When I was a kid, I never thought of getting older. I just thought of getting through the day…or the night. Somehow, I made it.
When I was a teen, I couldn’t see past twenty. And never in a million years did I think I was going to make it to thirty. When I tried to visualize the future, it was a great big void at the edge of the present cliff I was standing on. I can remember in high school in the mid-fifties vividly imaging about what a huge party New Year’s Eve 2000 would bring. Of course, I wouldn’t be around to see it. And then, in1999, I was filled with dread because I had been told that “we” would take over the world on the first day of 2000. (Guess the “we” that has been the “they” for a long, long time blew it.)
And here it is 2012 and I am seventy-five. How did that happen? I have no idea.
I think I am still like the kid I used to be, getting through one day, one hour at a time. Year after year, I just put one foot in front of the other and did the best I could. The most important thing I did was not kill myself, and believe me, it was very tempting at times. Otherwise, it was just muddling through.
Even today I cannot imagine the future very well. I can see to the end of the week, most of time, but after that? I have no idea. I do make plans for next week, next month, six months from now, but it doesn’t seem real to me. I go through the motions because I know that’s what other people do, but I do it without conviction.
There’s a trick I use when I feel at sea. I ask myself what a “normal” person would do or think or feel. What does a “normal” seventy-five-year old think about the future, assuming they think about it all?
I have some non-RA-survivor friends through water aerobics classes that I have been going to for about fifteen years. I watch them closely. They don’t talk about death. They talk a lot about the amount of physical pain they are in and the medical conditions that give them that pain and they talk about daily things, get-togethers with family and friends, movies they have seen, meals they are planning. Very occasionally they will talk about which retirement home they would like to live in, if only they had enough money. Otherwise, they are focused on the present, not the future.
That doesn’t sound very different from the way I am. But they can see the future, and I can’t. It’s not because I am present, in touch with myself in my surroundings, it’s because I am dissociated and frightened. On the outside I may look like my friends, but on the inside I believe I am quite different.
I know that survivors have to deal with all the issues that aging brings — not being able to do things we used to be able to do, getting sick or being in pain more often, becoming dependent. For us, all these issues have added weight because of the abuse we suffered. Doesn’t that sound like childhood? Being prevented from doing things we wanted to, being in pain often, being out of control and at others’ mercy. Every part of the aging process stirs up feelings from childhood.
And some people were abused in cults that singled out the elderly or the infirm for sacrifice or special torture. This is probably quite common in neo-Nazi cults, given that the Nazis considered such people defective and useless and often sent them to camps. Although my cult was not neo-Nazi, they had access to elderly disabled people and used them freely. When I look in the mirror, I see myself becoming more and more like the people I saw tortured horribly. It’s not a fun experience.
When I decided to write about aging, I did an Internet literature search. I had heard that Holocaust survivors had a terrible time in nursing homes because there were so many triggers and the past came flooding back. I expected that people with dissociative disorders had similar experiences.
I found very few articles on dissociation and the elderly. But, to my surprise, the few articles I did find reported that dissociation diminished with age and with lessened cognitive function. It was as if alters no longer felt needed and therefore stopped functioning. I’m not sure I believe this, but if it is true, it’s a silver lining. It’s not one I would have thought of, but I’m not going to argue.
There are a couple of other advantages to aging, the main one being that we have had more experience in dealing with the after-effects of abuse. We aren’t blind-sided as often, we know our triggers better, and we know how to handle flashbacks when they occur. Our first reaction is more apt to be “Oh, no, here we go again” instead of “What’s happening? Am I going crazy? Am I dying?” It would be preferable to not have flashbacks at all, but since we are ritual abuse survivors, we will probably have some all our lives.
Another advantage is that we are more experienced at relating to people who are not abuse survivors and in interpreting their reactions. We assess situations more accurately and therefore are better at protecting ourselves. There’s some truth in the saying that with age comes wisdom.
I think we deserve to feel proud of all the hard work we have done to come to this point. When we look back over our lives, we deserve to celebrate how we have played the really rotten hands we were dealt. It wasn’t easy sailing, but we did a damn fine job.