Shedding the Load

movingI have been disposing of my possession slowly for about the last two years–since I began to consider the idea of relocating to a Country X or Y or Z some time in the not-so-distant future. I began with the things that have hung around in cupboards and drawers that I don’t like or use anymore.

With D-Day (Departure Day) less than a week away, the pace of this kind of possession-shedding has accelerated. I’ve shifted to disposing of objects I neither need in Country X, or Country Y (actually, India, the first stop–that doesn’t need to be a secret), nor within the next few weeks.

(And that I also don’t find so wonderful and charming just to own that I must simply keep them. Like the fossil I found in my classroom two years ago. I kept that. It’s in a box. You don’t just find fossils every day.)

And then it became things I would not need this week. So, the toaster is gone. I’ve given away the iron today along with the ironing board. I threw the spices out–most of them.

I still look around and think, “I have way too much stuff.”

Something that's been dead a long time is just a keeper.
Something that’s been dead a long time is just a keeper.

My baggage allowance to Country X is 20 kilos, plus a carry-on. Everything after that is about five dollars a pound. And needs to be pre-arranged.

I’d better really need it.

But as the time to leave has drawn closer, I find myself increasingly unable to cope with what needs to be done. I don’t feel anxious. I just feel like watching TV.

Star Trek Voyager has become my crack cocaine. It’s a problem.

Clearly, someone in my head has fallen back on denial. “I’m not really going anywhere,” it says. “It’s perfectly fine to watch TV all day. There are no bills to pay, no papers to sort and file, no decisions to make over what to take and what to continue to shed.”

It will be a hell of a shock to that voice when it finds itself at the airport a week from now, nearly all of my possessions in two pieces of luggage.

It’s scary.

I’m not particularly scared of Country Y. I’m not even very afraid of Country X. Yes, it will be a change. Yes, it’s remote. Yes, the challenges will be daily, unpredictable, and no doubt frustrating.

I’ve taught in a poor school district. I know all about that.

That is not the problem. The problem is the shedding process.

If you’ve just come on-board, (I’m thinking of moving metaphors these days–I’m sure you can understand why…) then you might have missed out on an important episode in my life. The LaLa and Lucey days, when I was taken into care.

There is nothing worse than losing the family dog. Except maybe losing the cat.
There is nothing worse than losing the family dog. Except maybe losing the cat.

Leaving them is far and away the worst disaster that has ever befallen me. It has left me with a lingering sense of exile, of being orphaned–as if I was taken not back to my home, but to a strange country.

And the thing is it left me with a sense that nothing is ever really mine. Parents can be taken from me. Toys can be discarded. Blankies can be stolen. Pets can disappear entirely. And my teddy bear can be yanked right out of my hands.

So as I’m shedding the objects I don’t need and in many cases don’t even want, I’m left with that same sense of everything being stripped away from me.

Nevermind that my girlfriend has already arranged to meet me at the airport. I don’t believe she’ll be there–even though she always is or if she isn’t she finds someone else who can. Nevermind that I will be held and cuddled and cooked for and loved by the person who means the most to me in the world. None of that is happening. Is it?


And This is How the Day Turned Out…

I wanted my teddy bear today. Photo credit: Eigene Aufnahme.
I wanted my teddy bear today. Photo credit: Eigene Aufnahme.

Today has been a great day.

No, nothing much got done. It was kind of a wash that way, actually.

I cried a lot.

The thing about moving–and probably especially about moving so far away–is that it reminds me of other moves and other losses. Most powerfully, it reminds me of one in particular, and that’s the removal from my foster home. It is still the most painful loss I’ve ever experienced, and memories of it remain layered with other meanings–the take-away messages from being wrenched out of the arms of people who loved me.

One of those messages is that I don’t count. I don’t matter. My needs and desires and preferences are not important. No one wants to hear what I have to say.  Certainly no one cares.

I am, quite simply, beside the point.

Because no one asked me what I wanted. If they did, they didn’t listen. My needs and desires and even my physical safety didn’t count.

So loss reminds me of hopelessness as well, a heavy, pressing sense of, “What’s the point?” Because there is no point. I don’t matter, my life doesn’t matter, and I can’t accomplish anything that has any value anyway. And that’s the second message of that memory to me: that nothing I do has any value or purpose. I might as well stay tucked up in bed for all the good I can accomplish.

I think working through trauma involves going back to those experiences, which includes going back to the feelings, and making sense out of them all over again–but that also involves knowing what the old sense was, and not just knowing in an intellectual, factual kind of way, but knowing intimately: this is the sense I made out of it, this is how that sense feels, this is what that sense is to me.

And it hurts. It’s like knitting needles in my stomach. Quite literally.

This ghost looks rather sad.
This ghost looks rather sad.

The third message that seems to come out of this experience for me is that my dad is omnipotent. He wanted me back and he did get me back, and he can do anything he decides to do. I have no one to turn to, no one to help me, and no one to protect me. I need to do whatever he says.

That sense of omnipotence–even omniscience–is terrifying. It is like really believing in ghosts and thinking you have one in your house–a hostile ghost, at that. It make me feel strangled and like I can’t speak–probably because he did strangle me after I returned. It’s something he liked to do. And I feel dizzy from that.

That feels awful as well. It makes the knitting needles move down into my lower abdomen, so that it hurts all the way from my stomach down to pelvis.

Knitting needles is what fear feels like. Dread is probably the better word–an inescapable fear. Not fight or flight but freeze.

So it’s time to make a new sense out of that. And some of the sense is literal: it is understanding that this is all part of a memory of being returned to my biological parents after being taken into care. And I didn’t make it up or imagine it. It wasn’t a dream–because if you are the only one in the family who seems to recall something, you tend to assume that’s what it is.

In other words, making a new sense out of it involves putting that sense of hopelessness together with a narrative memory of the event. I’ve been working at that for quite a long time–years, actually, but not all at once. It’s hard to handle that much despair all at one time.

And it also involves putting together the memory with the knitting needles.

I’ve been thinking about that today–how we work through the emotions related to trauma, because the emotions during the trauma itself are blunted. The old idea about this is that the emotion is there but suppressed because it’s too painful. And I don’t think that’s exactly it. I think it’s anaesthetized in a sense, through the same mechanism that physical pain is numbed. Because, after all, there really isn’t any difference in a neurological sense between actual, physical damage being done to our tissues and having our nerves send a pain signal to the brain as a result and having our nerves send a pain signal when there isn’t any damage to the tissues actually occurring.

Having our physical sensations blunted, because our brain is trying to help us deal with pain allows us to experience the physical sensations that go with emotion–so a tightening in the throat perhaps, nausea, burning in the stomach–but those sensations are felt less intensely. So we might know, for example, that we felt afraid or disgusted or sad–whatever we felt–but the emotion will feel “far away.”

And also, I would speculate, like it’s not really happening to us. Because that’s how we experience other people’s emotions: we understand other people’s emotions by recreating them within our bodies, but usually less intensely.  And so feeling our emotions, but in a blunted way, probably seems a lot like this is all really happening to someone else, and we are just watching it. So, we’re scared the way we might feel watching the same scene on TV, or we’re sad the way we might feel if our best friend told us it happened to her. It doesn’t feel like the way things normally feel when those things are happening to us.

Today, I was wondering how it is then that I remember the event both with that sense of blunted emotions that I would have had and as something happening to me very intensely, and it seems to me that that the sense of having blunted emotions is my memory of how it really felt at the time, but the other feeling is actually me re-creating the emotions in the present.

My body is responding physiologically in much the same way now as it did then, but minus the anaesthetic–so that what I am feeling now, knitting needles and all, is how it would have felt if my emotions hadn’t been blunted. Which does actually make it much easier to name and explain the emotions I’m having. When you only sort of half-feel things, it’s really difficult. It certainly doesn’t feel that all of this is real.

And understanding that it was real, it did happen, and I didn’t imagine the pain it caused me is an important part of making sense of it. Only half-feeling it and not being sure what those feelings really are–and not being sure it happened or even that it happened to me, while at the same time thinking life is hopeless because of it….

Well, that’s really just totally confusing.

So, I think in a way that’s the main thing.

Anyway, how was your day?

On Grief

No, I did not buy him a necktie this year.
No, I did not buy him a necktie this year.

With the coming and going of the parents’ days in May and June, I’m left with a few ideas bouncing around in my head.

I know that I don’t really understand what it is to have parents or to have ever had parents, despite a few good months with LaLa and Lucey. To a large extent, I am an orphan.

When people talk about their relationships with their parents, whether positive or negative or just plain difficult,  I understand what they are saying. But it is also like talking to someone from another country, with a completely different background, a completely different culture, a completely different set of experiences and expectations.

But I suspect I feel that partly because the grief is so intense I can’t even begin to approach it. I suspect that partly because my reaction to sensing genuine care and concern and love from another person was to cry. Daily. For weeks. Maybe months. Until I kind of got used to it, love hurt. Terribly.

graduationAlthough my parents were largely my abusers–not much actual nurturing went on–I understand that I lost an idea when I left their home and never came back. I lost the idea of parents. When you leave parents for good, you leave knowing that you are giving up on your only chance. It is not like leaving a marriage, where you can keep hoping for a second chance with someone else.

One of the things people talk about with parents is wanting their approval. People talk about the heartbreak of not having it, of having parents who seem to never provide that for them. Who disapprove.

I could never grasp that. Not really. I tried to understand, but I didn’t.

That is something I have lost. I don’t know whether my parents ever approved of me or not. I suppose they didn’t. I don’t care. I don’t recall a time when I did.

I think about every awards ceremony I ever attended because I was being honored, every graduation I walked in and the one I didn’t even bother to walk in. I’ve never felt proud of myself at those times. I was embarrassed by the attention, worried at what would come next in my life, glad that the long race through exams and paper-writing was over. But not proud. I didn’t know how.

LaLa and Lucey

5BC0I want to tell you about yesterday.

Yesterday was the most wonderful day.

You should understand, perhaps, that Saturdays are hard on me. So are Sundays, but slightly less so. Growing up, Saturdays were a working day. I spent a lot of them at Live Oak Park servicing men in the dirty bathrooms, and later at Motel 6 or the Travelodge with its enormous sleepy bear sign doing the same thing.

I hate Saturdays.

But this Saturday was different. I remembered something. I remembered chasing butterflies in my foster parents’ grassy yard. I remembered Cookie licking me on the face as I played with her under the table while Sally was making dinner.

I remembered being held. I remembered that I called Sally “LaLa” and Bruce “Lucey.” I remembered being loved. In great and vivid detail. And everything, absolutely everything ever, became all right.

Memory is sometimes a wonderful thing. Once, everything was all right, and that makes. “all right” a place I can return to. Just as if I had never left that place where Cookie slept under the table and my LaLa and Lucey kissed me goodnight.

Related posts:

More on Love: To the Keegans



Delhi. All rights: Lonely Planet.
Delhi. All rights: Lonely Planet.

There is a moment in my life that feels profoundly decisive for me and that is the moment when in a judge signed a piece of paper that returned me to my natural parents. I was 2 years old. 

I’ve written about this before in More on Love: To the Keegans.

In that moment, I lost the only place I felt safe or cared about and the only people I had ever understood as family. I lost my home and along with it, a future in which trauma and abuse might have been only a smart part of my life instead of an ongoing, daily struggle to overcome. I lost what might have been.

What I remember after that was an overwhelming, stunning depression and a sense of the world as a place I didn’t want to be and life as something I didn’t want to do. I did not want to get up in the morning, I did not want to eat, I did not want to play with my blocks or my toys or read my books.

What, after all, was the point?

What is terrible about the loss of the people closest to us and the loss of our homes is what Azar Nafisi wrote (more or less) in Reading Lolita in Tehran: When we leave a place behind, we also leave behind the person we were when we lived there.

In my case, I left behind a child who was appreciated, nurtured, had value. I left behind a child with self-esteem, who felt worthwhile–even special. I left behind a child who had a place in the world as well as a world worth having a place in.

And instead I was given an identity of a child who had no value, no goodness, no worth, whose days were filled with a blank and numbing despair. I was in exile even from myself.

And it no longer surprises me that I live in a home filled with maps of places I love–as if I think I will forget how to return to them–or that most of my important relationships are with people geographically far away. My entire life has been like that. The people I loved have always been far away, and I have never known how to return to them.

Mental Illness as Chronic Sorrow

Chronic sorrow is a form of grief that was first identified in parents of children who have developmental or other handicaps. It is characterized by an ongoing or periodic experience of grief, rather than a gradual movement towards acceptance that allows the individual to transcend the loss.

first_stepsPeople experience chronic sorrow because of the loss of expectation about the future, rather than the loss of an important person, and it is typically re-activated with important milestones or the failure to achieve typical milestones. When your child does not begin walking and talking although everyone else in the playgroup has, you feel the grief all over again. When your child doesn’t begin to read in kindergarten or even first grade although your other children did, there is a sense of loss. When your child graduates from high school, but cannot be expected to take a full-time job or begin a career that will allow him to be independent from you, the sorrow hits you all over again. The loss is not of the person, but of the life you had hoped they would have or that you expected they would have.

That is chronic sorrow, and it’s a normal response to a tragic situation. It doesn’t mean you don’t love or accept the child you do have and love, but we all have expectations for the future of our children before they are ever born or even conceived and we re-experience the loss of this fantasy every time there are important reminders of what that fantasy was.

I think mental illness can be much the same. As young people, we also have dreams for our future. We want to be someone. We want families, perhaps, or simply to travel. But we all have hopes and expectations for our future.

If you are, instead, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in adolescence or early adulthood, as schizophrenics often are, and find that instead of graduating from college you are learning how to manage the voices in your head, there is a profound sense of loss. If your marriage breaks apart because the delusions return or you stop taking your medication and full-blown psychosis again rules your life (because treatment avoidance is part of the disease), there is again loss. If you lose your marriage or your relationship with your children due to dangerous manic episodes, I think it must feel much the same way.

Of course, many people lose their marriages or don’t manage to finish college for many different reasons, but I think there is a particular kind of grief to it when it is the same reason you have had other losses, and when the reason is something is to at least some extent out of your control. Any mental illness that impairs your capacity to live your life the way you had hoped to can cause an ongoing experience of loss and sorrow.

And although trauma-related disorders are not precisely mental illnesses, I think they can create the same sense of loss, because the symptoms and thought processes interfere with functioning in all of the same important ways.

How many of us see a direct cause and effect relationship between early trauma in our lives and our lack of fulfilling relationships in our lives as adults? How many of us notice the ways in which we can’t perform to the level of our real skills and knowledge because we find ourselves freezing, blanking out, panicking, or over-reacting? How many of us find our important relationships impacted because of our problems with trust?

I would guess everyone with any significant history of trauma must feel similarly. This post isn’t about whining about what might have been, but simply acknowledging that the losses that come from trauma are long-term. The grief about the lives we would have had without it can be profound. If we attempt to paper over our losses, they don’t disappear. They remain. Saying that they are there may be the first step in

An Evidence-Based Approach to Supporting Parents with Chronic Sorrow

More on Love: To the Keegans

braydon-gold-medal-teddy-bear-319621I think that was their name: Keegan.  Bruce and Sally Keegan.  Now, it might have been Kingston or Carrigan.  Or I might be wrong altogether.  But I do think I’m at least close.

I was about a year and a half when I was placed in their care for a space of time I can only guess at: not less than a month, not more than a year.  I came to them physically and mentally torn apart.  There were stitches in my vagina to keep it together, but my mind wasn’t so easily healed.

I remember specifically living in a silent world, because I would not talk.

But they loved me.

And I’ll tell you what love to a one and a half year-old looks like.

Bruce had a beard and it tickled if he nuzzled you with it.  I remember that.

I remember being read stories and I remember being hugged and I remember playing under the table with the dog while Sally made dinner.  And no one threw anything or yelled and it wasn’t scary to be there.

I also remember when I was taken away again, holding my teddy bear and a paper bag full of clothes.  It was Sally, I think, who said she would always love me.

Thank you.  I believed you, and I still do.