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.