Death anniversary

The 31st of October in 1986, Nata died.

I write this and wonder if that’s true. I also wonder if she existed. I wonder if what I think I remember are real things or if I have imagined them.

At 4 in the morning–which is when I normally get up, it’s not as shockingly intrusive as it sounds–I woke up feeling as though knives were carving up my chest.

I have learned this is what sadness feels like. I had not expected sadness to feel like knives, but it seems to. Actually, it may be loneliness. I missed Nata. I fell back to sleep, but still feel the same pain when I woke up to daylight. It waxes and wanes, but does not go away.

We have the school concert this weekend. I don’t really have anything to do at school. I am supposed to look after the girls, but they don’t need anything from me. I loaned one of them a safety pin. I also made sure no one stole the bottled water we had kept for the head of local government for about an hour. That was the extent of my usefulness. Other people speak in the regional language and I try to sort out what they are trying to do and can only work this out after they are well under way.

I miss C, because the time of the school concert was this intense experience for her, where she sort of came alive. It might have been because of me, or because she had a new boyfriend, or her parents were temporarily gone. I was consumed with worry, because they were gone and her boyfriend was in tenth grade and three years older than her, and I have been teaching boys for a long time, and pretty much boys in tenth grade date middle schoolers because they like the power trip and not much else.

So it was intense for me too, for different reasons.

At the show, a kindergartener seemed particularly happy to see me, so I talked to her for a while, and I was surprised to observe how little kids in Y-town can now speak English. I believe she may have been the kindergartener who came to my house, but I am so oddly distracted here that people are vague to me for a much longer time than they ought to be.

I let her sit in my lap, because Counter Xers have an entirely different sense of what it means to be in an audience and they don’t give a ripe fig whether the people behind them can see. If they want to see, they just stand on their chairs and God help you if you are seven and too short to see a thing. It’s been years since a child sat on my lap, and this was an interesting experience for me.

The thing is she sat there and I couldn’t help but think I sat on my father’s lap and he sexually abused me and I cannot fathom it. I really can’t. I don’t know how you imagine a seven-year-old as a sexual object, never mind the morality of it. I know, intellectually, it’s because you don’t see the seven-year-old. You see your own mind and assume that’s all that exists.

Then I came home, famished, having gone too school too early for dinner and gotten home well past my dinner time, and I chatted with C’s dad while I figured out what might be easy to throw together.

He said he missed me, which he says sometimes. I find it kind of disarming how unafraid he is to show a softer side of himself, like he doesn’t know men aren’t supposed to have one. Or maybe my idea of masculinity is 100 years behind.

Anyway, I said maybe I should call him. I was thinking he probably feels some kind of separation anxiety. C’s disorganized attachment comes from a family with disorganized attachment, I would guess, and probably no one has stable object relations. It’s possible I made the wrong choice in this situation.

We talked for a bit, and I think I was sort of overwhelmed with processing the evening and also the mechanics of life and I rather distractedly ended the call when dinner was just about ready.

We went back to chatting, and he said, “Did you hear me?”I had an idea he was still talking when I hung up the phone, but doubted my perception of this and anyway this is what Country Xers do. They are done talking so, click, they end the call. Goodbyes and hellos are not big things here. If you have something more to say, well that’s too bad, because they are done listening.

I did, however, feel like an asshole for hanging up on him, so I said sorry and asked him to repeat it. And I also called him back so we could have a do-over. I am not keen on being an asshole.

He said, I love you, which he has said before and I have written about on here and I don’t especially know what to make of. I said, “I love you, too.” Because I do care about him. I felt aware of his vulnerability, although he doesn’t seem to be.

We then had a chat about what this meant, probably mainly because I can’t grasp he means this in a romantic sense. Well, he does. I can’t actually connect those particular dots. Country X somehow makes me feel like a granny. It’s hard for me to understand that I have evidently not shown how I feel about myself to other people. Just because I feel like a granny does not, it appears, mean other people see me as a granny.

I was aware he had opened up to me and I couldn’t formulate any kind of coherent response. I told him I was speechless, which was true. I was aware that it’s probably possible to respond without hurting anyone too deeply, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to respond at all.

He is aware it evokes a sadness for me. He has said this before, that he feels he has hurt me when he shares his feelings with me. I didn’t respond to this well either. I think it’s ok to tell someone how you feel about them. Feelings are ok. People won’t always love you back, but there’s nothing wrong with telling someone you do. The sadness has nothing to do with him, and it only occurred to me later that this doesn’t mean he doesn’t see it.

The thing is Nata is fucking dead. She bled to death in my arms, and it’s hard to imagine how life just goes on. I have gone on, but in such a state that I didn’t entirely notice, but the rest of the world is not me, and it does not care. People fall in love, have affairs, give birth, keep their house clean or let it fall into disarray, eat, sleep, carry on with daily life.

C’s dad said he would ask me again in a week. I am, in a way, not surprised about this. I am a mess and it’s possible, unconsciously, my mess has invited other messes. When I might otherwise simply want to survive until after the day has passed, I have tests to mark, exam preparation to navigate, and an extra-marital affair to work out.

Oh, and Galay has a heart problem of some kind, and I don’t know the nature of the problem, because the doctors don’t tell people anything coherent unless you ask them yourself, and I am afraid he will die too.

True North

Some ideas have come together for me recently. They seem somewhat coherent, as though they aren’t missing too many pieces. When I have an interesting idea which resonates, but seems to be incomplete, I find I ought not to get too excited about it, as later I won’t buy into it any longer.

I’ll begin with something I read recently, which stuck in my mind: when the baby’s feelings are reflected back, but not marked (exaggerated so as to show the feelings are not one’s own), then feelings seem to be something “out there” rather than existing within the baby’s own body. So if the parent simply has affective empathy–the baby’s distress is felt by the parent, but not as they baby’s–then the baby’s feelings seem “real” but outside of the self.

Put that together with the idea that the parent is impulsive and unpredictable and I think I start to understand myself. If feelings and, indeed, all perceptions seem to be “out there,” then I might have ended up feeling anxious about the very nature of reality. There are times when I feel compulsively anxious about C in a way that I think is frightening for her if she realizes I feel that way, and I have been thinking this is because my working model of close relationships has been activated: “Okay, mom, how do I feel now? What is real now?” More importantly, “Who am I now?” C isn’t my own mother, but that’s the model of relationships I have: I don’t know what reality is–perception is something “out there” and it can change at any second.

When I imagine my childhood, I think this is half how children feel–“Mom, what’s happening? What do I do? How do I understand it?” But not that it can change at any second. That’s my mother’s impulsivity.

This is not flattering to me to talk about, but I think this is what happened. I think this is how my parents’ mental illnesses distorted my understanding of the world and myself.

My other thought has to do with my relationship to good feelings within myself. I am more and more convinced that my mother’s borderline personality, high levels of narcissism and anxious attachment led her to impulsively interfere with my pursuit of nearly all positive feelings–not necessarily because of anything to do with me, but because of her own internal sense-making: her inability to interact with other minds made everything refer to herself. So things like, “She isn’t happy like that when she is with me,” (and subsequent feelings of loss and guilt), led her to want me not to play or enjoy myself. Only, either that was clearly unacceptable or her mind was a soup, and she didn’t know that. She just wanted to find a way to stop me.

I think what normally happens in infancy and early childhood is you learn that yourself is a source of potential pleasure, because there are so many things you can do that feel good. I am amazed at my capacity to make my fingers wiggle and so I feel wonder and this feeling of wonder feels good. Then, later, as we are socialized into being considerate of others, we start to learn that maybe some things that feel good to us can’t be done, because they don’t feel good to other people. So I can’t take the toy out of your hand even though I like it, because then you cry. But I can play with my trucks….

Because of the foundation in infancy of the self being a source of good feelings, the socialization doesn’t result in a sense that one’s whole existence is bad: instead, the patterns are understood as undesirable behaviours. The self can remain “good.”

But if it’s everything or there is not any sense of a pattern to discouraged behaviours (because it depends on the vagaries of my mother’s moods), then the self feels “bad.”

Couple that with a lack of emotional “skin,” because the ability to mentalize has been stalled or regresses to psychic equivalence so that the thought, “I am bad,” seems to be real, and you are well set up for feeling one’s true being is rooted in negative feelings.

More than that, there is no way to independently restore one’s own sense of goodness or self-esteem: self-regulation is not possible, because the roads toward it have been cut off.

It leads to the grandiosity of narcissism: good feelings seem to be located outside of the self–feelings are somewhere “out there” and so good feelings must be gotten from others. One can only feel pleasure if other people have a sense of pleasure about you.

The whole construct helps me to understand C better, and the things about her that hurt or puzzle me: she, like me, is looking for a feeling of goodness outside herself. To be seen is to feel her own “badness,” so being close to someone in an authentic way is to risk having her “true” bad self (which is not true at all) discovered. She comes close and then wants to run away, but she runs toward superficial relationships or relationships with people she feels she can control so that she doesn’t need to risk losing those feelings of goodness.

This is all rather circular, as many things are confused or reversed–“true” and false, inside and outside, good and “bad.” What seems to be real is not real, and what seems unreal or hallucinatory may actually be real, what is outside the self is felt to be inside and the self appears to be outside.

In normal development, the child only sort of knows how other people see him most of the time, but he knows how it feels to do things. It’s only in adolescence that we develop the cognitive capacity to fully experience ourselves as social beings, who feel ourselves doing what we do as well as what other people think about what those behaviours mean or what we think they mean. It’s not something that happens overnight, but it’s not a continuous development either: there is a big jump in the early teen years that makes perspective-taking easier. Freud calls this the “observing” ego, but it’s our imagination of other people and how they see us.

For a child who has a parent with empathy failures, I think the “doing” self is compartmentalized from the “observing” self, so that some positive feelings can be obtained without activating the working model of the self, which is inevitably bad and evil.

I think this is the source of the sense of hunger in the kids: the Boy becomes someone who behaves as a kind of eating machine. He is his hunger, rather than someone who feels hungry. He has become mindless so that he can enjoy being, because the “other” is someone understood as desirous of wanting to steal his good feelings. Getting good feelings actually becomes a kind of contest, in which he has “won” over a malignant world. It’s a very sad and doomed way to be, and I hope it won’t always be like this for him.

I think I am one stepped removed from this, in which I don’t see good feelings as even being possible: I don’t feel a sense of injustice at being blocked from having them. I soldier on without many pleasures: life is very austere for me, and I often feel pleasure in life has quite literally died.

This is, of course, Nata’s and maybe other’s deaths also and my stalled grief. She gave me feelings of goodness and she is no more now. That source of goodness is now blocked and I don’t know how to get back to it. You can imagine someone in their celestial, perhaps angelic state, but it’s not the same as seeing your joy at seeing them reflected back at you as their joy at seeing you.

Grief is not an impulse you can release and cathect yourself out of having to feel again. It’s a process if figuring your life out again, of reshuffling the pieces so that the gaping hole they have left in it is not quite so big.

I don’t actually know where to go from here. The times my thoughts end up at Nata’s death, I often find myself at a mental standstill, as though I am still at the side of her body. Life carries on and yet it seems impossible that it will do so or even that it has for the last 30 odd years. Somehow, I am here. She is not coming back, and yet the sadness at recognizing this is so deep, I cannot fathom living with it. I have lived with it, because i have compartmentalized it. It’s not really a good way to live.

Some of it, I think, is self-centered, frozen from the child I was: my life has come to a standstill, how can it go on for everyone else?

C’s Dad and some other stuff

Psychic equivalence and pretend mode are ways of thinking that developmentally precede mentalization. They can be thought of as pre-mentalizing modes or pseudo-mentalization, because they appear to be mental state thinking, but are distorted.

Fonagy talks about them developing in place of mentalization in babies who don’t receive contingent, marked mirroring (marked means the expression of the mirrored emotion is marked in such a way as to indicate that it is the baby’s emotion and not the parent). If the emotions simply leak into the parent via affective empathy, but the parent is not aware that these emotions are the baby’s, or if the parent feels the same way about the situation as the baby does, then the emotion can seem to magically transport itself into the parent. This can lead to psychic equivalence: if I feel things to be this way, then they are this way.

Pretend mode means that thoughts and feelings are disconnected from reality. So this is the person who shows up to therapy, seems to be having all kinds of important insight, and goes on with life as though nothing has happened. Because actually nothing has happened. The thinking about mental states was decoupled from real life. I suspect this is also parts.

I had an especially difficult day yesterday. The kids, in the end, did go to football practice, and I did get some time alone. I spent some of it crying and struggling with various painful feelings. I do not know why this happened. I don’t know what my real source of pain is or if the thoughts going through my head at the times when I feel pain are actually the source or some tangent I have drifted into.

I struggled when I woke up this morning. I am having an intensely hard time with my relationship with C’s dad, since he opened up and shared with me that I feel like his wife. This is, I imagine, pretend mode. There is certainly a real feeling involved, but he has a wife and three children with her. Psychic equivalence would demand he leave her, because feelings are reality. Pretend mode says I have a feeling but I am not going to attempt to resolve the contradictions inherent in the situation.

But on my end, I am overwhelmed with pain that I can’t completely understand the cause of.

He has been my friend. When there is a problem with C, I can talk to him about it, and we help each other. I can tell he feels real warmth for me.

Something about the situation makes me realize that I need to wade through my experiences of loss so that I can have relationships without those losses causing me to shut down or avoid the pain they remind me of, but it seems impossible. It seems impossible to grapple with the pain I realize stand between me and other relationships.

This morning, I was thinking about this. I was thinking that I didn’t really understand that boundaries of what makes someone who they are–myself or others. I think I understood care for me as a personality trait, something particular to Nata, which was part of her being and not part of anyone else’s being. The loss of her felt total, because her existence was tied up with concern for me.

I think perhaps that’s how the loss of a parent feels: it’s the only relationship which is so unique that their loss feels the loss of that entire category of experiences.

I know there are complexities to my relationship with Nata, because we were sexually abused, and because we had a sexual relationship. It’s not as simple as “she felt like my mother,” only she did feel like my mother. That’s the most painful part of the loss, because that relationship can’t be recreated with someone else.

I have been very sad recently. I have noticed how they are not real smiles that I have on my face. I am hiding sadness most of the time. I didn’t get tea one day and someone told me, “Let the others drink tea,” and I replied, “It’s the only joy in life I have,” and I realized actually this is to some extent true. Much of life feels like drudgery interspersed with crisis. I began to think I need to consider having some kind of actual fun and not just homework and three meals a day and trying to make sure all three of us have clean clothes on and decent-looking nails.

Then C’s dad asked me why I didn’t get married and I realized, not for the first time, that the primary reason I haven’t had a successful long-term relationship is that the non-Nata sadness is so strong I can’t think clearly.

The thing is that I could enjoy life, but I don’t.

C’s dad reminded me once again that I have real losses that I need to grieve and I don’t know how.

I got a call from C today where she did what she usually does when an approach is looming and she didn’t make much sense, and I didn’t know what she actually wanted or needed from me. She was talking about coming here and it sounded to me like she won’t come. She didn’t say that, but she said she will come at her mother’s convenience. Her mother is not a responsible person. She waits for the mood to strike and the stars to align and then if they don’t, she feels it was not mean to be. Pro-active is not in her vocabulary. If C waits on her mother to get her shit together, she will be waiting a long time.

In the past, I have called her mother, and this has sometimes been what was needed. It didn’t make any difference. Her mother said she will send her when she damn well feels like it.

I should add that the tone is entirely my invention. She was nice about all of it. She said she will send C. I am almost certain she won’t.

The thing is whether she does or she doesn’t, I have to live with what I think. If I think she won’t send C, I have to live with that thought. I don’t know if this makes sense or not, but I cannot rail at the world for the thoughts I have in my head.

In the past, when I did not like my thoughts, I changed them. I decided I was being unreasonable based on the pleasantness of the thought. I am not suggesting I torture myself with negativity, but it doesn’t leave me free within my own mind.

Anyway, I had a series of very bleak thoughts at the idea of her not coming. C brings me happiness–effortlessly and without anything being done intentionally. Seeing her will bring me happiness. If she doesn’t come, then it’s like the tea–one of my few pleasures lost. I thought I have had an unfair life. This is a problem to take up with God. It’s a very heavy burden to place on a child. Tea can take that kind of pressure, but not a child.

I thought again, “I really need to talk about Nata.” She’s not the only source of my inner pain, but this inability to grieve her death is affecting every part of my life and every relationship. I think I could begin to tackle everything else if I could get a grip on that.

Maybe I just thought that, but it’s how it seems at the moment.



One of the bits of wisdom Diane Langberg mentions is how much grief is involved in complex trauma. Trauma creates a rift in your world: there is a distinct before and after in your life, because the shattering of your sense of meaning is so great that you must reconstruct it. And this happens repeatedly. She does not talk about the disruptions in ability to make meaning out of the world, but she does talk about the element of a before and after and about there being many of these.

I have been thinking about Nata’s death, and the before and after this created in my life. I have been meaning to write about this and not really known how. It’s so painful to think about at all.

It created such a disruption of my identity. I was thinking about that this morning, washing up in the kitchen–how I miss Y-town in part because I felt at home in my identity. I was the children’s teacher–the bazaar was full of my students and their siblings. I taught so many different grade levels in my 3 years there, that I had taught more than half of the students between grades 3 and 9. I had other connections with so many of them. And I was C’s mom. I was C’s mom and a teacher, and those identities were very clear. I ran into someone who hadn’t met C in a while, and they would ask me, “How is C?” I overheard conversations about her as soon as I entered the scene–not about the two of us, but just like my presence reminded people of her existence. In Y-town, I was a teacher and a mother and I wasn’t anyone’s love interest or anyone’s potential date. It was easy to be clear I don’t do that.

I have no real idea how I am seen here, but I know my presence lacks that clarity for other people. It’s not a tiny little town, where people are located through their relationships.

I know I feel that loss here, and now that life has slowed down considerably, I have more time to think about that and to try to adjust. I felt so real in Y-town in a way that I don’t here. There is an element of that being true North for me.

And, in fact, whenever I return to the US from South Asia, I feel a sense of suffocation, which I now realize is a feeling of loss and longing–it’s holding back tears. The thing I remember about India, and what kept me leaving the US in search of some other home, was that I felt I could breathe again.

I felt safe. I don’t know why this might be. I know some elements have to do with the cultures of the woman I will call Aisha, who may or may not have been my foster mother but was certainly of some importance to me, and also of the Russian girls, because those are all collective cultures compared to the independent West.

I don’t know about that part really. But I did think about this identity of mother which C tapped into. It was actually new for me. I am not saying it fit like a glove. I still struggle trying to figure out how to understand a teenager, how and whether to set boundaries, when to be understanding.

It just made me wonder if C tapped into something that was already there, and if her need for a mother curled around my loss of a child I had never resolved.

After Nata died, I had a miscarriage. I was 13 at the time. I don’t know whose child it was. I am sure that felt unknowable to me.

I have been thinking about stories I told myself in order to survive, which were not necessarily true. I have in the past thought that Nata died saving this baby. I had very explicit memories of this, but memory is a slippery thing, and our memories are distorted by our need to find explanations.

I know some things are true, because they resonate in a deep emotional way I can’t explain otherwise. I know Nata was real, because her existence keeps resonating. I know the pregnancy was real too. But there are other things I am really not sure about.

As survivors, we want to be believed, but I have to tell you my mind is so disorganized and incoherent, I can only ask you to bear with me for a while.

That said, I wonder now if I told myself Nata died for the sake of the baby in order to survive the loss: at least I have the baby. Then, of course, the baby died.

It might be I don’t know why Nata died, that it occurred suddenly and without warning, and I will never have any explanation for why it happened. I know, in her life, she did everything she could for me. Her loyalty might have led to her death. It is certainly possible, but I also wonder if it didn’t, and if I actually just don’t know.

To return to that earlier track, I wonder if this unresolved identity of being wife and mother played out with C. Who do you need me to be? I can be your daughter, if that’s what you need. The contract she assumes she must enter into….I’ll be who you want me to be. It would make her attentive to what I needed, even if I didn’t know what it was, and if she landed on it, then I could see what it was too. You see yourself better when someone else sees you. Maybe she saw me.

There are two parts of this. She’s not the child who didn’t live. She has her own life. In order to enter into C’s life, I have to accept the loss of the other child. As a childless person, I wasn’t confronted with the loss every day in the same way. Presence is somehow more confrontational than absence. Absence makes amnesia possible. Presence continually provides contrast you need to make sense.

It’s painful.

I also have to think of who I am now in a different way. Who am I as someone who went directly from childhood to something like old age? I mean, what other life stage involves widowhood?

It’s not to say that I didn’t try to be a teenager. I tried to date. I tried to fall in love. I even tried to marry someone. I know I couldn’t make a go of it.

I was trying to understand why C acts out with boys, so I was talking to my friend about it. What physical attraction feels like, what it feels like when someone pays you a lot of attention because they find you attractive.

I realized I don’t have any idea, because to have that kind of relationship, I have to confront the idea that bodies break. I can’t be physically involved with someone and not in some way try to understand that. I haven’t been able to really get past that.

It drowns out any sense that a new relationship might be exciting. It certainly moves it out of the range of being a pretty girl (which C is) who can flirt her way into getting attention.

I know in reality anyone with an attachment disorder faces grief any time they start up a new relationship, but I seem to be unable to escape that.

The point is my life ended up in fastforward. What do I now?

Something Sudden and Painless

deathI wish my parents would die.

I don’t want to kill them. I wish on them some other kind of death, not murder. Something sudden and painless–if there is such a thing. A car accident with death occurring on impact. A massive heart attack. Like that.

Grief for people who are actually dead seems so much less complicated. It leaves you with so many little luxuries.

We ritualize death, entomb it, preserve it. Not so much that we hang the portraits of corpses on our walls. But there is a church service, if you want one. You can even break down crying in the middle of one of those. No one would think a thing of it.

But when can you publicly acknowledge the pain of a parent who is there and yet not there? How do you mark the loss of something that never existed? There is never a moment you are allowed to mourn their loss, not in a way that might be seen. There is never a time when grief is simply accepted.

You grieve. But there isn’t a beginning to that grief. You can’t remember when it started. The first time you noticed other people had something you didn’t. When was that?

There is never a clear end.

I envy people their graves to go to, the clarity of having a specific place marking that loss. A grave means you can walk away from the loss for a time. You can return to it. And I’m sure we all carry our losses within us. But I wish for the realness of a grave, even if the clarity it provides is mostly illusion.

graveAnd there’s something else. When someone is dead you can begin to see them less clearly if you want to. You can forget what they were really like, play up their good qualities if you feel like it. Allow their flaws to soften. They aren’t here anymore. You can treat their memory however you want.

When someone is still alive, you can’t forget. You can’t gloss over who they were or what they have done, because they might do it still. If you not to, then to someone else.

You need to remember how dangerous they are still.

A Good Death

imagejpeg_3 (1) - CopyI took the cat to the vet on Friday. This was long overdue, but it was one of those things where I knew it wouldn’t be good news and I couldn’t really deal with it just then. So I put it off. Procrastination does have its place.

She’s old, and as will eventually happen for all of us one day, her body is beginning to run down.  Organs are beginning to fail. They have actually been shutting down for slowly for years. And it is now worse.

It doesn’t help that she’s a rather self-possessed animal. She sets boundaries well. And reinforces them. She has clearly taken a Cloud/Townsend workshop. Or maybe read a few books.

Consequently, we have an agreement, she and I: I do not attempt to poke needles into her, and she lets me keep both my hands. Our agreement may have taken a year or two off her life, but it has otherwise been a good agreement. I don’t intend to break it now.

But what this means is that, at this stage, there is no longer very much I can do either to prolong her life or to increase the quality of the time she has left.

The vet did suggest a special diet. As expected, she refuses to eat it. And I do, in fact, understand. If her time left here on this planet is going to be brief anyway, eating cardboard is probably not the way she wants to spend the last bit of it.

So, I am thinking very much about death these days. My job, I believe, is to give her a good death. A death where she does not suffer unnecessarily or unbearably and where she is not alone or very much afraid. A good death is a kind death, a compassionate death.

I’ve seen other kinds of death, and I suppose that’s why I’m thinking of it that way–my own near-death experiences that were not death, but only temporary loss of consciousness, and the violent, deliberate killing of animals in front of me or that I was forced to carry out.

That kind of death is about powerlessness–not just our powerlessness in the face of our physical vulnerability and mortality, but our powerlessness against a larger, malevolent creature. That kind of death is lonely, terrifying. That kind of death is entirely different.

For now, she is in her own way “fine.” A bit tired, a bit dehydrated, a bit constipated. But well enough to watch the traffic outside for a while or whatever it is that she looks at down there, well enough to chew on the grass for a while. But just as I procrastinated before, I am thinking ahead now.

I’m not so good with death or even with goodbyes. Taking it one piece at a time helps.