TRIGGER WARNING: IN THIS BLOG I DISCUSS VERY PERSONALLY THE IMPACT OF DISSOCIATION AND OTHER WAYS OF MANAGING SEXUAL ASSAULT - MAY TRIGGER SOME, BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR OWN HEARTS.
Franz Kafka once said 'Literature is the axe which shatters the ice around the heart.' Colourful, but I'm not sure he got it right. I think it would be more accurate to say 'Time and therapy are the axes that shatter the ice around the frozen heart.' This has become painfully clear to me as I make progress through the recovery process.
I can tell you almost to the moment, when my heart finally was broken, nearly fifteen years ago now. I was exhausted from all the pain and distress, from the constant battling of emotions I had no control over, from the pain of broken relationships, feared and realised rejection after rejection and the constant internal commentary which was boosted by those experiences and feelings, confirming to me that I was worthless and unloved and unlovable. I didn't think of myself as resilient up to that point, but looking back I realise that I had crashed and burned so many times, that it was almost an automatic response for me to move to a new area, and begin again - new home, new job and, most drainingly, new relationships and friendships. In the moment my heart froze I suddenly felt all the accumulated effort and pain as a burden I could no longer sustain. In that moment, my mind decided that I needed to stop feeling, rather than constantly keep feeling the pain of my life so keenly.
It has been easier in some ways. I was, once again, the victim of sexual assault, but instead of being capable of reacting in any way that any onlookers would deem 'appropriate', I walked out of the situation and continued as if nothing had happened. Why not? It was just another example of how worthless I was, a confirmation, from a stranger this time, that the abuse I had suffered at the hands of those close to me, was indeed down to me - after all I was the common factor in it all.
There are those, particularly in the media, who tell us how victims SHOULD behave. How would they know? If you have never had your spirit broken, been convinced that there is no one out there to hear your screams or cries for help, how could you know what it is like? Being a victim of sexual assault once, makes you more vulnerable to such abuse in the future, (although it is not always inevitable). That seems to be so hard for many people to understand, I mean isn't it a case of once bitten? Let me ask you, if you have constantly been told that what is happening to you is as a result of you and your behaviour. If you are told that something about you meant you 'deserved' it. If one of the voices telling you these things is your own thoughts. If you have become accustomed to abuse as an expression of 'love' and been told that you are 'special' because of it. Is it any wonder that as an adult when you encounter the same behaviour towards you, you don't fight back, you don't 'just walk away'. Survival means that often survivors divorce what is happening to them from their conscious experience. I was passive - a victim - because this was the way I had managed to survive numerous abuses from my childhood onwards.
Having, stopped, short, never to feel again, my heart was incapable of feeling anything, either good or bad. Now, having begun the process of healing I am learning to recognise the tingles and pangs of the ice cracking. Sometimes, it's ok, I realise I can survive feeling again, but at other times even the good feelings are problematic. The other day I mentioned that I was worried I was being 'hyper' to a friend who is familiar with my cycles of mood - 'No,' she said, 'That's happiness'. My immediate impulse was to panic, in case I couldn't handle it, but I sat with it for a moment and realised it didn't have to spiral till my behaviour was out of control, prior to the inevitable crash to the emotional floor. Instead, I allowed the feeling of contentment and enjoyment of the afternoon to run its course and it was ok, in the end I enjoyed the whole day.
I'm off on a break for a week soon. As I contemplate dropping my dog off at the kennels I have encountered a pain from separation anxiety of sorts. Last night, I shed tears. Initially, again my immediate response was panic, what if this is the start of a depressive episode? Then, I allowed myself to sit with the feeling. I tried to use wise mind. After all, we spend every day with one another and she is good company. It's ok to miss her.
The fact this relationship with my dog is having such an impact on me emtionally worries me. I realise that this is part of my natural fear of fondness or love. My dog has been a big part of helping me to heal. I can tell her 'I love you' and I feel that is natural. It is a huge step for me to transfer that ability to humans. As a survivor of abuse the emotion that I am most confused about is 'love'. It is a huge task to separate the sexual from this emotion and to be able to recognise the different nuances of love that are part of the full range of human relationships. For me there is a yearning just to be held, by someone safe, without it leading anywhere. So many times, people touched in ways that were damaging without asking permission, or without a bond of trust to enable me to feel that I had any say over what would happen next. It scares me that my unfrozen heart could respond to another human being and it not lead to an abusive relationship. I wouldn't know how to handle it.
The other reason I fear my love for my dog is that, along with the love emotion, I have always, before my heart froze, feared the ending of any relationship. I have always anticipated the loss long before it arrived. When I realised how fond I was becoming of my dog, I started to fear how I would cope when she dies. This is the benefit of not connecting with any other creature, death doesn't have to hurt so much. Except that's so not the way it works, is it? Even if I don't acknowledge it, I am connected to others around me and losing them even temporarily will be FELT by me, that's part of being human.
In the past, often, rather than wait and see, or trust the relationship I would behave in a way which would hasten the ending I feared so much. That way I believed the pain was somewhat controlled by me. I believed that it was just me fulfilling what I always 'knew' would happen.
In the here and now I am learning new ways to be in relationships. Rather than impulsively rushing in where angels fear to tread, I am learning to be 'careful' with my heart - it is after all heavily scarred and rather fragile. I have managed to focus on friendship at the moment - anything more intimate is beyond me right now. I noticed the other day that there is a lot of change in a number of friendships. This has meant changes in routines - a friend who may have been available to go for lunch is no longer available. Forgetting this the other day, I phoned her at work. We had a quick conversation and I put the phone down. My old familiar panic feelings, followed by shame and then embarrassment flooded over me. In the past that would have meant me backlashing by cutting myself off from her and self harming for being so stupid. Instead, I spoke to myself (out loud) and used wise mind to query if the interaction really meant an end to the friendship. I also used a mindfulness breathing exercise to calm myself and focus on the positives of the friendship, which include a face value honesty that I have always appreciated. When she phoned later in the day, I picked up the phone and we agreed to meet as normal later in the week. For those not familiar with BPD this may seem something very small, but not making this exchange an all or nothing matter, and thereby saving the friendship is a massive step forward for me.
I guess that the pain I am feeling now is not unlike when you are in the process of trying to warm your hands after a good game of snowballing. You know you need the blood to flow again for your hands to function, but you also know that as the blood does so you will feel a world of pain - for a time. As the emotional blood flows back into my heart - I know that it is painful at the moment and will continue to be so, as I risk my heart with others. That pain will remain for a time, but one day my heart will be able to function as it was designed to, maybe with one or two little twinges from the scars it bears, but it will be fully, finally, unfrozen.