Wisdom in passing.

I was talking – well, messaging, actually – with someone who’s been through a lot recently. She’s not someone I know well, but I like her: I like her gentle essence, her calm presence. She gave me permission to share something she wrote about the darkest time in her life, what sounds like one of the bleakest things a human can experience:

At the time, I cursed myself for not having the guts to end it all, but now I can see that it was my greatest strength not to do so.

Wow.

She’s absolutely right, of course, and I’m blown away by her conviction and her wisdom. Because sometimes strength is not taking action; it is not fighting; it is not decisiveness. Sometimes, strength is in simply being. Waking up each day, knowing that it might be easier but it’s likely to be fucking hard. Knowing that there may never be dawn at the end of the long, dreary night, but that the darkness can be endured for just a little longer.

What more can I say? At the time, I cursed myself for not having the guts to end it all, but now I can see that it was my greatest strength not to do so. 

There’s not anything I can add, really. So I won’t.

A new task.

Part of moving out of survival mode, away from the day-to-day struggle of symptom management, has brought great blessing. I no longer fear that I’m going to disgrace myself in front of people whose opinions I care about; I’m no longer desperately hoping that I’ll get through the next rehearsal, the next service, without the beauty of the music searing my soul and bringing on the sort of stripped-bare vulnerability that triggers a flashback, or a panic attack. I’m learning to make peace with the fact that there are certain things that my damaged psyche can’t quite cope with yet; I’m learning to give myself, and my messed up limbic system, a break.

Part of moving out of survival mode has been learning to value my anger, learning its safety and upholding its right to itself, and my right to it. Part of it though, has presented a new challenge, one which I don’t quite feel ready for but which seems to be upon me anyway: now that I’m no longer dominated by the demands of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, I’m forced to come face-to-face with the reality of what actually happened to me.

I don’t want to wallow in it. I don’t want to become overwhelmed by it. I don’t want to be devoured by memories I can’t control, which force me to relive them instead of simply recollect them. I don’t want to become unwell; I don’t want to be unsafe with these memories, unsafe with myself. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt and not keen to return.

I also don’t want to push the reality of my experience away; I don’t want to seal it all up in some mental box and hope frantically that it goes away. For one thing, that feels a little dishonest; for another, I’m pretty sure that the head-in-the-sand approach doesn’t work all that well.

What I need is a way to hold all this stuff, to make space for it in my mind and my heart and my soul, to acknowledge it for what it is, and grieve it, and rage against it, without being destroyed by it. I want to learn to carry it gently. I want to learn how not to give it power.

I suspect, though, that part of learning all of that will involve actually feeling it. How inconvenient.

A new anger.

I wrote yesterday about the fact that starting to move from survival mode has meant less of a focus on symptom management. And that means actually, finally, acknowledging the reality of what happened to me over ten years in a violent marriage: literally hundreds of assaults; sexual abuse and assault; more than one occasion on which I could have lost my life.

And I’m actually a bit angry about that. Not the white-hot solar flare of anger which roars out of control and incinerates everything – friend or foe – in its path. This anger is not frightening, not destructive, not relying on me to keep it under rigid control in order to keep myself, and others, safe. It’s not like that at all.

Thank God.

This anger, the anger that I’m just starting to discover, is quiet, and patient. It’s not volatile, searing up at the slightest provocation; its not clamouring for release or howling for bloody revenge; it simply is. It’s quiet, and hard, and unyielding, like a stone.

It’s a safe anger. It’s an anger that will keep me safe. It’s an anger that says, this is wrong. The injuries I’m still living with are wrong; the things I’m starting to remember, assaults in their tedious, terrifying detail, are wrong. It is not ok for one human being to treat another like this. It is not ok for me to have spent ten years in fear. And I will not allow this to happen again.

It’s an anger which tells me, too, that I am not to blame. I was a victim of, not a contributor to, assault. I am not deserving of everything that was done to me. I am not something of which I should be ashamed. I am not someone whose very existence warrants violent, and dangerous, punishment.

This new, quiet, quite gentle anger is telling me this. So are the responses of the people I’ve learned to trust with the small details of some of what happened to me. The friendships which have strengthened me these last two years, these people who have loved me both in and out of survival mode, are starting to make me believe that actually, I didn’t deserve this shit. I am worth the space I take up in the universe, all five-odd foot of it.

Now, I’m just learning to believe it.

…and the vicissitudes of being out of it, mark II

My life is no longer taken up with survival, either from domestic violence or from the mental health implications of it: post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks and panic attacks and nightmares and all the challenges of life with an anxiety disorder. Suddenly, after two years of freedom, I’m starting to feel free from the fearful responses of my own battered mind.

Now, it’s time for a new job. Now that I’m no longer living my life by simply trying to get through each day, to keep my symptoms under control, to hold down a job and keep my friends and my place in the choir when my inner world was shaking, my mind is freed up a little bit. My soul and my self are freed up a little bit.

Now the storm’s over, and it’s time for the clean-up.

Now it’s time for me to learn to make room within myself for what happened to me – literally hundreds of assaults; rape and sexual abuse; ten years’ worth of drip-drop acidic belittling, denigrating, undermining my worth. And that’s hard, because it involves actually looking at this stuff. Looking at what was done to me, things I survived, and not becoming overwhelmed by them, but no longer minimising them. Looking at them honestly, without the gentle layer of numbness – alcohol, or dissociation, or that quiet imperceptible fog of detachment which allowed me to take a beating, or live through a rape, and then get up, brush myself off and go on with my day. Looking at them openly, and in vulnerability, accepting their horror and allowing myself – for the first time, really – to feel it: not the fear I’ve lived with for so long, the fear that actually distracts from the reality of that pain, but the pain itself. The pain, and the anger.

And that’s the hardest bit, or one of them. Where do I put that anger? I have learned to trust myself that I won’t lose control, hurt myself or someone else. I won’t take my anger out on some innocent who simply bumbles into my path – most of the time. And I’m not stupid enough to seek a confrontation with the person towards whom my anger should be directed, even if I knew where he was – so what do I do with it? How to I learn to hold it gently, to find room for it? To uphold it as important, to allow it to keep me safe?

It’s a big thing to find room for, anger.

Survival mode…

A thousand years ago, or maybe only a few months ago, I wrote about how difficult it is to suddenly be out of survival mode. Suddenly, I was no longer living with that constant sense of threat, or churning volatility. I spent ten years knowing that the next innocent thing I said or did – the clearing of my throat, a mis-speak, the dropping of a DVD – could be the thing that sparked off the tirade of abusive vitriol, the slap, the beating. And that the next beating could be the one which went wrong: the human body is frighteningly fragile, and there’s only so much it can take. I lived in that constant vulnerability, and it was my day-to-day reality, and I coped with it because that was all I could do.

It changed once I left. Suddenly, no longer under threat, my body reacted with fear at every non-threat I came across: a hand flung out in the animation of conversation; raised voices; unexpected touch. Even today, two years after seizing my freedom, two years and more after the last beating I took, the sight of a clenched fist still makes me feel sick. In the immediate time after leaving, life became a struggle: the struggle to re-build, to keep myself well and safe, in the storms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even in freedom and safety, my emotional energy went into survival: not physical survival this time, but surviving panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, that constant crawling anxiety which made so many moments difficult. My new life became about getting through the next day, and the next, and in hindsight it was exhausting.

My last panic attack was only yesterday, and I’m still jumpy sometimes, and there are still some things – pieces of music, phrases, sights – towards which I cannot hold any sense of equanimity. Sometimes I still have nightmares, and I’m told I might experience flashbacks occasionally for the rest of my life. But that’s ok, because it’s better, and it’s all managable, mostly, and even when it’s not – like yesterday – I know what to expect and how to take care of myself and keep myself safe. Life is richer now, and it’s no longer about symptom-management.

Which is wonderful, and I’m grateful, but it presents another problem: now that, for a second time, I’m no longer in survival mode, there’s now space in my head to start to make room for what happened to me.

More about that tomorrow. For now though, I’m grateful, because nothing can bloom in survival mode.

Light in a circle of hell.

I’ve spent the day (for work, I hasten to add) at the Magistrates’ Court which serves my local area. Tomorrow, I think I’d rather spend the day in the first circle of hell. Or any circle of hell, really.

Unless a Magistrates’ Court is in fact one of the circles of hell.

These are some things I witnessed:

  • men wearing open-collared shirts and stiff new suit trousers and Converse runners and bad tattoos, their bravado as ill-fitting as the formality of their court attire.
  • women thinned and wizened and aged before their time by hard living and alcohol and weed and too many children and not enough money and the weight of the world on their skin-clad shoulders.
  • a young woman, huddled into her defendant boyfriend, shoulders hunched against the over-heated stuffiness of the air-conditioning and her face tight with tension. She kept touching his hand in her lap, as though to remind herself that he was still there.
  • a conversation between a defendant and his solicitor – “How can I explain to the judge why you did that? You just lost control? And you regret it now, of course?” – while his mother watched anxiously in her best clothes, twisting the strap of her green leather-look handbag around and around in her fingers. Later I watched her coming out of one of the courtrooms, alone but for the solicitor. “Six months,” she kept saying, as though that would somehow force this new reality of her life to make sense. “Well, it was a serious offence,” he said gently, and his face was tired and his eyes were sad.
  • a child, a little girl, barely more than four, playing quietly in the waiting area while her mother waited to have her own charges heard. (“What am I looking at? Four to eight months? Jesus, can’t you get me off?”) She alone of all of us was an innocent, untouched by the world’s darkness, looking people in the eye – the most alive creature in that place – and yet when her mother’s frustration erupted in a push that cracked the little girl’s head against the wooden doorframe, she was completely unperturbed by the sudden and – to her – unprovoked assault. Already, this little being is impervious to the violence which will almost certainly mar her life.

I left the courthouse reeking, in my mind, of the stench of human misery, human despair, which clung to my skin. Now, after a hard workout and a shower and a glass of juice and Beethoven’s first symphony on the CD player, I’m trying to remind myself that there’s light in all the darkness I saw today. The gentle, tired sadness of the solicitor and the innocence of the child, the love of the mother and the girlfriend, whatever idealism or determination which keeps the Legal Aid solicitors at their battered formica tables in the windowless, unadorned room they’re allocated. And there’s light in the fact that each of those human souls trapped in that place – whether they left under their own steam or in the back of a prisoner transport van – is a sacred manifestation of the Divine, loved beyond their capacity to understand by a Creator they may never know, but Which holds them, passionately, in the safety of Its arms.

And there it is. That’s the light in the darkness I was looking for.

Suicide Prevention Day, small things, and a little flicker of light.

I was going to write a post on a whole different topic tonight – it involved liquorice – but today is World Suicide Prevention Day, something I (to my slight shame) only discovered when I logged into Facebook just now.

World Suicide Prevention Day.

I’m tired, and it’s only Wednesday but it’s been an incredibly long week, and despite my best intentions, a book and wine happened, and so my washing-up is still piled on my sink, and my laundry is still in a pile (depending on your definition of the word “pile”) on my bedroom floor, and as of tonight there’s a smell in my fridge, and all I want to do is sleep for a month, and I can’t think of anything profound or meaningful or inspirational or beautiful to write on a day which, it turns out, is deeply pertinent to my experience, my narrative, my life.

Because I was on that cliff face, watching the waves beneath me dash themselves to pieces against the patient rocks, and feeling the sun on my face and the breeze playing with my hair, and knowing that I should stay alive for so many reasons, and desperately not wanting to. Desperately wanting to cast myself to the waves, the rocks – I craved the peace of freefall and I wanted my life to end, because for me there was no way out of the brutal and life-draining and spirit-withering and identity-stealing and terrifyingly secret captivity of a violent marriage.

I didn’t step off the edge of the world, and most days now I’m glad of that. And I hold quietly the knowledge that my reason for not stepping off the edge of the world was small – minuscule, in the scheme of a life: Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, the silvered polyphony, four- and five-voice harmonies weaving around each other in painful, exquisite beauty. One day, I’d like to thank Mr Palestrina.

It’s the small things. So often those big, broad, sweeping reasons to live – family, love, friends, beauty, hope itself – are too abstract, too far away. People for whom you would walk through fire without a second’s hesitation: in that depth of darkness, they are no longer real. Nothing is real inside that utter bleak, dreary, soul-destroying lack of hope. It’s the small things which are exactly the right size to cling onto: one stranger’s smile; an adored and adoring animal waiting at home; a coffee date; a football match; a beautiful Mass setting to be sung that bleak and sunny morning, that I didn’t want to miss out on.

It’s the small things. And we can be small things too.

Reach out. Don’t be scared to ask the question: Are you ok? Does he hit you? Are you thinking of suicide? What’s wrong? So often we don’t even have to have an answer – most people don’t need others to sweep in and fix things for them. Most people just need someone to notice. Someone to step inside the darkness with them, and to have the courage to stand witness to it. To wait with them within it.

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. St John’s gospel doesn’t say that the light barges in and saves the day, and beats the shit out of the darkness, and they all live happily ever after. It just says that the darkness doesn’t win. And the reality is, you only need a flicker of light to remind the darkness who’s boss.

Shall we hold that light for each other?