Abuse

Pretty much every morning, I feel bad. Not every morning, but many mornings. What I try to do at these times is to keep my mind working in a balanced way. The theory (my theory) is that the mind naturally seeks resolution and coherence and it will find them if allowed to do that, but stress creates problems in the integration of mental systems, so that emotions and cause and effect become disconnected. This makes resolution and coherence impossible. So I have been doing that for years in hopes that my mind will learn to work better, and I still feel shitty in the mornings.

This morning I felt terrible, and I tried to keep my mind working in a balanced way and I thought when this happens (mornings, I mean), I feel worthless. I feel like merely a body whose consciousness and intentionality does not matter. I imagined waking up as a child and wanting to reach out to the other people and it seemed that way–as though I could expect to be ignored.

Well, I don’t think my mother was particularly happy to see me in the mornings.

Anyway, I thought about actual abuse and how that felt. I had to do something at the sink, and the running faucet (which leaks) creates all kinds of stress for me. And I felt that–I felt that sense of being only a body without intentionality, and I thought that’s because when my mother abused me, I could no longer understand her state. She was expressing herself in her actions about as intensely as she could by nearly killing me, and I could not grasp what she was trying to communicate. A sense of anyone having any intentions was lost. Not because they didn’t exist, but because I couldn’t understand them.

And I thought she was pseudomentalizing at these times. She was trying to express to me her anger and frustration, but what she wanted to communicate had become uncoupled from the real world. She no longer recognized that expressing her frustration in that way was going to kill me. She wanted to express her desire to kill me without my actually dying.

Advertisements

Veronique

I want to tell you about Veronique.

Now, of course, it’s possible that wasn’t her name at all. I tend to make up names for people when I don’t know what they are. And when I was young if I didn’t like a name–when I thought it didn’t quite suit a person–then I made up a new one. Veronique may be entirely made up.

I went to high school with a Clive and a Virginie. Other people referred to them as Mark and Brandy. But I felt Clive and Virginie suited them better. And who knows? Maybe I was right. Maybe we have a name buried deep within ourselves that reflects who we really are and I was good at digging down and finding it.

But let’s call her Veronique, even though she may have been called Svetlana or Natalya or Nadja. Because I will never know her real name anyway. She might not remember it either.

There is an overlap between prostitution and pornography, although one is an illegal industry and the other is legal. Street prostitutes often participate in or create their own pornographic images as a part of their services. Women who act in pornographic films also work as prostitutes.
There is an overlap between prostitution and pornography, although one is an illegal industry and the other is legal. Street prostitutes often participate in or create their own pornographic images as a part of their services. Women who act in pornographic films also work as prostitutes.

Veronique was a porn actress. And before you call up images of a teenage Ashana mooning over full-cover spreads of a big-breasted woman with her legs wide open, let me explain that I was on camera right along with her.

I should probably also tell you I was 12 and 13. The braces were off, but I was definitely at that awful age when you are still very much a child, but all these weird things are happening to you. You’re oily and smell bad and can’t figure out that you need a shower every day, and your body has these odd new feelings. Skin cleanser ranks high in your list of priorities, or it should anyway. And it’s just generally pretty terrible.

I went to school and we talked about Shakespeare in English class and linear equations in math. I had crushes on girly-looking boys and thought a lot about dying. And on Saturdays I got it on with Veronique.

I don’t know what to call sex acts you are coerced into performing with another person in front of a camera. It is rape, but the rape is perpetrated by someone who does not need to touch you at all.

And although I was a young adolescent and Veronique was a grown woman, we were both being raped when we touched each other. It is both more and less horrifying than the perpetrator assaulting you directly himsef. The particular terror and degradation of being sexual with someone else in front of others because you have no other choice is very difficult to describe.

But I wanted to tell you about Veronique. She spoke about five words of English. She was, in fact, blonde and big-breasted. But the blonde could have come out of a bottle. I suppose her breasts were her own. And she had no escape. I’m not sure she cared much about that anymore. I’m not sure she cared about much of anything anymore. I’m not sure she felt there was any hope anymore.

Not everyone who acts in pornographic films is in that situation, but I’m quite certain that was the situation for her. Unless you are a pedophile, you don’t molest young girls on camera for the money. You don’t do it because it seems like a good time. You do it because you have to. Everyone has a line. That’s over the line.

I’ll tell you another little secret about sex trafficking. Women who are trafficked do not look sad, the way they do on the posters. They look however the director or the john wants them to.

A part of being a slave involves doing what your master wants you to do, and that can mean smiling, or looking seductive, or faking an orgasm. It can mean you say, “Put it there, big daddy,” or “Fuck me harder,” regardless of how you feel: which might really be disgusted or frightened or just plain bored. It might be tired and that you really wish you could sleep but you have to finish this scene or fill your quota for the night.

The slaves of my ancestors picked cotton and washed dishes. Modern slaves perform sex acts with a smile or in tears–whatever the john wants. Because only his feelings matter.

So mostly victims of sex trafficking look vacant. I mean, if you look carefully. Underneath the smile or the smirk or the ecstasy. They dissociate as much as they can. Dissociation is the only way out.

So Veronique smiled and looked seductive and faked orgasms and sometimes probably had real ones–whether or not she wanted to. And her five words of English were all words you might say during a very pleasurable sex act, even though this was not one. And she really wasn’t there. Not at all. Touching her was like touching a ghost.

I am again and again grateful that I am not her, and that I was not in a strange land with no one to help me and no one to turn to or trust. I am grateful that I had the chance to go to school and to college and when I left my captors I had no family for someone to threaten to kill. I am grateful that I had more choices than she had.

I am grateful also that she was a visible and urgent reminder of what would become of me if I did not get the hell out. That I would become a shell of a person who no longer cared about myself–and not much about anyone else. You just get through the day, because in the end, you don’t really have a choice, do you? There is no hope, but they don’t give you razor blades either. I am grateful to her for silently urging me to leave before I became what she was.

And I am sorry I could not help her. That we both did what we had to do. And what I had to do did not involve going back to save her. Just as what she had to do involved harming me.

What I really want to tell you about Veronique is this: She understood what was being done to me, and she did nothing to make it worse. Sometimes that’s the most you can do for anyone. It’s the most she could do for me.

It has been almost 3 decades since I last saw her.  She would be in her late 40s or early 50s now. I am quite sure she’s dead. Veronique, I have never forgotten you. I am sorry the rest of the world did.

The Freezer

images (6)I want to tell you about the freezer today.

The freezer was in the garage–one of those chest freezers people usually keep out in their garage for all that extra food they have and don’t need. That’s where we kept it–in the garage. My parents bought it off a neighbor, I think. I don’t recall when that happened–if I was 5 when the freezer came into our lives, or if I was as much as 10.

But the freezer was my father’s torture chamber.

I don’t remember why I ended up in the freezer–or if my father justified it in some way.

I’ll tell you what I do remember: the experience of suffocation, the fear, the lightheadedness and the pain in my hands mostly from the cold. I also remember the strategies I used to try to stay conscious and to minimize the pain.

It helps, for one, if you don’t cry or call out. It helps if you breathe slowly and shallowly and as little as possible. It helps if you breathe into something warm, so that the cold air doesn’t hurt so much in your lungs and so that that part of you–whatever it is, an arm perhaps–is just a little bit warmer from your breath.

And you hope that you won’t die this time. Or perhaps that you will.

My Monsters Don’t Live under the Bed

31a4EV9y6gL._SL500_SS500_One night, my dad raped me with scissors. I was a toddler. I think this is what led to being removed from his care, but I’m not sure. It could have been after something else horrific.

I don’t bring that up to be shocking, but to get it out of the way.

At a year or two, I understood that what he had done was wrong. I didn’t know that the other forms of sexual abuse he had subjected me to were wrong. They were confusing, disgusting, and weird. But they didn’t hurt (at least not very much), and they didn’t make me bleed. I was damaged by them, but didn’t understand the nature of the damage.

As we begin to develop a conscience, and a sense of right and wrong, we begin to see patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and to create lines and divisions in our mind about what is okay for people to do.

Making someone bleed was over the line for me. Especially if you don’t say you’re sorry after you do it.

And that’s when I knew I wasn’t living with a man, but a monster. I didn’t have a father, but a captor.

It is not something you ever un-know.

What is devastating about that memory for me is not just the horror of what happened, or the fear, or the pain, but the loss of it. I don’t remember what I felt for my father before that, but I can guess it was something more normal–that I felt some degree of attachment to him. But after that I did not feel anything for him but fear.

If you also grew up with horror, when did you know?

Lana: When We Abuse Ourselves

images (9)Adults abused as children typically have a voice within themselves that mimics the behavior of the perpetrators. Those abused so severely abused that they went on to develop Dissociative Identity Disorder usually have at least one alter within the system that functions as a tormentor and an oppressor.

This voice is typically referred to as a “negative introject.” It is the abusive behavior of the adult internalized by the child, in the same way a child internalizes the behaviors and attitudes of more positive figures. Getting rid of this voice is the subject of numerous articles, books, threads on self-help online groups and more. The negative introject is a problem. It goes on abusing us when no one else can.

I’m not sure a lot of the advice on how to get rid of really works. I suspect if it worked well there would be less of it. We wouldn’t go on searching for answers for so long.

And that makes me think we are wrong about some of the ways we understand the negative introject.

I have one, I should tell you. Her name is Lana. Many people refer to their inner abuser by a more descriptive name. Mine is named for a little girl I was especially fond of in preschool. I suppose we must have been friends, but I actually don’t remember her that well. I just have a general, vague sense of liking her.

Internalizing abusive behaviors and attitudes is a way of responding to our inner pain, just as addictions are, or meditation. It isn’t the best or the healthiest response, but it is a response. And, like other responses, it has a function. Addressing the negative introject successfully involves recognizing its function for us.

I’m not saying we want to be nasty to ourselves, we want to keep feeling bad, or that we want to maintain low self-esteem. But the negative introject does something other than those things that causes it to continue to seem worthwhile–worthwhile enough to hang onto.

On the one hand, bullying ourselves relieves us of the sense of powerlessness that comes from being a victim. Bullying is, after all, about power. And bullying ourselves momentarily puts us in charge. Although we may immediately afterwards shift into feeling ashamed and sorrowful, acting as our own victimizer places us momentarily in control of the pain we are in. Because of that, we find other ways to manage the sense of helplessness, the need to escape it diminishes. So that’s the good news.

More importantly perhaps, the negative introject can also serve to create an illusion of predictability in our lives. Just as we may attend church services, pray, and read our Bibles to please God, get to heaven, and avoid the fires of hell, we may belittle and criticize ourselves in order to please imaginary parents and avoid the abuse they heaped on us–even if consciously we know they can’t do that to us anymore. Still, the fear can linger long after reality has changed.

This happens partly because as human beings, we are wired to recognize patterns and form mental rules regarding them. The pattern with abusive parents very often involves shame and blame in addition to other kinds of harm. Consequently, we may take it upon ourselves to feel guilt or shame in hopes of heading off abuse: the thought is more or less, “If I’m good–and ‘good’ with abusive parents is very often ashamed, guilty, and remorseful for things the child hasn’t done and flaws he doesn’t have–then maybe nothing really bad will happen.”

So we shame ourselves. We tear down our self-images. Because an ashamed child with low self-esteem seemed to be the desired outcome of the abuse. Maybe if we can get straight to that, we can skip all that other stuff in between. You know, the hitting, the throwing, the terrifying raging. That kind of thing.

It isn’t different, really, than developing other kinds of compulsive behaviors and in that regard is similar to certain aspects of OCD. As David Sedaris wrote, if I lick the doorknob, perhaps disaster can be averted. And if I tear myself a new one mentally, perhaps I won’t be beaten, humiliated, or abandoned. In a sense, the negative introject is a superstition. Its function is to ward off an even worse fate. Soothing the oppressive voice of the negative introject involves managing anxiety and coping with the helplessness of trauma, so that we don’t need to resort to magical thinking or what is, in a sense, superstition.

But I think healing the negative introject also involves accepting that it is there. It is a part of us–maybe not our best part and hopefully not a permanent part–but it has served a purpose for us for many years. It has helped us to cope, even if it hasn’t done it very painlessly.

And it is okay that we are flawed individuals, that our experiences have led to scars on our souls, and that we don’t like everything about ourselves. We can be loved in spite of this. We can love ourselves in spite of this. Because love at its best is unconditional. We can love ourselves unconditionally as well.

I think of Lana as a really difficult child–you know, the kind that is unpleasant, critical, rigid, unable to have fun or to relate to most people, awkward, ugly, and just generally not very nice. She has low self-esteem and doesn’t like anyone else much either. I do with her what I do with other difficult kids; I just love her. And that seems to help.

You can try it if you want.

And on Guilt

Despair and guilt both have a particular meaning for me. Their meanings are fairly similar. So, for a second uplifting reading, you can check out On the Nature of Despair. They go together.

In the the course of the harm that was done to me, I was forced to harm others. In one particular case, a younger child. In another, a kitten. There were most likely others, but those are the ones that return to me as events that require understanding.

I wasn’t responsible for those acts, and yet I feel I am. I am unable to let go of feeling guilty about them.

It’s tempting, to focus on my distorted sense of responsibility and power, but I suspect those are distractions. Because, after a closer look, what I start to think is that I don’t feel I made the wrong choice within the context of the limited choices I had.

In both situations, I was very young–between 4 and 6. It’s possible I didn’t have the capacity to make choices. And yet I recall myself as someone making choices, and someone keenly aware of the consequences of my actions.

In the case of the child–let’s call him Billy–it seems to me I knew that harming him would expand for him the range of possible perpetrators, making everyone a possible source of fear in his life. If even a four-year-old will abuse you, then who is safe? And that’s a terrible thing.

But I also recall myself as someone who knew what would happen if I refused, and a part of that would be forcing Billy to harm me instead. And I saw myself as more capable of managing that horror better than Billy would be able to. It’s a terrible thing to begin to identify with perpetrators of terrible acts and to come to feel that you are as evil as they are.

In the case of the kitten, I knew that my father would continue to torture it and leave it for dead. Better that I simply kill it.

I could, I think, forgive myself if I was simply unable to do anything other than what I did. Children often simply do what they are told, regardless of how terrible the deed. But I feel that I chose, and that I chose the better of the horrific choices available to me. I don’t regret them. I am deeply saddened by them, but I don’t regret it.

Guilt merely reminds me that what I did was wrong. It reminds me that I still knew right from wrong, even if I never had the power to do what was right. Guilt isn’t my enemy, but a friend.

On the Nature of Despair

It seems to me we repeatedly return to feeling states, even when they are extremely uncomfortable for us, until we understand what those feelings mean to us. The more complex the meanings they have, the longer this process can take. It can take a long time, as well, when the feelings are too intense to tolerate long enough to explore its meaning fully.

One reason why Dialectical Behavior Therapy can be so helpful, especially for borderlines who have such intense feelings and so much difficulty tolerating them, is just that–because “distress tolerance” is a part of that package. And when we can successfully manage our difficult emotions, we can better construct meanings about our world that accurately incorporate our feelings.

I have been thinking about the meaning of my sense of despair, because that is one feeling state I continue to return to. It stems from an understanding of the world as a place that is unredeemably evil, full of horrors that cannot and should not be comprehended. And this isn’t to say that isn’t also full of goodness and wonder, but simply to say they co-exist and I find the evil difficult to live with.

My horror at the evil I have witnessed and been the victim of has tremendous meaning for me, because that is what sets me apart from the perpetrators. They were unmoved by the distress they were causing their victims and untroubled by the wrongness of their own actions.

Horror may make the world a difficult place for me to live in, but it make it easier to live with myself. This is important to me because I was forced to harm others in the course of my own abuse, so knowing where I fall in terms of good and evil and right and wrong is crucial to accepting myself. What distinguishes me from them is only partly our actions. It is much more how we feel about those actions.

The perpetrators did not feel any responsibility for the distress of their victims, nor did they experience any guilt. In contrast, my sense of guilt at having harmed others and having been complicit in the harm done to myself arises from what fundamentally separates me from them: a concern for the anguish of others and for my own anguish, an ability and willingness to take responsibility for my own actions and the outcomes of those actions, and an attendance to right and wrong.

To put it succinctly, it is my capacity for horror and for guilt that makes me someone that has value and worth in my own mind. While I may be horrified at the world, I do not have to be horrified at myself.

And although, in a real sense, I am not responsible for the actions I took that harmed others or myself, it is the fact that I can take responsibility that proves to me I am not one of them. I am muddled about power and causality, but I am not muddled about right and wrong, nor am I muddled about what it means to care.