The strength of my mind and an inconvenient reality.

I spend a lot of time in my head. It’s always pretty busy in there. Not always with relevant and important information (umm…where are my keys, again? What time does my morning rehearsal start tomorrow?) – but it’s always pretty full.

Don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. I value my intellect and my thoughtfulness and I appreciate my mind’s capacity for thought and analysis and creativity. I like that my mind is busy. I like that it has the capacity to take me away from the day-to-day realities of my life. I enjoy conversations where I find myself traversing fertile intellectual ground; I need the stimulus that intellectual challenge gives me.

In short, I’m a nerd. I’m good with that.

The problem with that, though (other than the obvious: if you lose your keys because your mind was simply too full of interesting thoughts to note where you put them, the keys are still inconveniently lost) is that I tend too far towards what one spiritual director only sort-of-jokingly called “head stuff” at the expense of other things that make me human. It’s all intellectual. I’m learning to be a bit more balanced, but while I value my intellect I’m also aware of a defect: too much head stuff leaves no room for heart stuff. No room for soul stuff. No room for emotion.

And that is a problem for me. Partly, of course, I think it’s important to be a balanced, whole person: brain and body, intellectualism and soul. But also because the moment I stop – the moment my ever-whirring mind stills itself within my skull – I become aware of just how much emotion there is that thought crowds out. Psychic shrapnel working its way to the surface. Or, to use a slightly less eloquent phrase, ten years’ worth of shit waiting for me to deal with it. Waiting for me to feel it. Highly inconvenient, really.

My mind is an incredibly strong organ. I’ve had a lot of practise in not thinking about things – to say nothing of the better part of ten years spent in survival mode, not feeling the things that were happening to me. The further out of that war-zone I am, the more the memories are rising – inconvenient and intrusive and demanding, and always painful – and the more emotion comes with it. Sometimes, when I stop, I find tears spilling from my eyes seemingly unconnected to the contents of my head. Which is pretty much why I don’t stop very often.

And that’s a problem. I realise this. I do realise I need to be brave enough to deal with this emotion, to uphold its value in my life, to become a more balanced person. A person who feels as well as thinks. A person who is courageous enough to do that.

Maybe after Christmas. It’s all a bit busy at the moment.

(Late) evening prayer.

A book happened tonight, and so did beer, and it’s been a demanding week and my hands shook at my rehearsal despite the fact that I didn’t feel particularly stressed, because that just seems to be the way I roll at the moment, and now it’s late and I want to sleep.

I am too tired to write the blog I was planning; so this is my prayer for this evening.

Holy God, Creator of the Universe, who makes all things Sacred:
Surround us this night with your love.
Dwell with us in light and darkness; in joy and grief and tiredness. 

May we know that You were present in the quietness and the demands of this day; remind us, oh God, to see Your spirit in all the people and creatures whose lives touched ours today, and whose lives we touched. 
Help us to let go of the achievements and the worries and the undone tasks and the failures and successes of this day; and as tired minds bend towards sleep, help us to trust that the unknowns of tomorrow exist already in Your love. 
Lighten our darkness, oh God of All, and may the knowledge of Your Presence sustain us and nourish us through this night and into a new day; grant all Your creatures rest, and peace. 

Amen.

 

A small symbol and a prayer that I’d really like to mean.

To the slight perplexity of my real estate agent, who looks askance at it every time I have a rental inspection, I have a small wooden cross fixed to the wall inside my front door, just over the light switch. It’s simple, nothing special, roughly made of untreated pine, but I keep it there as a reminder to start and end my day – whether that be working, singing, or just running errands – with prayer. A reminder that as a person of faith, I can be God to the people and creatures I meet on my travels – or I can not. It’s my choice.

When I come home to my quiet, safe haven in the evenings, I say under my breath the same prayer: Greet me in my solitude, oh God. There are times when it’s rote, a small, unnoticed and yet incredibly important part of my evening routine. There are times when it’s not.

I was struck, though, the other day, saying those words, my hand frozen a heartbeat away from the little wooden cross: seriously? You want to be greeted in solitude by the Creator of the universe? You want that pain-in-the-arse rebel, that inconvenient dinner guest who humbled the powerful and made friends with the wrong sort – you want that Nazarene carpenter, who was so much more than that, to share your evening with you? You want the Source of love and compassion, the Origin of your very being, to spend time with you? Alone, undeflected by the conversation of others on whom you often rely to turn attention away from you? Without the workplace mask of competency and professionalism behind which you hide? Given your emotional cowardice, are you sure you want to be greeted in your solitude?

Right, says the nasty, honest little voice in my head. Didn’t think so.

Because the brutal reality is, I might say all the right things (or not – sometimes it’s easier not to say anything), but I spend a lot of time shutting God out. Shutting myself off from searing compassion. Saying that I’m fine and keeping my head busy. Often it’s true. I am fine, I’m good, nothing to see here. Often it’s not true though. Scratch the surface, and I’m actually anything but fine.

I imagine what would happen if the Origin of life did take me up on my prayer and the narrative figure of Jesus did show up for dinner. I expect he’d have a few pointedly uncomfortable things to say to me – he did to most people in the gospels, after all. But then I imagine myself simply collapsing in tears – gulping, messy, undignified, snot- and saliva-spattered sobbing – and crying myself to exhaustion and rest in the arms of true, terrifying compassion.

And that just won’t do.

So for now, I’ll have to trust that the Creator of the universe – to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hidden – is too pre-occupied with other things to notice that although I’d like to mean my little invitation, it’s kind of more of a general than a specific.

But I guess the Creator of eternity is probably pretty patient.

A touching dichotomy.

I’ve been – in various contexts – doing a lot of thinking about vulnerability lately. How frightening it is. How I want to allow those who love me, and those whom I love, close enough to touch me, but how hard that is too.

Touch is quite a bit about vulnerability. Physical touch, I mean. I am rarely touched, anymore. The choir is the only regular part of my life that contains that tactile form of communication. Professional relationships prevent touch at work; I’m untouchable there, as are my colleagues. It’s only with my choir friends – who I would trust with my life – that hugs will be given; my arm will be tucked into another’s, or someone’s hand on my back or shoulder, unanticipated, will cause me, shamefully, to flinch.

Again, that dichotomy: I crave touch. I long for touch – like that of my friends – that is simple, undemanding. Touch neither to cause pain nor make demands nor to express ownership. Touch that is simply an expression of love, of friendship. Of care and solidarity. I want to learn that touch brings comfort and warmth. I want to learn that the touch that brings pain or demands is not a touch that I should accept, not a touch that is normal, that is right. For so long it was the demanding, painful touch I was used to: now I’m exposed to good touch, to gentle touch, to right touch, and there are times when I long for the tactile comfort and upholding that touch can bring.

And yet I fear it too. I fear the hug from someone who loves me because it goes on for slightly too long – undemanding, comforting, loving, and yet it strips me back, right back to my vulnerabilities. The temptation to simply rest in the safe circle of a warm embrace, to let go of the normally rigid control I keep on my emotions, and simply to weep, to lay down the burden I’ve been quietly carrying – there are times when that temptation is too great, and it frightens me. I have to pull away because I’m only just learning how to weep in front of others. To trust others with my vulnerability. I haven’t yet learned not to hide my vulnerabilities, my tears, my hurt, like some shameful sordid secret. Like the shameful, sordid secret that it actually isn’t.

It’s been a year and two-ish months since I left my ex. A year and two-ish months of wonders, of learning, of healing, of growth. This is the next learning: learning to cradle, to cherish, my own vulnerable soul.

A White Ribbon and one of the lucky ones.

Today is White Ribbon Day. Today, men and women all over Australia have sworn never to commit or stay silent about violence against women. Images of white ribbons are all over my Facebook news feed today. Even my work intranet site has a white ribbon image that drew my eye this morning; so does Google.

And yet, for many people, domestic violence is something that happens to other people. Not in my neighbourhood. Not in my family, my workplace, my friendship group, my church community. Not in my educational level, or socioeconomic status, or political leaning. Not on my radar. It’s terrible, but it doesn’t touch me. We might buy a white ribbon, or spare a thought for those poor unfortunates for whom domestic violence is a harsh reality – don’t get me wrong, it’s with genuine concern, genuine regret, genuine compassion; but with the same level of distance with which we view images of a famine victim on the news. It’s so far removed from our experience that our compassion and distress are academic. We are naive to that particular horror. It’s the oft-repeated refrain: no one I know.

And so, I’d like to introduce myself: I’m a domestic violence survivor. I’m a rape survivor. I’m a sexual assault survivor (yes, there’s a difference). I will never look at a white ribbon with a sense of equanimity. I will never re-gain that sense of naivety, that sense of innocence that I once had. I wish I could. I wish my friends could: some of them, those I’ve trusted enough to really let into my experience, can no longer say that domestic violence is not on their radar, is not personal. Neither can my parents, who must live with the fact that their beloved daughter existed in a violent, volatile war-zone for the better part of ten years, and deliberately and desperately – with the best of intentions – kept them in the dark about it.

For the record, I think that’s probably my biggest regret in all of this.

One woman each week dies as a result of violence from a current or former partner. As terrible as that is, that statistic is not reflective of the literally thousands of women who experience domestic violence over the course of a lifetime. And that statistic is not reflective of women like me, who was too frightened and intimidated and cowed to report what happened to her.

I’m a year out, and I’m still paying for what was done to me. I will carry the scars on my psyche for the rest of my life. I hope that they cease to trouble me after a while. I worry that they won’t. But I got out. And I’m healing, and I have friends and family who care for me and who’ve got my back while I do it.

Which makes me one of the very, very lucky ones.

~

It’s worth mentioning that White Ribbon Day is a male-driven campaign. These are men standing up to other men, saying that domestic violence is not ok. Condemning it. Making it hard to ignore. Standing up for, and with, women like me. Women like so, so many of us. Thanks, lads.

~

It’s also worth mentioning that this is one of the hardest blog posts I’ve ever written. Literally, it has taken several hours. It’s all just a bit close to home, really.

 

This is not a happy post. Sorry.

This is what flashbacks are like.

You can be fine. Absolutely fine. Having a great day, laughing and joking around, enjoying other people. Singing well, feeling on top of things as though you’re actually making a contribution. Actually confident for once, actually feeling as though you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. As though you’re meant to be there – all’s right with the Universe. Then, abruptly…

It’s normally the small things that set you off. The big things you can anticipate: they come with a neon warning flashing over their heads. Trigger!, they scream. This will upset you – and so, because you’re braced against them, they don’t. You get through them and wonder what all the fuss was about.

It’s the things you don’t see coming that shatter you, like the slap that’s so much more shocking because it came from behind, it was a surprise, there was no bracing. In this case, it was nothing more than a hand moving too quickly, and too forcefully, for my war-zone instincts, my abused mind, to cope with. Not even anywhere near me; but in my general direction, and on what, if I were closer, would have been a perfect trajectory with my left cheekbone – and abruptly, nothing exists in the world but that threat. The world narrows and shakes and shatters like a broken photograph frame and all I can see is that image, a fist coming towards my face. I know I’m in the middle of a rehearsal; I can see the music in my lap when I look down, the small black dots and markings on a white page which are supposed to hold meaning, and beauty, and which suddenly are senseless; and riding over everything, a fist coming towards my face. It’s like being plunged underwater, and held there, powerless: pure immersion, pure confusion, pure sensation, pure panic. Sheer, mindless terror that screams silently: get out, get out, GET OUT!, and I break and make a run for it and manage to get outside before the tears and the shaking start.

It’s funny – when the beatings were for real, and when the fist coming towards my face was designed to make painful, bruising contact, I barely reacted. Going limp, protecting myself, passivity – that’s what kept me safe. If you fight, if you try to flee, you get hurt more. Now that the threat is not real – nothing more than a harrowing, soul-deep image burned into the deepest, most elemental part of my mind – my body reacts with terror. All the fear that I should have felt the first time round, all the instinct-driven compulsion to escape – every fibre of my being screams it. And if a flashback is the equivalent of being plunged into icy, burning waters and being held there, helpless and captive to a memory that pins every part of me to its surface – well then, the panic attack that follows is being caught up in the torrent of those waters and swept along, defenceless and unprotected, until I come to rest somewhere hard – in this case, in the lee of an outside wall of the Cathedral, drenched by gentle, soaking rain, cold to my bones and whipped by a hard cold wind – sensations strong enough to override the touch of panic on my skin, of the flashback which now rides my very core. Sensations strong enough to keep me present, to keep my battered mind from withdrawing into itself.

Now, writing this some time later – my mind, after an episode like this, ceases to be capable of holding onto a sense of the passing of time – I just feel tired. Exhausted, my very bones are tired, my soul feels heavy with it. I want to sleep, to shelter in the darkness of my flat, my haven from the world – to wrap myself in it, hide beneath it as though it can protect me from the demons that exist only in my own beaten mind. Tomorrow the sickening shame will set in, another wave I have to ride.

I am ok. Exhausted, drained, ashamed, but ok. I’ll keep putting one foot in front of another and tell myself that this is just a setback and try not to be too judgemental of myself. But, seriously – sometimes having PTSD sucks.

Befriending the dragon, mark II.

Some time ago it was suggested to me that I have a conversation with my anger – well, with the fictional manifestation of it, anyway. I needed to be in touch with the anger at all that happened to me and the broken, abusive man who caused me such damage. I needed to stop fearing my anger. I asked myself: if my anger is a dragon – an anger that has kept me safe, and will continue to teach me where safety lies, if I let it – what would I say to it? What would it say to me? How would the conversation go? It was an interesting exercise, and a helpful one which I actually blogged about – I’m no longer afraid of my anger, and while I’m not quite willing to embrace it just yet, I am willing to give it more of a space in my being. Just a little bit.

This week, it was the turn of vulnerability. It’s something I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about and I fell to wondering: if my anger can be manifested as an acerbic, slightly grumpy dragon with an axe to grind and my best interests at heart, then how about vulnerability?

And I have decided the following:
1. If the fictional manifestation of my anger is a dragon, then the fictional manifestation of my vulnerability is a sweet little creature of whom I shouldn’t be ashamed.
2. For a very long time, my vulnerability has been hidden away where no one can get at it. This was helpful when I was physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually unsafe. It is no longer helpful.
3.  I need to start to acknowledge my vulnerability. I am very good at talking about that – to counsellors, to my spiritual director, even on this blog – but I’m actually quite atrocious at doing it in real life.
4. All of the things I feel in that small, hurt, vulnerable place are ok. I’ve been hurt in just about every way possible. I’ve been physically and emotionally violated and betrayed in ways I couldn’t even have begun to imagine before I found myself surviving it. This happened not just once but literally more times than I can remember. And whenever I stop, whenever my mind empties itself of words and thoughts and analysis and busyness, I feel like shit about it. If it was anyone else, I’d say that they were absolutely entitled to feel like shit. Since it’s me, though, I feel ashamed, and try to pretend that the depth of emotion simply doesn’t exist. And so that vulnerability is forced down further, and further, and further, and I become more and more frightened of how much it will hurt when I finally acknowledge it.
5. I’m not fooling anyone – anyone who knows me, that is – including myself. I’m blessed to be surrounded by friends who know when I’m not ok, who are gracious enough to ask and brave enough to risk hearing the answer, and kind enough to let me get away with telling them that I’m fine. But we all know that there are times when I’m lying.
6. The vulnerability is not going anywhere and neither is the emotion. If my friends are gracious enough and brave enough to ask the question, surely I can be brave and gracious enough to give them the answer.

Don’t know. We’ll see. All I know is, squashing it all down isn’t working. And if it ain’t working, that probably means it’s time to try something different.