Light in the Darkness

Sometimes two things happen almost simultaneously and where they would have brought sweetness and peace on their own, together they are force that break down the walls of the prison you’d built around yourself.

Yesterday, someone I was close to in high school, someone I’ve stayed in touch with through the years but am not particularly close to now, wrote to me to discuss a shared effort to get masks to more people during this pandemic. He ended his message with:

BTW, to me, you will always be Lisa, the girl I loved in high school.

I was touched to know that he loved me then and does so still. Also confused about my feelings to the response because I had never told him that I was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and that Lisa was/is one of my alters. She was in control a lot during the time that I knew him and was wild and fun but also someone who left destruction in our wake. How could he have loved Lisa? I have done a lot of work to integrate her into my family of alters and she has not appeared at the front of consciousness for at least 20 years. I responded to his message with appreciation but also surprise. His response:

There was (and still is) a light in you that’s warm and inspiring.

I cried when I read it. A cry of relief and vulnerability. My therapist is relentless in pointing out that I have friends who’ve known me most of my life, through the good and crazy bad; friends who loved me then and love me now. She asks over and over again why I think that is. My response has been confusion. I can’t imagine how they could have stuck by me when I was out of control and hurting many of the people closest to me. I can surmise that they must have seen something special in me but the knowing of that just wouldn’t sink in past the protection I’ve put up around my heart.

I woke this morning with a tender heart, still very much touched by yesterday’s exchange with my friend. I checked my phone and saw a text from my best friend telling me that she’d gone out to check the cows this morning and one of them had given birth to a precious new calf. I started sobbing at the sweetness of the occasion and at the hope it brought to my heart.

Suddenly my mind and heart were online at the same time and were spinning with the processing of it all. Here’s this new, innocent creature, birthed in the midst of our human pandemic. Hope. And the answer to my question about why friends have loved me through all these long years. I may have been wild as a young woman, destructive even, but it was never from a place of malice. I started out as sweet and innocent as my friend’s new calf. But the things I suffered at my father’s hands, and later at the hands of other men, introduced a darkness into my uncomprehending being. I can’t fully understand how my mind turned it inwards, but the wave of feelings I experienced this morning told the story of a child who was faced with a radically unfair choice:

Find the strength to live seeing the immense darkness that dwelt in the world she was born into. A darkness that towered over her tiny frame; one she could not protect herself or her sister from.
Or, take that darkness into herself; believe that the unspeakable evil visited on her was deserved.

I see now that I chose the latter, because what else could I do? I could not make sense of a world in which evil lurked around every corner and could not be reigned in by anyone, no matter how powerful they were. I created a space within myself where that blackness could live so that I could walk through the world with some measure of hope, and with the sense that the darkness was a force contained in me, not one that ran rampant through a world of innocents. Over the years, and through abuses by multiple other men, my dark nature became confirmed again and again. I think that until very recently I continued to believe that I harbored an evil within me that I had to keep contained.

And then came the simple words of a friend:

There was (and still is) a light within you that is warm and inspiring.

A light. In me. One that is warm and inspiring. How could that be if there is an evil in me?

It’s not just Lisa who I believed carried this darkness. When I was living with my abuser, Paul, I came to believe (truly and with all my heart, and he reinforced the belief) that a dark and evil man lived inside of me. A vampire of a man. At the time, I even told my mother of this man; told her I had to capture him, drive a stake through his heart and cut off his head.

And yet, even then, when I watched the movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I heard Van Helsing say to Mina:
There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.
I cried because the words slipped past all the prison guards around the truths I had created and pierced my heart with a knowing that I, too, was a light in the darkness. And now my friend’s words echo this truth.

It’s a shame, though a product of the times, that in his book, Bram Stoker had two men kill Dracula. As much as I appreciate the book, I find Dracula’s death in the movie so much more powerful. In the end, it is Mina who takes his life, not as an act of vengeance, but one of love and compassion. She understands why he turned away from God and made a monster of himself, and she understands that the monster must not be allowed to continue spreading darkness. She has also felt that same darkness growing in her own blood and she knows the power of it. When she drives the stake into his heart, it is with love and with the support of those who love her and believe in her light.

If I am indeed a warm and inspiring light then I must apply myself to cutting out the darkness I took on as my own, because it does not now, nor did it ever, belong to me. I was violated, my innocence torn away from me, by those with darkness in their hearts, and they were content to let me believe that I drew darkness to me. To pry loose my belief that I am a source of darkness will be an act of compassion for myself then and now. I do not believe it will be a simple task but I see now that I have already begun this work, thanks in large part to the words of a friend and the birth of a new calf.

Lying in a cage while the door is open

image by Mariana Mayer from the book, Beauty and the Beast

I have been living in a kind of removed state since I left my marriage and moved into my own home. Before I left, when I was dreaming of life on my own terms, I had the notion that the simple act of creating my own space in the world would open the precious inner life I’d locked away inside myself for so long. I would pick up a pencil and sketch again. I would sing while strumming my ukulele. I would take up baking again, all the while dancing as I mixed butter and sugar, flour and cinnamon. I would open up my sewing machine and start a daring new dress or costume. I would spend my mornings sitting in front of my altar, burning sage, pulling oracle cards and conjuring magicks. There would be long walks with my dog in the nearby open space.

Once I’d settled in and created some order, I drew up a list of things that would feed my soul and bring me happiness and purpose. I told myself the reason I hadn’t begun doing any of those things was because I was tired, exhausted from the immense energy it took to find a place, secure it and move. I gave myself a month to rest, do whatever I pleased in the weeks when my boys were with their father. I colored, played video games, watched endless movies and shows, and allowed the cold and heavy snow to be an excuse for why I wasn’t leaving the house more often.

When the pandemic began I’d been living on my own for about 6 weeks. My month of rest was up and I was discovering that I didn’t want to do any of the things on my list. I resisted my therapist’s directive to notice feelings and find ways of expressing them. I avoided going to trauma informed yoga classes even when the pandemic made them accessible in my home via streaming. I felt sedentary and began to wonder why it was so hard to pick up a pencil or my instrument. I felt dry, empty and without motivation.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, psychologist and story teller wrote the following about women reclaiming their wild nature:

This is the hard part; this is the part where the shoes have to be cut off. It hurts to cut oneself away from an addiction to self-destruction. Nobody knows why. You’d think a captured person would be relieved to have turned this corner. . . But no, instead they go into a funk, they hear teeth gnashing, and discover they’re the ones making that noise. They feel they are bleeding somehow, even though there is no blood. Yet, it is this pain, this severing, this “not having a foot to stand on,” so to speak, this no home to go back to, that is exactly what is needed to start over, to start fresh, to go back to the handmade life, the one carefully and mindfully crafted by us every day.

The truth is, where I was once a prisoner to my abuse and then all the things I did to survive it, I am now lying in the cage I built and the door is open but I will not venture outside of it. I do not know how to live a life that is not driven by the deep need to survive. I have been severed from what inspires me by the energy it took to hide, run, or blend in and not be noticed. I had expected that once free, I would leap and bound into the wide fields of life and relish in my liberation. I am discovering that I don’t know how to be my own, wild self.

It is not surprising to me that this experience of not being able to leave the cage of my own making parallels my journey in the trauma work I’m doing right now. I had a major break through after leaving my marriage. I discovered and nurtured belief in my capability. I reinforced it every time I decided to do something on my own that I had previously thought myself incapable of. I turned down the opportunity to be in relationship with someone kind and with whom I feel joy and companionship; I stayed true to a deep need within myself to stay focused on my journey of self-discovery and growth. For a couple of weeks, I allowed myself to explore rage and I fought to stay connected with that unruly beast even though it was frightening and overwhelming.

And then I arrived at what felt like a standstill. The growth curve flattened out into a grassland of repetition. Notice the sensations in my body; communicate honestly with others about my needs and expectations; stay embodied when I feel myself slipping away into the oblivion of dissociation; respond to anxiety with compassion; nurture new relationships with care and transparency; experiment with balance in my life; practice self-care before caring for others. Each act felt small in comparison to the courage it took to journey into the dark places of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, to end a marriage that wasn’t based on mutual honesty and respect and to make my way in the world on my own.

The seemingly endless repetition of these daily practices appear minute when placed next to the efforts I have made in the past. And, I’ll be honest, it’s a bleak landscape, this endless repetition. When looked at under a lens during a therapy session, I can see growth happening, even acknowledge the wave of change I tug at, like a lunar orb pulling at a body of water otherwise moved only by wind. I continue to repeat these actions because I trust my therapist but they often feel as though they aren’t enough to change the course of a life that’s only ever been governed by fear, madness and loss.

Estés writes,
It is not too much to take one year, two years, to assess one’s wounds, seek guidance, apply the medicines, consider the future. A year or two is scant time. The feral woman is a woman making her way back. She is learning to wake up, pay attention, stop being naive, uninformed. She takes her life in her own hands.

The notion of taking a good, long time to re-enter the world feels right to me. I wish it were otherwise; I wish I could simply be moved into my own space and transformed into a person who knows who they are, what they want and is capable of instantly owning that life. All the years of therapy, the hard labor of unearthing trauma, tending to wounds, and learning new skills, make it very clear that nothing about this work will ever be immediate or simple.

The work is to keep doing the work. Even when it feels mundane and pointless.

In order to do that work and give myself the time and space to make my way back, I will try to cultivate kindness towards myself. I will attempt to find balance between allowing myself the space to simply be and the actions that will provide stability and consistency in my day to day life. I will do as my therapist keeps suggesting and do something nice for myself every day, just because. I will work towards nurturing acceptance of my feelings and experiences. I will attempt to remember that feelings come and go, because in knowing this fact, perhaps I will allow myself to feel in the moment, then allow the moment and the feelings to pass.

No easy tasks, these. But I have the comfort of perspective and experience. When I began DBT and EMDR, I didn’t know how, or if, I could go through those therapies. My therapist tells me I’m in the phase of trauma work called integration. I think I was expecting this piece to be easier than the work of the last 27 years. It is certainly different; it is more subtle and requires a lot of careful listening to inner voices I’m unfamiliar with because they were drowned out by the insistent wailings of the critically injured parts of myself. Now that the major wounds have been tended to and my soul is not in danger of bleeding out, I must begin the work of accounting for all the aspects of myself which have been neglected and left feral.

From behind the cold glass

Apparently, I truly suck at conscious grieving. I can feel the heartbreak and sadness trapped in my body; my infected lungs hold down the feelings and only spontaneous, unlooked for sobbing allows release. I’d like to think it’s too tender to touch with intention but I’m not sure that’s true. Perhaps I’m afraid that in gently prodding it, I will awaken something I won’t be able to sing back to sleep.

I feel stuck. I can’t figure out how to go about this. I’ve come so far and done incredibly heroic work. Against all odds I have:
I’ve actively remembered and accepted horrific traumas and succeeded at taking the charge out of those events so they rarely trigger panic dissociation.
Ive done a tremendous amount of cognitive restructuring; I have identified automatic negative beliefs that kept me trapped in shame and fear, challenged them, and created alternatives that more accurately reflect reality.
I fostered the reset of my nervous system so I no longer exist in fight/freeze all the time.
I looked closely at my marriage and recognized that it no longer served me, so I compassionately ended the relationship and physically moved into a new home.
I’ve allowed myself to explore and feel the rage that has lived inside of my unexpressed for most of my life. It’s terrifying and empowering.
I’ve done my best to raise my children in ways that empower them to feel agency over their lives and bodies, and I’ve done the least amount of harm possible in terms of passing down the effects of my trauma.

Why, then, does it feel impossible to hold the immense grief?

_____________________________________________________________________________

I look out my window through the white haze of snow. I can see the creek running high and fast over the rocks. I can hear the surge of water from the snow melt. It’s no more accessible than my grief. I feel both drawn to it’s power and cleansing energy but I’m loathe to put on my coat and snow boots and trudge through the heavy, wet snow to get to the cold creek. Part of me wants to strip down and walk out into the shock of the freezing water. I can imagine the jolt that would rush over my skin, the beat of my heart jumping into high speed, the sound of joy and surprise escaping my throat. It would be thrilling and life altering. But I will stay at my window and watch the snowflakes disappear into the foaming icy water. I will place my hand on the cold glass, feel the pull of the water but deny it.

Trying to find my way forward during the pandemic

I was just beginning to get a grip on my life after moving and now everything has been thrown into chaos by the pandemic. The kids are home all the time, seemingly emotionally adjusted to the quarantine. I spent the first two weeks of the staying home oscillating between dissociation and panic with big feelings. It’s been almost a month and after a few days of monitoring my mental health, I’ve decided I’m depressed. I was developing new ways of coping and it was challenging before the pandemic. The neural pathways to the new coping mechanisms aren’t deep enough yet, haven’t been traveled enough times, and so I’ve reverted to my old ways.

Shut it all down.
Squelch any uncomfortable or scary feelings.

Try to focus on anything other than what’s causing disregulation.
Shut it down.

The old pathways are there and they are deep. But I can’t quite go softly into that good night. The part of me that was awakened by the trauma work I’ve been doing is fighting against the closedown. I’m in a strange in between place. I can use my old coping mechanisms without thinking but they no longer feel comfortable. I feel myself being pulled down by waves of unconsciousness but my head keeps popping up above the water and my mind is telling me to stop treading and swim.

I keep wondering if I should force myself to do things I used to enjoy. Should I trim my nails and pick up the ukulele, even though I’m not inclined to do so? Go for a walk, even though leaving the house creates a tremendous amount of anxiety about contracting COVID? Maybe I could spend a day coloring and binging Netflix once the boys go back to their dad’s place. None of it sounds appealing and what I need to do is make masks for the people I love so they can stay safer when they leave their homes. I feel so little control over my life right now and giving people masks helps me feel a sense of agency. And I do enjoy the routine of sewing the same thing over and over again. I can listen to my favorite podcasts and stay focused enough to make well crafted masks. The repetition is soothing.

When I check in with myself honestly, I feel like a tremoring bundle of raw nerves. The rage against the patriarchy and abusers lives just under the surface of my flat mood. Fear of contracting COVID or having a loved one get it, get very ill and/or die. The push and pull of wanting to sink back into old ways of being versus doing my best to walk a new path that honors my feelings and the reality of what’s happening. Perhaps I need to stick to soothing right now and see what happens.