Embodied Heart

The Mind of Trauma: Everything’s Preventable?

“This is painful, therefore, there was more I could have done to make sure it didn’t happen.” My constant mantra whenever something—unexpectedly or expectedly—goes wrong in my life, especially if it’s a repeated stressor. I’ve been processing my trauma history directly as of late, and have come away with the knowledge of a core belief around which I have centered much of my interaction with the world. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will be delving into the ways in which this belief has colored my life as well as acknowledging the falsity it contains and tracing the evolution of my self-talk in relation to it.

By Chance but Not by Choice

For much of my adult life, I’ve conceptualized fate as the lazy person’s excuse for poor choices. This judgment has been aimed both at myself and at others. I’ve held tightly to the idea that it is possible to avoid negative experiences through a three-step process, which I repeat dozens of times a day in relation to current stressors: 1) Contingency plan—If this happens, then this could happen. If that occurs, then what? Continue the decision-tree until all possible events and outcomes are contained; 2) Check on the progress of events frequently to determine how far along the contingency plan has progressed and which possible outcomes can be discarded; 3) As soon as one of the outcomes on the decision-tree is activated, move to the next step. Do not consider alternatives, do not wait for confirmation, do not breathe. Act immediately, as if your life depended on it.

Processing events through this lens contributes greatly to my struggles with anxiety and degrades my physical health by pumping stress hormones through my body. Waves of visceral intensity hit me as the internal cursor blinks, waiting for a line of code in order to move the plan to the next step. Imagine overlapping screens of these scenarios running simultaneously, all with alarm bells going off intermittently and a giant clock (counting down to what?) beeping. That’s how I handle interfacing with daily life.

The entire apparatus I’ve constructed seems aimed at one goal—to keep bad things from happening. What if, though, the seeds of all that terrifies us were planted in the garden of our lives before we were born? What if there are fixed experiences through which we must walk on our individual timelines no matter how much we try to avoid or disavow them? What if I was always going to suffer some amount of abuse and trauma in my childhood, whether I told someone outside of my family of origin immediately, or (as it actually happened), not until I was a fully-grown adult? I have no proof that the answers to any of these questions is “Yes, that’s how it works.” I do realize, though, that conceptualizing at least some of my most difficult experiences through the prism of fate rather than as the result of my own failure to plan is a less shaming and constricting way of approaching life.

Belief So Centrally Flawed

With unlimited resources of time, physical strength, emotional maturity, money, social support and foreknowledge, perhaps almost all negative events in our lives could be prevented. We do not, of course, live in such an environment. As a child being sexually abused in my own house, I did not have any of the beneficial supports listed above on my side. With the limitations I faced, I could not have prevented what happened to me. I had no choice but to endure what occurred until I got myself to a place of safety and freedom where I was able psychologically and emotionally to start to unpack the horror I had faced. It isn’t so much that I struggle with it being my fault as in thinking I caused or elicited it, instead, it seems like it should have only happened once if it was going to happen, because I should have then been able to problem-solve my way out of it happening again. I was genuinely helpless and trapped. All the problem-solving in the world doesn’t work if you are six years old, without a single adult who is “on your side,” trained to see outsiders as corrupt and evil, and extremely socially anxious. My fate was unavoidable at that time.

Where Choice Abounds but Fail-Safes Falters

Thankfully, childhood trauma survivors rarely remain helpless once we are adults. I felt a surge of fire go straight through me when I listened to Kyle Stephens, one of the first survivors to speak out against Larry Nassar, state the following at his trial, “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” The ferocity of this statement for me is a woman standing in her own power with whom no one dare trifle. By and large, as adults, we get to make our own decisions. We can grow our resources to a place where certain kinds of terror are unable to stalk us. I choose, for instance, not to be in communication with my abusers. In doing so, I’ve removed their ability to dictate how I speak my truth. Layers and layers of shame and self-restriction have fallen from me as I’ve grown in my awareness of just how much freedom adulthood can hold.

There is though, unanswered in me, the question of fate. What if, even as a person who owns my mistakes and takes responsibility for my actions, things are going to happen to me that are beyond my control to prevent? Or even experiences that are my destiny to transit? For me personally, the rebuttal to “everything’s preventable” being a statement in need of many caveats is not “God is in control.” Rather, I’ve settled for now on “life is absurd.” Life is absurd when a person does everything possible to be healthy and ends up with a life-threatening disease. Life is absurd when callous and conniving graduates of privilege abscond with profits torn from the soiled palms of those who toil for their bread. Life is absurd and the world is not just.

My conceptualization of Goddess does not extend to believing She is in charge of everything, that it will all “work out in the end.” Does an entity exist that has my best interest in mind and the ability to bring good to fruition? The child in me, the one that thought it was her job to keep bad things from happening, desperately wants to surrender control of her fate to this belief. The adult in me, however, believes that even if there is no grand contingency plan, no clock in the sky winding down, there may be moments of trouble from which none of my scheming will have saved me, and through which I can endure and even thrive. Life is absurd and I break myself open to its whims, releasing myself from the need to stack the bizarre shapes in which it comes into a semblance of order. I desire to smile at the hand of Fate, whatever She brings me.

 

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?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What It Means to Wish

I recently came across an Instagram post with the following quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I uttered “YES!” and felt vindicated in terms of my focus on planning and doing as opposed to dreaming. I value hard work and dedication to a near-religious fervor and easily feel scorn towards people I perceive as hoping their lives will improve without making any effort towards what they want.

Soon, though, my inner work during ritual revealed a weakness in my thinking. Goals with plans are indeed more likely to be accomplished, but is the entire point of life to dust off a display case of successes? Is showing ourselves steady and reliable the only virtue on which we should focus? For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring what it means to allow ourselves to mentalize beyond what seems in our grasp, and how this broadening of our thinking, coupled with dedication, can propel us into previously unimagined places on our spiritual journey.

Hope, Trauma and Inner Visioning

Dreaming big often evokes emotions I’d rather not accept or admit to having, including desire, yearning and a sense of vulnerability. If I don’t really want anything that I cannot accomplish in a straightforward manner, and I do not long for things that I historically have been unable to achieve, I will no longer feel disappointment. Or, so goes in my inner reasoning. The reality is that my life can end up feeling flat, empty and unfulfilled nonetheless.

Traumatic experiences, especially those that occur during young childhood as mine did, can cause a devastating loss of hope. I’ve often felt that, in regards to myself and people like me, we have solved a terrible riddle, the answer to which only we are privy—“why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because there is no real justice in this life or any other.” I see myself with the innocent childhood belief in basic trust and connection to the outside world irreparably damaged a few short years into my life. I don’t believe in karma; I don’t believe in family loyalty; I don’t believe we get what we deserve. From this framework, within which I still exist, it has been extremely challenging for me to do more than survive and get by. Thriving has felt like something that others get to do if they are lucky—a level of existence from which I’m exiled.

The profound shift that occurred after my inner work in which I pulled a “dreamseed” card from my Soulful Woman Guidance Card deck was that I realized I can create a vision of myself that does not solely rely on my current reality as its basis. There is nothing stopping me from doing so aside from my own fear of failure and disappointment, and the harsh internalized criticisms of my youth.

Creating the Dream

Where my internal processing led me was to write out a vision of myself. I instantly contemplated an elaborate vision-board but the personal growth I’ve experienced through writing led me instead to a word-based mentalization. I incorporated a focus on the following areas:

  • Who I Am Becoming, including my:
    • Physical Being
    • Thoughts
    • Emotions
    • Behaviors
  • How I Will Spend My Time
  • What Qualities My Relationships Will Espouse
  • What Characteristics My Environment Will Hold

I held nothing back in terms of exactly what I want my life to be, in other words, I did not use my present experiences and place in life as the basis for my vision. I wrote mostly in generalizations as I believe life and fate will fill in the detail for me. I then put in bold typeface all the sentences that feel “aspirational,” meaning I have work to do in order for them to be realized in my life. I already have a list of goals on which I am working, so I am now incorporating aspects of my vision into practical steps I can take to manifest my intentions. I continue to return to the concept of self-compassion as a core principle that must underlie my undertaking. It is possible I will feel just as far from some areas as I am today when I re-evaluate my progress as the end of the year, but I believe simply having an articulated statement of “this is who I want to be” will inspire additional growth and insight.

I feel embarrassed by the judgment I’ve held in the past towards others and towards parts of myself who might want things that do not seem possible. I see now that I’ve been allowing some of my potential as a person to lie untapped because I was fearful of failure and of the bitter pain of disappointment. Dreams and visions are not just for the mystics; they can inspire each of us to become the most evolved versions of ourselves to which we have access in this life.

What is your experience of creating dreams and desires for yourself? What is the relationship between planning, goal-setting and inner vision in your life? What holds you back from dreaming big, and what allows you to open yourself to possibility?