CHANGING THE SCORE
‘When trauma affects us, we can’t fully engage with the present.’ My therapist, Sue, sits back after this pronouncement, face brimming with empathic concern.
I stare. What the hell is she talking about? I am a thirty-eight-year-old woman with bad childhood experiences. Trauma happens to war veterans or people suffering extreme abuse. I have a functioning life, a husband, friends, a job. No. I do not have trauma. I leave, resentful, hoping she won’t say that word again.
I started therapy so I could be nicer to myself, but it seems Sue wants to change me and that’s worrying. At home, my brain lists all the qualities I like about myself despite the constant internal voice telling me I am stupid, ugly, unlovable. I should discuss my worry with Sue. At the next session, I try to explain. Something strange happens. My hands shake, my knees tremble, my feet dance to a tune I can’t hear. My heart thuds against my chest and the room blurs, the paintings on the walls becoming indistinct. A nameless terror seizes my tongue and squeezes tears out of my eyes. It rises from my jiggling feet up my body, engulfing me, showing me a black hole from which I can’t emerge.
I walk afterwards, tiredness stretching from my head to my calves. I could fall asleep on this street corner waiting to cross the road. Sue said I dissociated, and that word is a hammer blow, smashing my thoughts into fragments of sharp rubble. I slip through my front door and sink into the sofa cushions. Why couldn’t I tell her how I felt? It seems so easy now in the safety of my living room. I summon up the qualities I’m afraid of losing. They tumble out effortlessly. Stubbornness; my decision-making ability; refusal to let anyone help me; how, with a few words I can make my husband doubt my love for him; how scathing I can be towards people; how quickly I can sum up people and convict them for life. I am a tough, hard woman. Strong and impermeable – two words that sum me up. I fall asleep on the sofa, squinting into the afternoon glare burning through the blinds.
I read The Body Keeps the Score by world-renowned psychiatrist, trauma researcher and teacher, Bessel Van Der Kolk. I pick it up to prove to myself I am nothing like his case studies. He says, after traumatic events, like sustained abuse, the brain cannot differentiate between normality and danger. It’s so used to going into flight, fight or freeze, the rational part is overwhelmed by emotion. An adult who has experienced child abuse could be hypervigilant, always watching and assessing for danger. I feel exposed, my skull cracked open like a walnut. The behaviours I am so proud of and hold onto so tightly, take on new meanings.
My husband and I visit my parents one autumn weekend. As we turn into familiar streets, I feel the usual shrinking into myself. My concentration wavers as I slip in and out of the past shadowlike. By the time we pull into the driveway, I am thirteen again, scared and trapped. I hug my childhood abuser, on high alert for signs of attack.
He is an old man now, but I don’t see that. I am an adult now, but I forget that. We stand side by side while he shows me something in the backyard. I turn to look at him and he raises a hand. I shrivel as I wait for the snap of that hand against my cheek. The hand shields his eyes against the insistent sun, and it is gnarled, the flesh soft and useless. After dinner we sit in their wallpapered lounge room. I talk about work and he falls silent. Nausea floods my mouth as I pick over the words still hanging between us. What did I say? He will now rage against me, telling me I am ugly and disgusting.
I flee to the bedroom, fall asleep without my husband. I wake suddenly in the night, the silence wrapping a cocoon around me. I want to go home. The next two days of the visit are the same. I freeze when I talk to my father, too scared to argue or correct him. A bone shattering exhaustion overcomes me. I sleep for hours in the afternoons. My husband whispers are you alright, to me repeatedly. My words flee. I want a magic spell to diminish me into a small, smaller person till I disappear. On the drive home, I sleep, waking now and then to curse and marvel at Van Der Kolk.
Years of childhood abuse followed by racial abuse left me without trust. Even as I write this, I shake my head. I know how obvious it sounds. But what I am finding out is how it manifests in my life. Sue and I are talking about my fear of confiding in my husband. She asks me to describe the early days of our relationship.
I was twenty-eight when we met. Our relationship started out like most others. Intense physical attraction, fun nights getting to know each other. Obsessively checking my phone, butterflies in my stomach when I knew we were going to meet, constant state of nervous excitement when we were together. As the months passed and our feelings evolved into love, we talked about marriage, buying a house together and making plans for our life.
It was at that time, I realised he’d leave me one day. He was going to wake up and see me – the real me. When that happened, he would leave. Well, I thought, seeing as he’ll stop loving me, seeing as he’s going to leave anyway, I won’t be decimated in the aftermath.
That night, after my session, emboldened by Chardonnay, I ask my husband if he ever thought me cruel. He hesitates before saying no. I go through the list in my head presenting evidence that proves otherwise.
I talked about moving to another country and when he didn’t immediately and enthusiastically agree, I threatened to go without him. I planned holidays with girlfriends I didn’t tell him about till the last minute. I lied to him about my savings. I lied to him about going for drinks with friends or concealed an innocent museum outing. I joked about divorce and how none of my family or friends would talk to him again. There were other petty acts; refusing to remind him to pick up dry cleaning or collecting something from the post office. We were two separate people and therefore only responsible for ourselves. Weren’t we?
When I brush my teeth before bed, I can’t meet my eyes in the mirror. Shame fissures my heart and I double over with pain. How could I have treated him that way? Why did he still love me? In bed, I nuzzle my face into the space between his shoulder blades. Once he’s asleep, the tears come and promises to love him better.
In following sessions, there are times I hate Sue. Her soothing voice and care-filled face irritate me. I want to mock her and smash the lamp in her room. I fantasise about not paying for garbage advice. I continue reading Van Der Kolk, stopping so I can weep or dissociate so the words swim together in a thick soup made with mine and others’ histories. Something happens. Answers emerge.
During my childhood, teens, till the age of twenty I was physically, psychologically and emotionally abused by my father. It taught me being loved was the same as getting hurt. I lied, manipulated and stole to reinforce the message. I turned hatred inwards. At school I experienced racial abuse. My tormentors confirmed the messages I got from my family. I was ugly, I was unlovable, and I was worthless.
I learnt early on, no one would help me. Family members witnessing the abuse did not step in. Teachers at school turned away, when I told them some of what was happening. I had to rely on myself. But, what can a child of eight do in an adult world? What agency does a girl of fourteen have when navigating and making choices? This is the equivalent of what happened inside me as an adult. That little girl was in control and didn’t know how to trust the adult me. Why should she? When I got close to my husband, that little girl was electrified by fear. What was she to do with an adult man? The teenager stepped in. She would give to this lovely man, what had been given to her. A lifetime of cruelty.
Eight months into therapy, I sit with Sue and talk about a friend’s betrayal. She ridiculed me in front of others, I say. She looks at me expectantly. The friendship must end, I continue. Could you talk to her about it? asks Sue. I am flummoxed. Why would we talk about it? She betrayed me. Nothing further can be said.
I explain it to Sue. I am proud of my ability to make friends in every workplace, any social outing and I’m one of the few people who can make genuine connections as an adult. Here is a part of my life that can’t be ruined by analysis. My friends serve different functions in my life, I say. University friends are ‘real’ friends as we’ve known each other longest, others are drinking buddies, creative friends, gym companions, visiting restaurants together friends and so on. Tell me how you initiate your friendships, she says. I falter.
My friendships start in remarkably similar ways. I have an instant attraction to someone. It’s usually their personality and there are two types of personalities that draw me in. The loud confident person who charms me with their attention, even though I secretly hate their confidence. The other type is quiet, insecure, interesting and usually creative. I suffer endless bouts of jealousy when I see them with mutual friends and plot ways for them to like me best. I woo them and when I finally have them, I hold tight and ensure I know their secrets. I’ll betray anyone to strengthen the friendship.
Over weeks, Sue and I explore my success of maintaining friendships. I listen and never, ever forget a single detail. I build an astonishing repository of stories and experiences shared by my friends. What do they get in return? To be honest, I don’t know. They have my undivided attention, but they never have my love. It is conditional. I am an expert in showing them sides I think they want to see. This friend here is single and lonely. I show them loneliness exists in marriage even though I don’t believe it. My other friend struggles with working in a boring day job when she would rather compose music. Well, aren’t I a struggling writer who also hates my job? Not strictly true.
Despair engulfs me. My husband and now my friends. Is there nothing in my life that hasn’t been tainted? We keep going; Sue and I. Tell me how some of your friendships end. The question I’ve been dreading. My friendships with confident people usually wear off. Those self-assured ones are always surrounded by large groups of people and I hate being in large groups. When I’m in a group, I assume most of them despise me. I assume people talk about me, my skin colour, my disgusting face, and scariest of all, the ugliness inside me. I assume people see my rotten core and no amount of perfume and bright clothes mask the sight or smell of it.
Inevitably, the confidences shared by these very assertive and undaunted people fall to stony ground when I can’t be their friend anymore. My usual method of ending these friendships is to create distance and then ghost them till they give up contacting me. What do I feel when I write this? I feel regret and sadness. I wish I could talk to each of these former friends and explain what was happening.
The little girl inside me only knew betrayal and scorn. At school she was lured into friendships and then attacked about the colour of her skin, the smell of her hair. Large groups taunted her on the playground. When she met new people, she didn’t know how to be their friend. She put the guards up, teased out all their secrets and kept tight hold of them, ready to unleash venom at the first sign of trouble.
There are no succinct words to describe how I feel about myself many months into therapy. Here are some that could fit. Relief, shock, shame, hurt, grief, fear, anger, guilt. I hate myself even more, if that’s possible. A new fear emerges. If Sue helps me and all these feelings go away, then who am I? I don’t even know basic things about myself; my favourite colour or the music I like. I copied them. Am I just an empty shell? My poor inner child loses it. She doesn’t want these burdens anymore but if I keep poking and prodding my past, how can she protect me from the dangers out there?
The bases of trauma are shame and fear. I have an abundance of both. No, that’s untrue. My life is characterised by both. How could I not have known? I thought I was ‘over’ my childhood. How can it have shaped me so completely? These are the darkest days of therapy. A part of me is in denial about the effects of trauma on my life. Another part of me is convinced I am a dirty, horrible human being and all this work is going to further expose me. Fear and shame, fear and shame, fear and shame.
I stick with therapy, now and then seeing shimmers of light. There are moments when I imagine a different future for myself. Sue shows me and all my parts that she is a trustworthy adult. I tell her foul things about myself, and she never flinches, screws up her face in disgust or shakes her head in judgement. When I say I had complete control over my actions as a child, she gently asks if that is true.
I see something new. As that small girl grows in confidence about my adult abilities to protect and love her, unknown sides of me emerge. The first thing to change is sleep. I had always been able to fall asleep quickly once I got under the bedcovers but most nights I woke, around two or three in the morning, with a thumping heart while my brain listed things I hadn’t accomplished. My deficiencies and the knowledge of what a horrible person I am, kept me from closing my eyes again. Once the therapy starts sinking in, I go to bed, fall asleep, and then stay asleep till the morning alarm.
The other change happens in my physical body. For months I’ve suffered intermittent lower back pain. My reaction to it was anger. I got terribly angry with myself and worked out harder in the gym to try and fix it, once punching myself in the back. I saw a physiotherapist but didn’t follow the treatment plan. More recently the pain returns, but the relationship with my body has changed. My reaction is radically different. I feel tenderness towards myself and take the physio’s advice. The anger and loathing for my body dissipate. I go to a trauma sensitive yoga class which is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. It’s the one place I can be with myself and not judge what’s happening in my body.
With these physical changes, come emotional ones. I challenge my inner monologue. I’m not ugly. I am lovable. I only have to look at my husband, my friends. They love me, despite my behaviour. I experiment with telling some of my friends about my past. Their reaction shocks me. They profess love and promise that I am infinitely lovable.
Over a year passes since I started therapy with Sue. The strength of that therapeutic relationship, my own work and the support of people I love have enabled me to tell my history of abuse and to understand trauma. I understand those symptoms of trauma were my body and mind trying to heal and keep myself safe. I now have much better tools at my disposal to do that and it’s not the little girl who manages things anymore. It is thirty-nine-year-old me. I’ve learnt I am capable of great tenderness, a capacity to love and most of all, to trust. The world doesn’t seem as dangerous anymore.
It’s not all beauty and peace. There are days when that trauma monster raises its head, but the difference is I know what it is and how to deal with it. Most weeks, my past no longer haunts me and when it does show up, I know it’s no longer happening. It’s my history; I am grieving for the childhood I never had, but it’s over and that is the best thing of all.
Today, I look forward, and I breathe. I absorb what’s in front of me. I am curious about what life has to offer. I am curious about myself. I still have the stubbornness and willingness to work hard and independently, but I know I can ask for help. I know my husband doesn’t intend to leave me. That inner child who had to bear these burdens for so long no longer appears. She is playing with her toys in her safe place. I can keep her safe for the rest of my life. She is loved and cherished by me. As for adult me? I am looking around, no longer oppressed by the past and no longer frantically making plans for tomorrow. I am here. I am alive. I survived.
Natasha Rai: I am an Indian-Australian woman, currently living in Sydney. I was born in India, migrating to Australia with my parents at the age of ten. I lived in London, UK for several years as an adult, and the influence of my three homes feature in my writing. My work explores inter-sectional feminism, trauma, cultural identity and searching for a place where race and gender don’t matter. My work has appeared in Australia’s first #MeToo anthology about the culture of silence in Indian families, and online literary journal, Verity La. My first, unpublished, novel was longlisted for the Australian 2017 Richell Prize and 2018 KYD Unpublished Manuscript award. I am currently working on my third novel.