it was up to me whether she kept seeing her boyfriend. She wants to please, this part. She’s my Katya, I think, wanting to be virtuous.
There have been many times I have wondered why I bring out the reactions that I do from C: Why is she unable to pick up the phone when I call, for example, but she manages to call a mother who has actually abused her and really is frightening? She’s splitting less in front of me, and her feelings are being displayed. She misses her mother because she is her mother, and armours up by splitting off into parts that don’t know the dangers they face.