Thursday, November 23, 2006

full of thanks

Boy, is it raining here in Seattle! The rain is pounding against my windows.

I have survived another Thanksgiving. I had fun, actually. A friend from my Survivors of Suicide group invited me to Thanksgiving with her and her husband and some friends. The food was excellent, and the conversation was even better. It was a relief to be around people and still be able to acknowledge that the holidays are difficult because of Jeff's suicide and my family history.

I have been thinking about how I have changed or been affected by experiencing suicide and abuse. That is one of the questions for my first writing exercise in The Courage to Heal. This is an extremely challenging question for me, one that is hard for me to write about because of the implications I see. That is, when I ask myself how the abuse has affected me, I question whether I can ever be the person I should be, if the abuse has irreparably damaged me and twisted my personality and outlook on life in a negative way.

I see my core personality as fun loving, social, enthusiastic, inquisitive, thoughtful, and open-minded. Some of the qualities I have learned or strengthened in response to my experiences, such as compassion, self-sufficiency, and faith in myself, support my core personality. Other emotions feel threatening to the way I want to live my life, such as resentment, bitterness, and distrust. It is especially hard to see myself as open-minded when I am distrustful of other people. I want to believe the best about other people, but find myself suspecting the worst.

I have realized in the last year that denying my emotions doesn't make them go away, so telling myself I am not bitter doesn't mean I don't feel bitter. I just don't want to be a bitter person, because that doesn't seem like me. In some sense I don't want to see myself as a survivor because I don't want to give up my identity to the people who abused me and the painful things that happened to me. I worry that personality is passive, reactionary, while the personality I define myself with is actively engaged with life.

It just started snowing. (I am sitting in front of my living room window while I work on my laptop.)
One of the things I have realized lately is that I have been in survival mode pretty much my whole life, which means I have been focused on trying to survive other people and survive my life (reactionary) instead of focusing on living my life and experiencing my relationships with other people (rather than trying to protect myself from the potential threats they represented to me). I probably won't be able to get out of that mindset until I deal with all the feelings I have about the abuse. I need to face that fear that my experiences have changed me, but that doesn't make me a passive victim (I hope).

I need to get out of this defensive mode, and accept who I am, changes and bitterness and all. I can apply what I learned about grief- you can fight it all you want but then you are stuck it one place, or you can let yourself move through it and experience how you are feeling, and come out the other side. It changes you, but there's not much use fighting it because it happened, whether you like it or not. That acceptance is really the sticking point. It all happened, and there's nothing I can do to change that. I can't really change how I feel about it either. I can choose to accept it, and accept myself for who I am now, and see where that takes me.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving in Seattle

So tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I know you are not supposed to complain on Thanksgiving, but I despise Thanksgiving. And Christmas. I just realized that I decided to start dealing with the sexual abuse a couple of days before the time of year it would happen. My family would go to my great-uncle’s house on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, and he was the one who sexually abused me. Every year, I try to pretend like I am fine with it, but I hate this time of year. I hate it even more now that the only friend I had in my family is dead.

I suppose I am being hideously negative, but I feel so uncomfortable in my skin right now. Most of the time I want to either scream or stab myself. I feel nauseous and my skin is crawling. My feelings are raw, and there is no protection from them. Somehow I have been able to put myself right in the middle of my bad feelings and the agonizing over what happened to me, and I feel it everywhere. Reading that book, and making myself think about it has opened the floodgates. My discomfort with my body is like a tingling wound that moves around, so I feel it in my hand, then my head, my stomach, my foot, my hip, then my face. It feels like I am detoxifying. I am detoxing from avoiding this pain. This is just the beginning of working through my worst, most uncomfortable feelings. Agony doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Arrrrg! I want to throw things. I hate this holiday! Three times a year, people put up decorations, cook elaborate dinners, get together with family, give each other things, and celebrate the days I was sexually abused. Maybe you are reading this and thinking I am really sad and pathetic. I feel really sad and pathetic. But if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, maybe you, like me, wish the holidays could be joyful and magical instead of a reminder of how bad things can be.

It is raining here in Seattle. (Surprise!) We've been having record rainfall, as a matter of fact, and it has been really windy too. I have been having the full experience because my car broke down a couple of weeks ago (more like three) and it's still in the shop. I've been taking the bus and walking everywhere. I walked so much today that my calves hurt. It reminds me of living on the streets, and being out in the rain all the time. That's another reason I am not so thrilled about the holiday season. I have also been thinking about the streets because my work is participating in the Teen Feed Secret Santa program. My co-workers are buying 25 presents for street kids. It is very exciting.

In keeping with a least one tradition of this holiday, I am thankful that the people I work with are so generous as to help out a charity that fed me, kept me from dying of malnutrition, and made my Christmas truly magical for a couple of years (big thick socks are a magical, amazing gift when you are walking around in the rain every day). I am thankful that I am not on the streets anymore, and I have a huge apartment all to myself with no questionable people staying here, and a job that I love and learn new things in every day. I am thankful that I was able to go back to high school after dropping out, get into college, and go to grad school. I am thankful that I am almost 35, still alive, healthy; I have great friends and people who care about me, and love myself at least part of the time. I have always had amazing opportunities; my life is always interesting, to be sure. I have hope, and hope is always there no matter how bad things have been.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"like an odor snarled in the deepest folds of childhood"

(The picture is of the Taj Mahal, taken Spring 2004)

I started working on the book The Courage to Heal last night. It is "A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse". I actually started reading it last night, but it is kind of a workbook, with writing exercises and stuff like that. I figure that since I got through the Survivors of Suicide (SOS) intensive group therapy experience, I am ready to tackle the sexual abuse.

I bought the book almost a year ago (and I started blogging almost a year ago, too.) I've flipped through it several times, read parts of it, and thought it seemed helpful and amazing. Then I would read the words of another survivor, or a sentence I could really relate to, and I would get a feeling of panic and fear and put the book back on my bookshelf. I discovered that the book addresses those feelings directly right in the beginning- "It's been my experience that every time the subject of incest comes up in any kind of personal way, I reexperience the terror I felt as a child being abused." (page 22) One of the co-authors, Laura Davis, wrote that part. She was sexually abused. The book also says that if the feelings are too intense, or you start to numb yourself while reading the book, you can put it down and come back to it later when you are ready. I feel ready now.

The SOS therapy helped me immensely in getting to this point. The readings, writing exercises, and feelings charts were tools in identifying, exploring, and dealing with my feelings about Jeff's suicide, but also my feelings in general. It is hard to un-suppress my feelings, but the SOS homework made it easier. It seems the farther back the feelings go, the harder it is to face them, but I think I can get there. The SOS therapy made me realize something important- I have distanced myself from and do not accept who I was before the suicide, and also myself as a child. Identifying with my past makes me feel naive, helpless, and weak. Again, from The Courage to Heal- "As a child you could not afford to feel the full extent of your terror, pain, or rage. Because your innocent love and trust were betrayed, you learned that you could not rely on your feelings. You may have learned to block out physical pain, because it was too devastating or because you did not want to give the abuser the satisfaction of seeing you cry. But since you can't block feelings selectively, you simply stopped feeling." (pages 39, 40)

Some people have attacked The Courage to Heal in response to the controversy over repressed memories of abuse. I think it’s ridiculous to attack a book that is there to help survivors, as if questions about the validity of repressed memories imply that all memories of sexual abuse are questionable. Of course it is shocking and dismaying that so many people respond with outrage towards the victims of sexual abuse rather than the perpetrators. I have not personally repressed and then rediscovered abuse memories. As good as I am at repressing feelings and disassociating, I have not been able to repress my memories. I remember the abuse (and my brother's suicide) so well that I could never avoid it entirely, even in my conscious mind. Now that I am trying to deal with the aftermath of my experiences, this is probably a good thing. I don't have to work to remember what happened to me, and when I just let my memories come back, the emotions come back as well. None of it is hidden very well. Like so much else, this must run in my family. My dad has a photographic memory. My memories are like a movie that just keep playing over and over.

I feel hopeful because I have made so much progress in the last year, and I feel confident that I can take on the sexual abuse. These experiences have tainted my adult life in the most pervasive and chronic way. They have trashed my ability to trust myself and others, to find and be in close relationships, and the way I see myself in every part of my life. It exists in the corners of my mind, like a disgusting fog, sometimes invading my consciousness before I know what is happening. It is always there, always, and I am always aware of it. It is so much bigger than just a collection of things that happened over many years. The man who did it to me probably never thinks about it, but what he did to me lives with me every day of my life.

"...It evaporated with the dew, and at dusk when dark
spread in the sky like water in a blotter, it spread, too,
but it came back and curdled with milk and stung

with nettles. It was in the bleat of the lamb, the way
a clapper is in a bell, and in the raucous, scratchy
gossip of the crows...

It became her dead pet, her lost love, the baby sister
blue and dead at birth..."

Mood Indigo by William Matthews (The title is from this poem as well.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

distinction, develop, delight

I love to write. Yet, it is my most frustrating area of procrastination. I posted to my blog every week for the first 6 months, but after a while I started putting pressure on myself to post so the people reading my blog wouldn't think I was flaky. I thought I should think about it as if it was a weekly column, with a deadline. I had good intentions- writing helps me sort out my feelings and rotates my perspective around. Sometimes I feel burned out by this whole process of change though, and retreat into old patterns of shutting down and making myself numb. Rather than escape even further into myself, I try to push myself to stay open and keep writing, if not for me than for my friends and well-wishers who read this.

I wish I had not started thinking about my blog as an obligation, though. It is really something I do for myself. It makes me happy to write because I love writing. I love how I feel when I'm preparing to write. I start with an idea, and let it bounce around in my head, my chest, and my stomach. I even feel it in my toes. With poetry, I usually start with some parameter- to write a poem about something, or in some style. When I was in poetry classes I usually had an assignment that I would think about for several days before I started. When I let my mind wander- on the bus, while I was walking (moving in space) my thoughts would go to the poem I was formulating. I would start with a phrase, usually, or a word, and that would turn into a line, and the poem would crawl out of that line, and start constructing itself.

My poems, after suitable gestation, take on a life of their own after they hit the page. I don't know what the poem will have to say after it starts to formulate itself. My blog posts are similar. I have an idea, and I usually have some sentences, phrases, or even paragraphs or a paragraph structure in mind before I start writing. Once I start writing, though, I don't really know where it will go. My process isn't as loose as stream of consciousness writing (not a fan of that style), but it is sort of similar in that it just flows out of me, and I am always surprised by the results. I do, however, edit- extensively, unendingly, exhaustively, especially with poetry. The nice thing about my blog is that I feel a little freer to just writing something and let it go, although it still takes me about 3 hours to do one post, even with the editing cut down to the minimum I am willing to live with.

So why don't I write as much as I'd like to? I'd like to write every day, and I'd like to write a lot more poetry than I am. When I was young, I was an overachiever. I was trying to get noticed. I could never do anything right as far as my parents were concerned, but a lot of my teachers thought I was fabulous. I avoided the reality of my life in homework, reading, writing, and art. I remember being very lonely back then. I was usually ignored, or getting negative attention, and I felt trapped and helpless. I am still struggling to move past that. When I was in high school, being brilliant at school got to be too much because I was just trying to survive the intensifying abuse, the foster care system, and my own depression and suicidal desires. I went from straight a's to dropping out of school, and it devastated my self-esteem because for so long all my self-worth was tied up in being good at school. It was the only positive feedback I got during the formative years of my life.

I struggle with a lot of anxiety and ambivalence around my writing and other artistic expression. I still love to be recognized for my work, and the best thing anyone can do for me is to compliment my writing. At the same time that I feel satisfied and proud of myself when I write, I feel like a failure because I have this idea that I should be so much better, and so much more accomplished. I feel crippled by my past, and slightly repulsed by my "confessional" writing. I think I'm still struggling to accept the part of me that feels victimized, thinking that the "strong" part of me should have fought back harder, and that I should be able to walk away from the past and never give it another thought. When I identify with the part of me that writes and is creative and expressive, I open myself up to feelings of loneliness and helplessness- to feeling misunderstood and overlooked. My creative side and my "inner child" are perpetually holding hands. It is still extremely painful, almost overwhelmingly so, for me to identify with who I was as a child- creative, expressive, talented, and precocious, as well as utterly terrified, confused, rejected, alone, and powerless.