Quiet now all the time

It’s quiet now, an early morning after a late night. I could have gotten my youngest to bed by 9 but he wanted to read more of Watership Down because we’re near the climax of the story and he wants to find out which of the Sandleforde rabbits die in the final battle. He’s not worried about it. To the contrary, he wants at least one or two of them to die. He loves all of them but he’s pragmatic about the really big stuff in life. He can feel the intensity of what’s coming and he knows that in real life, few of them would escape with their lives.

He and my middle son apply this same pragmatism to the COVID 19 situation. They talk about the numbers each day and how it won’t be long before we know people who have it, people who die from it. And maybe it’s like my ex said to me last night: they are still young enough to only be able to grasp some of what’s happening and in a mostly conceptual way.

For me it’s almost exactly the opposite. I can’t seem to understand the meaning of the curve on the contraction deaths graph. I see it rising sharply, I read the numbers daily and a few stories about how New York City’s being impacted and I can’t get my head around it. But I can feel it. When I get home from the rare trips to the store, there’s a tremor in my hands I can’t control. I sit in the car and take long breaths as though I’ve just avoided a fatal car accident. It’s an eerie experience to leave the house, passing no one on the way to car, then drive down streets that are almost empty. The stores are strangely quiet, the beeps of the self-checkouts seem loud against the lack of human voices. There are people shopping but almost no one’s talking.

This morning, as I stood out on my silent porch in the darkness, I remembered that I’ve often stood in the quiet of midnight or morning and wondered what that silence would feel like if the sun were shining down on an apocalypse. Like many survivors of incest and violence, I’ve had apocalyptic dreams for as long as I can remember. Walls of water looming above, about to break down on me and the city I live in. Vampires. Bloody alien invasions. Nuclear bombs. The level of panic in those dreams mirrored what I felt in waking hours for no reason other than my amped up nervous system, a direct result of the neurological impact of ongoing abuse and massive uncertainty.

I get it, a pandemic is not apocalyptic on its own. But we are currently on the edge of massive change, the likes of which we haven’t seen in this country since WWII or the Great Depression. I grew up studying those events and hearing about them from my grandparents. They were hard times, times when people had to make huge adjustments to their lives in order to survive and help others. I’m making masks for friends and families and will soon be making them for the local hospital. It’s helpful to feel useful and know that I’m making a difference.

Lies I’ve Told Myself

A dear friend and fellow survivor wrote the following:

Sometimes, although it may feel counter-intuitive as trauma-informed practitioners, the most gracious thing we can do for ourselves and one another is allow our survival mechanism to exist without fighting against them. Instead, when these additional stressors have past, they may act as boundary-identifiers later on in our self-healing/community healing work. Informing us of how/when our powerful bodies are educating us on a more trauma-informed way of life that doesn’t exclude/eradicate survival, but rather offer gentleness to take up root alongside it. Forcing/demanding healing when the formidable power of our survival instinct is more activated is the opposite of what true trauma-informed self-care and community care looks like. We are not in this work to assimilate into the way that Western capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy applaud/legitimize, we are here to exhume new life without denying the darkness that will always exist beside the light.

Every time I read it, I break down crying. I want to stamp my foot like an obstinate child who refuses to accept reality. Apparently, I’m not gracious. I do fight against my survival mechanisms. I don’t appreciate them for keeping me safe, I just want them to stop being a part of me. I do believe they are shameful. I don’t want to soften. I have pushed against every barrier to healing that stood in the way of my journey towards healing, and I have won every challenge eventually. Here I stand at the foot of this work of acceptance and allowing and I shake and scream and refuse to do the work.

Perhaps it is because I have not cultivated trust in my body. I have negotiated a fragile peace with it but the purpose of this peace is not to truly allow for the existence of my body and nervous system as they are still informed by trauma and the drive to survive. It’s a false treaty I’ve signed; secretly, I still desire to eradicate the survival mechanisms and all of the reminders of trauma that live in my synapses and nerve endings. I want to subdue them and then banish them to never be felt again. I want to assimilate and be like someone who never experienced abuse. Who wouldn’t? I’ve spent my entire life trying to escape from the reality of the things that happened to me. And because I began when my neural pathways were still developing, I’m very skilled at it.

I used to believe there was a way out. I went to therapist after therapist, tried many different modalities of treatment and though I grew and acquired new skillful ways of managing my symptoms, I was always disappointed when I discovered the trauma and the marks it left on body and soul were still there. People have told me I’m strong, courageous and even do the work with grace. The truth is that I’ve always been desperate to change the past and I know now that’s a losing battle.

I was sitting with a new friend yesterday when the day and the stress of living in a world besieged by COVID 19 caught up with me and I dissociated. I tried to explain what was happening and I apologized for zoning out. Her response:
Why are you apologizing? This is your experience. It is valid.
I was touched and at the same time wanted to scream. It shouldn’t be valid. It’s a weakness. My fear, shaking, dissociating, cognitive distortions, all of the ways in which I respond from trauma, are a reminder of the things that happened to me. Living in this body is a constant reminder of the tortures I endured for almost half my life.

Perhaps the truth is finally saturating my consciousness. There is no getting over this. At no point will I turn and look back and see a past that is other than what it truly was. I take refuge in story and music and nicotine, sometimes in alcohol, but when I emerge back into myself, the reality is still the same. Perhaps it’s all this work to be/stay in my body. It’s catching up to me. I can no longer deny the truth when I’m awake in the very body that was harmed. I’m realizing there is no escape. All my life I’ve held the possibility of escape as a trump card that’s kept me from going mad or taking my own life. And now I’m sitting in the mess of my own tears and snot, holding this most important card and knowing it’s value was a lie. A lie that helped me survive, yes, but still a lie.

There’s nothing left to hold onto with any certainty.

Do I keep on with my journey now that the illusions that sustained me are revealed as the false idols they are? I no longer know where I’m traveling to, just walking forwards because I can’t go back to being blind and I can’t stand still. There is only the path ahead and it is shrouded with a mist so dense, I cannot even guess where it leads or what I will find on the path. I know myself well enough to know that I will not turn back; I will press onward even though I do so with no destination in mind.

I will continue to work at staying in my body, at feeling the sensations that arise, at noticing the automatic negative beliefs and correcting them as best I can. I have no trust in any particular outcome, only in my own abilities. I am angry that I was living for something that could never come to pass. Part of me wants to sit down on the path and refuse to go any further. And maybe that’s what I’ve been doing. Sitting in the dirt and waiting, hoping that perhaps the way would be made clear. I don’t believe it will. I thought I had entered into darkness willingly before but now I believe I have never truly faced the unknown with this much awareness of how fucked I could be. There is only me and the path that leads to the unknown. There is only me and how I decide to move forward. Maybe I stand at the very gates where Inanna stood before she entered the underworld.

Self-care implementation while also attending to ALL the things

I only have a few minutes to write today and what I need is probably more like a couple of hours. I thought today would be a day of rest but there are demands I can’t reschedule. My youngest is home with his chronic symptoms, I have to drive across town to pick up a check that was supposed to have been delivered 7 weeks ago and both my boys are having after school play dates at our house this afternoon.

This world I live in, this country, demands that I be on all the time. It doesn’t matter that I have two chronic illnesses and am healing from childhood incest and further abuses. I am not capable of attending to all that our society expects of me and yet I am not given any help either. Here I am, working so hard to unlearn the patterns of hypo/hyperarousal learned as a survival skill, and the expectations of the world are constantly pulling me back towards those now unhealthy ways of being.

How am I supposed to care for myself amidst all this activity? I did some trauma informed yoga before sitting down to write and I feel a little less jittery but it’s not enough. The ideal way to spend the day, that which would be most restful and rejuvenating, would be to make my bed my whole world while I color mandalas, watch nature documentaries, practice a mindfulness exercise on the ukulele and enjoy the mild temperature and the amazing breeze coming in my open windows.

While I can be honest with myself and accept that such a day will not come to be until Saturday, still 4 days away, I must also find ways to not let myself get pulled into full blown hyper or hypo arousal. This means some self-care has to be skillfully implemented amidst all the errands, activities and the noise of 4 boys running around my house for 2 hours this afternoon. I will have to be disciplined about taking breaks and pacing myself and also forgiving of myself when I don’t get all the things done as perfectly as I would like.

So far today, I’ve read my oracle card and practiced trauma informed yoga with a YouTube video. Perhaps it would be helpful to think ahead and have at least a sketch of what the rest of the day will be like and where I can insert some restful time. When I finish writing, I have to drive across town and then deliver a check to my town home’s management office. By the time I return, it will be almost time to pick up my kids’ friends. I wanted to clean the house a bit but I think sitting in my bed and coloring will be more effective in helping me get through the rest of the day. After the kids show up, I have to prepare the lasagna I’ve been promising to make for the last few weeks. When that’s done, I can retreat to my room and do as much of nothing as I have time for. Then it’s dinner time and the rush to get ready for bed. I’ll have dishes to do and can’t very well leave those until tomorrow since I’ll be working. I’ll have to accept that the living room will be a mess but perhaps the kitchen won’t be a wreck when I get up tomorrow morning. And I can make myself a restorative and calming cup of tea and drink it while reading to one of my boys.

I like that I’ve thought all of this out. Perhaps it will serve to remind me of the commitments I’m making to myself today; I want to stay as regulated as I can while also being aware that I am doing more than is healthy. Perhaps that will help me access empathy for myself if/when I do get anxious or shut down. Having a plan for self-care gives me a little structure with which to remember that taking care of myself is more important than getting things done or having a clean house.

Faith bird

I have a short memory when it comes to my faith in my healing journey and belief in my basic worth. I was doing some deep work for a few weeks and then the progress appeared to come to a halt. During the week I had with my boys I assumed it was doing all the parenting things that had caused a kind of pause. But I began having nightmares again and sleep became fitful; I wasn’t able to rest in sleep and wake feeling recovered.

My boys have been with their father for three days and while sleep continues to be challenging (last night I had a night terror, the first in many weeks), I’ve also been having difficulty touching my feelings. It’s as though I’ve distanced myself from them again. And that would make sense, as the emotions I was feeling and expressing recently were earth shaking rage and deep caverns of sorrow. They frightened me, especially the rage which feels as though it is both mine and that of countless generations of female ancestors who came before me.

A dear friend who is doing her own journey of moving beyond trauma told me she has bouts of intense symptoms (sleeplessness, dissociation, anxiety, and rage) that leave her unable to work or attend to many of the most basic tasks of living. Eventually, she is given a brief refuge in which calm returns and she can go back out into the world for a time, before the inner work begins again. She believes something inside of her knows how much she can take, even though it feels as though she will be obliterated by the wounds that present themselves.

I’m still trying to develop that self-trust. For months, my therapist has been pointing out all the places in my life where I’ve been strong and capable; so much so, that I now laugh when I hear her beginning to remind me. And yet, in between sessions, I cannot seem to find the very beliefs that seemed so obvious while I sat on my therapist’s couch. But how could it be otherwise, when I suffered so many repeated abuses over the years? I learned early that there was no hope of rescue or an escape route.

At the end of the series, Altered Carbon, this quote is voiced:

They say hope begins in the dark. That faith is the bird that feels light when the sky is still dim. But with every tomorrow, we carry our past. It echoes beneath our feet. There are no clean slates.

It is clear to me that my early connection with nature planted the seed of faith in me. I could see the healed wounds of trees and the inescapable fact that while that tree may have lost a limb, it still towered over me, growing and responding to seasonal changes with a wisdom that kept it alive and able to give life to new trees. I escaped into the woods or parks whenever I could. And there I watched life finding a way and I was touched with awe. I could not see how I could ever survive to be anything other than the raped, berated and beaten child. While faith was externalized, I could find it anywhere in the natural world. My faith bird could soar and feel the sun even when, for me, there was only darkness.

Now I call the bird back to me in all the things I do that build self-trust. I drink my herbs, set boundaries with others that give me the space and safety I need, let my body shake when I feel terrified or angry, experiment with finding activities that might feed my soul, spin spells and read my cards, move my body in yoga and dance; the list is evolving and I’m learning to do some of these things everyday, even when I feel distanced from myself. And there does seem to be some growing trust in my ability to stay in my body and keep myself safe.

Perhaps part of keeping myself safe is accepting the cyclical nature of the healing process. At this point my work is learning to feel my emotions and stay present and it takes an immense amount of energy and feels terrifying. And then there’s the work I’m doing around doing the feeling work; I’m learning to trust myself to do the dance that is healing by practicing to have a more honed discernment about whether I’m truly in need of a break or simply avoiding what feels like too much, but could be remained with.