tells us that trauma is abandonment, being abandoned by all the people who were supposed to protect us, even ourselves, even God. to be utterly alone. when we shouldn’t be. when we least expected it. not knowing will we live or will we die, will this black hole we are falling into ever end.
They tell us that Hell is the absence of God. No need for fire and brimstone. There is nothing worse than to be left by God. And so, trauma is Hell
In the Bible
Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and were banished from the Garden of Eden. Never to return. A life of toil and sickness and pain and death. Final. No way to earn their way back to Eden.
Are the source of us. The holy Mother and Father of us. And when they unleash a rage that has no borders, we are Alone. we grow up and roam the earth, trying to find our way back to the Garden. But there is no going back
We cannot go back, only through. Onward into the valley of tears. Where God hears us and loves us but cannot save us. Where he gives us the ability to love one another, hear one another, comfort one another, but not to save one another.
Loving and saving are not the same thing. And that which your parents couldn’t give you will never be found in someone else. There is only one person capable of never leaving you, and that’s you.
I got my living room and dining room ready to paint last night. It was a loooooot of painter’s tape. Like, a lot. I was spent by the time I finished. I headed to bed and decided to read a little of my book about Abraham Lincoln and John Brown and then go to sleep. I was soon interrupted, however, by my son telling me the toilet was flooding the bathroom. And it was.
I stood in 2 inches of water while plunging the toilet with one hand and holding up the ball float with the other. Tried to turn the water off but the valve wouldn’t budge. Once the toilet was unclogged my son helped me construct a duct tape sling to hold the ball float up while I researched how to fix it. I got out my single lady fix it guide
and it was fixed in no time. Well, it was a bit of a struggle but pretty quickly anyway.
I also replaced the P trap on my kitchen sink recently. And laid some flooring. In the past couple of years I have dealt with mice and bats, sewage back ups, the moving of numerous heavy objects and setting up of various electronics. And it makes me realize how much I let myself rely on other people to do so many things, basic things. Not just plumbing and heavy lifting. I spent so many years feeling like there were only a few very specific things I was capable in. There was always a dad or a husband to depend on. And that’s what I chose to do.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find my person and have a long term relationship but if I do, it will be very different than it always has been. Because I’m very different than I always have been. I used to want someone to take care of me and someone I could take care of. In a childlike way.
Dependent on each other, chasing and being chased by one another, idealizing and devaluing one another. Anything to avoid stillness, connection, intimacy, vulnerability. It’s not just romantic relationships. It’s with everyone in my life and even with myself.
So many people went mad with the pandemic because they were left alone with themselves. In silence and stillness. And so many of us fear it. Because we fear knowing ourselves. We fear the shame, the weaknesses, the parts we’ve been taught are unlovable. We fear ourselves. Because we are the ones that have kept us from getting that hole inside of us filled. Surely it must be our fault. And who would want to know someone like that? Spend time with someone like that?
Judith Herman says trauma is being abandoned. By everyone who was supposed to protect us, humans and God himself. But who is the one who ultimately failed us? It was us. It was me. I made my choices. I just didn’t know how bad it would get. Didn’t know it would never end.
I have a ritual I complete each time I move. My therapist taught me that when I was fixating on something I should picture taking that thought and putting it in a box and placing that box on a shelf for later. I was fixating on The Ordeal at the time so I took the court transcript and literally put it on a shelf in the hall closet. It worked. Now each time I move I take that box and put it in the hall closet of my new house. And if there is a day I need to take it down for a while, I do. And when I’m done I put it back.
My ex-husband reads this blog and looks for things to use against me. I wish he wouldn’t but such he life. My therapist asked me recently why I keep writing it if it bothers me. There are a lot of facets to that answer. One being that trauma is lonely. If you were in war or a natural disaster, you have other people who went through it with you. But most of us who were raped went through it alone. And sometimes you need to talk to someone who knows what it was like. And that person doesn’t exist. And for me, this blog, I know it reaches other people who’ve been through the same thing. Not a lot, but a few anyway. I feel like someone might be listening who understands. And sometimes, when the box is off the shelf, I really need that.
I do my best to forgive myself for the choices I’ve made because wallowing in guilt does no good and is insincere. It is an indulgence. I sit with myself, but sometimes it’s okay to need someone sitting there with you in the darkness. Not because you can’t be alone but because it would be nice to not be alone for a while.
I hope you are out there sitting with me. I hope you know I’m sitting with you too. He did unspeakable things to me. Maybe someone did to you too. I tried to not write about trauma today. I tried to write about how proud I am of myself for fixing the toilet. But I would be lying if I said the box isn’t down right now. That I didn’t read through his appeals last night, late into the night, long after the toilet was fixed and the water mopped up.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say life begins at conception. Nowhere in the Bible does it say 10 year old girls ought to carry and birth their father’s baby if he chooses to rape her which fathers sometimes do. To think this is what God would want says an awful lot about a person. And it isn’t good.
Howard Zinn says you can’t be neutral on a moving train and so I want to hear from my Christian sisters today. I want to hear them screaming for the women who will die, the girls who will die, for the dreams that will die. They asked Jesus the most important commandments and he said love God and love one another. Why is that so fucking hard for so many ChRiStIaNs?
Contraception is next. Do you know I didn’t use contraception for years and I’ve never been a fan and it’s failed me on occasion and I still will give my all to defend our right to it. Do you know the horrors I have seen come of lack of access to effective contraception? Where are you my fellow Christians? With your youth groups and your worship songs and your testimony? Jesus hung with the prostitutes and the lepers. She had two beautiful kids and a hole inside of her so wide and so deep because she’d never been loved and only ever been hurt and that third baby done did her in and now all three of the babies are with someone else and she is in jail detoxing meth psychosis and I miss her so damn much. She chopped wood at 8 months pregnant to try to make enough money to keep the water on. And where were you? At yOuTh GrOuP
I sat in my car and cried for the world we’ve given our kids. I tried. I believed. But here we are. Poor lost children of Eve banished from Eden. But Eden wasn’t enough. Or maybe it was too much. We wanted that apple and who could blame us? How boring a perfect life must be. So huddle together in this Whale with me and let us tell each other tales until the light goes out.
Water torture encompasses a variety of techniques using water to inflict physical or psychological harm on a victim as a form of torture or execution
I’d like to start this post by pointing out the term “Chinese water torture” is racist and nonsensical actually. When this torture technique has been used, it has been mainly by Europeans and there’s no recorded instances of the Chinese ever having used it.
Ok, onward and upward.
There’s this book by Lundy Bancroft I bought years ago titled “Why Does He Do That?” It’s about abusive partners and the many myths that surround our ideas of abuse. He’s a counselor that works with abusive men who either want to change or have been forced by the courts to undergo counseling. We often say abusive men need to learn to manage their anger but Bancroft argues that abuse isn’t an issue of out of control anger. Rather, it is a systemic, deliberate process used to control for the benefit of the abuser. They don’t need to learn to control themselves; they need to learn to stop controlling their partner (and everyone else in their lives they’re controlling).
In the book, he details ten different categories of abusers. The one I am going to talk (err-write) about today is the Water Torturer.
We’re all familiar with the idea of water torture. Not the waterboarding done by the US government. Rather, this idea of tying someone down and dripping water down onto their forehead slowly, drip by drip. The drops come randomly and it induces a psychological breakdown.
Lundy uses this as a metaphor for the kind of abuser who doesn’t yell or hit. He is always calm and appears to the outside world to be a great guy. He rarely slips up and lets anyone see what he’s really like. He knows how to push his partner’s buttons and get *her* to scream and get emotional. Then he says “why are you getting so worked up?” “you really need to work on your mental health problems” “stop abusing me.” He doesn’t punch or kick but he engages in subtle physical abuse such as blocking her from leaving the room or following her around the house arguing when she tries to get away. He doesn’t engage in blatant sexual abuse such as rape but rather makes degrading comments about her sexual interests, her appearance or withholds sex. He makes extensive use of sarcasm, put downs, controlling where she goes, controlling money, undermining her sense of self worth, isolating her from friends and family, badmouthing her to other people and gaslighting. Lots and lots of gaslighting.
Because you see, like Harry Houdini who helped popularize the idea of water torture, he depends upon an illusion to keep her with him. He depends on creating distractions so neither she nor the outside world can see what he really is and what he’s really doing.
The good news, friends, is that you don’t have to remain strapped down to that table. The damage done by this abuse is extensive, but most definitely something you can heal from.
You just have to keep in mind the Wizard of Oz is not real and keep your eyes on the little man behind the curtain. It’s hard to do, but you’re a badass so you got this.
I see this a lot in my practice. I have women who come in with black eyes and broken ribs, but more often they come in telling me stories of emotional abuse like this. They’ve been so worn down by it, like a pebble in a stream that becomes small and smooth over time from the water flowing over it. They are too tired and broken to leave. And they’re in love. And they’re addicted to the chemicals our brains grow to crave when we’ve been in toxic, tumultuous relationships for so long.
The University of Illinois did some research and noticed there are 5 stages to leaving an abusive relationship. The first two stages encompass the very beginning of the abused partner noticing there is something very wrong, something that goes beyond normal relationship issues. She’s nowhere close to leaving, but the spell has started to wear off. Stage three, women start to notice the effect of the abuse on their children. They start viewing the abuser’s behavior as abuse on a regular basis. And they start preparing to leave. Maybe they tell a friend what’s going on. Start stashing away cash in case they need to run. Call a domestic violence line. Stage four is an interesting one.
Stage four is the yo yo stage. You leave but then you come back. You might end up yo yo-ing several times before you truly leave. Why? Because he says he’ll change. Because being on your own is hard, financially, logistically (with kids), emotionally. Because he gets other people to guilt trip you. Because he won’t “give up on you.” Because you’re addicted to the brain chemicals. Because this dynamic is comfortable to you. Because you love him.
Stage five is the final one. You have left and you have stayed away and aren’t going back. The researchers define this as having left and stayed away 6 months or more. The abuse can continue if there are children involved and you are forced to have continue contact with your abuser, but it’s much less than before and you can begin to heal and move on.
It’s hard as doctor to have patients in those first four stages. Hard for friends and family too. But you can’t skip stages and you can’t rush someone through them. They have to make the choice to leave and stay left. You can support them by listening without judgement and validating their feelings. If you’re a friend or family, offering help with kids and other logistics can help too. And if they yo yo back, be there for them. They may be afraid to tell you. They may avoid you. Don’t give up on them. The abuser will likely make even greater attempts to isolate his partner if she goes back, so stay in her life whatever way you safely can and let her know you’re there is she ever needs you.
A lot of doctors shy away from dealing with the issue of intimate partner violence because they find it so frustrating to have a patient that won’t leave or who goes back. There are a lot of reasons women stay or return. And the sad reality is, sometimes it’s safer or necessary for her to stay. Being there to keep her as safe and supported as possible is hard, but it can be life changing for her. If you abandon her because she won’t leave, you’re just continuing the patten of the abuser, seeking to control her.
The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. So, if you’re in a relationship with a water torturer, don’t put off considering leaving. A lot of times the reasons we come up with to stay aren’t as convincing if we discuss them with someone outside the relationship like a therapist, domestic help line or friend. Once you’re down in his world of gaslighting, isolation and control, your sense of reality is skewed. You need someone who isn’t riding that Tilt-A-Whirl.
Once you are out, the healing is not necessarily the most fun process. It’s kind of like when someone is getting over opiate addiction. There’s a lot they need to dig out from. A lot of pain and sadness and the practical part of rebuilding your life. But there’s also joy. And as the months pass, there is less and less pain and more and more joy. And you will look back and say, how did I do that all those years? How did I survive? And you’ll see what a badass you are. And that there are far better things at the carnival than the broken Tilt-A-Whirl. And you and your kids will eat cotton candy and laugh and sleep soundly at the end of the day cozy in your warm, safe beds.
My therapist and I realized the other day that although I’ve been in therapy with her off and on since 2014, we’ve never discussed my childhood. “Well,” she said, “I’m sure you’ve discussed it with the other therapists you’ve seen in the past.” “No,” I replied, “I haven’t. Never.” She asked. if I thought we should and I paused and took a deep breath and said, yes. My life has been a series of fires to put out for so long, this is the first time we’ve had time to get into it. She is clearly not a Freudian. And I have clearly been avoiding this. (My mother’s voice ringing loud in my head “someday you’ll grow up and go to therapy and talk about what a terrible mother I was,” making a pit in my stomach big enough to swallow me whole. The guilt. The shame. You don’t talk about the family to anyone outside the family.
Soon after this, someone tweeted about writing about your childhood and your parents’ reaction. It was a lighthearted tweet but some jackass replied that if one is going to write something negative about one’s parents, they should discuss it with their parents first as he had had an experience counter to this and was not okay with it. Here’s my response:
He has since deleted his comment as you can see.
I mean what I said and yet, I have held back on discussing certain things here. But I’m reminded of the quote:
So, fuck it.
I was reading my fave Viktor Frankl a couple of weeks ago. There’s a book newly translated to English of some talks he gave in 1946, shortly after leaving the camps. He writes about getting out and choosing to stay in Austria and the experience of having so many people there say, oh we had no idea what was going on in the camps. He calls it a deliberate not knowing and says it’s essential to the success of authoritarian regimes. Ordinary people must deliberately turn away from what is happening so that they don’t have to accept responsibility for it, don’t have the moral imperative to do something about it.
And as I was reading it, I thought of my mother. I thought of how much energy she and my father have put into not knowing for my entire life. You see, my greatest fear has always been that my children will turn out like me. They most definitely got some crap genes from me (nature) so I have to know that I am raising them differently than I was raised (nurture). And so, I have to remember what it was like and all the glaring red flags and cries for help and all that that they purposely ignored. Because I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t ignore my kids’ cries for help and red flags and all that.
I used to make excuses for them. It was the 1980s, it was rural Appalachia, not a place mental health was talked about. We didn’t have health insurance a lot of the time. But it’s just excuses. I had a lot of friends, of all classes and varieties, whose parents got them help (tried to anyway). The truth of it is, she didn’t want to be embarrassed and she didn’t want to be bothered. It’s messy, ya know? I remember writing a story in college about a girl who kills herself by slitting her wrists but makes sure to put newspapers down so it won’t make a mess for her mother to clean up. I had no idea the story was about me. I truly didn’t.
When you cut yourself everyday with razor blades, arms and ankles and shoulders and thighs, it is bloody. It wasn’t a thing back then. They still called it “self mutilation.” A friend of mine turned me and my boyfriend onto it and I loved it. I loved it for a lot of reasons, conscious and subconscious. I tried to hide it but apparently something happened that made it impossible to ignore. So they told me to stop. And she said, “You don’t need to see someone do you? You’re all right aren’t you?” And there was only one acceptable answer. “I’m fine.” Because we were always fine.
But my cuts were a reminder we weren’t actually fine. An intrusion into the beautiful little house where she kept her china dolls, four daughters, four dolls. And so my sisters would say that I needed to stop upsetting mom. And they would check me for cuts. And I would find new places to cut that they weren’t willing to look. And in time it blew over. She honestly probably completely forgot about it pretty quickly. They do that, ya know? People like her. They just dissociate out the bad memories that don’t fit their picture of the perfect little life. Just put the cut up doll in a new long sleeved dress and back in her place and everything’s fine again.
Fine. We’re fine. Everything’s fine.
We came home drunk, came home high, came home tripping balls. And they didn’t notice. I thought I was really good at faking them out. My other friends’ parents kept catching them but not me and my sister. We were so much better than them! Of course, we weren’t. Of course, if my kids came home like that I would know instantly. And have to deal with it. And admit things are not fine. And I would. But not her. Not them.
And if my four year old came to me asking for protection because her older sister was bullying her, I wouldn’t say “Toughen up. Life is hard,” and go about my day. If they locked her in a room with a static-y TV meant to terrify her at age 5 because she’d seen Poltergeist, if she was so scared she literally ripped the door off the hinges trying to escape, I would do something about that shit. For her sake and for theirs. I prefer not to raise any of my kids to be dickheads. But she loved her flying monkeys because they did the work for her.
I have to think about these things to remind myself I am a different mother than she was and that my kids won’t turn out like me. They’re already turning out differently. They don’t pretend everything is fine (not at my house anyway). They get mad and sad and worried and frustrated and bored. And they notice when I’m unhappy and ask me if I’m okay and what’s wrong and they try to cheer me up. These things happen daily, generally multiple times a day. And it occurs to me how many millions of time I have stuffed down sadness and anger and guilt and confusion and shame and just generally not being fine. And how many times I have stuffed down the urge to say, what’s wrong, Mommy? Because no matter what I said or how I acted, I knew things weren’t fine. I just didn’t know how to say it. For decades.
I look at my daughter and think, wow, she’s so perceptive. She spots manipulation or insincerity a mile away and she calls you on it. And it’s taken me a year and a half to realize I was that perceptive too. I just didn’t allow myself to admit it. Because I had to survive. Because children die without adults to take care of them.
I think about that study where they replaced infant monkey’s mothers with these cloth monkey dolls and the monkeys bonded to them, clung to them. Those infants turned out much better than the monkeys without one, or with the ones made of wire instead of cloth. And I wonder, did those monkeys grow up and go out in the world and eventually realize their mothers were just dolls, and not real mothers at all? Did the monkeys marry monkeys or dolls? If you’re used to a doll, I’d imagine marrying a real actual monkey wouldn’t feel right. Until you eventually realized being married to a doll isn’t normal at all, and really not a good idea.
WILL YOU MARRY ME? I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK!
I am 42 years old. And up until a few weeks ago, I would have told you I’m not an emotional person. A lot of statements like this “That movie had me crying and I’m not an emotional person.” “I’m not a crier but when she said that, I ended up bawling.” And so on and so forth. I didn’t think I was an emotional person because that’s what they told me. I remember being at the Pittsburgh International Airport and my mom was either leaving for her prolonged trip abroad or returning from it. I was 16 or 17. And my mom was crying and my sister was crying and so on and so forth. And I wasn’t. And it was, oh what’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she crying? And so when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 22, it all made sense as to why she never seemed to express the appropriate emotions. And what it took me all these decades to realize, is that I knew it was all fake. The tears, the words they spoke, the situationally appropriate feelings they acted out. All a performance. A play we put on everyday for ourselves, for the world. I just couldn’t play along. Actual sadness, actual crying, I knew to keep hidden. Like a rabbit crouching down in the field, pressing its soft underbelly to the cool grass, hoping the wolf won’t rip its intestines out. Hoping it will pass by. Never, I mean never, expose your soft underbelly to them. Keep it locked away. Even from yourself.
It turns out, I’m actually really fucking emotional. I cried in front of patients in residency. That is not done. I cry on my way home from a hard shift with my addiction patients. I cry every time my son Max plays piano. I cry at movies, on almost every major holiday, thinking about the future, the past. I’m a crier. It’s taken me my entire life to 1) realize this and 2) let go of the shame around it. You’re not allowed to apologize for crying at my office. Humans are supposed to cry. And if someone feels safe enough to cry with me, I’m honored. Crying, real crying, not performance tears, it’s truly amazing. Every cry is a good cry.
Lena knows the difference between real tears and fake ones. She knows there’s a certain look he gives her that’s meant to make her feel bad for him and manipulate her into acting like she’ll miss him when he goes even though she won’t. And she knows how she’s supposed to act to make people happy. I think she knows she doesn’t need to do that with me. I hope. I’m actively working on it. Working on accepting emotions of all kinds from them and from me. On being honest with them when I’m sad or angry. On letting them know I’m there if they’re sad and that they won’t feel sad forever. Listening. Watching. Noticing. Remembering.
I will never understand how you can see your child’s body bloody and gashed and not want to do everything you can to help her. How you turn away from a four year old asking you for protection. How you tell your daughter she’s a crazy slut and a horrible mother and you’re giving her ex-husband money to get a lawyer and take her kids away. How you mention to her that her uncle googled “Elizabeth Fleming slut” and all kinds of things came up. Show her the tiny little AP wire article in the hometown paper about her turning in the pedophile and mentioning, accurate or not, details about her sex life, and talk about how humiliating it is and remind her how embarrassed her sisters are. And will never understand a man jealous of a ten year old. A man who belittles and degrades his children and his wife, plays them against one another, gaslights and lies. And do you know why?
Because they aren’t real people. They’re just cloth dolls pretending at being human. They’re badly behaved little sock monkeys and I merely, dear reader, relate the facts. Because everything was not fine. And every feeling and word and question and desire and lament and exaltation that I’ve swallowed down, that my children have swallowed down, that so many of us have swallowed down, deserves to come out whatever way we see fit. Y’all sock monkeys can go on deliberately not knowing, just work a little harder at it. The rest of us, we’re gonna be just fine.