Learning to accept the extent of the damage done

I haven’t written in a while. I’m exhausted all the time. It’s probably a combination of the work I’m doing in therapy and my fibromyalgia. I think it’s easier to underestimate how much energy the processing takes than to fully accept how deeply, deeply fucked up I am on every level. I’m not trying to be down on myself, just being honest about the extent of the damage done by my father and others like him.

It’s not like I get to do the work of healing in a safe and comfortable void where I can dedicate all of myself to it all the time. I have my younger two kids every other week and they are still doing school from home because of the pandemic and my country’s shit response to it. And it’s only been 3 weeks since my neighborhood grocery store was attacked by a gunman who murdered 10 people. My therapist reminded me that most people without trauma experience at least 30 days of acute stress after something like that.

Everyone in my family had planned to be at that shopping center that day. My ex and all 3 of my kids were planning to get ice cream there at the time the shooting occurred but my boys didn’t want to walk so far so they cancelled their plans. My eldest’s partner was going to shop there, had a ‘feeling’ and decided to put it off. And I ended up ordering groceries for delivery so I’d have energy for something other than shopping. I’m grateful none of us were there AND I know that at least one of us is there several days each week so I also feel a kind of shock from accepting that such a terrible thing could easily touch our lives. And, of course, I sort of knew two of the people who were murdered so I’m grieving.

Oh, and last weekend my eldest, their partner and I all made an eight hour round trip to get our COVID vaccine in southern Colorado. I spent the next 6 days dealing with side effects. I can’t imagine what the second dose will be like!I won’t have the boys next time and we’re planning to have the house somewhat clean and all the food we’ll need so we don’t have any chores to do.

Living with and processing my trauma is a full time job. I’m beginning to work on accepting that. Anything that happens beyond basic safety and feeding my family puts me over the edge. I told my therapist last week that I was thinking of taking two self-care days this week, instead of the usual one. She suggested I take three. Seemed like overkill when she said it but now that I’m beginning day two, I realize one more day is exactly what I need. If anyone needs me I’ll be in my bed watching something on my computer, sitting on the patio in the sun, coloring mandalas or lying on my floor putting together my new TAZ puzzle. Sending love out to all y’all survivors. Do what you gotta do to recover and stay safe.

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.

Pondering the exhausting (and rewarding) work of integration

My head’s super fuzzy today. So much buzzing around inside me, lots I want to share here but it’s so much effort to do so. Everything feels like an effort right now, even the smallest actions. I desperately want a clean house (or at least a neat one) but I consider it an accomplishment when I change out the empty toilet paper roll for a fresh one. I talked to a friend yesterday for two hours; my soul was fed, much processing was done and I was exhausted for the rest of the day.

It gets me down that I don’t know what happened to my motivation and my will power. And, I know that this process of trauma work, specifically integration, is literally changing my body right down to the cellular level. Not exactly light work that can quietly happen in the background. It requires establishing new habits like yoga and eating a diet that more consistently includes protein and nutrients that give my nervous system and brain enough of the materials they need to establish thousands of new pathways.

The purpose of all of this effort and neural rearranging is to live in my own truth. That’s a phrase that feels a bit tired but one I cannot avoid using because it’s actually brimming with meaning and potential. The name my mother gave me at birth derives from the Greek word, Aletheia, and the philosopher, Heidegger, wrote that it is the state of “unclosedness” or “unconcealedness”. I think of it as the intentional act of living true to myself. I spent most of my life concealing, both from myself and others, how deeply wounded I was by the abuses I experienced. At the same time, I was also constantly moving towards being more honest about who and how I was. That seems like a contradiction but from the time I was about twenty years old, I was actively committed to my healing journey. Up until recently, I couldn’t have reconciled the messy process that can be both a clinging to remaining hidden, while at the same time daily moving towards becoming “unconcealed”. Even now, it makes my head feel fuzzy when I write about it.

The English word, truth, comes from an Old English word that meant faith, faithfulness, veracity and covenant. My early connection to the natural world as a sort of foster mother and a wise and gentle alter both inspired faith that I could survive and was, against all odds, innately precious. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, living in abusive situations, the rage against my perpetrators gave birth to the covenant I made with myself that I would do whatever was required of me to survive and someday thrive because that was the most poignant action I could take against the twisted violent men in my life. And I’ve kept that promise to myself and watched as those men grew smaller in the rear view mirror of my life, even as my own true Self looms large on the path before me.

I feel compelled to let everything of who I’ve been be stripped away and lain out around me. Perhaps that is what I’m doing right now and why it feels like such an agonizingly slow process. I want to walk, bare bones, amongst all that has been cut away, turn each feeling and way of being this way and that so I can decide if I want to sew it back onto my skeleton or replace it with something that serves me better. Meanwhile, I am left lean, vulnerable and raw. Perhaps that explains why most mundane tasks feel either irrelevant or impossible right now. Perhaps I can cultivate some compassion for myself as I do this work of picking the bones of Self and sort what is worth keeping from those things that need to be discarded. And then, perhaps, I can truly embrace being unconcealed.

**Final thoughts after letting all of this stew for a bit:
I was cleaning the kitchen after breakfast while listening to some Cat Stevens and I remembered that my therapist had asked me to notice three glimmers each day. (To read more about Deb Dana’s ‘glimmers’ click here.) Glimmers are what we experience when our nervous system is regulated and we feel safe and content. Noticing them helps to strengthen the neural pathways to that state and creates an atmosphere in which more glimmers will flourish. It’s been about a week since I’ve attended to my daily task of writing down at least three glimmers every day. As I was pondering this and recommitting myself to this practice, I was sweeping the kitchen floor and I suddenly recognized that the process of tidying and the motion of sweeping were creating a sense of calm and satisfaction. A glimmer! That led to this question: What if I can be curious about when mundane tasks feel good, rather than boring or required? Perhaps this is one path to establishing new motivations for doing the things I’ve been leaving undone.

Writing with intention

I had a friend once, who was first a teacher and then a mentor. He was my writing teacher, and later my Senior Seminar professor, at the college I attended when I was twenty-four and I felt instantly drawn to him because we shared the belief that synchronicity can help us make meaning out of our experiences. Of course, he practiced awareness of synchronicity from his deeply held Buddhist beliefs and I from a Jungian/witchcraft perspective but we understood that those systems of belief were but the ground we each stood on as we experienced and investigated synchronicity. In the last exchange we had before he took his own life, he told me to keep writing.

Up until now I’ve utilized writing primarily as a way of processing my trauma and understanding how my experiences have shaped me. Back when my friend was simply my favorite teacher, I had big plans. I would get my doctorate in psychology and go on to write important books about trauma. That dream was just another victim of my trauma, as not long after I started my undergrad I began having an increase in complex seizures. I pushed myself through my Master’s degree and did write a thesis about whether dreams had an impact on the healing process of incest survivors (according to my research, they often do), but I made the difficult decision to stop my formal education there because my oldest child had been born and I had decided to leave their alcoholic father. Writing became something I did in my journal until I started this blog

Recent shifts in my healing process have led my therapist to suggest that I consider writing a book about my experiences someday. My first reaction to this suggestion was to think, “How could I ever write anything coherent about my healing process when I have so many gaps in my memory because of my trauma?” Then, during yesterday’s session, my therapist and I were talking about things I could do to help restore my nervous system to a regulated state amidst all the uncertainty in my own life and the world right now. I was grasping at ideas: yoga, playing guitar, connecting with nature and close friends. And then I heard myself say, “I’d like to try writing when I’m not in a heightened state.” My therapist instantly latched on to this possibility and then said a lot of very complimentary things about my writing. I could hear my inner voice spitting out doubt and then it was as if I could hear my dear mentor/friend saying “Keep writing”.

With all that having been said, here I am making an effort to write with intention, rather than as something I feel compelled to do because nothing else will have the desired effect. I do believe this kind of writing could further my healing and perhaps I have something to offer fellow survivors of trauma. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and questioning the nature of trauma and healing; it’s truly what I think about most often and I’m incredibly curious about how people survive until they can begin healing, as well as the similarities and differences in each individual’s process. Ian, if your spirit is still connected to me from beyond the veil of death, I’m going to keep writing.

*Very briefly, I’d like to say something about synchronicity because throughout my life it has been one of the things which allowed me to feel connected to the world around me and often revealed meaning which brought hope when I needed it most. The word, synchronicity, was coined in the 1950’s by psychiatrist and theorist, Carl Jung. ‘Syn’ being together and ‘chronos’, time. He observed how inner and outer events that are not casually connected sometimes occur simultaneously and elicit the experience of meaning. His definition for the word was “meaningful coincidence”.

Rest as healing work

Well, I have managed to overdo it again. I sit here in my bed, exhausted, aching and suffering from a rocky digestive system and I choose to honor my needs. My mind is all over the place but at the center of me is the knowing that I have to take time to rest and recover before returning to the work.

This connection between body/mind/spirit is still so new; I have to learn to listen to it and be guided by it. I felt so empowered by writing to my father that it was like getting an adrenaline shot to the process. But my body, my wise body, forces me to set a slower pace. I stretched my autonomy muscles for a couple of weeks and now I’m sore all over. My body will not let me forget that I am also still crippled by the abuse. Slowly, slowly, it shouts at me in so many ways. And I since I still haven’t mastered the art of listening, I am now bedridden again for a time. I want to power through the work of integrating but I forget that true integration requires rest and time to assimilate that which arises in the work.

The full impact of the abuse didn’t happen the first time the abuse happened. It grew unchecked over two decades as the abuse continued. It’s only been eight months since the shift in my nervous system occurred. Compared to living in that state for forty some odd years, that’s not very long. And for the first time ever, I feel that I deserve to give myself the blessing of time and space which will allow things to continue to shift.

So today I rest. I will stay in bed and color while I watch something that feels nurturing. I will check in with my body and see if a little restorative yoga is an option. I will sit quietly and listen. This is new. I am learning to accept and honor what I need. This, too, is part of the process.

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.