While childhood abuse is common, open talk about the struggle to live, love, and parent well after being raised in hell is rare.
“If I was dissociating, I wouldn’t feel so anxious,” she said.
“Or you might, but you just wouldn’t know it,” I replied.
We laughed the PTSD laugh.
This is how survivors talk to one another. We don’t flashback together or complain about our parents. We talk about how our present day symptoms (numbness, anxiety, nightmares, and fearfulness) are like gum in the hair, leaks in the roof, and jack hammers to the nervous system that won’t be ignored.
Developmental trauma is a newer phrase, like Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which means the trauma was repeated at the hands of loved ones throughout childhood, and it’s complicated.
I say, abuse was the peanut butter of childhood and neglect the jelly.
Adverse childhood events and the lasting toll they take on mental and physical health throughout the life cycle are now well documented in the ACE STUDY.
However, while childhood abuse is common, open talk about the struggle to live, love, and parent well after being raised in hell is rare.
So, meeting a woman to talk to about writing, life, and surviving is still exciting for me. We were going to a bookstore coffee shop to share techniques for clearing the never-ending sink full of dirty dishes in our brain.
A panic attack took precedence. She called to cancel and apologize as though her panic was an insult to me. It wasn’t. I was impressed that she didn’t make up a lie. I know it’s hard to be that honest.
Coping well and being calm during crisis can be a personality trait, like always wearing dangly earrings. It’s difficult to give up because the perks for being accomplished and productive are so good, and the rewards for nurturing the self are so invisible and low.
To be emotionally available and responsive to others, it turns out I have to be emotionally present and responsive to myself. This is not good news and I recoil a little inside every time I remember.
The spilling of actual emotions is as appealing as letting snot leak from the nose or pus ooze from a cut. My default setting is to greet my feelings with the same “What the fuck do you want?” response I received in childhood.
But I’m not a child anymore.
“The only abuser left in your life,” a yoga teacher once said to me in a private session, “is you.” You need to parent yourself the way you wish you had been parented.
Now, I only slip into high self-hate and low self-acceptance when I’m post-traumatically stressed out (parenting, in a relationship, having menopause symptoms, or when a relative dies).
Emotional health requires staying present at least some of the time. Staying present is a challenge for even the most seasoned meditators staring at sunsets and sunflowers. For those who were helpless children, staying present can be impossible. We learned how to do the opposite: We rock at staying absent.
As a child, I air lifted myself out of my body and right into my brain. I played dead or became one with the ceiling. It felt like hiding in a corner while the house was robbed. I was the house. Relatives were the robbers.
Now, I am learning to give up my favorite coping skills. And when I do, all of those old sensations are stored in the stillness. They waited for me to mature and center. That seems so mean.
But this is the work, and sometimes it pisses me off that my energy is spent on this.
I often look for an easier way. I wonder how old I’ll be when I’m done unraveling the knots in my nervous system.
I’m sick of being sick of the process.
I’ve been an adult longer than I was a child and I don’t want to be impacted. Can’t I at least circle new drains or upgrade the scenery on this repeat track. I don’t want to have to do regular exercise to keep off the emotional pounds.
I feel burdened, exhausted, and martyred at times, wearing an itchy wool coat I can’t disrobe.
It is not the presence of bad (abuse) but the absence of good (love, attachment, boundaries, modeling) that injures children into adulthood. Most of us have learned not to drink, abuse, and be violent (yay us!), but the more subtle aspects of self-care and recovery are healthy nurturing, interdependence, making time for love and joy. Those can be mysterious.
What I know is talking to other survivors helps most. We can laugh about missing the “ease” of numbness while knowing the agony of being emotionally blunted isn’t worth the trade off. We can share how strenuous the process feels and is. And we can learn from each other.
This new friend risked being authentic and vulnerable, let down her walls and defenses and showed me what intimacy is.
Talking with her, I was reminded, survivors have symptoms. They can linger for a long time. That’s just how it is. I don’t think any less of her. I felt no judgment. We helped each other. Most days, we are high-functioning warriors building and rebuilding lives and selves. On those days, there is no shortage of people to talk with and relate to.
But on the days we feel tipped over inside by trauma, we need one another, people who get it as though we are sharing the same orange and saying, “It’s juicy, tangy, messy, and sweet.” It’s a sensory, tactile knowing, not theoretical or abstract or requiring a co-pay or short educational asides.
I crave more of this. I have always craved this. I want to be able to say and hear others talking about the important and unglamorous healing of developmental trauma. I want to hear people who document and describe what breaking the cycle actually requires.
We aren’t children anymore, but we are never too old to be reminded we are not alone.
Christine Cissy White is a stay-at-home writer and in-the-world mother and feminist. She writes about how to live and parent well after being raised in hell at www.healwritenow.com and has been published in Ms. Magazine online, The Boston Globe, Literary Mama and Elephant Journal.