“Perhaps we should reconsider the importance of swamps. They are the meeting place of earth and water, a liminal space between the surface, the conscious world, and the depth of the unconscious. When we dare to venture into the forbidden forest, the soft ground where waters are dark, or the house of the witch, we engage with adventures and learn more about ourselves.” Eila Carrico, The Other Side of the River, pg. 47.
Trauma survivors face many mysteries—making sense the specifics of their experiences, as well as relating to self and others when core beliefs have been shattered and determining what being “healed” really entails. For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I’ll be examining our response to the unknown. I recently shared a poem that I wrote which blossomed into this post.
I thought the purpose of inner work was evaporation; to remove all traces of murkiness from the bogs of my heart and memory, exposing all that I am to the light. But life holds mystery; pure awareness would bore us instantly. No, I think now life is the film on water surface, the pebble-lined shore bed, the dip between road and grass. Rising and sinking, knowing and unknowing, holding and releasing, body and soul. Dwelling in the space between reality and fantasy, solid and mist, sensation and perception, allowing form to pass into the formless and back again.
I widen myself to include the bits of me I do not know. I pull myself in around the same pieces when they make themselves manifest, forming a protective hedge. This cycle of movement births a mothering of inner trust.
When Self meets Other, magic ensues. The edge, teeming with activity, evolves, grows, dies back and reforms. Boundaries exist in nature but are not created or fixed. We can have confidence in ourselves, as we mature, to feel them from the tips of our fingers as we approach Other, rather than to erect them as solid steel fortresses into which none dare enter or to run rampant through any we meet.
Edges require invitation, both across and down. To know ourselves in the places where we are hidden, we must near the drop and stay our feet until eyes surface and request our presence. Forcing parts of self out into the piercing light is just as traumatic as shoving them into the algae. In connecting with Other, voice ringing over range reigns. Asking and receiving permission to sit with another, as well as calling ourselves away as we leave, signals to loved ones that their Self will not be overrun or abandoned by our Other.
We will never know ourselves or another wholly. To awaken is not to perceive, rather, it is to sense not only what the body experiences, but to lift eyes to the mountaintop—the periphery of Other—and the turbid waters—the depths of Self—and to hold in consciousness the awareness of Secrets. To the fullest extent possible, learning to vigil these Unknowns, table set and heart open, instead of demanding their presence or rejecting their existence, enlivens the edge and entrains its spirals and eddies to soften. What bubbles up, what casts down ladder, is both stranger and old friend.
Are my blog statistics improving? How many likes did I get on Instagram? What can I do to increase my Twitter follower count? As of late, I’ve found myself desiring more validation from other people: more likes, more followers, more engagement. Every time I get positive feedback, however, it feels like it only increases rather than slakes my thirst. As I contemplate the unmet needs I am experiencing, I perceive myself as lacking two forms of validation and compassionate witnessing. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I’ll be describing how I am being called to more fully provide necessary care and attention to myself as well as to go deeper in my sharing with others.
There are parts of myself with whom I struggle to empathize; I conceptualize them to be needy children and rebellious teenagers. The children have often cried as they express fear or boredom. They’ve whine for attention and clung to me in moments where my focus was elsewhere. They have desperately searched for compassion in my eyes and have often found it absent. I’ve parented them in the ways I was parented: screaming, stifling and shaming them into submission.
My interactions with my dog, more than any other experience, have taught me how to respond to the needs of my inner little selves with more kindness. On the rare occasions where I yell at him, seething with rage in my voice, he physically shakes and appears frightened. Within seconds, I am brought to my knees with tears in my eyes, able to see in his reaction the reflection of my inner children who hide from me in terror as I did when I veiled my vulnerabilities from my own parents. He and I reconcile and another layer of compassion covers and soothes the disemboweled heart I was left with as a childhood trauma survivor. I still have much to do, however, to improve my inner gaze of compassionate witnessing when life becomes overwhelming.
The teenagers are my strongest critics. They see where I am flawed and delight in reminding me of these gaps in my façade. They act as protectors, silencing me through their mocking smirks lest I attract outward derision. Their contempt for me is paper-thin; it serves to cover their own insecurities and wounds. The more I allow them to have their ridicule and carry on anyway, the less effective it becomes in blanketing them from the inner work of healing in which I am engaged. Many of my talents lie with them; they have both the passion of youth and the eagerness of young learners necessary to engage inwardly and outwardly in reforming and mending the fractures of my heart. When I praise them instead of rejecting them, I see bright faces shining in pride, their cloaks of scorn tattering as they select capes of strength and hope.
One of my most finely-honed skills as an individual is being able to appear to be both deep and open in how I connect with others without genuinely risking very much. Most people who meet me would describe me as authentic and direct in my communication. These are hard-won characteristics that stand in contrast to my experience in my family of origin. Although true, they belie the shrouds with which I cloak myself to avoid true detection and validation of the weaker and more child-like parts of self whom I conceal from onlookers.
In service of shadowing my scars, I have carefully crafted my blog to be general in ways that allow me to remain relatively anonymous and have avoided topics such as sex that are particularly difficult for me to discuss. I find that parts of myself are craving being seen through and through, although most of me is aware of the potential fallout of mingling, for instance, my professional and personal lives. I strongly suspect that my drive to stack up accomplishments in terms of readers and replies is a call to go deeper, rather than to cast a wider net.
My intention in terms of how I will address this need is to begin a new project, one in which I play at the layering of garments with which I hold myself secure. I have started writing a full-length non-fiction book in which I anticipate increases in vulnerability and fewer generalities in my sharing. I have discerned a clear message from Goddess that the purpose of the book is simply to create it; in other words, it is not about scribing a tailored and easily marketable product. Rather, it is meant to be an act of gifting of myself, including contributions by the little selves from whom I typically hide, as an offering for whomever She intends as its recipients.
There is a garden growing of my spiritual leadership. Some of the shoots will inevitably die off. Others may produce flowers or fruit. A particular tree or shrub may gain a long-lasting foothold. My traditional method of care-taking the products of my soul has been to over-plan, over-weed and to stand over each plant obsessively shielding it from any potential threats; these acts unintentionally block out the sun and the rain and pluck out potential growth at the bud. My relationship with Goddess is enabling me to settle myself at garden’s edge, intervening as minimally as needed and allowing to come to full bloom all that She has seeded.
Regarding the ways in which you share of yourself publicly, how vulnerable are you, and how does the level of vulnerability you reach square with your inner needs? What are the advantages and disadvantages of withholding aspects of who you are from scrutiny? What activities are you undertaking that may require more of you to surface in ways that allow others to see through your normal shields? Lastly, how do you direct your seeking of inner and outer validation?
One morning on my way to work, my eyes locked on an electronic billboard. Displayed on it was a tearful woman’s face, a reference to #MeToo, and words to the effect of “We believe you.” I felt my breath catch in my throat and was nearly in tears. It was one of the most visible displays I’ve ever happened upon that signified that anyone in the external world actually recognize the existence of sexual trauma and the value of vocalizing it. In passing by the sign again, I saw that it was for a local women’s domestic violence center. The intersection of catching a moment to remember the pain I carry everywhere I go and of realizing the message was evident to everyone driving by impressed upon me again the power of our collective stories as trauma survivors. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving and #EmbodiedHeart post, we’ll explore the difficulties as well as the positive outcomes associated with giving voice to our nightmares and grief.
Unspoken Trauma Harms
The harm done by traumatic events, at least for children, is not based solely on their intensity or frequency. A crucial factor in distinguishing trauma which lingers and scars the mind are those events that are experienced without the compassion of a loved one to help restore the child’s sense of safety and belonging. This experience of violation and danger followed by abandonment creates a hormone stew in the brain known as toxic stress. Toxic stress is linked not only with negative mental health outcomes; it is also linked with an increased likelihood of developing physical disease and even early death. Experiencing horrors, coupled with a lack of a loving witness, crushes body and soul.
Social isolation is a natural outcome of experiencing traumatic events which lack a spoken account. If we are unable to state what has happened to us, our perspective is lost in any retelling of the experience that might happen. In the case of childhood abuse, perpetrators are often more than happy to alter the fundamental facts of the event in order to protect themselves. So, not only are we silenced, we may be made out to be the “crazy one” or the one with “issues.” We may then carry these internalized rejections into new social encounters, always on edge that others will turn against us.
By Body If Not By Word
Traumatic events that are not articulated or held in a supportive environment do not go away. Instead, we may find that we live out that which we cannot voice. Of the many forms this unconscious repetition may take, behaviors rooted in relationship are often the primary expression. For instance, we may enter into and maintain connections with abusive individuals or mistreat our own bodies. In either case, when we are unable to speak our truth, our bodies become the tapestry on which the story of our horror is displayed.
Some of my deepest shame wells up when I can see my little self wanting to be seen by another but also feeling terrified that the other person will treat me as I was treated in the past. In a few key situations where I’ve been “seen” as an adult, the other person has actually acted in a way that re-traumatized me. Past and present blurred into a haze in these moments and I walked away vowing the story must be completely hidden from sight. Mustering the cognitive skills as well as the courage to put impulse to language when my body wants instead to dissociate it is extremely challenging for me.
The relationships reenactments I’ve experienced can sometimes be subtle. For instance, I may find myself repeatedly opening up to someone I know will act in a judgmental or dismissive way towards me. It can take quite a while before I realize I’m stuck in a “trauma trap” and that I need to adjust my expectations and/or behaviors in order to better honor my own needs.
In Story, Healing
Trauma therapies frequently involve narrating what has occurred. Some newer forms of trauma therapy such as EMDR do not include a requirement of the person going into great detail about the story, but they do include both internal and external witnessing. Complementary therapies such as art or movement may enable survivors to make manifest the dark threads through skilled weaving and loosening. I will soon be participating in a trauma-focused yoga class and am eager to see what manifests.
Each character in my story of my childhood trauma has become an internalized entity. The past external event is fixed; the motions and menace existed as is. I feel as though the characters in my head are playing non-stop improv theater, hoping that this time through something will shift and the narrative will no longer hold. That maybe it all didn’t really happen and wasn’t really so bad. On the other hand, some parts of me stand as frozen effigies to the specific trauma that formed them. The past feels full of ghosts and actors.
Although I’ve been in an ebb lately, through #EmbodiedHeart as well as my individual therapeutic work, I’ve made progress in giving voice to who I was and what happened to me. Something in me has decided that speaking publicly in some form may stripe another layer from the façade of “nothing to see here” that I’ve been able to maintain in much of my life. Ultimately, though, what heals is being witnessed in a supportive environment, and, on a personal level, bearing witness to who we were and what happened to us.
Where are you at in your healing journey as a trauma survivor? To what extent does being witnessed promote healing for you? What has helped you to integrate your past experiences?
“…how innocently all of us seek experiences, when either way, it’s the same. It’s the same Source which is love. So right here and now, right where you are, this is holy land, and this the holy moment.” ~Francie Halderman, interviewed by Rita Marie Robinson in her book Ordinary Women Extraordinary Wisdom: The Feminine Face of Awakening. pgs. 160-161
How I’d anticipated my first week-long vacation I was to have in years, spent relaxing at a bed and breakfast tucked into the countryside. They even allowed dogs! I loaded my entire car with books and paints and all manner of supplies and headed off.
Upon my arrival, it was rapidly apparent to me that it was not to be. There were already two significant strikes against it working out by the time I saw my room—the owner’s dogs came bounding up to my car without collars or leashes, scaring my dog (who then barked at them), and the interior of the house smelled ferociously of an undetermined repulsion. We reached the room in the attic in which I was to be staying, and, as we turned to walk back down, I inquired about the key for the door. I was told the door had an antique handle so there was no lock. I knew I would get no sleep and so I cancelled the reservation, forfeiting my deposit.
As I drove away, I burst in sobs which I at first attributed to the frustration of the situation. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with hysterics, barely able to maintain myself on the road. Although I discerned enough to know I was no longer simply upset my vacation had been cancelled, I could not make heads or tails of exactly why I was feeling what I was feeling. I mentally reviewed the events that had just transpired; when I got to the door, I knew.
We’d had antique door handles in the house in which I spent my childhood, most of which failed to lock properly. The memories are jumbled, but there were at least two incidents of sexual abuse that occurred in our attic. The prospect of being in a similar room with walls narrowed by the half-floor, into which anyone could walk in at any time, was untenable for me.
Unspoken and unprocessed terror, purified as it is, muddles past and present on the tableau of our physicality. I’ve fallen away from actively processing my trauma as directly as I would like to, and I know now that I need to redouble my efforts. I was struck by the fact that my primary reaction was one of sorrow, as this is atypical for me and feels like I was perhaps able to reach a layer deeper than I usually can into my psyche. As soon as I was able, I opened to embrace the little selves that needed comfort.
I am a proud person, and it is hard for me to recognize and admit when I’ve reached the end of myself. A part of me wishes I’d stayed and “fought” through my fear, as I know I’ve only made it harder for myself to travel again. This is the second trip I’ve cancelled this year and I am concerned about the stifling quality my inner protectors seem to have on my life. At the same time, I am glad that I didn’t force myself to endure an unpleasant vacation.
As I reflect further on the experience, I find that shame still underlies my “no.” In determining something did not meet my needs, I feel wrong for having needs at all. I actually apologized to the innkeeper for “inconveniencing” her, when in fact I was also very much inconvenienced. I returned home and set up a tent in my living room, making my own form of a staycation complete with a pile of books in which I found the quote above that struck a chord with me. Perhaps the “holy” moment is happening wherever we are, so long as we consciously perceive it. And, for me as a trauma survivor, conscious perception, meeting the stillness, is a rare and elusive gem, one I seem to have unearthed for a time by honoring my body and my needs.
What has been your experience when you’ve honored your “no”? To what extent does the idea of each moment being sacred connect with you? What happens when you open to your inner needs, and when you greet the day with conscious awareness of the present moment?