Eat, drink, (garden, knit, quilt, think, fix, read) & be merry

A new year, new perspective, new goals, new word.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but perhaps it was an inevitable one.  Yesterday, I filled my prescription for anti-anxiety medication.I cried.


At first I assumed I cried from sadness, or resignation, or my pervasive sense of brokeness.  But I then realized they were tears of relief.

When I met with the psychiatrist on Tuesday, she drew a diagram very similar to this:


I don’t consider myself a fatalist.  I don’t express, or believe, sediments such as, “everything happens for a reason.”  I can’t accept that there was a “reason” or “plan” that subjected me to ten years of torturous abuse in the hands of a psychopath.  And yet I find myself struck at how much of what has happened over the past few years has been so instrumental in me finding and utilizing the help I need.  For instance, in order to teach, I took several additional biology courses that were not part of my major.  Two of those – evolution and physiology – have been essential in enabling me to understand what happened to me.  Being able to conceptualize the workings of my brain and body have given me a much deeper acceptance of anxiety as a natural outcome of my experiences instead of a personal failing.

But I digress.  The main peak in the diagram above shows the natural course of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic response is a purely biological response designed to keep us alive.  “Fight or flight”, as it is often called, is a lightening fast, unconscious response to (perceived) threats.  The parasympathetic response, or the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” branch of the nervous system, is a much more gradual process, that returns the body to homeostasis and maintains “non essential” processes such as digestion, reproduction, and relaxation.

These two systems work in tandem to respond to the myriad of situations that we encounter everyday.  Most people operate at the “normal” level where they experience a moderate degree of arousal everyday, punctuated by more pronounced periods of stress and relaxation.

Prior to therapy, I was operating at an frighteningly high level of sympathetic arousal.  Upon waking everyday, the anxiety kicked into high gear and kept me hyper-vigiliant to a whole slew of perceived threats.  I learned to do this because I grew up in an environment with very real, persistent threats.  This vigilance helped me to feel prepared for the dangerous, unpredictable world I was living within.

CBT has helped me bring that level of sympathetic response down, to a place that, to me, feels reasonably relaxed.  But the psychiatrist indicated that I was still living in a state of “high anxiety.”  Frankly, this was news to me.  I know I have periods of anxiety, but I’m learning to manage them and can often distract or calm myself down.  While therapy has been enormously helpful, it’s obviously not enough.  I’m feeling nearly ready stop my CBT, but it still appears that my anxiety is much, much higher than it needs to be.  So the medication is suppose to help bring me down closer to a normal baseline of sympathetic arousal.

As we’ve heard numerous times, long-term stress wears on the body and the brain.  The meds are suppose to help my brain calm down enough so it has more resources to repair some of the damage wrought from years of high stress.  Honestly, I’m so curious I can hardly stand it.  It takes 4-6 weeks for the drugs to take full effect (if these work for me).  What will it be like to live at the baseline?  Just writing that sentence makes the tears well up again.  Relief.

One of the most challenging parts about this whole process is figuring out “normal.”  When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I kept reading statements like, “Therapy will help you return to normal.”  Or, “renew your interest in the good things of life.”  Or, “reestablish your sense of safety in the world.”  But in my case there is no “re.”  This sh*t started so early there is nothing healthy to return to.  My whole life has been calibrated to the initial, pervasive experiences of fear, abandonment, hatred and abuse.  Each time I find a new level of calm, I think, “Eureka. Journey over.  Healing, check.  I made it.”  Only to realize that I still have miles to go.  But when I turn around to see how far I’ve come, how I ache for that little girl who lived, so bravely and for so long, in such toxic circumstances.

The doctor also recommended finding ways to “exercise” the parasympathetic response.  She rattled off a list including yoga, meditation, tai chi, mindfulness, massage, acupuncture.  I immediately cringed.  I like yoga – the aerobic variety.  She meant the “slow, gentle” yoga, which I cannot imagine myself doing.  Meditation?  Ha.  I’ve tried it, can’t stand it.  Mindfulness?  I’ve actually worked on this over the past year.  It’s been a lot of work with no reward.  Massage?  I do it sometimes, but it’s hard for me, and it’s often not very relaxing.  I said as much to the doc and she laughed, kindly, knowingly.  “Of course you don’t like these,” and she smiled.  We became side-tracked, so I didn’t get to ask her why she said that.  But I realized later it’s because all of these activities are designed for deep relaxation, to a depth of which is currently not possible for me.  It makes me uncomfortable and anxious because it means putting my guard down, and that is so, so, so hard for me (damn PTSD).

Realizing that was like switching on a dizzyingly bright lightbulb.  It illuminated so much that I have struggled to understand about myself.  I don’t like slow music.  If it’s not upbeat, I tune it out or shut it off.  I always have at least two “projects” with me – reading, knitting, homework, etc so if I’m caught with any “downtime”I have something “productive” to do.  I start waking about 4:30 every morning.  I do not like long meals.  I often do not taste my food.  I always have to know what’s next.  I get explosively angry about “wasted time.”  I cannot really and truly relax. 

Yes, I do sometimes feel relaxed.  But the diagram above made me realize that there are degrees of relaxation.  You see, I have always dichotomized my experience.  If I didn’t feel “up tight” then I was relaxed.  There was very little in between.  But now I realize that my entire life experience exists on a continuum much broader than my daily experience.  My current experience exists in that narrow band between the peaks of my anxiety and the “valleys” of relaxation.  But that narrow band lives within a much broader range, and by working at it, I can move those valleys further down to more and more relaxed states.  But it’s scary, because I have memories – both conscious and unconscious – of very bad things happening when I was caught unawares.

It’s tempting to keep living in this narrow band (it feels safer) but continuing to live in a state of “high anxiety” is damaging to both my body and my brain.

“One Little Word”, if you haven’t heard of it, is choosing one word, in lieu or in addition to New Year’s resolutions, to help focus the upcoming year.  Two years ago I chose “Risk” and I really enjoyed the experience of molding my year around risks – big and small – and seeing what became of it.  It was a huge year of growth for me.

Last year, I couldn’t settle on a word, so I didn’t.  But I think I have a word this year.  Well, a phrase.  It’s “moving in.”  I’ve talked a bit about this before, this idea of “moving in” to my own body.  When reading up on “exercising” the parasympathetic nervous system, mindfulness of the body was a recurring theme.  Again, this makes me anxious just thinking about it.  Indeed, I’ve previously become aware that “I” lived in a small part of the back of my brain, but refused to really inhabit my own body.  It’s a scary thing, owning a body.  Bodies are vulnerable, to other people, to disease, to brokeness, to pain, to clumsiness, ugliness and humiliation.  I learned these lessons very, very early.  I retreated out of my body and carry it around as dead weight, refusing to invest much in it because it only leads to betrayal.

That worked, in its own way, for a long time.  But that strategy is no longer congruent with how I want to live my life.  It’s time to move in.  How?  Well, I have a few ideas.

– Pay attention, and then respond.  I often become aware that I’m sitting in such a way that causes me pain, but I don’t adjust.  I will sometimes get blisters or other injuries but don’t stop working.  Sometimes I know I’m in pain, sometimes I don’t.  I often don’t go to the bathroom when I need to, because I think I’m inconveniencing myself or someone else.   I rarely listen to myself.  This needs to stop.

– Count calories.  I know, this seems weird.  But I’ve increasingly become aware that I have no idea when I’m hungry or full.  I eat when it’s convenient or when I’m afraid I will be hungry. Hunger was a persistent part of my childhood.  I’m terrified of hunger.  So I subvert it by eating preemptively.  This needs to stop.  I have no gauge of a healthy amount of food.  I know I eat way more than I need (my clothes are getting increasingly less comfortable!) but when I try to “pay attention” to my body, I just feel “hungry” all the time.  I think that by counting calories for a while, I can calibrate my body to healthy amounts of food.  This would never have been possible for me before smartphones.  I downloaded an app that I think will help me do this for a while.  I’m not being down-to-the-single-calorie neurotic about it, but I need to get a handle on what is healthy.  I think this is a step in the right direction.

– I’m considering halting my alcohol consumption.  This is still an idea I’m just toying with, but I’d like to carve out room to think about it more throughly.  I don’t feel like discussing the reasons right now, but it might be a good idea.

– Exercise.  I’m actually pretty good about this, most of the time.  But when I start feeling down, I stop.  Considering that it helps me feel better I need to do it most when I’m having a hard time.

– Try acupuncture.  That is the one thing on the list from the doc that I can imagine myself doing at this point.  So I guess I’ll try it.

– Continue learning to take care of myself.  I’ve drastically improved my skills on this over the past year.  And I hope to keep getting better.

– Practice self-compassion.  This isn’t easy, either, but I think it’s helpful in body mindfulness, which is helpful in activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

– Give medication a good, solid go.  I don’t want to be on it permanently, but if it can calm my brain enough to allow for some healing and the experience of a “new normal”, hey, why not?

Well, that’s a pretty good start.  So much information buzzing in my brain.  Feels good to get it out on “paper.”  Thanks for reading.


Processing – Medication.

It was just about two years ago that I, yet again, decided to try therapy.  My past experiences with therapists have been awful.  So as the date of my appointment drew near, it took an incredible hope to refrain from canceling it.

God, I’m so glad I didn’t.  M has been my champion, my coach, my adversary and challenger.  She has been one of life’s greatest gifts to me.  It’s hard for me to remember what kind of person I was two years ago.  Have I really made progress?  Sometimes it feels like my troubles are different, although still weight with same strength.  And maybe that’s true.  But I do feel that I am more confident, more capable of accepting the love that surrounds me.  I am more aware of myself and more trusting of my instincts.  I value myself, at least in some ways, some of the time.

I trust M unreservedly.  Unlike previous therapists she didn’t rush to diagnose me and shuttle me along to a prescription-writer.  She listened, long and thoughtfully, before coming to any conclusions.  In fact she listened for two full years before suggesting that I consider anxiety medications.

That is the only reason I’m even considering it.  I am throughly resistant to being on medications.  I have trouble articulating exactly why.  I don’t have a problem with the existence of medications, or with the idea of anyone else taking them.  I just don’t want to do it.  I think, in part, it’s because it feels like a bandaid when I need stitches.  I don’t want to just feel better, I want to be better.  I hold tightly to this idea that if I work hard enough, try hard enough, believe hard enough that I can heal all those old wounds and this little anxiety problem will go away permanently.

But maybe that’s not reasonable.  I know very little about brain science, but I do understand that what happens to us in early childhood seriously and permanently affects the way our brains work.  I grew up under constant fear, neglect, and psychological manipulation.  I think I became hardwired to respond to average simulations as if they’re a real and dangerous threat.  And maybe no amount of therapeutic effort can change that wiring.  That’s so depressing.

So now the question seems to be – do I want to continue to voluntarily, and perhaps hopelessly, struggle against the dark curtain of crushing doubt and fear that falls around me several times a day?  Or do I want swallow a little help so I can experience a some success?  Believe it or not, it’s a really tough choice.

Frankly, I’m curious.  I’ve never known life without deep and profound anxiety.  I muddle through it, and overall, I do ok.  But what would it feel like to lose the curtain that always looms in the back of my mind?  I can’t imagine it as much as it intrigues me.

In my childhood home, every good thing was followed by something bad, sometimes something awful.  J couldn’t stand to see us happy.  So I learned to associate happiness, connection, and gentleness with a deep dread of what is to follow.  I can have a perfectly wonderful coffee date with a friend where I feel accepted and connected but the moment I walk away, my chest constricts and an overwhelming sense of doom falls around me.  I’m convinced I did something unforgivable, said something terrible, or acted in a way that was totally unacceptable.  And it’s because I have this antique childhood connection between goodness and bad.

And I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to walk away from that coffee date, that party, that craft date, that bike ride and just feel good.  I can never feel good for more than a few moments before I’m battling the falling curtain and the associated demons.

Could a little pill really banish those demons?  Could it clear away the cobwebs and the curtain?  Could I really feel better and be able to enjoy life’s sweetest moments and let them linger on?

I seriously have my doubts.  But, I’m also profoundly curious.

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Processing… the past.

Are you familiar with the constructivist theory of learning?  Essentially it’s the idea that we actively “construct” and maintain networks of understanding in our minds.  New information is both viewed through and tacked onto existing concepts.  We’re never “blank slates.”  Each person comes into any given situation with pre-existing set of understandings and that profoundly shapes what they experience and learn.  Our constructs can be true or false and they filter what we do or don’t take away from any given experience.

love this idea.  I used to sit in classes and think about how we’re each having a unique experience even though we’re sitting through the exact same lecture.  Those sitting near an open window have an entirely different experience than those sitting near the open door.  Those at the back of the room don’t have the same class as those at the front.  Differences in interest, previous knowledge, misconceptions, biases, temperament and a whole host of other variables profoundly chances the experience of people sitting mere inches from one another.  Constructivism hints at parts of that idea.

In a book I read recently (sorry – I can’t remember which one!) the authors discuss first impressions and how we tend to generalize our earliest impressions of people as accurate indicators of their overall personality.  If a chipper, upbeat person is having an awful day the first time you meet them, you’re likely going to form an impression of them as negative or withdrawn.  This impression holds true even if you have many subsequent encounters which are unambiguously positive.  We tend to weight our first impressions much more heavily than later interactions.  Incidentally, if you really like someone when you meet them and they later prove to be annoying, self-absorbed, and negative, it’s going to take you a long time to shake that positive impression even if they drive you crazy for a really, really long time.

But I digress.  I’ve been thinking about the weighting of impressions lately as I continually work to contextualize and understand my history.  I often wonder why I feel so compelled to process, process, process my childhood.  It’s like a hard drive that won’t keep spinning.  My brain whirrs endlessly trying to make sense of what did (and didn’t) happen to me.  It’s exhausting, and I often want it to stop.  But it doesn’t.

But the discussion on the heavy weight we put on first impressions helped me make some sense of all this.  My earliest impressions of life do not mesh with my current experiences.  For example, the idea that people are caring, reliable, helpful, and genuine is not something I experienced in childhood.  So I am forever trying to learn to really trust people while also trying to protect myself from the excruciating vulnerability that was mercilessly exploited when I was a child.  Even though I don’t think the people in my life are “out to get me” I default to that mentality because the pain of betrayal is still sharp and poignant.

Our earliest experiences profoundly shape us.  When I talk with friends of every age inevitably there is always at least one story of something their mom or dad did that was influential.  Sometimes it’s a joke, a disciplinary action, or a moment of connection.  It’s a rare conversation where people don’t share something about their first caregivers.  Many, if not most, people I talk to have many good things to say about their parents.  They can share their stories because their stories don’t make other people uncomfortable.  They can talk about and thus process and fully integrate their experiences.  I sometimes tell stories that are dark, sad, and perhaps frightening.  My need to talk about, make sense of, and integrate my experiences is no less than others.  The social acceptability of my experience is, however, very different.

So with those ideas in mind, the drive to process, process, process, seems less pathological.  It’s the result of a natural need to understand and integrate.  As people we tend to place heavy emphasis on early experiences and use those as a benchmark for understanding new ones.  Because my earliest filters are poorly equipped for understanding my current experiences, I experience a lot of discord.  Additionally, because we construct meaning and understanding in from previous experience, it’s not surprising I have a lot of processing to do.  Then, to add fuel to the fire, I have less opportunity to do so because there exist few social contexts where that conversation is appropriate.

Although this presents no clear solutions, understanding is waaaay more than half the battle.  At least I can let go of the nagging guilt that my need to process is overblown and exaggerated.  I do think I need to choose to think about other things sometimes, but that’s a story for another day.

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What Works

Welcome, readers, from the Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse!

I haven’t blogged much about the Sadness lately, or all the reasons behind it.  I have been thinking about it daily, even hourly, as I sometimes struggle to face a day, take care of myself in the simplest of ways, or continue to rage against the fear that always looms in the dark shadows.  But I have been trying to focus on the now, to be in the present moment, to look forwards sometimes instead of always looking backwards.

And that, in a nutshell, that’s what works.


It’s hard being in the present.  It’s hard living wholly within my body.  It’s a constant challenge to respond to my current circumstance instead of reacting to my past.  And it has required some substantial reconstruction in my vision of who I am, what I can do, and what I will never be.

I’ve had to learn to listen to myself and accept a lower standard of daily productivity.  I used to be a whirlwind of activity, pumping out piles of fresh bread, overdone homework, and an endless stream of crafty projects.  But that dervish-like activity was a way to distract from the oppressive force of depression and anxiety that threatened to overwhelm me if I stopped moving.  Now I sleep more (too much, I think, but that’s a discussion for another day).  I stop and listen to myself.  I make time to go to the bathroom.  And I slow enough to spend time listening to how I feel and why that might be.  Sometimes I withdraw from everything to just lay on my bed and cry.

It is not easy to do these things.  Laying around trying to feel the Sadness instead of pushing it away seems lazier.  But it is an incredible amount of work – work I’d rather not be doing.  

But I’ve also found that when I can do it, when I can hold onto the present, stay within my body, and move through that darkness, it passes more quickly.  When I push it away, it lingers for days, weeks, months.  It’s a foggy cloud over my every waking moment.  But when I sit with it, try to focus on it, and listen to it, it dissipates.  It moves on.  And I feel better, sometimes within minutes, often within hours.

And to that end, I often focus heavily on tactile sensations that I love.  I use a new bar of soap with strong, 90 degree edges.  I pick a couple of lilies or holly hocks and focus on the silky sensation of the petals.  I go out and smell my roses.  I shave my legs and change the sheets.  I take a bath and wrap up in my best, most luxurious bath blanket.  I cuddle with my cat.  Or knit with my most indulgent yarn.  I cook something fragrant.  Squeeze my stuffed bear, Boris.

Being present and accepting my reality is what works.  But heavens, that’s often such hard cognitive work that I refuse to do it.  Then, obviously, it doesn’t work.  But I’m getting better at it, at taking little steps that bring me back and help keep me here.  This beautiful here where I belong.


A moment in time

Squash tendrils

A developing female flower on my butternut plant. Notice the teeny, tiny butternut squash at the base.

Remembering a good friend, mentor, adviser, teacher, inspiration who lost his battle with cancer. God damn cancer.  Why can’t it leave the good, kind people alone?

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Thinking aloud

The grad program is off to a galloping start.  It’s a fascinating and frantic whirlwind of ideas, history, hope and tragedy.  It’s also an emotional roller-coaster.  For example, yesterday we discussed communication disorders and I learned that the vast majority of kids with speech disorders do not have them as adults because they are helped by therapists while in school.  However, I will struggle with stuttering to the day I die because I didn’t get that help.  In fact, that help was intentionally withheld from me by deliberately cruel parenting.  It’s small jabs like this, several times a day, that leave me exhausted and tearful.  As does the constant demand that we disclose our own scholastic histories, examine our own biases and backgrounds, and delve into the depths of our own assumptions about education.  Of course, this should all be a part of teacher training, but it’s painful when large swathes of my academic story are dark and unforgiving.

Next week I’m expected to write my story as a K-12 student and then critique it, all in 3 double-spaced pages.  This must be designed for students with cohesive histories.  How do I explain, in just a couple of pages, how I’ve attended a multitude of schools?  Some I attended for as little as two weeks, others I attended for several years.  I’ve been in the wealthiest suburban schools with wall-mounted TVs and multiple pools.  I’ve been rural schools where the grounds are being swallowed by forest.  I’ve been in urban schools with drug-sniffing dogs and new principals every year.  I’ve been “home-schooled” in ways that deserve their own paper explaining the cruelties and injustices.  I’ve been in schools where I look like the majority of students and I’ve been in schools where I’ve clearly been in the minority.  I’ve been at home in poverty-stricken schools and dwarfed by the the obvious wealth of schools where students drive Porches.  I’ve been welcomed and ridiculed, bullied and ignored.   I attended 9th grade geometry classes as an 11 year old with a second grade education.  I ended up in AP US history without knowing the story of the American Revolution.  And then, somehow, I went on to actually graduate with a 4.0 and a fistful of scholarships and awards.  I’m a freak, an anomaly and I resent that it’s being rubbed in my face as a way to get the rich, white kids from the suburbs to see their own “isms.” And I resent the implication that my story will somehow fit, with critique, on three measly pages.

It’s good for me to process all this.  I know it is and I know I need to do it before stepping into a classroom.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.  It also makes me mad that the curriculum is designed to support rich, white teacher-candidates see and wrestle with their biases and there isn’t much room to support people like me who have different stories to process.  I have to pay for therapy to wrestle with mine.  Their support is included in the tuition and classroom.

Intuitively I know I’m not the only one struggling with these issues.  But my realizations and stories are not as socially acceptable to talk about, so it’s harder to find support.  The girl that can just say, “I had NO IDEA that kids in inner cities schools had teachers that were being paid $3000 less, no pool, few college-prep classes, etc… No wonder some of those poor kids are stuck in poverty!” can find support and sympathy for her realizations.

I know this designed to tug on our heart strings and make us examine our motives and assumptions.  But it’s just hard.  And it sends me back into the mourning place.  At least The Sadness is friendly and familiar now.  But I still don’t like it.

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Hi, friends!  I wish I had a compelling reason for my lengthy absence lately but I don’t.  BUT it is a whopping 21 days until I am in the first person in my family of origin to graduate from college!

It’s spring – which came ridiculously early – and spring brings loads of heavy emotions.  The lilacs are blooming (my dad’s favorite flower) and Mother’s Day is just around the bend.  I’m wrapping up a semester of 20 credits and preparing to enter a graduate program.  It’s no wonder I’ve been tired lately, no matter how much I sleep.  My brain is either learning or processing all the time!

The lilacs aren’t as sad as usual, though.  I miss my dad, surely, but it’s a dull ache now, and only when I press on it.  My mother’s absence isn’t as sharp, either.  I count her absence by holidays more than months, and it’s been nearly a dozen since she’s made any sort of effort.  It makes it easier to really close the door.  But, as “they” say, the closing of one door opens another and so it goes here.  I’ve decided since I did much of my own rearing, I’m going to celebrate myself on Mother’s Day.  It feels hokey and funny to me, but I, at a deeper level, like the idea.  I’ve finally given myself permission to give myself a little credit for who I am and how I got here.  In many ways I’ve been my own mother, and I was often a mother to my brother and other children that lived in our house.  I read bedtime stories, said prayers, and tucked in tiny children that lived in our house.  I woke them in the mornings and sent them off to school while I stay home, in a house by myself.  All day.  When I was seven or eight.

So I welcome the coming of May.  To me late spring feels like the beginning of a new year.  And this year I’ll be a college graduate, beginning a new career, free of my mother, with the world wide open before me.  It’s a transformative spring, and I welcome that with open arms.

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I want to remember the sweetness and light that appear as the dark storms of recognition and heaviness begin to dissipate.

I feel a deep and resonating expansion in my chest as the crippling masses of trauma are liquified and pour out of my body through tears. My lungs start to feel cavernous and I breathe more deeply and with greater satisfaction.

Layers of fear peel and blow away, possibility begins to peek through, and I hold a future I never thought possible in the palms of my open hands.

I sleep more soundly.  I feel capable and ready.  I dare to try new skills and shatter old beliefs.  My fingers curl more protectively over a solid sense of self, and I challenge the inner demons, banishing them and their criticizing mantras.

The dark corners are still there. The sadness and insecurity and the crushing loss still press down on me. But I know I can rise, I know I will rise, and I once again believe in my future enough to fight for it.

This doesn’t happen everyday, but I relish it when it does. It makes me believe it’s all worth it, that I am worth it, that I’m making progress and that SOB isn’t going to win my future.  I will.

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My apologies.  I’m really trying to move this space away from being a place to hold all my sadness.  I think I’m almost through the woods when another dark curtain falls and I again find it hard to breathe.  And I, again, need a safe, quiet, space with familiar people where I can make sense of the stories and words thrashing in my head.  And so here I am.  Again.

Over the past several months I’ve felt the tide of anger rising.  I’ve watched, somewhat detached and curious, how the level has risen.  At first it was rose somewhere in my knees and I barely knew it was there.  At times I could sense it, almost like you sense the anger in others, but I couldn’t actually feel it.  It was like watching anger through a TV screen.  Then it moved to my head where I could describe it, where it invaded my thoughts with impulsive images of me punching my abusers.  But again, I couldn’t exactly feel it.  Then, in the past week it has finally settled in my chest.  A crushing pressure that literally makes inhaling laborious.  I can feel it now, hot and furious.  It pulsates and radiates down my extremities.  I want to find some quiet, abadoned Minnesota corn field and scream until my voicebox gives out and then scream some more until I can  never speak again.  I want to punch through glass windows and kick down entire walls.  I want to knock on J’s door and run some brass knuckles through his face.

It’s terrifying.  And so far all I’ve actually been able to do in lie in bed and cry quietly into my pillow.


Yesterday at my therapy appointment I was telling M some of my most closely guarded stories.  I was telling her how, recently, several different pieces fell into place and I was starting to see my childhood in larger swathes instead of just isolate points of cryptic memory.

We were talking about J.  And I can’t remember now exactly how it came up, but she mentioned that he was a diagnosable psychopath that delighted in the torture of others.

When she said this I couldn’t breathe.  Literally couldn’t breathe.  Then I started hyperventilating and almost fainted.

I grew up in the house of psychopath.  He delighted in torturing me.

Even though I have a grasp of that they mean, I had to look up these words.  I think of “psychopaths” as deranged killers and “torture” as a physical means of extracting information from enemy combatants.  Surely these did not apply to me.

Psychopath*:  A person who (to most people) is generally likeable and has good social skills, but feels no remorse or empathy.  This combination makes them particularly dangerous to their victims.

Torture: “a means of inflicting extreme pain as a punishment… or for sheer cruelty.  Extreme anguish of body or mind.”

The “psychopath” thing sure explains a lot.  Adults loved J.  They thought he was friendly and funny.  In fact, he was so likeable that when he and my mom applied for a foster care license, they were granted one.  The state paid my mom and J to “take care of” vulnerable children.  At one point, J pinned down one of the foster kids (D) and screamed in his face.  The kid wrestled free and ran upstairs to lock himself in a room and call his social worker.  He tried to tell his social worker what was happening at our house.  The social worker told D that J was a nice guy who would never do that and to please stop lying.

That was the nail in my coffin.  It was so clear to me that no one would ever believe us and there was no escaping.  If child protection was on J’s side, I was doomed.

Another memory:  J is beating my brother.  I am crying and asking him to stop.  He comes over to me and informs me that crying for anyone else is a waste of time.  I should be happy if I’m not the one being beaten.

I never, ever remember J saying sorry, showing empathy, or caring about the feelings of others.  Never.  And that realization makes me so sick I’m afraid I might vomit.

And this information casts entirely new light on my entire childhood, on my entire life.  Suddenly behaviors that seemed like mistakes or oversights are now the methodical methods of a man who delighted in seeing me suffer.  For instance, J listened to books on tape.  He particularly enjoyed gruesome mystery novels.  And he would listen to them at high volume outside my bedroom door  right after I went to bed.  I had always assumed that he didn’t realize how loud they were.  Now I think that he loved that I would have to go to sleep to the description of serial killers who dug their victim’s eyeballs with screwdrivers.

And this whole time my mom barely acknowledged my existence.  Except to make sure that I did exactly what J wanted.  My mother made sure that I was always available to, and obeying, a psychopath.  

I guess that explains the anger.  Now I just need to find a (safe) way to process it.  God, this sucks.

*As therapist described it.  In popular media there are many interpretations of “psychopath”, some more accurate than others.

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Moving In

Wheew, friends, it’s been a while.  Winter break just slipped out from under me.  P had a lot of time off this year and we spent most of winter break together – hanging out at home, watching movies, going for walks, cooking, and preparing for the holidays.  Then we spent a week in the Yucatan where we snorkeled, ate, swam, and lounged on the beach.  It was spectacular.

Then I returned home and classes started.  Despite only needing two classes to graduate, I’m registered for 20 credits.  I know, right?  Ridiculous.  Most of them are pre-reqs for a M.Ed./licensure program for which I haven’t yet been accepted (but I should find out in a few weeks).  I was hoping for a relaxed final undergrad semester but instead I’m frantically reading about zoology, cell biology, the history and philosophy of science, among other things.  It’s all excellent material, but I’m burnt out and tired.

And then the Sadness returned.  It hasn’t been as intense or debilitating, but it’s there, all the same.  Although I’m noticing some differences this time on the (no so)merry-go-round.  Whereas I’ve previously assumed that the Sadness’ return signaled a regression in my recovery, I’m beginning to believe that’s not wholly accurate.

I realize that the following analogy is probably crude, especially because I haven’t experienced it, but it’s the imagery that’s been in my mind.    It’s felt (again, give me a little license) like labor – a difficult and painful process in which my internal homeostasis is disturbed in a sort of positive feedback loop to make way for change.

At first the Sadness haunted the background, making me sluggish and grumpy.  Then it increased in intensity until I was having trouble getting through the day.  About that time, in a sort of domino fashion, all sorts of internal changes took place.  Most are a little too unformed and raw to discuss, but one major event has been, what I’m referring to internally, as “embodiment”

As a child I learned it’s best to not have a body.  It was repeatedly ignored, abused, and tormented.  I became very adept at just shutting it down.  Nearly all bodily experience could just be flicked “off.”  If I had to go to the bathroom and it was dangerous or inconvenient – I shut it off.  If I was in pain, most of the time I ignored it.  If I was sick – I worked through it. If there was food – I ate until it was gone (despite body signals of hunger or lack thereof).  If there wasn’t food – I didn’t eat.   The list goes on.

But over the past several weeks I’ve become aware that it’s time to “move back in.”  It’s hard to live authentically and wholly when entirely detached from most of the human experience.  It’s also impossible to move forward in the healing process when I can’t tune into what I’m feeling and thus interpret what I need.  It’s been alarming to realize that often I have body demands that I have no idea what they mean.  I’m 30 and I can’t interpret my own feelings and emotions.

The day after I realized this, I awoke to a persuasive image: I experienced “me” as a small shadow living, all folded up, in a small area in the back of my brain.  It was the only safe place.  “I” (this small shadow) tentatively stretched and extended down my neck and tried to “move in” to my body but I was completely overwhelmed with a powerful sense of terror and lack of safety.  Even though I haven’t been in acute physical danger for fifteen or so years, I still didn’t feel like my own body was a safe place to be.

Frankly, I’m struggling with all this.  I don’t really want to “move back in” but I also know it’s necessary.  As I told M (my therapist) several session ago (I think this has been budding for months) I hate having a body.  This is weird for me to write, to admit.  But I really don’t like the body experience.  It’s burdensome and difficult, it’s demanding, it requires a great deal of care and attention.  It has failures and faults, and so much of it I can’t control.  It feels unwieldy and hard to understand.  It’s vulnerable to far too many dangers.  The body experience is often intense and confusing.  It carries too much trauma, it holds too many memories, and it’s just hard to accept that this mess is mine and I have to take care of it.  I don’t want it – I want to start over.  I want to take this little “shadow me” and move in somewhere – anywhere – else.  Heavens, it sounds like I’m going through puberty all over again.  ha!


If there’s one thing I’m really good at it’s accepting process.  I don’t expect instantaneous results.  I know I can move in slowly, and that’s okay.  I know I can get used to all this gradually and that, one day, I’ll feel at home here.

Currently, my little shadow is sitting around my neck and shoulders.  I’m not sure that I’ll ever get used to talking like this – a shadow me! – it feels a little too… weird.  But it works.  And so I’ll work to accept it.  Until then, this acceptance of my neck and shoulders as a “safe place” feels like a sweet, fuzzy cat draped around me and, even I’ll admit, that feels pretty damn good.

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