Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Kindness of A Stranger

Yesterday would have been the 85th birthday of one of my heroes, Mr. Fred Rogers.
I loved his television show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, from a very early age, so much so that the thought of it now brings tears to my eyes.  Remembering that a television character - though an iconic one, still a stranger to me - was one of the kindest influences in my world... that's just heartbreaking.

Mister Rogers told millions of children, including me, this: "I like you just the way you are."
He said it over and over again.  He told me that it was okay to be me.  He showed me that there were hurtful things and people that happened in the sometimes scary world, but that I was okay and that I would be okay and that I was important.  He convinced me with his sweater and his sneakers and his consistency in feeding the fish that there were gentle, kind, caring people in the world... somewhere, even if there weren't any in my house.

I think back now and I realize that this man's influence on my early life was profound.  The dysfunction that the Nparents created was so total that my life until school was a vortex of isolation.  Even after I began to attend school, frequent moves and constant uprooting didn't allow me to establish any true connections outside of the Clan.  But Mister Rogers, man, he could get in.  PBS was a constant in every place we lived, thank goodness, and I remember the joy of finding out when I would be able to see Mister Rogers again after every move, at least until around the first grade.

That's about the time when the Nsiblings - possibly with the help of the Nparents, certainly without the Nparents stopping them - began to heap ridicule on me for loving Mister Rogers' show so much.  GCYB was pretty young still, but even a four year old will join in on calling his older sister a baby if everyone else thinks it's funny.

Wow, you know, you really have to work to hurt a child like they hurt me.  I didn't want anything from them, I didn't even ask for any of their time.  I just wanted to be left alone long enough to hear a stranger in a cardigan tell me that I was valuable, that I was wanted, that he loved having me for a neighbor.  I sat there by myself, cross legged on the shag carpet, holding my rag doll and talking to her like I would to a real friend, listening to a stranger telling me that I was likable, filling me up just a smidgen with the idea that I was loved.  I just wanted to get on that trolley that would take me to the magical land of make believe and go live in the damn tree with King Friday and Queen Sara.

So I sit here and type this with tears streaming down my face as I think of that lost, lonely, hurting little girl that I was, and I mourn for all the abuses, all the pain, all that years of struggle that I know she's going to have to face in order to get out, get away, get better, to make her stand and to walk away from the monsters.  I wish that Mister Rogers could reach through the screen and give her a hug, or that I could instead.  I've read about Mr. Rogers' life, and I know that this feeling of love and safety is what he was intending to pass on to children.  And he did pass that on to me.

As sad as it is that my frame of reference means that one of the kindest people I knew in my formative years was a television character, I'm also so happy to have had even those bread crumbs of kindness, gentle acceptance, love.

I held onto them over the years, you see.  I used them to find my way home.  I pass them on every day, to my daughters, to other people in my life - adults and children alike.  Mister Rogers said,
"The greatest gift you give is the gift of your honest self."

And that is one of the greatest lessons of my life, despite the monstrous efforts of the vile abusers of my NFOO.  I am my honest self, which just so happens to be a pretty decent self after all.
I bet you would like to have a neighbor just like me.
Mister Rogers gets more credit for my goodness, my kindness, my generosity, my compassion, my empathy and my love of my neighbors than anyone else from my childhood.   He's certainly more deserving.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Overcoming Trauma

I'm a pattern seeker.  I always have been.  My brain has always been wired for puzzles, and they've consequently always been fun and relatively easy for me.  My upbringing fine-tuned my ability to pick up clues to patterns as well, creating that intuitive sense that all survivors of abuse and trauma seem to develop on some level, just in order to see the crazy train bearing down the tracks at us.  Seeing patterns intuitively is partly based in the ability to anticipate, I think, which is also grounded in sensitive observation skills.

In a childhood world where a slammed door means something far, far greater (and often more ominous,) than a gusting wind, we learn to pick up supersonic behavioral clues and subtle hints about the direction of the atmosphere.  I see how this has translated into my adult life; I'm always on the hunt for answers, usually before a question has even been posed.  In moderation, this serves me well, as I can often see a pattern - whether of data or behavior - forming long before my peers or colleagues see it.

Lately, I've noticed a pattern in the conversations that I'm having with the people around me - from my daughters to my bosses, from newcomers to my alcoholism recovery support groups to the distant coworker that I recently sat next to on the plane, from friends of friends to co-workers grabbing a coffee in the break room.  Everyone's asking me this on some level,

"What's the secret to overcoming trauma?"

Dalai Lama, Yoda-type I ain't.
But I know a little something about how to move on from pain.

So here it is, straight from me to you, the best trick I know to overcome trauma...

It takes ACTION.

Unfortunately, the first action that anyone has to take in order to overcome trauma, I believe, is to face the trauma.  I'm not a big fan of pop-psych ways to do this.  I believe that I would bodily harm anyone who tried to wrap me in a warm and fuzzy blanket to simulate the womb.  I don't think that setting the stage to re-live a trauma is necessary, but it does have to be remembered, acknowledged, brought forth into the light.

It's ugly, it's painful, it's shameful, it's embarrassing and it goes against our very natures, but I believe that this action of exposure has to happen.  How, after all, can one overcome something that is fuzzy around the edges?  How can I overcome fear if I'm not entirely sure what it is that I'm afraid of.

I used to think that I was afraid of the dark.
It was a vague, faceless, anonymous fear.
I looked at it and I thought about it and I wrote down specifics and I touched it and I danced with it and I examined it and analyzed it.
Guess what?  I'm not afraid of the dark.
I'm afraid of the abuse that happened to me in the dark.
What's the antidote to that fear?  Well, there's a whole list of ways that I can keep myself safe from that very specific fear, starting (and often ending too,) with this:  don't allow the people who abused me in the dark into my life, house or head.  And if that doesn't work?  Turn on a night-light, know my surroundings and the people in it, have a plan (turning on the light in the room I'm entering before I turn off the light in the room I just left,) and a contingency plan (flashlight on the nightstand,) and I could go on and on and on.

I can take action to at best banish, at worst delay that fear.  Either way, I'm progressing - taking action.

I used to spend a lot of time reading self-help books.  Some of them were pretty good, especially the ones that made me stop my ingrained thought cycle and attempt to re-think it.  I can't honestly say that I learned anything I didn't already know, but the process of attempting to seek self-improvement DID get me out of my own thinking long enough to look at myself and my behavior from a different angle.  And that is an action.

Maybe I don't know how to act or react.  Maybe my training as an abused child and as a scapegoat prevented me from learning how to handle myself, sure.  Survivors of trauma often don't know how they should move on, we just know that we don't want the pain that we've already had anymore. But I always have a baseline, and that ground zero is this: I know definitively how NOT to act.  I know what causes pain to others and to myself, so I know what I don't want.

Holding on to that negative has been a crux of action that I've returned to over and over again; "Well, I won't do that," has been the jumping off point for me so many times of trying... well, anything BUT that.  I've gone full pendulum swing to the opposite ends of the earth before in an attempt to get my emotional bearings in the world post-abuser, and I've tried everything on the spectrum in between.  Sometimes it's worked and sometimes not, but I've learned more and more about how to act and react appropriately (and non-abusively,) every single time.   So that, too, has been action.

So I've taken the actions to identify the trauma, I've taken the action to rethink the trauma and how it affects my life today, and I've taken the action to determine how I will avoid the trauma in the future and how I will act differently.  Doing this over and over and over again has helped me to face, overcome and move on from trauma.

Lastly, and this is my favorite action, I make it a point to attempt to do something good every single day.  I find at least one moment each and every day in which I can take some action that pleases me, or that I can enjoy, or that makes me smile or laugh - often this involves kindness and humor to another living soul.  This is an annuity based action.  I get a moment of pleasure today, AND I've just set myself up for success down the road.  Six months from now, when I have that moment of relived trauma that pops up out of nowhere and attempts to side-swipe me, I will also have a well of good moments to draw from to counterbalance that painful memory.  I create good future memories every day partly so that I will have them in the future when I need them -but mostly because it feels good to do good.

When the memory of NM telling me that I'm the most selfish person on the face of the planet surfaces and attempts to derail me, I'm going to remember, too, that I just gave a homeless veteran every single cash money bill in my wallet, and that when he looked at me like he was going to cry and said, "How can I repay you?" my honest, authentic and sincere answer to him was, "You already have sir, thank you for your service."  Is that the action of a selfish person?  I think not.  But it is action.

These are all great tools, and I can honestly say that these principles are some of the main reasons that I'm still ambulatory and have made it through so much trauma with my sanity - relatively - intact.

But the greatest action I've taken and that I continue to take in order to overcome trauma is this:
I stay the fuck away from the people and places that cause me trauma in the first place.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Praise From Caesar

I received a formal accolade at work today; a written statement of appreciation for my skills and effort accompanied by some financial recompense.  The praise came from a high level and was echoed by several other layers of management as well as my peers.  I actually have five (yes, count them; five) bosses, and this honor was wholeheartedly endorsed by all of them.  For all of them to agree on anything is a minor miracle; for all of them to agree on something that effects the bottom line is damn near unthinkable.  So, it was somewhat unexpected and I was a bit taken aback by my pleased reaction.  In my opinion, I haven't done anything above and beyond the call of my position; I've only tried to consistently do the best I can with what I have, or to find a way to make what I have better or easier to work with.

Of course, I didn't turn away from it or send it back.  I accepted both the compliments and addition to my income with - hopefully - grace and gratitude, and celebration.  It's nice to be recognized, nice to be compensated and oh so nice to be appreciated.

In thinking it over this evening, it brings to mind the very human need for validation.  I believe that all people need - at different times in life and to varying degrees, sure - for the human mirrors surrounding us to reflect back to us that we are ___________ (good, kind, worthy, cared for, important, loved, beautiful, smart, pick your needed adjective.)  Maturity and experience teach us to self-validate whenever possible, but we're social animals and it is still necessary to have someone(s) in our life to fill in that necessary care where we are unable to do so.

This is the opposite of what I was taught by my Nparents and siblings in my childhood 'family.'  I was taught that no matter what I did, how hard I tried, how much I sacrificed, I would NEVER be good enough.  I was forced to learn by action and speech that my role was to strive for an endless and amorphous goal that was completely within the control of cruel masters who would quickly yank it from within my grasp should I ever come within reaching distance.

An example: I was a perfect student in school.  Every report card that I ever brought home was A's from top to bottom, until my second year high school, when the Clan finally broke me.  For eleven years, though, academic and behavior marks were always the highest possible grades and there was always a nice comment from my teachers to go along with my excellent marks.  I actually skipped a grade, too.  Remember, all this was happening while my family moved so often that I didn't attend the same school two years in a row until I was in high school (and by then it was much too late.)  I was taught - as I think most ACoNs are in some form - that it was my job to be perfect, and I did my damnest to be so.

But... (isn't there always at least one?)
I distinctly remember bringing home one of those practically-perfect-in-every-way report cards and showing it to the Nparents.  They told me I'd done a good job and that they were very proud.  (And they were; not so much of me but of having a piece of paper that they could hold up to the world if necessary and proclaim, "See!  How could we be bad parents or scary monsters when we've produced this!")  It was a great moment for me; I'd finally succeeded in being good!  I didn't expect or need any further compensation.  Being GOOD, finally, was a great feeling.

Until they paid NSis and GCYB for their grades.  Right in front of me. Right in front of me.  I received nothing for my straight A's.  But NSis and GCYB were paid for each A they'd received (something like a dollar) and half that for each B they'd received.  My reward?  I was told that they weren't going to pay me for my straight A's because - a direct quote here as I remember it vividly, "A's are easy for you.  They had to work for their A's and B's."

I remember thinking, "So how am I supposed to do better?  Am I supposed to pretend to be stupid so that A's will seem hard?  How can I do better than perfect high scores?"  How cripplingly sad.  I could write about so many other examples of this mistreatment, but I'm sure you get the drift.  It was always like this.  What does the sadist do if the donkey's neck grows long enough to reach the carrot?  Get a longer stick, of course.

So I spent a lot of my life looking for praise and validation from sources that enjoyed twisting the rules of reality in order to deny me that basic human need.

I'm thinking about the flipside of that perpetual lose-lose tonight.

At some point in my process of getting away from the fucktards who raised me and growing into my own skin, I have learned how to stop seeking praise from those who won't give it or who would use it to hurt me.  I have stopped living or dying by the opinion of the crowd and I have learned how to - mostly, I'm no saint - do the right thing for the sake of the thing's rightness.

I get up every day and I do my best, in my work just as I do in my life, because I am satisfied by the internal knowledge that I've done what I can to be ethical, to stay right-sized, to help those around me, to participate, to contribute, to create goodness.  A large part of my motivation to just be a good damn person every day comes from my desire to NOT be like the members of the NFOO.  A bigger part of my motivation to seek and spread joy is just its own self-fulfilling prophecy.  I'm out of the hell I was kept in for so long, I'm alive, I can breathe the air and it smells sweet - why not enjoy it?

Receiving praise was wonderful, and I'll take it.  I'll enjoy it.  I'll savor it.
But I don't need it anymore.