My Autobiography: In Five Chapters

Along my path to a healthier me, a me who isn’t stuck operating from the trauma responses I adopted as a child, I found this poem. It has been my goal post as I move through the stages of recovery.

Autobiography in Five Chapters by Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I spent most my life unable to move beyond Chapter I. I was self-unaware. With no understanding the dynamics that had been in play when I was a child had heavy consequences, nearly everything I encountered was a challenge for my nervous system. Normal interactions and situations triggered my fight, flight, or fawn defenses. Without those defenses, I would have collapsed in on myself like a dying star. I had no real idea who I was underneath the overthinking, perfectionism, people pleasing, boundary ceding, bullying, and negativity. Worse yet, I didn’t see there was anything unhealthy about my MO at all. I was stuck for a long, long time.

Chapter II

Six days before my 46th birthday, I was sabotaged in public by a family member. Because my eleven year old son had been used as an unwitting pawn in the scheme to humiliate me, something in me snapped. It was my roller shade moment. After decades spent repressing abuse I endured as a child, the window shade I had pulled down to protect myself from repeated trauma flew up. I could not unsee what had been lurking behind it. I was bumped into Chapter II, forced to acknowledge my past and reckon with my trauma responses and their repercussions. I couldn’t stop using them to protect myself yet because I still needed them. So, I kept behaving mostly the same way I always had, only now I was aware how unhealthy my reactions to every little thing were. I didn’t know how to stop them, but I knew they were wrong. Every time I caught myself in an epic overreaction, the shame was overwhelming. I read a stack of self-help books and realized I needed to start regular therapy. Through therapy, I faced my past. It was painful and slow going. Every time I hurt my husband or my sons because I could not control my responses, I felt like the worthless person I was told as a child I was. I was a skipping record, stuck in a groove, doomed to repeat my patterns.

Chapter III

After some research, I decided to shift to a new therapist who offered EMDR therapy, which has helped thousands of people suffering from PTSD see their trauma in a different light. I’ve spent most of the past two years in this chapter. It has been an endless cycle of acting out my old habits, catching myself, acknowledging my behaviors and thoughts are not helpful, apologizing to myself and others for my missteps, and then forgiving myself and trying again from a more mindful place. Sometimes I would react in a more healthy manner immediately. Other times I had to sit with the negative pattern I had repeated for 5-10 minutes before understanding how I could do better and then ameliorating the situation for myself and those I had been unfair to. I saw my progress and was encouraged, but I also knew I could be in this chapter for decades until I was skilled enough spot the hole before falling into it.

Chapter IV

Recently, and with some extra assistance, I’ve had some legitimate success walking around the trauma hole. I can bump myself out of my well-worn groove and react differently in the moment. I’ve made it to Chapter IV. I don’t live here full-time, but I am finally here. I catch negative thoughts mid-stream and I make a choice to walk around that hole. Holy shit. There is no way to explain what a monumental life shift this has been for me. While I still stumble into my old patterns a few times a day, I also stop them a few times a day. I’m owning my mistakes because I know I’m not expected to be perfect. I’m beating myself up less, looking in the mirror and seeing myself in a positive light more than a negative one. I’m stopping my inner bullshit before it gets loose. I’m holding myself accountable. Best of all, though, I’m holding others accountable too. I differentiate between a me problem and a you problem. And I am able to stand up for myself, walk away, and let someone else deal with their own inner bullshit. I no longer think I am broken or horrible or perpetually wrong. I am still working but I am more present. I am proud of myself.

Chapter V

A lot of people have lofty goals for their lives. They know what legacy they would like to leave behind. Me? I don’t concern myself with any of that. I just want to get to Chapter V and hopefully live there for a bit, with a reasonable level of control over my actions, some mindfulness, and a lot less reactivity. If I get to a place where my childhood trauma responses are a faint whisper or dull memory rather than a full-fledged fire alarm, I will have walked the path I believe I was meant to walk. My goal in this life is to recover, to do better for myself, my spouse, and my children, to break a cycle.

The light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter. I know someday I won’t have to negotiate my way around the hole at all because I will have already walked down another street.

With A Poet’s Heart, I Begin Again

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

I used to write poetry. I was much younger then, with a radical heart, raucous with emotion. Then I grew up. I learned to pull my emotions in, hug them like it was the last time I’d ever feel them because I was sure no one else wanted to hear from them. I stopped wearing my heart pinned to my chest and gave it a forwarding address deep inside. Now I find that with the passing of time and with roughness of the outside world, life used heavy-grit sandpaper on me because now, now my heart is back on the outside where it was before. Everything is raw. I can’t push it back down, and that’s a good thing, I think.

So I am mentally planning a poetry comeback. Until the inspiration hits me, I’m reading others’ poetry. Good Bones is one I feel with all my heart. I have on many occasions apologized to my children for the state of the world and my part in making it what it is now, what they will inherit and have to fix (or create a rocket in which to leave forever).

As I start down the poet’s path again, I share this work with you today. Perhaps it will resonate with you as well.

Good Bones, a poem by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

If you were raised by dysfunctional parents, you have a few choices when it comes to raising a family. Many children from dysfunctional families decide not to have children of their own because they feel they could not be good parents because they had no good role models. Some adult children from dysfunctional families decide to have children of their own because they figure they learned early how not to parent and know they will work hard to do better for their kids. Some people from dysfunctional families are so broken themselves that they don’t realize they are broken. These are the dangerous ones. These are the ones who have children and treat them the way they were treated because they are incapable of doing better. They are the ones who keep the cycle of abuse rolling.

The most difficult part about being a child of the third type is that those parents rarely change. They don’t often wake up. They aren’t capable of seeing their offspring as anything other than an extension of themselves, even after they are grown. They talk to their grown children as if they are still children, and if those adult children push back and assert their right to live their own chosen path, their parents chide, blame, belittle, boss, and gaslight to try to remain in control. An adult child of parents like this may acquiesce and continue to remain under their parent’s control or they may break contact to become free. Neither option is optimal because staying in an abusive relationship hinders personal growth and cutting ties can alienate the adult child from other family members, leaving them feeling orphaned and alone. An adult who has healed from childhood abuse may be able to find a middle ground, to find a way to stay in contact with their parent while maintaining their independence and sanity, but only if they are sufficiently healed. If they have not, they continue to leave themselves open to derision and abuse.

I have spent years trying to get right enough with myself to make my own choice about how to interact with my parents. I have for years now felt in my heart the only way I will be able to heal and become the best version of myself is to leave these relationships and negative patterns in the past. It’s difficult to do because if you walk away from aging parents, society will chastise you. Even the best intentioned of friends will try to convince you to stay because children owe it to their parents to take care of them. I just don’t think I can walk that road. There are worse childhoods than the one I had. This is true. But just because your childhood didn’t find you locked in a room, starving, and completely neglected doesn’t mean you weren’t left permanently scarred.

The question is will you allow yourself the space to heal those scars or will you remain tethered to your past, unable to move forward? I think we’re getting close to an answer.

I’ve Gotta Be Me

Meme borrowed from someone better capable than I at creating memes

My journey towards personal growth is, I imagine, similar to the one many other people have undertaken. It’s one step forward, two steps back on perpetual repeat. There have been times when I have felt that I was getting there, wherever “there” is. But there have been many more moments when I have realized with considerable chagrin that I am not as far along as I had hoped. The secret is now and has always been just to keep moving and not give up. I may never make it to that mythical place where true mental peace and emotional well being reside, but I can keep heading there, even if I occasionally feel like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down for me to move upwards again in perpetuity.

As disappointing as it has been for me to accept, I am human. I spent my first forty years simply coping with the life choices I made based on a model of my life that others crafted. And I was living my life disconnected from why I was heading in the direction I was going. I was merely going. Then, I woke up. And when that happened, I got sad. Sad that I had gone along unaware for so long, sad that I had stopped believing in my dreams, sad that I had decided to take a path others chose for me, and sad that I had perpetuated the self-restrictive mindset I developed as a young child to endure mental and emotional abuses. I wallowed in the sad place for a long time, flailing around, unsure of how to save myself, sometimes unsure if I was even worth saving. Just when I’d make a breakthrough in one area and walk from the darkness towards the light, my eyes would adjust and I’d realize I’d escaped one small hole just to land in a different, slightly roomier one. C’est la vie.

Last night while having dinner with my family and discussing my struggle to find peace, my sister-in-law pointed out that the decision on which way to proceed ultimately comes down to one notion. You need to look at your options and decide which one you can live with and which one will only lead to regret. As time for me on this troubled, beautiful planet wanes via the non-stop aging process, I need to choose: do I continue worrying about making others comfortable and happy with me or do I carve out a place where I am the protagonist and not simply supporting cast in someone else’s story? We all have life choices, and they usually come down to how much work we are willing to do and how much pain we are willing to endure. Some people aren’t cognizant enough to realize they have choices or that they have already unconsciously made one they are following. Some people decide that choosing between options is too difficult and requires too much work and decide to remain on their current trajectory. I am once again at a fork, and I know I need to step off the old, well-worn path and onto the new one. I’ve made my decision. I’ve been slowly gathering fortitude and momentum. Right now, I am the little, toy car that has been wound up and is being held above the ground, poised for release. I just need to set my wheels onto the path I know is right for me, let go of fear, and see what happens. I need to choose myself and leave others to fight their own windmills. I cannot help them, just as they cannot help me.

I have been working to make peace with myself and my decisions for a long time, but I kept getting caught up in other’s expectations and feedback. You can’t move to the next phase of growth until you let go of the comments and obligations put in your way by those who would keep you tethered to your old paradigm because that is what benefits them. All of this is to say that I’ve been working for a long time to run out of shits to give about what others would tell me is the “right” way to live. One of the best books I’ve read recently is Untamed by Glennon Doyle. So much of what she describes as her journey feels like my journey too; she’s simply farther along on her path than I am on mine, which means her words can serve as a beacon for me to follow when I am uncertain and thrashing about. One of the quotes from that book that speaks to me the loudest is this one:

“This life is mine alone. So I have stopped asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”

While others can offer input, they don’t know me, my heart, or my potential. I alone control those things if I am brave enough to own my power. I’m choosing to recognize that my path is mine. No one else knows what directions to give me because this is not their path and, ultimately, it is not their choice. Allowing others to lead me along in my life, like an ass on a rope, has gotten me too far down the wrong road. But I’ve had time now to stop, to look back, and to contemplate where I’ve gotten to by allowing others to hold the reins. I know for certain now that the path that will lead me to regrets is the one I’ve been traveling. I know I can do better for myself, and those people who really love me and appreciate me will cheer me along even if the direction I’m heading isn’t one they understand. The rest? Well, the rest aren’t my problem anymore. I gotta choose me or I’m lost forever.