Letter to my 20-year-old self

At the end of an article on HuffPo where a women now in her second marriage shares what she wished she had told herself on her first wedding day, is this invitation:

Want to share what you’d tell yourself on your wedding day now that you’re divorced?

My first thoughts were:
I’d just tell myself: DON’T DO IT! Run away as fast as you can from any ideas of marriage and fall passionately in love with yourself and your life!

Of course, then I went right on thinking (because that’s what I do) and so decided to put it all down, in part because I need to hear this now as I am grappling with readjusting after another coupled relationship hurt me deeply. Clearly, even a part-time version does not protect me from pain.

Dear bride,

DON’T DO IT! Run away as fast as you can from any ideas of marriage and fall passionately in love with yourself and your life!

Seriously! You are living in a world that is filled with sexism and singlism, which greatly decreases the chance of a marriage or even a coupled relationship being supportive and healthy for you. Add to this your tendency to be empathic and tolerant and you are particularly vulnerable to be targeted by someone who will use your beautiful traits to try to fill his empty cup. (These traits, by the way, this same culture enhances in women, which ought to make us pause.) It is not your responsibility to fill up his cup! And stop making it yours!

Instead of helping someone else live happily ever after, making his life better, throw that energy into your own life! Create a life that you love! Fall passionately in love with yourself (like nobody ever has) and dance away into the sunset happily ever after! Because you know deep down, you are happier when you do that, when you focus on yourself, on your life. Nobody can give you that. And don’t let anybody take that away from you!


Been-there-done-that and Not-Doing-It-Again

About Those Trigger Warnings: One Survivor’s Perspective

This morning a couple of articles about trigger warnings came across my social media radar. The topic seems to be discussed a lot lately. Though today was the first time that I noticed that I am getting triggered by trigger warnings (or rather the idea that they are needed).

How did I notice? I heard myself think things like “How dare they tell me what triggers me! I don’t need protection!” Yupp. Anger. A lot. And I start reading the articles and hardly ever finish them. And I had that familiar sense of disappearing, of becoming helpless, of having to depend on another’s (purported) wisdom, which I sense isn’t all the filled with wisdom as that person might think. The same sense that I’ve had in a couple of abusive relationships where my experience was denied, where I was given help without being asked what would support me, where gratitude for such help was demanded denying that it was unhelpful. Even this post might reflect that I am still a bit triggered afraid that what I’ll say will be dismissed as crazy. This post might be a bit more disjointed, a little less coherent. It is hard to think clearly when triggered. That’s part of being triggered. (Depending on the magnitude of the trigger some or most of the bloodflow is redirected to the more instinctual parts of our brain, taking some or most of our rational thinking capacity offline).

Let’s start with differentiating help from support. I found this elaboration very eye-opening (page 33):

Thinking we know what is better for others becomes a subtle way we do violence. When we take it upon ourselves to “help” the other we whittle away at their sense of autonomy. Nonviolence asks us to trust the other’s ability to find the answer they are seeking. It asks us to have faith in the other, not feel sorry for them. Nonviolence asks us to trust the other’s journey and love and support others to their highest image of themselves, not our highest image of them. It asks that we stop managing ourselves, our experience, others, and others’ experiences of us. Leave the other person free of our needs, free to be themselves, and free to see us as they choose.

Don’t tell me what would help me. Ask me if I want support and, if I do, what would support me. If you’re trouble not helping, ask yourself why.

As someone who gets triggered on an almost daily basis, I also find the discussion about trigger warnings puzzling. Has anybody talked to those of us who are getting triggered? At least my experience seems contrary to the assumptions that lead to trigger warnings. Most of the triggers I experience are tiny and don’t require more than a little awareness (“oh, I got triggered”) and a deep breath. When I see a certain car make and color, I notice how my body tenses up, only relaxing when I see that the driver isn’t the person I expected. Deep breath. Moving on.

Some triggers are more massive. I remember a particularly big one after reading about the ethics of care. In the reading, a sentence triggered me: Something along the lines that a battered woman who kills her abuser will never be a woman who has not killed. I instantly realized in every cell of my body that no matter what I do I will never be a woman who has not been raped and who has not been abused. Enter flashbacks and a descent into depression. It took me a day and a half to dig myself back out. Fortunately, it was fairly soon after spraining my ankle. Somehow the analogy to a physical injury allowed me to make room for this psychic injury. I came out stronger, more healed, and empowered. I had been able to deal with a massive trigger – yes!

So, are we now going to put trigger warnings on every book that talks about abuse? What about those cars that trigger me on a daily basis? Both, in my opinion, would be silly. What was way more important for me than avoiding the trigger was to know how to deal with it. Part of being a woman who will never be a woman who has not been abused is precisely the fact that I get triggered! This is a part of me now as much as I still struggle to accept this. Instead of putting on gloves, I want to learn the tools that help me live with this reality. Trigger warnings tell me “you’re too weak, too messed up to deal with this. Here, let me protect you.” This is everything but empowering. It is DISempowering – and all too similar to my experience in abusive relationships, as I pointed out above. And it is the easy way out. It also suggests that all we have to do about the reality of oppression, violence, and abuse is slap trigger warnings all over the place. As if trigger warnings are enough to avoid the pain. That’s not how this works for those of us who actually do get triggered! We often cannot avoid triggers (unless we want to become hermits…).

It’s a song. It’s a sound. It’s a location. It’s a car. It’s a look. It’s a way someone’s hair flows.

Reading about rape is not triggering to me. It is very uncomfortable. Reading about domestic violence is not triggering to me. It can be uncomfortable. Mixing up discomfort with the natural reactions to the experience of past trauma is not helpful. And it falls along the same troubling lines of watering down the meaning of “trauma.”

To return to one of my recent big triggers… Ethics of care is the approach to ethics that resonates a lot with me. I would have been missing out on something very important intellectually if I hadn’t read this because of a trigger warning. And I would have missed out on some very deep healing, too, if I had not gotten triggered. Instead of being so worried about protecting us from getting triggered, how about empowering us to use the experience to heal more? Or even better, how about celebrating our resilience, our ability to deal with triggers? At least I would appreciate that. Some other survivors might want to approach triggers differently. Please ask. Don’t assume you (or I!) know what we need. It might turn out that most of us would appreciate more a list of sources of support than a trigger warning. After all, part of the challenge of getting triggered is that these triggers seem to come out of nowhere. What I do then, once I got triggered, is what I find most helpful. Not avoiding the trigger, which often isn’t even possible.

Letting Go and Moving On

Sometimes rituals can help us let go and move on. So, I decided to take advantage of the supermoon this weekend. Even though I don’t really believe that there is anything magical about it, it seemed like an appropriate event for letting go. Because sunshine tends to disappear as quickly as it appears during this time of year where I live, I decided to go to the beach when the sun was out, which meant, of course, I would miss the moon. The warmth of the sun was more important to me.

Walking to the beach, I listened to Tara Brach’s latest talk “Awakening from Trance – Embracing Unlived Life” (link to audio file), which included a brief check-in meditation that set the tone for my ritual (my words, hers are slightly different):

Breathing in,
I make contact with what is going on in my body.
Breathing out,
I make space for it.

Then around 5 pm, I started my ritual. I had walked to the beach, taken my shoes & socks off, rolled up my jeans, and stepped into the water with my bare feet. I also had brought along two pieces of paper: A reminder of the relationship I want to let go of and a letter from sexism to me, which was a rather viscous outpouring of what my inner critic tends to tell me. I also had matches on me in case I felt like burning either. As I read the letter from sexism, I curled up the paper with the relationship reminder into my right fist. When I finished reading the letter, I curled that up into my left fist – finally balling up all those lies that my inner critic keeps hurling at me! I took a few breaths holding the bunched up papers in my fists.

First, I threw the bunched up picture, the relationship reminder, into the water. It bobbed in the ocean, slowly floating away from me (as I had visualized a few times before). Then a wave picked it up, broke over it, and – it was gone! I watched to see if it reappeared. It didn’t. I was free!

Then, I threw the bunched up letter from sexism into the ocean with my left hand, watching satisfied as it flew into the water, proud that I could throw pretty well with my left, too. It then bobbed a bit in the water, was picked up by a wave, turned over, and was gone, too! Freedom!

I decided to walk on the beach for a little bit with my feet in the water whenever a wave would come close. I found a sand dollar I liked and decided to take it with me as a memento of this important occasion. After a short walk, I sat down into the sand and just looked into the ocean as its water glistened in the sun, remembering what it just had taken from me. Somehow the ritual didn’t feel complete. I wanted to somehow seal the freedom into my being. So I touched the soles of my bare feet, put the sand dollar on top of my heals (because I couldn’t figure out where else to put it 😉 ) and did three seated sun-breaths, stretching my arms out to the side, lifting them up over my head as I breathed in, and then touching my palms and lowering my hands & arms as I breathed out.

Breathing in freedom.
Breathing out – let it go.
Breathing in freedom.
Breathing out – let it go.
Breathing in freedom.
Breathing out letting the sense of freedom settle into my body.

On my way home, I listened to three songs by Dikanda dancing mostly in my mind to the music: The Rachenitsa Lazito, the Čoček De Le Lej, and the Yiddish song Sha Stil.

Because the sun was setting as I wrote this, the fog was rolling in again, I was pleased that I decided not to wait until sunset!

What Happened?

You might’ve wondered what happened reading a line in my last post. Yes, I was in a coupled relationship over the past year or so, a non-traditional one trying out solo-poly (and my troubles had little, if anything, to do with that!), though it was also filled with couplemanic hopes of having found The One. And that was partly why I hadn’t reached out to anyone locally: As a singles activist, I told myself, I wasn’t allowed to have a relationship like that. Even when it was part-time. We spent most weekends together, after all. Then when it became obvious that he was believing in all sorts of conspiracy theories, I was pulling away even further because someone subscribing to skepticism and science-based, rational thinking should not be with someone who so clearly came to some rather irrational conclusions. Yet, I stayed. There was something that drew me into the relationship. I don’t know if that was all his charm and thus not real or whether it was the hope of healing from past trauma in a new, loving relationship. Probably a mix of it all.

It took me quite a while to realize that there wasn’t only past trauma bubbling up. There was new stuff: Not being treated with care and respect; not being included in decisions that impact me; receiving empathy only in certain contexts when it seemed to be expected. I slowly started to see how the same type of fallacious thinking that leads a person to believing in conspiracy theories – false dichotomies, lack of humility, cherry-picking, appeals to emotion, and faulty generalizations – also impacts how they interact with other people. And it was hurting me in that relationship. There was also a weird certainty around what the future would hold – based on lack of understanding of probability – and that future was dire (though not based on climate disruption and even that future might not turn out as catastrophic as some of us think). When he declared to be proud of that future focus, it was instantly clear to me that I would not succeed in arguing (as in philosophical argument) him out of his irrational beliefs. They were too ingrained, mutually reinforcing each other, and based on lots of unquestioned faulty thinking and unprocessed trauma. That’s when I ended the relationship.

And, yet, its after effects are lingering: There is isolation, some of it at least self-imposed in part because I crave solitude and in other part because I struggle with shame and depression (again…). It’s amazing what my mind can come up with to hurl at me… And it seems that this relationship has reopened some wounds that I had thought I had healed: The doubt around my lovability, doubt of my ability to achieve anything in this life. Yes, it’s time for some deep healing work, which actually already started while I was still in the relationship: Trauma-sensitive yoga, generative somatics, other yoga and mindfulness meditation. Yes, I know, all not supported by science… I am exploring adding cognitive-behavioral therapy to the mix as well, though for me horizontal integration might be particularly helpful since I tend to not notice the signals my body sends that could help me realize that I am telling myself crap, I mean, thoughts that lead to shame and wanting to isolate. It’s hard to refute something I am not even aware of telling myself!

Catch-22 of Depression

I don’t know if I have the clinical version of depression but I certainly have some of its symptoms. And it seems like they’ve been lurking in the background since at least my teenage years, always coming hand-in-hand with loneliness and shame, coming into the foreground whenever something happens to throw off my fragile inner balance.

This morning, I realized that I know a lot of people (my Facebook connections, for example, are over 400 and I’d guess that I’ve met at least half of these folks in person). Yet, nobody has checked in with me to find out how I am doing even though I very publicly announced my recent break-up (on Facebook, too) and how much it was impacting me. People send e-hugs and “likes” (which I presume were signs to let me know they know… not that they really liked I wasn’t feeling well). Since then, I haven’t gotten any notes or emails to say “hey, just wanted to check in.” I have only one friend and she of course knows since we talk ever day via phone.

Maybe this then is what made me vulnerable to be swept off my feet by a man with lots of narcissistic traits: Social isolation. And that’s a catch-22 with the low-grade depression I tend to fall into: Caring connections would probably help keep me out of the hole and it’s incredibly challenging to care about connections when I am in the hole. As I look back over the past few years, I can see all the times where I could’ve reached out to someone with that “hey, just wanted to check in” email to check in with them after they had lost someone (whether in a break-up or through a death). I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe because it would have taken more energy than I had after holding myself together. And, yes, there’s some shame around that, though maybe not enough to push me into the hole because I have already reached out this morning, purposely counteracting the pull of the shame. So, out of all these insights came a vow to be more open about my struggles, my loneliness, and also to reach out to others in support in the way I would like to be supported. After all that’s how friendships are built, I think…

Update about 12 hours after I wrote the above: Several people quietly reached out to me, reminding me that I am not really as alone as I think in these moments of loneliness! A big bow of gratitude to all of you!

And I also found it funny to realize that I am still craving solitude for my healing. It is interesting how close loneliness and solitude are – and I am going to explore if I can turn the next experience of loneliness into solitude, which is actually something I treasure!