Tuesday, January 4, 2011

tired, but hopeful

I suppose all of this work that I have been doing is what has me exhausted. It is really demanding stuff, and after an hour with my therapist today, I was spent. I came home, made supper and am now trying to figure out how to finish that paper so I can go to bed.

I have shared some rough stuff here in the past. What I failed to mention here recently are some of the real milestones that have happened in the past month.

I am setting boundaries. And I am doing pretty well at not feeling guilty about it.

I have stopped my aunt in mid-sentence when it feels like she is invalidating what I am saying about how I am feeling. I know that it is her default setting to deny unpleasant things, I know that. But lately I have been able to say "stop. I know you'd really like for me to be enjoying school and having a marvelous time, but right now what I am feeling is scared, overwhelmed, terrified and trapped, and that is not fun, it is not a good time and I am not going to tell you that it is because that is what you'd like to believe. I know you love me and want me to be happy and have fun, but right now, it's not happening that way, so please stop telling me that I am not feeling what I feel."

Holy shit.

That's a lot.

And for the most part, she's handling it pretty well.

The other night we were talking about my father and my childhood, and she said what I always have heard: "well, I think you've come to the place where you can say he did the best he could."

I stopped her immediately. Yes, he did the best he could, but that does not make it ok. He did the best he could, but it was not enough. He did the best he could, but it was still wrong that he beat me with a strap. It was still wrong that he berated me and humiliated me and terrorized me. That was abuse and it was wrong and saying it was the best he could do does not make it right or excuse it. It was wrong. Period."

We both took a deep breath.

And she agreed.

Holy shit.

Something has shifted in the universe in the past eight weeks, I swear.

The week before Christmas, I came down with a cold. Not just a 48-hour sniffle to cough and be done kind of thing, but a full three days of no sleep, sneezing, constant runny nose, stuffy head, made for a cold medicine commercial kind of thing. I was hurting. So you know what I did?

I cancelled Christmas.

Well, I postponed it. I refused to travel while that sick. I refused to spread those germs to anyone I cared about. But mostly, I took care of myself. I stayed home, in my pajamas, drank tea and kept in touch with friends via the internet and telephone. Then some friends came over and did some nurturing for my soul (and my kitchen, thank heavens!) and I went to bed content.

No travel. No stress. No drama. No family baggage. Tea. Friends. Silly lopsided reindeer antlers. Rest. Care. It was a great Christmas. My aunt took care of herself and visited people in her town and it was good. Neither of us felt neglected or lonely for any length of time and it all was pretty great.

Three days later, I was on the phone with my aunt. We were talking about a family that was close to ours way back when I was little. She had dinner the night before with the matriarch of the family, now in her 80s and growing feeble, and one of the sons, now in his 50s. He told stories of abuse and horrors that happened in his childhood that my aunt had never imagined. The guy's father broke the fingers on his left hand with a two-by-four so the kid would learn to write with his right hand like "normal kids." The father broke the kid's elbow with his new baseball bat when he misbehaved. The man's father was a cop back then, and later a big shot in the PD. Who could they turn to? Nobody. My aunt was shook by the revelation, and moved with compassion for the matriarch, who was first generation Irish-American and told to obey her husband and not protest and certainly not to leave him. For her, it was an impossible place to be.

As I listened to my aunt relate the stories, I thought back to my own childhood. It was rotten. Nobody ever broke my fingers, but my father threatened to break my bones often. He threatened to beat me to within an inch of my life, not that I knew what that was, but I knew it wasn't good and I certainly didn't want it. Sometimes he did beat me. Sometimes he didn't. Psychologists will tell you that random reinforcement is the most effective at creating compulsive behavior. That's why slot machines are regulated. They hit every so many pulls of the handle.

So we talked a little then about my childhood. How I didn't get beaten as bad or as often as other kids, but certainly more than others still. How it didn't matter how often or how badly I was beaten, because it was sufficient to keep me terrified every waking moment for my adolescence. I lived in a fairly constant state of terror.

And then she said the most remarkable thing.

"I'm sorry we didn't do more to protect you."

And for a moment, I couldn't breathe.

The air just stopped.

It couldn't go in, it couldn't go out. It just stopped. As though any motion or noise would make the miracle I had just heard evaporate in the air.

There was no couching phrase, no justification, no "we didn't know it was that bad," no "but we were afraid he'd never let us see you again," none of that. Just "I'm sorry."

I thanked her.

I explained how much it meant to have her say that. I cried. Not enough to freak her out, but enough so that she knew it made an impact. The real sobbing came after we hung up the phone and I was able to absorb the enormity.

Someone had validated that I needed protecting. For the first time ever, someone acknowledged that I should have been protected from my father's abuse. It was huge. More huge than I can explain in words here.

Something has shifted in the universe. Energy is aligned in a way that is making things happen. I don't understand it, and I won't pretend to know what's going on. I just know that I have not had this much growth in my life in a long time.

Now, on to finish that paper. I have a date with a hot chick and a bunch of needles tomorrow, and I don't want to miss it. I'll post pictures when it's done.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I am allegedly working on a paper for my Buddhism course. It's not going well.

In the course of my learning this semester, I have uncovered a lot of things, both in the classroom and on the therapist's couch (I sit on the couch, it's not old-school analysis). And I have begun to realize some things on my own as a result of this other learning.

Like I was probably not nurtured much -- if at all -- in the first eight months of my life.

At eight months of age, I was abandoned.

And things got better. Mostly. Temporarily. For six or seven years.

When they got bad again.

The childhood stuff from about age four on, I remember that. It's the stuff before that which is causing me concern right now.

I have read the studies done on chimp infants who were not held or cuddled as infants. They grew up to be needy, psychotic freaks, unable to function in chimp culture.

I know what happens to children who are not nurtured or held as infants. It's not always much different from what happens to the chimps.

Now I know that I am not (most days) a needy psychotic freak like those poor chimps in that study, but I do know that I tend toward needy, that I crave approval and attention, and that I often do not feel like I function well in society.

I have grown a great deal in the past five or six years, but still, I wonder how much I can really expect to accomplish with such a deep primal wound. The literature on the subject is not encouraging.

Yesterday I read "Healing the Child Within," by Charles L. Whitefield, M.D. The book is subtitled "Discovery and recovery for adult children of dysfunctional families" and what is says about my particular situation is pretty grim.

The childhood stuff I endured has left me with a legitimate case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which means I spend a lot of time fearing abandonment, betrayal and/or attack. From everyone, not just family members, but from colleagues, friends, they guy at the garage where I get my car serviced, everywhere.

Here's what he says about my situation:
The PTSD is said to be more damaging and difficult to treat it: (1) the traumas occur over a prolonged period of time, e.g., longer than six months; and especially if (2) the traumas are of human origin; and if (3) those around the affected person tend to deny the existence of the stressor or the stress.
We expect soldiers to have PTSD after combat deployment. Truly, it makes a ton of sense. But we don't expect children to have, or to get, PTSD. But looking at what kids go through, it makes as much sense, reading Whitefield's analysis of the trauma. I cannot help but think that the trauma in my life that happened before I was verbal and before I was able to think cognitively, must have left some pretty amazing trauma to my psyche.

So now I am torn. I am relieved a little bit, to understand why the Buddhist practice I tried this semester didn't seem to work for me. "As soon as you recognize a thought or feeling, let it go just as quickly" were the instructions. Really? Really? I've been digging around in my childhood and coming up with some very disturbing memories, feelings and understandings. To "let them go as soon as you recognize them" is absurd.

Let go? Let go of primal abandonment? Let go of the realization that I was neglected, abused and abandoned? Just like that?

Poof! All better!

Yeah, no.

These are old wounds, newly uncovered. They are serious, debilitating injuries that need more than a kiss and a wave bye-bye to be gone. These wounds need treatment, they need to have the old, dead scabs scrubbed off, the gravel cleaned out of the raw flesh, salve and ointment applied, and they need to be bandaged and nurtured anew, cared for in a way that never happened the first time around.


Then and only then, can that anger, that betrayal, that hurt, that rejection, be let go. And my gut tells me that this is going to be a repetitive process for the next couple of years: digging, scraping, cleaning, bandaging, healing. This is going to be a long process. It will take time, it is going to hurt sometimes, and it will not be pretty. My feelings and emotions may come out sideways and when the shit hits the fan, it's likely to splatter and be messy.

The only way I know to get to the other side of this mess is wade through it. And for now, standard Buddhist practices are not going to work. Not on this stuff. I can meditate, and learn to be mindful and other things, but hurts need to be healed before I can let them go.

Thus ends today's lesson. Tomorrow, I hope to get the paper done.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

happy new year?

So it's 2011.

This is the year I hope to stop beginning sentences with the word "so."

I am working on the last paper of the semester. It is due on Friday. I set myself a due date on it by this weekend, which has now been extended to Monday sometime, because I am taking an intensive course in religious ethics in January and it begins on Friday the 7th. And I have to have 1/3 of the reading done for the whole course before I step into the classroom, so I am going to need some time to prepare, namely next week.

Which means I need to get this damned paper done. Only it is really resisting my efforts to get it to write itself. Damned thing.

What's troubling me is how much of myself I should put into the paper. For 12, 13 weeks, we have been reading and writing and meditating and writing, and I have worked through a lot of stuff. (The paper is on Anger and Buddhism, by the way.) I have delved deep into myself, working through some childhood trauma, naming my experiences as abuse, and acknowledging that it sucked bad enough to cause problems now. In my reflection papers and in class, I have talked about the anger I carry and how it is rooted in pain and fear and how that pain and fear is rooted in trauma and how I am working to heal that trauma, all these years later. Buddhism, and how we learned about it through experiences this semester, has been a very intense, very personal, and often painful growth process.

I am just unsure how much of that is appropriate for me to include in my final paper. Do I stay true to what I have been doing so far? Do I detach and treat anger a a purely academic construct to be examined through cold, theoretical language? The former threatens to be inappropriate and the latter seems dishonest and unhealthy, as though none of what I have felt and learned and internalized this semester has affected me in any significant way.

I think I am going to write what comes and see where it takes me. Whatever is stuck is personal, so I guess the personal stuff will come out first, maybe kicking loose whatever needs kicking so that I can get to the academic requirements of the paper. I'll let you know how it works out. Stay tuned.