A New Hope

Last week was a whirlwind of internal change and things happening. I actually wrote Drama of the Gifted Child last Monday; I had intended to write more about how my current situation is actually quite good for me, but then Tuesday happened and I re-read what I’d written and decided it felt complete enough to post.

an image of part of a calendar showing last week, with text indicating what important experience happened for Ziya each day

an image of part of a calendar showing last week, with text indicating what important experience happened for Ziya each day

On Tuesday I read a scholarly article titled “The Abject Self: Self-States of Relentless Despair” by Kathleen Adams, which can be found in the International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Vol. 61 (2011), Issue 3. It did a great job of explaining why sometimes I feel like a functional adult named Ziya with relationships and interests and goals, etc. – and other times I feel like a terrified, helpless child who has no past or future and knows only despair. It’s because I am both those things; there are actually separate neural circuits in our brains that create different self-states in response to different situations. Abjection – a preverbal state of reaching for an unattainable object, being rejected, and fearing annihilation – can be one of them.

I finished reading the article just before my music therapy session with Wakana, so it and The Drama of the Gifted Child (by Alice Miller) provided great material for us to work with. I told her about my birth experience (as I’ve pieced it together from information Mom gave me, my understanding of our relationship, and conjecture) and she suggested we address it through music. I kind of plunged head-first into the deep end, feeling … the words “despair,” “like I was lost,” “hopeless,” “terrified,” “utterly rejected,” and “alone” don’t quite do it justice. I was simultaneously staring into, being drawn into, and reaching out from the void. I feel it now as the discomfort in my eyes that I associate with crying, even though most of the time when I’m aware of it I don’t actually cry. Something’s trying to get out.

I felt the emotions I’ve turned to food to pacify my whole life. And then she reached out to me, looked me in the eyes, told me she was right here with me; I could reach out and touch her. She was so full of hope, life, curiosity, compassion. She brought me back into the light, the living world, my adult body. The ability to rationalize and use words to describe my thoughts and feelings instead of just expressing them.

“Are you okay?”

I described a scene from Star Trek: Enterprise in which they go on a rescue mission to try and help Vulcans who got lost in The Expanse, a region of space that basically defies the laws of physics. The Vulcans had essentially become zombies, slaves to their aggressive urges and “darkest” emotions. The protagonists were unable to help the Vulcan zombies; they barely escaped with their lives. The most humane thing they could do was put the Vulcans out of their misery.

“I feel like I’ve run into a room and slammed the door. I’m holding it closed but it’s only a matter of time. The zombies are on the other side, trying to break in, and I’m terrified of what will happen when they do.”

In a word, rage. I thought she’d ended it too soon. I was afraid that, if I “opened the door” and expressed my emotions, at best I would destroy our therapeutic relationship, and at worst I would actually hurt her. Those feelings subsided when she explained why she had done it: she didn’t want to re-traumatize me.

On Wednesday I finally went to the dentist to try and have something done about the tooth that’s been causing agony in the whole right side of my face and ear for weeks. It was a rather unpleasant experience, but I asserted myself and expressed my needs. I should eventually get to see a specialist who will perform a root canal, and in the meantime I have antibiotics that are wreaking havoc on my body and hopefully helping it fight off the infection that’s been causing the pain. I can’t wait until I no longer have to take a pill every 8 hours!

On Thursday I had my third appointment with the APN. We had a lot more time and were able to actually talk about things that were important to my treatment. She was going to prescribe a different drug, but I asked her questions about it and reminded her of the experiences I’d had with Zoloft and Wellbutrin. She took some time to review her notes from our prior meetings (we’ve been meeting once a month) and decided to go ahead and prescribe the Lamictal. We didn’t get to talking about gradually increasing to a therapeutic dose; I just have a month’s worth of 25 mg tablets and an appointment to see her again in another month. She advised me to wait until I’d finished the antibiotics to start taking this new medication.

Friday morning I was writing in my paper journal and something extraordinary happened. I started using “we” instead of “I” to acknowledge that, however you want to explain it, there are multiple selves (or aspects of self?) bouncing around in this body. “We” were still expressing “our” views as though they were unanimous…

Until a dissenting voice spoke up: “No, I don’t want to clean up the clutter, because it helps me feel safe.”

We talked a bit about order and chaos (by writing in our journal), and how now that we’re adults we don’t have to live in chaos and fear anymore. “Whoever hurt us is gone.”

It seemed to be going well until the word “embarrassed” got used. Then the dissenting voice became very justifiably angry, calling at least one other out for being ashamed of and hiding zir.

“You said this was about freeing emotions, feeling and expressing them spontaneously. Well, I’m very angry! That’s going to happen ‘in public.’ What are you going to do, stay in the house ALL THE TIME? Stop hiding me! Stop denying me.

“I EXIST AND I’M FURIOUS!!!

“And now the floodgates are open and I’m out! You’re not going to shut me down again. […] You cant suppress me anymore if you want your precious ‘mental health.’ You will be depressed if you keep suppressing me. I’m really mad at you. I keep trying to tell you but you won’t listen to me!”

“You’re the judge, the critic, the warden…”

“No! YOU are!!! You’ve kept me from expressing myself our entire fucking life don’t you see?”

“Yes, it’s true, I’m sorry.”

“‘I’m sorry?’ That’s it? Our whole life.”

“I was trying to keep us alive.”

“Well you almost KILLED me!”

“It wasn’t safe.”

“YOU weren’t safe.”

“You weren’t safe either. You said you needed the clutter to hide in. I don’t think you felt safe. You needed me.”

“I guess I did.”

“You don’t need me anymore. Look at you, standing up for yourself like this. How assertive! Getting your needs met. Expressing yourself. You’ll go far in the world. So far.”

“Don’t leave!”

“But if I stay, all I’ll do is hinder you.”

And just like that, gone. Whoever was in control of the body before is gone, and I’ve taken their place. I don’t even know their name, preferred pronouns, nothing. This whole time – a young adult’s entire lifetime – I’ve been a crying child shoved in the corner of the psyche and largely ignored; now I’m in charge. A whole life to live, so many decisions to make. There are other people here to support and guide me, but our former leader is gone.

We gave “her” a Viking funeral, the ship, flaming arrows, fire out at sea, sung lamentations, everything. It was quite beautiful. And then I ascended Pride Rock and looked out on a glorious landscape touched by the rising sun and sang a song that was so full of life and joy and vitality…

Then I had to get dressed and go somewhere and the weekend was its own whirlwind of socializing one day, then trying to settle down and finally write the paper from my summer class (oops!) the next. I was kind of useless – sad and lethargic – on Monday, but I did some research and cleaned my desk, so I actually have some space to work. Considering how I’ve responded to such abrupt changes in the past, I’d say I did pretty well. I kind of got some whiplash; I didn’t crash.

I also decided to start taking the Lamictal, even though I still have about two days’ worth of antibiotic left. I was feeling rather anxious about it, but I haven’t spontaneously combusted, so I think I’m going to be okay. I hope.

The Drama of the Gifted Child

TW: descriptions of physical and emotional abuse

Reading The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller has helped me put a lot into perspective: I’m actually very fortunate and blessed to be precisely where I am in my life, right now. It may not match my ideals of being successful in a meaningful career, living on my own, and starting a family – and that hurts, a lot! – but it gives me the foundation I need to be able to build those things while also being true to my “inner child,” my genuine self.

book cover – The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller – links to Amazon.com

If I take Miller’s argument to be true for me – and it probably is, because I relate very strongly to it – my parents were unable to love me as I truly was from very early in my life, possibly birth. My mom recently revealed to me that my birth was a very stressful experience for her – involving pressure from in-laws, feeling unsupported by my father, and concerns about her own health. The hospital staff separated me from her – now understood to be one of the worst things you can do – and brought me back when it was “time to breastfeed!” I was “fussy” and she didn’t know what to do, was probably uncomfortable trying to figure it out with someone watching, and the field of lactation consulting didn’t exist at the time.

Right there, in what was probably my first interaction with my mother as a separate human being, my emotions (“fussiness”) were a problem that interfered with our ability to bond and my ability to have a basic need met (food). Never mind that she probably wanted to love and nurture me, and I imagine she did the best that she could, given the circumstances. When I was traumatized from the birthing experience, hungry, and at my most vulnerable ever, I needed to look into her eyes and see unconditional love (and have my brain be flooded with oxytocin). Instead… I probably saw her pain, insecurity, frustration, and sorrow – in that moment I wasn’t what she had hoped I would be. (And great, she was stuck with me for 18 years, at least.) The very first thing I did was let her down. For all I know, trying to imagine an experience I can’t even remember, she might not have even made eye contact with me.

Image Description: Mother holding infant and frowning, not making eye contact even though the baby is looking at her. from News In Health: Understanding Postpartum Depression December 2005 National Institutes of Health

Mother holding infant and frowning, not making eye contact though the baby is looking at her.
National Institutes of Health

This is the part where I’m supposed to get angry with her for letting me down, but all I feel is a deep sadness and emptiness that I find intolerable. (Like a fussy baby?) It’s a beautiful day, let’s enjoy some time outside. How can you wallow in these emotions on a bright sunny day like this? I took a look outside at the glorious green grass and the sunlight glinting off the beautiful green leaves on the trees and felt a cool breeze and smelled the crispness in the air that means it’s autumn. Mmm, these are the things that keep me alive! And now I’ve settled back down at the computer with some food. Silencing my inner newborn’s cries with a burger and fries – an adult approximation of formula.

This is what Miller would call repeating the harmful behaviors my parents imposed on me, behaviors that prevent me from expressing my “unsavory” emotions and keep my true self in torment. I’ve used food to avoid feeling difficult emotions for as long as I can remember – from accepting chips and sour cream as a substitute for emotional bonding while watching TV with my mom, to stuffing my face at social gatherings to smother my feelings of anxiety and isolation (from being surrounded by people I didn’t think could understand me, and who wouldn’t accept the real me). More recently it’s helped me finish papers for school (that earned grades of “A”) and write particularly difficult blog posts.

In short, I adapted. I had to, because when I felt my emotions I couldn’t help but express them, and doing so put me in very real danger. I remember my father becoming terrifyingly angry, dragging me from the first floor of our house to the third, spanking me for several minutes on my bed, and paying no heed to my pleas for him to let me go use the bathroom; I wet myself, long after I’d stopped having any of the normal childhood issues with such things. For most of my life I was convinced that I’d done something horrible to deserve it – until only a couple of years ago when I learned that it was physical abuse. Maybe I’d done something for which I should have been redirected, disciplined, possibly given a “time-out” to consider how I could have responded more appropriately… it doesn’t matter. He hurt and humiliated me.

It was like I wasn’t even there; my feelings and my needs didn’t matter. All that mattered was his anger.

My mother wasn’t aware that my father had done that to me. But she did know something that I did not: he also slapped me. It was horrifying to learn there was an episode of abuse I don’t remember – if there’s one, how many more are there? What else did he do to me? It was also horrifying to learn there was an episode of abuse she didn’t remember. I would hope she would have remembered if he’d talked to her about it, so I’m inclined to guess that he didn’t. My father didn’t tell his wife that he had lost control and beaten the shit (well, pee) out of me. That would have been the first step to taking responsibility for his actions and trying to avoid such behavior in the future.

He never took it.

So, you’re probably thinking: Ziya, all these things you’re writing about are pretty horrible. What makes you say you’re fortunate to be in your current situation?

Well, in a nutshell, I’ve been in therapy for about four years now, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. There was a time when I thought my parents were wonderful for pushing me to focus so much on academic success and having a successful career. I was at the top of my class, went to the best high school my mom could afford, went to a rather prestigious university with a semester’s worth of credits already under my belt, completed a double major and a minor, and graduated magna cum laude. I needed my academic adviser to convince me not to do an honors thesis because I didn’t want to do one, but thought I should because I was so used to being an overachiever.

But my social skills are nowhere near as developed as my academic ones, and I have a lot of social anxiety. I miss out on great opportunities to make friends and otherwise have fun socializing. I feel isolated and lonely. In college, the semester I was the happiest was the semester I got the lowest grades because I decided not to do my absolute best in all my classes, but rather focus more on developing my social skills and enjoying extracurricular activities. (I was also taking Wellbutrin, but it caused increased irritability, dry mouth, and other side effects I strongly disliked. I made the rookie mental health consumer mistake of going off it cold turkey when I thought I was “better.” I thought I could leave psychiatry behind me…)

I used to be so proud of all my academic achievements – okay, I still am – but that pride came at the cost of believing that they were what made me a worthwhile person. (Miller calls it grandiosity.) The more time I spend as an adult, the more I realize that my grades matter less than, well, the skills I’m not as strong in and have trouble accessing when my mental health symptoms flare up. If the thing that makes me worthwhile isn’t really worth much in the real world, what does that say about me?

In therapy I realized that part of why I got such good grades in school (besides being very good at academic learning) was because it was one of very few things I had control over, and it provided some of the stability my home was otherwise lacking. My parents would have awful fights – but at least I would bring home a report card they could be proud of and display as proof that things were going well in their lives; they’d reward me with the affirmation that I took in place of love and craved like most people crave air.

In one therapy session I likened this process to Kudzu, “the vine that ate the U.S. South.” It is not indigenous to the Americas, so the local flora have no defense against it and there are no insect predators. It climbs up bushes and trees, covering the whole trunk and leaves until they can no longer access the sunlight. Countless plants have become corpses supporting this vine, no longer able to exist for their own sake. In my metaphor my parents urged me to grow ever taller, reaching for the sun, so that they could climb my trunk and spread their leaves high above the obstacles imposed on them by their own life circumstances and relationships. But in the process, they smothered all my access to air and light.

kudzu vines covering a vaguely anthropomorphic figure that looks like it's reaching up to the sky with both arms - and the surrounding area image by Markus Griesser

kudzu vines covering a vaguely anthropomorphic figure that looks like it’s reaching up to the sky with both arms
image by Markus Griesser

There was a time when I thought my childhood had been very happy and I missed it, horribly. I think my image of my childhood was based on my memory of the home-cooked dinners my grandmother served every night, and the whole family gathered around the table, complete with our golden retriever’s head in my lap. That was quite awesome and I was more physically fit, so I could run and climb and ride my bike and roller skate and play sports. I suppose I can still do those things, but not as well and not without a lot of physical discomfort and difficulty breathing. I was also less inhibited and had less access to electronic entertainment back then, which made it easier for me to have fun playing outside. And I truly believed that I could grow up to be anything.

Therapy has helped me face the reality that, while there were definitely positive experiences, I did not have an overall happy childhood. Perhaps you could say I had a neutral childhood – the best and worst parts of it kind of cancel each other out. It certainly wasn’t idyllic. According to Miller, people who seek therapy often think their childhoods were happy. Therapy enables them – us – to remember and re-experience the parts of our childhoods that were too painful to remain in our conscious experience. The goal is not to “correct” the experience, but rather to express the emotions that had to be repressed at the time in order to survive. Only by expressing and accepting these emotions (and having the world, e.g. the therapeutic relationship, not end) can we begin to heal.