I wrote a post entitled AFFECTIVE DEPRIVATION DISORDER AND ALEXITHYMIA IN MARRIAGE in 2014. I wrote it from a place of profound emotional and psychic pain, but there was also a thread of hope woven into that post because I thought I had found an answer. Alexithymia. Maybe there was an explanation for my then husband’s behaviors and relational style. Affective Deprivation Disorder. Maybe there was a name for how I felt. A label, if you will, for the twisting of my reality and life. I didn’t exactly feel comforted, but I did feel validated and less alone. I didn’t expect so many people, however, to respond. I didn’t realize just how many people intimately and experientially understood the contents of what I had written. That post is still the most widely read and cited post on this blog. I’ve been contacted privately by people from all over the world, men and women, asking for answers. I’ve been emailed anonymously by people who just needed to tell their stories. I’ve received hate mail. And then there are the comments. Well, you can read those. The mélange of pain, despair, hope and the desire to repair what is broken is present.
It has been almost six years since I wrote that post, and I’ve learned some things since then.
I was contacted by only one person who felt they had alexithymia, and they themselves wanted to know what they could do to bridge the gap. He went to a therapist and is still actively involved in a healing process. I’ve gotten to know him, and he is a thoroughly sincere person with genuine desire to be in authentic relationship. Every other person who contacted me felt they were in crisis due to partnering with someone who was, at that least, emotionally unavailable and neglectful or, at the worst, abusive. On the whole, the trend that I’ve observed is that it was one person out of a partnership who was doing the bulk of the emotional work and who was also absorbing the inequities in the relationship.
There is a name for this. Emotional exploitation. What is emotional exploitation? Essentially, it is using another person or persons (for example, spouse and children) from whom one extracts emotional nurturing while returning only a tiny portion of that same love, support, and listening. (source) Many of the emails and comments I’ve read over the years have painted a picture of emotional exploitation. That was a very real dynamic in my former marriage. One I could never change.
So, let me be real. What could I change? Could I change anything about my ex-husband? No. Only he could change himself. We cannot change people, but we can influence people. Was I successful in any way at influencing him? Yes and no. I’ll explain.
When I asked him to be more present with me and the kids, I influenced him. He became more avoidant. When I asked him to help me do yard work, I influenced him. He became more childish and feigned incompetence to get out of helping me. When I asked him to watch a movie with me, I influenced him. He mocked my movie choices because he knew that would embarrass me, thusly, causing me to let him pick the movie instead. When I asked him to stop drinking, I influenced him. He got angry, blamed me for his anxiety, and drank more. When I asked him for sex, I influenced him. He ignored me for months and turned our bedroom into his home office. Did I have influence? In a way. Did I change him? No. In the end, it became an overtly abusive relationship where it did not matter what I did. Every move I made was met with psychological or physical warfare.
Allow me to be clear. You cannot change anyone. You could transform yourself into the most perfect version of who you think you need to be to please your loved one, and I guarantee that it will not change that person. You could delete every part of yourself that you’ve been told is flawed or somehow innately wrong in order to please your beloved, and it will still not change this person. I know this because I tried. You will only end up a mess. A despairing, hollowed out, confused, hurting mess.
You cannot change another person.
Tattoo that on your brain. It is not your job to change someone else. Isn’t that a relief? It might not feel like a relief. If you like to be in control, then it is maddening. If you, like me, grew up believing that if you did everything right, then a Happily Ever After would be yours, reality turns out to be a shock. Here is the heartbreaking truth of it all. You can promise to love someone–and truly love them–until the day you die, and there is no guarantee that they will do the same even if they made the same promise, too. I never really understood that until domestic violence entered my former marriage. I never really understood that love was not enough. I naively believed that love conquered all. It doesn’t. Why? Why isn’t love enough?
Let me rephrase that. Love for one person isn’t enough. Often when we hear people say that love will conquer all, we see one heroic person preparing to embark on an ill-fated journey wherein a great sacrifice will be made all in the name of love. That’s a terrible template for relationships, but that describes the dating history of a lot of people I know. We are not supposed to live in one-sided, emotionally exploitative, psychologically besieged relationships marked by great and terrible drama. We are supposed to allow for the possibility that we will receive the same love and nurturing from our partners that we give and cultivate that on a daily basis. It is called mutuality or reciprocity, and that is what was missing from my former marriage. That is what is missing from all the comments and emails I’ve read. Reciprocity. Furthermore, we want to choose partners and friends who also cultivate reciprocity so that greater trust and intimacy are built over time thereby lessening the possibility of all kinds of exploitation and shame allowing for vulnerability within our relationships which ultimately allows for feelings of belonging, safety, and acceptance. In all the comments and emails I’ve received never was there mention of present feelings of safety, belonging, or vulnerability. I certainly never experienced that in my former marriage.
Well, what is to be done? I’ll be frank. I ended my marriage less than a year after I wrote that post. Yeah, I was married for almost twenty years, and I ended it. There is no reward for languishing in a dark pool of suffering, wasting away, pouring yourself out, giving your best away to someone who really doesn’t care or lacks the capacity to care. Either way, you cannot make someone else care for you in a way that is meaningful to you or meets your needs, but you can make your own choices. So, for the first time in my life, I stopped thinking about what would meet everyone else’s needs and started thinking about what would meet mine.
Was it easy? No. As hard as I imagined it would be, I ended up wishing that it were that easy. The first two years after it ended were the worst, and it wasn’t because I missed him. It was because there were years of pain to process, and I didn’t expect it. I have never experienced anything quite like it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. As time goes on, I feel less and less vulnerable and more capable.
So, what would I like to say to anyone who reads that post and sees themselves in it? Well, I want to say that your happiness, well-being, and needs are just as important as your partner’s. If you are thinking that you can save your partner or change them by doing something more than you already have, then I would encourage you to pause for a moment. Please remember that I wrote that post. I was once in the same place. I, too, was trying to solve the problem of my relationship–the problem that was my partner. In the end, I needed to save myself. I was the one who was drowning because, in reality, it did not matter whether my ex-husband would not change or could not change. The manifestation of either of those realities was the same, and I could no longer exist in that reality and be okay. And since I could not change him, I had to change. That might sound like a scary proposition, but authentic change happens slowly.
Start where you are. Take one step at a time. Be intentional. Begin to value yourself as much as you value your partner. See where it takes you.
Just don’t give up.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone in which they asked me about self-loathing and how to overcome it. It seems that this person lived within a polarized self-image either liking themselves at one moment or hating themselves the next; and, this split view-always black and white–was based upon a biased internalization of their perceived performance in any given situation. Were they attractive enough? Did they receive enough positive feedback from co-workers, friends, and family to override their own on-going, negative internal self-assessments?
I have been asked about self-loathing and the Inner Critic before, and I’ve never known what to say. I used to struggle fiercely with a viciously mean Inner Critic which led to intractable self-loathing. I don’t say that to be dramatic. It simply is a factual statement. I had a traumatic childhood and adolescence as many people do, and I know that being randomly abducted by a human trafficker the summer before I started university added to that trauma burden. I don’t really struggle with self-loathing now, and I don’t really know how I healed from it. It was definitely process-based to be sure. An idea, however, came to mind as I was listening to my friend share about her current struggles with self-loathing and her desire to be free of it. A thought experiment if you will…
I think it’s fair to say that most of us have socialized within a group of people and heard someone say something like, “Oh, I just hate that person. If you’re ever unlucky enough to find yourself in their company, do everything you can to get away from them! They are the most detestable human being!”
Gosh! Well, they sound terrible. I’m of a curious nature, however, and, in the past, I have been one to ask questions when someone expresses such a strong, negative opinion: “Tell me, why is this person so awful?” Generally, when someone dislikes another person so strongly, they are more than willing to share their reasons.
“Oh, don’t get me started! Right off, I’ll tell you that they smell. I don’t think they bathe at all. Don’t stand downwind of this person. Personal hygiene is not a priority for them, and they pick their teeth at the table. I was disgusted. And, they interrupted me every time I tried to talk. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways! Between their teeth-picking and interrupting, I was appalled. And, you know, I really didn’t care for their haircut either or their profession. The world simply doesn’t need another shaggy-haired debt collector. Period. I think they come from a bad family. I’ve heard things about their siblings. You know, come to think of it, I think they were drunk, too, and it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon! Oh! And their political views offended me. I have absolutely nothing in common with this person from table manners to politics. You know, you’re far too nice a person to associate with such a socially inept person. I think they might be just plain stupid or a sociopath. Avoid them!”
So, I don’t know if this is funny or terrible. And yet people say things based in hyperbole like this about others more often than we’d like to admit. Trash talking other people in subtle or overt ways is part of the whole cancel culture phenomenon that is now part of the zeitgeist, but that isn’t what I’m writing about. Gossip in the name of “doing someone a favor” is a normalized part of social interactions, and toxic talk can be as well. What I would like to ask is this: In theory, would you want to meet this person if someone in your social circle said this? Obviously, I wrote something over the top to make a point, but we engage in this kind of exchange, or something on this spectrum, not infrequently. We rely on the social currency or credibility of others when deciding on whom to meet and whom to avoid. If a trusted friend advises you to avoid a certain person because they have found them to be “bad”, then you’d likely follow their suggestion, right? If a trusted business contact set up a meeting for you claiming that this new contact had integrity and would potentially benefit your career and future, you would likely believe them, right?
Why? Why do we believe the things that certain people tell us about others? Trust. We must trust other people in order to successfully navigate the world. Also, there are people who have earned our trust over the course of time, and those are the people we are likely to trust. It follows then that we would believe what they tell us particularly in the realm of social interactions and connections. Allow me to present another scenario.
What if this theoretical rude, tooth-picking, smelly, socially inept person turned out to be a great person who just happened to have a bad day? What if my theoretical friend from my trusted Inner Circle had exaggerated for their own undisclosed, personal reasons? What if I happened to meet this person by accident and discovered them to be absolutely delightful, clean, well-mannered, and intellectually gifted? What if my friend got it completely wrong? Or, worse, what if my theoretical friend had ulterior motives? What if they had just been romantically rejected by this person and felt spurned, and, in order to overcompensate for a bruised ego, felt the need to socially punish this person by not only robbing them of the chance to expand their social connections but also ruin their reputation? That’s pretty bad and not necessarily uncommon. We are not wrong to trust people, but, in my experience, people can and do surprise us in both good and bad ways.
What is the point of my little thought experiment? I’m going to connect this to self-loathing.
When my friend asked me how to overcome self-loathing and silence her Inner Critic, I was initially stumped. I could not remember what I did to release myself from self-loathing, and that was surprising to me because I was once plagued by it to the point of cognitive and emotional paralysis. When I was in my late 20s, I honestly hated myself. It then occurred to me that, for many of us who have struggled and continue to struggle with perfectionism and shades of self-loathing, to love someone we must know them. When you are traumatized particularly in your developmental years, you experience a phenomenon much like my thought experiment in which you are introduced to a highly devalued version of yourself through the words and physical demonstrations of your caregivers. You come to know yourself as “other”–as whatever your caregivers, family, and community say you are be it bad, incapable, inherently flawed, or whatever labels are applied to you which are usually whatever negative internalizations your caregivers took with them from their own childhoods. It’s bad enough listening to people use toxic language when speaking about someone else, but it’s particularly harmful to hear repetitive toxic talk spewed forth to you–about you. How can you survive it? Well, a very common way is to side with the abuser and internalize their highly negative view of you. It’s like forced teaming except you choose in favor of the abuser against yourself.
Thus, hatred of the self is born. In other words, we are told about ourselves through the words and actions of people who do not seem to like us or may even hate us, and we believe them because we either trust them or need them to survive–or both. Consequently, we leave our families of origin or adolescent environments never having gotten a chance to know and value ourselves because self-actualization was never the goal. Survival was the goal.
So, I told my friend that to overcome self-loathing and silence her Inner Critic she may want to get to know herself for real for the first time free of her family and traumatic environments. She knew herself only in the context of what they had said and done to her, and, as it turns out, a lot of what they said and did was wrong and inaccurate. They introduced her to a fictitious stranger that wasn’t even her. Much like that tooth-picking, rude person, they created an exaggerated and even demonized version of her to justify their bad choices, and she internalized it and believed it. Their constant criticisms had become the voice of her Inner Critic, and her self-image was based upon that distorted image of her they had created–the distorted image that she hated. She hated that distortion and the context from which it sprang. She didn’t really hate herself. How could she? She didn’t even know herself! She was never given the opportunity. Consequently, every compliment she was ever given or ounce of praise was rejected because it felt untrue. The incongruency was so stark that it created an internal dissonance that was too large to reconcile. She could not have been both good and evil at the same time. Surely, her family must be right then. Strangely enough, the praise and compliments she received throughout her life actually cemented her self-loathing because they increased her internal dissonance forcing her to choose between her understanding of her own identity–was she good…or bad? Praiseworthy or worth nothing?
This is, of course, my own inquiry into the idea of self-loathing. When I look at my own past traumas and childhood and adolescent development, I see how my family environment created distortions that contributed to my own sense of self-loathing. I also see how the toxic language used by both my parents created distorted images that I was supposed to live up to (or down to). It is far easier to see this in retrospect than it ever could have been in the moment. What I see as beneficial now is the idea that we can and absolutely should question the beliefs that we internalized then and continue to internalize now particularly as it pertains to our identity. If we experience any kind of hatred or even disdain of the self, then what aspects do we dislike or hate? Did we agree with something that was applied to us that never belonged to us? Did we do it to survive? Are we still surviving? Are we still living in a situation that requires a survival mode? What does our Inner Critic say to us? Do we confuse our Inner Critic for our conscience? Do we believe them to be the same?
They are not. Your Inner Critic is the ultimate voice of sabotage. Your conscience is your advocate and on your side.
I don’t know if my thought experiment was helpful. I have been thinking on it for a few days, and it gave me an opportunity to externalize a very complex, internal experience. One of the most powerful tools for healing from self-loathing is cultivating self-compassion. Here is an excellent resource:
I had an interesting experience last Friday. I had developed symptoms of COVID-19 before San Francisco was ordered to shelter in place and self-quarantined almost two weeks earlier. My doctor called me into the office to be tested, but the tests take about 4 to 6 days to process. That equals about twelve days of quarantine and illness. Fortunately, I tested negative, but, between the illness, the online courses, and the quarantine, I felt a little stir crazy. So, once I was able to leave the house and go for a walk, I decided to walk to the ocean. It’s just a mile from my place.
It was a perfect evening for a stroll. The wind was low, the temperature was hovering around 60 degrees F, and the streets weren’t crowded because, well, everyone is supposed to be inside unless they’re out for a walk, too. I had this compelling feeling that I was going to the beach for a reason. I was going to find something there. Have you ever experienced that? A sudden compulsion to do something or go somewhere because you intuitively know that there is something significant either in the journey or the destination meant for you to discover.
I arrived at the beach and immediately saw a dead fur seal. I have never seen such a large, dead mammal on the beach. It was startling. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve seen plenty of sea creatures washed up on the beach but never mammals. I didn’t feel horrified. I wondered how it came to be there and how it died. I told myself that this is the way of nature in an effort to comfort myself because I felt certain that I did not walk to the ocean only to see a dead seal. I kept walking.
There was a surprising number of people at the beach considering the statewide “lockdown” order. Dogs were running and playing, and people were jogging. It all looked like normal life occurring, and I suspect that is why the locals headed to the beach. People maintain their distance at the beach anyway. We may as well go to the one place where Nature is herself and try to be ourselves, too. You can’t very well miss that reality when passing a dead seal.
“Why did I feel so compelled to come to the beach?” I pondered.
I was convinced there was a reason. I kept walking.
Finally, I paused to look out at the horizon and watch the surfers. I wondered if there were sharks and how big they were. As I recalled a scene from “Jaws”, I looked down at the sand and observed that there were two intact sand dollars by my feet. I looked up and saw an incoming wave and noticed that there was something floating in the water. As the wave washed upon the shore, it deposited seven more intact sand dollars at my feet. I’ve only ever found two intact sand dollars in my life. Nine sand dollars? Was this why I came to the ocean?
What did it mean? I had no idea, but it felt meaningful to me. As I stood on the beach considering this phenomenon, the sun began to set, and the wonder of it all struck me.
I returned home feeling like I could breathe deeply again, and I had to know more about those sand dollars. So, what do they mean? I’ve done a lot of searching, and they are laden with meaning particularly Christian religious symbolism. That can be very significant for many people, but I felt that there was additional symbolic meaning. In looking for what sand dollars may represent in other cultures and traditions, this is what I’ve found:
What is even more interesting about the sand dollar is its ability to “clone”. It can break off a part of itself to reproduce much like adult starfish: ” If larvae of these species encounter temperatures that are conducive to growth, or if food is abundant, they will clone themselves, creating a horde of new identical twins that can take advantage of the favorable conditions.” (Science) What might this tell us? In the context of the current pandemic, I think the general message is both general and specific. We can take into account our needs, but we must also look after the well-being of others. When we have an opportunity to enjoy ourselves and the abundance around us, we should enjoy the blessings and express our gratitude, but we may want to express that gratitude by sharing that abundance–even when we don’t feel like it. When the environment is conducive to growth and the resources are abundant, break off a little bit of what you have so that others who are weaker and lacking have the chance to thrive (this brings to mind the current issue of hoarding resources like toilet paper and necessary medications).
I think my encounter with the sand dollar may have been about expanding my awareness as we enter into this time of uncertainty. The sand dollar is a resilient creature who can survive alone and in a group. It is both other-oriented and self-protective. It transforms and remains the same at once. Lastly, it is multi-colored which I love. When it is alive, it can be green, blue, and purple, and those colors, according to some sources, are laden with meaning. Green represents healing. Blue represents an emotional life, and purple represents the spirit. In other words, do not neglect to care for your emotional and spiritual aspects while looking after your physical healing, and please don’t forget to honor those aspects of those people around you. The last sand dollar I found as I walked the beach was alive and in full color almost shimmering with greens, blues, and purples.
Find meaning therein if you will.
I wish all of you comfort, hope, and strength as we continue forward each day embarking into the unknown with hopeful anticipation.
Sometimes I write a post, and the words flow with little effort on my part. It is as if an idea is born into the ether with its own agency. Sometimes, however, I feel anxiety because I know I’m going to say something that might be misunderstood or easily misinterpreted. I’m anxious right now. I might be writing something that could be misunderstood. So, please, bear with me. My intention as always is for the higher good.
Have you ever had a friendship just sort of dissolve? It was there one day robust with life and energy and then wilting the next? Suddenly, it’s as if your relationship is experiencing death throes, and you’re not even sure what happened? This happened to me recently, and I’ve not been wont to write about it because I’ve been quiet about most things lately. I haven’t been writing much at all.
Mostly, I needed to think about the sudden loss and really come to a truthful conclusion about my part in it. I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong, and yet I felt so exploited and taken advantage of at the same time. Why? No relationship comes to a halt and just ends because of one person. Surely, I had a part to play in it, and, honestly, I did not like that idea. So, I’m going to step into the light and engage in some real talk in the form of self-examination. Also, not something I love. Real talk. Alas, sometimes real talk is necessary.
If you come from a codependent family with any kind of trauma in your background, then you might be familiar with the idea of the archetype. Perhaps you have always been the Good Child, the Incorrigible Child, the Bad Kid, the Perfect Child, the Inherently Evil Child, the Helper, the Pleaser, the Too Much but Never Enough Child, the Always In The Way Kid, the Scapegoat, the Fixer, the Invisible Child, or the Too Broken to Fix Child. You get the idea. Sometimes we are a combination of a few of these. You might be something I left out. And, oftentimes, no matter how much truly meaningful work we do in our lives to put things right, we carry these labels with us into our adult vocations and relationships because, as I’ve learned, we might still have the drive to prove that we are not the labels we got stuck with so long ago. It isn’t as if we are 100% committed to the belief that we are the embodiment of these familial roles we were thrust into, but, at the same time, at least for me, it has felt like I’ve been trying to prove a point for a long time. To whom? Maybe myself? It isn’t clear anymore, but this is how it manifested.
In a lot of my relationships, it seems that I will make myself overly available. I will be the one to count on. I will listen, show up, and give away my emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and even physical resources without much expectation of reciprocity. I used to think that this was just how relationships were, but, in reality, this is not how healthy relationships function. Healthy relationships are not one-sided in which one person gives to the other with little in return–for years. There is nothing blessed about that. Even if the other person acknowledges the imbalance and still continues to take, does the acknowledgement make the relationship less imbalanced? Less exploitative, dare I ask? No, not really. If I don’t tighten the boundaries, lessen the emotional, psychological, intellectual, and physical outflow, then who is ultimately responsible for resultant feelings of exploitation? Me.
So, what’s the real talk here? I was in a friendship wherein I gave away far too much for too long but received far less in return in terms of support and reciprocity. There wasn’t a consistently mutual exchange, and I knew that. It felt oddly normal to me. In retrospect, I observe that I engaged in a form of magical thinking in which I continued to believe that if I invested time and effort–capital if you will– for long enough, when the time came to draw on that capital, there would be a return–not a declaration of bankruptcy on the other end. And, that’s what happened. My friend metaphorically declared bankruptcy in the form of saying that she had no capacity for friendship when I finally asked for support during a very real and legitimate time of need. She essentially spent all the capital I had invested over the years. It was like a relational Ponzi scheme. A defrauding. And I felt deeply hurt and exploited. That’s not to say that she was definitively exploitative or possessed bad character. She wasn’t and didn’t. For the sake of my own learning, however, I can see now that there was a trend; and I discounted it. And this is worth exploring.
So, who set me up for that exploitation? Me or her?
This is a dangerous question to ask particularly if one has been victimized because there is an unspoken rule when it comes to victims and exploitation: it isn’t our fault. No one asks to be exploited. Hear me out. This is really important.
I had a hidden expectation, and that expectation was that my friend was going to come through for me during a time of need. So, I willingly gave away my precious resources to her banking on a future reality that may or may not arrive. I was counting on what I believed about her character. My trust was misplaced. A case could easily be made that we all trust people and are proven wrong from time to time. That isn’t our fault. Blaming ourselves to avoid feeling grief and disappointment is not the proper way to handle the emotional processing of pain. Agreed. That’s not what I’m saying.
I’m trying to elucidate something deeper. Why did I give away everything for free in the first place? Why didn’t I set up a model for a reciprocal exchange? Why was I always there even when it was so far outside what was good for me? What was at play? People will likely take what you offer them. If it’s free, then they will likely take it. If we value what we are giving to others, then wouldn’t we want something in return? Wouldn’t we ask for reciprocity? Wouldn’t we expect it? Why? Because, as it turns out, nothing in life is really free at all. Someone is usually always paying for the unreciprocated exchanges be it through the absorbing of inequities, emotional hits, somatic symptoms, and the intellectual energy required to process ideas and thoughts after every interaction. Plus, our time is immensely valuable. Doctors, coaches, psychologists, lawyers, healthcare providers, and the like charge for their time and expertise. The exchange of money adds reciprocity to the entire exchange between a client and expert. It says, “What you are giving me is valuable, and I am acknowledging that as well as participating in the exchange.” Eventually, you will be functioning at a deficit if you give yourself and your personal resources away for little or nothing particularly if you do so while magically expecting that someone will one day reimburse you. It just doesn’t work that way. You’ll just be continually exploited because there will always be needs in the world that far exceed your resources to meet them.
In a way, it was like I let the water faucet run continuously and anyone could come drink freely. Why did I expect anyone to stop taking water? Why did I expect anyone to fill my well when it ran dry? I left the tap on and received a huge water bill! So, why expect a different outcome when I never asked for payment in exchange for the water? I never expressed that expectation before. I simply gave it all away and did so happily. More than that, I expected that when I had a bucket that needed filling–at some point in the future–someone who had been taking water from me for free would have water to give me; or, money to give me to pay that huge water bill. It sounds absurd when I put it like this.
Why would anyone ever do such a thing? Well, because that’s what Good Children do. They are never selfish. They are always generous, kind, selfless, and happy to share everything. You can always count on the Good Child. They are perfect in every way. They can fix anything. They can solve every problem. They are boundless. They become whatever the situation calls for. Their well never runs dry. They never tire of doing right. And, they never say ‘no’.
That was my role. That was who I was from early childhood until recently–apparently. For me, this was a very important life lesson. I saw so clearly how I unwittingly participated in my own exploitation largely because I had internalized the negative beliefs about what a “good person” does in the context of relationships and interpersonal exchanges. Moreover, I can’t overlook the societal programming of gender roles here particularly of Southern United States gender roles. Good Southern girls are always a wellspring of helpfulness, good manners, hospitality, grace, and beneficence.
The positive takeaways here are that 1) I can choose what attributes from my Southern upbringing I will keep, 2) I do not have to keep any of those negative core beliefs that define what being “good” actually means, and 3) I can learn what authentically positive relationships characterized by reciprocity look like and cultivate them. The other positive takeaway from this situation? I stepped away from this circumstance and tried to see what part I played in the relationship’s demise rather than stay in that very old but familiar “victim” state. The emotional experience of exploitation can be very familiar and, henceforth, triggering to many people who were formerly victimized. Getting above it, assessing our roles in how relationships are playing out, what might be motivating us and the choices we’re making, and sitting with discomfort are all very key parts of developing distress tolerance which ultimately contributes to our personal development and healing.
It makes us better.
As always, keep going!
Happy New Year, everyone!
As an exercise in developing intention for the new year ahead, I looked back over the past year. In the spirit of looking back, I browsed at the beginning of this blog and saw that my first post was in October of 2009. I feel shocked at that. It’s hard to believe. When I sat down and typed out that first entry, I don’t think I would or even could have imagined that my life would have taken the shape of its present form, and I don’t say that to be dramatic.
I’m sitting in an apartment in San Francisco in early 2020 sincerely trying to bring to mind October 2009. Who was I then? Why did I decide to start a blog? What did I hope would happen? Was I just trying to process something? Was I trying to make sense of life events that didn’t make sense to me? Was I hoping to make connections with other people outside of my own small world? I don’t remember why I started blogging to be honest. I just remember feeling alone in my life experiences. I recall feeling driven to put reason where I could find none. I wanted to understand why my mother acted as she did. Why had my father been so cruel, detached, and abusive? Why was my then husband so aloof and distant and yet so content with such a shallow relationship, and why was I so dissatisfied with my life? Why was I in such emotional pain all the time no matter what I did?
After a decade of blogging and a brief hiatus, I’ve learned a lot about those queries although I don’t think I have definitive answers. I have answers of a kind, but they are subjective if you will but important nonetheless.
I’ve learned that self-inquiry is not a wasted pursuit. Sitting down and writing with the sincere intention to learn the truth about oneself even if the truth is painful will never be a fruitless effort. That is essentially what blogging was and is for me. It is how I processed one of the most productive decades of my life in terms of personal growth, and I would recommend blogging to everyone particularly people who are trying to rediscover, or perhaps discover for the first time, the essential truths about themselves and their world.
When I started this blog, I was a married stay-at-home mother, homeschooling kids, who somehow managed to “do it all”. I thought I had it all together except for that pesky relationship with my mentally ill mother and that painful past with my father that sometimes bothered me. And, in the span of a few years, it all fell apart. Just like that. Well, truthfully, the more honest I became in my pursuit of truth, the more I pulled at the threads that bothered me. It became an unraveling. A necessary unraveling of all the tiny untruths I had let myself believe over the years. Those tiny untruths that came together to weave the fabric of my life came apart, and my life became unrecognizable. Everything that I had once counted on to be there for me, to be firm under my feet, quaked and shook and crumbled.
I experienced inordinate loss. I lost my health. I lost my marriage. I lost most of my friendships. I lost my relationship with my mother. I watched three of my daughters lose their mental health for a time. I lost my faith.
It was a devastation of sorts. A burning.
Sometimes, however, things have to burn and even require fire to propagate like pyrophytic plants. Fires blaze a trail through the landscapes of our lives leaving what looks like utter desolation until we see that new sprouts are emerging from underneath the ashes. Tiny plants grow from seeds that we didn’t even plant. Nothing is recognizable, but there is growth nonetheless. And, slowly our lives are transforming into something new and vital. That is what happened to me. What looked like a total loss was not. It was a transformation.
My paradigm changed from that of one who mourned and grieved to a person who could exist in the present with intention and look ahead with hope. Over a period of four years, I learned to grasp my own narrative with greater courage and intention, and this matters because there is a very real line of demarcation between feeling like Life and Circumstances victimized you vs. you made your own choices to arrive at your current position.
Did I lose my relationship with my mother? Did I lose my marriage? Did I lose my health? Did I lose my faith? It all felt like this, but feelings are not necessarily truthful. I ended my marriage because it was violent and abusive, and it was the right thing to do. It was the courageous choice although it was laced with grief and pain. Did I lose my relationship with my mother? I could have stayed in that relationship–far more invested in it than my mother–all the while enabling her emotional abuse and borderline behaviors, but I chose to insist she pursue therapeutic help. I made the choice to invest in my own well-being and hers by insisting that we both get the help we need to heal from past wounds. Did I lose my health? I did descend into profound illness, but it was that descent into illness that, in part, motivated me to leave my abusive marriage. Did I lose my faith? No. My faith was transformed into what it should have been. As with any process of change and transformation, grief will be your companion as you leave behind what was in exchange for what will be. And, it is vital to recognize grief for what it is and not conflate grief with other emotional experiences.
If you don’t rush the healing process, a time does come when you stop looking back, and I am almost there now. There isn’t much to see back there anymore except for the occasional traumatic memory that needs attention and healing. I would not have been able to imagine this present reality in 2009. I once believed that I would always carry trauma with me. I did once subscribe to the idea that there were events in life that were simply too heinous or horrible to recover from. I don’t believe that anymore. I think that it is possible to recover from even the most horrific traumas, and I say this having healed from sexual torture, incest, human trafficking, long-term abuse in childhood of every kind, SRA, and domestic violence including sexual violence.
My borderline mother doesn’t really trigger me anymore. My father and his wife are a non-issue. My ex-husband is only an issue when I go to therapy and discuss an unresolved trauma of which there are a few remaining, and that’s when we use EMDR.
Today, I’m beginning the third year of my doctoral program in Eastern medicine. I’m in a very loving partnership with an outstanding man. My health issues are resolving. No, nothing is perfect because life isn’t perfect for anyone, but it is more good than bad. And, I have hope that it will continue to get better–even when there are bad days.
So, after a decade of blogging and recovering from profound trauma, what would I say is my primary message?
Never, ever give up. Ever. Even if the best you can do is binge watch the same season of Law & Order: SVU for the millionth time while eating a king size bag of your favorite candy–then do that. There are days for standing up, fighting, and taking on the world. There are days for running through a field of poppies while feeling like a million bucks. And, there are days when you just have to cross the finish line. It doesn’t matter if you come in last. Just finish–even if someone is carrying you. That has been my philosophy, and it has served me well.
Never, ever give up. You truly never know what is around the corner. May 2020 be a year of transformation for you.
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.