Half-way

We are approaching the end of a school year. I was there since mid-February. Not quite 4 months. I’ve been meaning to look for a new gig, and have been exhausted, overwhelmed and sick instead.

It seems like the job in Country X I thought I pretty securely had for 2017 is nothing short of my imagination, which may or may not be the result of an anti-foreigner immigration policy. (Foreigners are coming and taking our jobs is not an exclusively American attitude, it turns out. Neither is “They are coming and destroying our culture.”)

It’s hurtful, because it’s a small country. The population of the entire country is less than the student population in the Los Angeles school district. When we departed, the assistant Prime Minister of Education sat down with us over dinner and warmly thanked us and hoped we would return. It ends up feeling personal because of the smallness. I feel betrayed in a way that LAUSD would never bother to even give the appearance of.

It also means I feel a lot less confident about being able to find a job in a private school than I had felt before. I intend to do it, but I may need to do it in spite of feeling less energy and hope about it.

There is something else going on aside from that. I started off wanting to say that it’s kind of a mid-point in the calendar year. One thing is ending and it’s time to begin some reassessment and to do some course correction. It’s a natural thing for a teacher to experience anyway. People on academic calendars typically reassess life in the way that the rest of the world attempts to on January 1st.

So that’s where I am at today. Re-assessing. Reflecting. I am also taking in some of where I am at psychologically. Who am I now? Bits of me I hadn’t understood before are becoming clearer.

Bed time

Bed time is hard. This has come up repeatedly, so whatever goes through my mind as I lie there waiting for sleep feeling pain I don’t think I can stand sometimes, I know that this has been going on for three years. I can’t say beyond that, but I can remember specifically back to this for three years. Sometimes it’s worse and sometimes it’s better and sometimes I don’t notice it at all–possibly because it’s not so bad that I can’t numb it out.

In other words, it’s the bed. It is not really anything I am lying there thinking about or wishing could fix it. Lying down in bed is painful. I get to do it every day. I get to do it when I have the fewest resources for dealing with emotional pain because the reason I lie there is that I am tired.

The other day, I just acknowledged this to myself. It’s going to be painful to lie in bed at night trying to sleep. It’s going to be like that most likely every night for a while, and I have to get through that and also sleep.

That’s how it is, and wishing it away will not help.

I don’t know why it is like that. I don’t know what about lying in bed triggers emotional pain. I have been thinking it’s infant neglect. It’s lying down because that is all babies can do, and having to be with a sense of loneliness much much longer than an infant can cope with.

I don’t know why that would linger on really.

Dr. Spock’s sleep training advice is pretty much that. Let them cry to the point of despair. Then they will stop crying and dissociate. People of my generation seem to have survived that. Maybe their mothers didn’t really have the heart to follow through on this, even if they talked about trying to get their babies to sleep through the night.

I did hear in a video about attachment that children with more responsive mothers before 18 months cried less and were more obedient as older toddlers. My sister and I must have been nightmares. Intense emotions, no regulation skills, no effective means of getting help with our regulation. My poor mother.

I think of all the times my mother spiraled into shame, “I’m a bad mother.” Yes, you have no idea how to do this. You have no clue how to be in the world or to help little people learn how to be. But the way to address that was never to shame you into knowing how. Shame, like fear, can be used to modulate someone’s behaviour. It’s aversive. But it doesn’t provide anyone with actual skills. I wish someone had known how to help my mother. She was in way over her head, in every regard.

Abuse

I’m exhausted. I got, I think, a pretty good night’s sleep, woke up early (because I do during the week), and went back to sleep for an hour-long nap around nine. And I am still tired.

I know it’s because a lot of things are clicking in. Connections are being made. My brain is doing a lot of good work.

There are added stresses, for sure, but I am making connections because of them. It’s not just the stress that is making me tired.

I am getting a real sense of how it felt to me to be abused–not merely a sense of how it looks to me as adult thinking about a child being abused, but how it really felt. How lonely it was, how frightened I felt, and how confusing it is when someone who must also care for you at times intentionally and deliberately wants to cause you pain. How much despair you feel to be in the care of people who provide very little real warmth or connection and when they do provide warmth, they aren’t trustworthy enough to take it in.

I am starting to understand the shame I felt in moments of abuse was there because they did that intentionally to hurt me. That is the nature of emotional abuse. You use your power to purposefully dysregulate someone else in order to hurt them when you are angry. You can frighten them–that is one possibility–but you can also shame them.

We do these things unconsciously in order to shape the behaviour of people around us, especially children, but an abusive parent does it to the point of torture, and does it with the intention not of sparking more considerate behaviour or greater self-control, but just to hurt the child–vindictively, for misdeeds the child cannot really understand.

After I put down the phone with the parent, I really began to think. The child is not doing well in my class because she isn’t doing her homework. She has been doing well on tests and quizzes, which means she is understanding the material I teach her, I would guess. But the piece that is missing is what needs to happen at home.

The parent is angry over her own failings as a parent, and lashing out at me. It’s pretty transparent that she is shifting her feelings of shame over her child’s poor performance onto me. Or trying to. She is dysregulated, and she is trying to dysregulate me as a punishment.

When you are three and your parent lashes out at you this way, you can’t connect those dots. It might not help much if you could. You don’t think, “My parent is trying to hurt me by making me feel ashamed because they are mad over things I can’t really understand and that might also have nothing to do with me.”

You feel ashamed and angry and confused, but you don’t know why.

It’s very grounding to be able to feel those things with the dots connected, and it’s also grounding to feel them with a sense of having some kind of internal anchor of worthiness. It doesn’t come and go depending on circumstance or the person I am interacting with at that moment. I had an awareness while talking to the difficult parent that this is easier for me to cope with because I have a sense of worth that comes from C.

 

It has been very humbling recently to realize that we are social beings, and it’s very difficult to construct an identity independently of other human beings. Our identities are group projects everyone around us contributes to. The more important someone is to us, the more they contribute. We have a lot of say in it too. But I can’t just hide in a cave and think good thoughts about myself–even mentally. I need relationships to have a self. If I want a stable self, I need to cultivate stable relationships.

I don’t need anyone to do my work for me, but I need positive regard. What has helped–among many things, but this is one of them–is that I do have C’s positive regard. Somehow, I know it is there. She has become a stable enough object in my mind that I know I have it. I know that when there are bumps and hiccups and miscommunications in our relationship, the positive regard remains.

I got there, not by trying to force positive regard out of her, which I think is something I have done in the past in adult relationships, but by working at being a good person to have a relationship with.

I think some of the idea that we should not depend on other people to give us a sense of worthiness comes from an unstated hopelessness about every being found worthy. How can I depend on someone to give me something I think is impossible? Or, conversely, I should insist on it. I should enter situations with the assumption that I will be found worthy and then be indignant if I happen not to be treated that way.

My idea is you do the best you can and allow people to choose whether to find you worthy or not. That’s trust–to be vulnerable in that way. When they don’t find you worthy, that’s going to hurt, and you need to just cope with that. You need to be nice to yourself, understand it hurts, and move forward. It turns out the burden of always protecting yourself from pain is worse.

That’s what I think anyway.

What verbal abuse feels like

So, I had a difficult parent conversation. The details might not be important. I spoke to her before going home, but the situation had been brewing all day. I was, I think, pleasant, calm and understanding.

She became verbally abusive, and I said something about not being comfortable about the level of disrespect for me as a professional, suggested an in-person meeting with the two of us plus my principal and got off the phone fairly soon after.

She’s fucking crazy. As was noted in her daughter’s record. Not that, obviously, but a previous meeting having been ended because it wasn’t moving towards resolution.

Later, I got to unpack some of the feelings I had kept under wraps speaking with her.

I knew, really, the issue for her was her daughter’s grade, as well as the idea that really the problematic element was the home-piece, because what is bringing down her grade is homework. I had a pretty good idea if the parent spoke to me that way, she speaks to her daughter in an even more demeaning way, and that what might have happened is she saw the grade, lay into the daughter, and the daughter quickly tried to get her mother to shift her attention to another enemy to defeat. So the shame and blame got shifted to me. Hurrah for shame and blame.

Anyway, I was thinking about this and thinking how it felt to be spoken to by someone trying to shame me–someone whose opinion doesn’t particularly matter to me, because I have my principal’s support, I’ve seen that this parent does this to other teachers, and I’m out of the school in 2 weeks anyway.

But I did have feelings. I could feel the shame the parent was trying to prompt as well as the rage. I thought, “That’s what verbal abuse feels like.” You feel overwhelmed by shame and confused, and it’s hard to process, because it’s hard to get your head around the idea this person is saying these bad things about me intentionally to hurt me–not necessarily because they are true, although they might be, but because they want to inflict a wound on me. Shame hurts, lack of connection hurts, and people invoke lack of understanding for why you might do something or be something or say something intentionally in order to punish you when they feel angry. Some people do, anyway.

If you spend your whole life avoiding feeling the shame that was intentionally called up in you in order to cause you pain, you never recognize situations of abuse. You never recognize, this person is doing this purposely in order to hurt me. And it’s likely to just keep happening.

I remember saying in couple’s therapy, “She’s making me feel….” whatever.

And the fact is it suggests I didn’t take responsibility for my own emotional states, and it’s entirely possible I didn’t. But there is this other element of, I imagine, my trying to articulate that this is purposeful. These are not positive intentions gone wrong. This is maliciousness, and I don’t know why someone would do that. I don’t understand abuse.

I do understand now it’s about a) power and b) anger. When we don’t feel safe, we want power–it makes us feel no one can hurt us.

There was no way in my young mind I could process that my parents were purposely making me feel ashamed in order to hurt me. I knew words hurt. I didn’t grasp they wanted to hurt me, nor did I grasp later in situations when I felt ashamed that I can’t process this because it involves the unspeakable memory of the hurt.

Going home

A reader brought up the idea that some issues are never dealt with because they cannot even be considered. I think that’s right. They can’t be considered because they are too upsetting for the family to manage, and it’s not just the serious stuff that shocks average people. It was too upsetting for me to be hungry, too upsetting for me to be cold, too upsetting for me to need affection, too upsetting for me to need to be rocked or held. And so later situations where these things are happening again can’t be thought about either. No coherent plan can be constructed for handling them, because this cannot be known.

I am reminded of my shitty relationship. My ex would get angry and punish me with various kinds of nastiness that weren’t necessarily obvious. What was never discussed is that this was happening. My therapist would ask me: “So how do you take care of yourself?” Or she would encourage me to set a boundary. What was never discussed was my partner’s anger. Why was she angry? How do punishment and anger relate?

I was listening for what couldn’t be known, and what couldn’t be known were my partner’s emotions and her motives, and I complied. I need to not know why this is happening and how this starts and what it means, because the reason it is happening is that I am too soft, too weak, or too dependent. That’s what all of it means, doesn’t it? I am being hurt because I don’t take responsibility for my own emotions and look for comfort from other people. Or, I am being hurt because I don’t stop them from hurting me.

We never named the feelings being expressed through lashing out or that they were being triggered by issues within my partner that I might not have access to.

As an adult later, I think that continues to be at play. What cannot be known or considered or thought about? What can’t be felt? I haven’t known clearly how to respond to situations because my own feelings that tell me this is x kind of situation cannot be felt.

I got some bad news in the morning. Country X has said that foreign teachers could be hired as lead teachers. Okay, great. I got the criteria for selection for that position and I don’t think any of us who applied to teach in Country X qualify to be lead teachers. It’s okay, in one sense, because they might send me off to the back of beyond where I would have very little access to C anyway, but I had also looked forward to certain elements of that job. At the same time, there is this fear that they have set the criteria to be what they are because they really don’t want foreign teachers in Country X at all. (There is a legitimate youth unemployment problem, but this is partly about the national education system failing to prepare young people for the positions that need to be filled as well as a lack of work ethic.) Anyway, part of me fears with the new government that was voted in last year, there just won’t be any positions available to foreign teachers.

I got through the day, but barely.

I have been thinking that what couldn’t be named or thought about, for me, was how it felt not to be able to return “home.” I remember my therapist asking me what I got out of my shitty relationship, and assuming that there was some pay-off for me. I think she assumed that I had issues of dependency and felt I could not manage alone.

What I remember knowing at the time, but being unable to say, was that it gets to these moments where I start to think I need to leave and I lose my shit. I lose it so severely that I know what is going through my mind at those moments of feeling I need to leave is utterly irrational. So what was really happening for me was that needing to leave could never be approached rationally and thought through in a way that gave me some assurance it was a considered decision.

I have very serious traumas which involve leaving important people. I was removed from my birth family, and as a small child with the worst possible impression of how human beings are likely to behave, that was terrifying. What might happen to me? I was removed from loving foster parents and sent back to what felt like near-death experiences. I had to leave the side of someone important to me who was dead or dying.

None of that could ever be discussed, at any point in my life. It didn’t feel I could talk about later, simply because no one said, “How has it felt in the past in other situations to leave people or places that were important to you?” I don’t know that foster care would have surfaced as a memory at that point, but it might have opened the door on it. No one realized, I think, that I would be listening for what cannot be felt or known or thought, and whatever anyone says to me might be taken in that vein, simply because i grew up with that.

So I got this bad news about a little hiccup in my plan to return to a place and people who are important to me, and this is really the first time I can consider that within the context of other people and places I was not allowed to return to. I feel very sad and very hopeless and very frightened, and it’s the first time I have been able to have any conscious awareness of that sadness and hopeless and fear.

I understand–you might too–my reaction to, “That’s the past.” I am hearing it as your feelings in the present cannot be felt or known or thought about. You cannot talk about it what it is like to try to get through the day with all of that fear and hopelessness and sadness in your body. You can talk about it as though this happened to some “other me” who was small and whose experiences have little bearing on what it is like now to be big, but you can’t talk about it as someone whose life is integrated and who finds herself with feelings in the present that may have some bearing on the past.

All I Am

I thought of something this morning. Had a rough morning. I was running really late. I don’t teach first period, but I don’t come just as the bell rings most of the time. For teachers, there is usually some point before then that’s expected (and sometimes written explicitly into the contract). I don’t know when that is at my school—I’m just supposed to perform all of the duties of a “regular classroom teacher.” Anyway, I figure I’m expected to get there somewhat before the bell at 8:14. But I don’t always make it.

Today I think I got there at 8:30. Worst arrival time yet. Anyway, I didn’t get to school feeling especially proud of myself. I suppose that was bumping around in the back of my mind.

I was on the train. Suddenly I had a thought that children only know the feelings inside them. They don’t have a larger picture.

Let me back up.

So, emotional intensity affects your thinking. I haven’t read studies on this, but I can see it happening in my own mind. Emotional regulation affects cognitive errors, like confirmation bias. The more intensely I feel something, the more eagerly my brain will assemble confirming details and discard disconfirming ones. If I’m in a good shame-spiral, the number of examples of my wretchedness will be many and effortlessly accessed.

The parent is, typically, more regulated, their thinking is less affected by emotion, and able to hold in mind a larger picture. They remember, for example, the naughty little child did something cute an hour ago. The naughty little child won’t remember that. It doesn’t confirm the child’s momentary bias. It will be discarded.

In addition to helping the child to regulate, the parent has his larger picture of the child in mind, and this gives the child access to the picture—because the child’s mind is connected to the parent’s. But what if your parent is equally dysregulated? Well, then there is no larger picture—for either the parent or the child. It means in moments I felt shame as a child, the feeling of being a bad child was all I knew. I didn’t have that sense of a larger picture, that I feel bad at the moment, but that’s not all I am. I think that’s part of what is so painful about going back and processing memories of abuse. In the memories, whatever I felt was all I was. I don’t have access to a parent’s mind, assuring me that this is a momentary experience and the feeling is only part of me, only an experience I am visiting.

Compassion training

I read this article about a study on “compassion training.”

It made me feel better. When I am in a lot of distress, and I don’t know what to do, I feel helpless and it is easy for the distress to become overwhelming to me. If I feel it’s okay to direct acceptance, warmth and concern towards myself, I feel less powerless.

The good news, in my mind, is that I have basically infinite acceptance, warmth and concern to offer to anyone, myself included. As soon as I feel it’s okay to do that–and I don’t feel that something about my feelings is wrong or bad and I need to make them go away–things feel better.

I realize that’s what helps my students when they are struggling. It helps them dial things down. I need to set boundaries, but if I do whatever I need to do with an attitude of warmth and concern for them that is unfailing, it helps them to stabilize themselves in a lot of cases.

It’s the opposite of what I have kind of felt I ought to be doing, which is kind of set boundaries, take responsibility for your own problems, encourage other people to do the same.

I knew to “take care of myself” but the idea that this might involve feelings of warmth and concern didn’t dawn on me. And there it is. Studies have been done in it. It makes you feel better.

Bad weekend

I had a bad weekend. This was somewhat of a surprise to me. It never seems that way on Friday. I always leave school full of hope.

My friend is Abroad. She’s been Abroad for two weeks. She comes back tonight. I have been here with her daughter and her daughter’s now husband. They got married about a month ago, I guess. Just a simple, legal ceremony. A big wedding is planned for September.

I did not chat with C and didn’t call her. There is no one to call. I don’t quite understand this. I got a phone number off a friend of hers who calls me “sister” and it turned out to be a shop. She had nothing to say when I told her this.

Maybe I call all the time and they get annoyed. I have no idea.

C uses her boyfriend’s phone, but recently she hasn’t been. The friend I always used to call says her phone was confiscated by the matron.

My theory of impersonations was wrong. I really am chatting with C’s sister.

It throws me somehow that she seems to have warm and personal feelings for me. I never expected that. I don’t remember much of a sense of personal connection when she lived in Y-town. She ran off to play with her friends most of the time. I felt like a couch or a chair to her. Something that was there.

But I did try not to be the kind of asshole who only cares about one child in a family, and ignores the other children while fawning over the favoured one. I tried to interact with all four of the children like they were important human beings in their own right.

What I heard from others is that C was more neglected within the family. Sister has her ways of getting what she wants and needs that work for her, while C suffers silently.

I suspect that this more the dynamic in my family when we were younger. My sister was the people-pleaser and I had tantrums. To me, it seemed like my sister’s method worked better–at least she was liked and it seemed like she got more of what she wanted than I did. It felt like I had to fight for every scrap of warmth I got.

Maybe it didn’t work as well as I thought. The people-pleaser is never liked authentically. You end up feeling like a doll for people to play with and really unsure of who you even are.

So today I am grappling with this idea that all of the children in the family are being affected by a trauma I am not even sure of the nature of. Sister tells me she feels really alone, which I think is how C feels, although C doesn’t say so. Why would Sister feel alone if her feelings aren’t unheard and unseen just as C’s aren’t? It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, but it is.

It’s confusing to think about, because of course the family itself denies the nature of the trauma. Although I chat with C and C’s sister now and also C’s aunt, who lived with C until C was six or seven, people mostly pretend everything is fine and always has been. But they both seem so deprived. Both of them tell me they feel different from other people, and that their differences from others are not okay. Both C and her aunt seem to have these intense experiences of longing and loneliness that feel trauma-based to me. Where did it come from?

I don’t know.

But that’s not what made for a bad weekend. I just keep falling into these kind of holes of feeling terrible, feeling worthless, feeling that everything I do is wrong and basically no one will ever like me, what I am doing to get better is doomed and hopeless and the opposite of what I ought to be doing.

I am zeroing in on this idea that I have really intense separation distress. It’s so intense sometimes, it’s like insanity descending on me. I don’t actually know what one does about this. I have worked out that pushing through it, keeping up a stiff upper lip, and forcing oneself to go through the motions of “normal” activities doesn’t help.

I do think it all comes down to regulation.

Shyness

I have found that once I dial emotions down to something more like average, it’s easier to figure out what they are.

That might not be the best place to start.

What I mean is emotions that are very intense, for whatever reason, are really difficult to make sense of. Once I get to the point of being able to actually feel them–I mean as sensations–and not just observable thoughts or behaviours, I still find them hard to even recognize. Partly because they just feel like torture. When I can get them a little more regulated, they start to feel more recognizably like the emotions I know how to name: anger or sadness or whatever.

I got something to dial down today and that happened. I began to see it as a combination of loneliness and shyness. I could see how I might feel that. It was prompted by something in the present, but I could see how it connected to a very young feeling, an infant feeling, that related to how it was to be within my family. A family where I needed to appeal to my parents for help and yet they were as unpredictable as strangers. For sure that’s fear, but there is something slightly different about it than, say, how I might react to a snake or a lion. Something social. I don’t know why I think  that, but there is something about the clenching in my stomach, the thing that once it calms down begins to feel like butterflies that is more like giving a speech than it is like fleeing an attacker.

So there is a loneliness and a longing coupled with anxiety and trepidation about reaching out. I feel this when I think about any kind of contact with C that’s sort of unknown or uncertain: I want to buy her something and I don’t know if she’ll like it, I call and I don’t know who will answer. She was online yesterday, and I wonder if she’ll be online today.

One of the things I have been thinking is that we all have the same basic emotions. It might be in the context of a different situation or different in the level of intensity, but fear is fear, anger is anger. So the feelings I had as a child connect to how I feel now, because that’s all I have. It’s not as though I only felt anger below the age of 13, and now I have kind of outgrown it, like acne or wetting the bed. These emotions connect my experiences.

As social creatures, we have the same range of perceptions about how people might behave. Someone cares, someone is betraying me, someone wants to hurt me. People didn’t stop wanting to hurt me when I became an adult. They still do. It doesn’t happen as often, because I don’t have as many impulsive, dysregulated people as ongoing parts of my day who act out their aggressions on me, but my students, for example, get angry. They specifically do things to hurt me when they are angry sometimes. They may or may not be successful in that, but as a social being, I can perceive that. I can see, this person is intentionally trying to hurt me.

It’s not the past repeating, but there are only so many emotions we are wired to have, there are only so many ways of relating.

Going back to that pair of emotions–loneliness and shyness–it’s still sinking in that my childhood was like that. I lived with people who felt as unknown and unpredictable as strangers to me, and I depended on them for everything.

I had these odd experiences lately: C’s boyfriend chatting with me and pretending to be C last Sunday, and C pretending to be her sister. What struck me about it was how clear her voice is to me. She has these recognizable parts, and there is something the same about parts across different people. A different kid’s pouty toddler sounds a lot like C’s pouty toddler, but it still feels to me that there is some sort of essence to C that is consistent across parts.

When her boyfriend chatted with me, and I thought it was C, it was terribly disturbing. Where did she go? It was a frightening feeling. Later, of course, I realized, well, it wasn’t her. And when C impersonates her sister, the way she chats still sounds like C. Her sister sounds different. Even if I only feel sure of her identity when specifics start to surface.

I don’t think I had a sense of my parents as having a consistent voice across experiences. I don’t think I could “feel” them as being recognizably themselves. And I think that’s why I experienced shyness with them. They were people I couldn’t really know.

Beyond bad abusers

I was reading something yesterday I can’t find again. I’m sorry about this.

It mentioned that a mind alone actually has to work harder than someone surrounded by other people. Groups of people work as a system, everyone trying to keep the group’s emotions regulated to a level that suits the needs of the group. Many hands make lighter work.

So, if I am having intense and difficult emotions, that increases the regulatory burden on other people around me, as my emotions are in a sense shared out among the people around me. I’m starting to understand this without judgment, mainly because I am really starting to see for myself how difficult my emotions are to manage–so it makes more sense to me that other people would find them difficult also. They are fucking hard.

I had this simple idea once–many months ago–that people could be understood as bad abusers who hurt me and good innocents who would help me. I am not excusing abuse, and I have had some new thoughts on that too. But we are all just trying to regulate, and I am starting to grasp that my difficult emotions aren’t just difficult for me. I didn’t create them or ask for them, but that doesn’t make anything easier on anyone.

There are times when people would like for me to just stop introducing my difficult emotions into their mental worlds. People with difficulty managing their own emotions or for whom my difficult emotions prompts connections for them to their own difficult experiences are maybe the most likely to feel that way.

That increases the mental burden on me, though. If I am trying to regulate my emotions while also trying to conceal them from other people, it’s a lot of work.

If I am trying to regulate very difficult and intense emotions while also regulating feelings of loneliness or fear of attack for having emotions no one around me understands or can relate to, then it’s terribly difficult.

It’s just a lot of work.

Some of regulation has to do with kind of knowing what the prompt for it is in the real world–trigger has this very dense and negative connotation. I am using a more neutral word purposely. If you are hypervigilant and constantly responding as though things are threats that other people don’t see as threats–aren’t threats and they have no idea why you would see them as threats–then there is no connection to ease the sense of threat.

I have a student like that. He’s really reactive to every little thing. Loud noises. He’s constantly communicating a sense of being threatened–jumping around, a lot of sudden movements. I think if I respond to, “What was that?” in a calm and soothing way (“That was a helicopter. It’s okay.”) that does something different for him than if I communicate I can’t figure out why he’s so reactive (“It’s just a helicopter. Calm down.”) I know why a loud noise could be very startling to someone who is hyper-alert to threat. He doesn’t lose connection to me in revealing his startled state, and he gets help with regulation instead of added stress.

I was chatting with C this morning. It was unclear for a while who I was chatting with–she was using her sister’s account. It sounded like C. I assumed it was. Then after the chat was over, I saw her sister had posted a selfie during the chat which I hadn’t noticed.

The chat-er–whoever it was–wanted 2 shirts and a pair of shoes. When I noticed the selfie, I began to wonder who I had promised them to. They live on different sides of the country and don’t wear the same size clothes.

It seemed a quandary.

Later, I chatted with whoever was using C’s sister’s account. The conversation veered towards this idea of being seen. I suppose I veered it there. We talked about how it felt for C that I mostly listen. She chatters to her friends, and I listen. Even when I don’t understand, I still listen, and even when I have no idea what the topic is, I have an idea of the emotional content–who is happy, who is sad.

When I do this, people frequently think I am bored. C’s peers might tell C to talk to me. She’s ignoring me, and I must feel bad. But that isn’t the way I feel. I am entering into C’s world, and it’s interesting. We talked about this feeling good for C, that I sit there and listen and imagine how she is feeling, and that experience of having someone imagine your feelings feels good. You feel supported and you also feel real, that you exist and you matter.

I started to think what I have actually done for C that mattered–that was a lot of it. It’s hard to do from a distance, but maybe the memory of it helps.

She ended up telling me she feels really alone. I said when she feels that way she can send me a message or write a letter and give it to my friend to mail to me. I thought if you can imagine someone entering into your world even when that person is not there, you also imagine their regulation strategies. You start to have more ways to regulate yourself, because you have added someone else’s tools to your toolbox. That’s what eventually happens for us as we grow up, I think. Our parents’ regulatory strategies become permanently a part of us, because they have entered into our imaginations. We learn them, and our parents become a part of us.

I think I have been doing that. I have had two genuinely caring people in my life: Nata and my foster mother. A few years ago, I began to really lean on their memories to comfort myself in times of stress. What was hard about this was also confronting the loss. I am imagining them because they aren’t here anymore. I think the grieving was worth it.