New Year

I am leaving here in eight days. By the time I post this, it will be seven. So, while all of you may have thought of December 31st as the end of an old chapter and January 1st as the beginning of a new one, this is the end of the old chapter for me and the start of a new one will come very soon.

Mostly, our beginnings and endings don’t mean very much. You watch the ball drop or whatever it is you do to mark the exact moment of the ending of the year and find that the new year is more or less like the old one. But this one will not be like that for me. It will be dramatically different—both in ways I know ahead of time and in ways that I don’t.

I have free time right now. After the 19th of this month, I will not. That’s the most obvious of the changes. As it happens, I’ve also been living in a country not my own in a home down the street from my girlfriend. Those will be major changes as well. Nonetheless, what is really on my mind right now is the time I have had and what it has meant to me.

When the school year ended, I thought, “Now is the time to rework that novel that’s been on a back burner for so long.” And, “Perhaps now is the time to research a book on one of the several topics that interests me.” I might have had some other ideas about how to use that time also. Then I realized it wasn’t the time for any of those things. It was time to figure out how to be me for a while longer. I’m grateful I could do that.

However, I’ve been wondering today what that time got me. Did it help?

I suppose it did. It may have helped a lot. That will become more apparent, when I have responsibilities beyond following Uncle #2’s discursive conversations and walking the dog twice a day. On the other hand, I know that in the seven months I took off from employed life, I did not become a healed, whole person without any problems.

To some degree, I am still dissociated. I continue to have trauma symptoms of various kinds. Nothing was magically fixed. I am in something of an in-between state—not where I was, not where I had hoped to be.

So what is this place? It’s a place, I think, where I have wounds but I know what they are and why they are there.

Most of us use a variety of coping strategies to manage our lives. The more difficult your problems are to deal with, the more strategies you need to have. One of mine has been to be action-oriented and solution-focused. Like all strategies, it has a downside. The downside has been that I sometimes saw where I wanted to be more clearly than I saw where I was. (Of course, that is also the upside and the reason for doing it. We all need to motivate ourselves somehow.)

In other words, I sometimes saw my future self more clearly than my present self. My present self is still wounded. My present self is in pain.

My present self remains as evidence of the ways in which I have been harmed. Not seeing that with completely clarity has unfortunately also prevented me from seeing the full extent of that harm. I see it now.

Because of that, I am also seeing the whole matter somewhat differently. I am an ordinary person who was tortured for many years. The symptoms that trouble me now are not defects in my character or flaws in my personality. They are the effects of torture.

Torture wounds the mind more than the body. That is the primary intention of torture—to wound the mind. It also wounds the body, but the effect on the mind is greater. I hurt because wounds hurt; in the same way that a broken bone hurts, my mind hurts. The hurt is not something I “need to let go of” or somehow reach a kind of mastery over. It is not something I need to stop feeling. It is simply there, as a symptom of a problem that may or may not get better from here.

We all want to be the people we might have been had nothing horrific ever happened to us. That is not always what happens. The effects of torture are only sometimes temporary. Other times they are permanent. Irreversible damage to nerves, joints, or reproductive organs is not uncommon. It’s not clear whether the psychological effects are sometimes irreversible as well.

The point isn’t to become that person I might have been. It isn’t to become like I imagine everyone else is—whole and unharmed. The point is to figure out how to live.

That is what next year is for.


Integration (Oh the Joy of It)

Actually, my cat sleeps on my side. Whenever it becomes firmly established that where I am sleeping is my side, she starts sleeping there. We all know who is boss around here. It isn't me.
Actually, my cat sleeps on my side. Whenever it becomes firmly established that where I am sleeping is my side, she starts sleeping there. We all know who is boss around here. It isn’t me.

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. It’s just one of those days.

I am angry with no clearly defined cause, no one to blame for it. I just woke up that way. I could, if I felt like it, comb through my memory banks and find something to feel justifiably angry at, but I am just not in the mood. I don’t feel like confabulating a reason for my anger solely to make myself feel more reasonable. I’ve done it before, but I just don’t feel like it today.

So here I am angry and frustrated with nothing in particular to be angry or frustrated at.

And that forces me to sit with it and to just be. And that is really probably the best thing. It’s just not really what I was taught to do with feelings–aren’t they there to analyze and make sense of?–and it isn’t second nature. It isn’t really 4th or 5th nature. We are looking more at distant 20th.

But I like a challenge, so here I am.

I told you I was working at feelings. I didn’t lie.

And some of that is pretty low-level, pretty literal. But integration means you have access to all parts of yourself, or at least the parts of yourself it is normal to access. (No, I don’t have conscious control of my digestive tract, I admit to that, and I cannot “feel” myself giving my intestines the instruction to speed up or slow down.)

Integration means you can feel your body. And so it also means we need to start being able to organize experiences felt in the body, that we didn’t really need to organize before, because they were simply suppressed.

It means feeling all kinds of bizarre sensations in my abdomen and begin to identify them. “That is anger.” “That is excitement.” “That is merely indigestion.”

And so this bout of anger this morning has a purpose. There is, in fact, something I can do with it that desperately needs to be done. I can link it to what I am feeling now in my body that I actually couldn’t before.

This isn’t to say that I couldn’t identify when I was angry, but I was basing that identification on less complex information. It mostly had to do with what I thought. And maybe a certain degree of physiological arousal: heartrate, respiration, muscular tension. Not funny feelings in my stomach.

I’m doing what 2-year-olds do, I suspect. I’m learning to use my words.

The difference perhaps is not that I don’t know the words. I’m learning a new use of the words I already know, an additional aspect of their meaning I had been lacking before. In other words, this is kid’s stuff. Little kid’s stuff.

It is yet another way I was robbed of my childhood. I was robbed of a core portion of my experience, because I was robbed of at least some of my ability to feel.

The worst thing you can do around a psychopath is feel. He’ll know when you’re feeling. He’ll see it on your face. And he’ll find some way to use that feeling to harm you. Whenever I watch films or television shows with sadistic psychopathic villains, I implore their victims silently (sometimes out loud) stop begging. Stop appealing to their compassion. They don’t have any. Look tough. Look like nothing scares you. That might get you out alive. But fear will get you killed.

With a psychopath, feeling is dangerous, quite literally, and not always only dangerous to yourself, but to others you care about. Because that can be used to hurt you too.

There is a wonderful scene in Cracker, when Fitz (a criminal profiler with a rocky marriage), tells the serial rapist who is now holding Fitz’s own wife hostage how much of a favor this would be for him. It saves her life. She is hardly appreciative of his efforts, but it works. Of course it does. That is exactly how a psychopath thinks?

How can I hurt you? What do you care about?

In my case, I care about animals. (So you can understand now why it kills me to think of my cat suffering. Why I agonize about what to do when it seems to me she’s suffering. I keep trying to save the cats my dad tortured in front of me–not from death, but from something worse than death, from suffering.)

I learned not to feel, to feel less, or to feel only when no one else was around. I kept me from getting hurt. It kept the neighbors’ cats from getting hurt too.

But my dad isn’t here now. It’s time for a change.

And sometimes what I most need to do is simply feel again. Like today.

Feelings can seem so inconvenient; working with parts can seem so inconvenient. Why would I want to be an angry, frustrated, tantrum-y 2-year-old again? And yet that is what I am being given back–those missed parts of my childhood. It isn’t pleasant sometimes, like today, but it’s mine. I am getting back my own.

The Belt, the Door, the Closet, the Chair

Police boots.
Police boots.

I was taken into care when I was about a year a half. I have mentioned that before: here and here.

I don’t know why I was, actually, although I have it narrowed down: either because my mother hit me over the head with a chair or because my father raped me with a pair of scissors.

They overlap in my mind because of the shoes. Shoes that looked a bit like this. There seemed to be so many of them, although there probably weren’t. I just wasn’t used to so many people in uniform in the house. With such big shoes.

The shoes came back a few times. They sat in the livingroom and talked to my mom while I played with blocks. I remember that. They didn’t take me away that time.

I was afraid of their faces, so I looked at their shoes.

I do know what happened after I came back.

My dad staged a terrifying and dangerous “interrogation,” insisting I report back to him what I had “told.” I still don’t know if I ever told anyone anything.

And then I tried to kill myself. Because, really, what was the point if I was going to have to live like that, among those people, and become like them?

I went to the hall closet where my mom kept a belt specifically to have handy to beat us with. I thought I could make a noose with it. But there were technical difficulties.

To hang yourself, you need something to stand on. A stepstool wasn’t tall enough. And the the chairs were too heavy and too far for me to drag.

Whenever I am reminded of what I suffered or how there seemed to be no escape from a world I did not want to belong to, I feel the same degree of despair. It is sometimes so hard just to be with that.

Psychological Torture and Managing Arousal States

In my previous post, I conflated two types of regulation: affect (emotion) and arousal. We need them both.

On the one hand, we can’t have too many angry, anxious, or sad feelings and continue to function well. On the other, we need to maintain a certain degree of alertness and be exposed to a certain degree of arousing stimuli in order to feel that life is interesting and has meaning.

In saying that, I’m not suggesting that we want things to be exactly the same all the time. Sameness leads us to hypo-arousal–boredom. But there is a certain range that we feel most comfortable in and a certain place within that range that we would prefer to be most of the time.

People are individuals in that regard. Some of us prefer more stimulation than others and some of us function better at a higher degree of arousal. You know that person who always seems to be happiest in the midst of a crisis? The person who seems perfect for work in an emergency room or an air traffic control tower? The successful SWAT team leader? That guy who should probably spend his life defusing bombs? They’re on one end. The art curator, the science writer, and the academic librarian might fall on the other end of the spectrum. That’s the kind of variation I mean.

Hans Eysenck postulates that introverts have more responsive nervous systems, and so less stimulation leads to a higher degree of arousal. Although we tend to assume introverts just want to spend less time talking to other people, they usually also prefer quieter environments and more sustained conversations with one person. It’s unclear yet whether or not Eysenck is really correct, but Susan Cain has some interesting things to say about that. Check it out.

The Power of Introverts

However, the range of what is comfortable for human beings in terms of both the amount of stimuli and the level of nervous system arousal is really not that large. No one wants to listen to full-volume heavy metal 24 hours a day–not even hard-core fans. And no one wants to live in a solitary housing unit.

Many psychological torture methods rely on our need to stay at a moderate level of arousal. In some cases, torture is not inflicted by causing physical pain, but by over or under-stimulating victims to an unbearable degree for extended periods. At Guantanomo, detainees are subjected to bright lights or left in holding cells that are either very hot or very cold. Or they are subjected to continuous or unpredictable loud noises: recordings of babies crying, heavy metal, or high-pitched mechanical sounds. Those are all examples of over-stimulation.

In other cases, detainees are hooded or placed in solitary confinement without access to daylight. Those are situations of understimulation. It is every bit as terrible.

What is so painful about psychological torture is not the way it harms the body, but how it affects our minds when we are unable to regulate ourselves. Like other torture methods, its purpose is to traumatize the victim through a sense of a loss of control over oneself as well as over one’s environment.

And it works.

The Freezer

images (6)I want to tell you about the freezer today.

The freezer was in the garage–one of those chest freezers people usually keep out in their garage for all that extra food they have and don’t need. That’s where we kept it–in the garage. My parents bought it off a neighbor, I think. I don’t recall when that happened–if I was 5 when the freezer came into our lives, or if I was as much as 10.

But the freezer was my father’s torture chamber.

I don’t remember why I ended up in the freezer–or if my father justified it in some way.

I’ll tell you what I do remember: the experience of suffocation, the fear, the lightheadedness and the pain in my hands mostly from the cold. I also remember the strategies I used to try to stay conscious and to minimize the pain.

It helps, for one, if you don’t cry or call out. It helps if you breathe slowly and shallowly and as little as possible. It helps if you breathe into something warm, so that the cold air doesn’t hurt so much in your lungs and so that that part of you–whatever it is, an arm perhaps–is just a little bit warmer from your breath.

And you hope that you won’t die this time. Or perhaps that you will.

True and False Selves

Recently, I mentioned to someone else the necessity of creating the right performance if your life is in the hands of a sociopath or someone similar, or if you are being tortured, or if you are a child in the sex industry as I was.

I’ve said it before on this blog: everyone wants you to be someone if you are in that situation. Who they want depends on them, but it is never what you want. And survival–and by survival I mean not getting your head bashed in or your intestines ripped out of your body while you are still alive–depends on figuring out very quickly what performance to give and being able to give the performance convincingly.

images (5)
Life for Rent. G.M.B. Akash. 15-year-old Nodi works as a bonded sex worker for a brothel in Faridpur, Bangladesh. She was sold to the brothel by her stepmother.

I think that’s true of anyone in situations marked by violence coupled with extreme power differences, whether it’s a detainee at Abu Ghraib or a 6-year-old sex worker in Thailand. The detainee needs to know who the interrogator wants him to be. The sex worker needs to know who the john wants.

Our performance is not a self, although it’s possible to begin to mistake it for one if it goes on long enough.

Selves are always performative, but they are never the performance themselves. We are the directors and authors of our performances and the self always shows through. If we perform for the torturer or the john, it is evidence of our desire to live, a wish to avoid unbearable suffering. And it may point to a limitation in our courage or our will to continue to resist, but it is not evidence that we are the person the perpetrator desires.

The self is also our interior experience of witnessing and responding to the performance, which might include our sense of gratitude to the performance for saving our lives, or the guilt at betraying our real feelings and desires.

Our performances shape our selves. They tell us, in part, who we are. The way others  view us also shape who we are. But our internal experiences are also us. The”true” self lies at the nexus of all three. There is no such thing as a false self–although we might get confused about it if we begin to lose some part of the nexus: our internal experience, or our view of ourself, or the way someone else sees us. But the self can only be what it is and it is never still. It is always instead in a state of construction.

If we perform a character we are not in order to survive, the pain for us lies in the horrific nature of what is performed. In other words, it is what we endure while carrying out that performance that is so so terrible. It is only if I believe the performance is all there is to me that I can confuse the performance with myself, but that can never be true. A performance informs the self, but it is not the self.

The very necessity of survival creates an internal experience–fear, rage, revulsion, helplessness. I don’t think it’s possible not to feel this, although we might find ways to distance ourselves from it. But we are always, in the end, the one inside ourselves. The one who feels, thinks, reacts. We are the doer and never solely what we do.

Torture and the Soul

Trauma shatters our assumptions about how the world operates and what we need to do to survive in it. Torture shatters them doubly so, because it is carried about by human beings and we live among human beings we need to trust for our well-being and survival. In that regard, it is not unlike any other trauma that is the result of human action.

However, the deliberate and intentional nature of torture, as well as its ongoing and intense nature, makes it especially problematic. Following an experience of torture, we must accept that people not only do bad things, but do unthinkably bad things.

As such, it destroys our sense of the world’s goodness, that the world is worth being in and that people are worth knowing and being with. Torture destroys our sense of the world’s worth along with our own self-worth.

For that reason, torture can be said to destroy the spirit and the soul along with the mind and the body. In order to recover from a traumatic experience of torture—and with torture I include sex trafficking and ritual child abuse—we must rebuild our spiritual and moral worlds along with everything else.

Some people are able to turn to faith to guide them in this process, but religions have their own limitations. Others have nothing more to turn to than their own internal compasses.

For me, it came down to determining those qualities and decisions that make someone capable of carrying out atrocity and those that prevent them from doing it. My beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong, worth and detestability come down to the line that capacity draws.

Atrocity can only follow a failure in empathy and a disconnection from others and from ourselves. If we remain aware of the suffering of others, and if we are also aware of the suffering their pain is causing us, cruelty becomes impossible. We can’t do it. The hurt of hurting someone becomes too much.

In every case, someone who commits a heinous act against another person has found a way not to care or a way not to feel. They are either incapable of caring and lack empathy, like my psychopathic father, or they are so overwhelmed by their own emotions that the importance of the feelings of others recedes for them, or they have found a way to numb themselves and shut out their own pain about the harm they are causing.

Connection to oneself and to others is my holy grail, my single commandment. I think killing is sometimes acceptable, stealing is sometimes necessary, but cutting ourselves off from the world of feeling opens the door to evil.

This isn’t to say I believe we must be sponges to the pain in the world and absorb all of it, or to be consumed by our own feelings. I simply believe it’s better—it’s good—to feel. Not to excess, but in a way that is balanced and that allows us to be alive and in touch with the world but maintain an equilibrium.

I also know that this isn’t easy, that in the day-to-day hustle of the world it’s easy to numb ourselves to everything, to not notice what we are feeling or whether we are content or suffering, and to become inured to the plight of others.

But I still think it’s good, and I try to surround myself in the parts of my life I can choose with people who are capable of a deep care for others. They make me feel there are others who are still worth being connected to. They give me hope again, and correct my lingering despair.