Hello all! I know that it’s been a while since I posted anything. I have a good reason. I moved to San Francisco in July. Finally. The evolution of my life and that of my family has played out on this little blog, and longtime readers have witnessed it. I started out ten years ago writing about healing from trauma in general as if I had somehow achieved it. The more I explored the topic of healing and trauma in their various contexts, the more I observed that I, in fact, was not enjoying life from a place of wholeness. I was simply codependent with a truckload of unresolved trauma. Yes, I had spent years in therapists’ offices doing good work–deep work even, but peace of mind and, dare I say, joy were always out of reach. The last ten years of my life have, therefore, been about intentionally engaging in creating a life that I want to live with full awareness of the hurdles I must overcome to do that.
I feel compelled to say that creating a life that you really want to live founded upon a healed personality in body, mind, and spirit is a very difficult and painful undertaking but a vital and rewarding one nonetheless.
That being said, I want to talk about something that I knew was true in theory and have also observed and experienced in practice as well. Have you ever heard someone say, “Wherever you go, there you are”? The first time I heard this rather enigmatic statement, I didn’t really know what it meant. It sounds like something the Cheshire cat would remark to Alice after she asks him for directions.
I now know what it means. It means that you cannot run away from yourself or your “inner demons”. When you are alone, you are never really alone because you are always alone with yourself along with all the voices in your head be they kind, mean, critical, intimidating, encouraging, or anything else. Wherever you go, that is where you will be. In short, you can’t outrun your life and your proverbial baggage both internal and external, and I experienced this quite poignantly after I moved to California.
There were things that did, of course, change right away which lifted necessary burdens. I sold my old house! This was such a blessing because I lack the endurance to take care of a 70 year-old house which makes me sound old. I have an autoimmune disorder. I can’t mow the lawn in 90 degree heat and then weed the garden, and, even if I were in perfect health, I wouldn’t want to.
Living in a flat in San Francisco is a gift. The weather is great, and I don’t have to do yard work. My list of To-Do’s just got shorter. I have more time to do the things I want, and that is the point of downsizing. I “Marie-Kondo-ed” my life, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in terms of minimizing and being very intentional about what possessions I really needed. But, how does one “Marie Kondo”, if you will, one’s mindset?
Does that make sense?
Let me put it this way. When I was packing up my four-bedroom house complete with basement, I had the opportunity to look through 20 years of accumulation. I picked up every item at least once and decided its fate–donate, throw away, or pack. We let go of roughly 70% of our possessions, and it was liberating. It wasn’t that difficult to do because I forgot that I had most of the stuff. It is similar for beliefs. We act, decide, behave, think and feel certain things because we believe certain things, but I suspect that we don’t really know what beliefs we are actively holding onto or why we are believing these things. What if those beliefs are hindering or harming us? What can we do?
Here is an example from my life:
I really struggle to ask for what I want and need. In fact, I would rather never ask for what I want or need in the context of a relationship. I recently observed that I would rather let the other person take the lead, but this causes a relational imbalance because one person’s needs and wants are driving the relationship (this defines my former marriage). For the other person, it might start to feel one-sided or lacking in reciprocity. I know this. I would never want another person to feel like that. That being said, when I am asked directly, “What do you want? What do you need?” I freeze and can’t answer. This is in the context of relational issues. And, you can forget about asking for sex. I’d rather let a tarantula crawl on me. Have I always been like this? Nope. So, what is going on? What belief is at play here?
As you know, my former marriage was domestically violent. I was fairly assertive when I was married and did ask for what I want and need from my ex-husband, but it did not go well for me. He eventually got tired of listening to me ask for things from him, and, to silence me once and for all, he sexually assaulted me. He even said, “Happy now?” after one of his physical outbursts as if sexual intimacy and rape were the same thing. His sexual violence was meant to silence me, and it worked. I stopped asking for anything. So, when I was recently asked to share what I wanted or needed, those experiences with my ex-husband immediately surfaced along with feelings of panic. I realized that I have to re-learn not only how to trust that I will be heard but also that I will not be harmed in my vulnerability. Not only is it normal to feel vulnerable when asking for what you want and need because you risk rejection, but I fear, on some level, that I will be physically harmed. The body remembers, and I feel very uncomfortable.
I had no idea that I was walking around, living my life, believing these things, and yet here I am, holding up these beliefs like I held up my old possessions. They aren’t quite as easy to get rid of though. But, now I know that I have them, and that is the first step!
It is very easy to talk ourselves out of taking risks and taking the initiative in our lives. Being intentional about how we live isn’t the norm, and I know from personal experience how difficult it is. I’m currently living in a city where I know next to no one, and everyone in my doctoral program is a lot younger than I am. I feel quite out of place. That being said, I love the idea of starting over and reinvention. I love the idea of stepping back, holding up an old way of thinking and asking, “Where did this come from? Do I like thinking this way? Where did I learn this? Does this serve me? Does this spark joy? Do I want to keep this? I think I’d like to think a better thought.”
I like the idea of answering those questions, and then setting out on a path to thinking better thoughts and building stronger, healthier, and better beliefs about yourself, your relationships, your present and future. In some cases, you actually have to lay down each brick on your path as you’re walking it because it is completely new, and it might feel like your process is taking forever. You’re a pioneer in your own life! You are going where no one in your family has ever gone. You are the one who is going to change everything. Break the cycles. Tear up the old foundations. Build a new thing. Lay a new foundation. For those of you doing that, it does take a long time, and it is the most worthy undertaking.
So, as I always say, keep going. Five years ago, I would never have imagined that I would be writing a blog post from San Francisco. You never know where your intention and hard work will take you. Be brave!
I don’t think I’ve ever gone this long without posting. For what it’s worth, I’m almost ready to move from the Twin Cities to the Bay Area. This has been a daunting task requiring maximum effort. So much good has come from the endless hours of preparation. I want to elaborate on that, but I should first begin with a story that requires a visit to a dark place. Bear with me because therein is resolution.
I no longer think of myself as someone who was trafficked (For readers unfamiliar with my blog, when I was 18 years-old, I was abducted by a human trafficker to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The film “Taken” is a decent representation of my experience). It happened a long time ago, and I have spent many years with highly trained clinicians working through the trauma surrounding that time. About ten years ago, I arrived at a place in my life wherein I believed I was, for the most part, healed from that event. I rarely thought about it. And then my marriage started disintegrating, and domestic violence entered my reality. Old tapes that I thought were erased started playing again, and I became paralyzed. I felt trapped and frozen in my circumstances truly believing there was no way out. Worse, I believed it was my fault.
Fast forward to the present. A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. I have been meditating or praying on the idea of negative core beliefs that exercise power over our lives and keep us locked into self-sabotaging patterns. I wanted to unearth any hidden false beliefs that continued to linger and, thusly, change them. While I was getting on with my day, a memory from my time in the trafficking environment came to mind which surprised me. That rarely happens these days. This particular memory is likely my most hated memory, and I was a bit disturbed to be faced with it again. Alas, I decided to lean into it. Why would my brain bring this particular thing to mind now? What might it hold for me at this point in my life?
Before I can explain the significance of this memory, I must explain something. The key thing to understand about human traffickers in general is that they view the people they sell as a commodity–a product. For example, I was called “real estate” or “the property” when I was being moved around. Generally speaking, to effectively produce a sex slave or any kind of slave, the girls and boys themselves have to adopt the beliefs of their handlers, and that is that they are no longer human. Slaves are objects or chattel–property. So, the primary goal after abduction is to dehumanize the “property” as quickly as possible through a process called “breaking in”. It takes as little as 72 hours to achieve Stockholm Syndrome, and this can be an effective way to go for some traffickers if they intend to stay on as pimps or handlers/owners. If the trafficker is merely a broker, then they have to break in their “property” quickly and strip them of their sense of self, identity and humanity efficiently before sale. By far, the fastest and most effective way to achieve this is through terror, trauma, and torture. The man who abducted me was a wanna-be broker. He chose the latter.
In one of his torture sessions, he very succinctly stated that I was expendable. I was disposable. He had the ultimate say over my life. I was no longer a person. I only had the worth that he determined. After all, there was a literal price on my head, and my existence was now only to serve him and anyone else who might acquire me. At any moment, he could kill me, and he just might if he felt like it. He said all of this in the Everglades with alligators outside the car. It was an unforgettable moment of sheer terror for me. I believed that he was going to throw me out to alligators to be eaten alive. It was an extremely effective strategy. Brilliant really.
That moment defined a part of me in terms of how I viewed my own humanity, and it is hard to explain. From an observer’s perspective, it might be easy to say that he was an evil man who was lying to me. Many therapists have tried to convince me of this to no avail. You see, there is something that changes in you when someone actually takes you from your home, puts a literal price on you, tries to auction you off, and tortures you to make you: 1) compliant and fearful and 2) believe that you are sub-human and disposable. Even if you don’t buy in to their agenda, you walk away defiled in the deepest parts of yourself, and that kind of existential fear traumatizes in ways that you never believed possible. To sit in the presence of a psychopath with a will to murder you who looks upon you as truly disposable alters your psyche. To do so with apex predators just a few feet away hissing and thrashing around changes how you view the world, other people, and yourself. Events like this become lines of demarcation on your personal timeline. They are before/after events. You look back upon them and try to recall what kind of person you were before the event vs. who you are now. You wonder if you’ll ever be redeemed from such a thing. Is it even possible? It haunts you.
This is what came to the surface for me a few weeks ago–this experience–along with that negative core belief: “I am disposable. I am expendable.” I have never been able to change that or correct it. My brush with a barbaric death in the Everglades locked that in place, and the last two years of my marriage reactivated that negative core belief. I felt utterly disposable. Ontologically insignificant. As I sat with the feelings associated with that belief, I prayed, “What do I do with this?” Suddenly, a new thought emerged.
“What if he wasn’t going to kill you? What if this was just psychological torture? What if this was just part of the program he used on all the people he abducted? What if everything he said to you was just part of a script? You’re not disposable. This entire experience was simply designed to make you believe what he wanted you to believe so that he could get the job done. You were simply a means to an end, and the end was making money.”
As offensive as it was it was nothing personal. He knew me well enough to effectively manipulate me, but nothing he ever said or did to me was about me. The significant aspect of being viewed as an object fit for sale is that he only said what he said to quicken a process that would lead to making money. Nothing he said was backed by a conviction of belief. It was all just scripted words designed to achieve a goal. Make a sale.
Why does this matter to me? It is extremely significant to my brain because there is a distinction between torturing someone because you’re following a script and torturing someone because you’re following your own convictions or set of beliefs. I had, on some level, believed that he was going to kill me because I was innately disposable. I believed that there was causation linking the two acts. The truth likely falls somewhere on the spectrum of my being a means to an end. My identity had nothing to do with anything. He was a villain and a con. He saw an easy mark and easy money. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why is this distinction so powerful? It is powerful because, in the end, nothing he said was actually true. He could have said anything to me in those moments to get the job done. He could have said, “Chickens will rise in twenty years to rule the world! Cows will turn on their ranchers, and, in thirty-five years, humans will be farmed by dogs, and cats will eat horses! Long live the Order of the Anemone! All hail the clown fish! Now, do as I say and submit to the clown fish.” He could have made me do anything, and I probably would have to avoid being eaten by carnivorous reptiles. Why did he choose to go after my existential worth? Because he was smart. Humans have a need to feel safe, to feel loved, and to feel a sense of belonging and significance. Any con man would know this. Tell a person enough lies and eventually you’ll land on one that will stick. If the “Order of Anemone” con would have worked, then he would have gone with that. We all have chinks in our armor. Drug and sexually abuse a person for a prolonged period of time, and, eventually, they will become vulnerable to deception. Some lies are obvious, ridiculous, and completely unbelievable, but others just feel true. How could they be a lie when they resonate so powerfully? And, if you come from a dysfunctional family of origin, then you will be even more vulnerable because you likely grew up attempting to meet the needs of your parents and/or siblings forgoing getting your own needs met making you that much more vulnerable to perpetration and exploitation. This is why victims of abuse are easier to exploit and con.
Consider your own negative core beliefs or the conclusions we draw from our own life experiences. For example, would I have stayed married to an abusive person for as long as I did had I believed I wasn’t disposable? Would I have had better boundaries with my mother sooner had I recognized and corrected this negative core belief sooner? Likely.
Here is a question: How do we know when we have a negative core belief or false belief influencing us? In my experience, when we tolerate mistreatment and abuse repeatedly, engage in self-sabotage, thusly, thwarting personal success and happiness, engage in avoidance behavior for prolonged periods of time to our own detriment, find ourselves attracted to unhealthy relationships and situations repeatedly, and struggle with addiction with an unwillingness to seek treatment (This is a short list). These are all markers for hidden negative beliefs.
The effects of addressing a long-standing negative core belief is much like casting a stone into a pond. It has a ripple effect. After I addressed this, I began to see just how far-reaching this deeply held belief was. It touched on almost every aspect of my life, but it was most evident in my thought life. I used to feel constantly oppressed and fearful. It was as if I could not believe that any kind of happiness or goodness would stick around. I was somehow waiting to die or waiting for it to be stolen from me. All good things were ephemeral. All happiness was evanescent. I didn’t deserve them because I was…disposable. That negative core belief contaminated everything. All these thoughts and feelings are part of the more generalized experience related to Complex PTSD. There is nothing smooth or easy about healing from C+PTSD, but healing isn’t out of reach either.
I like to think of our process in terms of swimming. I used to be a competitive swimmer, but, before that, I swam in the ocean for joy. I grew up near Galveston Island, and I was once a fearless person. It didn’t matter if I was bitten by sharks, stung by jellies, or caught in riptides. I loved the ocean, but, after I was abducted and taken to a port city wherein I could occasionally smell the ocean air, I stopped swimming in the ocean. The scent of brine became associated with a profound fear of death in my mind. I lost my sense of adventure and confidence. I moved from the coast to the Midwest although it was to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I just didn’t go in the water anymore. I was, in a very real sense, stuck in time. Trauma does that. Time passes, but, when we are bound by false negative beliefs, we are held captive. A part of my could not move forward or heal. Providence has a way of forcing our hands. We are put at crossroads wherein we must make choices for our own benefit, and this is a good thing. I don’t want to stay stuck.
A few weeks ago, I went to Big Island, Hawaii. A big part of the trip was all about freediving, and I started having nightmares weeks before departure. I hadn’t been in the ocean in decades. My mind came up with countless reasons why I didn’t need to swim, but I knew what it was about. I also knew it was time to overcome these old fears. These were old traumas, and the only way to truly move forward is to actually do the things I feared. Make new memories to override the old ones. I wanted to obliterate the old ones. So, I quite literally dived into the Pacific Ocean, and it was the best decision I could have made. I returned home a changed person. This is the caveat inherent to healing–almost every step of the healing process involves active engagement and with that comes fear. For those of us with PTSD, C+PTSD, anxiety, depression, and anything else, fear will be your companion. That’s normal. The good part? The more you engage in your life with intention, the more expansive your life becomes. The more expansive your life becomes, the greater your capacity for positive emotions like joy, peace, happiness, compassion, generosity, and wonder becomes. The greater your capacity becomes for positive emotions, the smaller the more corrosive emotions in your emotional repertoire will become by comparison like cynicism, bitterness, anger, rage, apathy, envy, despair, and self-pity. This is all process-based. It takes time and intention, but, when you engage in this process, you will progress. As always, I will say this: Keep going and never give up.
*keiki honu: juvenile green sea turtle
I have been winding down my life in the cold North in preparation to pack it up and move it to the Bay Area. Adieu, snow and cold. Hello, Karl! This is Karl:
Karl the Fog has his own Twitter (@KarltheFog) and Instagram (karlthefog) accounts. After two decades of snow and ice, I am thrilled to get to know Karl. In the midst of asking my sock drawer if it sparks joy, looking through Bay Area real estate when I have insomnia, and dealing with the expected (and unexpected) challenges of life, clarity and a sound mind have finally begun to emerge, I will carefully admit.
As usual, I will elaborate.
The hardest thing about this process has been meetings with my ex-husband. Were it not for the Ex Factor, I would enjoy this process of transition more. To me, there is something essentially good about intentionally closing one chapter of your life and beginning another. I observe this because, in my experience, so many endings in life seem forced upon us without our say or expectation, or they are one-sided. Bring to mind the events in life that evoke the concept of an ending–divorce, job layoffs, breakups, serious illnesses, betrayals, financial ruin, and, of course, death. Many of these events come upon us out of the blue particularly in childhood and adolescence. If your parents or primary guardians divorced, then you certainly had no say about the dissolution of your family as you knew it. From a child’s perspective, divorce can feel one-sided and often unexpected. It is not the gentle closing of a chapter but rather a metaphorical book burning. As with divorce, other life experiences can feel the same, and that sense of finality can equate to a feeling of life closing in around us rather than life opening up bringing new possibilities.
I have wanted to give my daughters (and myself) a positive transition, but, whenever I have had scheduled meetings with my ex-husband, I have experienced the situation through the lens of trauma and anxiety feeling thrust back into that ever-narrowing emotional experience of perceived forced entrapment and fear. That is what unresolved traumatic experiences leave us with–a belief that we no longer have choices. Sometimes there is an internalized and often unchallenged belief that we are being forced into former roles and thought patterns. We must play the part no matter who cast us. I asked of myself if I was the one casting myself in an old role. A hard but necessary question to ask. There was no black-and-white answer.
As it turns out, all those necessary meetings with my ex-husband forced me to challenge those negative core beliefs and, I say begrudgingly, resulted in something quite beneficial. I admit this cautiously because my marriage didn’t end well, and I also want to emphasize that it isn’t always healthy or safe for people to meet with former abusers. While my ex and I are presently civil and negotiate adequately, I was very afraid of him when we separated. When my former therapist, whom I was seeing at the time my marriage ended, directly told me that I was experiencing domestic violence and suggested that I get to know some local women’s shelters, I, to be blunt, lost my sh*t. I was not ready to be confronted with that truth. I unfairly judged myself as a woman who “knew better”, and I learned that some people I knew judged me in much the same way–“I thought you were a woman who would know better.” After everything I had been through with my parents and even the process of recovery from adolescent human trafficking, I honestly believed that I was beyond being victimized again. Surely I would never again put myself in a situation to be traumatized or abused. I never imagined that I would be someone who would lie to people about how I was injured–“I don’t know why I’m limping. I think I ran into the door or just woke up that way.” Alas, that wasn’t the case.
The first few times I met with my ex-husband after our initial separation, I endured the meetings while trying to present a calm, cool affect. I would later return home and descend into a strange purgatory-like state of depersonalized, emotional zombiism–feeling neither psychically alive nor dead. Our interactions would replay in my mind, and, in hindsight, I noticed a pattern in his communication style. We would cover the necessary ground in our meetings, but he would characteristically say something extremely hurtful and mean. The verbal tactics were quite familiar to me, and, in retrospect, I should have anticipated this. I refrained from passive aggressive remarks or even bitter verbal swipes. In the beginning, it would take me weeks to recover from a one-hour meeting. I would sink into a kind of depression adrift in very negative intrusive thoughts and surges of flashbacks. In those moments, I felt quite stuck in a mélange of distorted thoughts and toxic emotions melding together into a manifestation of negative beliefs and self-judgment. I would feel like I would never be free of him. He would always be the all-powerful perpetrator, and I could never truly have the ability to effectively self-advocate. I was essentially stuck in the all-or-nothing distortion of Him/Perpetrator:Me/Victim. Derailing that thought train became one of my primary goals.
How? In the moment when the past becomes present and former injuries be they physical and/or psychological become brand new again, how does one clarify the distortions and dam the deluge of negativity in order to properly interpret circumstances and achieve emotional regulation?
These are not simple questions, and they are not easily answered in one blog post. What I can say is that I turned a corner recently, and I share it because it might be useful. I met with my ex-husband and our accountant a few weeks ago for the annual tax paperwork exchange. After she left, we awkwardly sat in a Panera making small talk. I was quietly sipping on coffee when I heard him loudly yawn and assume The Catapult Position except his feet were outstretched into the aisle rather than onto the table:
In terms of body language, the Catapult is described as “an almost entirely male gesture used to intimidate others or to infer a relaxed attitude to lull you into a relaxed sense of security just before he ambushes you…The gesture is typical of…people who are feeling superior, dominant, or confident about something.” (Dimensions of Body Language)
He then told me, as he leaned back in this dominant-style pose, that we should never have been married. He also said that I was the cause of all his anxiety during our marriage–something he rarely shared with me while we were married. He went on to say that he was continually stuck in “fight-or-flight” because of me, and he said all this with a smug grin on his face as he looked off into the distance. Smirking, he turned to make eye contact with me and said, “Oh, the last two years might have been painful for you. Sorry about that.” He was referencing the physical violence in that passing remark. We then parted ways. I drove home feeling confused and crazy. What was he talking about? Was he being truthful? And then the thought train started…
I told a friend what he said. Her comment? “MJ, he abused you for years. Of course, he said that!” She went on to validate me and ask if I was okay, but I couldn’t internalize anything. In my mind and body, I was stuck in Panera, looking at him leaning into that booth, outstretched and smirking, blaming me for his violence and newly confessed misery. I felt re-victimized. But then…
A moment occurred when I stopped and questioned the entire experience. I know what happened. My medical records document what happened. My therapist knows what happened. The people who love me know what happened. Just because my former husband claims something doesn’t make it true, and, to be honest, it comes as no surprise that he is behaving badly now because he has always behaved like this. There is a reason our marriage ended. I paused and let what DBT calls one’s Wise Mind speak, “Why are you surprised that he is still engaging in unhealthy and victimizing behaviors? Isn’t this just another confirmation that you made the right decision? You walked away from a bad situation to build a better life. You did the right thing, and this meeting is just another sign post that you are on the right road.”
In that moment, something clicked for me. People who tend to abuse engage in abuse. People who tend to exploit engage in exploitation. People who engage in dishonesty tend to lie. People who become violent tend to perpetrate myriad forms of violence. People who are cowardly tend to display cowardice in different contexts. Why would I expect a different set of behaviors from someone who has rarely historically offered different behaviors? And that’s when I knew. The one person whom I can always count on to provide a different set of behaviors is me. If I wanted to feel better feelings, think better thoughts, and stop the maladaptive thought train, then I was the one who had to change my paradigm. Funnily enough, cognitively speaking I knew this! I’ve devoted a good part of this blog to this very topic, but internalizing this in real time while facing down a former abuser is very different than the intellectual process of knowing. But, it can be done.
I don’t know how to neatly wrap this up because there is no pithy ending to a process like this. I don’t believe that our processes to become better, healthier humans ever end, but I do think that it does become easier in some respects particularly when we know with whom to place our expectations and what to expect in general and specific. In line with this idea, self-compassion comes into play here, and this may be a foreign and unpleasant idea for those of us with codependency in our backgrounds. As I continue to try, however, I have come to believe that to truly take care of yourself and show yourself compassion showing up for yourself in small and big ways does make a difference. Self-care and self-compassion do not seem to be about tuning out the world and checking out but are rather about tuning in to what you are ruminating on, what is driving you, and what you might be avoiding because you feel anxious and afraid. Discerning the difference between tuning out and tuning in as I’ve tried to keep going has been very effective in helping me maintain momentum even in the midst of what has felt like setbacks. And, I think that’s what is called resiliency.
It’s normal to be scared, anxious, and dislike uncertainty. Preferring isolation when you’re stressed and fed up isn’t unusual either nor is avoidance, rumination, and intrusive thoughts particularly in the wake of post-traumatic stress. But, there is also a much wider emotional spectrum that extends beyond these emotional and physiological experiences that includes joy, hope, increased distress tolerance, increased self-esteem, and the alleviation of shame and internalized judgment. Once again, I will say the same thing because it continues to prove itself true time and time again.
You must keep going. Always.
I think I’ve tried to write a blog post six or seven times in six or seven weeks and failed each time. If you knew my writing process, then you would know that is not me. I have never had a problem writing anything. The words have always flowed with ease. Since the beginning of January I have felt frozen inside not unlike my upper Midwest environs. An emotional Polar Vortex has settled within me, and I feel locked up and iced in.
So, what gives? I ask myself. It almost feels like mild depression. I don’t want to shower. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to eat anything unless it involves chips and hummus. I only want to drink coffee. These are my two “vices”. And, I just want to sit on my couch under a blanket in comfy pants and watch crime procedurals. I don’t even want to vacuum anything. The climate of my mind has turned cold, damp, and grey. But, why?
I think I can pinpoint the reason. It’s my ex-husband, but I’ll name him The Straw. He is akin to the straw breaking the metaphorical camel’s back. When I take a breath and assess the situation, the word resiliency comes to mind. I think you and I, my readers and me, we ought to have a discussion about resiliency in real time. How it works and what it looks like because “resiliency” is all the rage these days. In the simplest terms, resiliency is defined as the capacity to recover from difficulties quickly. As I lay out my circumstances, think about your life in the context of resiliency. Maybe we can make some connections together.
I entered a graduate medical program in January 2017 after ending my 20-year marriage in 2015. My marriage wasn’t always abusive, but it was never fulfilling either. Due to alcoholism and domestic violence likely fueled by addiction and personality problems, I had to leave the marriage for my health and safety. Healing from domestic abuse is probably one of the hardest endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. It has, for me, been far more grueling a process than healing from human trafficking (which I experienced in 1991). Allow me to explain.
Generally speaking, one expects to be treated in a sub-human manner by a human trafficker. It isn’t like human traffickers are upheld as paragons of virtue. They’re criminals who commit heinous crimes. When you’re abducted for the purpose of sexual slavery, you figure out very quickly what’s ahead of you. The only surprise is the degree to which you will be degraded and abused. When you are trafficked, you are designated a slave. Slaves are no longer perceived to be people with rights or even identities. Slaves are chattel. For the most part, you know what to expect when you lose all humanity, and you know what to expect from your slave owner. Expect nothing and everything at the same time–it will all be far beyond the worst you could imagine anyway. But, you never expect your life partner to treat you as you were when you were trafficked.
And this is key–domestic violence and abuse are dehumanizing because it is another sort of objectification. The victim becomes an object of rage and violence In my experience, this is the parallel–the objectification. What made it harder to overcome was how it crept up on me. I never expected to feel so utterly un-human as I did at the end of my marriage. My mind could not accept what was happening to me in the midst of the violence, and I continued to believe that it wasn’t true in part because my abuser denied it and still denies it. It was and is functional denial.
Even though you are called Wife and Partner you are treated as Other. The descent into abuse feels like a surreality of your own making because the entire time he hurts you he tells you that it isn’t real. It isn’t happening, and he never did that. You feel as if you are going mad or perhaps you provoked him. Maybe you wanted it. Maybe you imagined it. Maybe you deserved that which he said never happened. Perhaps it was all your fault even though it never happened. You question everything and believe nothing. You begin to gaslight yourself in the context of his gaslighting.
Until you hear tendons snap. And see your blood. Until you have surgery. Twice.
Physical healing comes far sooner than any emotional, psychological, or spiritual healing does, but I don’t like to put my life on hold because some part of me is lagging behind. We must keep going. Catch a vision. Keep trying. There will never be a convenient time to try something new or even build something. Risk is never convenient. So, I forged ahead with graduate school never expecting to be sexually harassed within three months of beginning my program. The sexual harassment was consistent and prolonged, and I was eventually granted a restraining order by a county judge. The entire affair was escalated to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights who, after an investigation into my college, found them guilty of discrimination based on sex. All in all, the harassment and subsequent investigations lasted almost two years. So, I dealt with one circumstance of sexual violence in the context of another. Simultaneously.
One would think that I felt empowered, but I didn’t. I felt victimized all over again. Sure, I stood up for myself and other people. The perpetrator is no longer with the school, and the school was found guilty of discrimination. They are now going to experience two years of remediation and governmental oversight. As discreet as I was during the entire process, I was alienated by other students in my cohort who knew about the situation; and I was even shunned by people who had called me ‘friend’–simply because I advocated for myself and others. I became something of a pariah. It felt like blame. Should I have just taken it? Should I have said nothing even though the man who was harassing me had harassed other women, too? That would have been wrong. Alas, there are people who seem to think that we should just turn our heads and let people victimize others. Don’t make waves. Mind your own business. I can’t do that. To me, that’s immoral. I am, however, very familiar with victim blaming. Friends and family blamed me for the domestic abuse in my marriage, too. It’s a common phenomenon.
I was actually feeling somewhat relieved after everything with my former college came to a close, but that changed when my ex-husband asked to meet with me a few days into my winter break. He has been making unexpected demands that have violated prior agreements, and this has been my undoing. It isn’t the demands that are the most stressful or triggering. It is his undying belief that he is a victim of our divorce proceedings. He believes that he is a “good guy” and that nothing wrong ever happened. To him, he is the Do-Gooder. The Innocent. Consequently, when I meet with him, I interface with this persona who is utterly convinced of his personal awesomeness, and, all the while, I am sitting across from someone I once trusted implicitly who became my perpetrator.
So, what does all this have to do with my current lability and affect, and what does this have to do with you? I like to say that our resiliency falls on a spectrum. Bring to mind an emergency room nurse or doctor. How many times can a clinician declare someone dead after trying to save them and walk away unscathed? Ten times? Fifty times? At what point will it finally register on a deep level? When will it break you? When will an emergency responder finally see one too many horrific car accidents with fatalities? When will a social worker hear one too many horrible accounts of abuse? When will a guardian ad litem witness one too many child abuse cases? That moment of “one too many” is the moment that you’ve hit the end of your resiliency spectrum. You’re done. You’ve got nothing left. You can’t cope anymore. You can no longer resist the pull of the dark gravity of hopelessness and despair. You are desolate.
Everyone has a resiliency spectrum (RS), and I suspect that each RS is uniquely our own developed over time and tailored to our life experiences. What requires me to be resilient will be different from what requires you to be resilient simply because your experience of trauma will differ from mine. The point is that we can develop resiliency with practice, but there also comes a breaking point. Even the most flexible of trees eventually breaks or uproots when a hurricane blows through the forest.
What might be an appropriate thing to do when you feel like this?
I don’t know about you, but when I feel bent over, desolate, and overwhelmed, my mind is immediately overcome with thoughts that are shame-based. I feel accused and afraid. Suddenly, I feel inadequate and terribly alone, and my knee-jerk reaction to these feelings is to become excessively self-reliant and withdrawn. I have a strange fear of being “discovered”. All of this is rooted in my experiences with my family of origin. My mother declared with great pride that she needed no one and could do everything by herself even though everything she did was motivated by a profound fear of abandonment. Alas, to need anything or anyone–to her–was an abomination. It was a weakness that she would punish with great severity if she spotted it, even in me. It is ironic to me then that the first step to restoring your resiliency is to reach out and restore connection.
Connection through vulnerability eradicates shame. Shame cannot exist in the presence of true connection and vulnerability, and we are able to begin to restore ourselves when we connect to other people who support, validate, and believe us. For many of us who have experienced trauma, reaching out while feeling vulnerable inside ourselves feels like the hardest thing to do particularly if you experienced trauma within close relationships. I suspect the reason for this is because you’ve experienced violations of trust from people with whom you allowed yourself to be vulnerable, and your brain isn’t going to let your forget that. I can attest to this experience. After experiencing sexual violence in a marital context, I find it extraordinarily difficult to be vulnerable with anyone now. I still try, but it is much harder. There is a great confusion that wants to settle in. Feelings of trust can become confused with feelings of suspicion. After all, the people I once trusted are the people who hurt me the most. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That statement alone can fuel self-imposed isolation and fear of intimacy and vulnerability, but, in reality, your brain is trying really hard to keep you safe.
So, what is to be done then? I’ve got three suggestions.
Together, we will keep going even when it feels like we can’t.
I can usually write a blog post in an hour or two but not this time. For some reason I could not put this post together no matter how hard I tried. I sat down in December to write a post on personal inertia. We were on the cusp of 2019. I was taking stock of 2018. Did 2018 have a personal theme? What could be gleaned from the experiences of 2018 in order to make 2019 even better? You know, I was being contemplative.
And then I was in a car accident. My daughter and I were rear-ended quite hard so much so that the insurance company totaled out my car. The car of the driver who hit us was towed from the scene. I really started thinking about my own personal inertia at that point.
What is inertia?
There are two definitions for inertia: 1) indisposition to motion, exertion, or change (“I don’t like or fear change.”) and 2) a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force. Generally speaking, people tend to be inert. We develop habits, and we stick to them. It doesn’t matter if the habits are good or bad. We like predictability (“I like my car and would like to keep it.”). We don’t want to be confronted on how we do things, what we think, or how we interact with others. If it’s always been done a certain way, then most people will continue in this customary fashion from the smallest habit to the grandest cultural traditions. In terms of inertia, this is called uniform motion. For the most part, we like to remain in a state of uniform motion and/or rest, and this is not necessarily bad. Society needs structure and uniformity to function from the nuclear family all the way to level of government.
In terms of health, this is called homeostasis. The human body requires a certain amount of sleep. We require vital nutrients, daylight, human interaction, physical touch, exercise, and clean air and water in order to maintain homeostasis. All of this is part of uniform motion. When an outside force acts upon this homeostatic inertia, that usually means a stressor has occurred like a virus, toxin, physical injury, genetic mutation, car accident, or the like, and homeostasis has been disrupted. We are no longer inert.
The same comparison can be made to the emotional self–the mind. Emotional homeostasis in terms of wellness and looking after our mental health is a priority , and there are any number of factors that affect this from hormones, diet, and genetics to relationships, jobs, and family history–and, of course, trauma. How we structure our lives in order to maintain our emotional and mental homeostasis is where inertia becomes a factor in either propelling us forward or sabotaging us.
Why is a discussion of inertia worth having? Well, from what I’ve experienced in life personal inertia is often the primary reason we do not take action to make changes that will actually better our lives and set us up for success in the future. There is another name for personal inertia, and that name is fear. Let me define this particular sort of fear:
Somewhere between our internal experiences of our lives and our external perceptions lies the reality of the consequences of whatever action was actually taken–the choices we made. And, this is what I want to talk about because that nagging fear of living in that place–the land of consequences--is often what keeps us locked into our circumstances, thusly, preventing us from ever making the most necessary changes which ultimately gets us where we want to go.
Inertia and Fear of Negative Consequences
In my experience, there are two things that sabotage us when we are presented with the opportunity to take action. We become anxious because we don’t know what will happen (but we’re quite sure that it will be bad), and this anxiety/cognitive distortion exacerbates our personal inertia, thusly, thwarting our innate resiliency and ability to change; and we can’t overcome our own inertia long enough to implement the desired and likely necessary changes in ways that count.
What does this look like in real life terms?
Jane is a talented, intelligent woman with two college degrees who has traveled extensively and lived abroad. She runs a non-profit. She is multi-lingual and has a large social and professional network, She is kind, generous, and strives to make everyone around her feel comfortable and welcome in her presence. She volunteers at her kids’ school and teaches Sunday school classes. She is well-liked by her neighbors and her community at large, and she is beloved by her many friends. She met Tom, her husband, in college. Tom is a charismatic, extraverted man who aims to be the center of attention wherever he is. He thrives on admiration. He gave up his successful law practice to become a political consultant, and he excels at this occupation. He is highly paid and enjoys advertising his wealth and status by driving expensive cars, wearing expensive brand name clothing, and paying for everything in cash. He is loud, boisterous, and obsequious, but people seem to be drawn to him–particularly women. He has strongly narcissistic tendencies and a mercurial temperament behind closed doors to the point of being verbally and emotionally abusive to Jane and their three children. Male colleagues like him because he mirrors back to them their own positive perceptions of masculinity, and female colleagues like him because he is flirtatious but not excessively so giving them a sense of importance. Tom had one extramarital affair within the first three years of their marriage. They have been married for 18 years. Both Jane and Tom are from conservative Christian families who do not support divorce believing that “God hates divorce”. While Jane doesn’t believe that women should stay in abusive relationships, she will not label her relationship as abusive even though she is verbally/emotionally abused as well as pressured to stay married by both her family of origin and her in-laws in order to keep up appearances and “be obedient” to what the Bible teaches. During the last two years, Jane is experiencing symptoms of an undiagnosed autoimmune disease and chronic fatigue symptoms. She is also experiencing depression symptoms. She argues with Tom daily. Jane and Tom have verbally violent fights at least once a week in front of their children, and their oldest son is beginning to model some of Tom’s negative personality traits.
Where is the inertia in Jane’s situation?
How do we begin to overcome our own personal inertia and take action?
Put simply, we can begin to take meaningful and effective action in our lives when our desire for change is greater than our fear of change and the potential consequences that our actions could bring. In terms of inertia, our desire becomes the outside force acting upon our uniform motion which changes our direction or propulsion.
Desire can be an unwanted emotional experience for some particularly if it’s strong because it seems that fear and desire go together in a sometimes awkward and toxic dance. The stronger the desire the more powerful the fear, and it often depends on how desire manifests. Desire can feel like ambition or intense focus on a goal. It can feel like a consistent attraction to specific daydreams or fantasizing. It can also feel like longing or yearning unearthing a profound sense that you are not living a life meant for you. You may feel like something is missing drawing you into a sort of quest or search. In its more helpful form, desire can be an ontological state that motivates an awakening which drives the self to deeper self-actualization–desire freed from fear. Desire mingling with fear often manifests as envy, jealousy, toxic competitiveness, judgmentalism, and comparisons with others. Desire can be highly disruptive to the self.
What is very interesting to note is that there is a neurochemical connection between desire and fear, and it is found in dopamine:
“The chemical dopamine induces both desire and dread, according to new animal research in the July 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Although dopamine is well known to motivate animals and people to seek positive rewards, the study indicates that it also can promote negative feelings like fear. The finding may help explain why dopamine dysfunction is implicated not only in drug addiction, which involves excessive desire, but in schizophrenia and some phobias, which involve excessive fear.” (Society for Neuroscience. “Brain Chemical Shown To Induce Both Desire And Dread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 July 2008. )
How do we take this information and make it work for us? The things that we often fear are quite valid–the loss of community, fear of retaliation and violence, social injury and rejection, fear of God, loss of occupation, inability to survive, and loss of social standing. This is about survival. Staying “stuck” and in predictable circumstances–even if we hate them or they’re hurting us–may often seem like the best choice when faced with potential outcomes that we fear should we allow desire to influence us. Our own neurochemistry can bolster this mindset. Desire or dread. What should influence us?
The question of influence, to me, is one of the most important issues we can consider. When we are influenced more by a fear of potential negative outcomes our natural response will be an inertial one which is to maintain. Stay put. Stay the course. Refuse change. Do what you know even if what you know is making you miserable and sick or even making your loved ones miserable and sick. It is an internal battle that must be fought. Where there is desire, there will be fear particularly when the potential for change is present. In theory, this might sound all well and good, but what comes after desire?
I like this list:
Why endeavor to engage in this? I’ll let Dr. Jim Taylor answer this:
“When we change our life inertia, we liberate ourselves from those forces that have, until now, propelled us in a direction we would not have chosen. With control of the spaceship that is our lives, we will have freedom from debilitating fear, doubt, anger, shame, and despair. It also means we will have the freedom to hope, feel, accept, engage, and strive. When you are in command of your spaceship you are on track to live a life that will bring you meaning, fulfillment, and well-being. And you can be sure that you will not have to experience the most frustrating of all emotions – regret. Once you have gained command of your life you will not have to ask, “I wonder what could have been?” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)
May 2019 be a year of daring to desire and taking action.
The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete. I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow. Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome. I see now why all the locals drive SUVs. Nothing seems to stop them. Not snow, ice, flash floods. Pedestrians.
Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit. This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend. You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.
About 11 years ago I had an epiphany. Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them. What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking. Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.
The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving. Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder. The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child. She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury. Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’. It never went well for them. Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk. Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.
So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us. She had in-laws. Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt). That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me. For five years.
So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening. Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday. We eat in the evening. We stay at the table. We enjoy drinks and desserts. And then the games come out. Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun. She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised. My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped. As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.
By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night. It wasn’t fun. It felt like playing a social game of Tetris. People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly. I was glad when it ended. As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.
Why do we do it? I ask it honestly. Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?
Ah yes, tradition. How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time. Just like last year. And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.
I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do. I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly. You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore. Can we please start a new tradition?” You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me. I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.
What does it feel like? It feels wonderful. There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do. I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress. I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.
One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.
This is the most important takeaway. Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason. Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body. Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. When you are stressed, your body produces it. One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response. Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick. Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event. Why is this?
The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus. Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen. In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug. In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus. Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen. So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection. You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production. The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation. We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection. We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self. And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.
Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system. Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult. Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.
With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.