Memory, Trauma & Alters: walking the tightrope of recovery

My therapist and I have been trying to get an accurate count of my alters, as well as their names and ages. It’s been difficult, to say the least. I know a few of them quite well but there are others who hang back in the shadows. I have a sense that one was born when I was doing parts work twenty years ago. The therapist wasn’t skilled at the work and pressured me into it. As a result, I had a psychotic break in the middle of writing my master’s thesis and taking care of my first child.

I admire the tenacity of my brain. The person I’d been couldn’t cope with the tsunami of feelings that came with exploring my alters, especially the small ones who carry the memories of my childhood abuse, so someone else was born who could put the lid on all of that. The person who had the psychotic break got left behind in some dark place in my mind, while her replacement finished my degree, became a good mother to baby and pretty quickly packed up and left my alcoholic husband. It was as if the parts work had never happened

After each of my other babies were born, the previous alter returned and I experienced post-partum depression and psychosis again. I didn’t understand it at the time because I had decided I no longer had DID. I was diagnosed with post-partum issues but, thinking back, I was experiencing the same symptoms I’d had while doing the parts work. I became paranoid that my babies were aliens or demons, had the urge to leave them laying in their cribs instead of holding and feeding them, and sometimes saw people who weren’t there.

I remember so little about my life. My therapist explained to me that long term memories often aren’t made when we’re in our sympathetic nervous system. This is why it’s not uncommon for abuse and assault survivors to remember seemingly insignificant things about the violence perpetrated on them, but have fragmented memories of the specifics. Those specifics might not be committed to long term memory but the body, the nervous system, remembers.

I live in a body that clearly remembers being violated and harmed. I’ve worked hard to spend more time in the ventral vagal system, the part of the nervous system that feels safe and in which we can feel connection. Even so, I still have at least one or two nights per week in which I wake with flashbacks or night terrors. I still have a sensitive startle response. It’s confusing. I appreciate having been protected from the full force of the memories of 22 years of childhood domestic abuse. AND, the disconnect I experience because my alters hold most of my memories feels disconcerting. I want to be whole but I’ve experienced so much splitting that I’m afraid that might be impossible.

At the same time, I recognize that I’ve only just begun doing parts work and I’m taking it quite slowly. Perhaps I need to make more of an effort. It’s so hard to know how much I should push myself. Doing this work is like walking an invisible tightrope that doesn’t go in a straight line. I have to keep moving forwards on the tightrope if I’m to get to a place of steadier ground but I’ve fallen off the rope before and gotten lost in psychosis. I’m terrified of that happening again so I’m being super cautious. Maybe too cautious to move forward towards more integration.

Further confusion is caused by the things I say while I’m dissociated sometimes. There seems to be an alter in there who consistently comes up when I’m dissociated but I don’t remember or understand the things she says. I think she might be the part of me that got lost in psychosis because she babbles about things that have happened throughout the day and very much wants to make her experience more organized. But she seems lost in her own internal process.

I’m going to make an effort to actively work with my DID this week, while also being cautious and trying to listen to myself so I can begin to understand what my limits are. This work still terrifies me but my goal for this year was to live in the present with whatever’s most true. Feelings, memories, breath, body, and alters.

Update on message to my father

I woke up yesterday and discovered my father had received the message I sent him via his work website. He responded with the following:

His response is exactly what it was when I first confronted him 29 years ago. I had a LOT of feelings in response to his denial. I spent a couple hours on the phone with my best friend who is also a trauma survivor and is in therapy with a very skilled psychologist. The whole day was devoted to processing my feelings, taking care of my littles and trying to find the words to respond to him. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the day without my best friend and the unexpected response to my last post from another trauma survivor I trust and love. I had so many conflicting feelings and some doubts about my memories and contact with these friends gave me the gift of feeling seen and validated.

My friend gave me the amazing advice of taking all my rage and making a list of things I can do to express it that will also allow me to seek some justice and/or revenge. And she was careful to remind me to only engage in these activities for as long as it serves my healing and growth. She’s so incredibly wise and strong. We discussed several ideas and I decided to speak to a lawyer in the state where the abuse happened, find ways of destabilizing my dad’s well being, and, because I practice magick, create a spell that will invite justice to happen. I have several things I’m now pursuing, including getting my dad’s name and photo added to the Jewish Community Watch’s: Wall of Shame. This is a website where the names and photos of known and suspected child molesters and abusers are posted. It’s pretty fucking badass.

I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the day and I slept really soundly and without any night terrors or memories. I’d like to think that’s because I worked so hard to feel all the feelings that came up and to take care of myself. This morning I woke up again feeling doubt about my memories. It’s been a long time since I felt that doubt but I’ve also spent the last fifteen years without any contact with my dad. My pragmatic alter, Max, suggested we try and find out more about False Memory Syndrome and we discovered that it’s been debunked and found to be incredibly harmful to victims of child sexual abuse. The man who pushed this nonsense for so many years was himself accused of sexually abusing his daughter.

It didn’t take much for me to drop back into self-trust and remember that my memories are real. I started to feel a though my dad’s response was crafted to frighten and confuse me. And I realized I felt deeply unafraid of him and very clear about my experiences. At that point, I decided to write one more message to my dad. Here it is:

If you’re reading this and are a survivor of any kind of abuse that has been denied, I see you. I believe you. You can trust yourself and your body to know what is true. I trust you to know what’s true.

Recovering Memories and Experiencing Rage as a Tool

The last few weeks have been especially challenging. I’ve been learning how to communicate with, and care for, the family of alters that are as much a part of me as I am. Five nights in a row I slept poorly and had night terrors. I was exhausted and was becoming afraid of sleep again but my kids were with me so I did my best to go about life as though things were normal.

Then, the night before my therapy session, I woke at 3 am with terror and paralysis. As I mentally pulled against the feeling of being bound, a memory came to me from my 7 year old little. My father had crossed her arms over her chest, was holding her down and lying on top of her. I was furious and I flailed about until my body was under my own control once again. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I was covered in sweat. I punched the bed because my father was not here to physically punch. I was soaked with sweat as I shook with the rage I felt for the little within who had to endure such a heinous trespass against her body, mind and spirit. I felt this little present with me and I reached out to her and held her close. I spoke, out loud (as I often do when I’m physically alone), and told her:
You are safe now. Our father isn’t anywhere near here and if he were, there are 100 people in line to kick his ass. I’ll kick his ass if comes anywhere near us. I’ll keep us safe.
She was confused and I had to explain that she’s here with me, in my 48 year old body, with 3 kids and our dog. Living in this beautiful town with mountains and a creek behind out home. I felt her settle a bit.

Eventually, I was able to get out of bed and literally stumble downstairs to make a cup of coffee. I realized how unsteady I still felt and while I waited for the kettle to boil, this little and I talked about what we could do that would feel good and comforting. She likes the Miyazaki movies I’ve raised my own kids on and she asked if we could watch one. Wasn’t quite what I had in mind for my quiet time before my kids woke up but I could feel that it’s what she needed. Experiencing her memory of my father holding her down had also evoked deep empathy. I wanted to soothe her. Coffee in hand, we went back to my room, grabbed the llama stuffy I’d bought her the previous day, and set up Pom Poco. I had watched it with my youngest son pretty recently and expected to not feel engaged in the story. I was surprised to find that watching it with this little inside my body meant feeling her joy when the raccoons did something particularly cute.

My little shared another memory the following night. This time, she was some place public after my father had abused her and she was seen by some adults. She had been crying and couldn’t understand why these adults didn’t stop to see if she was ok. Again I felt incredible rage and sadness. She felt abandoned by all the adults around her and all I could think of was how fiercely I love my own children and how I would kill anyone who brought them so much distress. She asked if she could have a reishi cacao drink (she thinks it tastes like hot chocolate) so we made some and watched yet another Miyazaki movie. She settled and I went back to sleep until 5.

I was becoming concerned that the sharing of these memories at 3 am was going to become a regular thing and my therapist had suggested I talk to this little and figure out a bedtime routine that would put her at ease and allow me to sleep through the night. I reached out to my best friend, who has been actively working with her DID for several months. She suggested I ask invite this little to sleep with me in my bed. That night, when I got ready for bed, this little was present and we tucked her stuffies under our special soft blanket and snuggled down to listen to a sleepcast. I slept until 5 for the first time in 10 days!

The relief I felt at having had good sleep brought its own emotions with it. Why should I have to feel so grateful at having good sleep? Shouldn’t I just be able to sleep well every night and not have night terrors and flashbacks? And there was the rage again. Yet another thing my father has taken from me. The fury that arose left me shaking and sweating again but this time, instead of hitting my bed, I decided to search the internet for an email where I could immediately write to my dad. I found something even better. A website for a company he co-founded and still works for. There was no direct email for him on the website but there was a ‘contact us’ button. There was no way for me to know who would read this message I was about to write. Maybe there’s an employee who vets these messages, or perhaps his own partner. Maybe he reads them. My hope was that someone other than him would read it and pass it along to him. I opened Spotify, pressed play Ice T’s No Remorse, and wrote:

Message for (father’s name): Tell my father that when this pandemic is over, I will be filing charges with the (place I was born) Police Department. Tell him I will expose him for the child rapist he is. Tell him, that within the confines of the law, I’m coming for him & I will take everything he holds dear. He will pay for raping me as a child.

And then I hit “submit”. And I felt so powerful. For a moment I understood that rage can be a tool. I was sweaty and shaky with adrenaline and so full of Kali style darkness. The kind of darkness that breaks over the heads of the evil and brings righteous vengeance.