Return

I got the email Thursday night sometime, that I was approved to teach in Country X for 2018. They are sending me back to Y-town. The email warns that there may still be changes and the placements are not final, but somehow I trust there won’t be. The snag for me would be housing, because Y-town is something of a boomtown. They are still in the midst of a building a hydropower plant somewhere nearby, and it has brought quite a number of new people to town to work on the project from all over Country X. I don’t really know how many, but in an area of 3,000 people even 20 new families living in the central town area has an impact.

Anyway, I left a message for C on Faceback afterwards. She got it later and sometime in the night–around 11–I saw she was online and we chatted about it.

“You got here, Mom?”

“Yes, I did.”

“But I won’t stay here.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Timbuktu [the town where her mother and stepfather live–it’s the middle of nowhere, so I call it Timbuktu]. Am fade [sic] up with Y-town.”

“Is there a high school in Timbuktu?” (I think there isn’t. The school goes up to tenth grade, as far as I know.)

“I won’t qualify.” There is an exam C has to pass in December that determines whether she has a place in a public school. There is a pass mark, which is pretty low, and a qualifying mark that is quite a lot higher.

Can you see it? Push, hide, shame….Disorganized attachment fun. Go away, relationships are dangerous. I’m afraid. I’m not allowed to have relationships and I am not good enough to have one.

I might have mentioned this in my last post, but I think I forgot to. With my friend, I began to realize there is this pattern where during stressful times she impulsively reaches out to me and says kind, warm things that pull me towards her. Once I am there, she hates my guts. It creates the sense of being deceived. I don’t think she is intentionally deceiving me, although she seems to interpret her behaviour that way. I think she has dramatically different emotions and therefore different perceptions at different times. But it creates the sense she has pulled me to her for the sole purpose of emotionally pummelling me.

I think of a child experiencing this from a parent, repeatedly, the same cycle: being drawn in with warmth and the promise of nurturing and then being rejected or humiliated or controlled–treated in some way that makes the parent feel more powerful and therefore safer. That’s what C feels when I draw her to me. Do you really mean this? If I trust you, are you going to hurt me?

I cannot remember ever trusting my mother or feeling drawn to her. I only remember submitting to her attention when she felt like giving it to me, because I felt I had to. But when I was very little, before I can remember anything, I am sure I did fall for what later would have felt like a deception. I needed a relationship so badly I would have risked abuse even after I began to put things together.

The fear I feel now is about that deception. If someone seems to like me or enjoy my company, I don’t know whether or not to expect a trick. And the thing is I do have all of these people in my life who do have some version of relational trauma, and I am not a little girl anymore, but being invited forward and then pushed away, attacked and put down or criticized and controlled still hurts. I am still a human being with feelings and it does still hurt. On top of that, there are people who have real power over me, even though I am an adult.

I had a principal who did not renew my contract out of the same disorganized attachment. My friend took away my home at the worst possible time of year–before school had started and I did not even know how much work I would be getting or where I might get called to work. Everyone has vulnerabilities, and adults are clever enough to know how to exploit them. They can harm you by sullying your reputation in front of your boss or creating friction in your social circle by spreading rumours about you. Teachers can bully your children, as the matron did C when the matron was angry at me. There are all kinds of way to get power over someone, even between equals. So there are real things to be afraid of.

But the fear I have about people is about that cycle of abuse, the seduction and then the violent rejection.

 

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Other Natalyas

When I was young, there were two people I was ever certain really loved me (possibly three): Lala and Natalya (and probably Loocey). Lala and Loocey I lost very early in life, and there was never anyone else like them.

So when Natalya was murdered, I felt not just that I was losing a person, but the only love that existed. I lost the only person who could ever be trusted or that was reliably good.

When we are young, our views are constricted. We know only what we have seen and experienced, and we have not seen or experienced very much yet. When we fall in love and lose that love, we don’t know that other loves will exist in the future, or what happens after your heart is broken—that it heals. I had had so few people in my life whom I could trust that I did not know there would ever be anyone else in the future for me. Because of that, the sense of loss I felt was not just for the loss of her as a person, but for love itself.

I have found I have to relive these things. It is not enough to say what I said to you just now, that I felt I was losing love itself, and then to say, “but I know better now.” In fact, I don’t know what it was like at all for me until I feel it again. I can’t really say what I thought or how things seemed to me then. I have to feel them in order to know them.

The person I am now—not the whole of me, but the part who makes decisions, who gets through the day, who is trying to organize all this—was formed out of a history in which only some of my life happened. She has a view of the world where Natalya never existed, where she wasn’t trafficked for sex, where her father didn’t torture her. She only went to school, played with her friends, did normal things. And mostly she didn’t feel anything. She was numb and flat and withdrawn. So she knows only what that life is like, and she makes decisions based on a world that is predictable, but pallid.

At the same time, memory works in such a way that she is constantly reminded of the things that didn’t happen. She is constantly prompted to feel emotions about them. So she is frightened at reminders of events that never occurred and responds with automatic behaviours to events that are similar to those she denies.

I wish sometimes that I understood exactly what had happened in my body and brain at the time of the trauma that led to splitting into parts. What was it really like for me then?

So this is some speculation about it.

On the one hand, I think there is always a degree of numbing going on. We think of this as psychic—we are numbing our feelings during trauma—but our feelings are physical things. They are sensations, and we numb them along with physical pain. We may not be able to suppress them entirely, but we can anaesthetize them. This means we can know that we have a certain emotion—fear or shame or sorrow perhaps—but there’s something strange about it, something ambiguous, because the feeling seems very faint. Or we feel only parts of it—the rapid breathing of fear, but not the knot in the stomach. Because of that, maybe we ascribe this feeling that isn’t entirely felt to something on the other side of a wall. It feels on the other side of a wall. Maybe it is on the other side of the wall.

Then also, we flatly deny what is happening or we deny how we feel about it, in order to maintain some kind of calm. No, I am not watching my best friend’s murder. No, I’m not screaming. But I see it happening. I hear myself screaming. That must be someone else. Self-construction occurs out-of-awareness. It keeps going on even when we give it confusing information—like that we aren’t doing what we are doing. We aren’t seeing what we are seeing.

I didn’t experience my life in a full way and dissociate it later. I experienced it in a dissociated way all along. What I experience now when I relive things is only partly the way I experienced it in the past. It is what the person I was then and the person I am now would experience together if I were to be in that situation in the present. I am giving it the same information—in some cases, sensory memories but very often the physiological process in my body that created a subjective sense of emotion. It’s like I am hitting “Play” on a physical reaction in my body that I recorded at the time, and now I am watching it again to try to put that memory into context, but this time I am not hitting the “numb” button at the same time. When Natalya died, I did not in fact feel the intensity of the loss that I am feeling now. In that sense, I am not reliving it. I felt loss and I numbed it. Now I am feeling it and not numbing it. And it’s that process—of feeling and not numbing—that is allowing me to integrate and to heal.

I am focused on the element of integration—because I am most motivated to put my personality back together. Seeing and feeling the same memories without denying any of it does allow me to create a different, more complete view of the world, and it also gives me a more complete view of myself. There is an important cognitive piece that is happening.

But it also means I am responding to the trauma differently as I am reminded of it in the present. I am not hitting the “numb” button when the “play” button gets pressed—and for me almost every emotion hits the “play” button, because the trauma involved needing to not feel or even really be. I haven’t gotten to the point where reliving events gets easier or I am reminded of them less. I presume in the end this does happen, and that it happens because there is a more robust web of connections between the event and other events, other possible responses, rather than getting shut down. So then the bullet of the flashback gets lost in a way. You are reminded, and then get distracted by the other things you are reminded of. Meandering becomes possible. I don’t know. The only thing that has really gotten easier is Halloween, which used to fill me with intense anxiety and terror for months in advance. I am not feeling that way this year. I am instead despairing.

Not numbing seems to do more than just lead to integration. It seems to reduce the intensity of the memories, but I don’t know why that is.

However, none of this was really intended to be the point of this post. The point was supposed to be that for me, losing Natalya, meant losing all possibility of love in my life. Now, I am starting to see that there might be other Natalyas in my future. There might be others who love me and that I can trust.

Trust and trust

I dreamed, first, that a friend I was visiting had an elaborate system of barrels and hoses in their kitchen with an inscrutable purpose. One of the hoses suddenly began to gush out onto the floor. It took some time to figure out the best thing to do was to let the hose into the sink until the cause of the running water was sorted out. Even in dreams, the obvious doesn’t always come to mind first.

Then I was looking around the house. There was a kind of basement/closet full of unnecessary things, many of them still in boxes.

These days, my dreams are so vivid they seem as much a part of my life as what I do in the day. I went to school yesterday and told my friends I was exhausted from my dreams, but they only looked at me blankly. They must all be sound, quiet sleepers who never dream about gushing hoses or unruly classes that (in my dreams) are always scattered over multiple rooms (so how can I possibly teach them?) or sliding towards the edge of cliffs.

But, before I fell asleep, I was thinking again about Madame Kay. I had dreamed about her the night before. I dreamed she was speaking to me and I could not understand anything she said. Then in the day, I went to talk to her for some time. I don’t see her much these days and I missed her. I began to say something. She pointed across the room at something. I couldn’t tell what. No one was speaking just then. One man was doing something on his phone, another man was just staring (which is what he usually does in the staffroom). She said then, “I’m talking to Health-in-Charge.” (Only she said his name). Health-in-Charge was the man looking at his phone, not saying anything.

She was not unkind about this. She just told me, like I didn’t know and needed to be told.

Then Health-in-Charge said something at last. Madame Kay might have said something back. I couldn’t tell when the conversation was ongoing. I couldn’t tell when it ended either. So I sat silently. Then Maths Sir came and began talking loudly in the Regional Language as he often does, and the conversation trotted on away from me. No one said anything I could understand until one of the other ladies—PPB Maam—came to sit at her table, which is next to Madame Kay’s.

No, I don’t understand anything Madame Kay says anymore.

Yesterday, I was talking to Madame Kay about something or other. Maths Sir came and began talking loudly in the Regional Language. They talked for some time. I couldn’t understand anything. He can interrupt and take the conversation off into some other place I can’t follow. I cannot. Now, maybe this conversation with Health-in-Charge was vitally important and therefore different than my conversation with Madame Kay the day before. I have no idea.

But I was angry, and I sat while PPB Maam and Madame Kay and the others talked, and I responded when appropriate, but I sat there a little in shock. Shock at the incompressibility of the double-standard and shock at my own anger. Leaving, I felt I didn’t think much of Madame Kay anymore. I felt like a use-and-throw friend for her. Maybe I am. Maybe I am entirely misunderstanding the situation. I don’t know. I will probably never know. That was the message in the dream. It is not cultural. I understand everyone else. I just don’t understand her.

In the night, though, I missed her. What I thought about before sleeping was how that felt. Because for one part of me, longing for others is a new feeling. It is as incomprehensible as the hoses in my friend’s dream kitchen.

I thought about trust also. From Madame Kay, I learned a physical trust. I had to. Either I could trust her or I could run away from her, because she kept touching me and I could either get comfortable with that or move out of reach. I chose to get comfortable. I tolerated my fear of touch until it began to dissipate. It hadn’t really occurred to me that trust comes in different forms and, although they are linked, they are not the same. From Madame Kay, I learned simply to feel that someone could be in close physical proximity without being dangerous to me. I learned that people are not man-eating tigers.

You would think I might have learned that before now, but I have not. I have only suppressed my fears. Anyone in the same room with me is a threat. Anyone within arm’s reach might kill me. I think I still feel that way about most other people.

You miss out on a lot that way.

But who to share confidences with, who to ask for help, who to develop an emotional tie with, who can be relied on to be available when you need them, who can be trusted to try to understand. Well, that is a different. I don’t have that worked out, or if I have it worked it out, then it is not linked up with physical trust and I feel afraid to be in the same room as the people I think I can rely on to listen to me.

In fact, I do know that Madame Kay is not reliable. She gets caught up in whatever she is doing and lets other things go. Important things, like her husband, like the kids. In the very beginning, Madame Kay made the suggestion that she would take me along with her to visit a monastery nearby. If she went, she would call me up. She did go, but she forgot to call me. It was only after she arrived that she thought of me, and then it was too late. So that is Madame Kay. She is kind, but her kindness is insubstantial, flimsy. From the standpoint of attachment, she is a poor choice. But I am attached to her because she kept holding my hand. It felt good to trust someone enough to be close to them—anyone. So it felt good to be around her.

I need to learn to trust the people who don’t necessarily hold my hand, who don’t force me either to trust them or run away. I need to learn to stay close to the people who are, you might say, sort of normal.

This is unbearably painful to think about. I am aware for the first time of the loneliness I feel because of my inability to trust, and at the same time I feel such terror at trying to relax my self-protectiveness.

Many years ago, the first time I ever had a real girlfriend, I had this idea that, while I had difficulty trusting, if I could learn to trust just one person, maybe I could learn to trust others. It turned out she was not trustworthy, but the idea holds true in my mind. I learned to trust Madame Kay. I can trust others. But it’s still terrifying.

Safety, security, and trust

lockPeople don’t make me feel safer. Things do.

A locked door, quiet, cleanliness, being able to see the door, even money in my wallet and in the bank–those things make me feel secure.

But lately I’ve begun to see that it can be different from that.

For me, safety with people means that I feel a reasonable degree of certainty that they won’t harm me. And by harm I mean physical assault. Standards, evidently, are low.

It took me years–even decades–to realize that other people seemed to have very different definitions of trust. In a real sense, it didn’t seem to me that I had any problem with trust. People kept telling me that I did have difficulty with trust–notably, therapists–and so I assumed they must be correct. But it didn’t really add up in my mind.

I say that because, overall, I think I’m quite good at assessing matters of physical safety. Having lived and travelled in large, presumably dangerous cities for most of my adult life, I think it says something that I’ve never been robbed, I’ve never had my purse snatched, I’ve been physically sexually harassed but never seriously assaulted. And even that was a very long time ago. I may have just been lucky, but I think I may also have been able to keep myself safe.

I might even be more or less gifted at assessing some kinds of truthfulness, and that helps also with other kinds of safety.

Yes, it’s hard for me to share certain experiences, certain feelings and vulnerabilities with other people. But that’s because I’m afraid some god-like force will appear out of nowhere and strike me dead. It’s nothing to do with the person sitting there listening. I just don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt or a chunk of ash.

It never occurred to me that trust in relationships occurs for reasons well beyond the kind of neutrality that results from an absence of physical threat, and that it has to do with many other, more subtle things. Really. It didn’t.

One of them is simply about presence. The people you trust are the ones who keep coming back. Nandhini and I, despite the 10,000 or so miles between us, have lasted as long as we have in part for the simple reason that one of us keeps calling. And the other keeps picking up the phone. So, the people you trust can be depended on to be there and to be available to you in some way. Not all the time, but enough that it’s something more than a crap shoot. You don’t reach out and keep touching air.

What happens when you are very afraid, as traumatized people often are, is that you don’t reach out, so very few people are ever there. At the same time, you also have a tendency to retreat and to flee and so you aren’t able to be there for other people very well either. You don’t always end up with very trustworthy people in your life, because you can’t always be trusted. So it’s hard. The people who can form relationships with someone who isn’t trustworthy are often not very trustworthy themselves–and sometimes for more nefarious reasons than simply feeling afraid.

And this is probably some of the magic of therapy. You pay them, so they do come back. You can push them away, but they return. It isn’t a two-way street. And so you can have a relationship. You can learn about trust.

But there was a point when I didn’t know to expect that from anyone. I had close relationships–or thought I did–with people who were there sometimes, and other times not.

And then there is this other thing that relates to trust but is entirely new for me. In fact, I don’t understand it. It makes my head hurt to think about it.

This other thing you might call relational trust. Relational trust really comes down to the other person liking you, and liking you for who you are. So there are certain things they don’t do: they don’t tell you that you should live your life differently than the way you are living it, they don’t make fun of you or the of the things that matter to you, they don’t criticize and they don’t judge. Not because they are generous, non-judgmental people, although that helps, but because the reason they spend their time with you is that they enjoy you. The point isn’t just to exercise power over you or to have someone they can feel superior to.

Instead, they encourage you in the pursuit of your goals, because they think what you’re trying to do is worthwhile. Sometimes, they even praise you, because they believe, in spite of your faults, you have good qualities also.

As it turns out, a third element of safety arises out of this: the people who like you and spend time with you find themselves wanting to help you. They can’t turn your life rightside up if it’s gotten itself upside down, but they can lend a hand from time to time–and they do. They want to.

So, if you have secure relationships with safe people, then you aren’t just safe from them, but safer in the rest of your life, because they help you cope with adversity.

It began to occur to me earlier in the year that I felt safer simply having Nandhini in my life. When I have difficult decisions to make, or even just so many small ones I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I have a sounding board for thinking about them. At the very least, there is someone to talk them over with who might have a different perspective or a new idea. And there is someone to ask for advice, even if in the end I decide to ignore it.

The fact that this is a surprise to me probably begins with not having parents–not parents who counted,who did parental things. I’ve always had to make my own way in the world, to decide myself what was going to be best for me in the long run. There was never anyone more experienced or knowledgeable to ask. Even now, although I do ask, I find no one else is quite like me. What I am told will work doesn’t work. And approaches that seem effective for other people seem to turn out disastrously for me. Instead, I often ask for information, rather than advice. But the benefits of advice from someone more experienced are ones I’ve come to understand well enough to crave.

But that’s just one kind of help that comes with relational safety.

When I moved out of my apartment recently, I had help. A lot of it, actually. Someone is storing the things I decided to keep and also helped me move them. Someone else brought his truck and pitched in with all the heavy lifting. A third person helped me cart some things I didn’t want off to the charity shop. A fourth person took me to the airport. And the person who is storing my things had me stay with her after I’d moved my things out and there was no longer any place to sleep.

I have never done anything that involved help from so many people, and especially something that wasn’t a crisis or a cause. Just me, needing to pack my things up for an adventure.

I can only guess they did it because they want to see me succeed in this. They like me, and because they like me they also like the kinds of goals I have for myself. But I’m only guessing.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of it. It was one of those things I didn’t have enough time to think about. It was happening. And so I still don’t know what to make of it. But it’s the kind of thing that happens in safe relationships.

And that’s the part that’s hard. Because it’s there, and now I can see it is there. But I don’t understand it. I can’t.

A Post that Seems Like It’s Going to Be about Cats, But Isn’t.

It’s really not fair.

imagejpeg_6 - Copy

Old age has made her weirdly docile. You’ll see there’s a stuffed elephant there also. That’s because I tried the elephant first.

In fact, the fire alarm went off twice in my building–they’re doing some work and messed about with the wrong wires, I guess. Anyway, it was screeching away. I didn’t know if it was a “real” alarm or not; the guy who used to put things on the stove and then wander off to sleep or shower or have sex seems to have moved out, and they hadn’t warned us about testing anything today, so it might have been.

So I picked her up, covered her ears with one hand, and set about putting on my shoes with the other. That’s when the alarm went silent.

But in earlier days, she would have been under the bed in a heartbeat. With a loud noise screaming in her ears, she would have clawed her way right around my neck and down the other side of me.

It’s totally unfair of me to see what stuffed animals she’ll let me put on her back.

But I don’t feel bad. I’ll tell you why. And I told this to a friend of mine yesterday after lunch, after her cat hissed at me and fiercely batted my hand with her right paw. My cat hisses at me every day. Sometimes, several times a day.

I know exactly when she’s in pain or even just irritated, because she tells me. And if don’t stop–because, for example, I’m trying to get that nasty hangover-like feeling to go away with a little syringed food and water–she bites me. Not hard. Just enough to let me know I should cut it out. And if I still keep at it, like I did when injecting subcutaneous fluids seemed like a good idea, then she starts seeing about how to remove one or both of my hands.

Which is why we have that deal about needles. I won’t stab them in her neck, and she’ll let me keep all my digits and limbs.

In other words, my cat sets boundaries. She tells me clearly and in no uncertain terms what is not okay. She tells me when she thinks I’m causing her pain as well as when she’s deeply annoyed. And that means I know when she isn’t.

That is the foundation for trust between us. That is what boundaries do.

I’ve heard boundaries explained as knowing the difference between ourselves and others, and I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But it doesn’t work for me. I am pretty sure my cat knows the difference between us, but I also thinks she’s not smart enough or social enough to have a self-image that might be separate than mine.

Cats following the "my dish, my food" rule.
Cats following the “my dish, my food” rule.

I do think she understands rights. Because part of being a cat is sometimes negotiating one’s rights with other cats–when there are other cats around. Whether you have the right to eat from all  of the cat dishes, or just your own. Whether you have a right to sleep in the favored spot in the sun. Cats work that kind of thing out. No, they might agree. Someone else can only eat out of my dish when I’m finished with it. Or, they might agree that alpha cat can eat out of whatever dish she damn well pleases, whenever she feels like it. It depends on the cats.

But rights are rules we agree on. Sometimes they are fair and reciprocal, and sometimes they are not. But they have to do with with our security, our well-being and our comfort.

I’ve taken my cue from my cat. For one, you don’t need to jump all the way to drawing blood if someone challenges your boundaries. Try hissing first. Use your words.

Months back, I was sitting on the bus next to a young man who had that familiar problem with his knees. You know, that difficulty young men seem to have in keeping their knees anywhere within 3 feet of each other. He was all up in my space.

Irritating. And I didn’t have brothers, so I’m not all that great at dealing with it. I have a tendency to assume that someone who violates normal social boundaries (like you don’t touch people on the bus if you can help) does so because they don’t care. Which is sometimes the case. But sometimes people are distracted, or just a bit stupid. You know, like me thinking it was a good idea to put stuffed animals on my cat’s back.

And I asked him, “Would you move your knee please?”

“Sorry,” he said. And did. Just like I would have taken the elephant off the cat’s back if she’d hissed at me. I was a person just being a bit stupid, but not malicious.

And I wonder if that’s part of why it’s so difficult for abuse survivors to trust. Our rights have been violated so often and so profoundly, that we don’t know how to stand up for those rights. We don’t know what they are or what we would want them to be. We don’t expect to be allowed to assert them if we knew.

And when we have set boundaries, no one listened. If we started at the hiss, we had no choice but to move onto biting, and then to drawing blood. Often enough that maybe now we start with drawing blood. With an end result that then we both are hurt afterwards.

Why I have so many stuffed animals is a different story...
Why I have so many stuffed animals is a different story…

That process of developing trust doesn’t have a chance. There is never that moment when someone we are starting to care about violates our boundaries and we tell that person to stop, thereby getting to see that he will stop. And this person we are beginning to care about never gets a chance to see that we will tell him when to stop before he’s really hurt us.

You end up with one person who feels continually trampled, and another who is a bundle of nerves wondering when he is going to put a foot wrong. That isn’t trust.

That’s an attempt at mind-reading, and regardless of our amazing capacity to transmit emotions just like looking at each other, we just aren’t that good.

I owe a lot to this cat.

Trust

“You have a hard time trusting.”

Heard that before? It’s kind of a dumb thing to say. Sort of like, “The sky is blue,” or “Things fall if you drop them.”

Duh.

It’s just a statement. Is there anything in particular I was ever supposed to do about it? Was there anything you were expected to do?

Trust through an effort of will? Let go of your own capacity to reason and judge and submit to someone else’s?

I’m not really sure.

But I do know what I have done about it.

Done things anyway. And learned to live with the fear of uncertainty.

I don’t know what will work and what won’t. I can protect myself from some kinds of harm, but not all kinds. I don’t know what the future holds or what impact my actions will have on it. Not really. I don’t know that it will always be good. Sometimes it hasn’t been. Sometimes it won’t be.

But you can play everything as safe as you can in life. And things will still go wrong. You can still be struck by a car walking down the street. You can still develop untreatable cancer. Your spouse can still leave you or cheat on you without having the guts to leave first. Your best friend can still betray you.

You can go on living anyway.