A Hard Christmas Season for RA/MC Survivors

 

I have heard from way more than one RA/MC survivor that the 2022 Solstice/Yule/Christmas/New Year’s season has been harder than usual.

It was for me. I have been spoiled by the last two years. To my amazement, I sailed through all the holidays just as if I were not an RA survivor. I still was aware of memories and feelings about my family of origin – dislike of holiday feasts and other forms of jollity and deep disappointment in presents. Of course, all my childhood memories of holidays were tainted by cult experiences. Many gifts were triggers (like taxidermy baby chicks at Easter) or chosen to make me feel fat, stupid, unacceptable, unheard, misunderstood, and unloved.

This year, I was caught unawares around the middle of December. Suddenly, my senses were dulled and it was extremely difficult to enjoy anything whatsoever. Not my friends, not the cat, not even coffee or chocolate. I felt unconnected to others and to everything inside and outside myself. 

For about two weeks, I felt like a half-ghost, floating through the days, not thinking about what was coming. Not connected to much of anything, certainly not to my fear. I was in flashback, a feelings-flashback, a flashback to childhood dissociation.

I told myself I would get my energy back after the first of the year, but I woke up on the 28th feeling “normal.” I have more energy and I once more care about my friends and my projects. I have no idea why there was a two-week flashback this year and not last year or the year before. I have no idea if I will greet all the holidays in 2023 with flashbacks or whether I will once again shrug them off.

But I do know that whatever happens, I will cope. 

On Comparing Myself to Others

I subscribe to Anu Garg’s “A.Word.A.Day,” along with almost 4,000,000 other people. You can subscribe here: http://wordsmith.org/.  Archives are here https://wordsmith.org/words/today.html. It’s free.

Today’s email starts with these words:

“I’m such an underachiever.

“I don’t have a single world record to my name. Not only that, I have not even attempted one.

“Make it, underachiever and unambitious.

“I was reminded of this when I read about a man named Ashrita Furman. (https://www.ashrita.com/) He has made more than 700 world records. Imagine when the number of records you have made needs to be rounded. To the nearest hundreds!

“Furman has another record I had not even thought about: Having made the largest number of world records.

“That makes me: underachiever, unambitious, and unimaginative.

“…. well, I sit here in my corner of the world, playing with words.

“This week we introduce you to five words that make a record of sorts, let’s call them word records.”

I love this guy, who gives me a word every morning for six days and on the seventh gives me readers’ comments, limericks, and puns on the week’s words. 

Today’s word is eunoia, the shortest word in English with all five vowels. (A word record!) It means “a feeling of goodwill” and has inspired a really odd book. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1552452255/ws00-20. Peek inside: you will be amazed.

At the moment, I am not ashamed to say I am an underachiever, unambitious, and unimaginative. Everybody I know is. I may have met a few people in Ashrita Furman’s league, but I can’t recall who or when. And yet I keep scolding myself for not being perfect…yet.

One of my core beliefs is that I am incompetent, not good enough. No matter how hard I try, I will never be good enough. Unless I am the best in the world, I am second-rate. 

With standards that high, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. How would I even know I was the best in the world at something? If somebody told me I was, I would assume it was a trick and they were lying so they could laugh at me when I believed them. And even if it were true, and I knew for sure it was true, I would also know that somebody better than me would come along, and I would once again be second-rate. One little moment of success, snatched away almost immediately.

Looking at this situation with a jaundiced eye, I conclude that it is ridiculous to compare myself to others. It’s a no-win situation, a waste of time and energy, and a drain on my life force. I’ll never be the prettiest, the smartest, the best educated, the most accomplished, the most original thinker, the best dancer. If that is to be my life’s goal, I will fail dismally. It is better to be content with being mediocre.

It’s no secret how I came to believe I was doomed to fail over and over. In the cult, children were set up to fail and then blamed and shamed for not succeeding. We were placed in double binds, and whatever path we took, we were punished for taking the wrong one. Stripped of all self-confidence, our minds were ready to unquestionably obey any order given. We were trained to obey without thought or resistance.

At home, the methods were different, but the message was the same. My mother had a beautiful, accomplished older sister, and, on a good day, she felt second-best. I was supposed to have the life she should have had – or rather, her sister’s life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. My genetic makeup was different and I was not born in 1895.

There was less pressure at school – until I got to college. I had chosen an Ivy League co-ed school with a ratio of ten boys to every girl. Standards were high, and competition was fierce. Girls didn’t shine in that atmosphere.

Over the years, I learned to let go of perfectionism. If a job was worth doing, it was still worthwhile, even if it had errors. A typo was not the end of the world. It was good enough, and good enough was good enough for me.

Now that I have lowered my standards, I find I am far less anxious. Instead of being mortified by everything I do, I can take pleasure in it. I enjoy the process and care much less about the finished product. And the finished product seems better to me because it is created in a calm atmosphere, not an anxious, chaotic rush.

And guess what? Now that I don’t compete with others, I enjoy them a lot more. I appreciate who they are and am happy for their success. I like myself more, and I like other people more, too.

Spencer’s News

In the olden days, I would blame myself for neglecting my cat. If I only paid enough attention to him, he wouldn’t be invisible most of the time. Now I enjoy discovering his personality in the few moments he makes a guest appearance. 

He comes up to me while I am at the computer, stands up on his hind legs, puts his front paws on my knees, and waits for me to scratch his chin. Today, for the first time, he jumped up on my lap. He stayed only long enough to jump down off the other side. I took that as a great compliment.

Some nights he comes and licks my neck for a moment. Now and then, he adds love bites. Last night, he crawled under the covers and settled next to me with one paw on my arm. He didn’t stay long, and he was completely invisible under the covers, but it made me happy.

My timid, invisible cat with soft shiny fur and pale yellow eyes is showing more and more affection. It’s slow-going, but that’s good enough. Actually, it’s great.

Thanksgiving and Dissociation

I’m sitting here not knowing what to write. My mind feels blank, empty. I’ve been in this place before, many, many times. I have always come up with something, and most of the time I was satisfied with what I had written. That doesn’t mean I’ll be able to pull it off today, of course.

It’s a very familiar feeling. There is a pane of glass between me and the world, and whatever is “me” has stepped back, several steps behind the glass. Quiet, unengaged, just looking outwards toward the world. No judgment, no reaction, no words, no thoughts.

It’s dissociation, of course. At this time, for whatever reason, I am more dissociated than usual. If I fight it and scold myself for being so unengaged, so uncaring, it is unpleasant. I start brooding on what might be wrong with me, and why I haven’t fixed it once and for all after all these years. This leads to a fair amount of self-hatred.

If I just experience it without all that useless self-improvement chatter, it isn’t all that unpleasant. It’s nothing – no pain, no anxiety, no pleasure. Isn’t this what you are supposed to achieve when you empty your mind during meditation? Just observe the thoughts as they float by, don’t try and catch them and remember them, just observe without judgment, and then let them go. When the thoughts have gone, isn’t this what is left? Probably not, but it’s the closest I can come to describing what being dissociated feels like to me.

Dissociation, of course, takes many forms. It simply means that things that were once together have gotten separated. One’s self can be split into separate parts, each holding a part of the original self. A memory may be split, and parts stored separately so that only a smell is recalled. Or an image, like a still photograph. Or the emotion that was felt at the time the memory was formed.

We all learned to dissociate as very little kids. It was the only way we could survive what was done to us. We learned how to ”leave our bodies;” that is, we separated our bodies and our minds so that we could be unaware of the pain and the threat to our very lives. We floated up to the treetops and looked at the stars, or floated into an angel’s arms, or became a little bird perching on a branch, ready to fly away at any moment. Or, like me, we became nothing.

Thanksgiving has always been difficult for me. I think that is why I am so disengaged. I am re-experiencing the state I was in during those childhood Thanksgivings.

It’s interesting – I only have one memory of a Thanksgiving up until my twenties. A little glass bowl was filled with celery stalks and olives. I have memories of Christmas, Easter, and my birthday, all difficult days for me throughout adulthood. But Thanksgiving remains a blank. The celery and olives have no meaning, as far as I can tell. They are neutral, neither liked nor disliked, with no attached symbolism. Probably that is why they are remembered. I focused on something banal to protect myself from whatever was happening around me or to me. As neutral as leaves on a tree.

Today, despite feeling totally detached, I am making a point to see that the plants are watered. The cat will be fed every day this week, and the litter box will be cleaned. I will pet him every time he asks for attention. I may feel that I don’t care about the plants and the cat, but the plants won’t notice, and the cat probably won’t either. I will try to get a few things done, just not as much as usual.

And I will try and accept this eerie, quiet feeling. Not accept as in, “fuck it, it’s here, so I shall put up with it until lit goes away.” More like, “Gee, this has some advantages. The little voice that says, ‘hurry, things need to be done, important things. Stop daydreaming!’ is quiet. It feels sort of nice to float along, not caring or worrying so much.”

Thursday will come and go, and I will come out of this stasis and start feeling again. Meanwhile, I have ordered 120 bulbs on sale for my spring garden, cooked four artichokes, and eaten one. I made my bed and my laundry is done. I have actually been taking care of myself without thinking about it. Friday, I will feel good about the things I did while I was sleepwalking. Today, it is enough to just notice them.

Halloween 2022

Update on Spencer

A little bit of good news before I get into the heavy stuff.

Spencer, for new readers, is my timid newly-adopted cat. (See the above photo.) He’s been having a terrible time getting used to his new surroundings, as he had lived his whole life in the same place with his mommy. I actually lost him in the apartment for about a week.

But I found him, and he is back in my bedroom and starting to feel comfortable in the smaller space. Hopefully, when he gets free run of the place, he will think of the bedroom as a safe place to retreat to.

Happy! happy! He is bonding with me, more so day by day. He sleeps next to me at night, and we cuddle before I fall asleep. He has started to gently lick my hands as part of his good night routine. 

My next challenge will be to get him off the night shift and onto the day shift. I’m considering moving the computer into my bedroom so I can pay more attention to him during the day. Hope he is not scared of large, bright, noisy machines. 

~~~~~~~~~~ 

Halloween

I thought of my first Halloween here in the heart of the nation’s gay male Mecca. OMG! The costumes! There is a fair amount of kink here and costumes were worn for days, both before and after. The (bad pun) least of it was nude men wearing Santa hats. So many black cats, so many witches, so many Dorothys with little stuffed Totos in their arms. It felt like I was living in a sea of triggers. 

Today, things seem more sedate and, of course, I stay at home except for doctors’ appointments. If I wanted to trigger myself, I would have to go hunting for something on the Internet. I am very grateful I no longer have those intense flashbacks. 

I am also very grateful that, for me, all the cult abuse happened in a couple of days around Halloween. The rest of October has been pretty devoid of horrible memories. For many survivors, though, it seems that the whole month of October is riddled with preparation for coming rituals and then the rituals themselves. In addition to Halloween, there are these days: 10/9 Full Moon, 10/12 Columbus Day (perhaps), 10/13 Backwards Halloween, 10/13 – 10/30 Preparation for Halloween Eve, and 10/25 New Moon.

If you were abused in a Nazi or Neo-Nazi cult, these days may be observed: 10/16 Death of Rosenburg, 10/19, Death of Goering, and 10/20 Hitler’s half-birthday. The Jewish holidays 10/5 Yom Kippur and 10/10 Sukkot, may also be observed by some, but not all, Nazi groups. 

In Polytheistic groups, many Celtic, Druidic, Roman, and Egyptian holidays are added to the basic Satanic calendar.

Turning Flashbacks into Memories

By now, I am desensitized to many anniversary reactions and triggers. After freaking out year after year, they have lost their ability to send me into a full-fledged panic attack. I must say I don’t like Halloween and I don’t like Halloween decorations. I find them ugly and kitschy. The day has become a big money maker, what with costumes and candy and little plastic pumpkins with handles and greeting cards and glow-in-the-dark 6-foot tall skeletons and who knows what else. I’m much more comfortable with The Day of the Dead.

My “anniversary reaction” is now simply one of dislike. It doesn’t precipitate a flashback that plunges me back to a long-forgotten ritual. Or perhaps to a school party that put me in a flashback to a recent ritual. (I have had flashbacks to childhood events that, themselves, precipitated flashbacks – sort of like those Russian dolls, small ones nested into medium ones nested in turn into one final big one.) 

The memory has moved from being so vivid that I almost thought it was happening in the present, to a scary flashback where I was equally conscious of the past event and my present life, to an ordinary memory, just like any other memory. The technical terms are traumatic memory (flashback) and narrative memory.

Traumatic memory: my head is being held under water in a big bucket I can’t hold my breath a moment longer I am going to drown I am going to breathe water and drown I am going to die i am dying i am dying

Narrative memory: Once, when I was about six or seven, they said, “Come and bob for apples – it’s fun. Bite an apple, and if you can bring it to the surface, you can keep it. You’ll get some candy, too.” I believed them and stuck my head in the bucket of water. I could feel apples bouncing off my face, but I couldn’t catch one. I came up for some air and then tried again. Somebody started laughing, and a hand pushed my head down under the water. I thought I was going to drown, but at the last moment, they released me. They laughed and made fun of me and called me stupid. And no apple, no candy, of course.

See the difference?

So how do you get from flashback to memory? I think the answer is to clothe the raw experience in words. 

If you have supportive people around, tell them about the flashback. Let them ask questions. This will clear up misunderstandings, help you search for more words to add to the experience, and, in all probability, make you feel closer to each other. If you can, tell more than one person. Different people ask different questions, leading you to look at the traumatic experience from slightly different angles.

Pen and paper or keyboard and computer are also excellent ways to clothe your experience in words. Journaling has helped countless people. Forget good grammar – just let the words flow. Try to keep your journals in one place and try to organize your computer files so that you can easily find them. 

And date every single thing! I wish I had dated my writings and kept them together. It is invaluable when I come across something to know whether it was written twenty years ago or five. I would then understand where it fits in the ever-evolving narrative of my life.

And don’t forget to talk to yourself, preferably out loud. Explain to your inner parts what a flashback is. Tell them that what was done was horrible, and that they were not at fault in any way. Tell them how sorry you are that it happened and that it was wrong, wrong, wrong. The more you talk about or write about an experience held in a flashback, the faster it moves into narrative memory.

You may be afraid to put words to what you have experienced. That’s part of the flashback, part of the “don’t tell, don’t speak of this, don’t let anybody (even yourself) know” programming. Name your fear, name all the reasons you have to be afraid. When you have clothed your fear in words, it may be possible to turn toward the rest of the traumatic experience. And even if you are not ready, you have taken a huge step toward handling the terror you felt when enduring the abuse, holiday after holiday, year after year.

And remember….Halloween will be over in a few hours.