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?

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.


Mourning Natalya

Yesterday, we had a school worship service. The whole process lasted the entire day—from before I arrived at 8 am until 5 pm, when important guests arrived for dinner. So I was at school for nearly 12 hours.

I’m starting to understand that what causes most of my difficulties now is that the childhood torture created an intense reactivity. And my reactions are also confused. I have strong, mixed, and sometimes mystifying thoughts and feelings about a lot of things. So arriving at calm and clarity takes work and effort. It also takes time.

Days like Saturday’s worship service mean hours of coping with non-stop confusion and reactivity. Before dinner had even begun, I felt so exhausted I wanted to cry.

We have a half day on Saturdays anyway. Sunday is the only full day off from school, and it’s difficult for me sometimes because there isn’t much time for me to make sense of myself or my experiences. It’s even more difficult when the days are extended for one reason or another—like Saturday’s worship service or a football match in the evenings. It means there isn’t enough time to rest and recharge before the onslaught of having to cope with the world again.

But at least I have this much.

I know the other volunteer teachers are using their Sundays to explore their new environments, to make friends, to have fun. I am just trying to manage and make sense of everything I have had to suppress or set aside to get through the week with some degree of functionality and sanity. I am beginning to be able to accept this as being my life, instead of wishing things to be other than how they are, or trying to pretend I do not need to do this and then having the consequences of denial catch up to me later, or even seeing this as a character flaw or a weakness that needs to be overcome.

One tiny piece of yesterday was a memory of Veronique. There is a teacher here in Country X with a voice something like hers, and speaking to her over tea yesterday brought the memory of her back to me.

Veronique’s name was not really Veronique. It was Natalya. I don’t know why I felt the need to give her my own special name. Maybe I wanted to claim her as my own in some way, or maybe Natalya was not really her name either, but the kind of name adopted by or given to sex trafficking victims like a brand name—something to make you exotic, appealing, sexy. Something to make you sell better. And so it did not make any difference.

But I remember two things about Natalya very clearly now: I loved her and she was murdered.

I read about her death in the paper. I think it was one of those notes on the back page: Mutilated body of unidentified white female found dumped in shallow water in City Y.

Maybe that wasn’t her. But I never saw her again after that. Other explanations for her disappearance are possible. Perhaps they moved her to another location. Maybe she was found by Immigration officers and returned to her home country. But at 12, when I read the two-line report about it in the newspaper. I was convinced they had murdered her. My reaction to someone’s voice over tea on Saturday is rooted in that conviction. Whether the conviction is correct or not.

Natalya was a victim of gross human rights violations. In all likelihood, she was deceived by mercenary human traffickers who promised her a job and a life of promise in the United States. Or maybe she was out-and-out kidnapped. But she did not come here to be a sex worker. No one does.

Once she arrived, however, she was sold to sex traffickers and remained at their mercy until they killed her. It’s not an unusual story really. It isn’t unusual, either, that her pimp forced her both to perform in pornography and to work the streets. I don’t think it was even unusual that she performed in pornography that featured sex acts between women and girls designed to be sold to a male audience. She wasn’t the only young woman I performed in pornography with.

But I don’t remember the others with any clarity. I remember Natalya. I remember her because she was kind. If you are forced to, in effect, rape a child on screen you can do it in a few different ways. You can do it harshly, because that child is even more vulnerable and powerless than you are and the child is someone to take your anger out on. You can do it in an entirely dissociated state, as if neither of you are there, because the horror of what you are doing and of what someone else wants you to do is too difficult to bear. Or you can do it with some concern for the child and her suffering, in spite of the fact that you are also suffering.

Natalya did it the third way.

I don’t know that we saw each other aside from our hours in front of the camera. I don’t recall whether we interacted in any other way aside from the sex acts we were forced to perform on each other. But touch can be immensely communicative, even if we did not actually speak and could not understand one another’s language. Natalya’s touch said, “I do not want to hurt you.” It said, “I care about what happens to you.” Above all, it said, “I understand you are there. You are real to me. You are not merely an empty shell of a bod that exists only to be used.”

I don’t think that is an easy attitude to have while you are being exploited in one of the most dehumanizing and humiliating ways possible. I think it is an extremely difficult one to maintain. But Natalya did that for me.

As a child, I don’t think I knew many people that decent or that humane. When she was murdered, it felt to me as if the last really good person had been snatched off the face of the earth. When I recall her now, I am overcome by an old sense of despair, as if there really is no one and nothing to live for any longer. It isn’t true, but feelings can be like a time capsule, letting us know exactly how we felt in the past.

I am getting better at coping with despair. I am beginning to be able to mop the floor while feeling there is nothing else to live for. I can make lunch while feeling that I cannot cope with life any longer and everything hurts too much. I am grateful for that. It means I can fully experience my feelings without having my life fall entirely apart. I can keep up a little at least.

At the same time, I want to make something good out of this. In a very literal sense, Natalya did not survive. I did. I think when you live through a horror that others do not, there is an internal pressure to live on their behalf. Natalya never made it out of the game, let alone to Country X, and there is a sense that I am here for her sake as well as my own and that experiencing my own freedom fully is the best way to allow her to be free as well.

* This post was written almost two weeks ago.

Acceptance and grief

Grief is sometimes a long process. I have been grieving for decades.

It’s painful, and hard to get a handle on, and sometimes we veer away from it—take a break, shut down, ignore it, stop grieving for a while. But then we can’t hold out any longer. The grief demands we return to it.

Growing up with mental illness in the family involves ongoing and profound grief. You grieve for yourself, for

Reorganization requires acceptance.
Reorganization requires acceptance.

what you didn’t have and the ways you didn’t develop because someone else’s mental illness consumed the energy in the family. Or maybe it was your mental illness that robbed you of the opportunity to relate to others in positive ways, that kept you from discovering who you were underneath your mass of symptoms, that consumed your energy and held you back from becoming the person you might have been. Maybe it was both.

Because there is nothing like crazy in the family for making you crazy.

You grieve for yourself, and what you missed out on, the ways you are were damaged or stunted because of the illness in the family. You grieve for who you might have been if your family had been able to really care for you.

You grieve for the lost opportunities, the lost years, the broken relationships you were left with because of the psychic damage you incurred.

You grieve for the relationship you could never have with that person—or maybe it was several people in your family—because mental illness inevitably involves an impaired ability to relate to and care for others.

Hardest of all, you grieve for the person who was ill and who they might have been without their illness.

Nearly everyone in my family is mentally ill. I grieve for them as a whole—for the fact of a family—and I grieve for them separately, as individuals, and for who they might have been without their illnesses.

I think they missed something. Sorrow should be on here. It is not the same as depression and detachment. But grief means you will have to feel sad.

I am often angry at the entire mental health industry. My anger is a part of that grief. My family members did not get the care they needed, and so I suffered. I lost my family. I lost my childhood. I lost great chunks of myself. I lost the people they all might have become if they had gotten well.

I don’t know if anyone could really have done anything, but I’m angry anyway. I’m angry the way someone else might feel at a loved one who has died. They are angry at being left. I am angry that no one saved us. Strictly speaking, grief is not entirely logical. And yet it has its own logic.

Anger is a part of this logic. So is sorrow. And a lot of people have proposed a vast number of shortcuts you can take to get through these stages faster. They tell you to “let go” of your anger. They tell you that forgiveness will free you. They tell you “stay busy” and to “move on.”

I don’t think any of these things work, but they give you something to do while the grief works itself out in your own time, so that you feel less helpless in the face of it. But I think you are helpless in the face of this kind of grief, and the better course is just to roll with it.

The better course is to admit the degree of your helplessness in the face of the magnitude of the problem—we really have no completely effective treatments for most serious mental illnesses. There is little anyone actually could do to save all of us from the fragility of our minds.

But I do think you need to grieve. What I’m really talking about in this post is acceptance. Like other stages of grief, acceptance cannot be rushed. We get there when we can and stay there as long as we need to.

Stop trying to skip it. It doesn’t help.

The end of words

wordsI don’t want to write today, although that is the bulk of what I do at the moment. If I didn’t write, in fact, I don’t know what else I would do with my time. I’d be terribly bored.

But I feel sometimes that words are the enemy, and that they are both harmful and inadequate. If you have ever said something you later regret, then you’ll know what I mean. Except this is only more so. It is a regret about having ever said anything to anyone, as if every word I have ever spoken has been a mistake.

Although it’s a general sense, I’m sure this is connected to something in particular: perhaps to a belief that if I’d said something different things might have also gone differently. So, I think I must have believed at some point that it mattered what I said, and that I had something wrong.

There is another possibility, however, and that is that nothing that I ever said as a child ever mattered, and so I’m more angry at having tried and failed than anything else.

And so this is another kind of mourning–a mourning for a loss of effectiveness, perhaps, and for a loss of a place in the world, because that is a part of what words give us. They allow us to define for ourselves who and what we are as well as communicate that to others.


This sense about words is one of sadness.

Mourning losses

Suffice it to say that today has not been a great day.

At the moment, the future feels very dark and very hopeless, and it makes me realize, in my rush to be optimistic, that I have failed to notice how much pain I am still in.

And it occurs to me now that maybe I ought to do something about that. More than that, it occurs to me that acceptance of the degree of my pain might give me the courage to continue regardless of how bright or bleak the future might look at any one particular moment.

Because maybe I have never really looked it all in the eye and said, “Yes, it hurts exactly that much. It hurts that I only briefly had any stable, present, capable adults in my life to care for me. It hurts that I was exploited relentlessly by the people charged with my protection. It hurts that I had only fragments of my growing up years that were safe enough that I could relax and enjoy being a child. It hurts that I feel like nothing more than a piece of trash ready to be thrown out the next morning, and that there are quite good reasons I came to feel that way.”

In other words, maybe it’s time to mourn what I didn’t have and what I don’t have now.

I have worked quite hard to come to terms with so many different kinds of pain, but perhaps not those larger deprivations, not what everything added up to. Maybe I’ve found ways to continue to hold them at a distance, by telling myself that others beside myself hurt as much as I did, and my suffering is nothing really to remark about. Or maybe I’ve just refused to feel it, maintaining a certain stoic numbness.

But without this, without really acknowledging the depth of my losses, I am not free to live my life. I can live someone else’s life, perhaps–an easier, less painful life, one that hasn’t left damage I’m still trying to fix. But I can’t live mine.