Looking forward

I watched this.

It’s a talk given to Rwandan counselors following the genocide. I found it very helpful. She repeated the element of healing which she has mentioned in other videos: talking, tears, and time. By this she means something I might put into a longer sentence, which is that we need to be able to feel our emotions while processing the trauma in a conscious way. And it doesn’t happen quickly. How long it takes depends on the support you have in the rest of your life, how much other stress you are facing, the severity and complexity of the trauma itself, and probably the internal resources and resilience you had before the trauma occurred.

It was helpful to be reminded.

She also says that healing requires three other elements: relationship, purpose and faith. Now, she is a Christian, so she speaks from that perspective, but I think generally she is talking about an ability to rebuild one’s meaning structures of the world. She’s talking here of moving more into the future, because she makes this point that trauma does not go away. You have to live alongside it. We would like to be able to forget the trauma, but our brains were designed to remember.

Well, I don’t know that I have all three, but I have been working like crazy at purpose. I was thinking about this, and also about what she says about how we experience the trauma when it is happening: we are helpless, we are devalued, we are humiliated, we are powerless and we are afraid.

I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I feel like integrating the trauma means integrating those feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, humiliation, powerlessness and fear. Which ought to mean understanding that we felt that way during the trauma, but I think it can feel like it means those feelings are permanently who we are and the thing to do is really to try to get rid of the trauma, so that we don’t need to experience those feelings again.

The thing about purpose is that it needs to take into account the trauma. It can’t ignore it. It doesn’t need to center on the trauma, but I don’t think it can be some attempt to reconstruct life exactly as it was before.

The problem with this is that it can feel that acknowledging the trauma means the badness that seems to be a part of the trauma is permanently with us. That sense of defectiveness can surface and interfere with our ability to re-engage with life again.

I think I am struggling with that. If I move forward with the life that I am working at–teaching in Country X again and supporting C, in particular–then I am acknowledging that the trauma happened and that life with the trauma is different from what my life might have been if it hadn’t.

She says also that speaking about the trauma is the opposite of what happened during the trauma. It reaffirms our value. We become subjects rather than objects. That makes a lot of sense to me, and it helps me. If I acknowledge that I felt worthless when I was trafficked, then it reaffirms that I am human being who can have feelings about things. If I had been an object, I would not remember what happened. I would not have had any feelings about it. I would not have a story to tell later. You can damage an object, but it does not feel pain. You can discard a paper cup, and it does not feel betrayed. Speaking says, “This happened to me and I matter.”

I am starting to see what was so damaging about various approaches to trauma I have been exposed to. I might have encountered them because those were my own notions to begin with or because those were the coping methods my family already used to cope with the trauma that had been passed down to them.

I did not feel I had control over the story: I did not understand it was my story to tell. I believed it needed to be the correct story and my problems were due, at least in part, due to errors in my story. In therapy, I became powerless to tell my own story in the same way I was powerless when I was traumatized to begin with. When I was victimized, I was told in one way or another: You have no value, not even enough value to feel distress about how I am treating you. In therapy, I heard (and it might have been my filter) you don’t have sufficient value to define your own experiences. I didn’t know any better. I thought this is how it was supposed to be. I had never been given the right to think or to feel or to make meaning of my own before. I assumed the therapist would look at my experiences and tell me what to think.







In anxious moments, the mantra I unwillingly recite goes like this, “I want to die I want to die I want to die…”

Or, “I hate myself I hate myself I hate myself…”

Or even, “I’ll kill myself.”

This used to frighten me. For years, I assumed this was some kind of repressed death wish that surfaced during stress. And because I hadn’t quite sorted out that thinking isn’t magic, I also felt afraid that the thought in itself was dangerous.

Worse, those kinds of thoughts are accompanied by a feeling I can only describe as the motion of cutting my wrists. If you put it all together, it starts to seem like suicidality.

I’m beginning to understand that that’s not it. I may have felt depressed to the point of despair in the past. I may have felt genuinely suicidal.

But this thought is about something else. It’s a memory. All of it.

The mantras that repeat themselves in my head are what my mother said.

The motion I feel is a memory of trying to show someone else what my mother had done, because I didn’t have all the words for it. I don’t think I was more than two years old.

On the other hand, no one has every tried to call Cesar Millan in.
On the other hand, no one has every tried to call Cesar Millan in.

I’ve written about this before–a number of times. Despite the other horrors I’ve lived through, this one seems to be the one that lingers on for me, the one I can’t quite get past, that I can’t make sense of.

My father was evil. He remains in my mind as something like a dangerous dog, one who has been trained so effectively to be aggressive that even the Dog Whisperer can’t cure him, and there’s nothing more to be done for him than to put him down.

My mother was ill.

The horror for me in that memory is that she so badly needed help and no one really helped her. What she got instead was a series of band-aids–medication that took the edge off, talk therapy that gave her a safe place to fall apart but not much more.

I suspect she didn’t get the help she needed because her psychiatrist assumed either that she couldn’t improve substantially beyond the level of functioning she eventually achieved or because healing takes time. But she had two young children at home. She didn’t have that kind of time.

I suspect the culprit was complacency, an unwarranted satisfaction with current methods that really weren’t adequate, and a lack of deep curiosity about what might work better.

What surprises me is that underneath the fear that speaks so loudly in this memory lies a terrible sadness. I went for help, but no one really helped her.

Psychotherapy 101: A Coherent World View

missing pieceIf you come from a background that is anything like mine–where you were repeatedly harmed by people charged with your protection or by people you should have been protected from–then you most likely have some work to do or did at one time.

We tend to do that work in psychotherapy, or at least in conjunction with it. But we sometimes start out on that path of healing without any real clear idea of what we need to do.

We know what is wrong. We know we don’t feel good in some indescribable way, kind of like having a mental flu. But instead of body aches, your whole being seems to ache. You just don’t feel right. And eventually this gets to be too much to just ignore.

But sometimes that fuzzy sense of something wrong but I don’t know what to do leads to a lack of direction in the work that needs to be done, and that slows you down. It’s also frustrating. And you feel wretched enough. Frustration with the process is the last thing you need.

Having been at this for a long time (about two decades, to be more specific), I think I have finally determined what it is that someone like me needs to do. There are four things. They are complex enough to deserve their own posts. This is only the first on that list. These are in no particular order. In general, you need to do all four at once.

#1. You need to construct a coherent view of the world, yourself, and of other people.

One of our most fundamental human needs is for a comprehensible reality. Without that, life becomes dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable. We become anxious because everything feels dangerous and depressed because, unable to determine how to act, we feel helpless. It’s no fun. No fun at all.

It is untenable to remain in that state. You need a way of explaining things–all of them.

There is not a single right answer that actually does explain everything you need to have explained fully and accurately. In fact, we don’t really know exactly why people behave the way they do or why life unfolds the way it does. They are not unknowable, but we don’t have it all worked out yet. Anyone who claims to have done that is either lying or stupid.

Fortunately, you don’t really need to have it entirely worked out either. I say “fortunately,” because you would most probably die of old age before you did. And you also have loads of other things you’d rather do than sort out the lousy things that have happened to you.

Don’t despair. What you need is not a view that is entirely correct and accurate. You just need a view that works. A view that works is one that accounts for the facts as you know them–what you have experienced and seen for yourself–but that you can live with.

You need to know why you act and feel the way you do, and why you acted and felt the way you did in the past. You need to know why other people act and feel the way they do, and why anyone who harmed you chose to do that. You need to know why and how traumatic events in your life unfolded at least to some extent.

Again, these ways of understanding do not need to be right. They only need to be “right enough.” Right enough means there are not too many little dangly threads that don’t fit and don’t make sense to you.

Also, you need to know how people who haven’t chosen to harm you act and feel the way they do as well. Because they may be entirely different than the people you grew up with and you are going to have to be able to deal with them also. Successfully.

What I mean by an understanding you can  “live with” is one that is not so devastatingly bleak that you might as well kill yourself now, a view in which you are not utterly worthless, other people are not wholeheartedly evil, and life is not completely capricious and untrustworthy. It doesn’t need to be all roses and sunshine, but there does need to be some reason for hope.

You may be fortunate and seek out psychotherapy with someone who has explanations for your life and your reality that you can adopt of whole cloth. They just seem to “click” for you. Wonderful. Lucky you.

Or you may not.  The better your memory and the more severe and bizarre the abuse, the less this is likely to happen, because you will need a more complex explanation than someone who remembers less.

You may need to cull bits and pieces of ideas from various sources: your therapist, reading, talks, your grandmother’s wisdom. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. It just needs to work.

The two standards for evidence need to be how well it accounts for your real observations–not the confidence the speaker has in them–and how well it allows you to go forward in hope for the future.

That’s it.

Except for the other three things.

A Year

1-year2This is the 365th day since I began writing this blog.

Like many things, it did not go as expected. I did not expect it to be so easy. I did not expect that most days, when I am not too busy, I can just sit down and write something and what I write will turn out to be intelligible and interesting enough that at least two people will read it. One of them will even be someone I don’t know.

I did not expect it to become a therapeutic device. I did not expect the process of writing itself to be helpful in forcing me to make better sense of my life and myself. There is plenty of research to support this, but before I started blogging I hadn’t read that research.

I read less when I wrote less. There was less I actively needed to work to understand. As a non-writer, I was lazy. I speculated. And that was all. Now I need to know. Otherwise, I can’t tell you about it.

Above all, I did not expect all of you to be so helpful, so kind, or so supportive.

Unlike some writers, I don’t write in hopes that I’ll be praised or admired. I write because I am hoping I have something worthwhile to contribute. I hope I have an idea or a thought or a way of describing something that might be useful or different or new. I write because I want to be a part of what all the rest of you are doing. I want to help.

Thanks for making me feel that I have. At least some of the time. Some of the time is enough.

Also, acknowledgements asides, I have learned a few things. Mainly, as I said, simply by writing about them. In hoping I had something worthwhile to say to all of you, I have found I also have some worthwhile things to say to myself.

Among them, I understand now that I live in a world with rules, where there are constraints on behavior, and where it is not acceptable to harm others just because you feel like it. It is not a free-for-all out there. It is not a dog-eat-dog world, despite the claims of some people to the contrary. Not entirely anyway.

And it is not okay to hurt me just because I don’t live up to your particular expectation for who I should be. It isn’t now. It wasn’t then. When people did it every day.

In moments of stress, one of the mantras in the back of my mind is this, “I am a bad person.” Meaning someone difficult. Uncooperative. Someone who might be or say something that will make others uncomfortable, unhappy, uneasy. Someone who has lived a life that might scare you more than any horror movie ever could.

In retrospect, I understand now that I long avoided talking about my past in psychotherapy because I didn’t want to distress my therapists. But I have written about it here repeatedly and all of you lived through of it. Some of you even felt better because of it.

People are more resilient and more forgiving than I ever guessed.

I also realized it doesn’t matter if I am a “bad” person (according to the definition I have given myself). I have as much right to be difficult, uncooperative, and challenging to one’s preconceived notions as anyone else does.

Again, thank you.

Two hundred seventy-five posts, 1437 likes, 315 followers, and 18, 216 views later, I am a better person for it.

Oh, and for those of you who like that kind of thing, the top posts from my blog in the last year are the featured posts. For a limited time only.

What I’m Really Afraid of

FreezerI understand now why religion and science have so often been at odds.

The central mode of thinking behind science is you examine the evidence and see what the evidence seems to be saying. You form an idea based on the evidence, design a way to test the validity of your idea, and check that you’re really right. Then other people repeat your tests and make sure you’re really, really right. And then design even more tests. Just to be sure.

The central mode of thinking behind much of religion is you are given an idea and you need to believe that idea despite any evidence to the contrary. This is called faith and considered a virtue.

It is perfectly possible to restrict each mode of thinking to their respective domains and to only have faith when it comes to theological concerns and only look at evidence when engaged in scientific pursuits. But I can see how it might be human nature not to do that. To try to have faith about everything. Or to try to be scientific about everything. Even God.

I was raised to have faith. In theological matters, I still have faith. But it makes much more sense to approach the rest of my life in a different way. Often, I do.

There are pockets though. Little remnants of that old kind of thinking, where I still believe in particular ideas just because I was told to, or it was even just because it was kind of implied. I’ve looked at some of these. I think it’s time I looked at some more.

These aren’t necessarily 2×2 constructs. The fact that I have believed them isn’t directly the legacy of having been raised in that particular cult. But it is an outgrowth of having been raised in a cult that elevated faith to an unnatural degree.

They mostly seem to be an unfortunate side-effect of decades of psychodynamic therapy, I don’t blame anyone for them. Belief is just what I was raised to do. So I kept doing it.

Here they are, along with some of my current thoughts about them. Some of them are repeats. That’s because redundancy makes things clearer.

1) The mind is a treacherous place. It is mostly bent on sabotaging and undermining your consciously articulated goals and desires.

Not true. A traumatized mind really isn’t fun to be in, but 99% of what is going on in there is aimed at furthering my survival. I am just a little misguided at times.

2) The cause of all of my problems is low self-esteem.

Also not true. My problems have multiple and complex causes, most of them having to do with a lack of specific inter and intrapersonal skills, because for the most part I raised myself. And I wasn’t really up to the task. Also, my dad was intent on trying to mould me into a felon, which doesn’t set you up well for being a productive member of society, let me tell you.

What I think of myself is mostly irrelevant so long as what I most want to do is live. Which I do. (See #1).

3) I am deeply afraid of the disapproval of other people.

Sort of. I am afraid other people will kill me or beat the crap out of me or force me to perform oral sex on someone, which is kind of like disapproval. Only different. But I think I often ignore what people seem to think of me because I expect it to either not make sense or be used in an attempt to manipulate me. The rest of the time I feel I have to become whoever they’d like me to be so that they won’t kill me. So mostly I don’t think too much about other people’s opinion of me. It seems better that way.

Except sometimes I feel I should be afraid of disapproval. Something bad will happen if I don’t.

4) Emotions are frightening.

Emotions are pretty much a cake-walk. They also make you feel more alive. What I’m really afraid of is showing my emotions to someone else. Because they might kill me. Or a cat. Or make me kill one.

You probably don’t have the same preconceived notions. But I encourage you to examine whatever yours are. If nothing else, it can be a relief. In the end, it turns out what I’m really afraid of is the freezer. That’s so much easier to live with than being afraid of feelings, which I have every day, or disapproval, which I can be on the receiving end of at any moment. Or low self-esteem. Which I have. Or my own mind.

If you try it, give me a ping back. Let’s compare notes.

The Same Kind of Jackass: More Lies

Since this hasn't happened...
Since this hasn’t happened…

I said there was more to the last post, and there is. I also said I would go into it if the creek didn’t rise, and it hasn’t. At least not so you’d notice, It is, after all, the middle of summer in a place that doesn’t experience monsoons.

Psychotherapy doesn’t help with that particular lie. You know, the one where everyone is the really the same. Can be treated the same, has the same expectations of those around them, lives according to the same standards. That one.

I don’t know that psychotherapy makes it worse, but it tends to perpetuate another version of the same lie. At least if you’re inclined to believe that lie in the first place. Which I was.

Because you sit in the office and talk about what’s bothering you, and look at how this connects to your past, and then try to see how the present is different.

I still have no idea how to deal with asses like this, but they are awfully cute. Photo credit: S. Ballal.
I still have no idea how to deal with asses like this, but they are awfully cute. Photo credit: S. Ballal.

But sometimes you’re upset because the person upsetting you now is exactly the same kind of jackass your father was, for example. And you don’t know how to deal with this jackass because you never learned how to deal with your father. You keep pretending that that variety of jackass doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. And your inability to cope is just you making big deal out of nothing. Precisely as you were told as a kid.

But that kind of jackass does exist and you do need to learn to deal with them.

Sometimes therapy doesn’t help you spot all the lies you believe. Sometimes it only helps you with some of them. And sometimes it mostly gives you new ones.

I know the one I heard the most. Everyone was bad then, but everyone is good now. I just have a problem with trust.

Not so. I mean, I do have a problem with trust–or at least I did at one time–but that’s not why it’s so difficult to get people sorted out. People were and are complicated and diverse little creatures. The world was a mix of good and evil then and it is a mix of good and evil now. Very little has changed. I’m mostly just taller. And I remember to flush the toilet more reliably.

Like I said, perhaps I oversimplified things because that’s what I believed anyway, but I think there’s also something to that. I think I’m not the only one ever taught that lie, and not the only one who has had trouble getting out from under it. And it’s perfectly possible to find psychotherapists who believe the same lies you were taught growing up and then hire them.

Because psychotherapists are all different as well. And like dogs and their people, sometimes therapists are a lot like their clients. So we can usually find one a lot like ourselves.

Gut Feelings: The Enteric Nervous System

I could get lost in this and never come out again.
I could get lost in this and never come out again.

I dissociate. For years, that’s actually been my normal state.

Consequently, sitting in a therapist’s office, trying to talk about–well, a lot of things actually–often ends with me staring at the carpet feeling dizzy and not able to think about anything at all.

Sometimes, they notice this.

Usually, what she will ask is how I feel in my body.

I hated this. I understood vaguely what it was designed to do. I also found it completely ineffective. What I didn’t like was that it shoved me back in my head. Because there I was, trying to formulate words, trying to be in a sense analytical and notice things that primarily seemed rather scientific.

“Let’s see here. My mouth is dry. My heart is beating faster. My respiration is shallow. My palms are moist and cold.”

It pushed me even further away from any kind of emotional experience I might be having.

I actually don’t know why it didn’t help, but I’m starting to understand what they might have been expecting me to feel instead: a gut feeling, a feeling in the very inside of me that I never had at all. Not even when I wasn’t busy tracing patterns in the carpet with my eyes.

We have this thing called the enteric nervous system (ENS), sometimes referred to as the “second brain” due to its tremendous complexity, and this may be the reason we get funny feelings sometimes. In fact, the ENS stretches all the way from our esophagus down to the large intestine, so we also ascribe feelings to our hearts that are occurring in our gullets.

gutWe just don’t know yet. We know that the ENS regulates our digestion and that it can keep doing this even if the CNS goes off-line, but we don’t really know what else it does. Perhaps more than it would seem it does. Perhaps less than we imagine.

But I can tell you that since starting this whole process of integration, I’ve been having odd feelings in my abdomen–not gas. I’ve always had that. My favorite food is rice and lentils, after all, and barring that rice and beans.

No, this is different. These were clearly meant to be emotions. In fact, they typically intensify at moments when I seem to be putting two and two together and coming up with myself in the process. They seem to be about the process of integration itself.

And it’s started to occur to me that it isn’t one particular feeling that occurs in my abdomen. It is all of them. But they are still a bit flattened out, a bit disconnected from the rest of my internal, physiological experiences. So it’s hard to say. It’s hard to differentiate.

It just feels so good.
It just feels so good.

They are also hard to get used to. It’s like being able to feel your own heartbeat. Tedious to listen to all the time, isn’t it? Easier when it just fades into the background. Sometimes, I can’t sleep because of what I feel. It’s not upsetting. Just distracting. Just too much stimulation.

But as these feelings become more connected, I’m starting to be able to tell a few of them apart. Sleepiness is one of them. Sleepiness, I’m finding, is lovely. Sleepiness starts in my abdomen and spreads all the way up to my head in this delicious dizzy sensation. It goes all the way out to my arms in a way I can’t even explain. Sleepiness is wonderful.

And it’s probably the reason I’ve been so unproductive the last few days. I’ve been enjoying sitting here, doing nothing much, feeling drowsy.

Sadness. I’ve begun to tell that one apart as well, although it’s a little more difficult. That one goes all the way up to my throat.

It’s wonderful.