It is tremendously difficult to locate your authenticity when you are a survivor. Your authentic self, your authentic emotions. Because up until now so much of your life has been about masking, camouflage, compartmentalisation, and pushing down and away from painful or confusing things. Up until now this has been necessary. It’s not wrong: it’s absolutely necessary. It’s what we did to survive. And we survived. So we did our job well.
Elsewhere I’ve talked about intimacy and being in touch with your body. What this feels like to locate or not locate. The distance from ourselves combined with the longing to know ourselves and others.
But I realised this week, quite sharply, that this distancing from myself, my body and its feelings also has always created every day, practical hurdles in my life. Perhaps most strikingly: I very often do not value or ‘listen to’ the signals my body and mind send me.
Over the years this dampening down has resulted in some upsetting versions of ‘everyday’ experiences. When I was in labour with my first child, I dilated very quickly. When the midwife came to check, she was flabbergasted that I was that far along. I’d dilated with no sounds, no ‘fuss’, entirely silently. Her words: you weren’t making enough noise! Hmm, I thought, is that good or bad?! Where I came from, I realised, it was very important not to show discomfort of any sort…. I remember, indeed, having a really bad ear ache as a child, and my ear drum bursting in the night. That’s quite an ear ache.
And last year, when my second hip was troubling me, it really really hurt. But — I felt it shouldn’t, that perhaps I was making too big a deal of it. That I had misjudged myself. Etc. When I went to see the physio, she was like ‘I can feel the synovial fluid coming out from the joint it’s so inflamed – that must hurt like hell’.
Yes, it did. But I wasn’t sure if it really did. Or what to do about it. Psychologically, I struggle to find my direction, or put myself in the centre of things, deep down.
This is on one hand. On the other hand: everyone who knows me will attest I’m sure to me actively enjoying everyday attention. I love parties, I love a laugh. I love to vent, I love to recount complicated medical adventures, symptoms and diagnosis (partly because I wanted at one time to be a doctor, but that’s another story). So it’s not like I’m shy or reserved. I’m really not. I’m not one to run away from sagas, stories, anecdotes, and my involvement in them.
But there are some barriers I don’t understand. What IS going on?
This week — when I have struggled with ongoing poor health — I had a real think about it all. I have had issues with my asthma/chest since January. It is now April. I have tried several times to address it with the doctor, with weak responses, and no in-person visits or x-rays. I have tried several medication options, as well as practical ones. Then covid hit me and crashed the whole thing. I have had two lots of antibiotics and am on a steroid course. I have changed inhalers. Etc. And indeed, it now looks quite possible that the root of everything lay in my asthma. As I kind of — I’ll be honest — thought all along.
I didn’t have the confidence to keep pushing. This is not a consistent thing — I will push to high heaven for my kids, and my husband. But I am really TERRIFIED of ‘making a fuss’ about myself. If I don’t know what something is — which I didn’t in this case — I’m frightened of being accused of ‘inventing things’, ‘making it all up’, ‘making it worse than it is’. Making a fuss. I second guess myself. All. The. Time.
And here we have it. At some point I always run into this: if I don’t know or understand what is happening to me, I think it’s not important anyway. No one will believe me or care. In fact, do I believe myself?
Of course, there are MANY situations that lead people not to trust themselves. I am not saying that CSA is the only one by any means. But it IS one. It’s a thing.
One of the most important things we can do for our children is LISTEN. Listening — not only to what we want to hear and how we want to hear it, but to EVERYTHING — is not an ‘indulgence’. It’s a necessity. We need to work from within their realities. Because children’s realities are complicated. They have the full range of emotions and experiences. And sometimes they signal danger and pain, or fear and insecurity, even if they can’t articulate it. Sometimes they don’t understand what is happening to them, but they know something isn’t right.
There were lots of things in my young life which sent me the message that I didn’t matter, and that my way of life was conditional upon the ‘right’ behaviour. Not all survivors have this complicated web I know, but I reckon most end up feeling that they didn’t matter, and have been struggling to make room for themselves — their bodies and minds — ever since. I salute you all, and everyone who loves them.
From Learning to Survive, a memory I think on a visit to Texas from Virginia; this is one of the earliest times I can remember understanding that whatever I am feeling is not going to change anything, and doesn’t really matter.
The house is remarkable only in that it is empty, and that my mother lives there and I’ve never seen it.
I am a little struck by whiteness, or perhaps only by coldness. My mother takes me through the house room by room. It is entirely silent.
I recognise nothing about the place, or the things in it. This alienation, and my mother’s evident joy in seeing me, combines in a pressing way upon my heart and lungs.
I have been gone so long, and to such a different place, that I hardly recognise her either. She is as strange to me as any other stranger, any of the many people I seem to find myself living with.
We go through the house. In particular I remember the kitchen, with its aluminium legged table and white walls, no curtains. The curious emptiness. And always, although I have just arrived, there is the feeling that I will soon be leaving.
Suddenly we are in the backyard. I don’t know how we get here and I don’t want to be outside. Around me, I can see other backyards, just over the tops of grey clapboard fences, but still, there is not a sound. It is like we are on some kind of set, like we aren’t real at all.
She says to me: ‘This is the reason I got the house, here.’
I follow her finger, and it’s pointing to a low climbing tree, dull-barked and smooth. She says, ‘I thought you might like to climb it, when you come to visit. It’s for you to climb.’
We move closer to it. I tilt my head, look up through the leafless branches. I feel like I might cry.
‘Do you want to try and climb it?’ she says.
I don’t. But I reach out and put my hands on the trunk. It’s soft, warmer than the air.
Soon, she is helping me up into the bottom branches of the tree. She stands back, smiling.
I look at her. I look at the flat white house behind her, at the browning sharp lawn underfoot, the utterly empty overcast sky. Without knowing it, I’ve started crying, and my mother takes me down, holds me.
I don’t know what I manage to tell her. There are many things she can believe, that will be at least a little bit true: I don’t want to climb the tree; I miss her; I am tired. What I don’t tell her is what I hardly know: that I don’t even want to be here, and I don’t want to be with her at all. That it’s too late. That no matter what she does, I’m on my own.