1. We are knee deep in one of the worst winters in history. When the winds pummel my house and the ocean flows through my basement, what am I thinking is: “I’m so glad I have flood insurance.” What I am feeling is help. I scared. I want my mommy. I need a daddy.
It’s hard to admit as a middle-aged woman (and feminist) how much the idea of rescue appeals. I have decades of experiential knowing that wishing is futile.
I know my craving for the present, stable and loving parents I never had is like wanting to snort, stab a needle, drink too much or inhale food. I know not to dive into the craving but I can’t pretend desire is gone.
It comes and comes back. Always. Even when it goes away it returns. Usually when I’m tired, sick or afraid.
2. I live in a small cottage near the ocean. It’s my sanctuary. I’ve lived here for 15 years, the longest I have ever lived anywhere. After my divorce, I learned to manage solo – emotionally, financially and even practically. The pilot light doesn’t scare me. I have a snow thrower and even installed a motion detector light by my porch. I got a new roof, a dog and a cat, and didn’t consult a soul. I’m a grown-up.
Still, when my tween is an adult I want her to have a singular image of home. I want it to be a feeling of being safe and loved that comes with an actual street address. This one.
As a child, I moved often. My mother married three times. Houses changed. Schools changed. Even the men we called “Dad” changed.
Childhood was a train ride that moved at dizzying speed. I didn’t control the brakes or have my hand on the wheel.
I don’t want my daughter to feel she is running, on the run or in danger of being run over. She deserves stability. A garden. A hammock. Solid ground.
But then we flooded and I saw three feet around my entire house and heard it flowing through my basement. Now I hate my house.
My once sanctuary no longer feels safe or warm.
When my home feels cold and unsafe, I feel cold and unsafe. The warmth is escaping. It’s not that I can’t see how beautiful the snow is or how powerful Mother Nature is. Those things I know. What I feel is threat and fear.
Looking out at the ice on the ocean, I think: “If that comes over the sea wall and down the street, we’re screwed.”
Dread during storms isn’t unique to survivors of childhood abuse or trauma. Everyone is worried about ice dams and more snow, getting to work or losing power.
But last night while the wind howled I thought: “No one will rescue you. If it gets bad you will be on your own.” I’m in survival mode. It’s automatic. My hyper-vigilance is on high. It’s more extreme in extreme weather.
This doesn’t happen by choice.
4. Now that I know about the long-term health impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), I wonder what the worry does to my body? Is it the corrosive toxins that hardens arteries, increases anxiety or wears away my immune system?
Is old pain like spilled oil that came in with the flood water? No one knows the source so it can’t be cleaned, but the house and the wood hold the stink. It’s not even my spill and I have to deal with clean-up and call the DPW and Department of Environmental Protection. Oil is a taste I can’t brush from my teeth and tongue even though the oil was washed away with the tide. “It might still smell when it’s warm,” one catastrophe clean-up expert tells me.
What I notice is how sleep is more difficult. I crave carbs and feel grumpy, sad and empty. It’s familiar, primal and bad. Not in a way that disrupts my day on the outside but in how I feel on the inside.
I may seem distracted but otherwise no one would even know I’ve gone away and am back in the fight. The fight is internal and the battle is with my body. These feelings rarely make it into sentences or conversations. It just feels I have to dig as deep as my bone marrow to find the strength to shovel again.
My reserves are so low.
Am I heart attack or stroke waiting to happen?
How, when afraid, do I keep my calm center? Sometimes I don’t even realize I lost it.
“Did you see the girl going around offering coffee to shovelers?” my friend and neighbor Margaret asked, adding, “I sent her your way.”
Uh oh, I think, feeling bad, remembering the me who greeted that girl with doubt.
I love coffee. I was out shoveling. But when I saw a stranger carrying a box of Dunkin Donuts cups, I thought: “What does she want? Is she making money off the storm? Bitch. She’s not tricking me into drinking some and then charging me $5. I’m no sucker.”
She was giving the coffee away. For free. Just because. To be nice.
Kindness. It was a gift I haven’t learned how to receive.
Later, I will like the photos neighbors posted to celebrate this stranger’s warmth. I could see it too, in pictures, but only later.
In the moment, when I was cold and shoveling, I failed to recognize her goodness and warmth. Is this why dangerous people will feel more familiar – because kindness, even when genuine, is received and felt as suspect?
I am tempted to give the finger to all the snowflakes that fall and think this: “You seem all innocent and pretty, but I know you are up to no good.”
I know that’s crazy town but it feels like I’m in a battle with Mother Nature, who has the upper hand. Mother Nature can crush me to death. In other words, I’m taking the brutal winter storms personally. This means I’m not just stressed — I’m post-traumatically stressed. I am feeling abandoned and unloved by the Earth, the cosmos and Father Time.
Ancient feelings are as deep as bone marrow and impossible to shake. Even though I’m an adult. It’s maddening.
The past is a place impossible to move away from. Fleas from the old rugs get in the clothes and are carried to the next place even though I have new sweaters and furniture.
7. I go from being in my sanctuary to thinking bad things always happen. I chide myself, You got soft, cheery…weak. You forgot no one will prevent or protect or respond to tragedy. Stay alert and aware and keep down and low. You forgot anyone can stab you in the back. Everyone will throw you under the bus if doing so will save their skin. You’ll be gutted like a fish if you are in the path of someone hungry or depraved.
That is what a tiny part of me is thinking, like a song in the background that won’t stop playing.
And also, at the same time, on the way to school, I say to my daughter: “People are good and helpful and nice. We are so lucky”, because neighbors help one another shovel, offer to share driveways out of the way of water. We bond and exchange phone numbers and flashlights. An countless people offer their homes, concern and actual help.
Does my daughter hear my words or feel my undercurrent which keeps me from sitting down for dinner?
The sunshine in my heart gets cloudy and overcast. Visibility drops to nothing. The wind is beating open all the doors of doubt and dread.
This is what being triggered actually feels like, and there’s no trigger warning that prevents this.
There’s no detector that beeps out that you’re stuck in survival mode and in a stiff defensive posture against life itself.
Writing helps me catch myself. Writing helps me slow myself. Writing helps me notice the shift.
Writing helps me right myself.
8. I remind myself that though the world feels unsafe — it isn’t — at least not always.
“You won’t feel this way when you don’t feel this way,” I say, which is my post-traumatic mantra. It doesn’t help too much except that I have the memory of having said it before, which means even then, when I didn’t believe it, it was true, so now it must be true as well.
If the house gets cold, I can turn up the heat, go to the gas fireplace I had installed for just such a storm. If disaster strikes, I can call the fire department. If our home floods, we can crawl to the roof with blankets, cell phones and prayers.
But we aren’t actually in a disaster and so I can stop living in the what-if catastrophe. This is what I have to remind myself of.
I soothe myself in my journal, make a list of who and what I love and what I actually know to be true and can do — if I’m actually unsafe, not only feeling unsafe.
Safety takes its time seeping back into my bones, breath and self.
Optimism and hope are like words stored on a page, legible, but sometimes trapped. I don’t know how to turn them into music I can hear, tap my foot to and that invites me to hum or dance. At least not at will.
“You can say ‘I am safe now. I am safe in this moment,” my friend Kathy reminds me.
“That’s a good idea,” I tell her, and she’s right but that doesn’t feel possible, at least at first. The most I can do it get to the Doublemint gum and chew. Chew. Chew.” Affirmations and assurances won’t get in until I can get still and quiet and feel firm.
My wisdom and warmth disappear when I’m afraid.
Im learning to let love and loved ones help blanket me ’til the chill is gone.
This, for me, is what healing is all about. This is the work of breaking the cycle.
The cycle isn’t a wishbone that can be dried out and cracked once on a holiday. It must be broken over and over and over, in choices and by deliberately challenging old and faulty thinking.
Compassionately. With patience.
9. What would help me feel more safe or less unsafe?I write that in my journal and search for the answer.
I hear a soothing voice from guided imagery and ingest and swallow and let words wrap me up. Self-care is a second language I am attempting, and it still conversational more than fluent.
Cheri Huber said how you talk to others is who you are, and how you talk to yourself is how you were parented.
It rings true.
I borrow the kind voice of others until I can change my own. Belleruth Naparstek. Pema Chodron. Cheri Huber and Rick Hanson are kept in storage as though they are like clothes in a closet I can pull out and put on.
I feel helpless. I am not helpless. I am reminded of the past. I am not in the past.
It takes a while for my body to feel, know and believe I am safe while scared and rattled. Not because I’m stupid or can’t get over the past but because childhood lasted almost two decades. That marinade got cooked into the meat of my muscles and can’t be rinsed off under cold water. I was tenderized with shame and salted with pain. There’s no undo or going back to raw to try to cook up another version of the adult I would have become had things been different.
There’s scrappy leftovers and new seasonings though. And I can write the words out of my body and see what is happening.
It takes energy NOT to sink into fighting for life mode. It takes effort not to see the world through the eyes of trauma.
10. The remnants of being un-mothered and un-fathered remain long after we forgive or outlive our actual mothers and fathers. It’s not that we long to return to the womb or the safety of childhood. It’s that we live in a world where we never knew child safety.
The impact of abuse and neglect is not in the pain that was done but in the joy that was not.
We still carry empty holes we must fill or step over.
I crave the blanket I never owned which would have warmed me against the cold.
At least now I know I deserved the softness of receiving.
It is the absence of good not the presence of bad that makes adverse childhood experiences so brutally complex to recover from.
I can and will get up and buy ice salt and make coffee and get my daughter to her Dad’s where there’s a back up generator and no ocean. I will watch the news, have candles and hope we don’t lose power.
Habits can be strong and stuck in structures or childhoods that are compromised. Both can be true and are.
The wind is ripping at my siding and shingles and psyche. Old pains are caught in the stiff neck muscles tired from shoveling the snow and getting out from under the past. I’m tired. Worn. Fatigued.
Sometimes, even in the middle of a wonderful life, suck soup simmers on the back burner with a smell as strong as skunk.
I’m close to 50. EVERYONE is experiencing this brutal winter. It’s not personal. I’m not being punished. Mother Nature doesn’t hate me. I know this now. And it doesn’t change how I feel. At least at first.
I know I’m not alone and that others feel this too.
I have an army of friends and family members I’m close to as well. I have a loving boyfriend who lent me his humidifier, helped seal basement openings and stayed with me on the phone . Friends have been wonderful. Family shows concern. Creativity abounds. This is all true in the now, in the present where I live. It does not cure or reverse the impact of the past.
But it helps.
And I am lucky to own a home that is a sanctuary almost always.
I am grateful to be aware and awake. Or will be.
But how the old losses blow through my wintery bones and home as news reports warn of 75 mph winds and moderate flood risks.
At 3 a.m. when I’m alone and scared, I will take a box of Apple Jacks to bed with me because the act of chewing soothes me enough to go back to sleep. My own powdery cheeks will greet me in the mirror.
Eventually, I will thank the storms for showing me what in me still needs tending to, nurturing and blanketing. But first, the storm will have to pass. First, I will need to feel safe.
‘Til then, the truth is the best I can do. I admit how it actually feels and seems and is experienced by me while I’m afraid. I will write the stress right out of my body. I can’t change the past or even all of the impact but I can use the power of non-fiction to write a better ending.
Real. Honest. Without shame. Doing so will actually help me feel buoyant and resilient.
Writing the hardest truths will turn the words into lyrics, which will then search for a song.
Christine Cissy White / This was originally posted on www.healwritenow.com