Embodied Heart, Magic & Phrase

Gentleness (A Survivor’s Screed)

Little girl, perfumed with an air of gentleness.

Fragile delicacy.

When grown into woman, pursue that most holy—birth.

In mothering, rend your body strong.

Still, your eyes should downcast and your lips purse in smile.

Defer, defend, deny when your place is called.

Cast off this gentleness. No, further on, pulverize it.

It is falsity and lies. It is witness-silence-allowing-complicit.

Glazed eyes and closed mouth and heart stone to keep crumbs.

Shatter this porcelain veil and let the fury demon, pet of their violence, loose.

Can tenderness survive? Has it any place?

It must endure, but not in meekness, shy.

Share of it in humility with those who welcome it.

Flow gentleness from heart to heart as we meet our woundings.

Source regenerating without scarcity.

And what of the rage? What of the rawness of power dipped in virility?

See them for the scared little boys they are. Thrust their misdeeds into the light.

Resonate the assertion for justice till voice, our own and collective, gives out.

They will not go willingly, but She has more time than they.

The mold into which we are shoved at birth—be boy be girl control submit—will melt.

We defects hold our fierceness and our calmness well.

When power ceases to fuel them, the worm of their soul will search out a kind and maternal face.

Blazing hearts will chorus instead.

Go gently, then.

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

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

Inner Work

Going Deeper: Leveraging Empathy into Responsiveness

For today’s #InnerWork post, I want to delve into an exploration of the ways in which we can show up authentically for those with whom we are close in our lives. In order to care for another, we must already be engaged in inner healing in a way that puts aside excuses and denial and which calls forth vulnerability and raw emotion. One of the foulest enterprises on which a person can embark is to attempt to heal another as a way to scale their own inner walls; we have to be willing to fling open any door inside for which we invite another to ajar slightly.

I am going to limit myself here to an area of identity in which I’ve experienced invalidation on a regular basis, namely, that of being a trauma survivor. As such, my discussion is primarily aimed at those who are trauma survivors and who want to engage in inner work as well as those who desire to be support persons for a trauma survivor. I think there are potential parallels to other areas of oppression that people face, but the systematic nature of injustices such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on means that those experiences include additional factors beyond what I am addressing. Please see this page for an evolving list of resources in relation to systemic injustice and solidarity.

I also want to add a strong caveat that what I describe here is in no way a substitute for professional assistance such as therapy. It is not healthy or healing to try to act as a therapist to a friend, family member or romantic partner. One of the main differences between showing up for someone with compassion and being a therapist is that a therapist may try to elicit the memories and experiences behind the emotions the person is feeling and may try to lower internal defenses to draw out vulnerability. If a trauma survivor demands that you act as their therapist and will not seek help, I suggest finding a therapist of your own to help you navigate the relationship. There is a potential for significant damage for both of you otherwise.

If you are secure that you are acting as support person rather than a therapist, but you still get out of your depth, be honest! Let the person know this without sending them the message that they are the problem. It is healthy to set boundaries and to let someone know the specific ways in which you are able to be there for them. At the same time, if someone trusts you enough to show you their pain, holding space for them in a responsive way can move mountains for them internally (and, as I’ll describe below, we can be this for ourselves as well). This is why your own inner work needs to be non-negotiable; if you have significant unprocessed wounds that you’ve never addressed, you will likely harm more than heal if you try to be there for another who’s in pain.

Empathy: Witnessing with Compassion

In order to show up for others, we first have to give our undivided attention to the vulnerability in ourselves. I am increasingly of the mind that vulnerability should be invitation-only, both internally and externally. What I mean here is that any request for it in an area of suffering, beyond a gentle open-ended query, is likely misguided. Demanding that someone show us their pain, or that hurt areas inside of us crack open and reveal their secrets, is rarely effective or welcome. Once you are comfortable responding to your own areas of vulnerability with empathy and responsiveness, you will be more fully able to be there for others. You do not need to be 100% healed by any means, but if you style yourself as someone who always gives but neglects themselves, or as someone who is only critical of themselves, please spend some time working on self-care and self-compassion first.

If vulnerability shows up from another person, empathy is required. It astonishes me how quickly we can move away from this. “Oh, at least this didn’t happen to you too.” “Some people have it even worse.” “I wonder why they (insert traumatic behavior).” and so forth are spewed as a way to shut off that most uncomfortable of feelings—helplessness—and the mental confusion that it renders. I want to allow my heart to be broken by the lived experience of both myself and of others in terms of the anguish trauma brings. I of course place limits on how much I can serve as an effective witness, but I push through my inner desire to minimize as all it does is invalidate either myself or the other person. Acting as though suffering hasn’t happened doesn’t undo it, rather, it adds exponentially to it.

Empathy includes maintaining one’s focus on the individual who is sharing and letting them be in the messiness of their feelings. Immediately offering hugs and tissues and “supportive” words may send the not-so-subtle message that only a titrated amount of pain is allowed to show up, and that anything more is “too much.” I think our work here involves an emotional and a behavioral response.

On a “feelings” level, allow the emotions the person is showing to settle into an open spot in your heart, and reflect them back without becoming subsumed in them. Put yourself in their position (notice I didn’t say to tell them about the one time something only tangentially related happened to you) and let the feelings stir in you as you breathe through it. The most powerful moment of compassion I ever had was seeing my pain reflected in another person’s eyes—not them crying hysterically—but simply witnessing it in me.

Next, ask the person how they would like to be supported. That’s right, you don’t have to have all the answers! Some people struggle with knowing how they can be held in kindness—allow there to be a sense of expanse in terms of your willingness to learn with them. If they ask for it, feel free to share a few things that help you—some trauma survivors have never been met in this way and genuinely do not know what to do with it. This may be an area of discussion they decide to tackle with their therapist. If you’ve shown yourself to be a caring person who isn’t going to leave them at the first sign of issues, they may feel safe enough to begin to let you know what they need. Count this an honor, not a burden, as it is rare in our society for people to be direct and honest with each other. It is up to you to set your own boundaries and to be forthcoming if what someone needs exceeds your capacity (see the next section). You do not exist in a survivor’s life to heal or fix them; you exist to be in relationship with them. Do not delude yourself into thinking they would be lost or hopeless without you; we survivors tend to be highly adaptable and able to find a way through even the most difficult of situations.

Responsiveness: Compassion in Action

One of the least helpful therapists I ever subscribed to the viewpoint that empathy wasn’t sufficient for healing. She was right on one level—someone caring about our pain is not the only ingredient needed for healing from trauma—but she took this instruction too literally and straight up skipped past it entirely. If those of us who have suffered immeasurably at the hands of humans never receive the message that someone cares about our suffering, it is very challenging to move forward. At the same time, knowing that our pain matters can still leave us feeling stuck in the past if there is no sense of anything changing as a result. This is where responsiveness comes in. Responsiveness requires a depth of maturity and security in one’s self that challenges nearly everyone. What it looks like at times is sacrifice. Sacrifice engenders bitterness if it is not offered with an open heart. It is much, much better to “let down” a trauma survivor by sharing honestly in regards to your own boundaries than it is to pretend at a responsive façade.

Let’s walk through an example. Suppose the trauma survivor became triggered in a moment of physical affection. Perhaps you pulled them in for a kiss and this brought up feelings of being trapped for them. They let you know what they were feeling and, instead of getting defensive (this is where a large percent of people tap out right away), you were able to be with them as they expressed their feelings. Let’s say you even asked them what they needed to feel safe with you, and they shared that they would like to be asked before you kiss them, even though you are in an established romantic relationship. You are now at the moment of potentially offering responsiveness (as well as negotiating your own boundaries and needs). What you don’t get to do, if you care at all about the person (and if you’d like to claim to be a decent human being) is to say, “sure of course, I’ll ask” and then “forget” to do so on a regular basis, or to try to manipulate the person—“if you loved me, you’d trust me and would let me kiss you whenever I wanted to.” Let’s say, for the sake of argument, being able to be spontaneous in kissing is your most important thing ever and you cannot possibly be happy without it. In this case, you may need to renegotiate yourself out of the romantic relationship as it stands. You get to say “no, I need this instead” but you don’t get to (if you want to be a decent human who cares about the survivor) force them to gratify your needs. Or, you could make a sacrifice. You could (maybe temporarily as you decide together) allow your need for spontaneity to go unmet in order to respect the survivor’s boundaries. Survivors’ needs often look “controlling,” but they are only controlling if the person doesn’t let you walk away easily and deploys force/manipulation to keep you in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs. Asking someone to limit their behavior because it triggers the other person isn’t controlling; engaging in a responsive reaction, in which you support the survivor’s healing, means that what’s brought you together is stronger than the inconvenience or disappointment of the “no/not now.”

So, how might we define responsiveness as it relates to being an “ally” of a trauma survivor? To me, it means taking seriously what a survivor tells you they need and doing your best to provide it without turning their need into an immediate demand of your own on an unrelated topic (in other words, not using it as a bargaining chip to get what you want). It means talking through needs if they conflict until you find a solution that honors everyone’s boundaries. It means replacing “controlling/telling me what to do” with “I’m making a choice to honor their needs in this area; it is a sacrifice I’m happy to make because I know it is what they need to feel safe.” If all that comes up in you is a mindset of “they need to get over it” or “I’m being manipulated by their problems” then get yourself to a therapist to sort it out. It has been devastating to me personally to have it take just about everything I have to share, in a moment of vulnerability with another person, the “real” shit that goes on in me and to have them get angry at me because, for a few short seconds, I wasn’t giving them what they wanted or I was treading too closely to their own unresolved feelings of inadequacy. If you are in a relationship with a survivor, expect to feel helpless, and welcome it as a sign of authenticity rather than using it as shame-fuel for your own problems.

Responsiveness may not be a boundary-setting experience, it may also be an invitation to go deeper in revealing your own vulnerability. Perhaps the survivor feels that what would be supportive to them would be to know if you’ve ever experienced the same thing as they have emotionally, or to know more about what came up in you as they shared about themselves. If you haven’t done your own inner work, this may feel like a challenge or even a threat. The more you are able to engage in self-care and healing, the more fully you will be able to respond with support to these experiences. Resist an urge to turn the entire conversation into a monologue about how things go for you; do make it known if you value the opportunity. Some survivors modulate their internal experience by hyper-focusing on the needs of everyone around them; this may take professional assistance to navigate if you find yourself in this situation on an ongoing basis.

I’ve written so much here yet I think I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. What I would find most helpful would be to hear the questions you would like answered if you are a support person of a trauma survivor. Please respect their story enough to not share personal details; let me know if there are general sticking points for which you think it would be helpful to read about in a post. If you are a survivor, what did I write that captures your experience? What is missing or different for you? How are you best supported in your areas of vulnerability?

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?

Photograph of a wooden fence with a tree and vegetation behind it.
Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

It’s a Just World (Not at All?)

I was talking recently with someone who’d received unexpected negative news in relation to their employment. As I spoke with the person, there was a distress evident in the sense that the person could not link up how, after giving so much effort and care to what they were doing, they were still experiencing loss and frustration. I had a hard time knowing what to say in response, because to me the connection between effort and outcome has always been extremely tenuous at best. In other words, I was confused as to why they thought meeting a high standard meant they were going to receive a positive outcome. I live out this principle on a daily basis—I try hard in life—but I do not actually believe in it at my core.

The name for the belief that effort and outcome are strongly linked, especially in relation to morality, is the Just World Hypothesis. In this worldview, good things happen to good people and, if your life sucks, it’s probably your fault. There is a convenient absence of digging into systemic oppression and undue privilege; here, we’re all born on 1st base and the distance we make it in life is solely dependent upon how true and hardworking we are as a person.

A related phenomena is the Law of Attraction. With this philosophy, what happens to us is believed to be the result of our intentions. Some core concepts include: 1) think good things, and that’s what you’ll get, 2) unhappy people bring their own misery, 3) do not speak of hope, speak of actuality even though it is not yet your reality.

We will explore these psychological biases in for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. For trauma survivors, I wonder if the Just World and Law of Attraction are more easily perceived as the shams they are, given how quickly and thoroughly we tend to be taught by life that, despite all our efforts, we can be harmed and, no matter how tightly we control our thinking, it can happen again. At the same time, because of the compulsion to repeat our traumas, we may find ourselves trying to resolve our core dilemmas by thinking “this time” we’ll get it right if we just keep trying. Please feel free to share your perspective on how this plays out for you as a trauma survivor in the comments!

Where I’ve personally run into the most problems is in relating to people who buy into one or both of these “theologies,” as it is typically very challenging for them to show empathy. I was once told that perhaps I’d “signed up” for the abuse I experienced before I was born. I’ve also encountered many people who can’t handle acknowledging that anyone has abused as a child as it seems too “unfair.”

To quote Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s, “life is hard.” It is groundlessness and mist, but we insist the shaking soil of our current state must become marble. Believing that the world is an unfair place where no amount of mental sanitation can cure all ills does not make me feel hopeless. Rather, in allowing myself truth instead of denial, I feel more ready to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it up my little corner of things as best I can in the time I have. It is when we insist that everyone gets their dues and that hoping equals outcome that we stifle and avert-eye ourselves into a narrow corridor from which there is little recourse, when, as happens in nearly every life, SHTF and we have to deal.

I find it more challenging when I try to extend this philosophy to relating to others who are going through difficult times. The best approach I’ve been able to muster is to 1) ask them how I can be there for them and 2) identify and share the feelings I have in hearing their story in a way that empathizes with their plight and 3) if possible, become involved in dismantling the systems of injustice that are contributing to their difficulties. In relation to sharing my feelings, I typically find that, in response to unjust and depressing circumstances with which others are dealing in their personal lives, I feel helpless. I share this with them at times, not to center myself, but to let them know that I perceive the injustice and wish to right it, but that, if it is of an interpersonal nature, there is little I can do directly to rectify it. For instance, if a friend is having a conflict with a romantic partner, it is not my place to step in the middle of this.

I desire to integrate a more active response to situations where there are institutional and systemic injustices. I have little experience IRL with encountering others who openly name these injustices, and, when I look back on the few experiences I have had, I’ve failed miserably. Rather than responding to these instances from a state of helplessness, I now plan to act in solidarity by contributing to social justice causes. Our world can become more just and our perceptions brighter only through dedicated action in which those who have been systemically wronged are able to take the lead in seeking justice and when privilege, where it exists, is leveraged in order to disrupt the power structures that keep many people marginalized and oppressed.

What is your take on the idea of a “Just World” and the “Law of Attraction?” In what ways do you see these concepts being used to undermine social justice causes? How do you respond to those around you who are going through difficulties over which they have little control?