In today’s #InnerWork/#EmbodiedHeart post, I want to detail the fragmentation that my childhood traumatic experiences caused in my inner world. I have previously explored some aspects of dissociation, but I would like to look in more depth as to how the abusive situations I’ve endured have affected my personality structure. I will then reflect on some of the inner spiritual work which I have personally found to be supportive.
Choose Wisely: Life as an Artificial Appendage or an Object
As I’ve listened to and read about the experience of others who have endured childhood trauma, one theme that has resonated with me is that of there being “no safe place.” This was certainly my experience growing up. My father sexually abused me for several years during my childhood, and my mother, blatantly ignoring the abuse, sought to corrupt my sense of self until I was nothing more than a servile and loyal companion, there to meet her every need. In addition to completely denying both the abuse and her own behavior, she acted as though I should be grateful that she tolerated my presence and allowed me to exist. To her, I was just another body part, completely dependent on her, incapable of my own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. For my father, I was nothing more than a disposable item to be used as he saw fit and discarded when my value was drained. Neither saw me as a person in my own right; truthfully, neither really saw me at all. For whatever it is worth, my view of my parents has been consistent ever since I removed myself from their presence over a decade ago. Whether that is a failure of imagination on my part or a stark snapshot of the realities of my childhood is debatable, perhaps both views hold truth.
What I came to learn about myself within days of breaking contact with them, and what I have not fully elaborated on through this blog until now, is the level of internal disconnection which their behavior caused me. And, I supposed, which I “chose” to engage in, as much as a child of four or five can choose such things. The various behavior states their actions induced, such as the shame-filled being who thinks she is worse than them, or the depressed state who believes all hope is lost, coalesced into shards of selves, entities who are distinct in terms of memory, habit, emotions, cognitive processes and embodied physiology. In other words, I have dissociative identity disorder. I am nervous about sharing this diagnosis, as I have had people close to me react with fear, disbelief, anger and other assorted emotions when I fully elaborate my inner experience. Very few have responded in a way that has left me feeling supported or understood.
I am high-functioning in terms of my professional life and my ability to manage most aspects of my well-being. I have not been institutionalized or required psychotropic medication for my condition (also, there isn’t really medication that directly deals with it anyway). Where I hit a brick wall is in two areas: a. my ability to manage my emotions when faced with significant triggers and b. close interpersonal relationships.
I wrote recently about my issues with my house situation and my hyperacusis. I cannot abide loud noises; they prevent me from being able to fully access my higher-level thinking skills and send me straight into flight or fight, with parts at the helm over whom I can exert only minimal control. In some instances, I can literally feel “myself”—the part whom I view as representing the most “adult” version of who I am—slowly creeping back into my mental horizon the further I drive away from my house if my neighbors are being obnoxious.
In regards to relationships, I’ve come to accept that certain parts of me will have already decided I’m finished interacting with someone months before the rest of me catches wind of the plan. These parts have a trademark; they often share a hand-made gift with the other person. I get nervous whenever I become suddenly “crafty” as I know it is likely portends to a relationship change, even if I have nothing intentionally determined. Shortly before I began to dissolve my contact with my parents, I gave my siblings a personalized gift which I think initiated this behavioral pattern.
In order for an individual’s personality structure to fail to integrate during childhood, psychologists suggest a specific set of criteria must typically be met. First, dissociative identity disorder is specifically linked with trauma during early or perhaps middle childhood, because by the time we become adolescents, our personalities have usually achieved at least a proto-form and, although still highly malleable compared to later in adulthood, they have enough structure that they are unlikely to completely disintegrate into separate “selves.” Secondly, it is typically abuse within the family system that leads to structural dissociation because it is offensive acts coupled with the lack of someone who can assist us in dealing with the trauma that turns the stress level up to “toxic.” Lastly, some people are more able to dissociate than others; it typically requires some amount of creativity, imagination, intelligence and self-induced trancing skill. It is possible that the behavior is or needs to be modeled; I am certain looking back that my mother dissociated on a regular basis.
Dissociative identity disorder as a diagnosis is not without controversy. The irony of coming to awareness regarding having this diagnosis while in graduate school related to psychology, as well as experiencing professionals discount anyone who has it as a farce in front of me, without knowing I had it, is not lost on me. I can present myself as “normal” because I have dissociative identity disorder, not despite it. It is my belief that if someone’s internal system is resilient and skillful, it can choose to reveal itself when the coast is clear, rather than requiring a professional to disassemble it for the person. I will discuss the therapeutic approaches which I found to be the best fit for me in future writing, but, for now, I want to turn to a discussion of spirituality within a context of internal discord and separation.
Spiritual Concepts and Practices to Affirm Fragmented Selves
Individuals without significant dissociation can experience ego states or situations where they may identify what seems like a “part of self.” Some may be able to conceptualize, for instance, an inner child or an angry self. In this way, the beliefs and practices I describe below are potentially accessible to anyone and are not limited to people who have structural dissociation.
If you do in fact have dissociative parts and/or a significant trauma history, I would strongly encourage you to discuss anything below that interests you with your support system/professional therapist before trying to implement it. Our systems have unique ways of reacting to new ideas and experiences which can sometimes be quelled or soothed through carefully examining a concept or practice before we try it on. I once completely lost the ability to feel or inhabit the lower half of my body in a yoga class meditation. There was something in the instructions about imagining a blue light and “leaving behind” that part of the corporal state; I fled the room before my neck and head were “taken!” I say that to urge extreme caution in “forcing” your system into anything it resists; open-door invitations tend to be much more powerful than shoves.
I have shared the edges of this topic previously, but here I want to dig into why it matters to me from a dissociative framework. I hold that each of us has an Inner Being, both individually and as a collective entity, who is a rock of stability amidst a bed of shifting sands. We can turn to this Inner Being whenever we are experiencing internal conflict and can take solace in Her ability to emanate wisdom. I use the word emanate because She is not another fragmented part, instead she is the Self of Internal Family Systems Therapy and the Divine Feminine in Goddess thealogy, thus, She does not necessarily speak in an isolated voice but instead infuses all parts of self, through loving attention, with a righted knowing of what the next step will be or what is required in terms of action. My system is still getting used to returning to Her instead of fighting amongst ourselves; some of my most transformative experiences have come through this centering. I use the feminine here because that is my inner working, but I would expect Her to take on whatever form best fits each individual’s needs.
It’s In the Cards
I have found tarot and oracle cards to be a technology through which I can better understand parts of myself and through which I can encourage parts who may be more isolated or stuck to try on a new way of thinking. I often ask a specific question and see what guidance the cards provide. I do not take the answers as black or white decrees. Instead, I listen internally to see what the various selves have to say about their meaning. Sometimes I am able to achieve consensus and sometimes I am still left with disagreements. I have slowly come to accept that internal answers of yes/no, uttered in the same breath, represent a polarization which my system believes is necessary to protect a self of whom I may or may not be aware. Some parts of who I am are highly aesthetically-oriented—even if our artistic skill as a being falls short—so the images that come with the cards have been powerful and can sometimes reach parts of selves in spots where mere words may fail.
A specific challenge that I face as someone who dissociates is that some parts of who I am collectively really like “pretty things.” When I first got in touch with having dissociative identity disorder, and some parts started to move from feeling trapped in rigid roles to increasing places of self-expression, I spent a significant amount of money for which I’ve never been fully able to account. Even now, I will find items I purchased or obtained and which I have no or limited memory of acquiring. Luckily I have another part who loves to purge things, so I cycle through items instead of hording. As I’ve obtained increased internal awareness and cooperation, I’ve attempted to achieve balance with my spending and purging. Ritual which involves breathing exercises, yoga poses, mindfulness meditation and other actions which are free of cost has been particularly useful in achieving this goal. In addition, I refresh my altar and other items seasonally, four times a year, instead of on a whim. Consistently attending to both the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of my body has allowed me to have something against which I can pattern my behavior that is cyclical and undulating, instead of erratic and sharp in its contrasts.
To conclude, this post feels like the first of many related to these topics. I’ve certainly touched on some of my spiritual practices before, but I have not previously given them the full context in terms of how they relate to my inner structure and situation. I have a long way to go to achieve full internal awareness, transparency and cooperation, but I am and will continue to be grateful for the ability of my small self to devise a way of being through which I could endure and eventually escape my upbringing, and for the presence of Goddess in providing me with a renewed connection to spiritualty which affirms and supports my healing. I look forward to learning about any pieces of my story with which you connect and any spiritual concepts or practices that you have found to be beneficial in healing from childhood trauma.