Recently in Personal History Category
There is so much happening in my life and I do not know where to begin. But I will. I so want to write here because this place has always been vastly different from my journal. Writing here is always about perspective, taking a step back and making sense. A touchstone. A rung on the ladder.
As with all of us, when life becomes truly complicated, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Life can become one giant load of crap. It can easily not make sense. The metaphor I have been using for the past year is a "hole." It is not a new metaphor for me. Hole in the Sand was a poem I wrote 20 years ago.
But I am not where I was 20 years ago. Or 10 or 5 or 1. I am here. In this moment. Now.
Five years ago, when this blog was born, I was finally able to say "I am not going to accept the status quo any longer."
I said "I am not going to fight for my life only when it's convenient for me or someone else."
I said "My safety has to come first."
I said "I am the number one priority in my life, not any other person including my family."
I said, rather loudly, "I am going to do everything in my power to not fall into that fucking hole!"
But to say that, I had to first know and say, even louder, "I have power."
Twenty years ago I had no ability to make statements like these. But in 2009, just a year after saying such statements, I had finally brought myself to The Contract—my truths. Every day is now about living up to and building on that contract.
Lasting change requires embarking on a journey. A long, difficult, painful and joyous journey which requires scaling mountains, moving mountains if need be, doing the impossible, never saying never, and most importantly never giving up. This journey requires such brutal honesty and an unfettered willingness to look directly into the depths of your psyche and soul. It requires facing anything and everything that is difficult, no matter when it comes up. There is no picking and choosing. There is no putting anything off. The stakes are too high. It requires constant commitment, especially when you are stuck in reverse.
And even with all of that, change is painfully slow. Change is not linear and does not always move forward. That has been such a painful lesson, which has allowed me to cultivate patience.
Eventually, the truth becomes firmly established, and denial falls away. Then if your truth is ever questioned inside or out, you will always be able to stand up, maybe not in that moment, be certain of your truth and speak it, and not look back. For truth is not borne of arrogance or ignorance, but rather strength, perseverance and knowledge.
While I know it is not fair to compare my life or my journey to others, there is a simple reality that I will say just once and then leave alone. I am saying this because it is sometimes how our truth can be questioned—either we or others minimize, normalize or outright dismiss. Challenges some face are harder than others. Some journeys are more complicated, have more mountains and are longer. Some experiences are more traumatic than others. There, I said it! That is just a simple reality. That is life. It just is. It does not mean someone is better or worse than someone else. It just means that what we each face is different. For example, I cannot envision a life without legs (or arms). That, to me, seems impossible. I cannot envision a life where all your children die in a car accident in one fell swoop. And I certainly cannot envision a life where my bathrooms are not clean!
But I can envision a life of an adult who as a child of five was sexually abused in kindergarten, was sexually and spiritually abused by a priest for years in elementary school and middle school, and was sexually abused at the hands of other men through high school and college and beyond, even though I suppose I could have "chosen" to escape it. I can envision a life where religion was perverted and distorted at the hands of others. I can envision a life where the take home message from abusers was that I am worthless (despite the language of "love" sometimes used). I can imagine a life with an ever-present fear and, yes, terror. I can imagine a life where one abuse makes it easier for the next abuse, because my vulnerability was exposed and ripped open and manipulated. I can imagine a life ruled by guilt and shame, mostly because even when physically you escape abuse, inside you do not think you deserve better and you can seek it out. That is very easy.
That was my hole. I did not choose that hole. I was put in that hole.
That was my life—past tense. This, my healing, is what my journey is about—present tense.
My challenge is not so visible. This is the single biggest lesson I have learned from my friends because I always assumed it was in plain sight for the entire world to see. But if you look at me on the street in my day-to-day life, you will see me with my legs and arms. I try to dress nice and be presentable. I smile. I laugh. I love. I always try to be kind to others. I talk to friends. I have a family. I volunteer at my kids' schools and take them to their activities. I keep my yard and house neat. I play piano. I work. I am not perfect at all of these. But I try and I do the best I can. And, yes, my bathrooms are clean!
My challenge is the injury inside my head and the injury to my soul. My scars are mostly inside and they are deep. To survive, to stay alive, I had to do extreme things inside my head to compensate for the emotionally intolerable real-life situations I had to endure. To survive, to simply see another day, I took the different facets of my psyche, which every human being possesses, the different compartments we all hold memories and emotions inside, and drove them into another realm, another dimension. For me, it really has always been about life or death. That may sound overly dramatic, but it is entirely accurate.
We call how my head is structured dissociative identities. These days it is frowned upon to think of them as different people or even to say different personalities. I fully know they are not different people. But I also know the experience of them in the past, much less so in the present, is that they can feel like different people, act like different people, and can be in situations that if you objectively looked at them would say are the lives of different people.
I do not like to call how my head is structured a disorder. I would rather call it dissociative identity injury. Others can call it a disorder and that is fine. But it is an injury, plain and simple. While I often view it as a disorder myself, I must think of it as an injury first and foremost. I am not ducking anything by saying that. Saying that is not a cop out.
Imagine, for a moment, what a typical 24 hour video of my life back in the day may have looked like. Take a day that begins with me as a child not being able to wake up and not wanting to face the world; a day of waking up to fear. I go to school and have lunch and recess with my friends. It's an early release day, so I go to church with the priest where I serve as an altar boy then "hang out" with him in a twisted kind of way where I get sexually assaulted. I come home to milk and cookies and a loving Mom and Dad and friends and street hockey and dinner and studying. I struggle not to throw up (and sometimes fail). I feel terror building as bedtime nears and then I lay for hours staring at the clock minute by minute while trapped in fear. I would often get a phone call from the same priest on the second phone line in the basement and race down to get it so my family will not hear it and find out the whole truth. Because it's all my fault. Because I'm supposed to protect the secret. Protect him. Back in bed, I reenact the assault of earlier in the day until I bleed, purely to have my body be in my control (whatever that meant). Finally, at some hour in the middle of the night and still trying to will the clock through to the next morning, I fall asleep to nightmares of being chased by a murderer. And that is how I wake up, in terror, the next morning. While the details changed, that was the cycle. That was my hole.
Of course because of the way my head was structured, I didn't know all of this video with such perspective. Every piece of it existed in its own place. I could not tell you the "whole story" back then. That was the entire point of how I survived it all.
The sad reality: this is not a rare video. I have met countless others who endured similar intolerable abusive situations. It is not even a video that could only happen many years ago. It happens in the present. Every day. In our neighborhoods.
How I know the truth of this 24 hour video is that I have healed. I have learned how to bring the walls down between the parts of me who exist in different dimensions by building internal trust. I have learned to communicate between them—installing phone lines across "continents." Parts have learned to share—building bridges between "mountains." And the truly cold reality of how I know the truth of this 24 hour video, is that even though I have come so far, my journal in which I am constantly recording how I process my life, will often record such titanic shifts of experience and consciousness which makes it all so real. That is what is my reality. That is my truth.
A long time ago when I met others who said they were abused over and over again by multiple people in different contexts, I would immediately have a judgement and think "There is more to this. Surely, lightning doesn't strike two or three or four times." For years I chose to focus on what was "easy" and what was irrefutable. I was abused by a priest. It was simple. It was known. It was neat. There were records. Sure, I knew about the pieces of the bigger picture. But I was not willing to tie them all together. Until this past year.
That is when I came face to face with the hole last fall. And that is really what never giving up is all about. I stood up in the face of terror. The hole I wrote about 20 years ago came back to me full circle.
As one person, I am determined to live, to thrive, to heal, to be happy, to never wear my past on my sleeve, to never use being a "victim" as an excuse, to make the right choices, to do the right thing. I take responsibility for my actions. I don't have to try that hard to never ever whine about my past. I will not be beat. I will not give up. That is who "all of me" is.
But I have parts of me in a way that is drastically different than most other people. And the reality is that parts of me were broken in a way that I have come to accept is different from other parts of me. I am certainly not, as one person, broken or in a hole. But some parts of me are. Always. That is their existence. That is what they know. They know being hurt. They know how to be hurt. They do not see a way out.
Sometimes the walls go back up and the phone lines are disconnected. Sometimes the past is the present. Sometimes I fall into that hole. Sometimes I am not safe. Sometimes, as one person, I do experience being broken. Because that is reality to some parts of me.
While I have come so far, my journey is not by any means complete. It just changes. I keep going. I keep fighting. I fight for these parts and for all of me.
I hold onto the hope that they are not truly broken. They are still alive after all. I hold onto the hope that there are other parts of me near them willing to reaching out. That they can see, maybe across a long, narrow and tattered bridge, to the other side. I work to reconnect the phone lines. I hold onto the hope that they will connect. That they use their anchors. That they will ask for help. That they will not give up.
And when my fight is not enough... I fight harder.
In what was the first real post on this blog, a bit over two years ago, I wrote about safety and the healing I had done to that point. How fitting that on the two year anniversary of this blog, I am coming back to safety. Indeed, I posted this month's Carnival activity on safety—which will be published Saturday night. At the time, I did not think it was going to be terribly hard for me. Was I wrong!
I had no idea what to submit for my own contribution. The last couple of weeks have been enormously difficult, tumultuous, and confusing. I experienced some instability around the time I posted Hallelujah Piano Cover. But since then, I have experienced massive time warps, huge amounts of lost time, safety concerns, fundamental rifts in awareness and perception, as well as accomplishments that I thought were not possible anymore. The only point in telling this is that life has been too complicated to even contemplate how to capture safety in any way.
But, the ship was righted today. Almost precisely in the same way it was a month ago, except without needing to go into the hospital.
I decided that for my Carnival submission on safety, I would look through my photo galleries and try to collect images that are most safe for me.
There are many pictures of my daughters that show them as safe. Two, for example, taken when each was born, show them swaddled in the hospital blanket with the sock on their heads in the nursery crib. There are hundreds like that. All safe. And while I know I felt a huge sense of safety at the time, the images tell a story that the safety is really on their end. Plus, I did not want to imply that safety is only at infancy which, of course, is not even true for many.
So, I started looking for different images, going through each gallery to see which "spoke" safety to me. I quickly saw pictures of my now-deceased grandparents. Since I was extremely close to them and have often said that I have felt most safe with them, I knew I need to focus my attention there. But as I began gathering images to show, I started having an experience that is evolutionary for me. There are tears. But so much joy and so much awareness of safety.
We always did a lot as a family with my grandparents. There were the customary Sunday dinners, Christmas Eve with Santa Claus every year, our annual family apple picking trip, Papa teaching me how to do yard work and plant flowers, hanging out at Papa's barber shop, endless "silly banter" with my Nana, and, what I remember most, lots and lots of hugs and kisses.
When I was 22 and my life collapsed, I moved to the family home with my grandparents and parents. I was mentally very unwell. I tried to commit suicide, and nearly succeeded twice. And while life was nearly impossible for what felt like an eternity, I always felt a complete sense of safety with them that was unique for me. After a few years and a lot of treatment and effort, my life got much better and more stable. That was around 1994. I met my wife in 1995. Got engaged and bought our first house in 1996. Got married in 1997. Had our first daughter in 1998.
Those years were huge for me and my Nana and Papa. I had hundreds of dinners with them. We talked for hours. We laughed. I took up golfing with my Papa. We bowled together; he would take me to his weekly bowling league for a time. He had a 35mm Minolta camera that he did not know the first thing about. When I got into photography, I started teaching him and he would go with me to the local camera store. I taught him about different films, about lens filters, composition. He attentively listened. He took up art in his 80s; taking painting classes. At the time, I had no interest in making any art myself. I did not realize that now I would incorporate art—as well as photography—as important aspects of my healing.
While I was better, I was still severely internally partitioned. And while I told them I loved them a million times, I was really not able to see my relationship with them in a larger context. I was in the moment with them. All the time. I just knew it was love. I just knew it was safe.
But, on the day I got married, I gained perspective on what they meant to me. And this is a memory that I have tried very hard to learn more about, but could not. Until tonight.
We got married on a picturesque lake 6 hours by car from where we were living, in the town my wife grew up in. I remember that they were staying in a guest house with all my immediate family, including me. I was there a week before finalizing the wedding festivities with my then-fiance. My family came up a couple days before the wedding. It was all fun and relaxing.
On the night before the wedding, I think it was after the rehearsal dinner, I left them a card and a handwritten letter in their room. This is where the memory gets hazy. I remember I wrote something along the lines of "you saved my life" and also "you taught me what love is." But, aside from that I do not know what I said. And I do not remember their reaction, which was most certainly extremely emotional for all of us.
I think the writing of that letter was a transcendental experience for me. An aligning of sorts. Somehow, I was able to have perfect clarity and perspective on not only how much they meant to me, but also on what getting married to my wife meant in relation to my life history which included them. After, that perfect perspective went away. We partied at the reception and it just became a party, just as it was supposed to be.
When my daughters were born, they were a source of my grandparents' happiness. We only lived 30 minutes away and, so, we continued to see them all the time. Life changed for me in relation to them. It was no longer just me and my Nana and Papa. They died in March 2004 and January 2006 respectively.
Almost exactly two years after my Papa died, my healing journey changed course, and that is what this blog chronicles. My internal and external awareness blossomed like never before. I started using words like healing.
I like to think all these gains are closely connected to my Nana and Papa.
You see, I do not need to know what those words were in the letter I wrote to them when I got married. Because of the process of looking through their pictures, I now know precisely what I was feeling when I wrote it. And it is the feelings that are key.
I am having those feelings right now.
Of love. Of safety.
And that is why when they died, while I cried, I had absolutely no regrets. I told them everything I wanted to tell them. And they gave me everything they needed to give me.
I settled on three images of them. The first is my Papa outside on the patio posing—he was a ham—with my elder daughter. The second is of my Nana outside the hospital as her health was failing a little less than a year before she died. I was trying to cheer her up by taking a picture of her wearing my daughter's hat. She was not a ham like my Papa, but she reluctantly humored me. The third is most meaningful to me. It is a picture of my bedroom now. The chair was one of a pair that my Nana and Papa sat in every night in their own bedroom while watching television together. It is my safe chair. In the background are three paintings my Papa made. It is probably the safest spot on the planet.
That is their gift to me.
Last year in Looking Back and Ahead, I tried to make sense of my long healing journey as well as identified my gains for the year. I think it is probably good practice for all of us to reflect on the past year and use it as an opportunity to celebrate the gains, validate the tribulations, and set goals for the upcoming year.
For me, this year has been filled with at least as many ups and downs as the last one. Most of what follows is based on a discussion with "My Healing Guide" a couple of days ago. Whenever I talk about short-term gains, she likes to frame them in a larger context, as being built on the accumulated efforts of the entire journey. She says it is like I have already built a foundation, and our task is to add floors and rooms. I do like that metaphor.
I do believe that the Contract of a year ago was the launching point for what I was able to accomplish this past year. The entire Contract is really based on just a few basic principles (summarized by single words): trust, acceptance, and validation. Everything flows from this. While I don't read the Contract much these days, I don't really need to; its creation came from a place of near complete common ground and all of me knows its essential elements to the core. Yes, the Contract has stood up well this past year. All of me has understood its significance.
While I know our therapy work this past year was a true collaboration, it was important for me to tell "My Healing Guide" that she played a huge role in helping me continue to heal. I absolutely do not take that help for granted. None of my gains would have been possible without her help, without her willingness to be there for me, to walk with me, to listen to me, to promote trust, acceptance, and validation.
I also have an appreciation for the fact that healing is really about living. It is not all about therapy. The work we have done has helped me live more of the life I want to live. Yes, there have been some really low lows this year. But there have also been new connections inside, with my children and, to some extent, with my wife.
The 2010 year started out horribly with the Our Family Crisis, which blew up in our faces. This family "friend" was truly distorting my relationship with my wife and driving a huge wedge between us. This situation had been ongoing for years, but I think it came to a head because the "friend" saw an opening partly because I was in the hospital so often. It is astonishing to me that I was able to solve it. I stood up for my family. I took charge. I reestablished boundaries. The result was that my wife and I became closer and that set us up for what was to come.
In Holy Week, Church Visit, Scandal, and Miracles, I wrote about how "My Healing Guide" went with me to the church where a good deal of my childhood abuse took place. I never imagined that would have been possible, and I still cannot believe we did it! It was initially all completely validating and healing, but it did stir things up inside which caused us to eventually question whether it was the right thing to do after all.
There were gains made, however, which helped us realize it was definitely the right decision. Those gains came at a cost, though, because of internal instability that landed me inpatient quite a bit this past year; five hospitalization for 59 total days. I knew Easter was going to be really tough. In The Word of the Lord?, I wrote about some of the issues I faced during Easter and how I tried to put into perspective the stream of news coming out of Rome.
We then addressed directly an aspect of me key to the self-abuse. Inside, we were all certain this part was the embodiment of evil. We were all afraid of what seemed like unlimited power. In Inside, an art piece done in the hospital, this part stepped forward and joined in the healing process. That was a huge leap forward for all of me.
Not all was safe, though. That huge shift led to additional instability in my system. There was a long period of continued self-abuse from other parts who were newly activated. I wrote about this, mainly from an intellectual perspective, in Sex Injury: Past and Present. I recreated situations that would lead to my own abuse which kept fueling feelings of worthlessness. I do think, now, that I have come out the other side. I firmly believe that kind of self-abuse is permanently behind me. I am continually being reminded of what it was about (through flashbacks) and know it cannot ever happen again.
There were two occurrences that led to this resolution.
First, was when my wife found out about my self-abuse by my accidentally leaving my electronic journal open to a particularly sensitive entry. That she now knows about what has been my life's deepest secret—though she does not know details—is incredulous to me. Even more surprising is that while she had immense trouble with this new knowledge, I think it has made us stronger. The cards were put on the table. She finally learned that there are truly dark aspects to what I have to deal with.
Second, was that I physically got hurt from the self-abuse itself. After I wrote Taking Care When Physically Sick, I found out the illness was a result of the self-abuse. Getting hurt in this way ushered in a whole new sense of what the consequences really are, a reality that acting out parts had no concept of before. It brought self-abuse parts together with more healthy parts and is causing yet another reordering inside.
I have the sense that this new internal reordering will be what 2011 will be about. I know it will not be painless and I do not know what the months ahead will bring. But I hope the reordering and focus on safety will allow certain aspects of my life to flourish. I expect work and my relationships with my kids and wife will be where new gains will be made.
Already, the new reordering inside is leading me to come face-to-face with how to achieve balance in my life. How can I be successful at work, for example, while practicing good self-care? Or, said more broadly: How can I participate more fully in life and still practice self-care? 2011 will be about finding and maintaining this balance. Whereas 2010 was about acceptance.
Balance partly comes from being in touch with feelings. And this is why I have been proactive lately about getting in touch with feelings as a kid and connecting the past to the present. I have watched movies and television shows and read books which are validating and asked my Mom for old pictures of me as a kid. This is one way I know of to achieve balance. It is more difficult to get lost in a single part of me if I am also reminding myself of feelings. I have to always remember that balance is key now. Yes, I know I am being very proactive. I know I am forcing myself to feel feelings. This is one major aspect of self-care. And this is the one area I know I focused on when I started this new healing path a couple of years ago.
I also know that self-abuse was one way to solve internal problems, even though it was definitely harmful and dysfunctional. I talked with "My Healing Guide" about it not only being about making myself feel worthless. But also about recreating abusive events so that I could come out the other side and prove that I was "not really hurt" and could go on and be functional. I am not sure how much was which. But I do not think it needs to be my job to figure out what the relative weights were. We are all on a new course now.
If part of the self-abuse was to feel worthless, I have to challenge that now and do deeds that heal that way of thinking. If part of it was about control and recreation, I can challenge those by practicing my skills at balancing and validation.
What is important for me to keep in mind is that I know I have skills and a plan in place to help keep my life balanced and safe.
Yes, 2010 was a year of great accomplishment. And I know 2011 will be equally great if not better.
Happy New Year to all of you!
As I wrote last year, I know this holiday period is difficult for many. I have not thought much about it this year. Christmas is certainly not as charged for me as Easter or Halloween is, both of which I spend a good deal of time preparing for.
But with "My Healing Guide" today, we did talk about my plans for the upcoming Christmas weekend and what some of the issues are that may come up for me. During the course of our discussion, we talked about a certain memorable song. Recorded in 1951, "Guardian Angels" was on Mario Lanza's christmas album. For many years while I was growing up, I played this song on our vinyl record player, often on Christmas Eve.
When listening to the song today, I was immediately in touch with what it meant to me so long ago. It was the first time in a long time, aside from flashbacks, that I had such a direct connection to the past. It is fitting, perhaps, that a year that has seen so much progress and so many changes, would lead to this deep connection.
The song—with its lyrics, operatic solo, and full chorus—has a heavenly quality to it and direct spiritual or religious connections.
Guardian angels around my bed
Joining me in my prayers
They hush the shadows when they dance about
They shoo away the bears
Guardian angels to comfort me
If I wake in the night
They gather all my dreams
Their halos are my light
They dry my tears
If I should weep
They tuck me in
They rouse me from my sleep
Guardian angels around my bed
Standing by till I rise
There's one with shining wings that holds my hand
And shows me Paradise
For me, nights were filled with fear. "Shadows", "bears", "discomfort", and bad "dreams" were the norm. The image of guardian angels protecting me was one that I found extremely comforting. I believed, and still do, in God, Heaven, and angels.
While I did not consider it back then, listening to the song was not just comforting. It was much more than that. First and foremost, it was validating. I can never doubt my past because I clearly remember it in the context of this song. I knew what was going on. I knew I was being abused. But, more than that, the song provided an opportunity for me to grieve about the position I was in. I cried along with song.
They were good tears because the message was hopeful. I knew full well that "Paradise" meant Heaven. Looking back today and being connected to what I felt way back, I realized that I longed for the safety of Heaven. It was not clear to me how I would get there. I know part of me understood one way was by dying, and that did not feel too far off to parts of me.
But today I realized that while I may have had help from my guardian angels over the years, I have the power to create safety and healing in my life. I have the power to create my own "Paradise" here on Earth. I have the power to chase away the bears and shed light on the shadows. That is all possible because of the progress I have made.
"Guardian Angels" can be found on the album Christmas With Mario Lanza on iTunes.
Last week in Utah, a federal jury convicted the kidnapper and sexual abuser of Elizabeth Smart. For those not familiar with the highly publicized case, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her home at the age of 14 in 2002. She was subjected to daily sexual assaults at the hands of an evil man proclaiming himself to be a religious prophet. Nine months later she was rescued, and has appeared as a pillar of strength ever since.
The Elizabeth Smart case has been somewhat unique in that most long-term kidnappings do not have a such a positive outcome. She has done a number of high profile interviews (e.g., Oprah and People) and was the subject of an hour-long television documentary on Sunday. While nobody can truly know her path as a survivor of horrific abuse, from what I have seen and heard, she has put her ordeal behind her with apparent ease (at least to date). In one famously retold account, the night she returned home, the family said their prayers in the parents' bedroom, then Elizabeth said she was going to bed in her own room and slept the whole night without any difficulty.
When I heard about the jury verdict last week and saw some interviews, my reaction was "Why can't I just put it all behind me?" I struggled with this for several hours. My first thought was that I was weak. But, after I regained my composure, I realized a couple of things.
First, I am not Elizabeth Smart. We are made differently and have different experiences and backgrounds. It is not the first time I have compared my experiences (and the aftermath) with others. I did it a few years ago when I heard an NPR story on the horrific serial abuse of girls in Africa. I also heard the accounts of the former altar boys on the first Oprah show on male abuse and promptly downplayed my own history. Many of us get caught in the trap of comparing what we went through to others. For me, stories that show abuse, invariably end up being invalidating on some level before they become validating.
Second, after I thought about it, I realized that like Smart, I did put things away for quite a while, also with apparent ease. As a high school student, when it was discovered that something was not right, my parents tried to put an end to the relationship with the abusive priest and I made a counter move to minimize everything. This allowed our family to continue virtually as if nothing had happened. While we did stop going to that church, we never discussed the matter again. And I was just as happy to move on. If I were in the media spotlight, which I was not, I would have probably given similar interviews as Elizabeth. I would have said, as she has said, "Put the past behind you. Move on."
While this can be seen as a courageous message, it may have a negative impact on many survivors. For one thing, people process trauma differently and there are number of factors involved. What one person can move on from, another person cannot. Plus there are the added problems of the victim's background as well as the context of what the traumas were, when they happened, and how long they lasted. While it sounds nice for Elizabeth to give advice to Jaycee Dugard to "relax," it is a statement that does not consider the different contexts: Dugard was abducted for 18 years. The problem with the "move on" message is that it does not consider the fact that it is not possible for many, thereby leading to a feeling of invalidation.
In my life at the time my abuse became known, I had already had a decade or more of "underground" dysfunctional coping to deal with what had been happening. None of that changed, especially since the abuse did not actually end when my parents intervened. It got worse. My visible life just became even more separated from my non-visible life. I became more reliant on dissociative coping, though I did not think of it as dissociative at the time. It was just my life. My "normal" messed up life.
When things fell apart for me in 1991, they fell apart like a house of cards. I had been successful in college, was beginning graduate school and a career in science, and it all just collapsed in a matter of seconds. Life took a dramatic turn for me. I had always given myself a huge amount of credit for what I thought was "moving on," but really I had not and then suddenly the world came to a standstill.
It is now nearly 20 years later. My path has been long and winding, and one that I never would have envisioned. Much of it has been extraordinarily difficult, but much of it has also been glorious and rewarding. And much of it is informed by living through my 30s and now going into my 40s. A lot changed for me when I moved out of my 20s and got married and had kids. In many ways, life became more serious. It became not just about me. That reality had implications for what my path has been and what I have had to do to heal.
Would I have it any other way? For me, the answer is absolutely no. I know that to be the father and husband I want to be, not to mention the person I want to be, I need to heal the psychological injury. I need to address the dissociation and ways in which I live a fragmented existence. It is certainly not an easy journey, but I am glad for the journey. And I am proud of my progress. My healing path has led me to feel more authentic and functional and alive. Yet I know I am not done.
For decades, I had no concept of what healing meant to me. I could never put it into words. For me, healing is much more than just "moving on." Healing is accepting that the past happened and uniting the past with moving forward and living life to its fullest. Our past certainly shapes who we are now. But our past does not need to define who we are to become. In many ways, healing is the integration, or resolution, of the past and present. Healing is redefining safety, inside and out. Healing is being proud that we survived. Healing is accepting personal responsibility. Healing is learning to be aware of thoughts and emotions. Healing is learning to see the joys in life. And healing is so much more. Healing is a process.
As I asked over a year ago in My Take on What Healing Means, what does healing mean to you?
As some of you know, The Oprah Show did a two-part special on childhood sexual abuse of males. I basically panned the first part in Why I Did Not Appreciate Oprah's "200 Men" Show because I felt it was overly sensationalistic and focused mainly on men telling of their graphic abuse details.
I was only able to watch the second show last week, and it was significantly better than the first. Probably it has done a good service to male survivors and their loved ones as many important themes were touched upon. To the uninitiated, to someone who has not started to heal, to spouses who are lacking closeness, I saw this as progress. So, for that I am thankful for the show. While the first episode is online in its entirety, the second is not. But I will do my best to summarize the show here as well as provide my own commentary, hence this will be a long post.
Because the show spent a significant amount of effort focusing on the impact on spouses and loved ones, my immediate reaction was that if my wife were able to see this show, it could sow the seeds of change for us as a couple. But she does not want to see the show even though it is on our DVR. As I have made significant healing progress these past couple years, I have realized that we are not on the same path. This is difficult for me because it makes me feel like the burden of healing is all on me. Of course, I understand the majority of healing is on me. But I do not think my wife appreciates the toll that all of what we have gone through has affected her and that she may need to do things to care for, and heal, herself. So, I will save the episode and hopefully someday she will be able to see it.
As I watched, I found myself crying. And I realized that I do still have some mourning to do, or maybe a lot. I had always thought I was all done. For expert advice, the show featured Dr. Howard Fradkin, a psychologist out of Ohio who co-chairs the MaleSurvivor Weekends of Recovery, see Male Survivor. Dr. Fradkin made a number of statements that hit home for me. He said many things so perfectly well. While Oprah clearly struggled with the topic of healing, Dr. Fradkin did not. He was the one who brought up the issue by saying: "it's absolutely possible to heal and recover completely and fully. It takes a lot of time and it impacts everyone in your life." I am "technically" in my 20th year of healing, which has changed significantly over the years. I know I have a long way to go, but I appreciate his statement. I found it hopeful.
The show then asked what is different for male survivors versus female survivors. Most of my survivor friends, either online or from the hospital, are female. For me, personally, I have not seen much difference. I see the struggles as the same. But, I have long wondered why I am usually the only male on the trauma/dissociative inpatient unit at McLean Hospital. I have often thought I was different in some way. I have had discussions with therapists about this in the past. Usually I understand it that men typically do not seek help. Or that men are more likely to channel their anger into drugs and alcohol or even land in prison. All of those outcomes make me sad.
But I am also make glad that circumstances for me were such that I broke down right after college in 1990 and sought help. When the 2002 clergy abuse scandal erupted, there was also a sense of coming together for survivors. The public outcry helped to lift the veil of shame. During those early years there were well-attended support groups here in Boston (the epicenter of the scandal) and there was definitely a sense of camaraderie. I suppose what I experienced was what Oprah was aiming for with this show. It was not at all always this way, but now am fairly comfortable identifying myself as a survivor and committing myself to doing the hard work of healing. From the language of some of the guests, I clearly can see that is not the case for many. Again, I consider myself lucky.
Sexual identity confusion was also discussed. This is an area I typically shy away from. Maybe this is not such a problem for me on the whole because the problem is so relegated to parts of me as someone who is dissociative. As grounded me, Paul, I have no problem identifying as a healthy vibrant husband and father. But, that is not the case for many young parts of me. The confusion has always been there. The show addressed a common myth: that male on male sexual abuse can cause homosexuality. The psychologist said, correctly, that sexual orientation is determined around ages 4 or 5, and since most abuse happens later, there can be no effect. But there still is sexual identity confusion. When a boy is abused by a man, the common response is that they do not know what to feel about the connection they felt, sexual pleasure, attention, etc. This confusion remains until it is addressed and healed.
In the next section, there was a discussion about moving from coping to healing. This was right up my alley! Oprah's producer, Ray, said he didn't want to live with the abuse having control over him anymore and that "you get abused by your abuser, and then you get abused again by the aftermath of the abuse." He further said on moving from coping to healing, "We all come up with clever ways in which to live our lives with it lurking in the background. And you're trying to operate and maneuver in the world with it there. I think healing is when you let yourself feel the feelings, when you are honest with yourself about what it's actually has done to you, and mourn that." For me, this was all code for talking about dysfunctional coping. Oprah talked about her promiscuous years. There was some talk about cutting. For me, I have long struggled with self injury and I want to be free of that! I feel over the past couple years I have begun to make the transition from coping to healing. That changes everything!
Oprah repeated her favorite definition of forgiveness, as "giving up the hope that the past could have been any different." She said you have to mourn, but you can't stay there. Then the question was "How to move forward?" She said the first step is to speak up, so that shame can begin to heal. This touched home for me, because I have spoken up in various ways over the years. In the early 90s, just coming forward to get help was a form of speaking up. Then suing the church in the mid 90s, was speaking up further (although that was shrouded in secrecy). As I said, in 2002 the church scandal brought survivors together and there was more speaking up. But, the real watershed moment for me, and I have not ever said this here before, was in 2007 when there was a sex abuse scandal at my daughter's place of gymnastics. While my daughter was not involved in any way, it was the first time that my family life and my abusive past came together. Our town is small, and I spoke up in the local paper. I came forward as a survivor myself. For me this turned out to be a big deal. This speaking up changed things for me. This was when I really started to heal. Therapy made a dramatic shift and this was around the time Mind Parts was created. Lifting the veil of shame has been critical for me.
The low point of the show was when Oprah asked "How men are to find help?" The psychologist talked about therapy, but also about therapists being hard (if not impossible) to find, and so using Internet support groups or bulletin boards were mentioned as alternatives. That, to me, is poor advice. To the best of my knowledge, there are many therapists out there and many opportunities for men to find healing.
Oprah then ended by saying these wonderful words: "The reason why we wanted to do this show is because every man in this room, every one of you, represents the spirit of something dark that has happened to you, but also the spirit of hope and the spirit of survival."
The link to Oprah's shows can be found at: A Two-Day Oprah Show Event: 200 Adult Men Who Were Molested Come Forward.
Independence and dependence come with the territory of us as social beings. But as with many of life's properties, they exist in delicate balance. When we are very young, we long for a parent's care. Yet, it is in our biological makeup to seek independence as we grow older. And we all very quickly learn that there really is no such thing as unfettered freedom.
This is why boundaries exist seemingly wherever we look. Oftentimes we are not even aware of them since we are usually taught them from so young. Boundaries are the necessary "checks and balances" we learn if we receive a proper upbringing. The society we live in imposes a set of boundaries we generally must adhere to. Parents are supposed to teach us many of the other necessary boundaries. In doing so, they instill in us a moral compass. They are supposed to model good behavior. They are supposed to teach us how to properly treat others. They are supposed to correct our bad behavior and reward our good behavior.
If parents are smart—and we know many are not—they understand that boundaries are connected to independence when raising children. Being mature adults, they help us navigate these delicate waters by granting us increasing levels of independence while at the same supporting us in areas where we need it most. In this way, they help us develop awareness.
Even in the best of cases this is all hugely difficult. It is not easy for kids and it is not easy for parents. If you are a child that is being abused, the task becomes nearly impossible because the rules of the game are different for the abused child. Boundaries have new meanings. Needs—a measure of dependence—are unmet in various ways and to varying degrees.
I was not abused by my parents, not in the least. Being the oldest child, I was assuredly the most "over-protected." I seemed to be the last person in my neighborhood to be allowed to cross the street alone. My mother was, and still is, perpetually worried about safety and health. I think, for me, that I was somewhat smothered for a long while and was not able to practice the boundaries I was being taught by being granted any measure of independence.
For me, personally, as I was being abused over the course of many years, I was hugely conflicted. I was taught good behavior. But somewhere I must have known that the abuse was not good behavior. Given that much of my abuse happened in the context of religion, there were layers and layers of conflicts. It is no wonder, when you think about it, how parts of a child end up being stuck in the past. Frozen in time. In this way, dissociation makes complete sense.
Everything was conflicting because as I was granted independence, it meant I was more available to be hurt. And part of me longed for dependence and safety. I wanted my parents to save me, yet I could not form the words to say clearly what I was going through. I acted out. But was so dissociated that when asked what was going on, I believed the made up answer I gave them.
I ended up taking the hard route to learning about independence and dependence. In college, I used my independence and freedom from my abuser to act out and lead a somewhat reckless existence. Right out of college I got married. But it was a co-dependent relationship and did not last.
Then came the hard early 90s years. I worked on myself long enough in therapy to understand some of what was going on inside. That budding awareness led to some healthy attachments. When I got married to the mother of my children in 1997, things started to fall into place. When we had children, I somehow learned (I think through osmosis) how to properly raise children and strike the important balance between independence and dependence. I learned that the dependence children most need is emotional. They need parents to listen to them. Really listen.
I am still very much learning boundaries I was supposed to learn long ago. I am still mourning that I did not have aware parents. I am still mourning that I had to be independent in a dysfunctional way. I am still mourning that my needs for dependence were not met.
But the most cherished independence of all is one that we already have: the freedom to heal.
This post was specifically written for the July 2010 Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse with this month's theme being "independence."
It was a decade that began, for me as a survivor, with the public airing of the clergy abuse scandal in January 2002. I had thought that was all behind me. I had dealt with all of that a decade earlier, surviving some tortuous "healing" years in and out of the hospital in the early '90s.
By the mid '90s, I filed suit with the church, settled, and then completely distanced myself from therapy and the hospital. I wanted nothing to do with all of that. I was very clear that dissociative identity disorder, then called multiple personality disorder, was made up. While that was a huge piece of denial, and I know that now, somehow that allowed me the space to get married, buy a house, build up my career, and twice become a father. But, really, while many good things happened during those years, my life was severely partitioned. I just wasn't aware. Hurting myself would happen in its own box. Being petrified would happen in its own box. Everything went back to the way it was in the '80s, except I now had built a life for myself, which was very real but also somewhat of a facade, something I could hide behind.
It collapsed like a house of cards in 2002. It's shocking to me how quickly it all happened. The more functional parts of me thought they could handle things; the talking to reporters and details of my abuse being in the big daily papers. But something strange happened. I started to realize that my life really was a bunch of partitions or rooms and that things not only were not right in 2002, but they weren't right all along. I was kidding myself about how much I had healed. The depression, the switching, the suicidality, the eating; these all were back again.
After a series of false starts with various random therapists, I called my old therapist, I like to call him Freud, and asked if I could go back to see him. We started working together again. It was hard. I became increasingly symptomatic. I became more fragmented. I acted out in self-harm a lot. And I ended up in the hospital again. And again. And again. But it was different from the '90s and I can't quite put my finger on how. We worked hard. But it was slow progress.
Then things changed. In 2008 I started working with an art therapist. By late 2008, I stopped working with Freud as my main therapist and switched to the art therapist as my main therapist. And things took off, like I was shot out of a cannon. I was not used to working in this new way. The old way was to intellectualize everything. The new way was to explore feelings, draw and paint, hug each other when leaving, and use all those healing words and phrases. The new way acknowledged internal parts in a much more direct way. She wanted to know what they felt too. We started paying attention to everything. I started taking journaling very seriously and now use it to keep connected to my life, no matter how chaotic and confusing. Also, this website was born.
Here's what I accomplished in 2009 (in rough chronological order):
I wrote my first submission to the Many Voices newsletter, a print survivor newsletter that's been in existence since 1989 and one I have read off and on since way back.
I started experiencing body memories for what I thought was the first time. I am sure they were not the first time, but with my new "awareness", it felt like it. These are, at times, completely debilitating. But they are often followed by new knowledge.
I started to gain a sense of the level of injury I sustained from my abuse. I remember seeing the movie "Deliver Us From Evil" about the clergy abuse crisis and then crying for days, which I assume is grieving. I don't think I ever grieved before.
I asked for, and obtained, the church records on my case; all 182 pages. These were were made public after a criminal investigation and kept by an organization called Bishop Accountability.
Through my journaling, I started to really come to terms with these huge changes of consciousness (or switches). I am sure this was the way it always was, but that I was just not aware of it or didn't try to document it carefully.
I started to allow parts of me to express themselves and stopped trying to control things so much. This has led to me learning so much more about parts of me than I ever thought possible. The therapist is focused on exploring this and she's convinced me it's important.
I started to address the self-harm in a much different way. This has opened things up for a couple of "darker" parts inside and work is now being done on helping them and keeping us all safe.
Night panics began and usually this meant young parts kept up the wife and we had to enlist her help. Eventually, it was discovered that a lot of it had to do with an adverse reaction to too much Risperdal (called akathisia); so that drug was stopped.
I made a conscious decision to stop relying on psychotropic medications to get through and dull experiences. This actually began in Summer 2008 when I stopped antidepressants. I had completely relied on Risperdal and Klonopin during the day to get through difficult times. But I did start taking pain medication for the body memories. And I document every pill I take.
Part of the reason why I was able to lessen my dependency on medications was that I changed my lifestyle a bit. I started advocating for what I needed. This caused conflicts within the family. But I started to know what my limitations were, at home and work, and decided I owed it to all of me inside to take them seriously. This ushered in a new level of trust inside.
With this trust, came a new ability to accomplish tasks. While there were many times I have not been able to do work, there were other times where I shined gloriously. I started to experience what is often called "flow" in a much more whole kind of way. It was not the old way where parts just did their thing. This was a new way and it felt good.
Bought an iPhone 3GS to add to my Apple family of products. That is life changing in and of itself, and I promise to write a post just on how important the iPhone is to someone dealing with dissociation!
I wrote my first ever "contract". It is not just a one page list of don'ts. It's a very direct and important document; the culmination of not only a year's worth of work, but an adult life's worth of work.
Whew! I've done a lot. And luckily I did a lot in this decade. So, when I refer to the "2000's", it will be known that there were many highs and many lows, but lots of healing, and it ended in a bang.
I do give up sometimes. I cannot deny that. In fact just a few hours before I wrote the "contract" a few weeks ago, I wrote to my therapist that I was giving up. But now, looking back, on this decade and a little bit on the decade before, I must know that I can never give up. Too much has been gained. I am a different person. I have healed in more ways than I could have ever imagined. And I look forward to the next decade, even though I know that there will be lots of hard work ahead of me. It will all be worth it!
Happy New Year to all of you!
Ludwig van Beethoven is unquestionably the world's most famous composer. And he is so for good reason. He is a "universal" composer, with an unprecedented ability to translate the extreme range of human emotion into musical form that can appeal to the casual listener as well as present huge challenges to even the most savvy musicians. He is extremely original, yet practically anyone can recognize a piece as being written by him. There are some exceptions, most notably the Große Fugue, written only a couple years before his death when he was completely deaf.
I was exposed to Beethoven through my paternal grandfather who owned the complete symphonies on vinyl recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. For some reason, probably due to my musical non-sophistication, I was fixated on the most popular 5th symphony, never appreciating any of his others. At the time, back in the 70s, that was pretty much my whole musical world. Nothing much else existed. I would "conduct" to that recording of that one symphony in private, pretending I was signaling to the violin section or the horn section to sing louder or softer or with more expression. This piece gave me strength; strength I did not have in real life.
When I started to play classical piano, I immediately turned to Beethoven. I played many of his easier early student pieces (e.g., minuets and German dances) found in my student compilations, but quickly fell in love with his sonatas even though much was beyond my technical capabilities. They were insanely difficult for me, especially since I was not taught for very long. But I really couldn't stand having a teacher. I wanted to be left alone with the music. It was personal. I wanted to play the real emotional and difficult pieces, figure them out for myself, make them my own, and then feel the emotion as I was playing. Not surprisingly, I started with the first movement to the Moonlight Sonata (no. 14), and then learned the first movements to the Pathetique (no. 8), Appassionata (no. 23), and Funeral March (no. 12).
I focussed on memorizing the notes so I could play without having to think, but rather by purely pouring myself into the music from an emotional place; people say I often bite my lower lip and make contorted facial expressions when I play. Luckily I don't have to see myself! Eventually, I learned some of the other movements from these sonatas, with the only one I truly mastered being the adagio cantabile second movement to the Pathetique, which I believe to be one of the most beautiful melodies ever written for any instrument. When I was young and didn't have words to express what was happening to me, I would play these and other pieces. It was my subconscious way, I believe, of talking—of crying out—even though nobody, even me, understood what I was really trying to say or what was really happening to me.
I discovered Beethoven's Third Symphony (Eroica) when I was a bit older and listened to it incessantly, especially the second "death" movement or funeral fugue. Whenever I needed to feel I would listen to it. Eventually, when I got a job and had money, I started to venture to record stores and discovered that there was more to classical music than what I was exposed to. I started to build a CD collection. There was Mozart, Casals, Pärt, Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Faure, Schubert, and Haydn, to name but a few. And there were other periods of music for me. Somehow I was absent from any knowledge of 70s rock. I was into Journey and the anthem bands of the 80s. Then Nirvana and Green Day in the 90s. Classic blues in the late 90s. I amassed hundreds of CDs.
In the 90s, I started going to concerts of all types. And about two or three years ago, with a new iPod and great headphones, I started seriously listening to classical and choral music once again.
I listen a lot to Beethoven's String Quartets, String Trios, and Symphonies nos. 3, 6 (especially the fourth movement), 7, and 9 (especially the last movement). I've returned to choral music (e.g., Mozart's glorious Requiem). I tend not to like light baroque music, but rather intricate, rich, and deep choral without soloists that seems to explore the subconscious much like Beethoven does for me in his Eroica. After a long search including Allegri, Bach, Casals, Pallestrina, Purcell, Tallis, Tavener, and many others, I have settled on a short list. Barber's Agnus Dei is simple, but evokes emotion. Faure's Requiem is incredible, and Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine is one of the most sublime choral works I have ever heard. There are some Masses I like: Mozart's Mass in C-minor and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in D-major. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a master at combining simple and uncluttered melodies that are unpredictable, called minimalist. Like Beethoven's Eroica, Pärt sends me on an exhilarating journey of self discovery.
And, over the past couple years, I fell in love again with Beethoven's Eroica. Eventually, as I began to get better mental health-wise, I heard more in it. I started understanding it. Listening to this piece is like exploring my inner landscape extreme emotions and realities.
I have talked before about how recovering from dissociation is about being aware of, coming to terms with, and learning to navigate around extreme experiences. There is perhaps no other piece of music which captures this better than Beethoven's Eroica. When I listen to this symphony, I hear the messages buried not at all subtly within it. To get the most out of it, you have to listen to what it's saying.
The symphony starts out with two almost obnoxious E-flat chords that scream out to pay attention. Then it soars majestically. The cellos begin, then the violas and second violins provide the inner voices and rhythm. It's pure intimacy. Melodies get passed from section to section, changing a little each time, just like a healing journey. There's an entire incomprehensible landscape of emotional extremes. There's meandering, conflict through harmonic dissonance and "switching" keys. It goes from one end of the human experience to the other end in a very short time. This quickly going from one extreme to another spoke to me profoundly. This was precisely my experience!
But the most meaningful part of the piece for me is the fugue that comes in the middle of the second movement (at Bar 113) with an amazing use of counterpoint, and at Bar 145 he attains heavenly heights. The movement is all about death. It starts off almost in a whisper and this enormously sad melody gets passed from the strings to the oboe. Back and forth. Suddenly the fugue begins. It's the most beautiful two minutes of music I have ever heard. The fugue builds and builds seemingly without end. It cries out with sad strings and then blaring horns. But then it hangs up in the air with unbelievable tension before it collapses. Suddenly, the horns come in and there's power. How is this possible? There's a march. Trumpets provide the melody and strings provide the background. Then the melody from the beginning returns. Who would have guessed? It meanders again, like it has lost its way. And the movement ends like it begins, in a mere whisper. Was everything in between merely an illusion? Did it really happen? Sad. Indeed, even after this emotional journey, this is not the end of this grand symphony. There's more to come. More sadness. And more triumph.
I ground myself to Beethoven's music. Listening to him makes me feel authentic and it makes me realize that the complexity inside my head is all right. The complexity in Beethoven's music is like a kindred spirit. And I can literally look inside myself. What a great gift this man who lived 200 years ago has given me!
Some of you may be wondering what's happened since my last post. Another piece that is equally as amazing as the Eroica is the Große Fugue. It's not, however, easy listening music. This piece is almost a direct mapping of the internal chaos I felt over the last week or more. When I'm in the midst of that chaos, I feel like I'm in a bottomless pit. I can't make sense of anything. Somehow the other night I had the good sense to play the Große Fugue, and almost immediately everything made sense in my head. It was like taking a magic pill!
For a related writing on music on this site, see Music and Heart Healing; if you have not seen this post and have any sort of interest in music, you should check it out.
Two excellent books on Beethoven are "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" by Edmund Morris and "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development" by J. W. N. Sullivan.
For a wonderful explanation of Beethoven's Eroica, you may find PBS' Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas a very worthwhile watch.
For a musical analysis of Eroica, see W. A. Dewitt's Beethoven's Eroica site.
I have a small memory of being a young boy and captivated by a Major League Baseball All-Star game. I can only remember that one time and the feeling of awe as the players were announced. That same surreal feeling struck me at many sporting events, including the 1975 World Series, which the Red Sox lost to the Reds in 7 games, and the 1984 and 1986 World Championships, which the Celtics won.
Sports were always a normalizing experience for me, whether I was on the field or court myself or I was watching professional games on television or firsthand at the Boston Garden or Fenway Park.
So tonight, for some unknown reason and for the first time since that childhood experience, I'm watching the All-Star game. I'm surprised because I just realized that the game was played at Fenway in 1999 and I didn't make any attempt to watch it. At least I have no memory of it.
The reason I'm posting any of this here is that as part of the pre-game festivities, MLB and People magazine sponsored "All-Stars Among Us". Thousands were nominated and 30 were selected (one from each team) representing citizens who have made special contributions to their community.
I wanted to single out one individual, Mark Kunz, for his relevance to this site.
His description reads: Matt Kunz's stepbrother Chris committed suicide in 2007 after returning from Iraq with undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Matt made it his mission to ensure that all National Guard Troops in his home state of Montana receive adequate PTSD screening. He continues to campaign for PTSD awareness and screening for all veterans.
I see "all-stars" everywhere, including all survivors of trauma who are all-stars in my eyes.