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.


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.

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.

An old journal and a new hope.

I’ve spent the evening reading through an old journal. It’s from two journals ago, actually – the current one’s orange, started this morning. The previous one is red. The one before that is yellow, and it’s the yellow one that I’m reading. It dates from just before Christmas, and goes through until the beginning of February. Not actually all that long ago, really – but it feels like an age.

The thing that strikes me most was just how difficult everything was. Just how much I was carrying, how heavy and painful it was. How despairing I was, how hopeless – how I worried that I was falling apart, spinning out of control. Losing my capacity to keep myself together. The water wasn’t over my head – it was perhaps just below my eyebrows. Christmas was horrible – coping with rehearsals and fatigue and the Christmas Eve singing marathon while also buffeted by symptoms of PTSD – and throughout the beginning of January I wrestled with the question of whether I simply give up the choir altogether. I despaired of ever being able to sing again, of being anything other than a burden on my friends and fellow choristers, of ever finding that peace and healing I so desperately sought. At least part of my fragility was simply the raw-edged fatigue of constant, debilitating insomnia.

I’m grateful, this evening, for the chance to read through that bleak bright yellow journal – at least the half of it I’ve read so far – because I’m suddenly profoundly aware of how far I’ve come, of the fact that things have changed, just a little bit, since the beginning of January. I’m sleeping through the night now about as many nights as I’m not; and if the water was at my eyebrows – well, now it’s probably about chin level.

And I’m struck anew with the realisation that, despite the fact that I wrestled – painfully, and hard – with the question of whether to cut my losses and simply leave the choir, I am a chorister. There was never really any option other than to persevere, and to trust that things might get easier. And they have, just a little. I’m learning to live with the symptoms which present themselves when I open myself to the searing beauty of the music which is my weekly fare. I’m learning to make space for the memories which dig their claws into my mind when I allow my thoughts to still when I sing. I remember and sometimes relive each beating, each argument, each verbal and emotional flaying I took over the choir – and there were a lot – but some things are worth taking a beating over and the choir, and the music, around which my weeks revolve are one of those things. And that knowledge helps when things all get a bit difficult.

It’s not easy yet, and it probably won’t be for some time. The path set before me is not smooth. It’s thorny and rocky and there’s still a part of me which is surprised at my friends’ love for me, and at the fact that I’m still able to show up every single week to sing despite how painful it might be. But maybe it’s not quite as thorny and rocky as it once was, and that gives me hope that, by the end of this new orange journal, the way might be just a little smoother than it is now.

And I’m profoundly grateful for that.