Poetry: Rock Paper Knife

I wrote this poem two years ago at the height of an extended period of trauma. It’s the last one I would write for some time. Glass appears in this poem, just as it did in the last one I shared. There’s something unique about glass that makes it a vehicle for telling my story of trauma. It comes to be under extreme conditions, just as extreme conditions shape trauma survivors. (As an aside, the part about glass organizing its atoms in response to the sun was informed by this story.)


Rock Paper Knife

If it is true that glass can spontaneously
organize its atoms in response to the sun
to become more adept at surviving heat,
then your hand must have reinforced

my throat and your threats must have
tightened my tympanic membranes.
Now I am at least as strong as a sheet
of glass exposed to ultraviolet rays.

When I shatter, it will not be you who
broke me. It will simply be time to stop
orchestrating particles, to unsing my body’s
song. I will surrender these building blocks

so they can toughen in response to other
insults. As rock learns to breathe through
paper’s blanket, as paper folds to evade
knife, as knife slings light to blind rock.

Essays: A Secret Order

In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.
 
— Carl Jung

This morning, my chihuahua threw up on me in bed. I was curled up in the fetal position, and she was behind me with her chest against my back. You could say she was the big spoon and I was the little spoon, as preposterous as that might sound, given that I am approximately eighteen times her size. But there it is: big spoon = chihuahua, little spoon = human.

Understandably, being woken in this manner led me to believe I might not be in for the best of days. As I took care of my dog, got myself cleaned up, and cobbled together all the linens that needed washing, I felt defeated before I’d even brushed my teeth. Then my centralized pain set in, along with intestinal distress because I dared to eat out yesterday afternoon. As if that weren’t enough, I felt like I was being strangled. Yesterday, my new thyroid surgeon examined the scar on my neck from the thyroidectomy that my old thyroid surgeon performed last fall. He needed to assess how much scar tissue was present. Turns out, there’s a significant amount of scarring, and manipulating the area has made it extremely tight and painful today.

I needed to get it together, and fast. My first session with a holistic therapist was scheduled for noon. This meeting was important to me. I didn’t want to arrive at the therapist’s office sweaty, whiffling, and redolent of dog vomit. I needed to be lucid, solid, maybe even likable. (The last one is always a longshot for me, but I hold out hope with every new interaction.)

I made it to the session with my pestilent body in tow. A sack of pain I was. The therapist put me at ease by pointing out her Carl Jung action figure and saying, “Not everyone has one of those.”

“They don’t,” I thought. “But they damn well should.”

She also had a stuffed Yoda on her desk. He was wearing spectacles. I should probably show her my bright orange, 3D-printed Yoda head at our next meeting. I don’t have any Jung tchotchke to share, but I do feel Jung at heart, so at least I have a pun lined up for next week’s session.

The therapist knew things were serious when she began charting my immediate family, and I was in tears by the time she asked me what my father’s name was. I would have totally lost it if she’d asked my mother’s name. (It was Merry, which is heartbreaking considering how much trauma she was born into and lived through. Given her life circumstances, my mother’s name was a cruel, impossible demand — a mirthful adjective that would never find its occasion. What were my grandparents hoping for, beyond hope, when they fitted her with that albatross?) In short, I wasn’t able to mask my physical or emotional pain, and that made me feel as vulnerable as a fledgling swallow leaving the nest for the first time.

The therapist asked how I was feeling. I told her I was a burning tumbleweed careening down a hill, setting the countryside on fire.

She seemed to understand.

I asked her if she thinks there’s more merit to the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress than other DSM diagnoses. She said she doesn’t give a hanging chad about diagnosis. She only cares about hearing and seeing the person in front of her.

“You are not a diagnosis. You are a human being,” she said. “What I’m hearing and seeing is you.”

I tried not to cry because I don’t want Therapy Dana to be someone who is weepy throughout an entire session. But I’m not sure I’m in charge of who Therapy Dana is or isn’t, let alone what she does and doesn’t do.

I chose the Jung quote above because it makes me think about the DSM and its litany of disorders. The DSM is a dead end that never leads back to order. How do you make your way out of that book once you’re in it? My therapist says you have to stop looking at the disorder and start looking at what will help you heal.

I don’t always know where to cast my gaze, but I’m looking.

Poetry: Glass

I wrote the poem after realizing I’d ignored the starlings all season. I imagined my way into their lives as a way of talking about trauma and identity.


Glass

Today I saw a starling try to fly
through a closed window as if the pane

were nothing but air, no obstacle at all.
You feel like that, too, sometimes,

as do I, traumas lining your pockets
and you wondering at the weight you bear,

your desire to find a body of water
deep enough to cover you like a sheet

of glass. I’ve stood on that shore,
or should I say sore, open wound.

Maybe I should say wound, the verb,
as in how many years have we wound

and unwound like a thousand pulsating
variable stars, held each trauma-stone

to the light and tried to feed it little snails,
as if we could nourish the pain away

or nurture it into something that might walk
beside us rather than having to always

be carried or dragged? We are turning rocks
into sky, you and I, our feathers oiled,

our backs to the sun. We are songbirds.
Everyone seems to forget that.

Essays: Trauma as Mineralized Body

If you cannot find it in your own body, where will you go in search of it?
 
The Upanishads

This morning, I felt like a length of fossilized wood, my body having turned to stone. I was lying in my bed, white sheets a blanket of fresh snow glinting near my mineral-laden bark. Every time I imagined getting up, my torso and limbs tightened. I was stuck. I wasn’t able to move for more than an hour.

My freeze response this morning was kind of like this, but without all the great scenery and gentle animals. A Fairy Tale, by Arthur Wardle, oil on canvas. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

This happens sometimes. It’s one of my responses to trauma. Most people have heard of fight and flight, two physiological reactions to threats and perceived threats. There are two other, related responses: freeze and fawn. Many people who’ve been traumatized have some combination of these four responses. I’ve experienced all four, but my primary responses are flight and freeze.

Of the two, I like flight more. Much more. At least with flight, I’m in motion. I feel like I’m getting away from a threatening situation, my body moving, machine-like, under its own direction. Freeze is worse because I have all the emotions associated with flight, yet I have to experience them wherever I happen to be when the freeze response starts. Inside, I might be saying, “Just move. You’ll feel better if do. Start with a muscle, any muscle.” Yet I can’t move. I can’t speak. I can’t even think properly because my limbic brain has sand bagged my neocortex, which can only watch on, enfeebled.

You wouldn’t have known what you were seeing if you had walked in on me this morning. You would have seen a woman in seeming repose staring at a ceiling fan, its faux-wood blades smearing with soothing regularity.

Aside from the discomfort of the freeze response, I hate freezing because it’s triggering. The first time I froze was when I was thirteen years old and my father’s best friend began molesting me. I also froze in 2009 when I was sexually assaulted. Powerlessness, shame and despair are associated with the freeze response. It’s no surprise that people who freeze when being molested, raped, and sexually assaulted have higher rates of post-traumatic stress than those who don’t. There’s more self-blame associated with freezing than with the other responses to trauma.

I had physical symptoms this morning, too. A migraine. A tinnitus flare-up. Burning mouth syndrome. These issues, along with my freeze response, were my body’s way of dealing with distress I experienced yesterday. Along with three other psychiatric survivors, I was invited to share my account of abuse within the mental health system with a local healthcare organization. As I listened to the other women’s stories, I felt like my heart was being fed into a meat grinder, stuffed into a casing, and sewn back inside my chest. Those are the strongest, bravest, most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of sitting alongside in a long time. The day took a toll not just because I shared my story, but because we shared our stories. Nobody should endure what we and so many others have endured. Nobody should have to live with the trauma that led us to seek care or the additional trauma that seeking care can lead to. Nobody should have to face the very real risk of being retraumatized every time we tell our stories in the hope that healthcare might improve, that others might understand us, and that we might be able to speak and write our way back to life.

Though I still feel crystalline, I am moving, albeit slowly. I’m writing slowly, too, with my fossilized mind.

Everything I need to know is in my body and always has been. The body is a great teacher, and I am trying to learn from what it is telling me rather than vilifying it. The more I can see why I am freezing, as opposed to resisting the response, the more I am able to see what my body wants me to pay attention to. Today, I am paying attention.

Essays: Throwing Roses into the Abyss

Throw roses into the abyss and say: “Here is my thanks to the monster who didn’t succeed in swallowing me alive.”
 
— Friedrich Nietzsche

I am alive, despite having experienced trauma for years. You could say trauma is my monster, a hydra that’s reared various heads over five decades, from infancy into middle age. Sometimes all the heads appear at once, like a giant air balloon tied to another, identical balloon — and another and another — a train of memories and flashbacks as real as the window I’m looking through now at the world beyond. But there’s never glass between me and the trauma, not a single pane. I meet it with no shield and no weapons.

The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888), oil on canvas. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

Nietzsche says we can’t live as the vanquished. We have to live as the victorious. To do this, we must show our thanks to the monster for not knowing how to devour us. We must throw roses into the abyss. For him, the monster is what lies within us. For me, the monster is both internal and external — and never exclusively one or the other. A thing happens. As a sentient being, I respond. Now the “thing” is within me, kneaded into my response, often long after it has raised its tail and returned to its bottomless lake. This works in reverse, too. As a sentient being, I can’t perceive anything that happens without being informed by my lived experience. The external is never simply external, and the internal is never simply internal. Within is without and without is always necessarily within.

Trauma starts outside us, but it twines its way through each of our two hundred six bones, ninety-thousand-mile nervous system, and more than six hundred forty skeletal, visceral and cardiac muscles. The sequelae of trauma are significant and can include disruptions to nearly every system in the body, behavioral and cognitive changes, high rates of retraumatization, changes in our core beliefs and values, difficulty with living a “normal” life, and much more.

So the monster is not just internal. It is also external. And the two are perpetually engaged in a simple but exquisite water dance. For me, throwing roses at the abyss performs three functions. First, it’s a way to honor the parts of me that have worked together to survive. Second, it’s a way to begin forgiving the monster that is trauma. And third, it’s a way to bring greater presence and beauty to my past, present and future — even if trauma continues to be there, hissing in the margins.

I am alive, and this site is where I throw roses into the abyss. Let them fill the chasm.

Twitter: Nobler Animals

The bird you can hear is the one who has the sweetest song.

Earlier, I saw a heron flying and thought it was a ship slicing the air.

American goldfinch, drop of sun.

The birds give voice to the trees.

Two ravens ink the air.

How small the bird. How vast the sky.

After the rain, a house finch bathes in a pothole.

The sky lives through the birds.

Wet swallow, who destroyed your nest on this stormy day?

Swallows, turn my home into your nest. I am only here with your permission.

The barn swallow’s body is a sunset within the sunset.

Neighbor, how can you walk with your head down on this beautiful night?

One swallow, it seems, is having more fun in the air than all the rest.

Sweet robin, I didn’t see you there. But I heard your song.

I’ve had nobler animals in my life than humans.

Starling, that’s a window, not a way through.

When you clear the land, you must confront the sky.

Landscapers, what have you come to destroy?