Staying present

When you have experienced repeated episodes of trauma, trauma that was inescapable, the idea of staying present in any given moment seems impossible.  In my case, splitting off was a vital survival technique.  I found that if I went somewhere else in my mind, or “blanked out” I could tolerate the repeated episodes of terror.  The human body was not designed to exist permanently in fight, flight or freeze mode.  Being able to separate from the present was undeniably valuable when I was a child and had few, if any, options for getting away from the traumatic environment I lived in.  Whether or not that is the reason I have few memories of growing up, I don’t know.  It is an unfortunate reality that when I feel threatened I find myself looking out through the eyes of a frightened little girl.  I lose much of my adult self and return to strategies that were born of desperation.

“How can I make myself small?” I’ll find myself thinking, “if I’m very quiet maybe he won’t see me and he’ll go away.”  “Coward!!” another voice will whisper, as thoughts and emotions swirl in a funnel cloud around and around in my mind.  Thoughts get tangled and torn into fragments, as fear takes over.  Several times panic has taken over completely and I have ended up in a ball on the floor hyperventilating.  It has happened so quickly at times that my husband has been bewildered about how to handle it.  Couples counseling has helped, and studying meditation has as well.  Meditation may be both the most useful and most difficult tool a trauma survivor can practice.  Everything in your being can be screaming at you to leave the situation but you learn to patiently bring yourself back, back to the moment that is now, to the person you are with.  You learn that projection cloaks the person you are with in the guise of your abuser.  It is incredibly hard work, both for you and your loved ones, but it offers hope and new possibilities for living in the world.

Nothing has crippled my writing more than my inability to stay.  As the years have worn down my ability to cope with distress, it has become more and more difficult to stay in any moment, whether pleasurable or painful.  I’ve developed a sort of attention deficit disorder that my doctor even tried to treat with medication for a time.  The most successful antidote I’ve found, though, is listening to dharma talks and reading books written by meditation practitioners.  Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are just some of the teachers who have been able to help me.  It’s the hardest work I have ever done in my life and at times it feels like there has been no progress, nor will there ever be.  Thankfully, they write and teach about that feeling and urge compassion for yourself.  Punishment, self-denigration, humiliation, shame; all of those feelings are hard-wired into my being, but self-compassion?  That is new, and despite my struggles to feel worth it, gives me hope that the ability to stay present is not completely out of my reach.  I am convinced that in learning to stay present my healing can finally begin and perhaps one day I will be able to help others heal as well.


~ by janetlandis on August 23, 2009.

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