Embodied Heart

Visibility as a Trauma Survivor

It has been very difficult for me to write here for several weeks. The reason, ironically, was because of opening up about my trauma experiences. I related parts of my story in a public forum outside of my blog and have been struggling with processing the experience. It was the first time I shared something that might been easily accessed by people/family from my culture of origin. I didn’t name names but I went into enough detail for individuals to identify themselves. I walked one step more fully into the spotlight and have been greeted by increased flashbacks and overwhelming anxiety.

I nearly perfected the art of invisibility when I was younger. I was the sort of girl who no one noticed nor remembered. I barely spoke outside of my house and obeyed adult instruction without question. I play-acted normality. I wasn’t bullied but I also wasn’t included in anyone’s close circle of friends for most of my childhood and adolescence. Through my actions, I hid in plain sight.

Being victimized by abusive parents at a young age meant that the shadows and edges of rooms were the only places I felt safe. The less I was noticed, the less likely I was to be harmed, as I surmised it. The problem with this approach to the world is that it leads to a life lived in isolation, fear and shame.

I elevated hiding to an art form by finding ways to be unseen while being noticed, namely, by dissociating internally. It’s cat and mouse but I so desperately want to be caught—I want someone to prove themselves capable of witnessing and supporting who I am behind the adult personas I’ve crafted to survive in the world. I periodically attempt to show my hidden forms only to collapse mentally under the weight of the fog I conjure daily in order to not spend my time clawing at the walls in sheer terror. I try to fix into a frame but instead kaleidoscope the closer anyone gets to my complexity.

I recently shaved off all my hair. It was a dramatic change and one that people have readily noticed. I absolutely love the result in terms of how it suits my appearance and am getting used to the glances and weird responses of others. I did it for the express purpose of making myself more visible. I’m outwardly singular now, someone likely to be labeled as “that bald woman” rather than forgotten. My physical form feels solidified even if my internal being remains in flux. I’m hoping to coax myself, from the outside in, to welcome being seen and to believe that some eyes hold genuine kindness.

I knew that in writing about my culture of origin, I would be tempted to retreat immediately and to add another layer of adulting in order to conceal myself where I felt exposed. I also recognized that this behavior runs counter to the deeper truth of who I am as a person. I hid out of necessity when I was younger, unconsciously biding my time. As I make myself visible, those whose determination it was to keep me in the perpetual darkness of moonless night will falter. I’m finding my power and, through it, I’m toes first stepping into the dawnlight.

Embodied Heart

Centering Survivors: #WhyIDidntReport and #WhatItCostMe

I’m finding myself feeling ambivalence in response to the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag. Survivors do not owe anyone their stories, and they should not feel compelled to be trotted out as political pawns. At the same time, moronic statements such as expecting a teenage girl to alert her parents and law enforcement after a violation, as if the onus is on her, rile me up beyond belief. This is a time for allies of survivors to show their solidarity, and, for survivors who wish to engage, to be surrounded by support if and when they choose to share their experience.

I’ve been scared to talk to others about the current political controversies, unless I already have a good sense of where they stand. A part of me doesn’t want them to fail at giving space and grace to the stories of survivors, because, by default, they are revealing their heart if they do so. Even in my nascent limited discussions, one inevitable aspect of the fallout has been to de-center from survivors onto perpetrators. “Why did they act like this?” “What about his career?” “Should someone’s “antics” as a teen define them?” and so on in defense of violence. I’ve written about expectations of forgiveness toward perpetrators as well as how allies can stand in solidarity, both of which are not purely survivor-focused topics. I want to center my story as a survivor directly here, instead of only engaging the periphery. To that end, for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, here’s why I didn’t report:

  • I was violated by family members, including my parents.
  • I was silenced by the cruelty of witnesses.
  • There was no safe place to turn.
  • I was a preschooler when it started.
  • I dissociated until I escaped.
  • Shame is powerful.

It feels like an act of grace to myself to leave the list “unexplained.” Most survivors will likely be able to resonate with the unspoken details. The main point of my ramblings here is that survivors do not need to convince anyone who doesn’t “get it;” 100 to 1 they don’t “get it” because they don’t care or can’t be bothered, not because they fail to understand on an intellectual or emotional level. If you are a survivor, you deserve to be seen, heard and held without a laundry list defending the little self or selves who did whatever they needed to do in order to make it through.

When someone wishes to disavow a survivor’s story, there seems to be a limitless buffet of “no-see” available. If the survivor didn’t tell, it doesn’t count. If they told but it didn’t make it to court, it doesn’t count. If they made it to court but lost, it doesn’t count. If they won their court case, justice has been served and there is no reason to feel like a “victim” left. There is no space or grace created, no green forest left untilled, in which a survivor’s story can take root, be witnessed and around which others can rally. Survivors are left to hold each other and ourselves up in communion.

I think we need to go far beyond attempting to justify our lack of reporting, an act which needs no justification, to defining the price of survivorship (#WhatItCostMe) (the “it” is the abuse itself, not the failure to report). I feel self-pitying to tie some of my failures to my trauma, but, in reality, they are definitely related. The impact has been so pervasive and profound that I have no sense of who I’d be without having had the trauma I endured; I feel certain my life would have been more meaningful, impactful and happier. I reject as utter nonsense the musings of anyone who tries to tell me the violations I encountered “taught me lessons” or “were my destiny” or “made me who I am (in a positive light).” Invent a time machine, get sexually assaulted by your relatives, including your biological parents, at 3 at 4 at 5 at 6 at 7 at 8 at 9 without anyone to turn to, within an oppressive family system and religion, and then come back and tell me what a “blessing” it is.

The abilities and experiences it’s cost me:

  • Seeing humans as anything other than threats unless, over a long period of time and with much evidence, they earn my trust.
  • Screening out environmental stimuli such as smells and noises.
  • Thinking clearly under any level of stress.
  • Feeling hopeful for the future or content in the present.
  • A coherent and integrated narrative of my past.
  • A healthy and joyful sex life.
  • Self-regulating my eating, sleeping and spending behaviors.
  • My family, my religion, my community and culture of origin.
  • Nearly every close friendship or romantic relationship I’ve ever made.
  • A healthy relationship with my body.
  • A clear and consistent sense of the passage of time and memory for recent event.
  • An integrated inner world.

This is a cursory list I threw together quickly. I think I’d take up many pages if I really spelled it out. The exact price of being a survivor varies based on the severity, intensity, pervasiveness, etc. of the abuse itself, as well as the background of the survivor. Any cost exacted at the expense of another is too high. If you are a survivor, what has been taken from you and what have you missed out on as a result of your experiences? We often shy away from this (at least I do) for fear of complaining or being negative, but stories of triumph and “it was all okay in the end” can be used to keep us silent rather than to help us heal. Acknowledging pain is not the same thing as dwelling it in it forever. We’ve reached the point as a society that I think the cost needs to be amplified and the burden of bearing it redistributed to everyone who perpetuates rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy, rather than only on those onto whom the debt has been cast.

© 2018 All rights reserved, Suzanne Tidewater, Goddessing From the Heart

A dead tree surrounded by green trees and a sunny sky with one cloud.
Embodied Heart

The Melodies of Trauma

What I’ve written below for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post diverges a bit from my normal style of writing in that it seems to me more raw and unpolished. I feel the need to present my experience as a trauma survivor from the inside out, as it shows up when I’m lost in a flashback, rather than solely as a metabolized completion. I most definitely do not know how or when I heal fully from my past; the last few months, in which I’ve found my sense of inner stability flitting in and out, have been a time where this has been even more evident to me.

Grinding

Life has felt full of triggers lately. I don’t think it’s solely my perception; there have been more interpersonal experiences that set off alarm bells inside of me. Whenever this occurs, I start to fantasize about moving to the woods and living off the land. No human noises. No human with whom I can have conflict. No need to maintain my composure when I feel like exploding in a fireball or dissolving into a puddle of tears.

I’ve felt for a while now that I walk right on the line of “functioning adult person.” I get up every day and go to work. I meet my financial obligations. I clean and cook and present myself according to societal norms. But the cracks are right below the surface and they start peeking out as soon as the pressure gets sufficiently high. Today, for instance, I decided I wanted to get a flu shot. The worker at the first place I went couldn’t get the computer system to cooperate. I eventually stormed off in a huff muttering about “not having the g-damn time for this.” At the second place, I had to wait a full fifteen minutes after completing the paperwork. I started talking out loud to myself and became more and more agitated. When the pharmacist finally administered the shot, she thought I was going to pass out because I was so frantic. There was at least the smallest of internal voices telling me “you look crazy right now” “no one else is losing their shit waiting for a few minutes” but it wasn’t enough to get myself in check.

My daily lived experience is that of a caged animal. I want to react from fight or flight because all I feel is flight or fight, but I believe I have to “perform.” I’ve achieved a certain state of living that I only get to keep to the extent to which I am able to act professional. It terrifies me because it is truly a charade. There is no “having it together” there, at least not internally. I have full-blown Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD, but the symptoms are warped by the capacity of my self-control. At most, I appear “anxious” and “high-strung” to those who with whom I interact.

I’ve become extremely burned out at my job, dissatisfied with my living situation and unhappy in many of my personal relationships. To some extent, this is a reflection of the quality of these entities, but, in another way, it is because I feel as though there isn’t anywhere safe in my life. I’m back to running without the pausing to breathe in existence.

I know that this isn’t my experience at all times. But once the levers dialing down my stress start rising, time itself vibrates and shimmers until it seems as though eternity is terror. Safety, a necessity for resting and unfurling, becomes more elusive the harder I try to clasp my hand around it. Life is unsafe. I am not safe. No pauses. Eyes open and ears up. Repeat, repeat, repeat. The quickening strain amplifies the song of battle and I cannot march much further. I’m in helplessness, and I know that what follows is hopelessness.

Headspace

I wrote everything above and felt, with an adequate sense of irony, an internal pause for the first time in weeks. I briefly became me and not her again, knowing that she/me/us has experienced overwhelming trauma and wrote from that place. The I that is me, though, is paper-thin in these moments of high-stress. I feel completely self-created, hollow and artifice only. I’m the one that gets to enjoy life, to contemplate deep thealogies and to muse over silliness. I disappear when a trigger is sprung on us.

In this case, I think it was about the end of June when I started wearing out, after my ill-fated attempt at a vacation. I also had a nasty incident a few weeks later where a random stranger started hurling obscenities at me for no reason (he allowed his dog to run free and it frightened mine by coming at us). Then things started spiraling downward with interpersonal triggers left and right; my threshold lowers once something sets me off so that each subsequent blow lands on bruised barrier.

The sound that orients me again, maybe for a moment only, is the pulsing of the heartbeat. I’m alive, whether or not I’m safe. All of me is here, despite being scattered and back-turned in anger towards myself. Goddess as rhythm, earth-sound, lower, deeper and steadier than the skirmishes I wage feels present and She gathers me together. When I go “away” into dissociation, my sense of my physical being tends to go with me. I become a collection of aches and urges rather than an embodied and centered being. In the heartbeat I start to find the breath, and then limbs and torso and the rest of me begins to feel more whole again.

If you are a trauma survivor, to what extent can you relate to going through times of triggers piling up? How in touch are you with being able to notice when dissociation is creeping in? What, if anything, helps you to re-center yourself?

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

The Wasteland and the Dandelion

I’ve felt inspired to write several posts this spring with hints of weeds in them. My reality has begun to match my imagination as dandelions have overtaken my front lawn. I felt only the slightest embarrassment about the unruliness until one of my neighbors commented on it in a negative way. It was at the end of a long and stressful week, so, in my anger, I immediately got a weed-wacker and started hacking at them (my mower is hand-powered so it doesn’t do much). I felt exhilarated by the fact that my “solution” to the issue was only making the problem worse by neatly disseminating the seeds in every direction.

As I sat with the situation and how I handled it, I felt a budding sense of recognition of my old friend shame. When someone judges me, I tend to move through a place of humiliation so quickly that I don’t realize what I’m feeling, and I then either berate myself or behave defensively. Someone else’s reaction to us is secondary to the meaning we give it internally—we only feel shame when we purchase what they are proffering. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to spend some time uncovering the roots of our shame as trauma survivors and relating the specific experience I had in this instance in tending it.

That Which Secrets Hold

Shamefulness births lies and deceit. In the case of childhood trauma, this may take the form of hiding our suffering from ourselves. When we are unable to connect to a part of our experience, we release it into an inner wasteland where it metastasizes and spreads. The more we disown who we are or what we’ve experienced, the more inner control it takes to restrain the outgrowth of our horrors. Through aches and illnesses, our bodies often begin to articulate that which we cannot acknowledge.

Childhood abuse of the physical or sexual nature involves bodily violation whereas mental and emotional abuse violates us psychologically. These defilements, particularly when they occur without an affirming and protective adult to intervene, produce shame. It is in a child’s nature to eat shame as deserved; after all, if the abuse is committed by a loved one, the alternative is to reject the very body and being of those to whom the child is closest.

In some cases of abuse, abusers may be making manifest their unprocessed and shamed traumatic past. I believe this can heighten the chances that the individual who is acting in an abusive manner will, in the moment, deliberately induce shame in the child as way to further distance themselves from their past. Only my body knows what this really means–it is too painful and difficult for me to put into words what it feels like to become a conduit of another’s self-hatred. If we have no other reason than this to work on our own shame, I think we have reason enough.

But It Blossoms Into Tears

So, if we are trauma survivors, it is likely shame has gained a foothold. Should we, as my neighbors clearly expected of me, head off for pesticides and torches and get it gone? If only it were that easy. Shame is a cancer that splits each time you cut into it, resilient and resistant. We can’t weed-wack our way out of it.

I believe the function of internalized feelings of shame is often to hold back grief. Rejecting a part of ourselves as sullied and vile because of what happened to us allows us to break the timepiece and stay in the moment of terror, rather than to move forward to face our little self and grow. Who are we with the inclusion of all of our scars and sorrows? Every time we pause to allow another’s judgment to creep in to how we picture ourselves, we disallow ourselves comfort for whatever we are appearing “less than” in comparison. I pride myself on respecting other’s boundaries and needs, so my neighbor’s observation on the state of my patchwork-grass exposed a lack of attention that didn’t fit with how I wanted to be seen.

Going further into the wasteland of shame, I find the aloneness with which I cope each day appears as a scrubby tree whose branches crackle in reminder that if I had a partner or a child or family, my lawn would be nicer because there would be someone to remind me about it and to help me maintain it. A Cheshire-grin jackrabbit hops by, noting that I also “should” be productive and work hard and never stop moving. This is a trauma-time loop where I believed I could prevent the next incident of abuse by staying ahead of it; knowing when it would occur could stop it, so I thought. Finally I arrive at my destination, a small pit of murky water. Here I find my grief. I feel outside of time as I pause in this place. What arises is an awareness that I felt “safe” because I perceived myself to be following the rules of being a good neighbor. By doing so, I thought I would be able to maintain positive relationships with the neighbors I like. The humiliation of shame-induction rises up and the water goes black. The sense in me is that there is no safe place, no way to undo it, no path through which I can go where I won’t be hurt. I am trapped, helpless and alone. My best effort wasn’t good enough and when the cost is body and psychic violation of the nature I experienced as child, failure really matters. Shame, reaching out into oozy mud, covers me. Shame is a tar pit and grief is the only water that dissolves it.

I see her finally, the little self who doesn’t know how to maintain a lawn because she was never taught how to do so. The little self who thought being quiet and staying inside her plat of land would be enough to win favor. The little self who just wanted to have her own home where she wouldn’t be hurt, and who marveled at the dandelions because they made her happy. One tiny moment—a ten second interaction—cast me into the wilderness of my shame and it took me hours to find my little self and transform tar to water. Tears finally come. Judgement is irrelevant when I know I met myself today in this exploration and it was worth it. Sure, I’ll buy a stick to dig out some of the blossoms, but I’ll leave plenty there to mark the pathway out of my shame and back to myself.

Embodied Heart

Self-Nurturance as an Antidote to Shame

I was poisoned early and often with shameful encounters through the abuse I suffered as a child. The most devastating experience, the one that completely shattered my sense of self as an individual, was when both of my parents simultaneously sexually abused me. To the best of my recollection, this type of traumatic event involving both of them as active participants only happened one time, but it was enough to set in motion a coping strategy that has brought ruin to many of my personal relationships. If any aspect of the experience is sufficiently recreated, the sole solution to the internal distress I feel is to end the relationship immediately. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will reflect on how this experience affected me as well as how caring for myself can potentially help to heal me.

The involvement of my mother in this event feels almost like a twisted form of ceremony, one in which her necessity to see me as a physical extension of her being met its completion. I believe that at least some part of her thought she fully and totally “owned” me as a result of her actions. I was branded psychically with the message “you’re mine and you exist only when and how I see fit for you to do so.” It has taken every ounce of spiritual and mental strength I have to resist the shame and guilt that her treatment of me instilled in me whenever I take autonomous action or stand up for myself.

Shame separates me from others. It leads me directly to thoughts of suicide, whispering in my ear that I don’t deserve to live and that the only way to make bad things not happen to me is to end it all. Shame silences me, my tongue paralyzed by visions of horror and the underlying script of “it’s your fault this happened” and “this didn’t happen and it’s your fault for thinking it did.” Shame traps me in a seemingly never-ending cycle of enactment of the same scenes, unconsciously and desperately searching for a solution to the impossible paradoxes of the memory.

Knowing that I am my own person—that no one owns me—feels like a starting place in putting the memory where it belongs, which is in the past as a lived experience, rather than in the present as a maze from which there is no exit. I’m left, though, if all I have is myself, with a feeling of broken and jagged pieces which are uncoordinated towards life experiences that are not threatening or dangerous. I have almost no idea how to react to sweet libations of warmth, tenderness, care and affection. In those moments, I’m forever awaiting the bitter draught at the bottom of the glass, certain that the story of what happened to me is doomed to repeat itself.

To move beyond existing, I know I need to nurture myself. I need to give myself refreshment and comfort, holding space for the parts of me who want to resist it as well as the parts of me who are too scared to hope it could exist. The venom of the memory courses through me at times because I give it power and strength through acts of self-neglect or self-abuse. Only through consistent and careful attention towards my own needs can I provide an environment where every trace of the residue of undeserved shame can be drawn out and burned in the fire of my righteous anger or drown in the well of my necessary grief.

To this end, I am committing myself to three concrete actions of self-nurturance:

  • Checking in with myself on a daily basis to see what parts of me may need as well as to work to resolve any internal conflicts.
  • Keeping a regular record of things for which I am grateful.
  • Developing a mantra of self-nurturance, creating a visual expression of the mantra (a painting, drawing, etc.) and displaying it in order to remind myself of it.

What effects does the experience of shame have on your life? To what extent does the practice of self-nurturance assist you in caring for parts of you that hold shame? What concrete actions can you take to engage in self-nurturance?