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.



Falling asleep last night, probably feeling something quite difficult–it’s usually difficult at night–and I suddenly made this connection between the pain I felt and bullying.

I thought this feeling I have of being worthless and unimportant, this is about someone enhancing their feelings of status by bullying me, and it’s not processed or understood, because it’s so impossible to understand why your parents would do that. It’s clearly about my parents.

Narcissistic wounding is, “Someone is enhancing their sense of status by degrading mine.” At the time I thought this, it seemed immensely profound. Maybe it isn’t.

But it made me think someone who has been bullied by their own parents is likely to be hyper-alert to indicators of status: things like being excluded or not considered (as though you aren’t really part of the group and don’t need to be considered), these are all indications that someone might be intentionally lowering your social status in order to enhance their own.

Status has biological consequences: people with less status in society have higher levels of cortisol. Just like standing next to someone I feel cares about me enhances my feelings of well-being, automatically and without effort, perceiving oneself to have higher status decreases anxiety.

If I am both very alert to that and unable to make sense of it, well, that explains some things.

Then I was also thinking about my friend and her daughter. Daughter reacts to ordinary problems as though they are an imposition. Her dog has been vomiting a lot lately. Actually, since my friend asked me to leave. Since then, the dog began to vomit and the daughter’s rash flared up. Her wedding is in a month. No one around here sees this as a stressful life event, but it seems to me obvious it is.

Anyway, the dog vomited in my room once and once early in the morning when I was in the kitchen, but no one else seemed to be up. In both cases, I cleaned it up. I mean, it’s a dog. Pets vomit from time to time. It was 5 minutes out of my life at most. If I were so busy I didn’t feel I had 5 minutes to give to a dog, that would be different, but I have 5 minutes. It’s not a big deal.

But the daughter seems to be very bothered by this, as though dog vomit is the last straw in an already overwhelming life. She was quite–apologetic?–about my cleaning it up those two times. Surprised, anyway.

This kind of thing gives me the impression that ordinary life struggles and setbacks don’t seem to figure into either of their thinking about life, that unpleasant things will happen and these things are part of life and things you can live through.

I was talking to my friend the other day and there were catfood dishes and cans sitting in the sink soaking. I was cleaning out my coffee maker, which always leaves this horridly big coffee-grind mess in whatever was in the sink. So after washing the coffee maker, I rinsed the cans out and put them in the recycling bin and rinsed the two plates. It might have taken two minutes. Anyway, I was just standing there talking. I wasn’t exactly overburdened with things to do.

My friend was anxious about this, and very apologetic. I just explained the coffee makes a mess and if you leave the grounds in something, the coffee becomes difficult to remove. But it struck me. These are people for whom rinsing out two cat food cans and two plates is a big deal. It’s strange. To me, that’s just lazy.

I am sure there is some kind of meaning attached to it for them, maybe something to do with unfairness. It’s beyond me, but I know they probably aren’t the only ones like this.

I don’t know if this really connects, but I thought about the dog vomit and Daughter’s entrenched view of life as something that ought not to involve cleaning up vomit. It made me think of Nata, and how for Daughter, it seems like life would be fine if all of these little things were perfect, and I think life would be fine if Nata would just come back. Just a she feels life ought not to involve cleaning up vomit several times a day, I feel life ought not to involve murder. For most people, it doesn’t involve murder, but people are murdered. You can’t go through life unable to accept that it does happen when it has.

I know the comparison is extreme–they are hardly on the same level. But it does make me think.

Well, the therapy center never called. I called again after waiting abut 24 hours. Then later I looked at their website–they offer to call back in 24 to 48 hours. I hadn’t realized that. So I waited 2 days after the second call, and then filled out their online form. I did that yesterday. If I still don’t get a response, then I suppose I’ll search elsewhere, but I am intimidated by searching at low-cost options.  I can’t afford therapy at the usual price around here and it’s intimidating even when the world is your oyster and you can afford anything that’s a good match for you.

I really do feel like I need help though. This is so hard to keep doing alone.

I was thinking about the child’s immature nervous system. There is one neuroscientist I like to remember, who says that the human infant is born with the most immature nervous system on the planet. One of the reasons for an upsurge in SIDS in the 80s  and 90s was that infants stopped sleeping in the same room as their parents, and infants do not remember to breathe on their own. That’s extreme isn’t it? We are not developed enough when we are born to even carry out autonomic functions on our own.

It’s instinct to turn to others for help. What happens when you go to your parents with your distress and what they have to offer is not competence to calm your distress, but their own state of dysregulation? You learn that’s it dangerous to turn to anyone for help.

I was getting at that in my last post. Your parents might voice to you their own distrust of the world, and convince you that no one can help you and no one wants to help you, but it starts with them.

There are all kinds of ways to connect the dots when you don’t have all the dots. The dot I had was my parents’ guilt and shame at being unable to cope with life or to take care of me. My mother especially was so angry at being unable to cope, and it manifested itself in this malevolence towards me.

You are making me unable to cope–this rage at me and my child’s needs. That was the kind of sense she made of the world. It didn’t accommodate major chunks of reality–the child is there, the child has a child’s needs–I think perhaps because that would have meant incorporating her own grief. She had been a child and her own needs had not been met. In order to connect with my unmet needs and to have compassion for me, she needed to connect to her own, and she did not have the regulation skills to manage the intense level of arousal this would mean.

She began to approach this grief and sadness and coped with it with  a toddler’s regulation skills: avoidance, breakdown, total meltdown. She had an adult’s power and ability to do harm and a small child’s ability to organize her responses, and what the adult did was to protect her nervous system from overwhelming shame by blaming me for it.

My mother’s regulatory skills were immature, and the adult, conscious part of her brain formed a way of being in the world that allowed her to continue to harm me.

This is talking: of the three element of healing, the writing part is what Diane Langberg calls talking. I am trying to organize my experiences. I am linking what I know in a comprehensible way. I am using the slow, conscious system of my brain to do this. What you can’t see probably are the tears, or the emotions of it. In my mind, while I am writing, I am linking what I am saying to sensory elements, to felt experiences, to what is happening inside my body. I could do that talking, without the tears, and no healing would take place.

A major part of this is resolving the cognitive dissonance: How do I understand a world where a human being can be so malevolent? I am so angry that it happened, but I think I am also angry that I have to accept that it happened. A world in which these things don’t happen can never be restored to me.

That’s the core grief.



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?

Sam in the night

Sam wakes up again the same way, but not thinking the same thing. Yesterday, he wanted to know where Nata was because he wanted to know she was safe. It worried him that people had stolen her and made her go away. Maybe they are still hurting her.

Now, he is satisfied that she is safe. Still, he is worried about the location problem. How will he find her when he dies? He can stand the idea of separation if it is temporary; if I live 30 or 40 or 50 years more, that doesn’t have any meaning for him. It’s just that I will die, and he can be with Nata again. That makes it bearable.

But he has to be able to find her.

He tries to reason this out. It is tough going. When he is out, I can feel the effort it requires to follow a line of logic. I am there in the background, and I can feel the strain of it for him, but he is trying.

He thinks that Nata—he’s been told she is a “sparkle” now—can find him sometimes even though she is dead. He imagines this sparkle as being something like Tinker Bell, and so it makes sense to him that she would not always be in one place. She might zip around to different places.

And it really does seem to me—as well as to him—that she is with me at times. I presume this is some kind of psychological phenomenon, where I am just very strongly reminded of her.

But for many years there has been a periodic sense of a presence. It comes at odd times: waiting for IT Ma’am to pick us up front of my landlord’s shop last month, sitting in the backyard drinking tea at twilight when I was 13 and she had just died. I don’t remember most of these moments, just that they have entered my experience of life as something I expect to happen from time to time.

Sam called out to her a few days ago and after that he felt hugged all over, in the way that he used to when she was alive. I am not surprised he thinks she comes to visit him sometimes.

So he reasons that if she can find him now, then she will also be able to find him after he dies. There is something about their connection that is like a tracking device—he doesn’t see it in those terms, he is imagining a special magnet or something like an invisible rope between them. He doesn’t know why she doesn’t use this to stay with him all the time, and I imagine that question will come next.

For the moment, however, he is satisfied. He can find her again. He doesn’t have the mechanics of it worked out, but it logically follows.

In the night though, he wakes up tantrummy because he doesn’t want her to be a sparkle. He wants to be able to hug her again, and she needs a body to do that. He can feel hugged by her sparkle still. That happens. But he cannot hug her. He is angry she doesn’t have a body for him to hug anymore. The bad men stole it from her. They made her body stop working, and now it cannot be hugged anymore.

He is really getting down to it now. They stole her body from him. They couldn’t kill her soul—he cannot bring himself to believe she no longer exists and neither can I—but they killed her body. And her body did things she cannot do without it. This is the real loss. The body and soul together is a different creature than either one separately. He loved them together. I loved them together.

It seems strange to be puzzling out an event, as an adult, that happened when I was 13 using a 2-year-old mind. The 13-year-old mind is perfectly capable of processing the event. All the cognitive abilities are there to do it. My adult mind is perfectly capable of it too. But Sam seems to need to. It’s totally inefficient.

But he’s lit on the key element of it all: the body and soul can do things together that they cannot do separately. I’m not sure my adult mind would have gotten to the core of it so well. My adult mind has too much fluff and nonsense in it to get to the core of things very easily.

I grew up in a church that tries to separate the mind and the body as much as possible. Everything about the body seems to be bad. It is “fleeting” if not actually evil.

The physical world is superficial and an involvement in it suggests a certain shallowness of personality. No one wants to be shallow. The fear of turning out to be a shallow person is as constricting as the fear of rejection or disapproval.

Worse, everything negative about the mind and the personality that really are bad—selfishness, pride, the desire to hurt and punish others when you’re angry, impulsiveness—are equated with the body. They are “flesh.” It’s metaphorical, but spirit is good, flesh is bad.

The body and everything to do with the body is bad. At best, it is meaningless. At worse, it harms others.

But the body and mind do complex things together that make our experiences rich. I am not going to be able to explain this well—and it is new to me, but probably not to you. If I were merely sitting next to Natashka, something happened inside my body that created an emotional response. I felt safe. Being away from her does something equally powerful and mysterious: I feel a sense of longing and uneasiness.

I was safe with her. But your body—I am sure of this—responds to the physical proximity of your “people” in a way that motivates you to stay close to them. This is not just about a cognition—this person makes me safe—but is chemical.

It has to be.

It’s oxytocin. There are other things going on—we are a complex species—but one piece is completely in the body. And the result for us, the attachment, comes from the interplay of body and soul together.

That’s just one example.


Moving the boulders again

I can’t move the boulders because it involves too much weeping. Earlier, I was in the staffroom. Everyone was there filling out forms. I can’t move the boulders without crying in front of them.

I can’t move the boulders because the sense of helplessness I have about Natalya’s death is too great. It is too great not to cry over.

We cry when we want help, and I wanted help when Natalya died. I wanted to help her. I wanted help to come from someone her. I wanted her to be saved.

I want someone to give her life again. I want to give her my own life. I want her to have life in any way I can get it to her.

She was so alive when she lived. She ought to have gone on living.

I didn’t need to live. I was already half dead anyway.

You can’t do tradesies with life like that. She, who knew how to live so well, died. And I, I lived. It’s hard not to see life as a duty now because of that. I lived. I had better learn how. I had better learn to live as well as she did. I had better learn how to love the way she loved.

But duty feels now like another kind of prison to live in. Duty feels like another way to remain dead. Duty feels like a rejection of life as the gift it is. It seems like a way not to give it either, and a way to ration it out rather than share.

Duty seems like a way of never saying thank you.