Tag Archives: trauma

Sink or swim

I don’t know how to start this post. Usually when I write it’s the ending that throws me – how to tie everything up in a succinct sentence that leaves an air of interest in further words. I am sorry, but there will be no foreplay. Today I just need to get this done. I don’t even have any graphics! Well, except the photo stock one I got from the net. Sorry, Launderers. I hope you’ll stay for the words even without the pretty pictures.

In my last post I was very touched to have had some people reach out and offer me some kind and reassuring words, mainly to assist with my self-perception. I appreciate this immensely. How lucky am I to have both friends and strangers who would take the time to put their thoughts into writing and share these with me. To those of you who did – thank you. Because of your kindness, I vowed to try to embody this quality more as well, and embarked on being more approachable, sending more Facebook friend requests and volunteering to listen when someone needed to chat (I won’t lie, there were mixed results and some of my friend requests have gone unrequited – I am not sure what this says about me or my Facebook profile but I am open to feedback). I truly hope no one ever feels that his or her kindness is wasted on me, but in saying that, I need to be honest and say that I rarely, if ever, believe what I am told when it is kind. And although I am sure I am not alone in that particular quirk, my reason for having this issue seem to always point to one annoying thing.

Irritatingly for me (and others, I imagine), the peak of my self-worth has historically been related to my upbringing. I have lived with a somewhat polarizing notion that people other than your parents can raise you and that the effect of this arrangement will not detrimentally affect your life. But I am just not sure I believe my own hype: On the one hand is the very valid argument that as long as a child has love, has its immediate needs met and has a permanent network of support to help shape them as they grow, then the fact that someone other than their birth parents raised them is largely beside the point. In theory, I absolutely agree with this argument. I say in theory, because although I have encountered through work and broader community links many people who have been raised under this kind of arrangement, and many children who are loved by their families and who love them in return, in my immediate social circle I have literally only met two people who were in a similar situation as me. They were both being raised by their grandparents.

One of those people is in jail. The other committed suicide.

I do not say this to be dramatic. The above should not be construed as a causal link. Plenty of people are raised families outside their birth ones and it is a blessing for all concerned. It was absolutely a blessing for me. But in my particular experience I have tried so very hard to believe the argument that I was lucky, and that it wasn’t that bad (it was great!), that somewhere down the line I started becoming uncertain as to whether I actually believed what I was saying. In hindsight, perhaps I had just been too eager to drink the socially acceptable Kool-Aid that would guarantee me a spot at the table for people who are respected by others because they do not possess that irritating quirk of feeling sorry for oneself. The people who just “get on with it”.

Regardless of how this all came about, there have in recent times been extenuating circumstances that all but prevented anything in the way of self-reflection on this topic, especially over the past six years. There was a time in my early twenties where once a week I would dutifully meet with the therapist who has helped to shape my emotionally lumpy ball of clay into something more clarified and beautiful. I worked hard to sort my shit out at the time – shit that was largely related to my absent parents and the effects of how their relationships with me influenced my relationships with others. It was important groundwork that allowed me to actually remedy some flawed belief systems in order to live more of an authentic, free life. And luckily for me, that also meant the chance to have lots of sex with lots of boys without the guilt of thinking I had to be in a relationship first. I was with a man who was 4 years older than me from when I was 15 years old until I turned 19; if this does not make me the poster-child for insecure adolescents then nothing will. I then did what any person with abandonment issues would do and found myself another relationship almost immediately, meaning that by the time I was 21, I had really never been single. I made up for lost time in the most wonderfully slutty of ways (and I say this without a shred of shame or regret, for if there is any time in my life where I can look back and say I felt at ease with myself and my choices, it was this). I loved being single. And I knew I would only ever give up this freedom for someone pretty amazing.

Enter: D. I was 23 when we met. By this time I had been in therapy for two years. A lot of the rubble had been swept away. The dust was starting to clear. There was hope.

My chats with my therapist soon became largely centred on my decision to give up some of my independence (and a large part of my social circle who responded with nothing short of disdain for the fact that I would no longer be the ring-leader on alcohol fuelled hook-up benders) so that I could embark on a relationship with D. And it was not without its challenges – D was (is) 8 years older than me. He didn’t have emotional baggage, a dysfunctional family or self-destructive habits outside of getting tackled at football. His calm, balanced demeanour was the antithesis of my own. And although now it is this pairing that has helped us to grow together, namely that our shortcomings become each other’s gains, at the time it was a lot to work through.

In 2008 we got engaged (during a fight – a post for another time), in late 2009 we married and we moved interstate in early 2010. During this time we were geographically and emotionally torn because I kept returning to Brisbane to be present for my grandmother’s worsening dementia, all the while knowing I had to stay in Melbourne because D’s own father’s dementia was avalanching into what would culminate into a premature yet drawn-out and distressing death. And in between the stressors of knowing you are each dealing with the same kind of pain, in 2012 a child enters the world. A sick child, the experience of which also helps to create a sick mother. We kept our heads above water, until we didn’t. But with therapy and medication, I caught my breath and rose to the parenting challenge. I had issues with patience as many people do, but simply by raising my own son with love and affection I reasoned I was in a way proving that I would not be the one to repeat history. My child was wanted and adored. I would not be my mother’s daughter.

In 2013 my grandmother dies in my arms. My head dips below the water but buoyed with love from my little family, I am now able to swim. Friends vanish because I change. Maybe I post too many photos of my children on Facebook. But all that becomes irrelevant when two months later I unexpectedly fall pregnant with N, the baby who would repair the pain from our first child’s birth and who would bring us a joy I struggle to describe. And we needed that joy; we needed those little chubby legs and those bright blue eyes, because by 2014 when N was born, the grandfather I adored with all my heart had cut off contact with me as the family members who were absent for most of my life had come home to roost. My grandfather is dead by mid-2015, and I am not there beside him when it happens. He never meets N.

For the following 18 months after my grandfather’s death I am mired in family litigation. I rarely contest anything. I am anchored to paperwork and phone calls. I want it to all be over. I want to float on the surface, eyes to the sky, free again.

Halfway through 2016 we embark on a quest to chase that freedom, deciding to sell our home, quit our jobs and go travelling with our boys. We love it until we don’t, then we seek out our next move, and can’t make a decision. I discuss with D my uneasiness at feeling as though the decision will come down to what I want. He promises to take over and make a call for all of us. I am grateful for his resolve.

But as these little ships of life – boat-like blips on a horizon that we each navigate – sail over the seas, edge past each other, avoid danger and signal for help if needed, all the while I sense an undercurrent brewing beneath the surface. I know it is familiar because old and unhelpful belief patterns start to jostle for room in my already overcrowded head. I try to drown them out with exercise, with meditation, with affection with my children and intimacy with my husband. But they tug, and before long it becomes a pull from beneath that drags me out past the safety of the harbour and into the waves, where instead of being a mother of a five-year-old who is trying to decide what school to enrol him into next year, I am instead back where I was a decade ago, back feeling as though I am fundamentally flawed, that I am irredeemably damaged, and – most frighteningly – that if given time, not only will I sink, but I will drag my family into the murky depths with me.

Why am I back here? I have a few theories. As postulated in my last post, I first thought it was place-based. I though that geography was conspiring to haunt me. But then I talked to a dear friend of mine who reminded me that one of the times I had felt the worst was in Quebec where I cried in the bathroom into a pillow for the best part of four hours in a quest to not wake my sleeping children and husband. “If you think you’re shit in Quebec, of course you’re going to think you’re shit in Brisbane,” she said. My friends are geniuses.

Another theory is that since the stress of losing two lives and gaining two in quick succession is now in the past, my brain has started to remember that it once had fundamental crack in its foundation that it needed to address, before it got sidetracked. So this is its way of sending me a reminder for a calendar invite to which I’ve not responded. Fix the foundation, Sarah. Your house is crumbling.

The third theory – and one I am hesitant to share because I would hate for it to be misinterpreted as endorsement of this kind of approach to mental health – is that for almost five months, I have been off medication. I very gradually stopped taking my antidepressants in November; by December I was down to one tablet every second day and by January I was off medication completely. It was not a decision I made lightly (I have been on these antidepressants since J was 3 months old) but I have been on and off medication since I was 19; the longest stretch was 6 years of haziness where I managed to somehow stay alive despite ignoring advice to not drink alcohol while undergoing pharmaceutical treatment. But recently I knew I had to come off these little squares of mine – it was time. I needed the mental clarity. I was sick of the dependence. And I hated the side effects.

I resourcefully used exercise and sexercise as a way to flood my body with happy hormones. It worked reasonably well, but was made infinitely harder by the constant headaches, tears, shakes, nausea, fatigue and dizziness that accompanied trying to encourage my body back into making its own serotonin. I also started a new job during this time, which helps to explain one of my earlier posts about crying at work. And to add further hormonal woe to the mix, on some sort of crazed fact-finding mission to try to uncover why I still was feeling pangs of psychological strain, I had my Mirena (IUD) removed. I became convinced there was an external cause for my malaise. I knew of anecdotal evidence to suggest the Mirena can impact a woman’s mood – so out it came.

I was desperately looking for an outward cause. I wanted my emotional distress to be linked to a physical ailment. If it’s the medication withdrawals, that makes total sense! Or it’s just hormonal, I’m normal. Women everywhere struggle with hormonal mood swings. Yay! Yay for science!

And yet, I was not convinced.

Today I went to a Buddhist learnings session at the Buddha Birth Day celebrations at South Bank. It was called “Liberation from Fear and Anger”. A female monk whose name I should have written down presented the session; she was Singaporean, warm, funny and engaging. Her words about anger were familiar to me, and I was grateful to be present for a reminder of how to let go of harmful thoughts.

Quite unexpectedly, she shared an anecdote. She told the room that she too has struggled with anger and resentment. She said for 10 years she cried every day, unclear as to why. Eventually, she figured it out.

“I had a chip on my shoulder,” I hung on her words, “because I was adopted.”

I believe, that at that moment, my heart stopped.

The monk explained that she always felt as though she was unlovable, and unworthy. If her birth parents – who she had searched for, unsuccessfully – did not want her, then there was something wrong with her. “Everyone had parents except me. I had my adoptive parents and they loved me, but I was looking for what I didn’t have. And I was so very sad, for many, many years.”

Predictably, I descended into tears, incredulous as a monk from Singapore used her words to convey a feeling I know all too well. At a time I needed to hear it the most, the words I struggle to articulate to my friends and family were being spoken by someone else who had a lived experience similar to mine but who had none of the trappings of my history. She didn’t grow up in the Redlands and use Jim Beam as a form of self-medication. She didn’t measure her worth by the hotness of the boy she was with. She was a monk, a woman who you would think would have all the tools in the world to understand, uncover and remedy her pain. And yet here she was, describing that for the best part of 40 years she was hurting, and baffled as to why. And if a monk can struggle to make sense of their upbringing, it made me feel like I have a right to do that too.

After the talk, I approached her. I barely got a word out before I started to cry. She held my hands and told me it was good to cry, because it means you are open to healing. “Like an onion, you take off one layer and it’s not so bad. The deeper you get, the more tears.” She told me she cried for years, but with therapy and her Buddhist beliefs, she was eventually able to put her pain and anger aside. I thanked her silently, nodding as I left. It was all I could muster.

So it is with a sense of exhaustion and commitment that I now accept that I have more work to do. I have wanted to believe for years that it’s all behind me; the memories of uncertainty with my childhood living arrangements, the damage of my parents’ involvement which was much worse than their lack of interest; I wanted to believe it was all sorted because I wanted to get on with my happy life. My blessed, beautiful life, where I have healthy children, a kind and strong husband, travels and adventure, friendship and laughs. I didn’t want to be labelled as someone seeking sympathy or being self-pitying. I wanted to be strong, independent and capable. And I was. I am.

I believed for years that the solution to my unease was to let go of the anger I held towards my family – mainly my mother and father. To this day I try to consciously think kind thoughts about them every so often, rationalising that if they are happy and content, they’re less likely to want to come along and fuck up my world again. Then I had a nightmare last week – that I received in the mail photos of my son playing at the beach. There was a letter enclosed. The writing was my father’s – all capitals: “JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW I’M AROUND.”

The unease lingers. But it is enlightening, for what I think has happened is that managing to muffle the anger I held for my family members only relocated the rage. Like the ex-smoker who gains weight, I have misdirected my anger from my parents and onto myself. And unlike my parents, I am always with me. I can’t get away.

So with that in mind, it looks like I have some work to do. I wish I didn’t have to, but I know that I can. Like that annoying blue tang Dory, I will just keep swimming. And as always, I will write about it.

(Told you I suck at endings, so in conclusion, here is my favourite poem: I go back to May 1937, by Sharon Olds. It is beyond fitting.)

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

 

 

 

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For the long run

It has been 49 days since my last post; words I type that are almost confessional. Much has changed since then, but much more is still swirling with the flavours of uncertainty, excitement and anticipation.

I quit my job. One day after my last post, I wrote my letter of resignation.

When I was pregnant with J and approaching my last day of paid employment, I was in a panic. Giving up my job was akin to independent suicide, or so I believed. It would make me wholly dependent on my husband. My years of fighting to be financially secure and reliant on no one for myself would come to an abrupt halt.

Where did this need to be self-sufficient come from? I suspect it became ingrained around the time I had finished high school, when I knew that the only thing that would allow me to flee my relatives – at least in a theoretical sense – was the ability to book a plane ticket and fly far away. To do that, I needed funds at my disposal, funds which were eaten up quickly in a flurry of petrol/alcohol/food/textbook purchases. The fact that escaping my relatives would also mean being away from my grandparents was the worst kind of juxtaposition I could imagine, but the sense that I could leave if I wanted to was often the only thing that kept me in one place.

This need to be able to run away formed a large chunk of my ideology.

If you are unhappy, leave.
If you start something you hate, quit.
Nothing is permanent.

These are the thoughts of someone who believed her world to be always, painfully, frighteningly black and white.

So the sense of being able to escape – and being in a position to afford to escape – has always been at the forefront of my mind. I felt I belonged nowhere, so I always needed to get to that next place, because maybe – maybe – I would belong there.

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As I continue to muddle through the causes for my various mindsets, I have found myself undertaking a Diploma in Mindfulness Therapy. Mindfulness as a concept dates back thousands of years, but can be found in Buddhist teachings, yoga and general meditative practices. Mindfulness as a tool for cognitive well-being is arguably still in its relative infancy, but there is mounting evidence supporting it as a mechanism through which busy minds can be calmed, and stress reduced.

Oh mindfulness, where were you twenty-eight years ago? When I lay awake in bed for hours playing a game I liked to call ‘Worst Case Scenario’? When I imagined night after night the exact moment of discovering my grandparents’ deaths? When I played in my head the image of someone coming to take me away from my home, my small limbs flailing as my throat became hoarse from screams? When I imagined being placed with my disinterested father; when I made plans to run away and live under bridges. Mindfulness, what would you have said to me then?

Without any kind of coping mechanism for these kinds for thoughts, eventually I developed my own.

Don’t you realise you don’t need to struggle through any of that? If your grandparents die, you can always kill yourself! It’s the perfect plan! You will be okay, because you always have that ticket out of here, and no one can ever take that from you.

And so, night after night, year after year, I made plans for my own death.

Of course over time the need to book a one-way ticket to the afterlife became less pronounced, mainly because as I got older I grew less dependent on my grandparents for security. By the time I had finished university I had a full time job and qualifications that could not be undone. So on some level, I felt as though if I needed to, I could survive *most* things the world might throw at me.

But still, if you have consistently calmed yourself with thoughts of ending your life, old habits can quite literally die hard.

As part of my mindfulness studies, I am required to commit to regular practice. This involves being seated, usually in a cross-legged position, closing my eyes, and focusing on my breath: the inhales and the exhales. The sounds of breath entering and escaping the body. The sensations of my body as it sits quietly and calmly, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A time to bring awareness to the body. A time to notice thoughts without judgment. I have done yoga for several years, so this process is not entirely foreign to me. Of course, in yoga it is usually only for 10 minutes and when I am in savasana, well aware that class is almost over.

It is Tuesday night in my mindfulness course, and we are all asked to complete a silent, seated, 27 minute guided practice. I sit on the ground, a friend to the right of me. The class comprises of all females, including the teacher. I find nothing threatening or scary about anyone or anything in that room.

And, yet.

I sit still, and I breathe. I try to calm my thoughts. I get to what I imagine is the halfway mark of practice. My mind is wandering, as is normal, but I focus on my breath. Then I notice more. My feet are beginning to tingle, a sensation that rushes up to my knees. Pins and needles, that prickly annoyance that has plagued me since I was a school kid, leaving me open to teachers chastising me for not sitting still in my seat; for having my legs out in front of me in a cramped school assembly space instead of folded beneath me like everyone else.

This sensation has come to me before in practice; I asked my teacher for advice and she said to remember it will pass. She said to try to imagine breathing air into the affected areas. I did this once, and it worked – the feeling went away.

But not this time.

I sit, and I sit, growing ever more pained and uncomfortable. I try to breathe slowly, calmly, but in a room of silence am trying desperately not to draw attention to myself. Then, panic. I cannot move; the tingling is now numbness. I cannot move my legs, I cannot feel my feet.

I cannot get out of here.

I am breathing and breathing but I am stuck on the floor and I can’t fucking get out of here.

I feel faint, clammy. My heartbeat is racing, my palms sweaty. I cannot stop this sensation and I cannot move. My breathing has all but stopped. I notice that I am quite literally holding my breath.

In Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, he explains how trauma and its resulting stress harms us through physiological changes to body and brain, and that those harms can persist throughout life. Family disturbance or generalised neglect can wire children to be on high alert, their stressed bodies tuned to fight or flight.

And here I am – the girl who always has an exit plan for when things became too hard –  literally unable to move.

As someone who knew she would flee even before she knew what the concept of fight or flight was, it is something of a breakthrough to realise that in moments of stress, my body is still geared to wanting to run away, even if my brain logically knows I don’t need to. I also think it is remarkable that for years my pins and needles might have suggested more than simply a pinched nerve to anyone who had cared to scrape more than just the surface of my home life. I always believed that I needed to be able to escape, meaning that I always had to sit in a way that would let my legs carry me away from a perceived threat as quickly as possible. In my world, pins and needles, however fleeting, were not an option. They were an impediment to safety.

I had a brief flashback during practice. J’s birth; that same awful tethered feeling of complete terror that one cannot leave. Trapped in a hospital room, connected to machines, unable to flee. There were other images too; I am not ready to go into them, not yet, when I don’t know what they mean.

I am slowly unraveling the story of my life. Through writing, through making a mind-body connection. I need to do this so that I don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, or fall into old self-destructive patterns that for so long were all I knew.

I don’t know where I am going, but I am hopeful that I will learn from the journey.

I will keep writing.
I will keep breathing.
And I will try to remind myself that I do not always have to run.*

*Unless rocking out to this tune:

 

 

 

 

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