All posts by vlynntherrien

Untouchable

“Philosophy’s first and most general task, in the war against anger and fear, is to make things clear—to give the soul an understanding of its own situation and its possibilities. . . . the anxiety that gives rise to strife can be put to flight only by knowledge and self-knowledge . . . . Anxiety is the soul’s darkness, philosophy its light. . . . The triumph of philosophy, in short, is a triumph not through political action . . . but within each human soul in relation to itself—as the soul learns . . . to understand and accept the ways in which a human life is necessarily vulnerable and incomplete, to be willing to live as a soft body rather than an armed fortress.”—Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994)

Invisible-woman-artwork-20060626041749688_640w_1205023163_7756It is most likely a defense mechanism against extensive physical, verbal and emotional abuse in childhood that led me to believe that I was untouchable. Maybe it was some sort of ‘never again’ reaction but I just sort of naturally came to believe that if I thought myself untouchable I was untouchable: I couldn’t be abused, just wasn’t possible. This belief system was delusional on many levels. If I was nice to anyone who made fun of me or harassed me, then they were my friends and I remained untouched; if I scrutinized myself and offered up what I had done wrong and apologized to someone bullying me, then we were just having a disagreement and I had managed to resolve it, and so I remained untouchable; if something done to me was too bad, I would try to bury it – refusing to talk or think about it (although the inevitable period of obsessive rumination would lead me to justify burying the events to prevent others from seeing how deeply flawed I must be to provoke such violence) and so I was tenuously untouchable.

I had to appear untouchable because or else, I believed, everyone would see the fatal flaw of who I really was and join in, turn their backs on me and hurt me. I had to be untouchable because the cost of being touched was too high.

jalba13And so I never really addressed anything that happened to me. Just ran away from it – either physically through travel or mentally through books and a rich fantasy life of one day achieving something. Anything, really. Though I was so ‘nice and friendly’, I did everything alone. I travelled alone, I walked alone, I read alone, I wrote alone, I dreamed alone. The only thing I did not do alone was go out at night alone – too many sexual assaults led me to believe in all honesty that a woman should not go out alone at night. Never mind that none of that had happened while I had been out alone. It’s just that the only way I could cope with all that was by beating myself up about things like my blonde hair being ‘bad’, being too nice or not nice enough, the clothes that I wore, etc.. I stopped drinking for years because I wanted to better be able to gauge other’s behaviour; if I failed to do that the consequences were obviously my fault.

And yet through all this I really thought I was untouchable. It was completely delusional.

It took an extremely abusive ex-boyfriend to get me to confront the ways in which I enable abusers by constantly seeking compromise with them, refusing to judge them for their behaviour and placing full responsibility on me to control other’s behaviours. It’s delusional to think I can act in such a way that nothing bad will ever happen to me. Obviously, I still believe a person’s behaviour influences generally the kind of reactions they will get, but it does not control specific reactions. And while as a general rule my approach to life was extremely successful, in a narrow way there were pathological people that could pick-up on signals I was sending that I would do anything to refuse to acknowledge I was experiencing an instance or a sequence of abuse : that I was really a wet noodle with no spine. And even just with luck of the draw, as most women will definitely experience, a crazy random guy that just pinballs his way through life only knowing that I am the only one trying to be nice and understanding, and not telling him to shove off.

So I’ve been learning how to do fight instead of flight. The worst part is that that some people think suddenly I’m a bitch or that I’ve gone crazy, thinking that there are all these crazy men out there when surely it must be me. Trust me, I’ve gone over the possibility that I’m the person at fault about thirty-three thousand times already. I’m not perfect, but it’s not me. It’s just that I went from having blinders on and thinking abuse was something that exclusively happened to others to suddenly realizing, wow, there’s a real sense in which I do not know how to draw proper limits around myself.

In one case, I verbally expressed to a house guest that I was not in a good mood and wanted to be left alone. He became infuriated and screamed insults at me until I cried and he vaguely threatened about ‘really getting mad’ (his girlfriend made him leave). At this point, it might seem like it’s my fault but think about it : everyone has bad days and especially if someone verbalizes their needs, an emotionally adequate response is to give the person space, not attack them. The next day when I said good morning to his girl friend he was apparently still mad and came one inch away from my face screaming extremely personal insults; he was very much in my personal space and when someone does this in a threatening matter your gut reaction is to push the person – I knew if I did he would knock me unconscious and his girlfriend had locked herself in the bathroom when he entered the room, he was refusing to leave my house when I asked him 3 times, I informed him if he did not leave immediately I would call the cops, he left the room and sat on the couch still yelling insults so I called the cops. Oh man did I ever cry and beat myself up about this hair trigger reaction. I felt I had no right to remove him from my space and send him home. I was so mad at myself. Why didn’t I calmly walk away? Why wasn’t I the bigger person? The truth is he would likely have started again next time he saw me (since a day away had not calmed him down) and in even if he calmed down he would learn that he had the right to talk to me that way. I knew I had made the right choice – so why was I so sad?

I wasn’t untouchable.

In the other case, a man I had met through friends was just a text maniac. The day after meeting him, I took two hours for dinner and returned to 8 messages asking me why I wasn’t answering and what he had done. Plus to be honest half the things he messaged me sounded like straight up lies. I really did not like this person and I was having a hard time remaining patient. Still I wanted to be nice and not just ghost. So I told him I did not like to text, that I was extremely busy and that I was sorry but that maybe in a month if I had time I would let him know. Pretty obvious – but, yes, ever so slightly ambiguous. Well, he started calling (because I didn’t like texting). I never picked up. More texts. Like six in an hour. Never answered. Than he wrote me asking if I thought I was stalking him. I told him listen, you are a very nice guy, you are not a stalker but yes I was overwhelmed by his communication style and did not see this working. Responded that when I had more free time we should hang out. More calls. More texts. Now Facebook messages – ten of them(!) going from ‘hey how are you’ to angry ‘I do not like how you make it look like I’m chasing after you by not responding, I’ve made my intentions clear and I’d like you to make your intentions clear’. So I responded ‘I think I have. I’m confused’. 8 responses including ‘Oh I think you must have messaged the wrong person’. So I bite the bullet, tell him that I’m sorry for being harsh but I feel he will misinterpret anything else, that I have multiple times said I was not interested and that there were no mixed signals (that ‘you are not a stalker does not = I’m interested’ (!)) and that at this point I wanted absolutely no further contact with him. The messages just kept coming ‘I’m not done with you’, ‘I don’t want to talk your head off’, ‘the texts are psychological warfare’ at which point I tell him I’m considering blocking him. 6 messages later I block him. Then he starts texting me. At which point I tell him that this is why I’m blocking him and to please not turn into a weird cliché before I figure out how to block texts on Android 5.0. I know I did the right thing and was actually considerably patient with him… just not the kind of patient I used to be. Just not the kind of person that would figure out a way to make things OK for this guy at the expense of my time and energy. But also to avoid feeling, well, contaminated. If I ended things well and platonically with him than there was nothing to feel weird and exhausted about. It was in my control to decide if this ended though blocking or mutual agreement, right? It wasn’t delusional at all to think somehow I could control the behaviour of someone that I had met once amongst all the other factors contributing to how he chooses to communicate? Right?

Why else do I feel so sad? Why else do I only want to sleep? Why else do I not want to see anyone again? I admire people that medicate their anxiety with activity. Me, I just stare at the wall and ruminate all the ways this is my fault and what I could have done differently for this never to have happened so that I can be untouchable. Actually, it’s not that all the time, but it is that often enough that it always surprises me when people think I go out a lot and do, you know, stuff.

I don’t want people to know these are the kind of people that have been in my life this last month because what if they think that I must be attracting this kind of attention, that I love and crave drama, that I’m provoking otherwise normal people into odd patterns of behaviour, that somehow I’m beyond just manipulative and I actually have this power to make people behave in odd ways because I’m so abnormal and flawed that I would drive anyone to madness — much the way I’m driving myself to madness… But I’m driving myself mad trying to cope with a world in which I’ve had to experience some pretty horrible things at an age so young that my mind was not equipped to explain it. When the only ways I was taught to cope with these things was silence, shame, secrecy and self-reprimands. These tools worked as a delusional child who believed that you could just keep these things a secret and strive to be perfect and untouchable and that was the way the world worked. People that did not have horrible things happen to them were normal. I just wanted to be normal. But I was so abnormal I had to be stronger. I had to be untouchable. The times I have been manipulative almost exclusively are in times I sensed physical danger was imminent. Have you ever manipulated violence into love? I had to be delusional because reality was strangling me.

It’s cognitive dissonance in motion, but is this a ‘girl thing’? Surely a lot of women experience these frustrating stereotypes about women, strange double-binds and never-ending prescriptive demands and come out semi-normal? Is this a ‘child of abuse thing’? Surely it’s like some sort of Stockholm Syndrome where you identify with your aggressors more than with your own plight because, well, they have the power to end this nightmare, not you — so if you identify with them you have the illusion of power… Is this ‘my own special brand of weirdness’? God knows I’m convinced I’m weirder than I probably am because I just want to make myself interesting because that’s the kind of piece of shit I am that drives people so crazy. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But now I know I’m not untouchable. I’ve cut the hippie karma krap and have started being bitchy and defensive sometimes. I do not do it because I enjoy it but because I want to truly and genuinely feel safe. People have hurt me and will continue to hurt me. But I have the right and the ability to defend myself and set limits for appropriate interactions. It will always hurt me to do so because it reminds me that I’m not untouchable. A limit I’m setting for appropriate interaction is you do not have the right to question the limits I set for behaviour I don’t feel comfortable handling. My limit might be lower than yours, or maybe my limit rebuffed someone you know and you think that makes me ‘too sensitive’ or ‘crazy’– well yes I’m too sensitive. I set a limit because the behaviour was more than I could handle. Even with the limit I’m the one sitting alone crying for a couple of days wondering what I did to deserve this. I set the limit so that it wouldn’t trigger a full-on depression. You questioning my limit in a mean-spirited manner or in a way in which you are trying to shift blame onto me is stepping on that limit. Maybe try understanding why I have a limit with the same care you are putting into understanding the behaviour of the person who went loco and contributed to me temporarily retreating from the world in fear tomorrow will bring just some other bullshit that I do not want in my life.

I’m extremely sensitive and have to be careful the people I allow into my life as I easily set myself aside to try and figure out how they can be happy. Yes, a certain happiness comes from casting aside one’s own ego – but I no longer believe trying to create a void in the self to suppress negative emotions about one’s self is ‘healthy’. I don’t know what the answer is but I’m in my own body and mind and I’m going to start by placing limits around me because I’m not untouchable.

—V. Lynn Therrien

Since I have PTSD — Part III-IV

Part III

All this to say that he enacted a very elaborate revenge plan that left me with severe PTSD. I’m sorry that I can’t talk about what happened. The truth is I can barely think about it without devolving into complete all-encompassing panic attacks. Which means that I think about it constantly unconsciously to prevent thinking about it consciously.

It’s been a bit over a year since the height of the events. I actually went into a state of shock at the time and my fear is that at any moment I will return into a state of shock. And not just in the face of triggers. I question my ability to handle any and all forms of stress just because that one time I could not mentally cope with an extreme situation that I felt was an imminent threat to my safety and concerted plan to actively ‘destroy my life’. I used to work in a hospital as a Unit Coordinator including a permanent position in the ICU. I used to perform better on exams than on essays. I can handle stress. And suddenly it was like everything I thought I knew about myself was also potentially not true. I wondered who I was. I wondered especially if I deserved everything that had happened to me, if only because I was weak.

For the first week I could not stop crying and had recurring nightmares of being hounded by dogs and militiamen while trying to conduct interviews on rapists or otherwise trying to do something dangerous but socially important. My doctor placed me on a powerful sleeping-aid and discussed PTSD with me. For the first few months I could not leave my house or return phone calls or texts. I went completely M.I.A. I just watched T.V. and stared into space. I had no desire to kill myself but even less desire to live or participate in life. I wished the world would forget about me. I wanted to be allowed to watch time pass me by comfortably and safely alone. For the first time in my life I started emotional-eating and gained 25lbs. When I returned to work, I cried during all my breaks for no reason. When I started seeing my friends again I felt no enjoyment. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I became hyper-sensitive to judgment. I have a sister who has always been very critical and yet this never used to bother me. ‘I don’t like your hair’, ‘your friends are weird’ or ‘you dress weird’ used to be met with ‘I like my hair/friends/clothes. And who cares anyways?’. Now suddenly I was straightening my hair, suddenly not responding to someone whose profile picture she didn’t like and dressing conservatively. I no longer had any conception of what normal was and somehow the only thing that made sense was to defer to other people’s judgment. I had no self-esteem left and needed direly to avoid any form of judgment. I understandably had no interest in dating anyone but I suddenly felt like there was something wrong with me for at least not even pretending I wanted to get married and have kids, or like surely it was symptomatic of my own failures that I still hadn’t gotten to the point where I could trust someone enough to even reciprocate flirting.

Every thought was plagued with ‘am I normal?’. I didn’t feel normal. I started judging others. Obviously, men were all potential abusive lying psychos but far more damaging was how I started wondering what was wrong with my friends that they wanted to be friends with me. That is, when I wasn’t flat out obssessively wondering which ones were talking behind my back, which ones had been in contact with him but not stepped forward to tell me, which ones had contributed even if unwittingly to his plan but for whatever reason couldn’t come forward. I had gone from someone that was probably a little too accepting of other’s to someone who was just completely cut off from any capacity to have a connection. The fact I still have friends after how blunted, robotic, dark, self-absorbed and M.I.A. I’ve been in the last two years is a miracle and a fact I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted.

In this way, even things that weren’t triggers per se fuelled my PTSD : as a consequence of this guy, I couldn’t have a connection, ergo I was now fake, ergo maybe I always was, ergo maybe he was right about that, ergo maybe he was right about everything, ergo maybe I deserved everything he did to ‘destroy my life’. Surely the fact I was blaming my PTSD on this guy and his twisted actions and words instead of my own inner failings was a sign that I was the one to blame in all this. Even when I tried to be logical and rational about the process of trauma – I was fixated on blaming myself and fixated on the thought I wasn’t blaming myself enough. As if somehow I could hate myself enough to make what had happened make sense. It was the only way I knew how to fix it. Everything could be interpreted somehow as way this was my fault. At least this would be a reason and a reason was something I desperately wanted. I needed a reason so that I could predict or prevent anything like this from ever happening ever again.

This was exhausting. I’d say 99.5% of times I was in a state of disinterest and disconnect from life, with the other 0.5% of times being completely consummed by the kind of anxiety, panic, recriminations and paranoia that easily explain why I was spending the rest of the 99.5% just waiting to die and avoiding anything that might make me have to participate in life and admit I was still alive : the 0.5% where my brain would force emotion into my field of consciousness were just so exhausting, so draining, and just so dark that I had simply no reserves of energy left for anything else. I spent 99.5% of my time trying to remain as still and inactive as possible because the second an intrusive thought entered my head, I would spiral out of control with panic. I was 20 000 leagues away from feeling like myself and the 40 yard stare kept my life, myself and others at bay. The 0.5% of times I was actually living in my own skin I found intolerable.

For months if I went out I wondered if I would see him, or be confronted with a trigger, or have to deal with someone who had heard one of his lies and not be able to handle that, not because I don’t know who I am or what happened or what my role in all this mess is – but because I can’t handle the PTSD, because I can’t explain what it’s like to live through something like this, because I’m ashamed of how neurotic and self-absorbed it’s made me, because I’m ashamed at how unable I feel to participate in life let alone a conversation justifying why I can’t participate in life. Because temporarily when I’m confronted with something that triggers the fight-or-flight reflex in my brain I automatically defer to flight and just go hide into my bed for days or weeks until I feel OK with the fact that this is my reality now and it’s OK to cry or get really really nervous for what appears to be no reason. Until I’m OK with the fact that this is something I can’t communicate and that, in general, my ability to communicate at this point is severely impaired. I have ceased believing I will ever return to my old self and this is something I had to become OK with.

Part IV

I never used to be ashamed of my emotions or wish that I didn’t have them. I believed anxiety and depression made me more creative, empathic and even intelligent. But PTSD isn’t that. PTSD is the inability to feel emotion because it’s too overhwelming. PTSD is sort of catatonic. Yes, there are outbursts of irritability and panic attacks but outside of that there is nothing. Nothing at all. No desire for things to get better because things getting better means participating in life which means the possibility of something bad happening again. PTSD is holding your breath. It’s not even threading water. It’s refusing to surface because it’s better to continue drowning then to experience the fear of drowning all over again. So you stay stuck in the moment even if most of the time you are completely disconnected and uninvolved with that or any other past, present or future moment.

Perhaps because I have never been ashamed of my emotions, I continue to express myself as openly as I can. I know I commit myriad Facebook faux-pas by admitting that I actively struggle at times through life but I simply do not want to be any other way. I’ve tried faking it til I make it and it makes me feel empty and nauseous. I might have pretty severe anxiety as to how other’s perceive me in my admitted imperfections but when I pretend I’ve got it all figured out that anxiety is heightened, not relieved. I feel as though I’m participating in a system of oppression that shames me and people I care about for not always being happy. Or for not being superheroes triumphing over all obstacles and adversities. I feel as if I would rather not have friends than have friends under false pretenses. I alsothink about the relief and inspiration I feel when I listen to other’s talk about trials they have lived through and think if even one person feels less alone, feels like it’s OK to be imperfect, feels like it’s a bit easier to understand their own emotions knowing other’s have experienced them then it is worth all this vulnerability.

It has been said that everything has been said and done before – what’s particular about this day and age is that now more than ever there are strict rules and regulations over socially acceptable forms of expression. So that now less is actually available from that collective body of work. There was a time when you could talk about depression and it didn’t have a name or connotation : it was just a fact of everyday life. It was grief, trauma, anxiety, nostalgia, bitterness — it was all connected and everyone knew they were not immune to glimpsing shadows. Now depression is something best kept secret unless you have an acceptable reason for being depressed and it doesn’t last a long time and you don’t, you know, actually talk about it too much. Some people tell me it’s because everyone’s depressed and everyone’s struggling just to get by so they don’t like to be reminded of it. Especially if that’s true, I think we need to remind ourselves life can be really fucking shitty but at least we’re all in it together.

I’m talking about PTSD because it has been an experience that’s very different from depression or anxiety. But depression and anxiety are its corrollaries. I think maybe post-manic schizophrenics/bipolars can understand this sudden crushing void and irrelevance of experience and self. What I’m experiencing are ultimately just feelings that are labeled PTSD because there is a traumatic life-threatening event that leads to alternating dissociation and panic — but I was already depressed as hell and experiencing some form of cognitive dissonance from a lengthy and soul-crushing abusive relationship with a lying and manipulative narcissist. Living in shadows is not proprietary to PTSD-ers. Right now I’m writing to anyone who is living in shadows, be it from trauma, abuse, depression, anxiety, other mental illness, or just feeling stuck-itis in life for no goddamn valid reason.

Of course, time heals all wounds. Slowly, I’m beginning not to want to participate in life again but rather to not want things to stay like this forever. I’m accepting my limits but also beginning to push them. My family does not place much value in education and really only cares about paying your taxes. For this reason I always worked my way through my education. I’ve realized though that I’ve paid my taxes my whole life, that the job market is shitty and that this negatively affects my self-esteem and overall that I’m understandably far too unsatisfied with life to do nothing but work a job that doesn’t make me feel good about myself. While I’m sadly not excited about the choice to start school again I think this is the best chance I have of remembering what it’s like to be excited about life. I’m lucky enough to be talented at philosophy and until all this happened I was well on my way towards an actual academic career. I’m ashamed I let a man firstly convince me what I was passionate about wasn’t worth pusuing and then my family. I’m ashamed my limits are that I cannot both work and return back to school. I’m terrified I will prove all the nay-sayers right by failing at this limited project. I’m terrified I will suddenly not be able to perform under pressure. I’m terrified this is is my last chance at life. Even though it’s the first chance I’m giving myself in a really long-time. My first chance to fail. My first chance to feel ashamed and terrified because of choices I’m making, My first chance to maybe feel passion and engagement again. My first chance to replace the nothingness with light. There will always be shadows but that also means there is light.

I have described PTSD as being nothing. Nothing punctuated by momentary outbursts of pain, inability to breathe and general extreme negativity. As hard as these moments have been – they are the only hope I have. When you are sitting in the complete darkness, if you see shadows flitting across your field of vision, then you know somewhere in that darkness some light is being reflected that is casting that shadow. When you are sitting in the dark bemoaning the nothingness, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, those shadows point to something positive : the ability to still care. Follow the shadows to the source. Even if you cannot see the light know that it is there and turn that shit into art, whether art for you is poetry, painting, math, yoga, social work or whatever. Embrace the shadows because it means you’re still alive. Without shadows there is no beauty to life. So find the beauty in your shadows. I’m not saying happiness lies at the end of all this suffering, but I am saying in this suffering primarily we will find beauty and meaning.