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.

Beginning to work with DID

My therapist often tells me there’s no road map for recovery; every person with trauma does it in their own time and in their own way. I try to let that be a comfort. Sometimes I hate that there’s no clear path. I want check boxes I can tick off. Instead, it feels like I’m wandering around in a big, dark forest where I occasionally stumble onto a new path or a road block.

Working with my dissociative identity disorder feels more like I’ve fallen into a pit with several other people of various ages who are also stumbling through the recovery forest. Some of these people are willing to talk to me and help to plan our escape from the pit. Others, especially most of the younger ones, don’t say anything. They sit alone or in pairs looking shell shocked and neglected. The teenager is pissed off and sassy but seems pretty satisfied that I’m in the pit with her. A couple of the adult people wander around and mumble but they’re in no state to help us find a way out. And then, of course, there’s the shadow creature who lurks, says nasty, mean things to everyone and is just generally a jerk.

My therapist is out of the ‘office’ the next couple of weeks so we spent our last session talking about how I’m going to stay regulated and safe over the next three weeks. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about how others with DID work with their systems and manage symptoms. I was diagnosed with DID when I was in my mid teens and have actively suppressed my system since I was in my twenties. Research on, and treatment of, DID has grown a lot in the last twenty years. Mostly I’m reading blogs and subreddit posts about how others with DID work with their systems.

I still don’t know much about my system and that makes it harder for me to communicate with my alters and figure out what they need. I’ve decided to try to track my mood and dissociative episodes throughout the day so I can have a better idea of what’s happening and who’s coming to the surface. I’ve noticed that I’m having small chunks of lost time and I want to know why that’s happening.

Here’s what the google form looks like, in case it might be helpful for someone else. I based it on a document I found on this system‘s blog. I believe the document they share is from a DID treatment center in Maryland.

If you’re reading this and you have DID, please feel free to comment with any tools you use to work with your system. Or just reach out to say ‘hi’. We are pretty isolated right now and trying to find places where we can connect with other systems.

Beginning Parts Work

learning to live with DID
Written December 12, 2020

For the last several weeks, my therapist and I have been talking about me beginning to work with my dissociative identity disorder and the parts/alters that are as much a part of me and my body as I am. She’s been very gentle and cautious during these discussions. We began talking about it because in the midst of all the awesome work I’m doing, I’m not giving myself space to be angry. I’ve been trying to avoid working with my dissociative identity disorder most of my adult life. I spent most of the 16 years with my ex-husband believing that while I was dissociating, I wasn’t living with active alters anymore.

Yesterday I officially met Max for the first time. She is one of my alters and we are co-conscious almost all the time. I talk to myself a lot throughout each day and usually those conversations are with Max. I was going about my usual morning routine and talking to myself out loud when I suddenly realized this was an opportunity to actively learn about this alter I spend so much time with and who is a rock in my daily life. I asked her if she had a name and she didn’t hesitate long before answering.
“I’m Max. I was born when you were 20 and I’m still twenty. I’m a tall, lanky blonde woman with short cropped hair and I’m gay.”

Max has, for twenty-eight years, been the part of me who keeps things together. She’s pragmatic, makes sure I take my meds, tracks what I’ve done each day, and she adamantly props me up when I get down on myself. I felt excited that she so quickly told me about herself and I felt a lot of judgment about so clearly having another complete personality who shares a body with me.

My therapist and I talked about that judgment in our session yesterday. She pointed out that I absolutely accept my friend with DID. Zero judgment and lots of empathy. I look at my friend, who was violently assaulted by several men before the age of 12 and it makes perfect sense that she has alters. How could a child survive that kind of experience and keep it a secret without splitting into pieces? If that’s true, and I believe it is for many survivors, then I must have experienced some extremely fucked up shit because I have a whole host of alters living inside me. Judgment towards my system gives me a crack to crawl through to a place where that didn’t happen to me. I can’t explain how that makes sense but it works.

This morning I’ve had a lot of intrusive memories flooding back. I feel like a mess. Foggy, bumping into walls when I walk through the rooms of my house, overwhelmed, sad. I don’t want any of this to be true.

A letter to my alters

To all of you with whom I share this body,

First, I’m sorry I’ve spent so long denying you space in our life. I feel torn between not wanting the abuse and your existence to be true and recognizing that, collectively, we have saved ourselves from some form of annihilation. I can feel my head ache when I think thoughts like this. I feel fuzzy and exhausted as I write this. That’s how I know you’re all here, not even under the surface, but pressing at consciousness all at once.

I want you to know that the reason I don’t want you to be real is because the reality of all of us sharing a body goes hand in hand with the reality of the terrible things that happened to us. I remember enough to know that terrifying, heinous things happened to us. And I know that many of you experienced things I don’t remember, events that live on in the cells and nervous system of this body we share.

I recognize that I cannot go on denying your existence. You deserve to be acknowledged and given the space to live and express what ever’s going on for you in the moment. The truth is, it’s going to take time for me to become skillful at living in harmony with all of you. We do have help. We have my therapist, our dear friend and Max. I don’t know if all of you know Max but she’s a total badass and she will do what she can to help all of us learn to live together. There are times I will have to set boundaries and times when we’ll have to pause something that’s coming up until there’s space to address it. I want to propose that I get as much energy as possible to be with my boys on the weeks they’re here. I will come up with a system for us to communicate while they’re here. The weeks they aren’t here, we can dedicate ourselves to giving time and space to each of you. I imagine it’s going to take time for us to create a functioning system. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to accept your existence and listen to your needs and wants.

I know in my heart that we can do this. I’m scared because we had that therapist so many years ago who encouraged us to do this work when we weren’t in a good place to be doing it. I vaguely remember that being traumatizing to most of you. It sent me into a psychotic state. I have to remember that I’ve come a long way since then and I have a therapist who can skillfully guide me through this process. And we’re not alone. We have our dear friend and her system. I have a feeling that some of you are already friends with some of her alters. Perhaps those bonds will help us as we do this work.

I love all of you, even those of you I don’t yet know. This is our journey and I can see how the fact of our existence can facilitate everyone’s recovery.

Processing the letter I sent to my father

written late July, 2020

It’s been two weeks since I sat down and willfully wrote a letter to my dad in which I laid out the impact of his abuse. In that time, my digestive system has gone haywire and I’ve had vivid dreams. I can’t yet fully grasp exactly what’s shifting but I feel the change flooding my body. Just two days after I mailed the letter, on the morning of my dad’s birthday, I woke from a dream in which my dad had died. In the dream, I didn’t feel any sadness at his passing, or anger that he wasn’t here to suffer; just a sense of urgency that I had to talk to the Catholic bishop about what my dad had done.

The cataloguing of the harm that was done to me in the form of a letter to the very man who violated me, left me looking back across the journey of surviving and healing so far. I remember the phone call I got from my sister when she was 16. Her voice was shaky as she asked me if I had any weird memories about our dad. I was 19 at the time, married to my first husband and very high as I tried to figure out what she meant. She was still living at home, and though our mom had divorced our dad, she still saw him on a regular basis. “I’m not sure what you mean”, I said. She began to tell me that she was having recurring flashbacks in which she was a small child lying in her bed and my father was placing a pillow over her face. In that moment, it was as if a puzzle piece of my life slipped into the big picture and the image it completed became frightenly real.

“I remember that too”, I said.

And that was the moment I took the first step in integrating the rape. I couldn’t remember every detail that went along with the puzzle piece but I knew deep down what my dad had done to us in the darkness of our rooms. A neural pathway unused for a decade instantly opened a floodgate to the synapse cluster of childhood memory. I remember feeling like I couldn’t trust this newly restored connection and knowing in my bones that the abuse we were remembering explained everything I had been trying to make sense of during my teenage years. Why did I hate my father with such intense passion? Why was I afraid of him? Why did I only have snippets of memories of my life before the age of twelve? Why had I again and again chosen partners who were controlling and abusive? Why did I have alters who sometimes lived my life for me and the accompanying lost time that’s often associated with dissociative identity disorder?

This journey of processing and integrating seems endless. I used to think I’d reach a point where the work was done and I was whole. The reality is, it’s more likely that I’ll continue doing the work of integrating for many years, perhaps even the rest of my life. That’s why these acts of rape against children are so heinous; it takes a lifetime to recover. A lifetime which could have been devoted to so many other creative and helpful things.

The long winter’s night

(Art credit: Keeping Hope Alive by Phatpuppyart-studios on Deviantart here)

I’ve kept to myself for months now. The pandemic has made that easier. Once every few weeks, a friend from town comes for a socially distanced visit on my back patio. We have to choose the day carefully so it’s warm enough for us to sit outside and chat comfortably for an hour or two. I hear from my childhood friend occasionally and my friend with trauma and I connect when one of us needs support. My eldest and their partner are here all the time but we are content to have brief chats and then go about our separate lives in the same house. I don’t know how long it’s been since I left social media. Six months, maybe?

My younger kids come to stay every other week and those weeks are the hardest. I love them, appreciate the time we have together, and I struggle because their presence is triggering and it’s hard work to stay truly present with them.

In the beginning of the pandemic, being so isolated was challenging; I tried to find meaningful things to do with my time but found I had little energy or focus for those tasks. The stress of the pandemic, coupled with my own state of mind, make it extremely challenging for me to accomplish most projects and sometimes even chores. At some point a few months ago, I stopped trying to accomplish anything other than surviving each day and do just the chores that keep us alive and healthy.

I wake up each day an hour or so before sunrise. The darkness and the quiet give my nervous system time to set a calm baseline for the day to come. And I love to watch the light change. There’s a moment during the gloaming time when color comes back to the world. From my window, I can see it happen while I’m sitting in my bed. One minute, everything outside seems swathed in shades of dark blue and grey. The next, the rocks on the mountains spark a hint of orange that softly glows. If I happen to catch that moment as it happens, I put on some warm clothes and go outside.

Did you know that the birds don’t just start singing at some point during sunrise? The smaller birds will click and chuck for a time before singing. This morning I went outside just in time to hear those first small sounds beginning. It’s been about twenty minutes and they are just starting their songs. The always silent trees, also seem to wake up when the light returns. I see their thin top branches reaching for the first rays of light as it set them softly afire with a warm golden color.

The winter sunrise mirrors my own process in high speed. I am the rocks on the mountains, the whispering birds and the bare-limbed trees in the dawn of my own becoming. The warmth of my own embodiment, a product of this last year’s work, is slowly awakening my inner world and I am beginning to see myself as a landscape with the potential to eventually fill out with oxygen giving leaves, frolicking animals and life sustaining fruits and flowers.

As I write this, the mountains are now aflame with a deep pink and I hear the sounds of the crows and jays calling to one another in their secret languages.

I have needed, still need, the time and space to dwell in my inner land of darkness. Intentionally allowing myself to live in my own long winter’s night is an achingly slow process; I cannot yet see my inner world, except in the glimpses I catch in glimmers and the now less frequent triggers. I imagine most of myself as still sleeping the vast unconsciousness of hibernation. Perhaps some aspects of myself thrive in this darkness because they can more easily move about unseen. But I know most of me needs the warmth and discernment that comes with light.

Perhaps the me I am familiar with as myself is the fox or owl who thrives while most others sleep. Some brave and small part of my greater whole has taken it in stride to be the sentinel who keeps watch through the long night; they pass the time by recalling stories, sharpening tools, protecting the village from roving animals and armed raiders and occasionally laughing at the darkness because they know it will not last forever. I have stood watch through a night that has lasted years. I know I have nodded off at times, only to awaken to find fences that were torn down by wild winds or pillagers. I feel exhausted from this long watch and dawn gives me hope that I will eventually have my day in the sun.

Yoga Journal Day 34

Last night was a rough one. I woke at 2 and then again at 3 and finally got out of bed at 4. Big somatic flashback of a rape around 4:30. I pulled at my hair for a few minutes and tried to find the will to let the feelings move. I went from feeling helpless to angry pretty quickly. I hit the bed a few times, noticed my body shaking and felt the heat building. I got up and did my pacing thing. I added a little skip to it, let my hands shake and repeated (thinking of Dory from Finding Nemo) “just keep breathing, breathing, breathing” over and over for about 10 minutes. I didn’t have enough cognitive awareness to get a wet towel for the back of my neck but I was able to open a window and let the cold air cool me down a bit. The whole thing lasted almost half an hour. I didn’t spiral into the feelings of self-pity I so often experience when I have a flashback. I didn’t try to rush out of it. I let myself feel what was coming up and I helped it move through and out of my body.

I got on my mat a couple of hours later.

Day 3 of Adriene’s 30 Day Home Journey
today’s theme: Awaken

Yesterday in yoga, I set the intention to allow myself to be in each moment without pushing away from, or holding onto, whatever feelings arise. I very much want to get to a place where I can accept what I’m feeling and find some ease in experiencing my emotions and physical sensations.

Today I practiced that on the mat. Do I feel off balance, awesome, awkward, silly? Can I notice and accept that without judgment? Today was a good opportunity to practice that because I was sleep deprived and not as coordinated as I usually am. In the first downward dog, I noticed my heels touching the mat and I wasn’t disappointed when they didn’t touch in the rest of the downward dogs.

I contemplated awakening feelings that I’ve kept shut down most of my life. I recognize that’s a process and not something that will (or should) happen all at once. Growing my practice of being in each moment is the ground work for allowing myself to feel.

I don’t believe in forgiveness for people who rape children

My heart feels tender. I’m still very angry that my mom told me she wants my dad to find peace. It feels like a betrayal. I cannot fathom how anyone could have empathy for someone who rapes a child and sets them on a journey into a hell from which they’ll never completely escape. Child sexual assault is an epidemic. Statistics from reported incidents show that 1 in 10 children will be sexually assaulted by an adult before the age of 18. But experts agree that most sexual assaults on children go unreported.

Most of the female bodied people I know and several of my male bodied friends and acquaintances were sexually assaulted before the age of 18. I know people who were trafficked by their own parents, people who were raped by fathers, brothers, grandfathers and mothers, as well as many people who experienced date rape and domestic violence. Some of these people have been actively engaged in healing their entire adult lives and they are still struggling most days. I struggle to varying degrees most days.

And yet, while so many lives are destroyed, our culture pushes victims to “get over it” and forgive. The Germanic etymology of the word forgive is to “give up desire or power to punish”. In a just world, perpetrators of all sexual assault should be punished. So why would we ask victims to let go of wanting their perpetrators to be held accountable for (punished) actions that impact every aspect of their lives? It seems to me that part of recovering from trauma is owning the truth that all shame belongs to the perpetrators; that perpetrators are predators who prey on the vulnerable and should be removed from society.

I have decided that once this pandemic is over, I will file an official report with the police department and will do whatever it takes to see him convicted and imprisoned. In part, because I want him to be punished for destruction he caused in my life, but also because I want him to suffer. I want him to be exposed for being someone who raped children. I want him to spend the rest of his life confined to a prison where all his fellow inmates will know that he raped his own children. I don’t believe that these monsters deserve peace. I believe they should suffer because they are evil.