Nine Things I’ve Learned

I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it.  For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.

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“Where do I begin?”

That works for a while–the distancing.  It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful.  It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”.  But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:

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Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us.  That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.

But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work.  I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it.  Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online.  I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people.  I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race.  I could barely reach out to my friends.  I was just trying to stay afloat.  We are talking about surviving here.  Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I lost friends in the process.  There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did.  It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving.  Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge.  You will be “remodeled”.  You aren’t the same, but you are still you.  So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?

  1. If you commit to a process of therapy, you will heal faster.  I was in therapy for two years.  It contributed to the healing process for me post-divorce in ways I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.  I am a die-hard believer in therapy although you need the right therapist.  A bad therapist will create more obstacles, but you will leave his/her office with interesting stories.
  2. There will be moments when you will feel discouraged about your life, and that’s normal.  When you are living in an abusive environment, almost all your energy is spent trying to adapt to it.  You are focusing entirely on your abuser or negative circumstances in order to anticipate what s/he will do next or what will happen.  If you have children, you will also be trying to protect them.  Your health and emotions matter little.  If you sustained physical injury as well, you may try to brush it off as quickly as possible while pretending it never happened.  That was my M.O.  When the perpetrator of abuse is no longer present and the circumstances change, the first thing you feel is a wonderful sense of relief and joy.  I was elated.  My therapist warned me that the years of trauma that I had packed away in my body and psyche would come forward as soon as I felt safe.  I said, “Nah…no way.”  I was so wrong.  I spent over a year processing that pain, and it was extraordinary.  Basically, I was ugly crying in my bedroom every night wishing I would just die.  Eventually, that stopped, but it won’t stop until you finish the process.  So, commit to it with all you’ve got.  Then, move forward feeling much lighter.
  3. You might be afraid to meet new people, or you might feel the opposite–stoked to get out there and meet everyone.  Initially, I felt so raw that I struggled to socialize.  I was also blamed by more than a few people for being abused with very typical victim-blaming statements (ex. “I can’t believe a person as smart as you would let something like that happen.”).  I simply didn’t feel like trying to make new connections.  I also didn’t want new people meeting me in the context of such a transition.  I felt defective somehow, and I think that feeling is normal considering how often people imply it however wrong they are.  This does fade as you heal, but it is okay to stay in the relative safety of your safe space until you’re ready to get out there again as long as it doesn’t become a prolonged exercise in avoidance.  Then, you’ll have new things to discuss in your therapist’s Hot Seat.
  4. There comes a point when you come alive again.  At some point in your healing process, you reignite.  I do not know if any singular factor acts as a catalyst, but I do know that an energy returns that wasn’t there prior.  For me, it was when I went back to school.  That was an external manifestation of a shift in my beliefs.  I reached a point where I believed that I could start over.  I wanted to build a life that mattered, and I wanted my daughters to see what a woman was capable of–what it looked like to get up again.  I found my worth again and believed that what I wanted mattered.  I started to acquire hope.  This is a very good sign.  Go with it and see where it takes you.
  5. You will love and be loved again.  This was something that only resided in the realm of fantasy for me–even when I was married.  I felt so overlooked and worthless during the last years of my marriage.  Everything revolved around what my ex-husband would and would not do.  I deleted so many parts of my emotional and intellectual repertoire to stay that I hardly knew who I was anymore when the marriage ended.  I couldn’t answer basic questions like, “What is your favorite kind of music?” or “If you could go on a vacation, then where would it be?” We could only listen to his preferred music, and we never talked about vacations.  I never had an iota of privacy, and he mocked almost everything that I liked.  So, I lost myself.  Meeting someone new was a glorious surprise, and I’m still surprised by it daily.  I did not think that it was possible for me.  I know that it is common to say, “If it is possible for me, then it’s possible for you.”  It is true though.  It is possible for you.
  6. Let yourself be happier than you believe you deserve.  This is still very hard for me, but I try. I, therefore, anticipate that it may feel difficult for you at times. There have been moments in the past three years when I have felt a limitless sort of happiness.  When I feel it, I want to dampen it because fear is on its heels.  I have never experienced sustained goodness in my life.  Ever.  This is often the case for people from abusive or dysfunctional families and/or circumstances.  When you begin to believe that your environment is safe or you begin to trust those around you, circumstances and people often turn against you.  You can’t relax.  You can’t trust.  You can’t believe.  You can’t rest.  You must always be on edge, read the people in your midst so that you know how to react, and be ready to fight or flee.  Happiness or joy can never become something you truly want.  Surviving is the goal.  This is the reality of a trauma survivor, but it need not be your reality for the rest of your life.  So, I suggest allowing yourself to feel happiness and/or joy when it comes and then allow it to stay within you longer than you are comfortable with it.  The anxious thoughts will no doubt partner with your happiness–“What if _______ happens?”, “What if _________ dies?”, “What if _________ turns out to be just like _________ and hurts me?” There are myriad distorted anxieties that the brain throws at you when you begin to relax into happiness.  That’s okay.  Allow yourself to feel happier than you believe you deserve to be in little bits.  Eventually, you can sustain it for longer periods of time, and that state of being will normalize itself.
  7. Getting triggered isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I experienced a triggering event yesterday, and it came out of nowhere as triggering events often do.  Initially, I didn’t even know why I was upset.  I thought I was overly sensitive and felt foolish.  When I finally came to the reason, I felt oddly grateful and somewhat annoyed.  I realized that I still had emotional work to do around some of the emotional abuse in my former marriage, and, admittedly, I’m tired of the subject.  But, the recovery was relatively fast, and I could see it more objectively than I once did.  I didn’t get sucked in and stay triggered for hours upon hours.  This is progress! Triggering events are still painful, but they are now more representative of data points.  I can use them to gain traction now rather than sink to the bottom of the emotional Laurentian Abyss.  It does get better and easier, and you come to see yourself not as a victim of something but simply as yourself.  That change in self-definition is a huge turning point.
  8. You will eventually become more interested in your future than your past.  This can be a hard thing to grasp, but it’s akin to a paradigm shift.  When you endure a lot of therapy, you are naturally past/present oriented because you spend all your time sleuthing for past problems and traumas that affected you in the present.  This is useful to a point.  Eventually, we must begin to see our lives as present/future oriented, and that can be extremely difficult for people who have endured trauma largely due to the little talked about symptom of PTSD called a foreshortened future.  What is a sense of a foreshortened future? Essentially, it means that you cannot plan for yourself because you cannot imagine your own future.  You simply can’t see it.  Some therapists define it as a person believing that their life will be cut short and define the symptom as an avoidance symptom in PTSD.  I think that they’re wrong.  I rely on neuroscience for this one.  The brain relies on our past experiences and narratives to construct future narratives and make plans for us.  An extreme example of this is an amnesiac patient.  Patients with amnesia cannot make plans for their future.  Why? They have no memories of past experiences so their brains cannot tap into past experiences to project possible narrative outcomes when planning for the future.  So, people with traumatic experiences and PTSD have narrative experiences characterized by traumatic experiences.  If all a person has done in their lives is adapt to trauma, then all of their time and energy is spent focusing on and adapting to someone else (a perpetrator) or to traumatic circumstances (poverty, war, highly dysfunctional or abusive circumstances).  Never have they learned to plan.  They have only learned to adapt on the fly usually around someone else’s behaviors or circumstances.  Planning is a skill.  Learning to “dream” about a future where good things can and do happen to and for you is also a skill particularly if you have never once experienced that.  It must be learned in a safe place where one can be taught how, and where once can learn to practice it.  The future doesn’t exist yet.  We help to create it, but this idea is elusive at best when you perceive the past to have ruined your present.  You must embrace the idea that your future is yours even if you can’t feel it or see it yet.  It is yours as surely as your past is behind you.  This one takes time, but it is possible to learn this skill.
  9. You will recover your resiliency.  This is a big deal.  We are all resilient creatures.  Humans can survive almost anything, but we can also reach breaking points.  The point here is that you can come back from that.  There are days when it will feel like you won’t or can’t.  Don’t believe everything you think or feel.  That is folly.  Getting up again after setbacks, no matter how bad, is what resiliency is all about.  Developing grit and shifting your self-definition from one of a victim to a person who can and will get up again is where the rubber meets the road.  Changing how you view yourself in relation to the people who hurt you matters the most right here.  For me, my personal statement has been: “I will not let people of that quality take the best out of me.  I will get up again.”  Remembering this has given me the fuel I have needed to keep going when I have felt truly overwhelmed.  At some point, you will turn around and look back taking in how far you’ve traveled.  You will see that you did indeed get up again and walk miles.  No one said that the healing process was easy or felt good.  I will tell you that it hurts profoundly, but it does not hurt forever.  There comes a point when you something shifts.  You will begin to feel more peaceful than you feel anxious.  You will discover joy and feel that more often than you feel fear.  Fear and anxiety can become habitual states of being.  They are familiar, and we know how to feel like that.  Joy and peace? Not so much.  Those must be cultivated and invested in.  And…fought for.  The culture we live in does not value joy, peace, civility, and kindness.  If you want that in your life, you have to cultivate it, fight for it, and stand guard over it.

At this point on the road, this is where I’m at.  I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now.  We can get up and move.  As always, I wish you all great peace and…

Keep going.

 

 

 

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Developing Grit

It’s been too long since my last post.  Forgive me, faithful readers.

I was not prepared for how I would feel after I reported the ongoing sexual harassment–the Sean Situation.

One imagines that it would be empowering.  From experience, I can tell you that it really isn’t.  For me, it’s embarrassing, and, when you read the numerous accounts of men and women who delay initial outcries, one of the reasons that they do not say anything after sexual harassment and/or violence is shame.  There is something keenly embarrassing and humiliating about being touched, groped, sexually harassed, and verbally harassed.  It is supposed to be that way.  These encounters are not mutual.  They are embodiments of the power differential.  One person has the power to coerce.  The power to push down.  The power to silence.  The power to cause another person to mistrust their own instincts.  The power to shift blame onto a victim.

For me, disclosing these experiences to people in power, to the people who will make decisions on how to proceed, was not ideal.  I felt rather like a curiosity.  The Dean of my school wanted to meet with me.  He read my disclosure.  He stared at me with his ever-present smile and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I felt confused.

That’s the moment I knew that I was going to have to take a strong position.  The administration would not advocate after all for their students even with a perpetrator among them.  I wrote the administration a very diplomatic but strongly worded letter citing their own policies concerning harassment on campus.  I used their own definitions of harassment and sexual harassment and juxtaposed it with my on-campus experiences with Sean as already disclosed for the legal record.  I asked them to implement their policies.  As a result, Sean was reprimanded.  His teachers were notified of his behaviors and will monitor him.

I see him in class every week.  It is impossible not to notice him.  He sits in front of me.

That’s it.

Someone might ask, “What was so bad about that?”

I try not to describe any of this from the mindset of feeling victimized per se.  I don’t enjoy that feeling.  I like feeling strong.  I don’t, however, want to disclose personal information to anyone at my school about my life in terms of my former marriage or the reasons that marriage ended.  After you escape an environment wherein there was domestic violence and abuse, there is something almost magical about the idea of starting over.  Going to a new place where no one knows you.  No one knew you when you were drowning or looked like the walking dead for a few years as you were trying to figure out how to leave.

In a legal disclosure, you must disclose everything that occurred between you and the person harassing you–even why you didn’t report it initially.  In explaining the situation to one of my teachers who has come to know me fairly well, I gave him background information.  I felt compelled to disclose that I had experienced domestic abuse in my former marriage.  This was the primary reason I didn’t report Sean’s behavior for a year.  I wasn’t sure that he was even harassing me.  Compared to what I had been experiencing, his behavior was somewhat oppressive, but I didn’t require surgery for any of it.  My compass was somewhat broken.  That information was passed on to the teachers on the administrative board of my school who are also teachers I see daily.  They now know very personal information about me–information I really wanted to remain private.  In the grand scheme of it all, does it matter? No.  In terms of cultivating dignity, does it matter? It sure as shit does.

Rebuilding a sense of dignity and keeping it might cost you something, and advocacy be it for yourself or others will most definitely cost you something.  Sean won’t be able to harass other people now.  To be honest, I didn’t expect to feel so personally disrupted by it.  I thought I would just sail through it, but I didn’t.  After the disclosure and meeting with the Dean, I didn’t want to leave my house.  I didn’t want to go to school.  I felt some kind of re-victimization by the entire process particularly when I had to tell the school to implement their own policies.  Do the right thing even if only for the sake of doing the right thing!

I think, however, that doing “the right thing” probably always costs us something whatever the right thing happens to be.  It is why it is so exhilarating and encouraging when you see someone do it.  And, it’s why you have to find some kind of identifying strength in doing it in private.  There are many times when we make decisions to do the right thing, and no one will ever know what we did.  Only we know.  We know how much it costs, and we know how it feels not to be validated for it.  You must learn to self-validate and find some kind of strength that endures in the knowledge of your own integrity.  This is essentially grit.

This is the back end of resiliency and character development.  At some point, making better choices and living with integrity become the only decision to make because you no longer care what anyone knows or thinks about you.  You only care about what is the best and most integrous decision for the circumstances–regardless of public opinion or personal cost.

Honestly, I want to be in the company of people like this.  People like this make the world better.  There is no shortcut to this sort of character development.  It happens through suffering and a commitment to bettering oneself in spite of and with it along with a refusal to embrace cynicism and bitterness.

So, if there could be a bright side to closing the chapter on this circumstance, then perhaps it is knowing that I was true.  I know what I value.  I know what I want.

And, you know, knowing what you want is a big deal.  There was a time when I wasn’t sure about anything.

2018 sure has been interesting, hasn’t it?

As always, keep going.  You never know what’s waiting for you around the bend…

Bad Days and Vanity Plates

I was having a bad day last week.  I didn’t feel well.  I couldn’t seem to catch up on anything related to domestic life.  My laundry pile looks like Mt. Everest.  I seriously need to send up teams and establish base camps.  People might never return! Oh, and the cat has decided that my laundry pile is her turf now i.e. her litter box.  It’s soft, right? It’s a comfortable place to sit back and contemplate one’s place in the grand scheme of life while one pees.  I cried a little when I discovered this.

I have a 16 year-old daughter who is making the most of her adolescence right now.  Were she not mine I would find a lot of humor in what she’s doing.  Yesterday, for example, I asked her to help clean up the kitchen.  Suddenly, it was as if she were possessed by an alien completely unfamiliar with our ways.  This Body Snatcher du Jour had never seen a kitchen, a fork, a pair of scissors, or even a dishwasher! Of course, this alien had never seen my daughter’s body either.  Suddenly, she’s stumbling around the kitchen as if she couldn’t walk or hold a spoon.  The dishwasher? What’s that? Wait, is that a hand? Do I hold things with a hand? How do hands even work? They flex and extend? Dare I say…grasp objects?

It was infuriating! My oldest daughter used up all her patience trying not to fly off into a homicidal rage whilst trying to coach her in how to rinse out a bowl.  Yes, that’s right.  Rinsing out a bowl.  A task she’s done countless times.  The strategy is brilliant.  Feign incompetence so that no one asks you to help ever again, but I’m not falling for it.

It is, however, exhausting and more than a little annoying.  It’s frustrating as hell! Raising children to be good people is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Going back to school as a single parent with a persistent health problem?

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Yeah, I kind of want to lose it.  Daily.

It’s August, and I’ve almost done nothing all summer except study.  I don’t say that with some kind of disillusionment.  I knew what I saw signing up for.  It’s hard work to begin again.  I knew that it would be.

But, on a bad day, sometimes all you can see is that which doesn’t look or feel good.  You question your choices.

So, there I was, walking in a parking lot, counting the losses.  Feeling acutely unwell and tired.  Overwhelmed and somewhat alone.  Feeling very behind in everything that one could fall behind in–bills, tasks, homework, parenting.  That very familiar drowning feeling was about to show up.  And then I looked to my right and saw it.  A vanity plate.

“NVRGVUP”

Huh.  “Never give up.”  I felt a little patronized at first.  “Really, God? I was about to really enjoy a moment of self-pity.” Fine.  Okay! I get it.  This is my mantra.  Keep going.  Never give up.  Switch my mindset.  This could just as easily be a kind of mile marker.  I am on the right path.  Be encouraged rather than discouraged.  Is it that easy? Really?

Well, look at what is difficult today. Laundry.  My daughter’s antics.  Persistent health issues.  The toils of grad school.  Three years ago, I was in a terrible marriage dealing with domestic abuse, and I saw no way out.  I could not imagine my life as it is today.  It was not a possibility for me then.  I have today what I wanted then.

Hmmmm…

This post is not an ode to my own persistence.  Hardly.  What I would like to say is that there are reminders around us, sometimes in the strangest places, that we are doing okay.  That we are on the right track.  That we are cared for.  That we should keep putting one foot in front of the other.  License plates.  Friends.  Movies.  Books.  Other people’s narratives.  In reality, there is nothing romantic about grit and tenacity.  The daily grind is called the daily grind because it grinds you down and out.  It is wearing and exhausting, but it also gets you where you intend to go.  And, during the intensity of that process, we often need to know that we chose well.  That’s where the encouragement comes in.

And, it’s everywhere when you look for it.

So, on that day in the parking lot, when I was feeling discouraged, wondering if I had set the right trajectory for my life (and, consequently, for my kids), when I saw that vanity plate, I felt validated–but only when I was willing to give up feeling discouraged.  Don’t give up.  Keep going.  Gather momentum.  Live life.  Now that I actually have a life worth living.

That’s what I would like to say.  Don’t give up.  Never give up until you have the life that you truly want to live.  It is possible.  It might be very hard to acquire, but it’s possible.