Sideways

I was a “good kid” and flew under the radar or went sideways through my family. I quickly learned to how follow the rules, even when they were illogical, and tried to avoid meeting conflict “head on” in order to hold onto things that sustained me – riding my bike, being outside, swimming. At those times I was isolated, which was often, I read and read and read. I think I came out of childhood with a better understanding of how to slay dragons, solve mysteries, and practice the intrigue of a Dumas’ hero than how to interact with other people, communicate my needs effectively, or sustain my energy through complex projects.

As an adult I comforted myself with the notion that I never was injured physically, was only struck in the face once, and because no one could ever tell the depth of abuse going on from the outside then maybe it really wasn’t so bad. Maybe, just maybe I could pretend it was OK and that the profound memory loss I have around much of my childhood isn’t some kind of dramatic indicator of PTSD. If I could just continue to move sideways through the world then no one would know and I would never have to admit the truth of my unhappy childhood to myself or anyone else.

I also ate and comforted myself with food. I relied upon unhealthy food choices, unhealthy portions, and emotion-motivated eating. Those same, “acceptable” coping mechanisms taught to me by my family.

It didn’t work. That sideways path may have offered me a way to avoid the truth of the suffering, but I wore in the pounds I carried. That extra 140+ insulated me from the truth and when I lost it, not intending to discover anything but lowered cholesterol, I lost the ability to hide from the suffering. Maybe if I’d stayed with just studying yoga I could have pulled it off? Probably not, since yoga drives you toward truth as relentlessly as Zen when you practice it deeply. The fourth of the Niyamas in the Yoga Sutras is svadhyaya, deep study of the self as well as spiritual writings.

I know that I will never undo the past. The events that happened can’t be made less traumatic, cannot be considered anything but abuse, including the considerable periods of time I was isolated from others. No amount of swimming, zazen, therapy, or cake will erase the past or somehow turn those events into moments of a happy childhood.

I found myself crying a little in the steam room yesterday, realizing that the blue funk I was in was just grief processing through me again. On Wednesday morning I’d done some major processing of an event that had happened when I was 14. Although the work with the new therapist took down the intensity of this memory until it no longer felt like I was being swept up in it like a riptide, it still hurt deeply.

Rather than resist the hurt I feel for myself now, or the profound pain I experienced at 14, I tried to practice acceptance of it. Acceptance that doesn’t condone or excuse the cause at all, but rather accepting that it is reasonable and rational for me to feel pain over that event. It will never be something that feels happy or normal, but it can be brought to a point where it just merely aches like an old injury and I don’t feel the need to hide it. I can’t rewrite history, but I can lean into accepting the pain I feel because of it.

Letting Go of (the myth of) a Happy Childhood

In the past week I’ve started seeing another therapist. No, not a replacement, in addition to the therapist I’ve been working with for years. The new woman specializes in using EMDR with PTSD, particularly childhood trauma. It is really stressful for me to take this step for all kinds of reasons (talking to a new person, having to honestly look at my childhood & process it, the feeling I don’t deserve the tremendous expense of seeing 5 different care professionals, etc.), but it seems like such a necessary choice.

My primary therapist has been working with me to let go of the notion that I had a happy childhood on any level. I’m really fighting this. I can feel myself clinging to the idea that on some level, in some way I must have had a happy childhood. The truth that really I didn’t have a happy childhood seems impossible to process. When I try to take it in I feel nauseated, dizzy, hopeless and notice tight pain in my stomach, heart & throat chakras.

That brings us to all the body work. I’ve started acupuncture again and once again it sets off little emotional bombs within two days of an appointment. I leave feeling rested and have a good day following and then some kind of breakdown. I had a couple of days where I felt utterly worthless and incapable of doing anything well. I had a couple of days where I just felt a lot of grief about my childhood.

After some discussion with all these amazing people who’ve done body/energetic work with me it is totally clear that there is a deeply somatic component to my PTSD. It is the reason why the cognitive work I do with my primary therapist is oftentimes so slow, so painful and at times feels impossible to learn. There are areas where the traumatic response is so physical, I don’t get the negative voice of the Inner Critic so much as I feel the grief, the sensations of worthlessness and shame, in my body. I also am struggling with feeling a lot of shame around the fact that I didn’t have a happy childhood, that on some level it was my fault after all.

So, in spite of my absolute resistance to working with another therapist, I am seeing one who specializes in the kind of somatic work with trauma I clearly need. On her advice I’ve also been trying to be more attentive to a yoga practice combined with regular visits for lap swimming or water exercise and using the steam room at the gym. A combination of burning off some of the energy and tapping into the comfort & safety I feel while in water or in the steam room.

I’m also returning again and again to the sensation of the breath in the body, my first and best known form of zazen. I’m combining this with a body scan to just take inventory as to what is there, not to respond, just to observe. Occasionally I offer in some phrases of Metta practice, but lightly and with less focused attention than I have used.