(above image by lucreziac on deviantart)
The time between flashbacks and emotional pain is getting longer. It’s a relief to have a break but after a while I begin to feel like something is missing and I go poking around looking for the secret places where trauma dwells. This morning I went on such a journey and I started thinking about this coming afternoon and the week that has preceded it. My oldest son is in 5th grade and like every class before his, he’ll be serving at a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the incoming 5th graders and their Autumn wilderness trip. I’m thankful that he’s grown into a place in which he feels proud to give back to his school and provide others with the opportunity and experience he had. I’m also overwhelmed knowing this dinner will be an extremely challenging event for me.
I’ve spent the last week overdoing it in order to provide my family with a meaningful Passover experience, working extra shifts with my schizophrenic client and tolerating a living room that is filled with the contents of my oldest kid’s room because they got a new bed and are taking the opportunity to sift through everything they own. I’ve already pushed myself to the point that I’m having flashbacks and physical pain. Today I’ll go to therapy and engage in trauma work and then I’ll come home and spend the evening volunteering in a cafeteria filled with a few hundred people.
I don’t know what that would feel like for people who don’t have chronic illness or a history of trauma. I know the parents of my son’s best friend are stressed but I also sense excitement in them. I, on the other hand, am worried about the pain and fatigue I’ll feel in the days to follow, and the very real possibility that I’ll have a flashback or dissociate while I’m supposed to be helping 5th graders serve guests. Two days ago I had a flashback while talking to my youngest son and I was at home and not under the pressure of having to get anything done.
It took less than a minute for my mind to explore everything I’ve written about above. The conclusion I came to was that participating in the spaghetti dinner fundraiser is too much, and yet I’m choosing to do it anyway. I’m doing it because I want to honor my son’s maturity; I want him to know how proud of him I am and I think volunteering will be an act of solidarity. In my moment of reflection what I wanted more than anything was for my husband to see the challenges I face and the choices I make to push myself beyond what’s safe and comfortable. I want him to understand how choosing to do things that others can do without terrifying consequences takes immense courage and will power.
There’s incredible vulnerability in this choice I’ve made and my need to be seen is intense. I’m intentionally entering into a situation in which chances are high that I will be triggered and my fight/flight/freeze response will kick in. An important part of wanting to be recognized for this is that I do it all the time. I go to the grocery store when I’m already on edge. I drive to pick up medication I need or to take one of my kids somewhere they need to be. I go to work. I talk to other parents when I pick up my second grader from school. I do one more chore when I’m already feeling exhausted. I make myself emotionally available to my 19 year old when they’re feeling overwhelmed and I’m already feeling shaky. All the fucking time. Everyday. All these seemingly menial things are very often experiences with the potential to trigger a trauma response. When I hide out in the house, binge watch sci-fi/fantasy and put off my responsibilities, I’m not being lazy or uncaring, I’m trying to preserve enough of myself to face the next onslaught of everyday events. My closest friends recognize how hard it is for me to live this way and they tell me how proud they are of me. I want that from my husband more than anyone else.
So what would happen if my husband truly understood? Well, I would feel seen by him, for one. And maybe he’d be more willing to take me as I am-broken but trying really fucking hard to be the best I can be for him, our kids and myself. This need to be seen is deep rooted and I can see how it played a part in the choices I made to get involved with men who ended up abusing me, especially with the man who locked me up, physically and sexually accosted me, tried to kill me and stalked me until I moved to another state. Joe was a master at reflecting exactly what I needed from an intimate partner. He verbally acknowledged how debilitating my childhood trauma was and seemed to express a lot of empathy. I desperately needed to feel seen and he created the illusion that I was, while using my relief and gratitude to lure me into the trap of further abuse.
My need to be acknowledged is so strong that even after that experience I was still willing to risk intimacy again in order to have that need fulfilled. And here I am, 16 years into a relationship with a kind and gentle man and I feel like he doesn’t fully understand how hard I push myself to be someone who can foster feelings of love and safety in her children and accomplish basic aspects of managing a household. And then there’s the possibility that he does see and while he respects it, what I’m able to give him is not enough. If that’s the case I think I can accept it. I can recognize that he has needs and deserves more emotional and physical intimacy than I can provide.
Where does that leave me? Apparently with a lot of questions. Why do I need so badly to be seen by a partner? Is relationship impossible without that level of awareness and acknowledgment? Can I find a way to give myself the acceptance and empathy I want from a partner and would that be enough? Shouldn’t I be able to feel pride in myself and have that be enough? If I could do that and it were enough, could I then have a relationship in which I don’t need my partner to accept and understand me on such deep levels?