by Christine Cissy White
“If I was dissociating, I wouldn’t feel so anxious,” she said.
“Or you might – but you just wouldn’t know it,” I replied.
We laughed the PTSD laugh.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever said that out loud,” she said.
“But I know exactly what you mean,” I said.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have shorthand with someone recovering from developmental trauma.
We were going to meet to talk writing and life but a panic attack took precedence. She called to cancel, apologized as though her panic was an insult to me. It wasn’t.
I was impressed that she didn’t make up a lie. I’m not sure if I would have been so honest. Coping well and seeming calm during tornadoes can be a trademark, a personality trait I dangle like long earrings. It’s difficult to give up because the perks for being accomplished, productive and together pay off big. However, it’s impossible to be a robot and an emotionally healthy human.
In order to be emotionally available and responsive to others, it turns out I have to be emotionally present and responsive to myself.
This is not good news. I recoil a little inside. The spilling of actual emotions is as appealing as snot from the nose or pus from a cut. My own habit is to greet my own feelings with the same, “What do you want?” that I got in childhood.
When I’m post-traumatically stressed out, my self-hate is high and self-acceptance low. In this state, I’m surprised my feelings are defiant enough to show up when I thought they were shamed out of existence. Nope, they had just waited for me to get centered.
This is not the reward I had in mind when I started mindfulness practice. Healing and emotional health require staying present at least some of the time. Staying present is a challenge for a seasoned yogi staring at sunsets and sunflowers.sunflower 4 For those who were helpless as a child, staying present with violence and violation at the hands of relatives during the development of the nervous system, is a hard sell.
As a child, I learned to air lift out of my body and hover at the brain, play dead or pretend to become one with the table, ceiling or door. This didn’t feel like a spiritual shedding of form, a healthy detaching of ego or a glimpse into knowing we are all one.
It felt like a terrifying denial of experience. And now, when I sit to be present in the present, all of those old sensations are stored in the stillness. Doesn’t that seem mean?
I am learning to accept this part of healing. Not the suffering needlessly. I don’t want to do that. But the part where I struggle to figure out how to let the guards down and risk letting others in.
It would be a lie to say I approach my path with openhearted equanimity.
Often, I look for a back-up plan.
When triggered, I do battle with thoughts such as these: Can’t someone do this for me? How old I will be when I can do this with more grace and ease, less forgetting and effort? Can I have a better love life without exploring Daddy issues again?
Inside, I rage and war.
Clearly, my life would be easier if X wasn’t a jerk, if Y was more helpful and Z never happened in the first place.
No, this is a fantasy of the supportive extended family or the perfect lover. Those are the illusions you cling to and others have their favorites.
Don’t minimize abuse and violence. That keeps people from making change. Social change doesn’t happen because people get a crisis of conscience.
It’s called breaking the system because it requires work and effort. It’s not supposed to be easy.
It goes on and on and on.
I’m beyond sick of it – I’m sick of being sick of the process.
I’ve been an adult longer than I was a child. Can’t I circle new drains or upgrade the scenery on this old track? So far, guided imagery before bed is the only thing I can do to stop rumination, dwelling and obsessing. I recommend it.
However, some practices require regular exercise to keep off the emotional pounds even though I want to do it once and be done?
Complex PTSD or developmental trauma isn’t only about calming the nervous system, it’s about undoing the damage of what was learned in toxic family dynamics. Healing is about discovering how to nurture ourselves when violence, neglect and confusion were slathered on us as children.
I have resentment and resistance.
In fact, feeling burdened, exhausted and martyred can be the itchy wool coat of memory. I say it’s uncomfortable, yet, like an old photo album I keep picking it up. It’s how I learned how to be, a default setting I return to when stressed. I say I would love to feel the cool air lift my arm hairs yet I don’t disrobe.
Seeing a pattern does not mean knowing how to change. Knowing action needs to be taken doesn’t mean there are no false starts.
What I have learned recently, is how much better I feel in community. One of the best ways to create an internal shift comes from connecting with others. Yesterday, it was in the laughter shared with a woman with a panic attack talking about how hard it can be to notice, feel and respond to our own emotions. When she shared missing the competent feeling that accompanies numbness I understood and related even though we know the excruciating agony of being emotionally blunted makes it worth the effort. 010
We may have joked about bringing back numbness but we wouldn’t really go back in time. The relief came in understanding one another.
The process of healing, waking up and breaking the cycle is slow and sometimes agonizing. I hesitate to write that for survivors early in the process because so much improves and it’s not always grueling. However, people wouldn’t smoke, drink, stay in unhappy relationships and repeat the cycle if change was easy.
Luckily, we can sustain one another and learn to care for ourselves. Talking, which is all I did with one woman yesterday, made me feel as though I could breathe more easily though not one thing was removed from my to do list. Sharing openly and honestly was medicinal. It was free, didn’t require an expert or an appointment. Yet, I was transformed.
Before we spoke, I was mad at myself for not achieving more. I was a magnifying glass glued to the negative. My brain was a sink full of dirty dishes.
“The only abuser left in your life,” a yoga teacher said to me in a private session, “is you.” You need to parent yourself the way you wish you had been parenting. Criticism, judgment and neglect are not nurturing is what she implied.
Ouch, is what I thought and I worried a bit about who would keep me in line if I got all soft and slouchy.
Now, at midlife, when I see someone being honest about their needs, I’m envious not judgmental. People have symptoms. They can linger for a long time. So what? Who cares? That’s just how it is. I don’t think any less of them. Not at all.
Can I be this way with myself?
With another survivor, I could speak about how exhausting it is to keep getting on the hamster wheel and how hard to get off. We could appreciate our extreme efforts and point out how no new ground is being covered.
It she had not risked being authentic and vulnerable, letting down walls and defenses, I might have never made it to my yoga mat later in the day. Her bravery supported my practice! My relating made her feel less anxious. For those of us who never experienced healthy interdependence this is transforming. We get to practice, however clumsily, with one another and healing happens at lightning speed.
Most days, survivors of childhood abuse are high-functioning warriors building and rebuilding lives and selves. On those days, there is no shortage of people to talk with, relate to and bond with. On those days, it’s easy to be with ourselves.
It is the day we feel tipped over inside by trauma that we need one another most. We need people who get it, who can say, about the same orange, “It’s juicy, tangy, messy and sweet.” It’s a sensory, tactile knowing as opposed to some abstract, “Life can be hard,” comment which doesn’t help.
In yoga, during balance poses, teachers suggest finding a focal point to hold the gaze. Doing so, helps us steady ourselves. Action and rushing in to prevent tumbling aren’t necessary. Rescue won’t help someone learn to get more balanced. Being still and providing focus can.
This is the work of adult survivors. This is the unglamorous healing of developmental trauma. We do not obsess on the cause of our wounds but focus on ways to more fully inhabit the present.
We offer one another acts of caring. We validate, bear witness and can admit how clumsy we feel with the business of being human.
We can allow each other the safety we didn’t have as children to explore and experiment with our developing sense of self. We didn’t have this experience as children.
But we aren’t children any more.
These must be the gifts of practice and healing. More and more, for entire seconds or moments, I remember more, forget less and stay present.
Christine Cissy White lives with her daughter on the coast of Massachussets in the USA.