"I'm not a mile high," said Alice.
"You are," said the King.
"Nearly two miles high," added the Queen.
"Well, I sha'n't go, at any rate," said Alice; "besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now."
"It's the oldest rule in the book," said the King.
"Then it ought to be Number One," said Alice.
-Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Chapter XII
Last Tuesday (therapy day), I was telling my therapist, who is amazing, that I feel like I live in two different worlds, the "real" world, the present time, where I work and interact with people, and my emotional world, where the past and the present (and maybe the future) swirl around with each other, get mixed up, where I hide myself, where I really live. The emotional world feels much more real than the real world. The outside world seems under control, calm, while the secret world is chaos. It's why I can't sleep well, why I have vivid, disturbing dreams about my family. It's why I wake up confused, and sometimes during the day feel numb and disconnected. My therapist said it was like Alice in Wonderland, like I was "through the looking glass" and living with the distortions contained within. She compared my dad to the Red Queen, which really made me laugh because it's true. It was also funny because she has never seen my arms uncovered, since I go there straight from work. She didn't know I have Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, the Griffin, the pig baby, the Cook (but not the Queen of Hearts), the White Rabbit, and a hedgehog all on my left arm. The Mad Hatter was my first tattoo, if that gives any indication of how completely I love those books.
Of all the books I've read as a child and an adult, all the fantasy and adventure books that have sustained me, and all the female protagonists I felt connected to, Alice in Wonderland (lumping together Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) holds a completely unique place in my life. My first memory of it was when I was 7 or 8 years old, had the chicken pox and was home from school, completely miserable (I loved school, and chicken pox is no picnic) and my mom read it to me. At the time, I felt like my mom had no idea that she was revealing something secret and hidden to me, something she didn't understand but spoke directly to me. It was an odd feeling. It would be like if you were looking at a painting with someone, and realized that there was a picture behind the main image, and that the person you were looking at it with could not see the second picture. I read and re-read the books on my own, especially the poems within the story. I read the notes accompanying some editions of the book, that explained the political and cultural references. I think my fascination with both poetry and politics started with Lewis Carroll. Poetry is the hidden language. ("Poetry is a metaphorical language...it suggests the actuality that hides behind the visible aspect." -Joseph Campbell)
My life, as a child in an abusive home, was all about what was secret, what was behind the surface of a seemingly normal family. But more than just acknowledging the existence of secret, hidden worlds, these books showed me how imagination, metaphor, could be your own special world, a developed and actualized place that could express your inner emotional life, through symbols and characters. It gave me the key (pun not intended, but a pretty good one nevertheless) to how I could both escape and live with the fear and uncertainty of my regular life. I could create a world within myself where all these feelings could go, everything I didn't know what to do with, and I could create a strong facade that could withstand the terrifying contradictions of my life, namely, adults that were supposed to be trustworthy and caring who used me, threatened my life and existence, and abandoned me when I needed help. Interacting every day with other children who had no idea how scary and confusing my life was, and the searing loneliness I felt knowing that only my brother could begin to understand what I was going through. It wasn't that my hidden world wasn't scary. It was just as scary as my real life. It was just a place where the scared feelings could go and be hidden in the symbolism of my subconscious. It was a place where I could protect those feelings, all those feelings, and protect myself. I protected myself by keeping parts of myself, the most vulnerable parts, hidden deep inside of myself. It was where I kept the truths of my life.
As my therapist said, I did all my emotional development there, in a place with no adult guidance and no support (as my brother was too young for me to talk to about this, and I was too young to explain it. He did support me in a lot of ways, though.) This was also the place where I had to figure out ways to understand the real world so I could live in it and survive. Children need a sense of safety, stability, and hope, even in situations that are dangerous, unpredictable, and hopeless. Otherwise you go crazy, like what happened to my brother. It's not really about avoiding feeling bad, it's about psychological and physical survival. As I'm beginning to understand, a child's psyche is not developed enough to understand abusive adults. Hell, most adults don't understand how an adult could abuse a child. I don't understand it as an adult, even though I lived it. So when you're a kid trying to make sense of it, it requires some big distortions in your thinking to be able to fathom it. Most of these involve blaming yourself, and vilifying your reactions to the treatment you're receiving to de-legitimize the feelings your having. For example, convincing yourself that your anger is wrong and evidence that you are wrong, because there is nothing to be angry about since you are causing the abuse yourself. This way you can believe that your parents are protecting and caring for you, and their unpredictable and seemingly capricious violence against you is actually legitimate punishment for breaking legitimate rules that you just don't understand correctly. You can't believe that they are just making up excuses to justify their abuse, because that would make the adults in your life total assholes and liars.
"These three major forms of adaptation-- the elaboration of dissociative defenses, the development of a fragmented identity, and the pathological regulation of emotional states-- permit the child to survive in an environment of chronic abuse. Further, they generally allow the child victim to preserve the appearance of normality which is of such importance to the abusive family. The child's distress symptoms are generally well hidden. Altered states of consciousness, memory lapses, and other dissociative symptoms are not generally recognized. The formation of a malignant negative identity is generally disguised by the socially conforming "false self." Psychosomatic symptoms are rarely traced to their source. And self-destructive behavior carried out in secret generally goes unnoticed...most are able successfully to conceal the extent of their psychological difficulties. Most abused children reach adulthood with their secrets intact."Last Tuesday my therapist leaned over her knees so she could look me right in the eyes, and said, "The way you made sense of what was happening to you was brilliant, but wrong. The way you think about yourself is distorted. It's like you need...a translator between 'World A' and 'World B'. You need a way to keep your perceptions and feelings, but be able to see the real world in a more realistic way. And see yourself in a more realistic way."
-Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D., chapter 5, p. 110 (I have nothing to do with the overuse of the word "generally".)
I needed my secret world when I was a kid, but as an adult I do feel that my thinking is distorted. I see the real world through the lens of my childhood nightmare. It is my world, the world that makes sense to me, but it's a world where people often seem crazy, where I'm chasing something I can't seem to catch, my only companions on my journey seem to fade away and reappear out of my control, often not being there when I need them and not very helpful when they are, a baby in someone else's arms turns into a pig in mine, roses that are obviously white are painted red, and I am always trying to adjust myself to situations but seem to be either too big or too small, i.e. wrong. Out of step. I feel like everyone can tell I just don't fit in, and don't understand what is going on. The rules seem random, and the punishments for not following these rules excessively harsh. Reality feels deeply unpredictable and unstable. Unlike Alice, I don't ever wake up.
Maybe because I learned to hold contradictory views of people as a child, such as loving and idolizing my dad even while he was acting like a dick, I am able to hold really unforgiving and uncharitable views of myself, holding myself responsible for all manner of bad things that happen in my life, and at the same time a fierce confidence in myself, that I can overcome any difficulty and be successful. So as discouraging as it is to realize how profoundly my childhood twisted me emotionally, and how fragmented and disconnected my emotional life is, and mostly, how much worse it is than I was previously able to fathom, my confidence in my ability to fix myself rises to the occasion. Patience is really my biggest challenge. It will take time (almost another pun) to sort through the feelings and distortions and who I am underneath all that. And then I can try to knit the worlds together in some way that makes sense to me. It definitely makes me want to reread the Alice in Wonderland books, which will take time as well since I am still making my way through Harry Potter (at the end of book three) and the Sookie Stackhouse books (2/3's of the way through the second one). There is something extremely reassuring in discovering that I still love books as much as I did when I was a kid- even a baby as I used to sleep with my Dr. Seuss ABC book instead of a stuffed animal. Just like when I was a kid, I have to fight the urge to stay up reading all night instead of going to bed.