The Letter; charcoal, ink, paint

Some things mark you; a tattoo, holding your first niece for the first time, getting your front teeth kicked out by an ice skate, seeing the northern lights across a hay field. On our honeymoon I swam over a jellyfish which left a spatulate, purple ghost across the tops of my thighs. A lifeguard poured vinegar over my legs which made the marks sear. During the week we’d rented a windowless Jeep and drove up the coast, drank sweating margaritas watching birds play hide and seek in the tropical canopy and threw ourselves in crashing waves from the shores of nameless beaches. Endless good abounded but the scar is what showed most. It felt like an insult or punishment against the love we were celebrating mostly because the world says you can’t have both. Nature is more holistic and thankfully a better teacher. On the last night of our trip we out ran a rain cloud, laughing all the way from the resort to a beach bar half a mile down the shore line. The sun was literally setting behind a clear sky ahead of us while it torrentially down-poured several feet behind us. Anyway, I loved all of it.

Once a year for a few years my extended Irish-Italian Catholic tribe would rent a couple of units at a condo resort in the White Mountains. I’m glad for the long connections which extend out over 3 or 4 generations. They taught me diversity, potluck etiquette and the comfort of simple traditions like Mabel’s sherbet punch and the blue tinted glass dish which always contained plain M&M’s on New Year’s Day. We were getting ready to swim in the hotel pool. I was excited because my mother finally let me get a two piece from Ann & Hope that summer. It was a black and hot pink Body Glove with a little zipper in the neoprene top. I loved it and liked me in it. While I was getting changed I noticed the spots and almost started crying. My period wasn’t on a schedule and I was hoping to make all the development stop. I was dancing 6 days a week and had started purging before class.  The family crowd was rumbling in the hallway holding stuffed tote bags full of every kind of pool crap imaginable. I peeked out of the bathroom door and whispered to my mum who loudly asked “WHAT?!” I whispered again with the eye roll face and mouthed “I just got my period.” She half announced it to my aunts and promptly threw a tampon at me from across the room. “Hurry UP! Let’s GO!”  What the flip am I supposed to do with this thing? My heart started pounding and a dread spread across my back in the form of hot waves. I knew it was broken but didn’t want to put something in there and had more than a few questions about the implications. Hello. We’re Catholic. Is this legal? Like, with God? What if I don’t want it in me? Is there a chart or a map or an alternative? Who could I ask? This was before Google and Jesus listened to me but wasn’t talking back. If I didn’t use it I couldn’t swim and if I didn’t hurry up there’d be a scene. I did my best to wrap my head around the whole geometry of the process, took a deep breath, cried a little and just did it. As I was walking out of the bathroom my nose started bleeding which I didn’t realize until one of my aunt’s shouted “She plugged it up!”  I stuffed a tissue in my nostril, pushed all my feelings way down and walked out with my humiliating family.

New Hampshire has moody weather so by the time we made it to the pool it was cooler and afternoon clouds were hovering. Despite all that I still wanted to swim. I stood up to my ankles on the steps obsessing about what would happen when the thing inside me got wet. I was the oldest of the cousins so there was no girl my age to ask, except Gina but since we only saw each other once a year or so, I didn’t want to go there. The little kids were being little while the grown-ups drank wine coolers and beer and ate french onion dip on giant, fried potatoes. I zeroed in on an old lady slathered so thickly in SPF she looked like a human glue stick. She was wearing a canvas hat, tiny black circle sunglasses and opaque, flesh-tone nylons. There was something so depressing and closed off about her it prompted me to take a few steps forward, away from fear. No one else might’ve noticed it but I thought that could be me someday if I don’t get over it. Of course, then I couldn’t put a name to what I was experiencing. My life is full of good things, but the one big thing in the context of unintentional circumstances that scared the absolute shit out of me left its marks.

Hypervigilance keeps you safe. So did corporal deportation. I had this magic ability to leave my body as a way of not seeing or feeling what was happening to it. I pray never to remember all of it. Is that wrong? I’ve forgiven the past but it has this obtrusive habit of bullying its way into an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning with my husband and our dog and strangling the contentment right out of me. I’ve tried Xanax, weed, meditation, deep breathing, eons of psychotherapy, exercise, yoga, hot yoga, prayer walks, guided imagery, a (rigid) balanced diet free of processed chemicals, white sugar, lies, joy, a starvation diet, a faith practice, getting one and a half master’s degree, hypnotherapy, positive self-talk, CBT, DBT, EFT, The Sedona Method, Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, Rick Hansen, a boat load of Buddhist teachings, prayer circles, youth groups, retreats, 1000 bible studies, cutting, non-violent communication workshops, relationship seminars, aromatherapy, and doing literally every, single thing I ever thought I was scared to try just to prove that whatever happened all those years ago wasn’t going to dictate my life. Guess what? Sometimes, despite our best and most concerted efforts we’re vulnerable to our own humanity. Society doesn’t give us permission to be works in progress so I’m declaring it here. Integration might be part of the process of becoming whole again and it takes as long as it needs to.

Maybe it seems unreasonable or unfair because we assume everyone else has their shit together? Sometimes I feel pathetic and think if I just tried harder I could exorcise the demon once and for all. That’s what they say at church, right? Pray harder. Am I faithless every time I’m overtaken by an uninvited thought, memory or sensation? Some Christian notions are a tall order but a nice idea. Colleagues who know my story keep gently nudging me towards EMDR. It’s an intervention that supposed to wipe the windshield of our deepest, scariest memories clean so we’re never afraid again. I’m trained in lots of modalities but always considered EMDR the liver and onions of interventions. (All the minions just cringed. It really has helped lots of people.) I tried it once and had a powerful, not great response; the room started spinning. I braced myself for soul-puking, called time-out, gave my therapist his final check and haven’t been back since. Can’t we live alongside our vulnerabilities or are we required to scrub at the charred scars inside our head till we’re deemed ‘perfect’? People get sick of hearing it from me. I can almost track the chapters of my life by my ailment obsessions…AIDS, stroke, lip cancer, kidney cancer, throat cancer, deep vein thrombosis (The ER nurse just started hugging me when I’d come in. It was sweet. I still really wanted an MRI.), a brain tumor, an eye tumor, an adrenal tumor, pancreatic cancer, skin cancer, diabetes…truthfully I’m too scared to tell you my latest hang-up. I never got any of those things and as my sister has rationally pointed out, if I acquire any sort of ailment we’re fortunate to live in a country where an array of medical options exist. My behavior is an insult to those with real physical illness. I promise to place myself at the front of the crazy line as an apology. The worrying has stolen chunks of my life and ruined otherwise good times. In part, I go on living as courageously as I can to jump up and over the mental barbed-wire. When do we get the day, peace, sanity, integrity, wholeness back? It boils down to restoring a sense of control and level of safety we didn’t have then but could have now.

During my divorce I peeled off the comfortable numbness of codependence. It was unconscious at least to some degree. I hadn’t realized how much it was protecting me. I knew I was tired of hiding behind this person, his insults and addictions, but I wasn’t fully prepared to face certain truths. It was all there laid out in a brand new, empty shell of possibility. In order to see and welcome what was good in me I had to first face the things that hurt, the things I hated, all over again as an adult. I was 19 when I met my ex-husband and thought I’d done a decent amount of work during college and graduate school. Nothing compared to the next level of knowing which came during the process of Dissolution…dis-illusion. That’s what divorce papers actually say. It was a raw time. Sitting in your vulnerability as a child is different than sitting in vulnerability as an adult. I remembered more and was now seeing my life through a less tinted lens. Thank god for my sponsor; an earth angel who taught me healthy love and boundaries. Each time I stumbled over something new, she was there to emotionally hold me down while I screamed. Tenderness and non-judgment have been the most helpful. I often forget to practice them with myself, other times I simply lack the patience for something that feels exhaustively over and done. The western world dictates consumption which distracts from the pursuit of wholeness which is the thing we’re hungriest for. We’re sold the idea we can buy, lie or deny our way past the past. Eventually we discover the truth about becoming whole is found in our broken parts.

If you decide to live a God-loving life don’t fuss, don’t worry about what you’ll eat, what you’ll wear or how clothes will hang on your body…don’t worry about your body…there’s more to life..look at the birds, free and unfettered, careless in the care of God. -Matt 6:25 ish

7 thoughts on “Wholly

  1. I can really relate to the feel of adolescence you describe here. Yet, I was also laughing out loud at intervals reading this serious post. The black humour works so well amongst the resonating descriptions. Nice counterpoint.

    Because my family was even more humiliating and tactless about things to do with female sexual development, I told nobody for the first six months I was menstruating, and had to do DIY hygiene products since we didn’t live near a shop and I could never spend pocket money without a full report, I only let on when my mother was going into another public commentary about her daughter’s lack of development, specifically that I wasn’t menstruating. Incensed by her lack of human decency, I publicly replied, “Actually, you’re wrong. I started last year, but it’s not the kind of thing I feel comfortable discussing with you. I wonder why!” – and for once took the wind out of her sails.

    Ah yes, PTSD. I used to wonder, before I knew I had CPTSD, why there were some things I could get over with repeated exposure to the bogeyman (public speaking, wearing non-shapeless clothes etc), there were other things that got worse each time I tried more exposure (like dealing with certain types of trolls in certain situations). I used to see those failures as some kind of character defect. Why was I having such absurdly strong emotional reactions and how could I achieve the nirvana of detachment? Now I laugh thinking back, “Hey, that was PTSD being triggered, no wonder that didn’t work!” And that allows me to be relaxed about it, which in itself is half the way to Rome.

    “Tree changing” (do you have that term in the US?) was also really positive for me – doing the small organic farm and increasing food self-sufficiency thing. You might enjoy these photos:

    Context Map - Mehniup Nature Reserve Hike - Kent River, South Coast, Western Australia

    I could now quote Thoreau (things like, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…” and all that). Or I could say that to me the world of nature has always been a welcome haven from the cruelties and idiocies of society – right from the beginning, it was something that put its arms around me and nurtured me.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing your writing, and best wishes from one survivor to another. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sophie. Thanks for getting my dark humor!! It’s my favorite medicine. Occasionally I’m mortified to read this piece but it just begged to be written. Im sorry to hear you went so long with no support for your transition and that you’re a fellow survivor. Since we communicate in the comments I’ve wanted to be respectful about what I ask you but am grateful to hear your experiences. There’s so little written about CPTSD and I’m guessing you’ve felt the pressure as well, to be magically cured. I can relate to the (non) shapeless clothes. I don’t believe our character if defective. I’d rather say we’re very resilient 🙂 Have heard of Bessel Van Der Kolk and his book The Body Keeps score? I’m slowly making my way through it. He seems to get it. Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery is also validating but not mainstream knowledge. I’m not familiar ‘tree changing’ but agree that self sufficiency and nature are deeply healing. I’ll check out the photo link. I have actually stood in the remains of Thoreau’s little cabin in the woods at Walden Pond. It was tiny! Rumor has it he spent lots of time at the local pub writing and bargaining for dry goods and meat in trade for poems 😉 I love his writing but I’m guessing I would try to out debate him on notions of true self sufficiency haha. I wish you continued healing and as always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Happy weekend Sophie!


  2. Oh, you’ve been to Walden? Wow. It’s great to be able to check some of these things out for yourself. Growing up in the non-cultural (in European terms) part of Australia, I had art from books, from reproductions, and I will never forget the feeling of standing in front of an actual Turner painting when I went to the Tate in London in my 20s, it was like flying. – So from what you’ve seen, it seems Thoreau was kind of an early adopter of the “Tiny House” movement, haha…

    Poetry for barter, very funny! 🙂

    Humour I think is one of the things that actually helps us survive through the dark bits. As a kid I was looking for funny things to laugh at, in books (including joke books), cartoons, situations. Now I wonder if that was a kind of self-help brain chemistry balancing. Terror versus humour. Laughing turns on some very positive brain chemistry. The terror has now gone but the humour remains.

    I think there are actually a lot of good things like that to come out of a trauma background as a sort of side-effect. A love of reading, writing, art, music, creativity (because that was a way to humanly connect even when socially and experientially deprived). Ability to recognise when others are going through this sort of thing and to be able to come from a place that’s alongside to them, Good radar for BS and bullies. Real appreciation of good things. Not taking things for granted. A lot of immunity from the herd instinct type behaviour, fashions, and keeping up with the Joneses. Attention to detail, good observation antennae, good analytical capacities (from having to think through things yourself from early on, and figure things out for yourself, and figure out lies). Authenticity. That sort of thing. The lists may vary but I am sure many people from traumatic backgrounds have these lists of useful by-products. While I don’t wish an abusive childhood on anyone, these things are really valuable.

    If you’re ever mortified re-reading your stuff…to go where you go is extremely helpful for creating understanding. You speak for a lot of people by putting your own experiences into words. Whan you find your voice it encourages others to find their own voices. That level of honesty can be personally painful but it breaks that silence and paints a true picture, not just a watered-down version. So thanks for doing that!

    I’ll check out those books, sound interesting. And you have a good week yourself!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sophie. Your comments are always full of encouragement! To stand in front a real Turner in London-what a gift!! I love his paintings. I have seen one piece at a museum in Boston, they seem to glow. 🙂


  3. If you ever get a chance to see Turner’s “Angel Standing in the Sun” – the actual canvas, I think they still have it at the National Gallery in London but it may very well go on one of those travelling exhibitions to your country – I really recommend the experience. I was a Turner fan from high school art classes onwards, and had been exposed to reproductions of his more famous pieces, but this is an obscure one and was new to me. You can see that piece online but it’s not even remotely the same, it looks quite insignificant, but when you see it for real it kind of unleashes on you. Amazing how putting dabs of paint on a canvas in a particular way can create really visceral reactions in an onlooker.

    While on this subject, it’s possible to paint with words. Have you ever thought of your own writing that way? From where I sit, it certainly qualifies to go under that umbrella. That way of looking at it may be helpful when writing.

    All the best! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would agree nothing compares to standing in front of any original painting but there is something amazing about Turner. I used to hide in the library at my college pouring over book plates, I had no clue such a thing existed. Thinking of words as imagery…yes. My own words? It’s probably hard to ‘see’ myself. Do you write? I’ve been careful about asking you questions since we chat in a public comment section but it’s probably safe 😉


  4. Well, I have a pseudonym on these kinds of sites so I’m safe in that way. 😉 I do think one day I won’t give a squiggle about being open and identifiable when discussing matters related to a dysfunctional upbringing, it’s just that I’ve seen that being used as ammunition against people professionally, and spun into all sorts of flying monkey stories, so I’m still a bit careful. Meanwhile, the things I say under pseudonym on various sites might be helpful for other people who find encouragement in real-life stories about dealing with such early histories – just like one of the things that really helped me was that other people shared their messy stories online, and did a bit of interpreting – like Cherilyn, Veronica, yourself, commentators on these sites. It was my “red pill” moment to read those stories, in a way that reading psychology texts on family dysfunction wasn’t… I think while the latter are intellectually helpful, the former are very much emotionally helpful, and it was in the emotions that the damage was done, and the emotions and not so much the thinking that needed the healing.

    And like you said elsewhere, fairy stories, real stories, any stories potentially address this sort of thing. Have you heard of Jeanette Winterson? She’s a UK author who was brought up in religious narcia, to borrow Cherilyn’s phrase, and who read books and wrote as a way out, from a very early age. She knows exactly how many books of a certain format one can hide under a standard size mattress, for example – since she wasn’t allowed books as a child. She’s now in her fifties, and she finally realised she had complex PTSD in her forties (like I did, and like lots of women apparently do), and so she recently put out a biography on her upbringing called “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” which was an unsanitised version of her novelisation/parody called “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” which had made her famous in her twenties. She’s also very funny – positively riotous in interviews – and I’m glad people like her write.

    Do I write? Yes, journalled from middle school till relatively recently (now I do blog comments and write my own articles instead, since I think it’s more useful to write in the open than to hide all that under a bushel). Contributed to university magazines as an undergraduate. Various lecturers were trying to get me to publish my essays/projects for their courses in actual public magazines – things like environmental ethics pieces – but back then my family of origin heavily discouraged me from getting publicly published, “to protect me” but in reality I think they couldn’t stand the thought of me flying… since they also prevented me from having my moment in the sun at various other times like when I got dux of my senior high school and later my university degree course, and both times on their advice I turned down newspapers who wanted to run a little article on those achievements. Oh and since I didn’t even end up going to my university graduation, nor was it ever celebrated in my family of origin that I was the first woman in the whole family to have got a Bachelor of Science degree. Etc etc. Whereas my brother’s various achievements were trumpeted from the rooftops, even when the achievement was to get his vulnerable (alcoholic dad, emotionally neglected) young secretary half his age pregnant while still legally married to someone else (there are ways to spin these things for the golden child).

    But I digress. Wrote professionally in the sciences while working there as a new graduate. Did English and Literature courses for high schoolers on and off for fifteen years as a kind of sideline to teaching Biology, Physical Geography and a bit of Physics, and that was great fun: Like a giant book / movie club and with creative writing lessons, and I looooved reading the students’ work, they were such fun. Started a young adult space/time travelling novel before we got busy building our house and will get that back out one day. Am writing freelance for non-mainstream magazines on subjects like farm management, encouraging biodiversity, owner building, passive solar design, ecologically friendly living, recipes for delicious and healthy food on a budget and after writing mainly for one, am expanding into other publications this year now that I have more time to write. But funnily, the best quality writing always seems to happen anonymously on other people’s blogs, kind of like the best singing tends to happen in the shower! 😉

    You mentioned that it’s difficult to “see” yourself. I think that’s a really common thing, and especially in people who weren’t accurately mirrored by their caregivers. I noticed that a lot of adolescents really thrive when they get a lot of accurate mirroring and positive feedback on the things they do well, from an adult “in charge” – like in the classroom, and nowhere better than an English classroom, where there are all these stories to work through the unspoken stuff vicariously at first. I didn’t get accurate mirroring and positive feedback as a child/adolescent except from some wonderful teachers, and I hit the jackpot there in my first two years of primary school (the next two I had a sociopath who used to make fun of dyslexics etc), and later an art teacher in middle school, and a whole bunch of wonderful teachers in senior school. They stood in glorious contrast to what was going on at home for me, and I wanted to give that back to the world when I ended up working at schools.

    I’m sure you too are finding that it helps you help others to have been through your particular set of circumstances early in life, and that’s part of the way that light shines into darkness. It’s not much talked about, which is probably why I develop such hypergraphia when I write about it! 😉 It’s interesting though, since writing about it online (last year or so) I find myself becoming more open about it in person with other adults and there have been really interesting discussions and laughter and hugs with neighbours as everyone suddenly airs their cupboards and agrees we must talk more about the things that are usually hidden…

    Love your blog. You’re combining talking about this stuff with high-octane writing. I also think that’s probably what JK Rowling did, I think there is probably a lot of autobiography in HP as well, and reflecting on how to overcome the problems of life and the world. I think that’s one reason HP is so powerful and why so many children, and people in general, have been so engrossed by it. There is dark reality meets emotional honesty meets conscience and creative solutions. It’s not a candycane world, it’s a very realistic world with very real moral struggles.

    Best wishes again! 🙂 Wonderful to chat to another books-and-writing buff.


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