Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Returning to the scene of the crime

In the last two weeks, I've been working on my application to an MFA program in eastern Washington, for creative non-fiction. I've been looking at the MFA rankings in Poets & Writers for the last three years, and location had been a very important criterion until I looked at the 2014 magazine and saw that this program's deadline hadn't passed and I liked what I read about the program. Suddenly, I don’t care where I move as long as it’s for an MFA program. Going back to Washington is appealing, but moving back to eastern Washington is not something I'd considered before. The university is in Spokane, and Spokane is less than two hours away from where I grew up. That would mean I could visit my brother's grave any time I wanted to, but in recent history, when I've gone to the cemetery I've gotten the hell out of there as soon as possible. Strangely, I now have no anxiety about the idea of moving there. Not only does it seem plausible, it seems perfectly natural. Which is weird. Really weird.

Also weird- going through my blog to find posts to include in my writing sample. There is a lot in there I forgot I wrote, forgot happened, or forgot thinking about. My favorite post is still "My Heart" from February 2006. It's about my brother's death, and every time I read it, I cry. I just did some light editing of it in my writing sample and had to take a break afterwards because it made me so emotional. I don't know if it affects anyone else who reads it, but it says everything about how I feel about Jeff's suicide. It is everything about why it’s been so hard since he died.

I picked nine blog posts for the sample, but I re-read most of what I wrote for the last ten years, and I noticed some patterns.

1. I am sick a lot. It's kind of discouraging to read just how often I'm sick, but I'm not surprised. Stress ravages your immune system, and I really wonder if my immune system even developed properly. I have been under massive amounts of stress since I was a little kid.

2. This recovery thing is a difficult, long slog and I am really trying so hard. I keep chiding myself for not being dedicated enough, but I really am trying and it is hard work. Plus, I'm constantly sick. I'm making progress, and that is easier to see when I review the last ten years. But the day to day reality is that it feels like one step forward, three quarters of a step back, over and over and over with no end in sight.

3. I keep getting boyfriends that I think are so supportive and understanding, and I'm so lucky to have them, and then they turn out to be not what I thought. To be fair (to me), it's happened four times in ten years, so it's not like I'm going through boyfriends like Kleenex. The thing that strikes me is that the way I describe them when things are going well is so similar, and I’m soooo grateful that someone is accepting of me because I’m soooo awful to be with. Even though I haven't written about the breakups very much because I don't feel right about making my complaints public, the breakups have been very similar as well. This tells me that there is something specific I'm looking for in a romantic relationship, something I don’t seem to think I deserve, and I keep mistaking it in similar people. That I can see that actually seems encouraging, because maybe I can figure out why these relationships are so appealing, and find a way to fulfill those needs some other way.

This blog, on the other hand, never disappoints me. What an amazing gift to myself that I have documented the last ten years (more in some years than others) and can look back and see my progress, my patterns and my obstacles. In the next ten years I can make exponentially more progress and be somewhere I can't even imagine right now. Hopefully I will be in a place where I'm not always sick.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

To My Well-Meaning Friends and Acquaintances, or Manifesto of an Uncomfortable Blogger

My writing companion
Since I was bullied out of my job, my biggest desire has been to get back to my blog, even though it may be construed that this blog is what lost me my job. Blogging has never been easy for me, and I’ve never been na├»ve to the dangers of sharing the intimate details of my life. I spent thirty years keeping quiet, and I had to overcome a lot of my own fear and embarrassment. Before I started blogging I though, this is a stupid idea that will make everyone think you’re a freak, and besides, confessional writing is usually awful. The only thing that got me past the first couple of months was telling myself that no one was reading it. So when I was “outed” at work and treated like a freak, it wasn’t like I was completely flabbergasted. What I was less prepared for is the well-meaning acquaintances who said things like, “I could have told you this would happen” and “You shouldn’t be putting this kind of stuff on the internet; keep it in your support group.” Well. There are reasons why started this blog, and why it is public and not private. This blog is far more beneficial to me than harmful. It is the single most effective way that I’ve found for dealing with my trauma.

I grew up equating silence with survival, and there is a powerful part of me that wants to avoid anything that might put me in a vulnerable situation. My biggest priority growing up was to survive my family, and I developed emotionally and socially around that necessity. Much of, if not all of my adult life is influenced by the belief that I need to keep my focus on the basics of survival. When I’m scared or just don’t know how to judge a situation, the reaction to clam-up is instinctual and automatic. I do value and respect that part of me, even though it exerts almost tyrannical control over my life. It’s what powered me through, regardless of how depressed or suicidal I was. No matter how much I hated myself and hated my life, that part of me could not be dissuaded from doing whatever it took to keep going. When my therapist marvels that I’m not addicted to drugs or dead, that part of me is why. The challenge is to get past that singular focus, to have goals and aspirations that are greater than just survival. It feels natural to defer to that part of me, and the coping mechanisms that accompany it are so automatically and immediate that it takes consistent effort and self-awareness to stop them from taking over. It is so determined and sure of itself, and is hard to counter when it’s the first one there with a really compelling argument for all situations- “If you don’t do what I think is best, your life is in danger.”

The definition of danger is not just physical. When you’re a child, you’re dependent on adults to care for you, including emotionally. Children need to be loved. I was in danger with my parents from as far back as I remember. My dad was violent and routinely threatened to kill me, and my mom was emotionally, sometimes physically absent. She was depressed, and her inability to bond with me made my survival precarious. They were both verbally and emotionally abusive. You can’t help loving and depending on your parents when you’re a child, and I learned how to love and depend on people that mistreated me. I learned to tolerate and accept people that were unreliable, emotionally absent, unpredictable, and cruel, and to look to them to meet my emotional needs. You can probably see where this is going. If I follow the script I learned as a child, I think I’m taking care of myself in dysfunctional relationships. This is one of the areas where, if I don’t challenge my survival self, I accept familiar but emotionally frustrating and unfulfilling relationships instead of expecting something better. I also struggle to connect with people because of my reluctance to be open with my feelings, because it feels too dangerous. It feels too dangerous to be open with myself about my feelings, especially when I feel threatened.

Paradoxically, child abuse also potentially sets you up to be overly dependent. Children learn how to take care of themselves by imitating their caregivers, in ways that most people are not even conscious of. For example, when a baby cries and an adult comes to comfort them, their brain is actually learning what it feels like to be comforted and calmed. They are able to use that feedback to learn how to self-soothe when they get upset and an adult isn’t there. The stability of your caregivers creates stability in yourself, and that leads to self-reliance and independence. So if you don’t learn self-care as a child, you either need other people to help you regulate your emotions, learn to live with a heighted sense of fear and instability, or numb yourself out so you’re not overwhelmed. Either that, or you try to learn how to manage your feelings as an adult, which involves letting go of your coping mechanisms and allowing yourself to feel out of control until you learn other ways of dealing with yourself.

I did have a relationship that was an exception to my norm, the one with my brother. As much as I understand what he was dealing with and don’t judge him for taking his life, it felt like a huge betrayal. His death took away the only relationship I felt I could count on. It was also terrifying because I struggle so much with being suicidal, and having someone close to me act on it made it feel a lot more possible for me. That is the other side of me that grew strong off the misery of my childhood, my depression. That’s what I’m really terrified will get a foothold, and the part of me that is so hell-bent on survival is what I’ve relied on to keep that part of me that doesn’t want to be alive from rising to the forefront. More than anything, the threat to my survival as an adult is my own depression.

It’s this battle between the two parts of me that were fed and nurtured for most of my life that continues to suck up my emotional resources. To move beyond the limits of that existence, I need to make room in my head for something else. When I got to the point in my life that I felt both unbearably numb and unbearably depressed, realized I didn’t feel close to anyone because I’d locked myself down so completely and couldn’t reveal any of myself, was incapable of talking about my brother at all because my grief was so intense and was only getting worse, felt trapped in a prison of my own making and couldn’t even comprehend a future for myself, I decided to take radical steps. I did the thing I was the most afraid of; I started sharing my feelings.

It has been total hell. I feel lost and out of control a lot of the time. I am both exhausted and painfully awake, and feel like I’ve peeled off my own skin and am just raw to the world. I have so much grief, so much suppressed emotion, so much trauma to work though, and it’s the hardest work I can imagine. I try to moderate the time and energy I spend with it because it can totally take over, but I’m also fighting the urge to push it back down and try to forget about it. The thing that has been the most effective at keeping me moving forward is blogging. It is an act of total rebellion against the self that clings to silence and denial. I want to go back to putting up a front and hiding it all, go back to that comfort. My mind is more powerful than drugs or alcohol at numbing the pain. It takes conscious effort to keep pushing forward, and I lose my way when I stop blogging. I have to keep pulling myself back. It has not gotten easier. If anything, it just gets harder. My survival instinct runs on such an unconscious level that I don’t even know where the resistance is coming from. The unconscious is a vast ocean that can easily throw a tiny boat of conscious intention off course.

So I keep trying to write about it. I try to make it as raw and uncomfortable as possible. I counteract my desire be invisible by dredging up the feelings I am the most reluctant to be aware of or share with anyone else. Once I put it on my blog, I can’t hide it anymore. It’s out there. It’s more effective than thinking about it, or writing about it but keeping it to myself, or sharing it in a support group. It reminds me of writing a poem. It takes shape in your brain, and you write it, and then obsess over it, and rewrite it, and edit it, and rewrite it again, and hopefully you get to a point where you decide it’s as finished as you can make it, and you let it go out into the world. It is your creation, but it’s no longer yours. Creative work becomes something outside of you when you put it out there. As confessional and messy and hard to control as this blog is, it is still my creative work, and I feel like I am letting go and making space for myself.

If you think I shouldn’t be writing like this in a public space, that I’m over-sharing and needlessly exposing myself, and that I’m making my life more difficult, you, 1. Have no idea how painful it’s been to keep this all inside, 2. Don’t know me. At all. This is the most real I can get, and there is nothing that can happen that would be worse than the emptiness I felt when I was too fearful to reveal anything about myself. What I don’t understand is why anyone would read my blog in the first place if they think it’s inappropriate, but I have received that feedback. If it makes you feel icky, don’t read it. One of the reasons this works for me is that I know I’m not forcing anyone to hear about my crap if they don’t want to. If you look down on me for revealing these things about myself, that’s your issue, not mine. I’m not here to fulfill other people’s standards of how trauma victims should act or feel or talk about themselves. In real life, people don’t go through trauma, get it processed and packaged up all pretty so everyone can say, oh, she’s so brave and strong and look how amazing she is but now she can move on with her “life” and we can go back to pretending that child abuse is so rare we can ignore it, rape is not a big deal and has no lasting affects, people who commit suicide don’t mean anything to anyone, and when bad things happen to people it’s because they brought it on themselves.

If you think I don’t understand the consequences of what I’m doing, believe me, I do. I know things you put online will always be out there for people to find. I’m actually fairly internet savvy, and not naively wandering into computerland and thinking, hey, this is so cool! I can post selfies and talk about myself! Please stop with the warnings and advice. I actually didn’t lose my job because of my blog. I lost my job because of office politics and they just choose a particularly nasty way to take me down. Next time you feel the need to let me know the downsides of writing what I’m writing and posting it online, take a breath, restrain yourself, and remember, I got this. I’ve got bigger downsides that I’m dealing with. Okay? Okay. I’m glad we had this talk. Thank you for your support.