A reply to: A letter from Kaitlin
Hi! Oh, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could meet sometime? I wouldn’t stop smiling the whole time! All the hugs!
I’ve had so many thoughts in response to your last letter, and I’ll share them with you. But first, I want to tell you thank you!
In association with my volunteering at House of Hope, I’ve been examining my support system. And do you know what? You are one of my strongest points of support!
We’ve been using the materials available at the Soul’s Self-Help Central, an online resource center. I filled out a grid listing people I know that I thought could be part of my support team and their capacities to offer support. You came out so strongly in every category! I’m not surprised. You are an amazing person, Kaitlin–brave, kind, generous, and insightful! You’ve got a great sense of humor, too. I’m guessing that everyone who knows you has you on their list of support people.
And that makes me wonder. Who’s on your list?
I would be honored to be, if you felt I had the skills and capacity. I am so inexperienced when it comes to life, and I’m discovering that my interpersonal skills are woefully undeveloped. I’m starting to suspect maybe I’m not very mature emotionally. But, you know what? I am eager to learn and grow and develop capacity! So, maybe if I’m not a very good support person for you now, I will be later, after I’ve developed more skills, maturity, and abilities with people.
At any rate, you can know that all my good wishes and gratitude circle you!
Congratulations on Leroy’s proposal and your conditional acceptance! I hope soon the circumstances allow you to accept for real. Congratulations, too, on his adoption of Dakota. I guess, in a way, she’s a new daughter for you, too. Adoption is such a wonderful gift–I’m really happy that you get to experience it, too, and what a lucky girl she is to get to be part of such a big, loving, supportive family. See all the good things that have come out of your brave actions?
I can understand your not wanting to claim the word, “victim.” That word carries so much baggage–and none of it good! I’ve discovered that the women in my art group don’t like the word, either. During one of our painting sessions the other day, the topic came up.
Some of them use the word, “survivor.”
Ira says, “I don’t like labels, anymore. I like saying, ‘I’m a person who’s experienced trauma.'” She says that, since all of us living on this planet have experienced harsh situations, and the trauma resulting from those situations, that descriptor connects us with everyone. I like that insight.
Jasper’s organ teacher uses the word “hero.”
“It’s what we are,” she says. “I am a female hero who’s made it through my journey of trials and tribulations with the help of all my helpers, and now, I shine brighter.”
She says that when she read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, she wept.
“This was my story,” she said. “All the patterns and steps of my journey, described here in archetype.”
She and I are going to lead a workshop on “The Hero’s Path,” along with one of the counselors. I’m excited that we’ll be leading it together, because that means we’ll be colleagues, and we can become friends! When I only knew her through the painting group, I had to limit our relationship to “service-provider/client” due to policies of HoH, since I’m the leader of that group. But that restriction stops when we lead a group together!
I’ve learned that when we’ve experienced trauma–and domestic violence is trauma–that any emotion can trigger it, causing us to re-experience all the fear, anger, and danger-signals we felt the first time we experienced it. It’s because when we feel deeply again, all the emotions can come rushing back. So please be gentle with yourself when you think about all you felt during your recent exchange with Leroy. It takes time to learn to trust again, and letting yourself feel whatever you feel seems to be one of the important steps to get there.
I don’t know much at all, but I’m learning. I’ve been researching trauma, grief, and shame and have discovered that they are very interconnected.
As best I can understand from what I’ve read, when we experience a trauma, our mind switches into survival mode. In that state, the focus is on survival–life doesn’t feel safe. In survival mode, the mind focuses all our energy on getting us out of danger, and so the painful emotions associated with the trauma are split off. We just don’t feel safe enough to deal with them.
When the system works, later, when we’re safe, we’re able to feel and process the emotions, at a time when our very survival isn’t threatened. But what if we don’t feel safe again? Sometimes, we never reach that point, and the emotions remain split off.
When that happens, we can sometimes develop guilt and shame, especially if the traumatic event left us feeling helpless. Guilt at least offers some illusion of control.
I didn’t really understand what I read about trauma, guilt, and shame, until I began to apply it to the most significant trauma I’ve experienced: the death of my mom.
It was my first year in college, during finals week, when she died. I just couldn’t deal with it. I remember thinking that if I felt the pain, I would drown. I’d drop out of college and I’d die. I didn’t think I could survive it.
So I didn’t feel it. I focused on my finals. I aced all my tests.
Then, when I got my grades the next semester, and I saw all those A’s, I felt so guilty. “I shouldn’t have studied. I should have gone to the hospital more. How could I earn A’s when that happened? I should have been with my dad. I should’ve stayed with Norman. I should have dropped out of college.” I thought I could’ve prevented her death if I’d just been there more–if I’d dropped out and taken her to chemo. Or if I’d stayed with her in the hospital. Or if I’d brought her flowers. Or if I’d worn red tennis shoes, instead of black ones.
Then the shame came. “I’m a terrible daughter. I’m a bad sister. I’m such a selfish person.”
For about two years, I didn’t grieve, but I was guilty all the time and I felt so ashamed. I could hardly see my dad and brother because of the shame.
What finally brought me out of it was in junior year when I took an Intro to Comparative Folklore class, and I discovered fairy tales from every culture dealing with the death of the mother. My favorites were about girls who lost their mothers just as they were coming of age. There are hundreds of these tales! I lost myself in them, and then I found myself.
Around that time, Norman came to visit. We went to the botanical gardens on campus. When I saw a bromelia in the greenhouse, I began to weep. It was my mother’s favorite plant. Norm hugged me, and he began to cry, too. We slumped onto a stone bench, holding each other, nestled in the humid hothouse air, and we finally felt safe enough to grieve, and we cried until we hiccuped. And then Norman looked at me, and he said, “It isn’t 42.”
“What isn’t?” I asked.
“The answer to life, the universe, and everything,” he said.
“What is?” I asked him.
“Damned if I know.” We laughed so hard. We laughed as hard as we’d cried, and then we laughed some more, and then we cried again, and then we ate ice cream in the tea shop, and my eyes hurt and my chest hurt, and I had a knife through me. I cried a lot during the next year. And then my dad died. And I cried a lot more. But I stopped feeling guilty, and I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt safe enough to feel, especially when I was with Norman or Jasper, even when it was hard.
I’m not saying that grief is the same as domestic abuse. I’m just saying that I’ve experienced the splitting off of emotions and the guilt and shame that follow.
Feeling guilty is nothing to feel guilty about, and there’s no shame in feeling ashamed. It’s all part of how our minds and bodies are constructed to help us survive. Call it socio-biology. And when we understand the process, maybe then we can create the safety that we need to be able to move through the process and back into our healthy selves again, to find our own paths back to being the heroes that we are.
I hope that I can help to create a safe space for you, Kaitlin, so that you can share with me how you feel. I would like to be able to do that. Maybe our letters can be your hothouse, with bromelias and orchids and roses blooming, smelling sweet, and safe, and calming. And then we could drink tea and cry and drink more tea and maybe even laugh.
Speaking of laughing, I have no idea what’s up with Ira and Norm. She calls him “Babe.” He calls her “Cupcake.” And he told me yesterday that they haven’t even yet shared their first kiss. At any rate, it’s plain to see that it’s love.
Kaitlin, I’m sending you all my thoughts and feelings of admiration, gratitude, and friendship.
Love, love, love,