on expecting disaster

[photo: Dan Meyers]

I now realise that a good portion of my psyche, my everyday psyche, is always ready for anything, waiting for the worst to happen. This hypervigilance is one of the key indicators of (C)PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder), and it’s not at all unusual in survivors of Child Sexual Abuse or in fact of any shattering trauma.

Getting into therapy when I was 21 (which I wrote about here), speaking about my father’s abuse of me, released some of the intense pressure I hadn’t realised I was carrying inside me: like loosening a gasket or bleeding a radiator, some of the painful steam escaped over my three years with Diana, and subsequently with other life-affirming therapists. I suddenly found I had more energy for life, for learning, for loving and being. Holding back and down the facts and effects of the abuse — keeping those secrets — had ‘dumbed down’ my whole self. My energy for meeting the world, for being in the present, for enjoying anything, had up until that time been meted out, carefully titrated (as a method of self protection) so that I could survive, keep going. Good therapy released so much of that. I remember feeling uncontrollably overjoyed, bouncing, feeling so, so light with relief, with the sense that this, this happy person, was the Real Me.

With getting older and having more responsibilities however, the truth is: now this Real Me comes and goes, and I’m beginning to accept that she always will. I feel her more often now, and form my life around her as my proven reality — but the imposter who knows and says Bad Things Happen, who waits for the worst to happen, who insists on preparing for everything going wrong — that presence continues to occupy space in me. Indeed, I know that I am slipping into an actual unwell space when this sense of disaster takes over and descends full force. This doesn’t happen often anymore, but when it does I become paralysed, certain of catastrophe taking away all light in the world.

A clearcut example of this is something which has improved over the years: flying. I have written about my fear of flying elsewhere, and the roots of it, but one aspect of this was a kind of hypervigilance on steroids: I took every plane ride determinedly alert to something going wrong. I had a deep sense that if I was prepared for anything, if I held this preparedness in the forefront of my mind, then the plane and everyone on it would be fine. On long flights (UK to US and back again), this state of mind was completely exhausting; I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I felt sick with every bump, I could barely eat or drink, such was my focus on staying alert.

Thankfully, that feeling on plane rides for me is now very muted. I can read on them now, eat and drink, do puzzles. Only when turbulence strikes do I find the hypervigilance difficult to keep at bay.

There is a lot of ‘magical thinking’ tied up with extreme hypervigilance. For me, it’s always manifested in not only keeping myself safe, but keeping everyone I love safe too. This of course is directly related to my blog post the bargain, which looks at how I ‘sacrificed’ myself for my sister — or so I thought. In any case my concerns have always been generalised: it is up to me to keep things going okay. This pattern stems no doubt directly from not only keeping secrets around the abuse, but also the necessity I felt to be a ‘good girl’ through my mother’s significant neglect and psychological abuse of me.

It’s not a big leap I think to see how hypervigilance such as mine can be blown through the roof by the arrival of and care for children. And for certain dealing with hypervigilance has been one of the most significant challenges of parenthood for me. I know that my own anxieties have contributed to my children’s anxieties — and yet, my hypervigilance through the development of their own chronic conditions (Type 1 diabetes and Joint Hypermobility Syndrome [likely EDS]) has meant that I have been able to do a lot to keep them safe and locate the best care for them — identify too certain things before they became dangerous. But it’s difficult for me to draw ‘the line’. It’s hard for me to stop being vigilant. They are now in Boston and in Pittsburgh respectively, 1000’s of miles away and meeting their lives head on — yet often in the day, every day, I want to know that they are okay, sometimes hour by hour. They know this about me, and almost always respond with ‘I’m good!’ when I give in and send them a message at last, asking how they are. I have tried hard — and not succeeded — to control this vestige of my vigilance. It’s here to stay, I think.

My children understand all this because they know about my past, and because they both also have challenges of their own — because in both their cases, and despite all my vigilance and bargaining with the world, Bad Things Happened to them. In both their cases indeed, kinds of disaster struck, over which my hypervigilance had absolutely no sway whatsoever. More on this in another post, perhaps.

Over time, I’ve got a bit better and worked hard at believing ‘what will be will be’ and ‘we are where we are’, two phrases I railed against for years. In reality there’s a profound release in ‘taking my eyes off the road’, and if I allow myself to, I can almost always feel that surge of relief and happiness come back now: I survived, I love and am loved, and I’m truly happy. Everything really is okay.

I know now that I’m a hard-wired optimist, and I’m grateful that this love of life is able to fuel me most of the time. But I do continue to resent — at 58, so many years after my childhood, and with both parents dead — the old grey-faced imposter who rocks in the corner, always expecting disaster.

***

A poem from the chapbook-sized section of poetry toward the end of my prose memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, which was written over the few weeks when my father was unexpectedly ill, and then died. I wrote this right after his death, seeking solace in the silent crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

[…]

in the cathedral

You are the smaller candle, placed right there. For once I’ve let you in, and you waver, your light pretty weak, your reach limited.

The rest of my life draws me nearer. The big glass candle, already lit, from which all else springs.

the bargain

[image: ‘Make Me a Promise’ by Susana Aldanondo]

I didn’t feel I could post this on Father’s Day (UK), which was yesterday. I feel I’m stepping on others’ toes, raining on parades, being a party-pooper, for mentioning that yes, I had a father. But he wasn’t really a father. No one wants to hear this, and I don’t blame them, on that day at least.

So I’m posting today. About something which has been on my mind a lot recently.

I guess — actually, I know — that I am forever haunted by the idea that I let him touch me. Swiftly followed by why didn’t I stop him? These questions are in the same area where a lot of other questions surface for most survivors. Even if they don’t ask themselves, others ask them: why didn’t you tell someone? why did you let him/her do it?

Etc.

The answers to these questions are complex. Primarily, and for every survivor I have ever spoken to, not telling has to do with fear of consequences — either within the family (everything will fall apart, everyone will be furious and hate me) or at the hands of the abuser (the abuse will be so much worse, he will actually kill me). This fear is consuming, as strong as super glue; there seems no way to loosen its grip. And too there seems nowhere to go, no one to turn to. The isolation — the forced and manipulated isolation — of a victim is profound. Certainly I believed that my father stood between me and everyone and everything in the world. That I had to go through him to get anywhere, or lie. And because he read my diaries, and because he followed me sometimes when I went out — I couldn’t ever lie or get around him.

However. I knew the abuse was wrong. I knew I hated it. I knew it was all his perversion, and that for now I just had to BEAR it. Which I did. But as soon as my (half) sister began to approach 11 (the age when my abuse started), I felt sick with an additional fear. Was he going to start on her? How could I protect her?

When I first began seeing my now ad-hoc therapist, about six years ago, I went in because I was crazy worried about my own children’s safety. For no real reason. Her first question to me was: what bargain did you strike with your father? what did you exchange?

I knew the answer to that immediately, and told her. Apparently almost all survivors strike either a spoken or unspoken bargain with the abuser, so that the abuse seems somehow for the greater good. Because we have to be able to bear it somehow.

This is my bargain. From Learning to Survive:

***

I come back from Oxford with a bit more courage and sense of self.

            As usual, and soon after my return, one night I hear my father come downstairs. He knocks once, lightly, then opens the door. My lights are off. I can feel him move across the room, his cigarette breath close on my face.

            I wanted to see how you are, he says. We haven’t talked in a while.

            ‘Fine,’ I say, ‘I’m fine.’

            He rubs my arm. Are you? he says, then sighs. I recognise it as the sound of him building up to do something.

            I don’t say anything; I’m so tired. I just want him to go away.

            But no matter what I do or say tonight, it will happen.

            He is beginning: prying my arms apart, unbuttoning my pyjama top. He asks questions as he goes this time: Is this okay? Okay? Okay?

            ‘Daddy.’ He’s so surprised that he stops in the middle of what he’s doing.

            Yes?

            ‘As long as you promise not to do this to [my sister].’

            What?

            ‘I said okay, as long as you promise not to do this to [my sister].’

            He sits back on his heels. Of course not.

            ‘Good.’ I cross my arms again.

            You’re special, he says, I thought you knew that. He sits forward again and strokes my face. No one can take your place.           

[My sister] believes that he did not abuse her, at all. At the time, she must be 11, and my fear for her is all-consuming. I am afraid that when I go to college in three years, he will ‘turn’ to her. Once he doesn’t have me, I am afraid he must have someone else. So I desperately want to believe him when he says he won’t do anything to [my sister]. But I know now that this can just as easily have been another lie. And that the real reason he does not abuse [my sister] is that he cannot – practically, in the house – get away with it. Or that she is not as vulnerable, fundamentally, as me.

            Or, most basely, perhaps by the time I leave, she is too old for his tastes. This is a thought which – among only a few, now, years later – always turns my stomach. But the reason might be that plain.

It is a surprise to me now, and also not a surprise somehow, that I really do believe his promise at the time to stay away from [my sister]. That I do not – again, somehow – find a way to warn her. I love her and [my brother] more than anyone in the world, and I know what my father is doing is wrong. Why do I not break my silence and protect them?

            I think I know some answers to this, all these years later. Answers I could not even think, much less write, then. The first is shame:  that is, I allowed him to do this. I feel, in my eyes, and, I am sure, in anybody’s – disgustingly and irretrievably complicit. After all, I let him do it. I should have stopped him.

             The second is fear. I never stop being terrified, deep down, of what might happen to the family, of how much everyone – including [my siblings] – will hate me for making everything (because I am sure this will happen) fall apart, if I tell. That they will or can react in any other way does not occur to me – that anyone ever can or will react with anything but disgust, pity, and hate does not occur to me, in fact, for years.

            So yes. I believe him.