Meditation and silent screaming.

Something I’ll do tomorrow, and something I do most Wednesday mornings, is attend a Christian meditation group. Based on the teachings of the desert fathers (or, if you’re one of the three people I know who have read An Alien At St Winifred’s, the dessert fathers, with their dedicated ministry of sweet pastries…), Christian meditation is about moving beneath and beyond the chattering, daily concerns of life, away from the mental and cerebral, and deeper into the self. It is within the self that we discover Other; it is within us that we discover the Being who created us. And, in resting in that Being, we learn to be.

That’s the theory, anyway, and it’s something that resonates within me. It’s something I’m drawn to; it’s something that I need to do, a spiritual imperative. This is the manifestation of my yearning for my Source.

It’s hard though, and at times it’s scary. In meditation, my mind quiets, and I manage (sometimes) to move below the regular mundane tumult of thought and mental to-do-lists and questions and worrying and planning…and when I do, I feel. There’s ten years worth of feeling there, and often it’s painful and often it’s scary and it’s only when my blathering rationality quiets that there’s room for feelings.

Sitting in the group, in the silence of meditation and in the company of other meditators, I’ve felt a scream build up inside me. Starting deep, just below the very bottom of my sternum, its grown and strengthened until I’ve felt that only opening my mouth and giving it voice would bring any sense of relief, of release.

I haven’t, of course. I am a person for whom self-control is a basic and valued attribute, and the idea of actually shattering that sacred silence with a scream of – what? Anger? Fear? A straightforward build-up of too much emotion over too many years? – simply wouldn’t be an option. But the scream is there, and it means something, and part of the journey to within my self that is meditation is working out what that means, and how it’s a part of the healing I’m still journeying towards.

I’ve thought about just bunking off – tossing meditation, like marathon-running, into the useful-but-not-for-me basket of things I’d once thought I’d like to do. Putting it aside until things are easier, more comfortable. But I can’t. As I seek my Source, the Source within me reaches out to Itself, and draws me ever closer to Itself.

Spirit will unfold, and doesn’t seem to care that I’m digging my heels in. I guess I can trust that Spirit knows what It’s doing.

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Nightmares, a common denominator and being a good person.

One of the realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder is sleep disturbance, namely nightmares. It’s spectacularly inconvenient and unpleasant – things can be rolling along quite smoothly, only to be interrupted by sleep-disrupting dreams which leave me unrested and uneasy the next morning, and which often tint the following day with their own insidious brand of anxiety. The really difficult thing about this particular manifestation of PTSD is that there’s no managing it: there are no nice neat strategies which help to reduce their severity.

Sometimes the nightmares are quite overtly horrible: being raped, or fighting for my life in a crowded place while people calmly walk past, or the common-garden-variety horror-movie murderers and monsters. Those ones I can often stop from lingering; I can tell myself that it’s only the random images of a battered mind continuing to seek healing, and I can often return to sleep.

The one I hate the most, though – the one from which there can be no returning to slumber, the one which lingers like a miasma the next day – is the nightmare in which the people who love me respond to me in the same way my ex-husband used to. The same agonising illogic to arguments; the same shocking, soul-penetrating insults; the same threats; and finally, the same searing flare into actual blows. The dreams are vivid: I can feel the seat beneath me, hear the world around me, and the first touch of violence feels the same as it ever did in my waking life. The thing that always brings most horror though – not the insults or the abuse, not even the words of someone who hated me coming from the mouth of someone I know, in my waking life, loves me: the worst horror is the sudden realisation I have in the dream, that since someone else is treating me the way my ex used to, then I must be the common denominator. It must be me. Actually, I must really deserve such treatment.

It’s a shitty realisation to come to, and it seems just as brutal when it comes from my own dreaming mind as if it were a waking reality. It’s a devastating fear to sit with: do I really deserve such a thing? Am I really the horrible person my ex thought I was?

The more time that passes, the firmer I am in the belief that I didn’t deserve it, that I do deserve to be happy, to have friends, to be treated with respect and love as I treat those around me with respect and love. I’m strengthening my resolve in that, and learning to see myself – maybe – as I hope that others see me, and to hope that I’m the good person I want to be. And, of course, it’s a work in progress: but part of being a person is working towards being a good one.

The practice and practise of happiness.

One of the comforts of being half a person is that things are easy. When you live in your head, you don’t have to feel. You dwell in rationality, and the mental life is enough. You can retreat into your head when things are difficult; retreating into my head – what psychologists call dissociation – has got me through beatings and worse, barely feeling them.

The flip side of this is that, while you’re in endurance mode, you feel nothing: no pain, no fear – but no joy. You become entirely detached to the emotional world, the world of being a full, feeling human being.

Now I’m no longer half a human, and I understand that the consequence of this is that I must learn to feel. I must learn to be comfortable with my grief, my shame, my anger. I must learn to manage my fears – and that’s the easy part.

Part of learning to become a whole person is actually learning to be happy: that it’s allowed. That nothing terrible’s going to happen to me as a result of being happy: laughter will not result in a sudden sharp slap; a night out with a friend won’t earn me recriminations and censure.

It’s taking me a while to learn that. It’s taking me a while to realise that happiness can be simple; that there’s no retribution for a moment of light-heartedness; that the jealously of the unhappy will not forbid by high spirits.

And most of the people around me don’t question their happiness. They simply enjoy it, thoughtlessly, without a second’s hesitation, without even a thought that perhaps they don’t deserve it. No second-guessing, no over-thinking; happiness is easy, wonderful, something to delight in, to take pleasure in.

I’d like that to be the case for me. I’m looking forward to learning to be as comfortable in my happiness as in the distress in which I’ve spent so many years. Like everything, it’s a work in progress – but I’m happy, with this learning, to spend the time practising.

Blood flow and why you can’t be creative in a war zone.

This is why you can’t be creative in a war zone: in a war zone, you simply don’t have enough blood flow. It sounds odd, but it’s true. When there are bombs raining down around your head, you spend most of your existence in fight-or-flight mode. Blood flows from non-essential parts of your body to where its needed most; and while creativity is not a physicality within the human body, its inherent enough a part of who I am and how I’m made up for me to use the metaphor almost literally. Not that there were ever bombs raining down around me – by sheer accident of birth I don’t live in Baghdad, or Gaza, or Damascus. But for ten years, I lived in the war zone created between two people. I lived with the constant volatility of unpredictable and at times dangerous violence; I lived with the constant drip-drip of undermining, of words and insults used against me as weapons, of the capricious handing out of affection or abuse. I lived in an environment where safety was not a given, not an automatic right, not something to blithely take for granted. In fact, it was the opposite: violence and hatefulness was what I learned to take for granted – and it was drummed into me (to such an extent that I still half-believe it) that this was exactly what I deserved. So I went into survival mode. Endurance mode. I stopped paying attention to what was going on, what was being said. There was enough self-preservation, enough self-worth, for me to finally tear myself out of that precarious situation – but for the most part, I put my head down and simply kept putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s the problem with endurance mode: you switch off all those things that make you who you are. You shut down all those gentle, fragile parts of yourself which can make you vulnerable, and you bury them deep for their own protection. Not that you realise you’re doing that – with no sense of future, no sense of hope, what’s the point of trying to protect an insubstantial treasure for a time ahead you don’t have? It’s more a loss than a deliberate act of preservation: you simply forget about those parts of yourself that make you who you are, and you cease to feel them, in the same way a body part devoid of blood flow becomes numb and essentially dead. And like a body part devoid of blood flow, the rebirth is excruciating. A big part of coming out of survival mode – literally years after my Emancipation Day, that ill-thought-out, precipitous pre-dawn escape from an increasingly perilous marriage – has been watching and feeling the blood beginning to flow to that stagnant, dead-seeming phenomenon that was, and now is, my creativity. And the Universe – or Spirit – unfolded in such a way that I ended up writing a book, one of the more interesting experiences of this time of healing. And now the world contains one more book, and the fragile creature that once was my battered creativity is a little bit like me – scarred, sadder and wiser for the experience, but very much a survivor. Kind of cool, really.

Piecemeal recollections and ten years’ worth of –

I was asked today by a counsellor about Christmas. Christmas plural. Christmas Days I shared, over ten years, with my ex. What were they like? Were they worse than regular days? Better? Was the drinking better or worse? Was the violence better or worse?

And my answer: I have no idea. I honestly have no clue how to answer those questions. I remember the Christmas before I escaped. Well, I remember two small and specific details about it, surely that counts as remembering, right? But I don’t remember any other Christmas Days in a marriage that lasted the better part of ten years.

Recollections are beginning to come back: piecemeal, for the most part; begrudged; drawn painfully like small barbed thorns from flesh. Triggered, often, by a tiny nothing event: a ring slipping from my finger because I’ve put hand cream on; someone’s innocent phrase that suddenly has a deeper meaning in my memory; the suggestion from a work colleague that we go for after-work drinks at a certain pub; the scent of a bar of soap in a friend’s bathroom. And when they come they’re painful, and intrusive, and more often than not distract me from the actual important thing I’m doing, like singing. Or working. Or just being a person, living a life.

And every time something comes up, I think to myself: How did I forget this shit? How can I not have remembered that event, that pain, that mean-spiritedness, that hurtfulness? How now can I make room for it in my psyche? How can I possibly keep myself from being swept away by the mass of emotion that those small hurts and shames and fears and meannesses cause, from so long ago, emotions that I’m only just beginning to feel as though for the first time? How is it that this even really happened?

It would be nice if it were easy, if I could rationalise it: I forgot those things because this part of my brain did this, because this chemical has this effect on my neurology, because of this psychiatric reality. But there are no nice little answers that I can analyse and then stick neatly into alphabetically-ordered dot points, preferably colour-coded. That would be too convenient. 

My counsellor’s response when I told her that I couldn’t remember incidents around Christmas: “Well, that’s a bad sign”. Not particularly good therapeutic practice, perhaps, but honest. I value that. I also know what it means though. Here are another shitload of memories that I need to go through. Here are another bunch of emotions doing their utmost to keep me from singing. Here is ten years’ worth of shit preventing Advent from being a time of simple, busy, demanding, music-focused joy.

So tonight I’m choosing not to drink, and tomorrow I’ll choose to go to work and then look at my music in the evening, and then on Wednesday I’ll choose to go to my rehearsal and put in all the effort and energy I need to in order to contribute to the choir’s sound, and come Christmas I’ll choose to put my soul into the choir’s contribution to beautiful liturgy and worship at a profound time of year…

And then I’ll start to wade through ten years of shit.

Getting to use the word “antithesis”.

I’ve been thinking a bit about shame. Mostly because I’ve been thinking a lot about self-worth, and it kind of feels like shame is the antithesis of self-worth.

“Antithesis” is a fun word to say.

I’ve been trying to be a bit more open about telling my story, but there are parts of it I’m really ashamed of. I shouldn’t be, I know that, and people much cleverer than me tell me not to be ashamed, and I’m working on it – but a big part of me is ashamed of what happened to me, of what the last ten years have been. Each time I hear myself telling the story, I hear how sordid it is; and I hear my own shame in my voice.

I’ve got to get out from under that. There’s a shame monster in all of us, which lurks quietly behind our thoughts and keeps us from valuing ourselves. I can’t really imagine what he looks like. I think he looks like a rumour; he looks like a whisper; he looks like suspicion and innuendo. He is quiet, and clever, and almost invisible, unless you know how to find him. We’ve all got one – and my shame monster has grown healthy and strong on a diet of abuse and undermining and blaming.

He’s starting to get a bit peckish, though. It’s been a while since anyone other than the shame monster himself called me horrible names, or threatened me, or told me that I’m useless. Eventually, at some stage, it will come to a battle between me and the shame monster – and I’m starting to think that odds are that it just might be a fair(ish) fight.

Vale to a young soul.

A week ago a reader wrote a comment on my blog. She writes that “today a young girl, twenty-two years old, lies dead. The victim of a domestic violence shooting…How I wish she’d had the courage to leave…and stay away.”

I know people who are twenty-two. Two of my closest friends in Newcastle are twenty-two. They are vibrant and vivid and alive. Their lives are open in front of them. They shine with beauty and potential and the strength of who they are, and I admire them more than I can say.

This girl too had people who saw her in that light. A life spreading out in front of her. Travel. Study, a career. A family. A whole world she could have changed just by being who she was. And in a second, a heartbeat act of unspeakable violence, all that was changed.

And there are a lot of us out there who can say, “That could have been me”. If not a gun, then a knife. Or a fractured skull or a brain injury. Internal injuries. Or that slow death of the battered soul of a person living in such fear, under such tyrrany, who in the end does their oppressor’s life-destroying job for them. Alcohol, or pills or a razor in the bath. The edge of a cliff; the train line. That could have been me. That could have been so, so many of us.

Between one quarter and one half of Australian women will experience violence, perpetrated by a man, at some stage in their lives. Most frequently this will occur in the home, and it will be perpetrated by a male partner. So many of these assaults and abuses will – like those against me, perhaps like those against this girl – go formally unreported. Because we are ashamed. Because we are frightened. Because we are taught to believe that it’s our fault. Because we are taught to lie to those who could help us, who could strengthen us. Some of us have the right combination of circumstances, and the right resources, that we can escape. Some of us don’t. Some of us can’t.

I did get out. I had people who were strength for me. Who were my determination. Who held my hope when I had none for myself. And there are tears on my cheeks as I write this: tears for a girl who couldn’t get out. Tears for a girl – just twenty-two years old – who now needs no determination, no strength, no hope. Tears for a family, a circle of friends, a community, who must now begin the agonising – and lifelong – job of healing and rebuilding. Tears because although I hope with all of my scarred and hopeful soul that she will be the last, I know with pained certainty that she will not. There will be many others. Some will get out with their lives. Others won’t.

I take a deep breath and thank God for the life running through my veins. I rage against the violence which took a vibrant soul from the world. I weep for her family and friends and the empty space she leaves behind, and I mourn her and the atrocity of her death.

May she rest in peace.