Ice cream

I hurt Nata.

Sammy is troubled again. It is not really guilt. It is sort of a pre-guilt. It is a sadness and a desire to kiss the wounds he made to make them better. If I had to name it, the emotion is closer to profound regret.

He is thinking about the things Charlie remembers. More and more, the walls have become permeable, and information moves between the parts—and then needs to be re-understood from a different perspective.

It would be easy to tell him that someone forced him to the things that he—Charlie, I, whoever you want to say—did, but I’m coming to realize that is not entirely true. When you are very small, and emotions are brought up in you—when you feel very sad or very frustrated or very frightened—then you lose control of your thinking mind. You move on instinct. And sometimes this works out for the best and sometimes it doesn’t.

When I was very small, I hurt Natalya because someone told me to and because I felt overwhelmingly afraid, and the fear moved me towards doing what I was told.

But at some point that was no longer true for me. My choices were constrained, but I was making choices. I don’t know when that happened. I don’t think it’s probably possible to analyze things so clearly that I can know that.

It is also clear that the idea of resistance crossed my mind. The summer before Natalya died, I read Civil Disobedience, and anyway, like most American children, I was steeped in the ethos of courageous, individual non-cooperation as a form of warfare.

This, it turns out, is a myth. Rosa Parks did not spontaneously decide to refuse to give up her seat. It was organized. We somehow prefer to believe she was an uneducated seamstress fed up with The Man, but she was not. She was educated, she was politically involved, and her role in sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a long time in the making.

For the most part, you need to work with other people to make non-violent resistance work. Otherwise, you might become a hero, but you will be a dead hero. You will be a hero that gets nothing done.

I knew I could refuse to hurt Natalya. I also knew that it wouldn’t help if I did that. I would suffer, or she would suffer, but one or both of us would suffer more. The only winner might be my conscience, which could then say clearly and without hesitation: I did not do this. What happened now was not because of me. It was because of them.

I think I would have preferred to be a dead hero who gets nothing done. It seems easier on the conscience to stand up and do the right thing and consequences be damned. It would probably suit my temperament better too.

But that would be my flavour of ice cream, and I wasn’t an individual. I was a member of a collective. The collective preferred that we both live, that we be as unhurt as possible, and that we not be separated for as long as possible.

And so that is what I worked towards. It wasn’t maybe my ideal situation, but it was a compromise that could, with some massive dissociation, be lived with. For both of us.

Check it at the door

I cook breakfast, scrub laundry, wash dishes, all while feeling the urge to die. It is easier to manage than it used to be. I feel less like sitting down all the time. But I still wish it didn’t happen. I still wish, if it did have to happen, I could handle the full extent of it, and that it didn’t have to keep returning because I can’t.

And so I did the chores wondering for the 5,000th time why this is kind of the background noise—the radio static—of life for me.

I start thinking that when I left Yuri’s world to go home again, to my dad’s world, I could not take Natalya with me. I could not even take the thought of her with me, because she was connected to so much other pain that I could not think about it along with the pain of what happened to me at home.

When I left, I had to check her love at the door. And so although I felt supported and protected while I was there, after I left, I felt I had no one. It is this loneliness I have been remembering the last few days.

It is the loneliness of being placed in stress positions by my father, it is the loneliness of being raped by my father, it is the loneliness of bizarre and terrifying rituals, it is the loneliness of being trafficked after church, it is the loneliness of all those things without anyone at all to care.

Yuri’s world was more brutal, but less cruel. I don’t know if it hurt less. I don’t know if it was less frightening. But it was more predictable. My dad’s world—my world at home—was not easier to deal with.

And I was alone with it.

There is, this morning, a small part of me inside that seems to be saying, “Yes, you finally get it. You finally understand me and what I have been trying to say. Someone has at last finally heard.”

The despair and the suicidality became Vivianne’s after Natalya died, but before then, it was Katya’s. And this is what Katya has been trying to say. I am so alone. I am so alone that I cannot bear it. I cannot stand to live with so much aloneness. I cannot stand so much pain alone. I cannot stand the pain of being alone. I cannot stand it. Any of it.

Running away

I ran away today. Not far. Just to my house, where I poured powder into water and pretended it was coffee and then hurried back to school to teach my classes. It was interval anyway.

I ran away because the mad man in our staff room was playing Tibetan music a little too loud and there was a high-pitched noise involved that was hurting my ears and Maths Sir was trying to show me how they dance to it and he kept stomping on the ground. Between the screech and the banging, something fell into place.

I cannot stand high-pitched noises because they make me think of someone screaming. And the banging, well, that’s any kind of violence, isn’t it? There are always loud, banging noises if you are destroying someone or something.

I lost it a little then. My breathing came fast and all I could feel in my body was that urge to run far, to run fast, to run away. So I walked. And I came home and cried and drank coffee and was sort of okay after that.

But the morning was hard for me. If the past exists, it’s hard to make sense of my life now. I live so much as if it never happened. if the past is real, the present does not seem possible.

I was looking at my first post about Natalya—the post titled, “Veronique.” I’ve gotten some things wrong. This is because when I first began to remember, other memories came along with the memory of her. So that first image of Natalya was a composite of various older girls and women who performed with me in pornographic films. When I was around 11 that was mostly what was being shot and it went on until after Natalya died, when I refused to do it anymore. The films might have gone in that direction because I had been working at it for a long time, and everything else had been done. I don’t know. But there were a lot of women and girls, and most of them didn’t remain in my mind as individuals.

Natalya was younger than many of them. For some reason, she seems 17 to me, but I don’t really know that I knew her age. An older teenager, though, or a very young woman. And she was small—not a lot bigger than me.

Natalya wasn’t dissociated when we were together—the others were. But she stayed with me, whispered in my ear, touched me as if no one were there. But if that had been the case, we would have played Uno instead.

I think I am still not sure what “normal” is. In my childhood world, everything was sort of on crack. Exaggerated. Extreme. The bad was wretched and the good was sublime. I don’t think this is imagination. Nothing but the sublime can withstand evil of that magnitude. I feel I will never love anyone like I loved Natalya, and I think that’s probably true also. I won’t have to.

Now, my life is either too much—too bright, too intense, too real—or it is pallid and washed out. There are things in-between, ordinary things that are lively, but not mind-blowing. Mostly, it is not that way though. Everything is either too much or not enough.

But that’s because of my head. It’s not the rest of life doing that to me. It’s the past being too much or being so much I can’t stand to feel it anymore and it all gets shut down and everything feels behind glass again. I am here, but I don’t really know what it is like to be here.

What is frightening about remembering Natalya is that I think in the end I will remember everything. Not just what happened when she died and how that felt, but what it was like to be abused with her before she died. There are things I have managed to still shut out or to feel only in bits and pieces—bodily memories I don’t really want to have, and yet I will have to have them, I think. If I want to know how it felt to feel safe with Natalya, I will have to remember how it felt to be violated.

It’s difficult.


Two countries

I went to the higher school yesterday to talk to the students at assembly. I stood at a podium with a mike looking out over a stone square where the students stood in straight lines and I told them about where I am from, because I thought that is what they most wanted to know.

I told them in my country we all belong to two places: for us, there is always an Old Country and a new country, and a part of what we are all doing is trying to understand who we are given those two places. I think that this is mostly true. For almost all Americans, identity is not simple. It is contested. It is about the past and the present, the old and the new, our ancestors and our children. Some people resolve their identities by forgetting. That is the “English-only” movement. The ones who say, “We’re Americans” as if they aren’t anything else, as if they sprang up there out of air. Some resolve it by remembering. We are more whole when we remember.

I am reminded that for me it is not just about two countries, but two worlds: a past and a present, torture and freedom.

There is so much pressure to pare it down to one world and to say, “But that was the past. Things aren’t like that anymore.” And to try to put it behind me.

I started menstruating yesterday, and in the night blood leaked. Cleaning up at 2 am, I felt frightened of all the blood. Even in the morning, a 2-year-old part wanted to tell me about other times when there was blood everywhere. It was hard to let her do this. I didn’t want to feel all of that again. I wanted to put it behind me and to forget. But the child who lived through all that is me. She is who I am now. Forgetting makes the child who lived in the past and the adult who lives in the present discontinuous. It keeps the child a child who is separate from the adult, and the adult a person with no roots and no history. It makes me someone who sprang from air and isn’t anyone because of it.

But who I am is both people. Just as I grew up hearing about the Old Country at the dinner table, because my grandparents wanted us to know who we were, there is an Old World that is also a part of who I am.

As I spoke to the students, I had to tell them some things about the history of my country that we do not feel proud of. Our predecessors made mistakes, or we think they are mistakes now at least. I said, “But hopefully we have learned some things since then.” I am not proud of everything I did in that Old World either. I am most certainly not proud of what everyone else did. But hopefully I have learned some things since then. At the very least, I have learned how to not be my dad.

And I have learned how to leave.

Somehow, I developed this misconception that I had to have a high opinion of myself. I needed “to be proud of myself.” Maybe because I was raised by arrogant, entitled people who coped with life by injecting themselves with egoism. I don’t know. But it’s been a barrier.

I am not proud of who I was. I am proud of some things. Mostly, I was a desperate child trying to live. The desperately poor child is not proud of digging through refuse for food. She cannot think, “I was so resourceful,” even if that is true. She cannot do it. In the same way, I cannot be proud that I stopped feeling, or that I became rigid and inflexible in order to calm myself. I am not proud that I became compliant.

But that is the child I was. That child is me now. I don’t need to be proud of this child. But I need to know who she was. In the same way that I need to know that my predecessors were genocidal, I need to know that this child was consumed with anxiety and phobias. It is not just a matter of knowing one’s history, but of constructing an identity. And identity is not simple. It is not about only the good things and the happy times and what you are proud of. It is also about your darkest moments, your worst failings, your most fatal errors.

I dreamed last night that, in a dark rain, I had walked too close to the edge of a cliff. I saw the drop only a meter or so before stepping over. The soil was very sandy. When I tried to move away from the edge, I only slid closer. So I sat down for stability and I waited for a long time. As the rain stopped and the soil became dryer, I could begin to inch away.

There is a mechanical problem in this—sandy soil is not more slippery when it is wet, but less so. Nonetheless, I think there is a deep meaning in this for me. It could be that I needed to wait a long time before healing. Conditions weren’t right, and when I tried, things only seemed to get worse for me. They are better now. I can heal without sliding into overload and disaster. This process requires patience. Or it could be some other message that I don’t understand yet.

Healing isn’t a matter of learning to “feel good” about myself. I don’t need to be proud of my rigidity or my perfectionism—even if that helped me to survive. I don’t need to forgive myself for those things either. I did nothing wrong. I was a desperate child trying to live in whatever way I could, with whatever resources I had available to me, internal or external. Just as all children will do.

But I do need to know, and I need to know when those things crop up now in the present that that is where it has come from. I didn’t spring up out of the air. I came from somewhere, and where I came from is a part of me—the good bits and the bad bits, the terror and the courage, the dignity and the inhumanity of it. All of it together.

And I suppose I should add here, at the end, that the mix of it is not who you are because it is you. It is who you are because of what you know now as a result of it. I know now what it is to live intimately with evil. I know what it is be dehumanized. I know now what it is to be alone and what it is to be frightened. Those things that I know will always be a part of me. I will not always be afraid, but I will always know what it is to be frightened. I am not alone, but I will always know what utter desolation feels like.

Taking stock

Former teachers in Country X have blogs. I’ve been reading one of them today. Previously, I had read a few others. Mostly, I’m combing through for small details that might give me some idea of what to expect: How populated does the town I’m going to seem to be? What does that suggest about what I might be able to buy without travelling a long distance? (They have 2-minute noodles.) How cold does it look like it is? (Cold.) Is there electricity? (In the evenings.) And running water? (Couldn’t tell.)

What I read instead was a cheery, upbeat blog about the beauty and wonder of the country and the joy of teaching students years behind grade level with tools no more sophisticated than chalk and stones, despite such problems as contracting typhoid.

It was not encouraging.

I am neither that cheery nor that upbeat and I have serious doubts about surviving in a place where that kind of attitude might be required.

So I began to take stock of myself and my expectations—which consequently meant I couldn’t sleep. Which is also why I’m up writing at this hour.

I don’t expect to have a particularly good year. It might be wonderful. It might not be. I don’t know about that part. But I expect it to be difficult, exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming. And then I realized I expect that because all of my life has been difficult, exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming. Same experience, different country.

To be specific, I expect I will be horribly, miserably cold. Feeling cold will trigger intense, physical and emotional memories of the freezer. I will feel depressed and hopeless a lot while still needing to teach and interact with others as a professional six days a week.

I will fall sick—at least as often as usual, very likely more often. And being sick will remind me of other things that have happened to me that made me ache all over. So I’ll have to deal with that, while also having no doctor to consult about whether and what medication to take: in other words, I’ll need to make important health decisions while thinking maybe I’d be better off dead.

This is all part of my new approach to life: life has been difficult for me, it is difficult, it will be difficult.


Sometimes I don’t like this straight grappling with reality. Sometimes cheery, upbeat and avoidant seems like a lot more fun—or at least less torturous—and I feel like going back to the old mindset again of minimizing, denying, or trying to solve every potential problem I anticipate.

But there are only so many thermals you can fit in a suitcase and there is only so much that over-the-counter painkillers can do for you. These are problems I can’t solve. Cold was triggering to me the last time I really felt it. There isn’t any particular reason I shouldn’t expect cold to be triggering to me next week when I arrive in Country X. When I came down with a bit of an achy, stuffy cold last week, I was reminded of things I didn’t want to be reminded of. I did feel despair. It was difficult to motivate myself to do what I needed to do to prepare for the next move. I can probably expect that to happen again too.

This will be a difficult year for me. Most years are.

Just regulating

Fortunately, I have not taken it this far
Fortunately, I have not taken it this far

I’m having one of those days.

Last night, I had an on-line meeting to attend for the Country X job, but since this is a developing nation and nothing ever works when you really want it to, I was never really able to access the meeting. And then it was over. Naturally, at that point, I was able to login and access the broadband network I am using without any problem. That’s just how things go.

Then I tripped over a pipe on my walk this morning. Breakfast was cold. The puppy who lives across the street has suddenly taken it into his head to start tearing my clothes (and succeeded). So now I need to mend my clothes.

I’m annoyed with all of that. I’m annoyed with myself. Why does it take me so long to get ready in the mornings? What is it with my compulsion to wear things that take time to locate and put on, like necklaces and bangles, eye make-up, even bindi? Can’t I just wash and go? But, no, I have to do all these annoying “lady things” as Nandhini calls them.

And I’m tired, because I persist in waking up at 5:30 in the morning for no discernible reason, but the meeting that I couldn’t attend kept me up until 11.

So I don’t even have my usual patience with life.

Then I realized it’s Halloween. The worst day ever invented.

Photo credit: Prashant Pardeshi
Photo credit: Prashant Pardeshi

There are few reminders of it here. There’s a party shop on the corner that has orange cobwebs and masks hanging in the window. Given that Diwali is Sunday, and that is the biggest party around, I’m not sure why they are bothering. But maybe they feel the Diwali market is already saturated, and it’s old-hat anyway, and it’s time to borrow a different holiday.

And there are also references to Halloween on here and in the Facebook updates from my friends. So I can’t entirely forget.

That’s when I remember the somatic marker hypothesis and the ventromedial cortex, and I can tell you I’m nothing less than relieved.

“The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a repository of dispositionally recorded linkages between factual knowledge and bioregulatory states. Structures in ventromedial prefrontal cortex provide the substrate for learning an association between certain classes of complex situation, on the one hand, and the type of bioregulatory state (including emotional state) usually associated with that class of situation in past individual experience.”  Bechara, et al. Emotion, decision making and the orbitofrontal cortex.

This is nothing more complicated than an association between a certain class of complex situation and a bioregulatory state. When I was abused on Halloween, and I was abused especially severely on that occasion, I was angry. So, given that it is Halloween again, I also feel angry.

At some point, this would have been a kind of a time-saver, like knowing your times tables by heart so that you don’t have to add 8 9 times in order to get 72—you just know that’s what it is. It would have allowed me to skip the step of assessing every Halloween anew–I would have just known. Anger was the appropriate response last Halloween. it probably is the appropriate response to this one as well.

So, I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to look deeply into myself to determine what I’m really angry about. I don’t need to try to work through anything. I do know what this is about, what I have felt and thought in the past about this, and what I think and feel now.

I just need to regulate.

Outies, Cats, Depression

I have borrowed this image from an entire blog devoted to the outie bellybutton. I urge you to click on the image and explore that.
I have borrowed this image from an entire blog devoted to the outie bellybutton. I urge you to click on the image and explore that.

I haven’t felt well for most of the last week. Apparently, all those trips to various doctors I made gave me plenty of opportunities to find a nasty cold to catch. I still feel pretty lousy, in fact.

The upside to this is that, while I’ve avoided doing anything more strenuous than watching the body count mount in Midsomer Murders, I’ve had plenty of time to examine my navel and think deep thoughts.

Mine is an outie, incidentally. But it’s much less outie than it used to be. It’s striving to conform, apparently, to modern beauty ideas, and trying to turn concave. Give it another 10 years and it might.

But this is the deep thought.

It has to do with what is essentially “wrong” with me–“wrong” in the sense that it makes me very unhappy. Wrong in the sense that I don’t like it and I want it to change.

I dampen my experience of enjoyment. At some times, I do this more than others, at other times less, but it’s an ongoing theme in my life. Because of it, I was pretty deeply depressed for a couple of years. There are other implications also. (How do you even know what you like or who you are if you do that?)

It’s a problem.

After five days of navel gazing I know more than just the fact that my outie has been working at going underground. I know why I do that.

Remember the cat horrors? I loved cats as a kid.

Modern children no longer need to go outside to turn over rocks. There is a game for that now.
Modern children no longer need to go outside to turn over rocks. There is a game for that now.

Actually, I loved pretty much anything that breathed.  I had a regular habit of lifting rocks and stepping stones in the back yard. I just wanted to see what was living under them. I kept snails and pill bugs in boxes and buckets with leaves and bits of soil. And I gently carried bees out of classrooms and bedrooms with my bare hands, trapped spiders under cups so that they could find new homes outdoors–away from tromping feet. I remember the tickle of grasshopper feet on my hands. I wasn’t particular about the life forms I spent time with.

But cats may have been a favorite.

The problem with liking something around a psychopath is that it becomes a way to hurt you. And if the psychopath can harm what you love in order to cause you pain all the better.

And he could. Quite easily.

Once you understand that dynamic, it’s hard not to blame yourself for your part in it–for letting yourself be someone who can be hurt in that way. Especially if you are four, and still trying to work these things out.

And you also might overgeneralize–as I did–so that you don’t just suppress your pleasure in things that can be harmed, but your pleasure in everything.