Nightmare that didn’t happen

This is a nightmare that didn’t happen.  I was about 11, sleeping in my room.  The door suddenly opened and my father came in.  He was yelling something and he threw things, talking to himself.  I hid under the comforter.  I heard him walk around in my room, talking to himself, throwing stuff.  Then he left.

I waited.  I waited for my mother.  I waited for my mother to come to check on me, comfort me.   Minutes passed.  Nobody came.  I fell asleep crying.

I woke up in the morning.  I found my stuffed animals were on the floor.  One of them, a stuffed kitty my friend gave me, was almost decapitated.  I didn’t understand.

I quietly went down the stairs, expecting my mom at least to explain what happened.

Nothing happened.

Nobody mentioned anything.  Mom was cooking breakfast.  My father was reading the newspaper or whatever.  Nothing happened.  I ate my breakfast and went back to my room.

That was the nightmare that didn’t happen.

But I remember that I sewed my stuffed kitty’s head back by myself, crying, saying to myself again and again, “My friend gave it to me.”

Decades and years of therapy later I confronted my father and asked what it was about.

He didn’t remember.

My mom came to me to tell that she had no idea and asked, “Your father didn’t hit you, did he?”

“No, he didn’t,” I said.

It doesn’t matter.  It was not my father’s unpredictable rage that marked me.  It was the absence of my mother.  I learned that nobody would come for me.   I didn’t want to be the scared little girl, so I became my father.  “You have a temper just like your father,” my mother used to say.

Now I have many friends who are fathers.  When I saw their daughter perfectly safe with their father, not hiding from them, not tensing up at the sight of them, remaining soft and smiling, I wonder how they do.  It is a dream that didn’t happen to me.

Heartburn

Through sheer chance my G.I. doctor found I had Barrett’s esophagus during a routine physical.  The lining of my esophagus was turning into that of small intestine.  That sounds scary.  The doctor asked me if I had an acid reflux.  I didn’t.  Part of  the lining of my stomach was also turning into that of small intestine.  That spelled the possible C word.  I was told I must have a silent (symptomless) acid reflux and I’ve been on medication since.  Eventually my stomach lining turned back to normal, but I still have Barrett’s esophagus.

I haven’t had stomach issues for a long time.  Definitely I didn’t have heartburn.  Then I remembered I often had stomach ache when I lived with my mom. I remembered my mom used to tell me that my younger brother had a delicate digestive system.  When he got nervous or stressed, he threw up. I didn’t thow up but I remembered that after I left home for college, I sometime induced vomiting, probably more often than average young women.

Something clicked.

My original home had been making me sick.

I ran away as far as possible.  There are a continent and Pacific ocean between my parents and me now.  I visit them once a year and that is our compromise.  I used to stay with them for more than a week.  I got depressed.  So my stay got shorter every year.  One year, after spending 4 days or so, I had a severe stomach pain.  Another year, after spending several days with my Mom, I suffered IBS like symptom for two weeks.

My mom has spent her entire married life feeding somebody.  It was her role in the family.  She has taken care of my father, who has type 1 diabetes, for half a century.  It requires a lot of work to feed a diabetic.   Both my brother and I was a light eater when we were little kids, so it has become her mission to feed us as much as we would ingest.  Through therapy, I realized that my mom force-fed me and I was exercising to set a boundary by saying,”No, thank you.”

I told her I usually didn’t eat breakfast.  I woke up to find a breakfast ready on the table.  What can I do?  I ate breakfast: ham and eggs, toasted bread, and yogurt, milk and coffee.  Mom brought a jar of homemade jam to the table and told me to add it to yogurt.  I only ate plain yogurt, so I said, “No, thank you.”  “It’s too sour without jam.  You should add it,” mom insisted.  “No, thank you,” I said.   I told her I didn’t usually have a breakfast, that she didn’t have to prepare mine.  The next morning I woke up to find the same breakfast ready on the table.  “Do you like to add the jam to your yogurt?”  My mom asked.  “No, I told you I didn’t eat sweetened yogurt,” I said.  “It doesn’t taste good without jam,” she insisted.  “No, thank you,” I said.  I set a boundary firm, don’t I?  The next morning I woke up to find the same breakfast ready on the table.  I found she had added her homemade jam in my yogurt bowl.  I didn’t say anything.  I stopped feeling.  When it doesn’t matter what I want or what I don’t want, why should I feel anything.  I swallowed the sweet yogurt in silence.  “It is good, isn’t it?” she said.  That night I had an acute stomach pain.

It isn’t about a spoonful of jam in my yogurt bowl.  The same pattern repeated again and again for lunch, dinner, snacks and everything else.   Eventually I became a foie gras geese.  No wonder I had issues around eating.   I still can’t tell if I’m really hungry or not.

I told my friend the story and she said, “You have a nice mom.  She likes to take care of you.”  She made me feel that I was a thankless brat.  I felt like throwing up.  If you force a piece of chocolate into a child’s mouth, it still tastes sweet. But it doesn’t mean the child wants it.  “I told you it was delicious, didn’t I?   You like it, don’t you?  I was right.  You were wrong..  You don’t know how you feel so I’ll tell you how you feel.  I am right and you are wong.  How you feel doesn’t matter.”   This is how we lose the ability to be ourselves…

If you still think forcing a piece of chocolate in a kid’s mouth against his/her will doesn’t matter, just substitute it with a more sinister word.

How do you feel in your body?

“How do you feel in your body?” my therapist asked.  “Fine,” I answered.  “Do you feel the floor under your feet?” he asked.  “Yes. (So what?)” I answered.  This question irritated me like a hell.  I didn’t understand what it was to do with my psychological misery.  I had two arms, two legs, feet and hands.  I was fine, thank you for asking.  “Stump your feet on the floor.”  I stumped.  “How does it feel?”  “Nothing,” I answered.

“What does it make you feel like?” the therapist asked and I looked for my feeling outside of my body, staring at the ceiling, or watching my therapist’s cat yawn. I didn’t find my feeling in my body.  My feeling didn’t reside in my body.

Disconnection is an excellent survival mechanism.  In a battlefield you won’t survive if you feel.  And for some of us, childhood was a wartime, and the body is where the battle was fought.  In Trauma and Recovery Judith Herman writes, “Traumatic events violate the autonomy of the person at the level of basic bodily integrity.  The body is invaded, injured, defiled.  Control over bodily function is often lost; in the folklore of combat and rape, this loss of control is often recounted as the most humiliating aspect of the trauma.”  Our trauma doesn’t have to be of rape or combat.  It could be grandma pinching your cheeks.

I am not saying that pinching chubby cheeks of an adorable kid is a form of child abuse.  It could be a rather innocent expression of affection.  However, when it is done repeatedly against the child’s will, it could amount to loss of “control over bodily function”.

My ex-boyfriend had a habit of pinching.  He pinched his daughter, he pinched his nephews and he pinched me.  It was his way of saying, “Hey Sweetie.”   I can’t speak for his daughter or nephews, but when he pinched me I felt a rage surging up deep in my body.  “Stop it,” I yelled.  “Don’t pinch me, ever.”  He pinched me a couple of more times, and every time I reacted violently.  Then thankfully he stopped pinching.  He listened to me.  While pinching itself didn’t hurt much, it triggered an uncontrollable anger out of nowhere.

When I was a little girl, my childless aunt doted on me.  She literally tried to eat me with a spoon.  Since she was the source of love and affection, and chocolate and candies and dolls and all the goodies, I clung to her.  She used to tease me by doing something I didn’t like.   The more I shrank from, the more she seemed enjoying.  She used to lick my face, saying I was so cute that she wanted to eat me up.  It was wet and yucky.  I said, “No!!!” but she was much bigger and stronger.  She told me that she loved me and that I should let her do whatever she wanted to do.  Sometimes, she bribed me with goodies.  It’s an innocent expression of affection, isn’t it?   Pinching was a variation.  I don’t remember who pinched me, but it does not matter.  It told me the same story.  My feeling does not matter.  I don’t have control over my body.  They have.  And I am an ungrateful brat if I don’t appreciate the affection the adults are giving to me.  Tolerating the feeling of discomfort will be rewarded with chocolate, or whatever goodies.  Got it?  Just replace the word “pinching” or “licking” with “touching improperly.” It tells the same story of trauma.  “The traumatic event thus destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others”(Herman 53).

When I was a little girl I told my mum that my tummy ached.  I told her that I would feel better if she let me eat a piece of bread.  She didn’t give me bread and took me to a family doctor.  It turned out that I was not sick but just hungry.  I didn’t know the word to explain the intense sensation I felt in my belly.  What I felt in stomach, aching for food, was denied as not legitimate by adults. When I was a teenager, I had a painful period.  I told that I had severe cramps and couldn’t move.  My father said, “No, you don’t.  You are lazy.”  My mom didn’t protest.  (Later I found that my mom never had a painful period in her life, and she couldn’t imagine how bad it could be.)  Thus in my early ages I learned not to trust the feeling in my body.

We lose the ability to connect to one’s body little by little.  When someone in authority, such as parents and teachers, tells us we have to feel certain way again and again while we don’t feel that way, it becomes unsafe to be ourselves.  Others in our life take away our connection to the body.  We gain artificial limbs and body parts instead, which function very well.   Nobody notices it’s artificial.  Sometimes they could be much more useful than real limbs, just like a sword loaded limb, since we don’t feel pain.  Eventually we might even forget they are not real. When one suffers a hugely traumatic experience and survives, the disconnection between mind and body could be much harder to reconcile.

About the photo: I took the photo of the glass sculpture at Corning Museum of Glass. Unfortunately  I don’t know the artist’s name.

A Fat Collie

When and where I grew up, dogs were just dogs: brown dogs, white dogs, black dogs, black and tan dogs, etc.  The smallest were Shiba; the largest were Akita and in between there were just ordinary dogs.  Only affluent westernized families had fancy pure breeds.  There were no designer dogs, just mutts.   Some belonged to families, others just roamed around.

I adopted a large senior dog from a local Humane Society a year ago.  He had a funny face with a long muzzle.  The humane Society people told me he was a Collie mix.  All the official papers said he was a Collie mix, so I registered him as a Collie mix.

Weighing nearly 90lb he was a super obese Collie.  He was slow and low-key and walked like a sumo wrestler.  He chewed things obsessive compulsively.  He was stubborn as hell and didn’t act like Lassie at all.

“What kind of dog is he?” Since I got him  I was asked numerous times by strangers.  I say, “Mutt,” and “Do you know what kind of mix he is?” people asks.

My dog seems to have a distinct feature, which is somewhat familiar but not distinct enough for many people to put a finger on.  That makes people wonder what he is.  Eventually a consensus view emerged.

Spuds MacKengie a.k.a. Budweiser Dog on steroid.

I finally succumbed to the temptation and ordered a DNA text kit on-line.  I mailed it out expecting a “happy family”- like result: a little bit of Collie, a little bit of Pitty, maybe a German Shepard or two.

The result blew my mind.   His (probably) dad was a pure bull terrier.  His grandparents were bull terriers; his great grandparents were bull terriers.  He was half bull terrier.  The other half was ambiguous, with a miniature bull terrier and a hound in his ancestry.  There was not a drop of Collie in his gene pool!

He wasn’t an obese Collie mix.  He was a supersized bull terrier mix.   He was not fat.   He was muscular.

One day I noticed a lady staring at him.  She came up to me and asked, “Bull terrier mix?”  I said, “Yes.”  “Stubborn?” she asked.  “Yes, very” I said.  She nodded knowingly.

That made me think:

What is he?  Is he a fat lazy Collie or a muscular bull terrier?  If I didn’t know his DNA makeup, he would be still a fat Collie.  I might have put him on a weight loss program to keep him healthy.  Actually he had spent his entire life as a Collie mix with his former owner.  Or maybe he is just a heavy stubborn dog with a long muzzle.

Then what am I?  I could be fat or muscular.  I could be feminine or masculine, depending on the model the society/individual applies.  Or maybe I am just a human being with olive skin.

 

 

Shallow Grave

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.  “He is in the back yard,” Mom said.  I went out to the backyard and I didn’t see my father.  Then I saw him, digging a hole in the backyard.  He was inside the hole and I almost didn’t see him.  What the hell is he doing?  Is he digging his own grave?  The hole was not quite six foot deep yet.  I could hear the shovel hitting earth.

I went back to the house and asked my mom what he was doing.  “Your father hates horsetail. They drive him crazy. He’s been digging out their underground stalks.  They are stubborn weeds, difficult to get rid of.  You need to dig out the entire roots and stalks, you know.”

I know.  Hell weed, it’s called by farmers.  They send down rhizomes deep down and in all directions underground.  You keep on pulling the little green shoots above ground and they will come back in no time.  Unless you get rid of its entire subterranean system, eventually your vegetable garden will be covered with field horsetails.  If you leave even one small piece of rhizome, it will come back with vengeance.

My father threw down the gauntlet against horsetails and kept digging out rhizomes, deeper and deeper, until he found himself at the bottom of a pit.

What do I do?  Sometimes, deep psychology work feels like a battle against Hell Weed.

Last year I found myself digging a hole in the same backyard. It was to help my mom to compost food scraps.   My father does not live here anymore.  Digging a hole was a way to be by myself for a couple of hours without being entangled in the emotional spider web of my family.

I don’t dig deep anymore.  I’ve learned to live with things I’ve found subterranean and aboveground.  So long as I know they are there, it’s O.K.

 

 

Crazy Making 2

Last time I visit my Mom, my younger brother happened to be in town on the day I would leave and he drove me to the airport.  I saw my brother first time in more than 20 years. We are not close.  I left home when I was 18 and for the past 25 years I’ve lived in a foreign country far away from my original family.  I visit my hometown once a year, but my brother lived in a different city and we’ve never made an effort to see each other.  We didn’t even talk or write.  I don’t know my brother well and he only knows me as his crazy teenage sister.  We sat in a generic airport restaurant and talked for about 30 minutes.

I asked my brother if he ever suspected that there were something wrong with our family.

“There were nothing wrong.  It was an ordinary family like other families.”

“Are you serious?  Don’t you think our father was abusive?”

“Everybody was like him in those days.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I often saw kids with broken noses and such in ER.” (My brother is a M.D.)

“That’s child abuse!  It’s a crime!”

“Our father didn’t hit us.  I had a normal childhood.”

“Don’t you think he has mood disorders or a personality disorder?  Like depression?”

“I don’t think so.  He just doesn’t have communication skill at all.”

“Mom told me you wouldn’t even step in their house.”

“They are not pleasant…. I never felt loved.  That’s all.  Our father always yelled at me.  So I  just stayed away from him.”

“You were smart.  I yelled back….  So you don’t feel traumatised or anything?”

“No.”

“Good for you.”

We were brought up in the same family and we don’t seem to share emotional memories.

 

 

 

 

Invisible Scar Tissue

Scar tissue is not always visible.  A couple of years ago, I had laparoscopic gallbladder removal. I came home with a couple of tiny incision wounds on my abdomen. As I recovered, I felt a tight cordlike substance passing vertically underneath my abdominal muscles. It was so hard that I suspected they left some kind of instrument or shunt there. At a follow-up visit, the surgeon was happy to see the quick healing of the wounds. “I can barely see the incisions,” he said. I asked if he had placed something in my abdominal cavity. He assured me that nothing was left there and I was healing very well. Still the tight cord in my abdomen remained. In Yoga classes, I couldn’t do wheel pose anymore.

From the viewpoint of body worker, the surgeon was wrong. He left a long scar inside of my abdomem when he pulled out my gallbladder.  The scar tissue was not visible from outside, and it still restricted the movement of fascia on the right side of body. It took me almost a year to break down the scar tissue somewhat so that I could be in a wheel pose again without restriction.  I still feel it, though.

Scar tissue, if not addressed, will affect the whole body, and the invisible ones are more difficult to treat.  Your entire body has to accomodate the restriction imposed by the scar tissue.

Psychological scars are like invisible scar tissue.

I will never see you again

1-IMG_0036Some occupations require us to remain on the bank and see the current of river flow. Teachers are the obvious one.  Kids come and go, come and go, never the same kid, but the life flows in front of their eyes continuously.  And the teacher him/herself never stays the same. Therapist might be another such occupation.

Whenever you are the one who remains on the bank, you will see the flow of the current.  One leaves, another comes, and leaves.  Seeing off people helps me to be aware that it was once a life time encounter with that particular person.  And it was once a life time encounter with that particular person I was.

The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.   (Hojoki, Circa 1212)

I’ve been going to the same gym everyday for the last 2 and half years.  Trainers know me well.  It’s like a family.  I realized younger trainers were nomads. They come and they go.  I am the one who remains on the bank seeing them come and go.  It makes me feel sad when one of my favorite coaches leaves.  And I realize that I also was the one who came and went.

For the Boys

I am sad because I know I will never see you again.  I already miss you because I know I have missed the opportunity to know who you are and who you will be.

You say you might drop by when in the city.  I might happen to be there to see you coming down the stairs.

But I will never see you again in the way I see you today.

I see you moving out of the country as I did long time ago, with emotional devastation leaving behind, with anxiety and excitement in front of you.   Then, Young Man, you will be who you will be there in the land you have chosen even before I saw you for the first time.

Thinking about your youth and the path you are about to take fills my heart with a painfully raw love of life,  cruelty and grace of time, and preciousness of the moment: any single moment of my transient presence in your life.

You are not my child or my love.   You are one of the beautiful young men I happened to know.  (All young men are beautiful as all young women are.)  And I love you all as I love my child.

And I love who I was and who I could be at your age, leaving everything behind and flying out to the country to be my home.  I didn’t know I would never see her again.

Crazy Making

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When your memory and somebody else’s memory don’t match, it’s crazy making. When my mom says we were an ordinary family, that her husband was a smart and sensitive man with a good heart, it makes me feel I am the crazy one, especially when my dad doesn’t recognize me anymore and he is much easier to deal with when I am not his child but a nice stranger who visits him.

We rewrite memories to survive.  That’s fine.  I do, too.  I’m glad you had a happy marriage, Mom.  And you guys did your best.  But it’s not my story.  You may not rewrite mine.  It’s mine, not yours.  I am not responsible for yours, neither do you.

Impermanence

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The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.

Excerpt from Hojoki: The Ten Foot Square Hut by Kamo No Chomei.  Translated by Anthony Chambers 2007

I learned this old prose in high school in my old country.  It’s like a Shakespeare monologue.  You need to know by heart.  It’s all about Impermanence.  Impermanence was embedded in my old country’s collective unconscious.  It was a norm.   It is how it is.

Recently I was watching a kid’s educational TV program of my country.  It’s like Sesame Street, to teach children how to read, count, and have fun in the language.  And I heard kids reciting this prose.   My jaw dropped.  They teach preschool kids Impermanence?   Wow…

As born and brought up in a Buddhist culture, I’ve never questioned Impermanence.   It is how it is.  And still I often wander away, falsely believing otherwise, believing it is the same water as before.  And again the universe reminds me that I am the foam that floats on backwaters.

The truth will set us free.