This past week, I’ve been lost in a haze of agonizing pain. When it’s acute, I can think of nothing else. Pain is all.
When the pain passes, I don’t resume being “my normal self”; I’m stuck in a haze of fear that the pain will return. Wondering why this is happening to me. Feeling like a failure as a person — what have I ever done in my life that makes this ongoing battle to survive worth continuing to fight? Why should I squander resources on trying to keep living? I’m a waste of oxygen. I’m worthless and stupid.
Why bother trying to do anything?
And then I choke on shame because someone who (regularly) loses the will to live over such minor things* obviously doesn’t deserve anything at all.
*Minor things follow:
I haven’t been able to dance in over 2 years because I can’t spare the energy. All of my life, if I had to pick one verb that defined me, it would be dance. That activity that I can now only watch others do. I watch music videos with people dancing joyously over and over and over. I cry.
Despite my most pleasurable morning ritual having become drinking coffee with milk and honey — worth getting out of bed for, all on its own — I’ve recently stopped drinking coffee, in case doing so was exacerbating my health problems.
So I wake up without coffee to look forward to. I lie in bed, noticing what hurts today. I’m already exhausted, and I haven’t even done anything yet. And this may be the best I feel all day.
I’ve stopped eating chocolate, and all refined sugar, hoping that would help me feel better / get healthier. In their stead, I’ve been eating a lot of fruit (which I also enjoy). But an apple I ate on Saturday might have contributed to my flare-up on Sunday. Spouse was out of town for the holiday weekend, and I spent Sunday–most of Tuesday feeling at death’s door.
Throughout all my trials and tribulations, across my whole life, I’ve protected and rejoiced in my mental capacities (i.e., being smart), which, quite honestly, I thought were the only things about me that had any value to other people. As a teenager, I was never tempted to ingest illegal drugs, because I feared they would kill brain cells. I didn’t drink until I was . . . well, mired in trauma at age 18. I binged for a year or two, as a (poor) way of coping. But I stopped even social drinking in 1991. If I’m not smart, I don’t recognize myself.
And guess what? When pain this past week receded, my brain remains/ed foggy. At rest, instead of hearing internal chatter on four or five levels, I hear just one or two, and they are muted. My top level is . . . silent. When I think, it’s in slow motion, painfully slow. I can’t tell if what I’m thinking has any value, even to me.
If I eat more often, supposedly I’ll have more energy. But I also risk getting sick again. So I’ve been minimizing eating. Spouse suggested I keep a log, to show the GI specialist I’ll be seeing next week. So now I’m literally tracking everything that goes into my body, and comes out. I feel like I’m 87 years old, not 47.
The one new social bright spot — a weekly call with KL — has been postponed indefinitely. She’s got great news, and I’m so happy for her, but I miss talking to someone (who isn’t Spouse). I didn’t fully realize how much I missed talking with someone I shared long history with whom I wasn’t afraid of until we started talking. She can actually tell me things I would have no other way of knowing; I’ve been able to ask her things I’ve been wondering about for 30 years or so. And she’s not a creepy asshole! (Sounds like faint praise, but if you knew my family, that distinction would make a lot more sense.)
Doctor visits to various specialists over the last four years have been inconclusive. I can feel myself fading, and yet no one knows what’s wrong with me. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, and tried all sorts of things myself, but none of them have restored me to anything like the level of health and energy I took for granted in 2010. No one knows why.
I can feel amazing poems inside of me, far beyond my current level of skills. I want to start trying to write them. But I don’t have the emotional energy to spare — I have to use it to get out of bed, to face yet another pointless day filled with pain and shame.
Ever since this ordeal started, deep in my bones I’ve felt that my physical symptoms — while increasingly dire — mask an underlying problem. Just dealing with the symptoms isn’t going to solve what’s actually wrong.
But what is actually wrong?
The shame spiral kicks in again: I’m worthless and stupid. I don’t deserve anything good. I’m a monster.
Last night I was finally reading a book from the library that I’ve had out for 6 weeks (renewed twice), but I hadn’t read before because I was afraid of what it might reveal to me — In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A. Levine.
“the younger, the more developmentally immature or insecurely attached the victim is, the more likely that [they] will respond to stress, threat and danger with paralysis rather than active struggle. People who lack solid early attachment bonding to a primary caregiver, and therefore lack a foundation of safety, are much more vulnerable to being victimized and traumatized and are more likely to develop the entrenched symptoms of shame, dissociation, and depression. […] Shame also feeds into the common misperception of traumatized individuals that they are, somehow, the cause of (or, at least, deserving of) their own misfortune. Another (powerfully corrosive) factor comes into play in the formation of shame . . . inflicted by the people who are supposed to protect and love the child. Children who were molested by family and friends, of course, bear this additional confused and chaotic burden. Shame becomes deeply embedded as a pervasive sense of ‘badness’ permeating every part of their lives. Similar erosion of a core sense of dignity is also found in adults who have been tortured, on whom pain, disorientation, terror and other violations have been deliberately inflicted.” (p. 60)
I don’t even remember how far back it goes, but when my mother was having a bad day, or a bad week, or a bad month, I was the person she screamed at, telling me I was worthless and stupid, and nobody liked me. She said she wished she’d had goldfish instead of children, because when you’re angry with goldfish, you can just flush them down the toilet!
When I was 18, I was molested by a family member. That person told me I was worthless and stupid, and ugly, and nobody liked me. They said everyone who was nice to me (a very small number of people) felt sorry for me, because I was such a pitiful loser. They said everyone was laughing at me behind my back.
I didn’t tell my parents what happened for 5 years, and I only did then because I was having a nervous breakdown, and I thought/hoped they might help me survive it. My mother took that person’s side against me, because, she said, I must be lying, but even if I wasn’t, he was a good person and so he would never do something like that; but I was a bad person. So even if it happened, I deserved it. She told me she loved him more than me. And then her actions for the next 15 years proved that’s how she really thinks. (At that point, I cut off contact with her.)
Emotional pain has been my constant companion since at least 1973. Wave after wave of physical pain has consumed my thoughts since 2009, when, during yoga, my teacher bullied me into reinjuring my right shoulder. I should’ve protested, I should have stood up for myself, but I didn’t know how. But even before that, months before, I had a job where my boss regularly bullied me into doing things beyond my physical capabilities. I hurt my shoulder there too. And my back. My neck. I was afraid of her. I was afraid saying “No” to abuse would somehow destroy the world. Instead, by giving in, I began destroying myself.
I have felt ashamed that I am highly motivated by pain — to make pain stop. But now I think my pain has kept me alive. I’ve been drowning in shame and self-loathing for over 40 years. Pain keeps me afloat. Pain, and remembering joy. If the pain ends, when the pain ends, joy becomes possible again. Can I hold on that long? Can I keep treading water? Yes.
I want to dance again. I want to write amazing poetry. I want to live, not just survive.
Before that horrible job with the god-awful freight elevator, before yoga with M, I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t figure out how to start. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I feared nothing I would say would be interesting to anyone. I didn’t even aspire to poetry (after being traumatized over my first poem in 1980).
As shitty as the last five years have been, their particular rhythm of ebb and flow have pushed me to write blog posts, that I think could become essays (with some polishing). I write poems now, including visual poems. I think about sculptural and spatial and tactile poems, wondering how I might bring them to life. I have much deeper connections to the world, through pragmatic philosophy, through praxis, through walking my neighborhood late at night. I’ve been back to New Mexico! I’ve been exploring my gender identity, and have even “come out” to people (despite it never going well). I finished naming myself, a process that began (legally) in 1992. Now I can see myself in the landscape; I can run across myself in prose. I’ve applied to renew my passport, dreaming of big trips in my future.
I was on unemployment for a year. I applied for a bunch of jobs, most of which I didn’t even get interviews for. I began a small business, which failed. I started writing a book, that I didn’t want to write, so I withdrew from it. (I think I burned bridges, and I’m okay with that.) I’ve volunteered, for environmental, and arts, organizations, enabling me to work on cool projects. But none were very good fits for what I (only dimly perceive that I) want, so I stopped doing all of them.
Now that I’m postmenopausal, things about the way my body used to function are no longer true. I’ve had to navigate new realities.
I tend to default to feeling that I am 1 million years behind everyone else. And it’s true that other people have careers, children, publications, have made a name for themselves. But when I went to the writers’ retreat last year (as an essentially unpublished writer), I found I was way ahead of women 10 & 20 years older in spiritual awareness/practice. In hands-on knowledge of living with chronic depression without taking medication for it. In living a creative life, despite having no support network, no community.
I’ve learned I’m the strongest person I know. And the most stubborn. I persist, dreaming of joy, delight, exuberance — one day I’ll embody all three again.
And pain kept me in the game long enough to rediscover how very much I value living.