Continuity

Maybe this is where I am.

I keep wondering what will help with this. Is what I have been doing helping? What have I been doing anyway? Mostly, I have been applying less judgment to what I think and feel and allowing it to be.

I keep thinking about Mr. Roger’s testimony that made the rounds of social media: Feelings are mentionable and manageable. That was his big goal. In the private space of my own mind, everything is mentionable and manageable. That’s the idea. Things feel worse when they cannot be mentioned and I don’t try to manage them if I don’t feel I can mention them. Instead, I fight internally over it, which can lead to an intensification of whatever is going on, as though I am trying to shout myself into hearing. Or to shut down and not understanding my own experience. That can happen too.

I was thinking about C, because there is a holiday coming up. I was thinking about other holidays, and missing the times I saw her on those holidays. I thought about the end of her eighth grade, which is when I started giving her money on holidays. Someone kind of told me that’s what people do with kids. I hadn’t thought about it. I’m kind of stupid that way. So I found her and she was with her friends talking about how many snacks they could buy with the money they had.

So I gave her money. I think I was planning to anyway, but the timing of it was really like they didn’t have enough to buy what they wanted. And I was there, on hand, to treat them.

I am writing this, and I keep turning away from it. It’s interesting to watch myself try to cope with what is clearly pain. I got through three sentences in half an hour.

Anyway, I gave her money and I had to fight with her over it. I mean, physically fight to give it to her, which is not totally unheard of in Country X. It’s not really that unusual. If someone is really polite, you basically have to wrestle the cup out of their hand so that you can pour them a cup of tea. But in kids it’s kind of unusual to go to those lengths.

This is what holidays were like at some point in the past. I was thinking about that, and missing those times and I thought really it will never be quite like that again. Things change. It looks good for going back to Country X. It doesn’t necessarily look good for going back to Y-town, nor does it necessarily look great for C to continue in her school there next year. Her marks improved in 9th grade, but they need to improve by a lot to make it into 11th grade. So whatever happens next year, it is likely to be different than what it was.

And I thought that is kind of the difference between objects and living creatures. Objects are more or less static, but we know human beings through interactions which are different each time.

There is something about abuse and neglect that makes people discontinuous. I think you can’t really tell that this is the same person you are dealing with, even if the interaction is different. It’s like you don’t know who you will get. You can’t create attunement, because you can’t figure out the next move.

It made me think too I need to be able to feel the child who felt worthless was still me, and that actually means I need to feel the worthlessness. I need to experience it inside my body just as it felt to me then, so that I can know now that was me. This person now and that person then are the same person. And this really means it needs for it to be safe for me to feel that sense of worthlessness and everything that goes with it: the sorrow and the shame and maybe even anger. So that I know that was me. It isn’t an intrusion of foreign thoughts and feelings. That’s me.

In order for that to happen, I need to not have any judgment about it. It needs to not be out of bounds for me to have negative feelings, although I can’t allow myself to drown in them either. I need to regulate those feelings, because they are intense. And I also have to have a lot of self control, so that I don’t act on feelings that are very intense.

But that hurt child who wasn’t cared for or valued or wanted by my parents and had no one to express those feelings to or get any comfort from, that was me.

 

Resolving the cognitive dissonance

Well, I don’t know what to do.

It’s Saturday at last. Hurrah! I have some free time. That’s the great part.

I’m also kind of spinning out–very intense emotions or shutting down emotionally. And I don’t feel confident I know what helps, or what will make a difference for me. I don’t even really know what might be setting it off. Lots of feelings of worthlessness. What of the things I actually do when this happens help me? And why exactly are these feelings coming up so strongly now?

It suddenly crosses my mind—and maybe this is a helpful thought—that it has to do with paired experiences, opposite impressions. My mind is trying to sort out—rather than compartmentalize—cognitive dissonance.

I started teaching on Tuesday, and it turns out I have inherited a teaching load of students who have been repeatedly abandoned by temporary teachers. They had a permanent teacher take maternity leave after winter vacation, and then a gap filled by a substitute for a few weeks before a long-term replacement could be hired, and then a long-term replacement who left for a permanent position, and then another gap filled by yet another substitute. So, there are trust issues. And discipline issues.

I just watched the class for most of Tuesday while the previous sub taught, and on Wednesday I came at the kids pretty hard with basically the new regime. Which is basically that we are a class. When someone is talking, everyone is quiet and listens, because we don’t talk just to kill the silence. People talk to be heard. I gave them assigned seats. I made them sit in them. I put them in groups and made them talk to each other in very structured ways. I made it clear that there was a strong leader in the room, and I also think I made it clear I care about them. They did not like it.

I noticed who had the hardest time with the transition, the kids who didn’t seem to feel safe and seemed to find it difficult to enter the room or look at me, and I took extra time with them and worked on those relationships the most. I have a kid who has been identified as emotionally disturbed. He has an IEP. To be honest, I have had kids with worse behaviour in my class before. But anyway in this district someone took the time to give him some kind of help. He made some kind of disturbance just as I was coming in the room, and the substitute threw him out. On my first full day of teaching, I think he walked out, if I remember right. The next day, I gave him standards for something I can’t remember anymore. (I am sure I ought to be documenting all of this better.) I gave him the sentence, “I am a positive member of the class and my team.” He left out the word positive.

I am pretty sure it’s an attachment disorder, and the departure of a familiar district substitute reminded him of times when other people have left and he has not been safe. He made a disturbance to get the attention of the substitute so that he could be reminded that the substitute was there and watching him to make sure he was safe, and the substitute responded by rejecting him. When I began to teach, he felt unsafe and wanted control, and then he felt angry at having to surrender control. The first reaction to beginning to feel attachment can sometimes be anger, and what I saw this week from him was a lot of anger. And yet I think it probably also felt good to him to see that someone else was capable of asserting control and could maybe help him control his behaviour.

On Friday, he stayed in his seat and he mostly participated appropriately, despite doing a lot to disrupt the class. He is in my second period class, and in fourth period, he came back. Probably, because he had begun to experience feelings of attachment and he wanted to check whether I was still there.

He asked if he could stay in the class and I told him he had already sat through one period of torture with me. I don’t think he wanted another hour of it. So I protected his pride and did not directly reject him. I came to the door and asked him something—how is he or something—and offered my hand to shake or give a high five. He couldn’t quite touch it, but he made the motion of it.

My goal with him is to attune to him enough that he feels an attachment, so that there is a reason for him to start trying to control his behaviour. In the past, there has been no reason to—no one seemed to care about him, why should he care about someone else? Why take in someone’s perspective if they can’t take in yours?

But getting back to my feelings today, I have been acting all week like I matter. I have been setting a lot of boundaries very assertively. I was very, very firm about a lot of things. And I think I have also put out my care and concern for the students, which I think translates into an equation for me that everyone matters and can be where they are. The ED kid can be where he is, and I can be where I am, and we are all just going to try our best. And all week I acted like that. I spoke like that. I told them we are going to be a disciplined class, because then it becomes clearer what is happening and what is expected and those clear expectations allow everyone be successful, and by Friday, when most of them stopped fighting the change, they began to see that. They began to see they had (I hope) a strong leader who cared about them as individuals.

A lot of times in school, I think students see strong leaders who don’t really respond to students and are merely imposing their own will because they can. I think they began to see a strong leader who was balancing the needs of 30 or 35 different people.

If they matter, I matter, don’t I?

I guess I am just working it out.

Special

I don’t know what happened.

Things were kind of going along. I did the laundry, wrote a letter to C, wrote in my journal (managed to sit with difficult feelings…yay me), had lunch, changed my clothes in preparation to go out.

Wham. I am in some kind of emotional hellhole, where I just feel despair. I can switch it off. I catch myself doing that. It’s not what I want to do unless life demands it.

So.

I don’t really know how to proceed. But there has been something on my mind and probably I haven’t fully had time to process, and maybe that’s it. I was chatting with C’s aunt, who is 22 and I am sure also has disordered attachment. Anyway, C is pretty close to her, but I think at times finds her intrusive and not responsive to C’s needs for autonomy and to be able to set boundaries.

We were talking about C’s phone, because C did not bring it with her to school. She left it with her cousin in her village, because she didn’t want to be distracted at school. Her aunt misses her, so I said that. I said C is trying to be serious and concentrate on school, otherwise she would have brought her phone. She loves that phone.

Now, I am the one who bought her that phone. IT Ma’am bought her a phone last year—it was quite a nice, but used. It has not really lasted well—most of that is C’s fault. She had a temper tantrum back in May and cracked the LCD, which began to leak black fluid across the screen. Her friend dropped it, and the buttons on the side fell off. She asked me for a new one, and I agreed, because although she deserved to have a phone in shitty condition for being careless, it was just so sad to look at it. Anyway, she had suffered through the black streaks for 6 months by then.

Anyway, I hadn’t really thought this being from me. She wanted a phone. I bought one.

Her aunt said, “The things you give are her special things and her belongings.”

It’s not entirely true—she loans out and loses a lot of things I give her. But I do think when I get it right and I do find something she really does value it, that it becomes a symbol for her of being valued enough to be given something special by a person she, in turn, values.

In a neglectful family, this doesn’t really happen, because everyone is essentially competing for scarce resources. You might get nice things, but it isn’t an expression of mutual regard for one another. It’s hard to take that in. She values those special things that I give her, because she values me. She values that sense of communion with me, that comes from being thought about with regard and then thinking about the person who has regard for you.

So I have been mulling that.

Unstable identity

This is just a small thought. My mind is jumbled up today—lots going on up there, and this little thought kind of dropped down out of the pinball machine.

I think we don’t realize that our identities are joint constructions made of our social roles, histories, preferences, and tastes that we mostly don’t examine. It’s just “me.” If being capable and assertive got you attention and value in your family, then that might become a part of who you are. It was something you could do, something supported by the people closest to you, and you might never think about that being a part of your role in your family, especially if your family is not wildly dysfunctional and nothing about being capable and assertive begs examination. Identity is so much an agreement between how you feel you are and how other people think you are or allow you to be.

There are a lot of things that accumulate as a part of ourselves that we just don’t think about if they are coherent and don’t cause any problems. Over years, bits of identity get added on or adjusted—our identities evolve through our affiliations and experience.

However, if you don’t have stable objects, those roles and tastes and things that make you feel you belong aren’t stable either. You might suddenly take on the persona of a motorcycle gang member, because briefly there is some sense of belonging with that group, and there is no homebase to anchor it into anything—so that it isn’t a gradual evolution of self. It’s jumping around.

I don’t know if that is coming across clearly. I am just saying lacking a clear sense of “I” has to do with not having an internalized “other” who constructs that “I” with you, even when they are not physically present with you, but having many different “others” of the same importance who might have very different views from one another.

Scanning

So I have a job. Maybe starting Monday. It feels very abrupt. Yesterday, I was still shuffling around metaphorically in a kind of mental bathrobe and slippers, and now I need to hit the ground running somehow.

It feels very scary.

I was at the district office filling out paperwork, and I began to realize that the woman explaining things to me was talking faster than I could process anything. My working memory really is jacked up, and in these situations I am trying to cover that. I am not giving feedback to the speaker about what I honestly understand. I am giving them a response I think they expect. So I nod at the points where I note that understanding is expected. I am not nodding at the points where I do understand. I am processing the information and processing the response that seems to be expected of me. Actually processing my own experience of understanding is something I do as and when I get the attentional bits left over to do that. Which might not be a lot.

Wow.

I am middle-aged and I had no idea I have been doing that all my life. Whenever I am in a new situation, I am taking note of what response I am expected to provide to someone else as part of the data I need to process. And that circuit is taking a higher priority than anything else—a higher priority than actual learning, and certainly a higher priority than generating a response that provides authentic feedback to the speaker.

No wonder I just nod and hope that it all makes sense later when I look at the written instructions. I see giving instructions as someone wanting to be heard and attended to and I want to get that over with as quickly as possible.

Maybe my working memory is jammed up with that as much as it is slowed down by the thinner myelination which happens with chronic stress.

Anyway, I kind of get why new experiences are so stressful for me. I am scanning so hard for what is expected and in a new situation, that’s so much less clear.

 

In other good news

I also got an email from the NGO that works with the Ministry of Education in Country X to place foreign teachers.

The individual said they got my application and because I had taught there before, it didn’t seem necessary to go through the full interview process. She also asked where I had taught and if I wanted to go back there.

When I said yes, she replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”

J

Job

So I have a job. It’s kind of a miracle, in my view.

Or I managed to do just enough things right that the things I got wrong didn’t stick in anyone’s minds. That happens. We look for coherence, and things that don’t fit the pattern are sometimes forgotten about.

I went into the interview with my purse upside down. I gave one of the teachers a look when I noticed this, and he did not seem to think this was funny.

I talked too loud.

My mouth was dry and it made it sound to me like I was talking through a layer of spit.

Otherwise, I think I sounded great.

Intelligent, but a total fucking weirdo.

I looked the principal directly in the eye when I left and thanked her, actually the way I always try to look C directly in the eye when I leave so that I leave on a note of connection. I got a big smile out of the principal that looked really fake. I don’t know why I did that, but maybe it made a difference.

Maybe she’s as big a weirdo as I seemed to be.

Or maybe no one more qualified showed up, and they were in a tight spot.

Who knows? I think it’s a decent school. Generally, it has an acceptable reputation—not the chaos and violence and total incompetence of my last public school job. I am hoping it won’t be overwhelmingly difficult.

It’s a two-hour commute by train from where I am living.

I don’t know when it will start. I have paperwork to fill out tomorrow and they always have to wait for the fingerprints to come back, and that varies.

But I have something on the horizon.

Thoughts on vulnerability

I’ll start at the beginning of the thought.

I was thinking the pattern from childhood was really—the pattern I could find—was that it was wrong to need or be powerless or be vulnerable. You can think of this in a moral way: shame would be about that developing conscience being shaped from someone who isn’t quite there or in control of themselves. Or you can think of it in an instrumental way.

It comes from growing up in a world where being powerless meant you were hurt. As an adult, what can happen is that you learn to avoid vulnerability in any form. If you are vulnerable, someone will hurt you. The emotion involved in that is fear: I want a job, I feel afraid. I want to talk to C, I feel afraid. I want the bus to come, and I feel afraid. So I might learn to avoid feeling vulnerable and feeling afraid.

I might act superior to others. I might become focused on perfection. I might try to be rigidly self-reliant so that I never have to depend on anyone. I might deny my vulnerability by pretending I don’t need the things I need, and using others as objects. I might seek out relationships where the other person seems to have less power than me, and so I can get some of my attachment needs met without ever meeting someone on equal terms. I might seek out someone I perceive as being strong and able to protect me only to realize later that I am vulnerable in the company of this person.

That’s narcissism—sometimes. Or codependence. Or enmeshment. Depending.

None of these coping methods make you a very likeable person.

I was thinking about feeling vulnerable, and I felt a kind of internal rage attack inside, like I hate the vulnerable child I was.

Then I realized I hated being powerless. When no one around you takes care of you or cares or even seems to like you, it is terrible to be so needy and exposed. It is terrible to feel powerless like that.

In the past, I might have felt I had to deny those feelings and “correct” them. I would have felt I needed to see I am not powerless now and I am safe. But I am going back to this idea that when you can remember the past clearly, you can see clearly what is different about the present. That takes care of itself.

So I just acknowledged to myself how terrible it was to need protection and not get it. It is terrible to be starving for warmth and receive none. It was terrible to be that child who could neither care for myself nor protect myself with the people who were supposed to protect.

It was terrible. And it’s okay to know now how very terrible that was, because it is over. It is okay to feel those vulnerable, angry, sad, heartbroken feelings now because they have already happened.

All I might do now is see when I feel vulnerable and help my body feel safe at those times.

Patterns

I started to think today that what goes on in terms of the feelings inside—the trauma ones—is actually a cycle. It seems to be. At times, I am in only one bit of it. Or I flip through different parts of the cycle so quickly it doesn’t seem to be a cycle, but something more like a pinball banging around up there. But I think it may actually be about a sequence of events.

Fear – shame — deep, self-directed anger

There are other emotions that are related to trauma (despair, for example, loneliness).

But this one seems to be about a particular pattern of events, and it seems to be prompted by reaching out or by actual rejection following reaching out. It makes me suddenly think those emotions are about conscience. I was born with the capacity for the emotions which give rise to conscience: shame, regret, the desire for forgiveness and reconciliation.

I wasn’t born with a conscience though. We develop a conscience through interactions which teach us directly or indirectly what is acceptable behaviour within human relationships, and that is most often communicated to us via punishment and anger—whether that is a naughty chair or a disapproving look or a sigh of frustration or a wallop across the face. They tell us: mommy (or daddy) isn’t happy with what you did. And the motivation to conform to that set of behaviours comes from the rewards of a relationship.

Human beings search for patterns. Our brains do this automatically and instinctively. The formation of conscience is about finding patterns in what behaviours people get angry about. Anger is their emotional indication that a boundary has been crossed.

But what if the pattern is too complicated for a small child to find? What if there seems to be no pattern, or the pattern is untenable—things like it’s wrong to cry when you are hungry and haven’t been fed? A very well-known book about Borderline Personality Disorder is called Walking on Eggshells: it’s because there seems to be no pattern. Looking inside my mind, I can find the pattern. I know more and more often what is triggering me, but I wouldn’t have been able to find a pattern when I was 2.

The thing about childhood abuse is that it isn’t just about physical danger. It’s about the formation of conscience and learning to form relationships. But what if there is reliable way to form and maintain relationships?

There is all of this deep shame involved in memories of being abused. Mommy was mad at me. I did something wrong. What was it? What did I do wrong? What if there is no answer to that because my parents’ responses to their own trauma memories were beyond me to understand.

It goes back to this idea that I don’t need to change the past or my memories of it that surface now: I felt ashamed a lot. It isn’t that I was wrong to feel ashamed. I felt ashamed, because I was a healthy child developing a conscience, but I couldn’t understand what my parents were trying to teach me. They weren’t trying to teach me anything: they were just reacting to things they didn’t understand. It goes back to this idea that the past doesn’t need to be changed. It needs to be placed in context.

I was reading an article yesterday—it relates somewhat tangentially. It was about mice and sleep and the role of sleep in helping us remember. Mice were placed in a room and shocked one day and the next day released into a different room. The mice who were able to perform normal sleep functions, which presumably help us remember, did not respond fearfully to a new room, but mice whose normal brain functions during sleep were interrupted were afraid. The mice who could not remember the old room clearly did not know that the new room was safe.

Pain

Hi Support System,

How are all of you doing?

Thanks for still listening to me. It helps.

I bought more clothes yesterday. I had an interview and recognized I had a wardrobe fail. Maybe worked out okay (still waiting to hear—principal is under quarantine???)

I only recognized this as a trigger just now, almost 24 hours after the purchases were made. I was walking around downtown, indirectly meandering my way there, and feeling that dreadful feeling of crying baby that suggests to me now I want something I think maybe I can’t have, wondering what set it off. Well, maybe the anticipation of the attention on myself.

When I got to the shop I thought I’d buy it at, I found myself gravitating to the row of black of things. I had already decided I needed a black blazer, but this was the black shirts. One voice in my head was thinking something like, “I have to buy colours.”

And some other part of me said, “It’s okay to like black.”

I felt better. Like a lot better. Hugely better. A space opened up inside myself, it seemed. Trying things on, I looked in the mirror and I thought I actually looked nice. It wasn’t this painful thing where I had to look at someone I didn’t even quite recognize.

I think this matters.

On and off, I have felt suicidal today. Not always exactly the way you might think. Not that my life is hopeless. There is a kind of random feel to it, like I feel really bad, but I don’t actually know why.

I began to think so much of what has gone on with me inside is that emotions and memories of the past surface, and it has not been in the past been safe to feel them. It was like, “Try harder not to feel this.” Maybe that was a distortion, but that’s how I took things a lot of the time, whether that was intended or not.

I think a lot of the shame I feel is about that. It’s a shame about having PTSD and re-experiencing the past. Not based necessarily on blaming myself for it, although that’s the ground our minds run over when we feel ashamed, but just because it seemed to be disallowed. Just it is not allowed. Naturally, when something is not allowed and is happening anyway, we find someone to blame. But it isn’t about the blame, in the first place. It’s about the disallowance.

And I began to think also some part of me remembers being in so much pain it felt impossible to communicate that pain to someone else. There were no words for it, and expressing it through actions seemed the only way to do it.

I know how bad it was. Of course, it also actually felt that bad. Of course, it felt I could not survive one more horror.

Other parts of me had just never registered that. It was bad. It also felt bad, and part of this process is putting the felt sense of anguish together with the events and circumstances that were so anguishing. I can’t just “know” it felt bad in my head with no felt sensations to go with that. The felt sensations have been recorded. They are in my brain. I am learning what they are.

The complicating factor is how disallowed I have learned the pain is. It can be felt, and that makes it better.