Embodied Heart

Who Is a Woman Without Family?

Single. Estranged. Childless/child-free. No one word sums up my experience living as an adult woman without being in relationship with my family of origin, a romantic partner and without having had a child. It is a formless, unutterable identity that consumes me and yet I nearly never give it voice, mostly because I’ve allowed it to cause me shame. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I explore some possible answers to the question my title posed.

An Orphan to be Pitied

What does a woman without family feel? In my case, lots of loneliness and longing. Desire and rejection. It is hard to fully articulate the bittersweet tang of watching others for whom I care start new relationships and give birth. I wouldn’t call my feelings jealousy in most cases, as I also often feel contentment on the path on which I’m walking, but I do experience sadness mixed in with the joy.

At times, I’ve received pity as a response when I’ve shared my identity. Usually followed by a rush to wish things would be healed with my family or that I’d find love. I think I’ve internalized a deep bucket of shame around this way of being in the world, one to which scoops are only added when people pity me. Not only do I experience shame, but I also distance myself from my own wishes for family. If I don’t “want” it, it won’t hurt not to have it.

People are often surprised at the ease with which I interact with children, perhaps mistaking my lack of energy towards producing or procuring one of my own through adoption as a lack of desire. In truth, I think I’ve simply given up on love stories and tiny toes. I’ve failed repeatedly when it comes to familying and it’s failed me. I believe the only rational responses to defeat, once one acknowledges its existence, are to try again after altering some variable, or to come into a place of acceptance of it. Right now I am noticing and being with my failure, rather than trying to turn it into a success.

A Witch to be Feared

Being too different, being too loud, not following the rules enough. These are the charges often hurled at women society sees as “witches.” Women whose eccentrics show a smidge too much of their own defined sense of being. As I’ve begun to move from young into middle adulthood, this is the place I find myself sitting more and more. I am no longer only a shy teen with downcast eyes waiting for someone to notice her, I am also a warrior singing her call regardless of who approves.

I cannot tell how much this impulse comes from within me and how much it is projected on to me by others, but I sense a woman alone after a certain age somehow appears more threatening. All the caretaking roles I “should” be fulfilling are going unanswered. There isn’t an easy shelf on which to place me of mother, devoted daughter or wife. My oddity feels like a cloak in which I wrap myself to hide but by which I instead end up revealing more than I intended.

A Spinster to be Discarded

As I age, I anticipate moving into the role of the old maid if I stay unfamilied. As such, I will eventually be in a place of  needing instead of giving. Can I endure coming physical frailty without acquiescing or diminishing? Our society expects those who are old to silence their cries. What if I do not behave this way?

Several books I’ve read lately, including Belonging and The Body is Not an Apology, allude to the question of whether we have worth if we are unable to contribute anything of value to others. I struggle with this query from both sides, as I anticipate judgment of my failure to caretake my abusive, aging parents, and as I must also face changes in how others perceive me as I get older. Shame again takes hold. I feel a frequent need to apologize to my wizened crone self for my family failure, and to gift her an offering of my sovereignty as a person, won at a terrible price.

A Person to be Humanized

The themes I’ve identified—abandonment, eccentricity and worth—are by no means limited to individuals who fall into my particular demographic. Rather, I think nearly everyone who has an honest and deep relationship with themselves could connect to aspects of them. I so often feel apart from being a “regular human” when in fact I am a part of being a regular human. That is who I think a woman without family is; she is simply one blend of pigment in the rainbow of the human heart. She has every right to exist, to voice, and to move the world as best she can.

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?

Embodied Heart, Inner Work

Inner Workings: Dissociative Identity Disorder and Childhood Trauma

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.

Inner Goddess

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.

Embodied Ritual

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.

Embodied Heart

Releasing the Narrative

Everything was planned out. Flying high in an aerial yoga class. Sporting a new haircut, shopping and hitting the town. Sacred ritual and intuitive creativity time. My vacation was going to be epic! About 48 hours into it, “disaster” hit in the form of a positive flu test. Based on the myriad of bodily dysfunction which ensued for the next week and counting, I can safely say I’ve never come down with the actual flu before. All the good times I was going to have, the stories I was going to write into my life experiences, had to be tossed or at least postponed into choppy, disjointed future moments. Building from this experience of having to rewrite the script, for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I want to spend some time with the themes of how we narrate our lives, and, in doing so, will focus on telling the story as it is, rather than as it should have been or should be.

I feel confident, likely too confident, that I know the story I would like to tell of my life. The one that would wrap up the loose ends and redeem the broken parts of myself. I feel shame and a desire to hide though, when I start to consider the content of the real story. Not solely because of failures on my part, but also because the deep wounds of my childhood are still ragged and visible to anyone with an eye for such things. I am not healed and all is not forgiven. Justice has not been served.

What harm it does a person, when betrayal throws off any veneer of civility and cracks any illusion of someone being in charge. Especially when the soul-shattering betrayal comes first, not after a long string of snapshots filled with love and protection to build up one’s defenses. I knew from a very young age that no one was going to shield me from pain, and that terrible things happen in the dark.

The themes of my life—meagerness of love, betrayal, self-preservation and reinvention—seem to lend themselves to a never-ending cast of characters. I dig into a relationship, hopeful that it will meet my deeper needs. The inadequacy of it to do so eventually starts to make itself known in the majority of cases. In time, I choose myself over the relationship, and we are on to the next casting session. I will always choose myself in the end, because I have seen time and again the destruction that results from favoring the relationship over one’s wellbeing.

The parts of the chapters I want to highlight and foot-note and dog-ear are the ones where I don’t have to choose; the person with whom I’m in relationship and I are well-suited enough for both of our needs to be met to a substantial degree. For some reason, I continue to expect every new entry, each new buildup of an individual with whom I think there could be a connection, to be worthy of reading and re-reading. But life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes we spend years writing and crossing out the same few lines, thinking that if we just say it right or pause at the correct moment, it will flow perfectly, when in fact that particular association was never going to be worthy of more than a passing mention.

It seems easy in hindsight to want to edit, to go though and delete or redirect entire storylines, but the only way the story can ebb and flow and has any chance of building to a moral or crescendo or at least a worthy conclusion is to recount it as honestly and promptly as we can. In my case, I have fallen far short on this account. I denied the abuse I suffered for a few decades, burying it in the recesses of my mind while attempting to keep my family as a part of my lived experience. I always knew the story wasn’t a pleasant one, but the degree to which there were skeletons in the closet proved quite significant. And, at least at this point, I am the only one interested in cataloging the bones.

Many of my interactions hold this thread. Whether it is (on my part) intellectual arrogance or intuition or both, I tend to believe I can see right through most people I meet to perceive the cracks in the façade they present. The unpressed seam or askewed collar of their narrative glares at me, begging to be noticed. I then wish in earnest for them to tell the story as it actually is, not as their defenses would have it rehearsed, and feel like my efforts are wasted when they repetitively turn the same three pages they’ve convinced themselves are worth reading.

Denial of the nature I faced in my family and through which I had to pierce, once deflated, has proven intolerable. These are the people I want in my storyline—people who see themselves and their situation for what it is, and whose acceptance of it spurs them, as it does me, to both tell the truest story possible of their past and to write into being the most hopeful and evolved version of themselves. To what extent does the metaphor of a narrative connect with how you conceptualize your life experiences? Whose narrative are you proud to recite? What signs let you know someone belongs as a central character in your story? How do you respond with compassion to your own or other’s denial?

Embodied Heart

When the Best Option Isn’t Good Enough

I’ve spent a good bit of time the last few months waging the battle we each face between seeking to change things in our lives that we don’t like or deciding to accept them for what they are, which I’ll be unpacking in today’s #EmbodiedHeart post. A flash of insight recently occurred that showed me some of the areas in my life that feel the most frustrating to me exist because there is a wide gap between what would be “good enough” for me as a person in terms of meeting my needs, and what the best option out of the choices I could make right now appears to be. In other words, the choice that outweighs the others is still below the threshold that would satisfy me. It may be possible that my personal growth as an individual can slightly alter what feels “good enough,” creating flexibility to allow a range of solutions to meet my needs instead of one or two outcomes. At the same time, I believe that a circumstance such as my housing that feels quite far away from good enough is not going to allow me to grow as quickly or effectively as I could in a place that more fully meets my needs and may actually add to my burden in life because of the triggers it contains.

A major hurdle that can trip people up prior to my current dilemma is feeling helpless, stuck, or trapped in unpleasant situations. By and large, once we are adults, we are very rarely genuinely trapped or helpless. To believe we are can flow naturally from an experience of childhood trauma in which we were stuck and unable to improve our lot in life. Once we’ve grown up, though, we almost always have other options to consider. The choices or changes we might acknowledge are there for us can be daunting in terms of the sacrifice and time required to realize them, and they may provoke quite a bit of anxiety because they require us to take risks. By and large, things we dislike do not need to stay the way they are. As someone with a rock-solid internal locus of control, I am challenged by my difficulty empathizing with people who readily share a litany of excuses as to why life sucks but can’t be made better. I embrace change as a necessary part of seeking satisfaction in life.

Despite my ability to see that change is possible and that I do not have to keep at things I dislike, I have been hitting against limits in certain areas of my life, mostly my living situation. In regards to my housing, the most reasonable and realistic decision is to “stay put” for a few years, even though I am on the verge of hating where I live. Guilt bubbles up as soon as I acknowledge how unhappy I am, because a good portion of people would find my situation more than satisfactory, and because there are plenty of things about my house that are perfectly fine. That’s the thing about “good enough” though—I perceive it as a right-brained, gut-level knowing deep within me that, although perhaps being slightly malleable, is relatively fixed once enough data have been collected to provide an assessment. Some part of me discerned very soon after moving into my house that it wasn’t going to be my “forever home,” but it took the rest of me quite a while to fully acknowledge this reality.

My primary solution to knowing that what I’m choosing to do (to stay put for a few years) is the best but also an unsatisfactory decision, is to accept my circumstances for what they are and to make effective use of my time. I want to become significantly more self-sufficient and to reduce my impact on the environment. There are so many tools I need to acquire and skills I need to learn. In that context, there is a tiny sparkle of gratitude in me that my goals of moving to a location that more fully meets my needs cannot yet be accomplished, because I have to prepare myself for the life I envision. I’m good at learning on the spot, but something tells me actions such as raising chickens or transforming an entire lawn into permaculture are probably much less overwhelming and susceptible to failure if a person has taken some time to become informed and to practice skills ahead of time. Maybe we can only see why our needs felt thwarted and our progress slowed once we have arrived at the milestones ahead. Maybe the path I’m on will head off in directions I cannot yet conceive. It could be that it’s only in a backwards glance that I will able to rejoice in by the drudgery of my present place.

How do you reconcile situations when all of the choices you can see are less than what you know you require to meet your needs? When life limits you, what do you do with the time before you can take the next step you are craving? How do you come to know what “good enough” means for you? Is your concept of “good enough” amenable to change, and, if so, how do you alter it?