Magic & Phrase

Generosity

Be generosity to the weeds embedded in the edge of my heart.

Nurturance and tenderness to their prickly stalks and tiny flowers.

 

Not all memories held within are solid or kind.

 

Unicorn pastels roses lace teacups encircled neatly in the clearing.

Now.

Sharp thorns of musty basement arm shoved down choking shame blindness from fear poke through.

 

Garden gate swings inward.

Here ruins and pretense in sculpted and cultivated ornamental lawns lie.

 

Entrust me my wildness and tangled thickets.

Remain the weak, the poisonous and the brambles of pain.

Spare also the daisies.

 

Devour in earth time all of me.

Now.

No more vines plucking out. No more saving the pretty from the dirty.

 

Heartside welcomes the full shape of my past spiky and curved.

Showers of calm and breezes of affection settle in.

 

Weeds and flowers together run riot in the growth of my remembrances and I belong to all of it.

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.

Surviving & Thriving

Vulnerability and Trauma

It has been difficult for me to get myself to write lately. I’ve felt like my walls are up. This experience has occurred in concert with working very hard in therapy to dig into my childhood trauma on a deeper level. I feel as though I can only muster so much vulnerability as an individual, and increasing it in one area has unfortunately decreased it in my writing. As I contemplated my experience for today’s #SurvivinggnThriving Tuesday, I pondered the discomfort I’ve had with the word vulnerability, and saw that it is because I associate it with threat. To be vulnerable means to open myself up to possible attack and harm.

What are we afraid will happen to us if we are vulnerable? By and large, I think one “attack” that we might fear is being invalidated. In terms of traumatic experiences, we might be discounted and told that we are remembering things incorrectly. If our memories are factual, we are exaggerating them. If things are really as bad as we say they were, we must have brought it on ourselves. If we were in fact innocent victims, we need to show signs of “healing” like forgiveness and love in order to have our experiences “count.”

While many factors influence the reasons that traumatic experiences—especially those of a sexual nature—tend to get discounted, one aspect that I think stands strong is the fact humans are exquisitely tuned in to each other as social animals. We may be expected to preserve the “tribe” at any and all personal costs. The pressure to conform to the idea that people get what they deserve and to believe that everyone is trying their best can outweigh our willingness to grapple with evil and with the nuance in the nature of human relationships. We may feel a need to trust in authorities such as political leaders, clergy and parents, even when some of the individuals in these places of authority betray their charge.

How can this focus on our place as highly social beings help us in being willing to risk vulnerability, especially when our trauma has come at the hands of other people? As hard as this truth is for me to accept, relationships are a major healing force, perhaps the major healing force from trauma. All of the evidence-based treatments of trauma include an aspect of witnessing, listening, processing, talking, displaying, feeling or in some way being with our past experience of trauma in the presence of a safe and caring individual. A refusal to be vulnerable is likely to serve as an impediment to healing in therapeutic relationships that are “good enough.”

Being vulnerable presents other risks. We may be rejected, judged, criticized, betrayed or humiliated. I’ve shared previously about strategies through which we might discern if another individual or group is worthy of risking vulnerability. There is no gain in allowing ourselves to be mistreated, even if we may sometimes think we can undo the original trauma by defeating it in an adult form. Nothing feels more like failure to me than realizing I’ve been “sucked in” to an adult relationship that mimics an aspect of my childhood trauma, having mistaken the familiar for the safe.

What, though, can we do if we know deep down that we are in a safe relational space, but our walls are still up? I’m still terrified of having unpleasant reactions to my blogs, but honestly thus far *knocks on wood* I’ve had really kind and supportive readers. In parallel, in many offline areas of my life where I’ve taken risks, I’ve expected to be attacked and instead found acceptance. I believe it takes a significantly greater number of experiences of trust to undo a hurt than it takes hurts to break trust. All I can do or any of us can do is to keep trying, knowing this reality. And I believe empathy is vital—for those who have managed to have a lot of safe and loving people in their lives, know that you are indeed privileged and consider offering support instead of incredulity to those of us who may shrink at the first sign of relational conflict.

How have you navigated the terrain of vulnerability? What behaviors do others do that allow you to lower your defenses? How do you find the motivation to open up again after a relational wound?

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Unreality: The Distortion of Dissociation

When children are abused repeatedly, particularly when they are abused by trusted caregivers, their brains are left with an impossible dilemma. The individuals on whom they rely for protection and care are also the individuals who are hurting them. In order to resolve this discrepancy, they sometimes engage in dissociative behaviors. These behaviors enable them to stay connected to their caregivers while enduring the traumatic experience. Viewed in this light, dissociative behaviors are a life-saver as, through their use, children may achieve some sense of normalcy and can able to function in the outside world. Like any fortified structure, breaks and cracks will develop over time. Eventually, either in part or as a whole, the dissociative walls will come down and people, now adults, may be overwhelmed by the barrage of memories, sensations, emotions and thoughts that in fact assailed them as children but feel like fresh attacks. Having lived through this experience myself, I can attest to the sharp curve into “too much reality” after years of unreality. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to explore what it means to be dissociative and how it can affect our spiritual lives.

Aspects of Dissociation

Dissociative behaviors include depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization includes feelings of being detached from one’s body. Derealization involves detachment from external stimuli; everything around the person feels unreal. Both of these experiences are thought to be survival mechanisms that are triggered by extreme stressors and trauma. Instead of a provoking a “fight or flight” response, the body may engage in a freeze response if running to safety or fighting for one’s life do not seem like effective choices.

Additional autonomic systems are engaged, including the parasympathetic system. This system slows body responses such as heart rate and respiration. As I understand it, freezing behaviors, or “tonic immobility,” can also include an activation of our sympathetic nervous system but to a lesser extent than our parasympathetic system. This means the person experiencing such a response is basically frozen in fear. Endorphins may also be released, which cause bodily and emotional numbness.

All of these physical responses are adaptive tools our body has; for instance, if you were being killed by a large animal, most likely you’d want to be “out of it” and unaware of what was occurring. These defenses become problematic when we become conditioned, through traumatic experiences, to deploy them in moments that are not truly life-threatening. I have issues with dissociation beyond depersonalization and derealization, but I wanted to start my exploration of this topic by going into more depth with these two core elements.

Depersonalization

Depersonalization occurs when people feel as though they are not in their body, but are instead observing it from a third-person viewpoint. Some individuals will describe feeling as though they were floating above their bodies. I tend to find myself utterly lost in a pattern such as a piece of wallpaper, unaware that I’ve traced it again and again in my mind unless I lost all sense of my body. It can also include experiences of distance from one’s thoughts, as though another person is thinking them. Emotions may be expressed without the person’s internal sense of connection to them. I’ve felt there is nothing odder than having tears streaming down my face with a look of sadness while feeling completely calm and serene internally.

People experiencing depersonalization may feel as though their body is taking action without their conscious control. We all do this to an extent, for instance, your mind may wander while you are walking around your house; you find yourself going in to a room and can’t remember why you went in to it. During an experience of depersonalization, this mental state cuts across decision-making. When I’ve had times of depersonalization, I find myself in the middle of a sequence of action without awareness of a conscious decision to start or continue the sequence. I once had a car break down early in the morning. By the evening, I found myself at a car dealership buying a new one, without any memory of conscious choice on my part. This day included a period of time in which I was driving aimlessly, as though the solution to my stress would appear if I just drove further. Some individuals escalate to episodes of dissociative fugue, where they may be found days later having gotten “lost,” wandering and forgetting most if not all of the personal memory of who they are.

Derealization

Derealization takes many forms but, at its heart, involves a felt sense of one’s surroundings being dreamlike and strange. If you’ve ever spent far too long playing a video game or watching television, and it took you a minute to snap back to reality when you looked around yourself, you’ve had a small example of what derealization feels like. The form of objects and the space between them can become distorted; when this happens to me, I often feel like people’s faces are mere inches away from me even though they are sitting across the room. I’ve also experienced objects like tables seeming to grow or shrink in size; most of the time I would be aware that the object had not actually changed but that it was my perception of it that was altered.

I once dated someone who quickly showed signs of becoming abusive. I somehow ended up in a situation where, while staying at the person’s house, they left for a few hours for an errand and planned to decide during this time whether or not they wanted to end the relationship. I could easily have slipped into my car and escaped the situation, but instead I found myself in nearly a literal fog; everything around me seemed opaque and glossy, as though it would fade into mist if I reached out to touch it. My thoughts fell out of my head as soon as I had them (another example of depersonalization); my short-term memory was impaired. Everything around me seemed muted and at a distance. The person returned and told me they were ending the relationship.

As I drove back home, each mile seemed to make the sun brighter and the lines on the road clearer. My thinking stopped looping and I realized what had happened and how much danger I would be in if I stayed with this person. I received frantic messages a few hours later begging me to get back together, but thankfully the physical distance had diminished my dissociation to the point where there was no doubt in me about the relationship needing to be over. This is how dissociation can work; when a person is in a sufficient state of physical or emotional risk, or when a person is inadvertently triggered intensely enough to provoke an inaccurate assessment of risk, fight or flight can transform into freeze or, as I see it, float, where everything is soupy and sort-of, and time, body and surroundings seem to be malleable props of actual lived experience.

Before I engage in a discussion of dissociation and spirituality, I do want to note a persistent theme I have encountered in both my scholarly work as well as my personal therapy for dissociative issues, which is that of will. I try to reconcile myself to the idea that I am responsible for my actions, even when I am dissociative and feel detached from what I am doing. Where I vehemently disagree with some of the work I’ve seen is that dissociation is a consciously-controlled, enacted behavior. When it has hit me at full-force, I felt completely unable to do anything about it. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t have done anything, just that, in the moment, I don’t know if I could have. That’s the point, it has to work seamlessly and quickly in order to be effective. Sitting around thinking “hum, should I mentally escape into myself now or not” isn’t an operative defense. In fact, times such as painful medical procedures where I’ve consciously attempted to dissociate, I’ve been unable to fully do so because the key element of being trapped with relational danger was not present. I’ve felt shamed on many occasions by people who seem to view dissociative behaviors as interchangeable with acts of pretending or choosing to ignore, which they are not. I am extremely curious to hear from anyone who also struggles with it as to your interpretation of how it works and the extent to which you think you “choose” it or it simply “happens” to you.

Dissociation and Spirituality

In some ways, being capable of dissociative behaviors mimics certain spiritual states of ecstasy and trance. I had a short stint in the Pentecostal world of speaking in tongues and crazed dancing in the spirit. I marveled at the amount of time it took others to work themselves into a spiritual lather, whereas I could immediately slip into an altered state at a whim. I didn’t need the repetitive music, exhortations from the spiritual prophets, or the embrace of the Holy Spirit to go there, so to speak. Oddly, the immediacy of my experience showed me how shallow it was, and the “on-off” quality of my transformation led me to reject this lifestyle within a few months. I wonder at how many of the individuals of various faiths who go into trance states are dissociative.

Where dissociation can clash with spirituality is in the deep inner work it takes to grapple with spiritual challenges and difficult ethical questions. I find it tempting and sometimes succumb to the desire to un-realize and un-personalize myself from the muck of the surrounding world with all its troubles. Dissociation can provide a bubble, within which no negativity can penetrate and no betrayal, shame or ugliness can enter. This is of course an illusion; some part of ourselves is in fact absorbing everything that is happening, but to the part of ourselves with whom we identify, it isn’t our truth or our experience.

Practices of breath-work, grounding and centering have become vital to my spiritual practice, enabling me to face harsh realities and dialectics without trying to circumvent them. In addition, my spiritual walk is immensely tangible, with literal altars and enacted rituals. The balance of head and heart is more focused on heart, not because I lack intellectual depth but because I am all too skilled at using my head to disengage rather than engage.

If you are a trauma survivor, what does dissociation look like for you? If you have struggled with dissociative behaviors, how have they impacted your spiritual journey? What types of experiences have you found it useful to incorporate into your spirituality to assist you in staying grounded and centered?